Sermon by Fr. Joshua Bell SSC, Sunday 7th March
Readings: Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:22-25; John 2:13-25
One of my resolutions this year has been to read more – though actually I end up listening to more audio books than reading physical books – largely because I can do it wherever I am – washing up or folding laundry or whatever.
One I recently finished was The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I wonder if you’ve read it? It isn’t a long book but it’s very powerful. It’s set in the Mexican state of Tabasco in the 1930s, where Catholicism – already illegal in Mexico – is being stamped out by the governor. The Cathedral has been destroyed and replaced by a children’s play park; alcohol has been banned, chiefly to make it impossible for priests to obtain wine for the Mass. Even wearing a religious medal around your neck will get you a fine – and the police are hunting and executing priests.
The main character is a priest – but not a very good one. A “whisky priest”, he’s called: he’s a drunkard, he’s not especially holy, and – perhaps most shocking for a Roman Catholic – he’s fathered a child with one of his parishioners.
At one point he escapes Tabasco over the mountains into the next state where, although Christianity is illegal, the persecution isn’t so severe and the church is locked up but still standing. He remarks that it’s been ten years since he saw a standing church.
It got me to thinking: what is at the heart of our religion? What would we do if the churches were locked up or knocked down, if vestments were banned, if reading the Bible were illegal?
This is a pertinent question when considering our readings this week – because they all point to this question.
In the first reading, we have the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses. These formed the basis of the Jewish religion, and they also have a prominent place in Christianity. Many a church used to have the decalogue boards, as they were called, on either side of the chancel – the one I always think of is in Whitby but there’s a rather stunning set in Walpole St. Andrew. And the Prayer Book Communion Service always begins with the recitation of the Ten Commandments; and the Psalm praises the Law of God – “the precepts of the Lord are right, they gladden the heart,” we hear.
In the second reading, St. Paul talks about what the Jews and Greeks expect as evidence of supernatural origin. The Jews, he says, demand signs. Certainly throughout the Old Testament, this is how God’s messengers were known: from the plagues sent by God at the hands of Moses; to Joshua crossing the River Jordan and destroying the walls of Jericho at the trumpet blast; through to Elijah, who prayed – and no rain fell for three and a half years.
In the Gospels we often hear Jesus avoiding fame, and telling people not to draw attention to him – because the Jews would have seen his miracle working as proof of God’s favour on him and would have sought to make him king. But that was not his mission.
The Greeks meanwhile were only impressed if someone was philosophically sound. Their systems of philosophy were intricate and widespread – which is why Paul goes down so poorly when preaching in Athens – because they write him off as “preaching about foreign gods”.
But for Jews the heart of the religion was, of course, the temple of Jerusalem, the site of the Holy of Holies where historically the ark of God lived. It was the place of sacrifice, visited by Jews every year at the great feasts and on other occasions.
The question of what is sacred is an important one in our own time. “Is nothing sacred?” How often do we hear that asked, when some uncomfortable boundary is crossed.
But there is a tendency to say that no, nothing is sacred any more – the cold scientific, rationalist idea. The opposite is the new age idea, that everything is sacred: that the earth is in some way divine, or that the universe “has a plan for us”.
So what is the heart of our religion?
Nowadays, Jewish religion is based around the synagogue and the reading of the Torah. The commandments of God are still very important for them.
For muslims, place is very important, too – as well as following the teachings of the Koran, they place Mecca at the heart of their religion.
For us though, the heart of our religion is not simply a place or a set of teachings: it is the person of Jesus Christ, presented in the Scriptures, and made manifest in the Bread of the Eucharist.
In Mexico in the 1930s the churches were shut, the cathedral demolished and the priests driven into hiding – but the person of Jesus Christ remained. In King’s Lynn in 2021, the churches have closed, and opened, and closed, and opened again; much of what we have come to associate with the church has been curtailed: but God never abandons us. And here, today, and every day in the Mass, Jesus is with us.