Today, on this Wednesday in Holy Week, we have just heard read one of the most emotionally charged passages in all the Gospels. In an act of intimate, self-giving love, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. But he then turns from love, to betrayal. We are told, laconically that Jesus is ‘troubled in spirit’; perhaps an understatement. For he has just washed Judas’ feet. Jesus loved Judas, as he did all his disciples. Jesus’ heart likely burned with a deep sorrow at what Judas was about to do.
But love and betrayal exist side by side. And there is a very close parallel between what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet, and what Judas was about to do. That parallel is made very clear by one word in the text, and that is the word betrayal. But that is only one translation of the word used by John. In the Greek of the original text, the word translated as ‘betrayal’, is ‘paradidomai’. This literally means ‘to hand over or give over power to another, or to hand over another into the power of another’. Here, that verb is translated as ‘to betray’ because this ‘handing over’ of Jesus by Judas is done treacherously. But elsewhere in the New Testament this very same word is used in a beautiful and loving way. In the letter to the Ephesians for example, we read that Jesus ‘has loved us and given himself for us.’ The same verb, paradidomai. Jesus so loves us that he freely gives himself over to the power of another. And this is what Jesus was expressing so beautifully when he laid aside his robe and washed his disciples’ feet. So great is his love for us that he laid down his divine power and became as a servant; became vulnerable and ‘woundable’. Through love he exposed himself to the power of Judas, he gave himself over to the power of the darkness in men’s hearts, ‘and it was night.’
The story of the Raising of Lazarus is one of the great miracles, the signs in the Gospel of John. It is a wonderful story, but unlike the other signs, it seems to have a shadow cast over it. For, in full tragic irony, Jesus giving life to Lazarus results directly in the decision to put Jesus to death. The shadow cast over the story is the shadow of the Cross.
For immediately after Jesus has raised Lazarus, we read: ‘Some of those who had come with Mary went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.’ And the Pharisees were filled with fear. At once, they and the chief priests called a meeting of the council and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ the council was no less than the Sanhedrin – the highest Jewish court and governing body. That’s how serious the threat of this man Jesus was to them. The meeting was highly charged, and the most powerful emotion was fear. ‘What are we going to do?’, said one. ‘We can’t let him carry on like this’, said another. ‘Everyone will believe in him, and then what? The Romans will come and destroy our Temple and our whole nation.’ Next, Caiaphas the high priest joined in: ‘You know nothing at all.’ In Greek it is stronger, rather like, ‘You are talking rubbish!’ The tension was rising. Fear was everywhere. They all felt it. And what they feared most from Jesus is what they thought they would lose. If this man was allowed to carry on they would lose everything; their status, their position in society, their power – everything. They risked losing their very selves.
Welcome everyone to this act of worship. Whether you are here in person or joining us on line, we are all drawn to this place to worship God. It is good to be here. What is it that is so powerful, so compelling, about worship? What draws us, from far and wide, to be here today?
I was reflecting on this question as I prayed with this evening’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is comparing our outward acts with the secret thoughts of our hearts. And I would say that for me, worship is so compelling because it is the one place I can come and be completely open and honest, before God. Here we do not need to pretend. Here, at worship, before God, I can be who I most truly AM. As we pray at the start of every Eucharist, ‘To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.’ At worship there’s no need to pretend, no need to keep up appearances. You may know that British comedy series, ‘Keeping Up Appearances’. There is Hyacinth, played brilliantly by Patricia Routledge, who insists that her surname ‘Bucket’ be pronounced ‘Bouquet.’ She is a rather eccentric, social climbing snob, in constant fear of being embarrassed by her relatives, Onslow, Daisy and Rose.
It’s all very silly, but there’s enough truth in it to make us laugh, because we all know a little of how we too like to keep up appearances! Little distortions of the truth, little embellishments of the facts, to show ourselves in more positive light. Ways we try to impress, name-dropping, ways we try to enhance our image. You could say that the reading from Mark’s Gospel today is all about ‘keeping up appearances!’ The Pharisees and scribes were complaining that Jesus’ disciples were not observing some of the external traditions of the elders regarding the ritual washing of hands, cups, pots and bronze kettles. Jesus actually became very angry with them. They were more concerned with the externals, the appearance of things, than with what is actually going on within their hearts. Unclean hands, pots and pans do not matter. What defiles, what damages a person, is an ‘unclean heart’.
Pretending to be who you are not. Living a lie. This draws from Jesus a terrible rebuke. ‘You hypocrites’, he says. Hypocrisy is right at the top of those things which make Jesus angry. I think, because he knows how very destructive it can be to a person. Keeping up appearances can be gently amusing and pretty harmless. But it can also grow into something corrosive to the soul. When we get used to living a lie, we can slowly become alienated from our true selves. We can allow others to make us into the person that we are not. And one of the greatest challenges of living in relationship, in marriage, partnership, or community, is to allow the other person room to blossom and become the person they truly are. For if we try to live a life of pretense, in order to be accepted or praised, we run the risk of losing our souls.
In Dante’s ‘Inferno’, the hypocrites (and the Greek word literally means ‘actors’) are clothed in huge choir robes, made of solid lead, gilded on the outside with gold. Marc Foley writes about these hypocrites in his book, ‘The Love that keeps us Sane.’ He says, ‘These huge choir robes are so heavy that the hypocrites can hardly move. That’s a graphic image of the desperate need to be recognized by others, and the bone-weary insanity of trying to keep up appearances! Dante describes the garb of the hypocrites as, “O cloak of everlasting weariness!”’
But here, in this place, where the Lord is present, we can shed our heavy cloaks of pretension and appearance. We can stand before the Lord and unburden our souls. We can stand before the One who truly knows us and loves us – ‘just as I am’. But not only does God see us as we truly are, when we worship, not only does he love us and accept us as we are, but he also challenges us to grow, and become more fully that unique person God created us to be. The community of Taizé in France puts it like this in its Rule: ‘In worship we can stop hiding from God, and the light of God can heal and transform even what we are ashamed of.’
So welcome, one and all. Come and worship God, the One to whom all hearts are open, the One who longs to remove our heavy vesture and reclothe us in raiments dazzling white.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it.”
Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting and mending nets, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction! When Simon and Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s Scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation, of how God is always calling us to larger life – and our very mixed and not always very impressive or heroic responses!
And certainly, in Scripture, it seems that most people whom God calls, don’t immediately leave their ‘nets’ and follow. Most of them, like me, are more like Jonah. Or like Moses. He tries to wriggle out of it when God calls him to confront Pharaoh: ‘O Lord, I’ve never been eloquent: I’m slow of speech and tongue.’ Or poor Jeremiah. ‘O Lord, truly I don’t know how to speak, for I’m only a boy.’ Or poor Isaiah, in the midst of a stunning vision of heaven – ‘O Lord, woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.’ But after the Lord cleanses him he does manage to say, ‘Here am I Lord, send me.’ We used to joke that he was probably feeling more, ‘Here am I – send HIM!’
The Baptism of Christ
I have a box in my room where I keep all my precious documents. You probably have something similar. These documents, such as passports, birth certificates, ordination papers, for many, marriage certificates, these documents are all very precious because they tell us what we belong to and who we belong to. That’s incredibly important, because belonging gives us our sense of identity. These documents remind me of who I am. Among the most precious of documents for me are my two passports. Whenever I hold these passports I have an enormous sense of gratitude to God that my own life, my very identity, has been formed by the traditions and values of two different nations.
Our core identity is intimately bound up with the values of the country to which we belong; so, when we see these values violated, as we have seen on Capitol Hill during these past days, we feel a visceral shock to our very core.
Belonging and identity are so bound together, that an even worse experience is to actually have your ‘belonging’ taken away. I will never forget a time of ministry some years ago in South Dakota, when I spoke with some elderly native Americans who told me the harrowing story of how they had been made to leave their ancestral lands and at school were forbidden to speak their native language. ‘We don’t belong here anymore’ they said. How terrible to belong nowhere and belong to no one. Those sad and haunted eyes we have seen on the TV of refugees, thrown out of their country, ‘cleansed’ or fled in terror from their homes and from a country where they are told they don’t belong.
Holy Name Day
‘Come here Geoffrey!’ Someone shouted that to their child in the supermarket the other day and I jumped! They weren’t talking to me, but I jumped when I heard my name. When someone uses your name, you notice; it’s a sign that they know us. When they use our first name, our given name, it means a degree of intimacy.
Today is the first day of a New Year – the Year of our Lord 2021, and we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. We give thanks that through Jesus we have been given the gift of intimacy with God. St Paul tells us that, ‘God has sent the Spirit of his son Jesus into our hearts, crying Abba, Father.’ We have the wonderful privilege as Christians of being able to pray to our Father with the same closeness and intimacy which Jesus has with his Father – to make our prayer ‘in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.’
Throughout Scripture, God’s use of names is very important, and part of God’s act of creation. In the account of creation in Genesis, whenever God calls each part of creation into being he calls it by a name.: ‘He called the light day, the darkness night.’ But God goes on creating right through the pages of Scripture. Most notably he takes men and women and carries on creating them throughout their lives. God enters a person’s life and draws gifts and qualities out of them which they could hardly have dreamt of, and as a sign of this he calls them by a new name. God calls Abram and makes a covenant with him. He will be the father of a multitude of nations, and will be called ‘Abra-ham’, which means ‘father of a multitude.’ Jacob wrestles with an angel all night long, and in the morning the angel blesses him and says, ‘You have striven with God and prevailed – you shall now be called ‘Israel’. The name ‘Isra-el’ means ‘striven with God’, and the word ‘El’ means ‘God’. So, Jacob actually receives the name of God into his new name. What an extraordinary act of intimacy.
‘I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.’ But only just! Jacob had wrestled with the angel all night, and managed to come out alive – but with his hip put out of joint. Yet God blessed him through the struggle, and let him see God face to face.
Throughout Scripture, when the Spirit of the Lord comes down upon a person, there is so often a struggle; the Spirit is experienced as something traumatic and shattering. Dealing with God is not for the faint hearted! Listen to the prophet Ezekiel: ‘A spirit entered me and lifted me up and bore me away. Before the glory of the Lord I fell on my face, but the spirit lifted me up’. Daniel, standing on the banks of the river Tigris see a vision of a man, shining in glory, sent from God. The man spoke, and David fell into a trance, and then fell to the ground. Shaking with fear, he lost his strength and could hardly breathe. The prophet Jeremiah tries to get away from the Lord’s presence, but the Spirit overwhelms him, and he cries out, ‘If I say I will not mention him or speak in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.’ Well might the writer of the letter to the Hebrews say, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’!
Yet, through each one of these powerful and life changing experiences, God was at work, forming and molding these very different characters to become men of God; able to speak for God, but most crucially, to see for God. Through their profound and life changing encounters with the living God, they would now see as God sees. They would become God’s seers, and they would proclaim what they saw.
“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’.