“And so we came to Rome” (Acts 28: 14) The final chapter of Paul’s journeys, according to the Acts of the Apostles, brings him finally to Rome: journey’s end. Whatever else Paul was, he was a great traveler. When I was at school, perhaps aged fourteen, we studied Acts in our religious education class. I didn’t like religion much, but I did love drawing maps, like the ones you can find at the back of a Bible, maps of Asia and Europe, and drawing three lines across them. One line was in red, one in blue and one in yellow, each showing the route of Paul’s three missionary journeys. Paul traveled hundreds of miles, all over Asia Minor and Europe, preaching the Gospel. And the routes he took were very deliberate. He had a very clear idea of where he was going. In chapter 19 of the Acts we read, ‘Paul resolved in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.”’ And that’s exactly what he did. But the significant words in this passage are ‘in the Spirit’. For it was the Spirit of Jesus, his constant companion, who guided him at all times throughout his journeys. I love the story in chapter 16, where Paul is planning to go further into Asia on his preaching mission. He’s all set to go, until, we read, ‘The Holy Spirit forbad them to speak the word in Asia.’ And during the night he had a vision: ‘There stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”’ Macedonia of course is in Europe. Paul changed direction. Instead of heading east, he turned west. He completely changed direction. Maybe Paul remembered that earlier journey he had made to Damascus, and how the Spirit of Jesus had also stopped him in his tracks, and again totally changed the direction of his life. I remember at school poring over the map and imagining Paul arriving at the shores of the Aegean, at Troas. I imagined him staring out across the sea, due west, towards this new continent of Europe, my continent. I wondered how he must have felt. Scared, I think. But he trusted the Spirit of Jesus to guide him; this Jesus who had always been faithful. And for the rest of his life, Paul would trust completely, would place his life time and time again, in the hands of Jesus, his faithful companion.
St Francis of Assisi
The 4th of October is always a special day, because it is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I first fell in love with St. Francis when I was a student. I was staying with a friend who was studying to be a priest at the English College in Rome. It was January, and the biggest shock for me was how cold it was. The fountains of Rome were all frozen, and the marble floors of the college gave little comfort. So, one weekend, we decided to take ourselves off to Assisi. We took the train, and headed north towards the Apennine mountains. As the train journeyed inland and uphill, it started to snow, and it was quite exciting. After about two hours, we finally pulled into the station, and by now the snow was very deep, and it was getting dark. We got out and looked around, and I remember feeling actually rather disappointed. The town looked a bit dull. But then, I looked up, and there, high above us, clinging to the mountainside like a dream, was the medieval city of Assisi, lit up by the setting sun, shimmering in the snow. It was stunning, and has stayed in my mind’s eye ever since.
During the next few days we walked in the footsteps of St Francis, heard his story, prayed in the churches, played in the snow, throwing snowballs outside the church of Santa Chiara (nearly hitting a nun!), and I remember feeling full of joy. Francis had captured our hearts! And it was joy above all, which was the gift we received from Francis. I think he has been blessing the world with joy ever since.
When I was a parish priest in England, my church, St Mary’s, stood right in the middle of the town, and in many ways was at the center of the community. Every year on our Patronal Festival, we organized a week of celebrations, with a carnival and street market, and concerts and events taking place every day inside the church. A large proportion of the town community thought of St Mary’s as their church, even if they only worshipped there occasionally, or not at all! Many of them were baptized there, and expected to be married and buried there. We were open and welcoming to anyone who turned up.
The only other church in the town was one of the oldest independent churches in England. Its members were direct descendants of those Puritan men and women who set sail a few hundred years ago to land on these shores of New England. They took a very different view of the local community, having little to do with it, and certainly nothing to do with us. Those who worshiped with them had first assented to some very specific theological doctrines, and tended to keep themselves separate from the secular world, which they saw as essentially ‘fallen’.
It is very hard to reflect on our monastic year of renewal without seeing it in the context of how our whole world will be changed and renewed by this time of pandemic. Renewal has everything to do with hope and confidence, and grasping a vision for the future. But how can we feel any of these things when week after week we are in lockdown, cut off perhaps from family and friends, fearful for our jobs and for the economy, and discouraged by gloomy stories in the newspapers? Rather than exuding hope and confidence, we are perhaps more likely to feel sad and listless.
Ephesians 2: 11-22
‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are members of God’s household.’ This is the Good News that Paul is proclaiming in his letter to the Ephesians: it’s the good news of the Gospel: that we who were once strangers have now come to live in God’s home. And this has all happened through the gift of Christ’s dying for us on the Cross. The Cross, for Paul, is the most wonderful expression of God’s generous love for us, and the most radical expression of God’s extraordinary hospitality.
A few months ago, I was living in Colombia. And whoever it was I stayed with showed me extraordinary hospitality. The first thing they invariably said to me by way of welcome was that wonderful Spanish phrase, ‘Mi casa es su casa’: ‘my home is your home’. And Paul is telling us in this letter that God’s generosity is so overflowing, that he longs for each one of us, whoever we are, whether we feel like a stranger, or unworthy, God longs for us to ‘come home’, to come and live with God forever. You could say that the whole Gospel is about God inviting and welcoming each one of us with these gracious words, ‘Mi casa es su casa’: ‘my home is your home.’ Jesus came to offer us that very invitation. In John’s Gospel chapter 14, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘In my father’s house there are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come and take you there, so that where I am you may be also.’ ‘Mi casa es su casa!’ God’s extraordinary hospitality. And look who he invites! All sorts; tax collectors, outcasts, sinners, like you and me. ‘Let them all come in. There’s room for everyone in my house’.
John 14: 15-21
As I write this sermon I am looking out of the window and seeing all the runners and cyclists passing by along Memorial Drive, and they are nearly all wearing masks. Gosh, how life has changed for us over these past eight weeks. How are you doing? How are you coping? Social isolation can be very stressful. Just a few days ago I got an email from the Church Pension Fund, who pay clergy pensions, and also care for their welfare. It was inviting me to a forthcoming Webinar on ‘Coping with distress – a psychological first aid kit.’ They have called in two experts to teach some ways to cope with trauma and stress of our changed lives, in these days of pandemic.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is with his disciples in the Upper Room. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, Judas has just gone out into the night, to betray him. And Jesus is talking to them, preparing them for the traumatic events which would soon unfold. Being together in that room, they must have felt so anxious, so bewildered, so filled with distress. Our life is about to change, our Lord is leaving us, we will be left alone. What will we do? How will we cope?
John 10: 22-30
‘It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.’ ‘It was winter.’ I have been to Jerusalem in the winter, and there was snow on the ground, and it was bitterly cold. We think of Jesus in light, flowing robes and sandals, preaching in warm and sunny climes. But not in our Gospel today. John tells us very specifically that ‘it was winter.’ Usually John marks time by referring to the Jewish religious festivals, but here, very pointedly, he tells us that it was winter. As so often for John, seemingly insignificant words carry a profound, symbolic meaning. ‘It was winter, it was night…’
This story at the end of chapter 10 marks the climax of several chapters describing the increasingly hostile controversies between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Here on this winter’s day, in the very temple itself, the words become ever more cold and bitter. Jesus finally seals his fate by declaring unequivocally, “The Father and I are one”, and the Jews pick up stones to stone him to death.
It was winter in Narnia, when those children in C. S. Lewis’ much-loved stories, first entered through the wardrobe into that magical land. Lucy went first. ‘She was standing in the middle of a wood, with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air. “Why is it winter here?” “The witch has made it always winter and never Christmas. But Aslan is on the move.”’
Every ten years in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, they hold the world-famous Passion Play. One of the most famous actors who portrayed Christ was Anton Lang. And there’s a story of how one day, after a performance, a tourist and his wife went back stage to meet the actors. After taking Lang’s picture, the man noticed the great cross that the actor had carried during the performance. He said to his wife, “Here, take the camera and I’ll lift the cross on my shoulder, and then snap my picture.” Before Lang could say anything, the tourist had stooped down to lift the prop to his shoulder. He couldn’t budge it. The cross was made with solid oak beams. In amazement the man turned to Lang and said, “I thought it would be hollow and light. Why do you carry a cross which is so terribly heavy?” The actor replied, “Sir, if I did not feel the weight of the cross, I could not play his part.”
To feel the weight of the cross is what we have been doing in different ways during this season of Lent, and what we are about to do in a focused and intentional way as we begin to live this Holy Week. But during this particular Lent, which we have all had to bear, continues to be very, very heavy. In the midst of this pandemic, isolation, anxiety, sickness, bereavement, have already weighed heavily on all of us.
It’s the miracle which is perhaps the most famous of them all: the feeding of the 5,000. It’s found in all four Gospels. But we don’t always notice that in Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, there is another miracle, which is very similar: the miracle of the feeding of the FOUR thousand. And that is our Gospel for today.
There is so much in this story, but as I read it again, slowly, two things in particular spoke to me.
First, I was struck again by Jesus’ wonderful compassion. “My heart is moved with pity,” one translation puts it, “because they are hungry.” We often remember all the spiritual things Jesus says in the Gospels, but we don’t always notice how he is not just interested in our spiritual selves, but our physical needs as well. They’re hungry; help them. Remember how after Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter, he says, “give her something to eat.” When the disciples return from mission, Jesus can see they are exhausted and says, “Come away by yourselves and rest.”
Today is Candlemas and it’s a feast I’m very fond of – but then I like candles! I remember when I was a young child, we lived in the South of England, deep in the Sussex countryside, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed, carrying a candle, and then tuck up in bed, nice and cozy, looking round a once familiar bedroom – now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later as I came to faith, looking at a candle, holding a candle, staring at the flickering light of the candle helped me to pray. The flickering light spoke to me of the light of Christ: of warmth, comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles that we light in this church – all over the church and on the high altar today – help us celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas, when Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents to fulfill the required ceremonies of the law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name, “Jesus.” But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy. In other words, belonging to the Lord, and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary, and he was then presented to the Lord. At the same time, his mother Mary had, according to the law, to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings either of turtle doves and two pigeons.