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Bowed But Not Bound – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

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For most of my life, growing up in England, the first item on the news every evening was Northern Ireland.  The Troubles.  Every day, of every month, of every year, more atrocities, and a terrible sense of hopelessness.  In the first year of the 1980s after I had been ordained, I spent a succession of summers in Belfast, meeting with youngsters from both the Loyalist and Republican sides, and helping organize joint summer camps for them.  There were moments of grace, but more often a deep sense of hopelessness, as the youngsters slowly imbibed their own side’s version of history, attitudes hardened and reconciliation seemed further away than ever.

Yet, by the grace of God and through sacrificial and patient work of so many, 1998 saw the Good Friday agreement and 2006 the power sharing government in Belfast.  And most amazingly, this week saw the visit of the Queen to the Irish Republic.  There were so many moving moments in that visit, none more so perhaps than when the Queen bowed her head at the memorial in Dublin’s Parnell Square to Irish patriots who died in the long struggle for freedom, a bow which the Financial Times described as “a simple but transcendent gesture designed to heal the wounds of more than seven centuries of English colonial rule.”

And then later in her speech at Dublin Castle, the Queen said these words: “It is impossible to ignore the weight of history.  We should be able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it.”

During these weeks of Eastertide, this series of sermons is entitled “Towards Larger Life.”  I believe that one of the most wonderful ways in which the resurrection of Jesus opens us to larger life, is by freeing us from bondage to our history.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry he encountered men and women who were bound by their past.  Tax collectors who had cheated and lied, adulterers, sinners, those afflicted by illnesses which made them unclean and untouchable.  It was to these people that Jesus was drawn to offer them forgiveness, healing, acceptance and love, to proclaim release to the captives.  And so many were captive to their past, forever defined by the mistakes of their past.  Jesus offered them redemption and a new future, not determined by their past.  He acknowledged their past, but would not let them be bound by it.

And after the resurrection, Jesus offered the same forgiveness and offer of new life to his disciples.  They had fallen asleep in the garden; Judas had betrayed him; Peter had denied him three times.  All of them, in their own way, had abandoned him to that lonely death on the cross.  It was impossible for the disciples to ignore the weight of history: their shame and sorrow was quite apparent.  And yet Jesus would not let them be defined by their past, he would not allow them to be bound by their history.  Jesus rather loved them and forgave them and offered them a new and larger life.

“Simon, Son of John, do you love me?”  “Yes, you know that I love you.”  “Feed my sheep.” (Jn 21) Three times Peter had denied him, and three times Jesus forgives and restores him.  Jesus bows to his history, but then unbinds him from it, and sets him free for that long journey which was to make him into the great leader and pastor of the Church.

I believe the Risen Lord is inviting each one of us to make the same journey into larger life.  Each one of us has something in our history which binds us, which weighs us down.  Perhaps some wound which we received as a child, or some besetting sin or compulsion, something perhaps we have done in our past and of which we are deeply ashamed.  Some mistakes we have made in the past can sometimes dominate our lives.  They can hobble us, and take away our sense of self-worth.

Even worse, sometimes others won’t let us forget it!  We can feel defined by one mistake or failing.  The worst thing to say to a young person is “Oh, you’ll never change!”  The Good News – the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we can change: the past can be redeemed, and we can be set free for life.

In our Gospel today Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (Jn 14:6) The way that leads to life is first of all hearing from Jesus the Truth about ourselves.  The truest thing about each one of us is that we were created in the very image of God, and that we were made for Life and Love.

We do need to acknowledge all that we are, where we have made mistakes – the weight of history – but the truest thing about us is not our sins, not the mistakes we have made, not the pain we have caused others.  The truest thing about you and me is that we are God’s beloved children, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image – and created for Life and Love.

And Jesus came to unbind us from everything which prevents us living this truth.  On the cross, Jesus overcame sin an death, all that would bind us to the past.  Through his resurrection he opened the gate of LIFE – eternal life.  It is supremely this Paschal mystery which gives us hope – hope that after a seven hundred year history of conflict and violence, peace is possible in Ireland.  Hope that after decades of violence and injustice, peace is possible in the Middle East.  “Are you optimistic about peace in the Holy Land?” Desmond Tutu was asked.  “No, I’m not optimistic, but I am hopeful.”

I believe we who follow Jesus Christ are called above all to be purveyors of hope.  Into a world which is so often cynical and despairing, bring a word of hope.  Always be ready, says St. Peter in his first letter, to speak of the hope that is in you. (I P 3:15) Perhaps today you could think of one person to whom you can bring a word of hope.

Is there somebody in your life whom by a word or an action you can help to unbind, help to set free?  Give them hope.  For that is God’s gift to each one of us.  Give that gift to another today.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. (Rom 15:13)

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26 Comments

  1. Claudia Booth on August 23, 2016 at 21:07

    Yeah, yeah, yeah! Thank you for reminding us of the present hope.

  2. Michael Walley on August 23, 2016 at 08:24

    As I retread this sermon , it reminds me that forgiving myself needs to happen again and again and to realize from the other comments that I am not alone in this struggle to keep things in perspective makes the journey more bearable. I often throw up my hands in despair, but knowing God always offers forgiveness and hope feels like a warm blanket on a cold night

    • David Cranmer on September 15, 2016 at 22:54

      You are definitely not alone. This is something that I struggle with also, DavC

  3. Rhode on August 23, 2016 at 07:24

    We bow but are not bound. Timeless message of freedom. Little by little, or, perhaps in one big swooping cut of the cord, Christ releases us to restore us. Though consequences of our past may haunt…we may bow and wave goodbye, turn around, free to move forward, free to help others. Thank you.

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  5. Roderic Brawn on May 1, 2015 at 04:19

    I wish some of the members of my nuclear family would listen to this. I have five siblings. I find they are clinging to some things I did in the past to retain a certain power over me. I would love to be closer, but one or two of me keep shooting me with the laser beam of things I did in the past. I don’t need the pain.

  6. John Fritschner on April 30, 2015 at 12:14

    I especially like this summation, ” but the truest thing about us is not our sins, not the mistakes we have made, not the pain we have caused others. The truest thing about you and me is that we are God’s beloved children . . ” Brilliant!!

    • David Cranmer on September 15, 2016 at 22:53

      This also really hit me from Br Geoffrey’s sermon. I know that I have difficulty believing that with all that I have done God still loves me and has forgiven me, DavC

  7. Dr Colin Forbes on April 30, 2015 at 09:34

    many years ago when I was in the Canadian army in Germany, I noticed the habit of bowing the head when greeting- guten tag, or danke schon. I still bow to every one I greet eg the pizza delivery man. But as a black man who spent most of my life teaching paediatrics in Africa, I am bound tightly by the injustices heaped on my people – the slavery, the racism – I want police to stop murdering black young men in America, I want African leaders to stop amassing wealth and give their people a chance to “develop” How can I sleep when I am bound by such chains?

    • Jerome Berkeley on April 30, 2015 at 12:51

      Amen, Dr. Forbes. God bless you. I am drawn to the Jesus who overturns tables and demands we follow a new path, not merely make detached, limp efforts at reforming what is broken and unjust. As Br. Geoffrey offers, it can happen. And in particular, his citing English / Irish conflict as an example, people will tragically find something to fight over even if they are from the same or very similar background, etc….We are blind when we follow our own impulses. May God’s light guide us.

  8. Michael on April 30, 2015 at 07:41

    Being reminded that we are more than our past is helpful and allows me hope. I struggle to forgive myself for past events, but knowing God loves me and forgives me offers me strength to forgive myself time ans time again. Thanks for a wonderful message this morning

  9. Susan McLeod on April 30, 2015 at 06:47

    Hearing this sermon again, I find it no less inspiring and comforting than when I first heard it last year! Those words of hope and love are timeless. But I do look forward to hearing fresh words again as well. Thank you for your steadfast messages.

  10. Sarah Acland on April 30, 2015 at 06:26

    I read this with the images of the Nepali earthquake playing through my mind, of people digging through rubble with their bare hands, in the pouring rain. Of the ancient temples fallen into dust, mostly with people inside since Saturday is the day of worship. But I fully expect Nepal to rise from the dust. In the midst of all that they lack – not least effective government – the Nepali people are used to making the best of it. They need our prayers for strength and solace.

  11. anders on November 13, 2014 at 10:41

    Thanks again. Today I appreciate your positive view of bowing to the past and being hopeful to the future, both of which require a sense of grace and hope. It reminds me that the Jesus Aramaic language of delivery of “Forgive us our sins/trespasses/debts” is along the lines of “Loosen the cords that bind us.” I recognize how some of those cords in my life are tradition and a sense of belonging to my group´s common values, and not always for the best reasons, along with those things done and left undone. To change myself and have any impact on the world, I can be hopeful if not optimistic. I’m not in it alone and it´s all good.

  12. George E. Hilty on November 13, 2014 at 10:32

    Thank you, Br. Geoffrey. Your message of liberating us from the bondage of our past is one the most powerful I’ve read. It fits well with our daily lectionary readings in Joel: God can restore the years the locusts– sins, hurts by others or self-inflicted–have eaten.

  13. Christopher Engle Barnhart on November 13, 2014 at 07:12

    I am 72. Recently, I was diagnosed as having a bi-polar condition which caused me to have large mood swings which had a causal effect on my relationship with family members that I love. I was also diagnosed as having ADHD. My therapist says that these condition have been part of me most of my life and I didn’t know it. Just knowing it and treating it has given me Hope for the future and has freed me for all my failures and sins of the past. I am working at living a better life now but I have much to do the to rectify the past and hopefully through time and prayer those love ones I hurt and those relationships I destroyed will be rectified. This is my Hope.

    • Christina on November 13, 2014 at 08:26

      Christopher: How sad that you have had so many years of suffering. How blessed that you now have help.
      I have read Br. Tristram’s message before today, (my cup of tea and SSJE is how I begin my days) and, yes, I drag my past along with me, but it dawned on me as I read that every day I begin anew: a table rasa. What a blessing. Blessings to you. Christina.

  14. Polly Chatfield on August 3, 2014 at 17:56

    About 70 years ago I copied these words of W.H. Auden in my commonplace book and they sounded in my head as i read your sermon: “The past is irrevocable, but always redeemable now.” Thank you.

  15. Ruth West on May 24, 2014 at 16:43

    What a good message! Thanks.

  16. Jeanne Karras on May 24, 2014 at 15:35

    WOW!! These words in today’s sermon can be a beacon of light to what is happening in our world today. Daily we hear about the sins of our past as a Nation. As we strive to make things better for all men, through justice for all, let us not be constantly struck down by those who want to defeat us. We cannot change the events of our past mistakes (sins) but we can learn from them and not repeat them. “We acknowledge our sins, but not remain bound by them”.
    Thank you for a great lesson.

  17. Emily B. Osborn on May 24, 2014 at 11:03

    I am a retired Marriage and Family Therapist from a Christian Counseling Center. I worked with Inner Healing, healing of the barnacles of the soul. Sometimes we need to be healed and reconciled with our families of origin and other truama areas of our lives before we can be reconciled with God. However, with Jesus’ intervention through the power of the HolySpirit we can be healed!

  18. Louise Kelly on January 27, 2014 at 19:43

    I am an alcoholic, as was my father and many other of my relatives. I recently completed 2 1/2 years of AA “Big Book Step-Study” and have begun the amends process which is outlined in the 9th Step. Although my sponsor strongly urged me to make my first amend to a living person, my Higher Power (whom I choose to call God) kept bringing my father to mind. He died 25 years ago on Jan.14. I’ve been praying about what I should say/write to him and, in the process, found many excuses to postpone reading a final version to my sponsor. Finally, she confronted me this morning about my dishonesty to her and to myself. Then I read today’s lesson which helped me focus and find peace. I read a stronger letter to my father at 4 pm. Thank you.

    • gwedhn nicholas on August 5, 2014 at 16:57

      Dear Louise,
      You are so brave to admit to your addiction. Thank you. I pray that you are healed by now. If not, I pray that you would have strength and hope and be well on the way to freedom and life.
      With Love In Christ
      Gwedhen

  19. Anders on January 27, 2014 at 14:57

    Thank you. I feel weighted down by my past in the church, the shame and abuse, and often yearn to hear the voice of the risen Lord, a Lord risen from our own mess. I look around and ask who is going to be the healing force in the church. The old colored windows tell me little. The mirror more. I can. I can heal myself and listen to the Master´s voice. Broken, I break bread together with others in hope, and it´s all good.

  20. Sally Caulfield on January 27, 2014 at 10:35

    first thing in the morning the message fromSSJE lifts me from my dark thoughts, self-pity,mainly.

  21. Jean Ann Schulte on January 27, 2014 at 07:00

    Such radiant and life-giving words in arctic January! Thank you.

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