As many of you know, at the end of next week I am going to England to preside at the wedding of my niece Katherine and her fiancé Michael. I’m really excited about it, and I’ve been poring over the Church of England marriage ceremony online, so that I’ll look as if I know what I’m doing! I haven’t married anyone for quite a few years, and it was certainly one of the joys of being a parish priest. I have always understood Holy Matrimony as a sacrament: that God’s Holy Spirit comes down upon two individuals, and through a deep mystery, makes them one. In the words of the Church of England rite, “The couple shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind.”
They are changed. God’s Spirit has the power to change us. As a sign of this change, couples often change one or the other’s surname, and wear a ring of their finger. I’m no longer who I was. I have been changed.
As soon as I get back from England I will have the privilege of conducting the ordination retreat for the Diocese of Massachusetts. The ordinands will be ordained on June 6th. In the same sacramental way as in Holy Matrimony, God’s Spirit, we pray, will come down upon these men and women, and they will be changed. The Bishop will say these words, “Give your Holy Spirit to your servant, and fill her with grace and power and make her a deacon/priest in your church. As a sign of this change, the new deacon or priest will preface their name with “Rev.” and wear a clerical collar. I remember my own ordination as priest. At the laying on of hands, I felt different. Something had happened.
When the Spirit comes down upon us, we are changed. And it happened powerfully in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. “While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon them. All were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”
But they had to believe it because the Spirit had manifestly changed them. “They were speaking in tongues, and extolling God.” They were different. Something had changed. This was the real thing, and they were baptized there and then.
In the sacramental water of baptism we believe that God the Holy Spirit comes upon us, washing, cleansing and changing us. We become a new creation in Jesus Christ. As a sign of this profound change we often wear different clothes, usually white – and we are marked, sometimes with oil, on our foreheads with the sign of the cross – “marked as Christ’s own forever.”
If we are living the Christian life, we must expect to be changed.
The former leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in England, Archbishop Anthony Bloom, tells this fascinating story. “A few years ago a man came to see me and asked for baptism. I asked him for his reasons and he told me that he first came to our church to bring a parcel to someone. He was a convinced unbeliever, a man in his forties. He came in a little before the end of the service so he had to endure a little of it. He stood at the back and he suddenly felt ‘the overwhelming presence of God,’ a presence that was objective. He said to himself, ‘This is probably what the Christians call God’s presence, but it may also be a mood in me induced by the candles, the singing, the incense, the praying congregation.’ So he decided to come again. He came a couple of times when the services were in progress, and met with the same experience. Then he came a number of times when there was no one there, and to his surprise (not very pleasant surprise) he felt that the intensity of ‘presence’ was not diminished in any way by the absence of people. So it was not the people who carried it; it was not the singing, nor the ceremonial that conveyed it. And then he thought, ‘All right, supposing that it is God, what does it matter to me if He simply chooses to live in this building and does nothing to anyone?” So he decided to come and watch us to see whether anything happens to us. I would never have believed that he could have come to such conclusions by watching us. But the conclusion he came to after about a year was that God was an extremely active presence because he said he could see people change. I don’t mean to say they became better, but he perceived a change within the people whom he had singled out for observation. We were there like a sort of zoo at which he was looking, trying to draw conclusions. And his conclusions were that these animals change.” And he had been changed – and wanted to be baptized.
If we open our lives to God we will be changed. Indeed, as Cardinal Newman famously put it: “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
But what usually makes us change, sometimes forces us to change, are the changes taking place around us, or within our lives. Those changes so often act as a catalyst, or even as the New Testament puts it, like a refiner’s fire. They challenge us to grow and to change and to deepen our trust in God.
But, I think, if we’re honest, change in not something we always welcome. Instead, change can make us extremely anxious and afraid.
Change in our work – losing our jobs.
Change in our families – our spouses who change, or don’t change.
Our children who change, or don’t change.
Changes in our health.
Changes and diminishment as we get older.
Changes to our hopes, our plans.
What doesn’t change? What doesn’t change is God’s faithfulness. “Remember,” Jesus says at the end of Matthew’s Gospel – his final words to his disciples – “Remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And that is a promise – a promise to remember always, to hold on to, amidst the changes which are all around us.
And because Jesus is with us though the changes to our life, he will help us to change in response to these challenges – to grow in faith and trust – to grow in wisdom and understanding – to grow in love and hope.
And because Jesus, our Risen Savior promises to be with us always, even to the end of the age, we can even face confidently that final and greatest change, which is death itself – when “we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”
“To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” And we need not fear change, because Jesus does not change. He is faithful, and he urges us to remember that he is with us always even to the end of the age. That is our Easter hope, that is our Good News.
It’s not always easy to remember when we are feeling anxious amidst the changes in our life. Prayer can be the way to let this promise go deep down into our roots – and change and transform us.
I particularly like saying Compline at the end of the day. I commend it to you to pray before you go to bed. The words of Compline are so beautiful and so strengthening. I’d like to finish by saying my favorite prayer from Compline, which has helped me so many times in my own life.
Let us pray.
“Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world may repose upon thy eternal changelessness. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.
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