St. Thomas, the Apostle
“Unless I see I will not believe.” These are words of the Apostle Thomas whom we celebrate today. These words have sadly clung to him in a negative way so that he is often called “Doubting Thomas.”
But calling him “Doubting Thomas” seems not only unfair, but inaccurate. Thomas was no wavering agnostic, sitting on the fence: “Perhaps I believe, I don’t know.” That’s not Thomas at all. He is quite open and downright: “I simply don’t believe it.” “I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, and that’s that.”
And I think we have to say that many people do find it very difficult to believe. It’s a great mystery why others who hear the Gospel are touched almost immediately and come to faith. They are blessed, says Jesus, who do not need such evidence as the exploring of wounds with a finger. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Yet Jesus had mercy on Thomas, was glad of his honesty: “Unless I see I will not believe.” See what? Does it mean I want proof? Surely not, because faith does not deal with proof. God longs for us to turn to him in penitence and faith. He is not going to prove anything to make us believe.
St. Margaret of Scotland – the Pearl of Great Price
Pearls are very beautiful. Their beauty has something to do with their unique luster. Light reflects and refracts from the translucent layers – layer upon layer of mother of pearl. The luster becomes finer as the layers become thinner and more numerous. Some people spend their lives collecting and marveling at pearls.
Today we celebrate Margaret, a 12th century queen of Scotland, who was acknowledged by the whole country as a good and deeply holy woman. She was a woman of profound prayer, who also worked tirelessly for the welfare of the poor. Many people wrote about her, and made much of the appropriateness of her name, for in both Greek and Latin, the name Margaret – Margarata – means pearl. There’s the lovely passage written at her death by Turgot, the 12th century bishop of St. Andrews: “In this virtuous woman, the fairness indicated by her name was surpassed by the exceeding beauty of her soul. She was called Margaret, that is a “pearl,” and in the sight of God she was esteemed a lovely pearl by reason of her faith and good works. She was a pearl to her husband and children, to me, to all of us, even to Christ. And because she was Christ’s she is all the more ours, now that she has left us, and is taken to the Lord.”
I recently returned from spending a few weeks in Colombia. I was invited by the bishop, and worked in three Episcopal parishes in Bogota and Medellin. It was an extraordinary experience and I am still thinking and praying about everything I was privileged to see and do, and remembering especially some of the wonderful, generous people I met. The people of Colombia have lived through decades of violence. Terrorized by guerilla groups like the FARC, and suffering through the murderous days of Pablo Escobar and narco-terrorism. What is less well known is that Colombia has the world’s highest number of internally displaced people – more even than Syria. These are Colombian men, women and children who over the past 30 years have been forcibly driven from their homes by armed groups, and who have become refugees in their own land. Eight million of them – many now living in poverty in the outlying barrios, which cling to the mountainsides of the great cities.
I spent much of my time living in one such barrio in Bogota. It was a tough place to be, but the great blessing I received was to meet and talk with men and women, who in the midst of great suffering and hardship, radiated a profound faith and trust in God.
One summer, a couple of years ago, I was standing on the white cliffs of Dover, in southern England, staring out over the expanse of the English Channel, towards France.
In that same spot, 1400 years ago, a Benedictine monk called Augustine, with 40 other monks, landed their boats. They were on a mission to bring the light of the Gospel to the English people. They were scared to death. They had already tried to turn back once, because the people they had met in France had told them horror stories: those Britons are violent and barbaric. With Brexit, I think the French may well have the same opinion today!
But the man who had sent them on the mission told them no– don’t turn back. And he encouraged them and gave them new courage. That remarkable man, who had the vision and drive to send Augustine to evangelize England, was Gregory. And we remember him today.
As Anglicans, we have I think a special closeness to Gregory. The Venerable Bede affectionately called him “our own apostle.” Gregory was a man of many gifts, but essentially he was a monk, a Benedictine monk, like Augustine, living peacefully in a monastery perched high on the Coelian hill in Rome. But Rome was anything but peaceful. He was experiencing the horrors of war – barbarian invasions, plague, and famine. Although Gregory wanted to live the monastic life, he was one of the most gifted men of his time, and he was almost dragged out of the monastery. And both the secular and religious authorities pleaded with him to help. His energy and abilities and holiness were so great that after a few years, he was elected Pope – the first ever monk to become Pope.
As Pope, his three greatest gifts came to the fore. First, he was a remarkable administrator. He personally organized the defense of Rome against the barbarian attacks, and he fed its people from the papal granaries in Sicily.
Secondly, he was a man of profound prayer and spirituality. Much of the worship life of the churches was in a terrible state, so drawing on his own monastic experience, he re-ordered the church’s liturgy, including the introduction of a beautiful chant, later named after him: “Gregorian chant.” In many ways his genius for worship and liturgy has molded the spirituality of the western Church till the present day.
But thirdly, he was a wonderful pastor. The Gospel reading today includes words which get to the heart of the kind of pastor Gregory was. From Mark’s Gospel, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be a servant.”That was Gregory’s mandate. So, of all the titles which were conferred upon him, the one he chose for himself was “Servus, servorum Dei”: servant of the servants of God. For him to be a leader was to be a servant, like his Lord. And this colored all his pastoral theology. He expressed his theology in beautiful writing. His most famous work is the Regula Pastoralis, or “the Pastoral Office.” It’s a wonderful work, written for new priests and especially new bishops. It’s still very popular, and it’s still probably the best held ever written about the inner life and work of a bishop.
It was written 1400 years ago, but still packs a punch. His harshest words were against bishops who did not preach God’s saving word. Listen to him: “There is a feature, dear brothers, in the life of pastors, which causes me great affliction. We have descended to secular business. We abandon the duty of preaching, and to our disgrace, we are bishops in name, and have the title but not the virtue that befits that dignity. For those committed to our care abandon God and we are silent. They commit sin, and we do not stretch out a hand to correct them.”
Gregory was ferocious about bishops who were guilty of the sin of silence. They allowed grave disorders to go on in their jurisdictions and they were silent. They were silent because they wanted to avoid trouble. They worked to maintain the status quo. They wanted to remain comfortable and secure, and highly thought of.
Over these past months, details of sexual abuse which had taken place over many decades in the Church of England have been brought to light. And it is clear that bishops had kept quiet. Over the past year, the extent of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has been revealed, and it is clear that bishops have kept quiet. “They have the title, but not the virtue that befits their dignity,” says Gregory. Guilty of the sin of silence. Those powerful, courageous words of Gregory, uttered 1400 years ago, still have the power to convict us today. But not only the bishops, but each one of us who follow Jesus.
Through the centuries Gregory’s words ring out with the same conviction and point to each one of us, and ask us, “Where were you silent when you saw injustice being done? When were you silent when you heard others saying things which you knew were untrue – gossip or cruel words? When were you silent because, well, I just don’t want to get involved? And so you said nothing.”
Today we celebrate a man who was a true servant of God. And man of huge courage, who spoke out the truth without fear or favor. A man who spoke out whenever he saw evil or injustice both within and outside the church. A truly great man, holy and courageous.
Shortly after his death the church unanimously gave him the title of great honor: Gregorius Magnus – Gregory the Great. But for Gregory himself, Gregory, the humble follower of Jesus the Benedictine mon, the only title he ever aspired to was the one modeled on his Lord: “Servus, servorum Dei:” the servant of the servants of God.
When I was 26, I went to the Holy Land for the first time. The day I remember most was getting up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning with my fellow pilgrims and leaving our hotel in Jerusalem and getting into our coach, and in the dead of night driving due East. Ahead of us lay the great Judean wilderness. We could see very little, but eventually the coach stopped and we climbed out into the utter silence of the desert. As we stood in awe, our eyes slowly made out the shape of the hills, below the twinkling stars. Then the bus drove off. We were alone – standing together on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We, like the man in the parable, were going to walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The ancient road is not the modern highway which now carries countless pilgrims down to Jericho in their air conditioned coaches. The road which we were taking winds its way between the hills and the rocks and the canyons, but always going down and down. For Jerusalem is high in the hills, while Jericho is way below sea level, one of the lowest points in the earth’s surface. The cities are less than 20 miles apart.
And so we set out for several hours of silent, prayerful walking .We began to see more and more clearly, and then there was a glorious sunrise, and we all sat down on the rocks and had Eucharist together.
On we walked, as the temperature rose; it became incredibly hot. “Keep drinking, keep drinking!” said our Palestinian guide. We did. But, sadly, we never made it to Jericho. The heat and sun became so intense as we walked lower and lower that some of our party felt unwell, and we called for the bus to drive us the last few miles into Jericho.
Acts 9:1-9 | John 21:1-14
There’s no going back. There’s no going back. Once you have said ‘yes’ to Jesus, once you have met the Risen Lord and said YES to his invitation to ‘follow me,’ nothing is the same again. For, as Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Everything has passed away, see everything has become new.”[i]
In our readings today there are two wonderful accounts of how the greatest leaders of the church – Peter and Paul – each had to learn, in a way which was both humbling and painful, that to follow Jesus, first meant a real death to the life which they had lived until then. They had to become a new creation. They had to be born anew before God could use them for the work of the Kingdom.
So when, in our Gospel today, Peter says, ‘I am going fishing’ – I’m going back to the old life – that was no longer possible. He was a good fisherman, his strong hands were skilled with the ropes and the nets. But although he toiled all through the night, he caught nothing. Something had changed. What had changed was that Jesus had called him to follow him, and he had said YES. But what he was yet to learn was that he could not follow Jesus on his own terms, in his own strength, in the old way. That had died.
These skilled hands of the fisherman would be used by Jesus, but first Peter had to come to Jesus empty handed. And perhaps there is no more poignant moment in all the gospels than when Peter comes ashore, and sees Jesus sitting beside a charcoal fire. That word ‘charcoal’ is only used twice in the New Testament: here and in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, where Peter stood warming himself, and where he denied knowing Jesus three times.
It’s Easter Day! Today our Lord Jesus Christ has been raised gloriously from the dead. Alleluia! Today is a day for rejoicing. He is Risen: Alleluia!
But on Monday, just six days ago, I was not rejoicing. I was tearful. I was staring in shock and stunned silence – as you may have been too – watching those pictures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burning. I first went to Notre Dame when I was 14; I was staying with my pen friend’s family in Paris. I was struck dumb, even at that age, with the beauty, the colour and light, the sheer holinessof the place. I remember we lit candles, and sat gazing in wrapt silence at a great rose window, shimmering like a jewel.
Throughout most of my life, as a parish priest in England, I tried to go back most years to Notre Dame, to light candles and pray for friends and parishioners who were sick or in need. Back to the place where for me, in Eliot’s words, “prayer had been valid.”
So it was heartbreaking to see this place of beauty and loveliness where I have for years felt so close to God, mauled and wounded and ravaged by fire.
Exodus 3:1-15, I Cor. 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
“I am who I am. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be rememberedthroughout all generations.”
This, the great climax of that wonderful story of Moses and the Burning Bush. Poor Moses, hiding his face in sheer terrorfrom the God who now calls to him out of the bush. The God who now reveals to Moses his sacred identity: God’s NAME. In Hebrew, four letters, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, “Jehovah” – so holy that their true meaning is unknown, and many will never pronounce them.
They are often translated “I AM who I AM.” I AM the one, the eternal I AM. But God is clear: My name is to be rememberedfrom generation to generation.
I want to talk this morning aboutremembering. The command to rememberis one of the most important themes running through both the Old and New Testaments. Yet it is not easy for us to understand what the Bible means by remembering because it is very different from what weusually understand it to mean.
“Do you remember last Christmas?” “Do you remember that restaurant we went to last week?” We think of rememberingas simply recalling something that happened in the past. But in the Bible, remembering has the full semitic sense of recalling in such a way that the event of the past is actually made present once again. This sense of remembrance is all but untranslatable into English. But it is fundamental to understanding God’s actions throughout scripture.
Remember the Lord your God. Rememberthe marvels he has done. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Rememberthat you are but dust and to dust you shall return. Don’t just call them to mind, but by remembering, call on their power, that you too may experience nowGod’s marvels, God’s holiness, God’s power to raise you up from the dust and ashes of death.
To remember in this way is really to literally re-member,in the way that a surgeon may put a broken body together again. What wasin the past has taken form and has become fully and powerfully present now.
I had one of the most precious and wonderful experiences of this some years ago. My father had had a stroke and he was dying. I managed to fly home and by the grace of God saw my father just a few hours before he died. I sat with him and I didn’t think he knew who I was. But at one point his eyes rested on me. I said, “Dad, do you know who I am?” After some time, staring at me, he said, “Geoffrey Robert.” After saying my name his whole being seemed to be radiantand he smiled broadly, and I knew that at that moment the whole of me, from my birth onwards, had suddenly become presentto him – and he had become present to me. I felt an incredibly close and intimate connection.
I think when God says, “This is my name, and this is how I am to be remembered throughout all generations,” it’s something like that. God longs to be so present to us, that God’s life irradiates our own.
And this biblical understanding of remembrance parallels the New Testament as well. So when Mary cries out in joy in the Magnificatto the Lord “who has remembered his promise of mercy to Abraham and his children forever,” it is not that God had forgotten for a while, and then remembered again. It is rather that in the act of remembering, that promise becomes fully presentin the child in Mary’s womb.
And perhaps the most mysterious yet wonderful place where God’s remembrance is made powerfully present is in the Eucharist, which we celebrate today.
“On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” The Greek word used here for ‘remembrance’ is the word anamnesis. In the Church of England prayer book, the phrase is translated, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The American prayer book’s translation, “Do this forthe remembrance of me,” although it is slightly clumsy English, is actually a better, more literal translation of the Greek eis ten anamnesin, and I think helps remind us of the special semitic meaning of the kind of remembrance going on here. At the Eucharist, we are not simply recalling, or calling to mind an event that happened two thousand years ago. When we say these words, a true re-memberingis happening. God’s saving deeds in Christ are being made present, so that the fullness and power of those deeds of the past – Christ’s life and death and resurrection and ascension – take effect in our lives here and now. In the sacrament of bread and wine, the Lord is truly and really presentin all his strength and power, and we receive him into ourselves. We are irradiated by the real presenceof the Lord.
“Do this for the remembrance of me.”
But if to rememberin this full biblical sense is so incredibly powerful, imagine what the opposite would be: NOTto remember. In Jeremiah 31:31, God says these words: “The days are surely coming when I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more!” Amazing words of grace! For if to rememberin the biblical sense is to make something truly present and real, then notto remember is to truly and really take something away, so that it is no longer real or present.
The Good News of the Gospel is precisely that. Because of what Jesus Christ wrought for us on the Cross, God will remember our sins no more. It’s not that God is “forgetting” or pretending he never knew – but rather that God, through love and mercy, chooses not to remember: those sins are taken away, removed, no longer present.
I wonder if you may have something in your life, some sin, some action of which you are ashamed and which you keep remembering, replaying, going over again and again. Maybe God is longing to reassure you that God remembers your sin no more, and you should stop remembering it as well. You may not be able to forget, but you can stop rememberingand trust God’s word.
And what about your relationship with others? That person who has hurt you terribly. “I’ll never forget what you did to me!” No, you can’t forget it ever happened, but you can— and I believe, to be set free, you must— choose not to remember – not to constantly re-enact, “make real” the offence, so that it is an ever-present reality and a perpetual barrier and blockage.
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
“Remember our sins no more, as we no longer remember the sins of those who have sinned against us.”
In a few minutes, we will hear those words again: “This is my body, this is my blood. Do this for the remembrance of me.” As we remember, Jesus will be made real for us. When you receive his body and blood, you will truly be receiving his power and his strength, wonderfully present to us.
In that power, in that strength, offer to God the burden of sin which you may be carrying, and hear again those gracious words of forgiveness: “I will remember your sins no more.” Then offer to God that person whom you find it hard to forgive, and ask for the grace to be able to say about them, “I will remember your sins no more.”
And there will be rejoicing in heaven – in the glorious Name of our loving, holy and gracious God, whom we remember, and will continue to remember, throughout all generations.
Genesis 1:1-19 / Psalm 104:1-12
“Bless the Lord O my soul, O Lord my God, how excellent is your greatness! You are clothed with majesty and splendor. You wrap yourself with light as with a cloak.”
Those wonderful opening lines of today’s Psalm 104. There is this amazing intimate relationship between God and creation. God wraps himself with light as with a cloak. So when we look at light we see something of God. And so with the cloud and the wind. They speak to us of God.
And this same relationship between God and creation is revealed in those opening verses of the beginning of the Book of Genesis. God creates the dry land and the sea, light and darkness, vegetation, plants, trees, seeds, fruit, birds, fish, cattle. And each time God saw that it was good. God creates with love and tenderness and in God’s image. The imprint of God’s very hand – the divine potter – is on everything he created. It is very good. This intimacy between creator and created is very important, because I know that the created world – the trees and flowers and birds, the sunshine – even the snow! – have the power to reveal God to us.
Isaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17
Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading! Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse. O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.
Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah. But who would he be? How will we know who it is? People were always asking “who are you?” “Where are you from?” Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….” He will be the one. We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.
Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination. And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination. So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity. They are called Jesse Trees. We see them in stained glass windows. (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.) We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.) And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you. It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century.