Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Second Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent.

The Second Sunday of Lent

Reading: Mark 8:31-38

Last week, we looked at St Peter’s first letter. At first, it might seem as if there is little connection between what we read then and this week’s reading from St Mark’s Gospel. In fact, there is more of a connection than there might at first appear. At the end of the letter, St Peter writes:

‘Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.’ (1 Peter 5:13)

‘Babylon’ here is normally understood to be Rome, the place where St Peter is writing from. We saw that St Peter addresses his readers as ‘aliens and exiles’ (1 Peter 2:11). Babylon was, of course, where God’s people were taken into exile after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BC. Babylon was a symbol both of pagan power and Jewish exile.

St Peter mentions his ‘son’ Mark. Traditionally, this Mark has been taken to be the same ‘John Mark’ in the book of Acts. John Mark is described as the ‘son of Mary’, a woman whose house was a centre and meeting place for the first believers. It was here that St Peter went when the angel freed him from prison after Herod had had him arrested (Acts 12:12). Mark was St Barnabas’ cousin (Colossians 4:10) and accompanied both St Barnabas and St Paul on what is commonly known as St Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 12:25; 13:5).

Mark, however, abandoned St Barnabas and St Paul and returned to Jerusalem (Acts13:13). Precisely why, we do not know. My own feeling is that it was because Mark saw the direction that things were going. St Paul was beginning to speak directly to the Gentiles, and, perhaps, Mark wasn’t too sure about it. Many of the Jerusalem believers weren’t at this point.

After the Jerusalem Council, in about AD 48, had given its blessing to the Gentile mission, St Barnabas wanted Mark to accompany him and St Paul as they returned to visit the churches they had established previously, but St Paul would not agree. This resulted in a split between the two friends and colleagues (Acts 15:36-41).

St Barnabas took Mark and went to Cyprus, while St Paul took Silvanus and went to Syria and Cilicia. Interestingly, both Silvanus and Mark are with St Peter when St Peter writes 1 Peter. We sometimes forget that these are all people who know one another!

It is this John Mark who, traditionally, has been seen as the author of the Gospel of Mark. We can’t be certain because Mark was a common name. However, it does make sense and seems likely. It means that St Mark was there at the beginning and would have known people who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry and, indeed, he may even have been one himself. Some think that the young man who flees naked when Jesus is arrested is a reference by St Mark to himself (Mark 14:51-52).

St Mark’s Gospel itself is the shortest of the four Gospels. This is not the time to discuss the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but clearly there is one. It is for this reason that the first three Gospels are known as the ‘synoptic Gospels’. Today, most scholars think that Mark was the first to be written. Traditionally, the Church has thought that St Matthew’s Gospel was the first and that St Mark wanted to give a shorter version. The statistics are interesting. 97% of St Mark’s Gospel is in Matthew. Or to put it another way, Mark contains 60% of what is in St Matthew’s Gospel.

The truth is that we don’t know what order they were written in. While scholars spend a great deal of time on this, and it is certainly interesting, I am not sure how much of it actually matters when it comes to understanding the Gospels themselves. Scholars will tell you it does, but they would, wouldn’t they? At the end of the day, God has given us four Gospels, and we should take each seriously on its own terms. It is helpful to compare the different ways the Gospel writers record our Lord’s works and words, but we must let each Gospel speak for itself.

In seeking, today, to understand our Lord’s life and teaching and its relevance to our own lives, we need to draw on all four Gospels, while respecting their own message and interests.

Whether St Mark was written before or after the other Gospels, St Mark has carefully selected stories about our Lord, and in putting them together in a coherent narrative, he focuses on suffering. Preachers do this all the time. When talking to groups of believers, we choose passages to preach on that we think will speak to them. St Mark has selected material that not only tell us about our Lord’s life, important though that is to him, but which also speak directly to the needs of his readers.

If we are right, and the Mark in St Peter’s letter and the writer of the Gospel of Mark are one and the same person, then we can see why a Gospel about our Lord that has an emphasis on our Lord’s suffering would be of particular interest and encouragement to believers who are experiencing a ‘fiery ordeal’ (1 Peter 4:12).

St Mark begins his Gospel, as we saw for the Baptism of Christ, with the ministry of John the Baptist and our Lord’s own baptism. During Epiphany, we saw how all four Gospels stress that Jesus ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11).

I cannot stress enough that when we read about our Lord’s life and teaching in the Gospels, we are reading about his ministry ‘to his own’, that is, to the Jewish people. St John is speaking for each of the Gospel writers when he says that his aim is that we should believe that Jesus is the Messiah (John 20:31). Any understanding of our Lord’s earthly ministry must begin here.

The Gospel writers faced a real challenge. A suffering Messiah was not what anyone was expecting. As we saw on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, Jesus first disciples, who were originally disciples of John the Baptist, had no difficulty in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, the King of Israel. They did, however, have massive difficulty in seeing him as the suffering Messiah. This problem is present in the background all the time in the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus.

Our Gospel reading this morning occurs at a pivotal point in St Mark’s Gospel. Since our Lord’s baptism, St Mark has been describing our Lord’s public ministry. Helpfully, he provides summaries of it for us. St Mark summarizes Jesus’ teaching in this way:

‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”’ (Mark 1:14-15)

St Mark also describes the style of Jesus’ preaching. He writes:

‘… he did not speak to them [that is, the crowds] except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.’ (Mark 4:34)

St Mark gives us several examples of Jesus’ parables and of how Jesus explains them to his disciples. The Parable of the Sower, for example, is a well-known one (Mark 4:1-20). Jesus tells his disciples that this parable is the key to understanding his other parables and provides a model for interpreting them (Mark 4:13).

St Mark summarizes as well how Jesus minsters to people’s needs. He writes:

‘And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. (Mark 1:34)

Again, St Mark gives several examples of Jesus healing and casting demons out of people. Jesus heals, for example, the paralytic let down through the roof (Mark 2:1-12) and casts the demons out of the man known as ‘legion’ sending them into the nearby pigs (Mark 5:1-20).

On the Day of Pentecost, when St Peter speaks to the crowd who have gathered to see what is going on, St Peter describes Jesus of Nazareth as:

‘… a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know …’ (Acts 2:22)

St Mark gives some examples of these deeds, wonders, and signs. The chances are that he had heard of them from St Peter himself.

St Mark emphasizes, however, that although Jesus did all these amazing things, Jesus was somewhat ambivalent about people telling anyone about them. After Jesus has healed people, he tells them to keep quiet about it. They don’t, of course, but Jesus still persists in trying to silence them. This secrecy theme in St Mark’s Gospel is described by scholars as the ‘Messianic Secret’. Jesus is the Messiah, but he doesn’t seem to want anyone to know that he is the Messiah. He seems to want to keep it a secret.

This is not what we would expect. Today, people would hire managers and PR consultants to promote them and their message. Jesus’ own brothers say to him:

‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ (John 7:3)

St John tells us that Jesus refused to go with them, but that later, ‘after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret’ (John 7:10).

So why the secrecy? Why, on the one hand, does Jesus want people to believe in him, while, on the other, want to keep his identity secret?

Our reading this week points to the answer.

St Mark tells us that Jesus has taken his disciples to the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi itself was a prominent city in the far north of Israel, 25 miles from the Sea of Galilee. Previously, it was called Paneas after the Greek god, Pan. King Herod had built a temple there in honour of the Emperor. After Herod’s death, his son, Philip the Tetrarch, was appointed ruler of the Greek-speaking territories to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee. Philip enlarged the temple dedicated to Augustus, rebuilt and beautified the city, and re-named it Caesarea. It was also a centre of pagan worship. It was against this background that Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29).

There has been much speculation as to who Jesus is, and the disciples tell him what people have been saying. Some think he is John the Baptist who has somehow returned; others see him as a prophet. ‘But who do you say that I am?’, he asks them. Peter answers him:

‘You are the Messiah.’ (Mark 8:29)

Jesus had himself invited this answer, and it is obviously the right one, but straightaway St Mark tells us:

‘And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.’ (Mark 8:30)

St Matthew, in his Gospel, records that Jesus told Peter that ‘flesh and blood’ had not revealed this to Peter but Jesus’ ‘Father in heaven’ (Matthew 16:17). St Peter’s statement of recognition, then, is a massively important moment.

What, though, did Peter himself mean by it? Peter was saying that Jesus was the One who would free Israel from the pagans whose leader’s temple they could perhaps see even as Peter spoke. Jesus, Peter believed, was the One who would rid Israel of pagan worship, evidence of which was all around them, and turn the pagans instead to Israel’s God.

Jesus taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi is like a leader taking his generals and showing them the enemy’s headquarters and pointing out graphically how their enemy is occupying their land. It is against this background, with emotions running high, that Jesus asks them, ‘Who do you think I am?’ You are the Messiah’, answers Peter. ‘You are the One to lead us against this and rid us of it’.

We have got so used to the words that we miss the sense of excitement that the disciples must have felt. They were going to be the ones who, by following the Messiah, would set Israel free. They were getting ready for the conflict and to fight for their faith, their freedom, and their God. This was why they had joined John the Baptist and become his disciples; this is why they were now Jesus’ disciples. And in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, they were both right and wrong at the same time.

The way in which they were wrong soon becomes clear.

Immediately, after they have recognized Jesus for who he is, while they are still on an emotional high, Jesus says something shocking. St Mark writes:

‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mark 8:31)

In other words, Jesus won’t be recognized as the Messiah by those who lead Israel. This is bad news, but, worse still, not only will he not be recognized and experience great suffering, he will be killed. Jesus also says he will rise again, but they probably have stopped listening by this point. How could he, the Messiah, suffer and be killed? It is a contradiction in terms.

St Mark tells us that Jesus says all this quite openly. Peter is shocked, and so he takes Jesus aside. He wants to put an end to this sort of defeatist talk. Jesus needs to know that this can’t happen. Jesus, however, shows how strongly he feels about this by rebuking Peter in front of his disciples. Jesus sees the suggestion that he should not suffer as coming from Satan himself. Peter’s words are not just the well-meaning, even if misguided, words of an over zealous disciple, but an attempt by Satan to stop him doing what he came to do. It is the way humans think, not God.

Jesus then speaks to both his disciples and the crowd. Both those who are already his disciples and anyone in the crowd thinking of becoming his disciple need to know that suffering and death are not only at the heart of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, they are also at the heart of what it means to be one of his followers as well.

Anyone wanting to become his follower, Jesus tells them, must ‘deny themselves and take up their cross’. What would the phrase ‘take up their cross’ mean to anyone who heard it? It would have struck terror into their hearts. Crucifixion was a terrible way to die. It was used by the Romans to punish and put fear into people. It was an excruciatingly painful way to die. It was also completely humiliating. It was meant to demonstrate Roman power. Not only did the person to be crucified get nailed to a cross, they had to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. Anyone carrying a cross was someone condemned and as good as dead.

Jesus is saying that his followers don’t just have to accept death as a possible outcome. If they follow him, they have actively to embrace it. They have to willingly take up the cross and deny themselves. Their goal isn’t to be success and glory in this world. By carrying their cross, they demonstrate that they have accepted that there is to be no hope of glory and success in this world, only shame and death. If they are killed physically, it is only the confirmation of a state that already exists.

Some of you may remember the 1995 film, ‘Dead Man Walking’, or have read the book on which it was based. The title itself comes from what was once a traditional phrase used in American prisons to designate men who had been sentenced to death. In the eyes of the law, the condemned prisoner was dead already. When Jesus says we are to take up our cross, we are accepting that we too are a ‘Dead Man (or Woman) Walking’.

It is, however, Jesus tells them, those who seek life, who desire success and glory, and who want to find fulfilment in this world that are the ones who will lose their lives. Whereas it is those who abandon seeking what they want in this life for Jesus’ sake who will gain their life. The disciples must have found this hard to take in and to accept. For the avoidance of doubt, Jesus makes it clear that it is not negotiable. Jesus continues:

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8:38)

Humanly speaking, it was because St Peter and the early followers of Christ were not ashamed of Jesus’ words that we are here now and the movement he started didn’t just become one more ancient and forgotten religion.

In a week’s time, we will be thinking of Sts Perpetua and Felicity, two young women with babies who suffered the most brutal of deaths because they were followers of Christ. And yet they could have avoided it simply by being willing to say that they were not Christ’s followers. What do words matter? Surely Christ would have understood? Surely their children having a mother mattered to him too? The thought of denying Christ, however, was a thought that was repugnant to them. They died willingly for him: of whom the world was indeed not worthy (Hebrews 11:38).

At Caesarea Philippi, St Peter was ashamed of Jesus’ words, and he was to be ashamed of Jesus himself, so ashamed that he was to deny even knowing Jesus. But Jesus gave him, as he gives all of us, another chance.

St Peter came to realize that suffering and self-denial, rejection by this world and alienation from it, are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ. It is not something that only applied before the crucifixion, but which has now ended with the resurrection. This is how it is to be until our Lord’s return. Last week, we saw how St Peter wrote to believers who were suffering:

‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.’ (1 Peter 4:12-13)

We have seen how Jesus’ death on the Cross, what Jesus refers to in St John’s Gospel as ‘his hour’, was central to all he came to do. We will be thinking more about this as we approach Easter. This week, we learn that not only is the Cross central to Jesus’ life and to what he came to do, it is to be central to our life as his followers as well. Not only is it the way we come to God, it is also to be the way we live for God. Not only are we to keep Jesus’ teaching, we are to follow his example. And we cannot follow the example of his life without sharing in his death. St Paul writes:

‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’ (Philippians 3:10-11)

For many, the resurrection is a welcome relief from all this talk of suffering and death. This message of life is what they think we should be focusing on. The resurrection, however, doesn’t free us from suffering and death in this world, rather it gives us instead the power to be able to share in Jesus’ suffering and to become like him in his death as we wait for his glory to be revealed. ‘As many as are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death’, St Paul writes (Romans 6:3). By becoming a follower of Jesus, we identify completely with him, and his identity becomes our identity.

How, though, does this apply to our normal everyday lives? We can see what our choice should be if we were told by the authorities to deny Christ. We may not do what we should, but we would at least know what it is that we should do. What does it mean, however, for us to take up our cross and to deny ourselves on a daily basis?

Many will have heard me talking about the religion of Self that is now the dominant ideology of our age. It teaches that we should affirm rather than deny ourselves. This ideology shows itself in many ways. One of the many ways it manifests itself is in the emphasis we place on physical health and well-being. Recently over Chinese New Year, for example, we have been wishing each other good health in the year ahead. You will often hear people say that there is nothing more important than your health.

Now please do not misunderstand me, health matters and Jesus healed people both physically and psychologically. Our concern for our physical health, however, can be spiritually unhealthy. It can reflect an obsession with ourselves and a belief that this life is the life that really counts. Jesus’ teaching is that this is simply not true. The life that matters is the life of the world to come and our over-riding concern should be, not our physical well-being, but our spiritual health.

Jesus asks:

‘For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’ (Mark 8:36)

The affirmation of Self shows itself in the Church in our attitude to Jesus himself. Like the disciples, we have made our minds up as to what the Messiah should do for us. It is because we are the most important person to us that we assume we must be the most important person to Jesus as well. If we want something for ourselves, then surely Jesus must want it for us too.

It is inconceivable to us that Jesus would reject us, condemn us, or not want us to have something that is important to us. We have made him into the sort of Messiah we want him to be. We find it hard to accept that he can be other than we imagine him.

So, here’s the thing: the Jesus that many believe in is not Jesus, ‘my Lord and my God’ (John 20:28), but ‘Jesus my imaginary friend’. He is the One who is always there for us and who will never tell us anything we don’t want to hear. We now have the incredible irony that if Jesus himself were to come to our churches and hear what we teach and say about him, he would not believe in him.

‘Jesus our imaginary friend’, however, is not someone who can lead us through the crises of life. The disciples were so sure what the Messiah would be like that they were simply unable to contemplate any alternative, and so, when the crucial time came, their faith simply collapsed and they were scattered. The faith of many who have been encouraged to believe in the religion of ‘Jesus my imaginary friend’ will collapse in the same way as the disciples’ faith collapsed. It may not even need a crisis to bring about the collapse. After all, if our imaginary friend only tells us what we already know and want to hear, why do we need him?

Jesus is not our imaginary friend who tells us what we want to hear; he is the One who tells us what we need to hear. He tells us the truth about ourselves: that we are not wonderful; that we cannot do what we want to do if we just put our minds to it and believe in ourselves; he tells us that we are sinners, lost and without hope and without God in this world.

It is the truth that we may find difficult to hear, but it is the truth that has the power to set us free. St Peter writes:

‘For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.’ (1 Peter 3:18)

The Peter who couldn’t believe that Jesus could suffer came to see why he had to. St Peter stopped believing in the Jesus he wanted to believe in and started believing in the Jesus who revealed his glory on the Cross. This was the Jesus Sts Perpetua and Felicity believed in and died for. They would encourage us to believe in him too.

We ask their prayers for the courage we need to do so.


Saturday, February 20, 2021

The First Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the First Sunday of Lent.

The First Sunday of Lent

Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Our Gospel reading this week is basically the same as the reading we had just over a month ago on January 10 for the Baptism of Christ. (The service and sermon are still available on YouTube and as a podcast!) The obvious question, then, is: why is it repeated in the Lectionary so soon? The answer is that Lent, traditionally, as well as being a time of preparation for Easter, has additionally been a time of special preparation for those who will be baptized at Easter. This also explains the choice of the second reading upon which I wish to base this week’s sermon.

The second reading is a passage from St Peter’s first letter. It has been chosen because of its reference to baptism, although, in fact, the passage doesn’t itself say a lot about baptism. The reason St Peter mentions baptism at all is as part of his guidance to believers who were already baptized on how they should live for Christ. They already knew what baptism was all about, and so St Peter doesn’t have to explain it - much as we might wish he had!

Some scholars believe that at least part of this passage may have itself come from an early liturgy used at baptism, which St Peter quotes because it was familiar to those to whom he writes. If this is the case, he is quoting from it in a similar way to how I quoted from our Liturgy of the Eucharist in the sermon for Ash Wednesday. However, while the passage itself may have been familiar to his first readers, so that they understood what it meant, it is for us one of the most difficult passages to understand in the New Testament.

Fortunately, while we may not be able to know with certainty precisely what St Peter meant in this short passage, the guidance he is giving in this section of the letter, which he uses these verses to support, is quite clear and straightforward. While we, at Christ Church, are unlikely to be able to have baptism services any time soon because of the restrictions that have been imposed upon us, the guidance on how to live for Christ that St Peter gives his readers is guidance that is needed as much today as it was when he first gave it.

So, who is the letter to? St Peter addresses it, in the first words of the letter, to the ‘exiles’ in five regions of the Anatolian peninsula. This is the area that makes up most of modern day Turkey. This idea of his readers as ‘exiles’ is one that St Peter repeats. In chapter 1 verse 17 he writes:

‘If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.’ (1 Peter 1:17)

And then in chapter 2 verse 11:

‘Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.’ (1 Peter 2:11)

Some interpreters of the letter have thought that these words, ‘aliens and exiles’, describe, literally, the social background of those he is writing to. Personally, I am not convinced. However, even if they are a reference to his readers social situation, St Peter uses the words here in a metaphorical way to describe the spiritual condition of all believers in this world.

It is probable that St Peter’s readers were Jewish believers or Gentiles who had previously been attracted to the synagogue. Interestingly, St Peter at the end of the letter writes:

‘Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark …’ (1 Peter 5:13)

Most scholars take ‘Babylon’ to be Rome where St Peter is writing from. Historically, of course, Babylon was the place where the Jews were taken into exile in 586 BC.

St Peter writes of how God has given us as believers a ‘new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 1:3). He continues that this new birth is also:

‘… into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.’ (1 Peter 1:4-5)

In common, then, with the other New Testament writers, St Peter sees believers as strangers here and not belonging to this world. This raises the question, then, of how, as followers of Christ, we are to live in this world while we await the inheritance that is being kept in heaven for us and for the salvation that will be revealed when Jesus himself is revealed (1 Peter 1:6).

Firstly, St Peter gives general guidance about how believers are to live. He writes about the need for us to be holy as God himself who called us is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). 

Secondly, he also gives more specific guidance. St Peter writes about what a believer’s attitude to the governing authorities should be, and he speaks directly to slaves, wives, and husbands on how they should behave. His guidance is in keeping, as we would expect, with what we read elsewhere in the New Testament and, again as we would expect, it echoes the teaching our Lord himself.

St Peter touches on much else in his letter as he writes. His aim throughout is to offer his readers encouragement and hope.

In chapter 3 verse 8, St Peter starts a new section of his letter in which he seeks to offer his readers direction in their own particular circumstances. It begins with the word translated ‘finally’ in our versions (1 Peter 3:8). It is, however, by no means the end of the letter. In what follows, we learn that those to whom the letter is sent are suffering as a result of believing in Christ.

St Peter begins his encouragement and direction to his readers by making a distinction between the suffering that that comes as a result of doing wrong and the suffering that comes from following Christ. No believer, he writes, should do anything that leads to suffering because of wrongdoing. ‘Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good?’, St Peter asks, but, he continues, if they suffer for doing what is right, they are ‘blessed’. As St Peter explains:

‘For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.’ (1 Peter 3:17)

At first, from what St Peter writes, it doesn’t sound as if the suffering they are experiencing is all that serious. There seems to a somewhat hypothetical character to it: ‘if suffering should be God’s will’. It sounds as if he is preparing them for something that may possibly happen sometime in the future, but which hasn’t happened yet.

We soon learn that this is not the case. On the contrary, it seems that their suffering far from being just a theoretical possibility is all too real, and that they are already suffering quite badly. In chapter 4, St Peter writes:

‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.’ (1 Peter 4:12-14)

St Peter continues by repeating that they are ‘blessed’ if they suffer for Christ, but, again, he immediately warns them that no-one who is a believer must suffer as a consequence for doing something wrong.

If the believers St Peter writes to are suffering so much, why does he at times seem to make so light of it? The reason is twofold.

Firstly, like St Paul, St Peter wants them to see that the suffering that believers experience is as nothing compared to the glory that will be revealed and which one day will be ours (Romans 8:18). He talks about it in the way he does to put suffering in its place. He wants his readers to view what is happening to them in the present in the light of eternity.

Secondly, St Peter is anxious that they should only suffer for their faith and not because they have done anything wrong. It is striking that he is as concerned about whether they are living good lives as he is about their suffering. This is not because he thinks suffering unimportant, but precisely because he knows that one day we will be glorified with Christ. What matters now is that we do nothing to bring shame on the name of Christ.

St Peter is also very conscious that Christ is, as he puts it, ‘ready to judge the living and the dead’ (1 Peter 4:5). The New Testament takes seriously the idea that our actions and how we live will have consequences. The New Testament writers don’t presume on the forgiveness of God; judgement is something real. St Peter writes:

‘For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God; if it begins with us, what will be the end for those who do not obey the gospel of God?’ (1 Peter 4:17)

One of the major frustrations of my own ministry is my failure to get anyone to take this seriously. What will it take to wake us to the reality that we will one day have to give an account of our lives to God?

And so, in support of what he writes about suffering in these ‘final’ words of his letter, St Peter includes this short passage that is our reading this week.

As I have said, it is a difficult passage to understand. There are many different interpretations of some of the phrases in it. Sadly, there is not enough time now to go through them. The good news, however, is that the overall meaning of these verses and why St Peter includes them here is clear enough.

Firstly, St Peter writes of how ‘Christ died for our sins’. Christ’s death for us is fundamental to our lives as believers. It was through his death for us that Christ ‘brought us to God’. St Peter’s point is that if Christ was prepared to suffer death for us, we should be willing to suffer for him. And if it was our sins that led to his death, as his followers, we should want to avoid sin in future. As St Peter has been explaining, we are blessed if we suffer for Christ, but not if we suffer for doing wrong.

Secondly, the new life in Christ, that St Peter describes, begins with baptism and comes through the resurrection of Christ, who, when he was resurrected, went to heaven to the right hand of God ‘with angels, authorities, and powers subjected to him’ (1 Peter 3:22).

St Peter wants to reassure his readers that although it may appear that earthly authorities or unseen powers, by causing suffering for believers, are the ones who are in control, it is, in fact, Christ who is in control. It is because he is in control and all powers are subject to him that he is able to use the believers’ suffering to achieve his purposes and bring them to glory.

This much then is clear. What is not clear from what St Peter writes here is in what way baptism ‘now saves’. Does it, for example, save whether or not people have faith? What happens if people have faith, but are not baptized? Or, as is perhaps more common in our own day, if they are baptized, but don’t have faith?

These are not questions that can be answered on the basis of these verses. St Peter doesn’t go into detail about baptism and the relationship of it to faith or discuss any of the other issues that we argue over because that’s not his concern here. The questions that we have about baptism have to be answered on the basis of what is said about baptism elsewhere in the New Testament.

St Peter does, however, give us a hint of the meaning of baptism by writing that baptism is the ‘pledge of a good conscience’. In baptism, we ‘pledge’ ourselves to serve Christ by doing good and enduring, in the way St Peter describes, whatever suffering serving Christ may bring.

This leaves the problem of understanding St Peter’s, to our ears, rather strange words about Noah. Why mention Noah? The story of the flood and the ark is one that still fascinates people today. It seems it had a particular fascination for those in the region where St Peter’s readers lived. Noah was a prominently known Biblical figure even among pagans in Asia Minor.

St Peter uses a popular story from the Old Testament that his readers were likely to be interested in effectively as a sermon illustration. In the same way that Noah and his family were saved through the flood by entering the ark, so too we will be saved by entering the Church through the waters of baptism. St Peter stresses the fact that eight people in total were saved at the time of the flood. The number 8 is significant here. The eighth day is, of course, the day of the resurrection of our Lord, and it is, St Peter writes, through the resurrection that baptism now saves us.

[I am afraid the question of what St Peter means by our Lord proclaiming to the ‘spirits in prison’ (1 Peter 3:19) is a question that will have to wait until another day. Whatever it means, it doesn’t affect the meaning of these verses taken as a whole. Thankfully, St Peter’s intention in including them, even though they are hard to understand, is plain.]

So what message can we take from all this as we begin Lent?

1. We too are exiles

St Peter describes himself as:

‘ … a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed …’ (1 Peter 5:1)

I have been speaking in recent sermons about the way St John, a close associate of St Peter, writes about how he and his fellow disciples have seen Christ’s glory. He wrote his Gospel, he explains, so we might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing may have life in his name (John 20:31). St Peter is writing his letter as one of those who, like St John, have seen Christ’s glory. Although we, like those St Peter writes to, may not have seen Christ the way he and St John have seen him, nevertheless, we too have come to believe in him.

Our faith in him gives us life in his name, but, in this world, we are aliens and exiles who are waiting the final outcome of our faith, which will be revealed at the appearing of our Lord.

We are very familiar with ‘voluntary exiles’ here in Hong Kong. We call them expatriates. These are people like me who have chosen to live and work in Hong Kong. (It is perhaps worth commenting, as an aside, that it is interesting that Americans and Europeans, for example, are called expatriates whereas other ethnicities are called migrant workers. But we will leave that there for the time being!)

There are expatriate communities in cities all over the world. People living in them sometimes have no choice but to live away from their homeland; others do so for a variety of reasons. For some, where they are living has become a permanent place of residence even though they still think of themselves as belonging to where they or their family come from. In many cities, for example, there are districts known as Chinatown where Chinese people have gathered to preserve their culture and lifestyle. The British, historically, have done something very similar. Even today, you only have to go to mid-levels to see Brits preserving their culture.

The point is that although these different communities are made up of people who have settled in a foreign land, they still remember their homeland and try to maintain their culture and traditions. They have a different lifestyle to the indigenous population and those whose home it is naturally.

St Peter is telling us while this world may be where we are living now, it is not our home. Our real home is with Christ and, one day, we will live with him forever. Until then, as believers, we live as foreigners here, as exiles who seek to embody the culture and values of heaven.

2. The Church is a community of exiles

As we wait for the appearance of Christ, not only are we to live individually as exiles, we are to form communities of exiles. St Peter writes:

‘ … like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1 Peter 2:5)

The Church should be a ‘colony of heaven’ where people see the values, attitudes, and priorities of heaven being lived out in communities that reject the lifestyle of the society in which they find themselves. We are, as St Peter goes on to write, to love one another and to use what gifts we have to serve one another and to bring glory to God (1 Peter 4:8-11).

We are a community of exiles who do not belong here, but we are not a closed community. We should be a community that welcomes people and invites them to join us. There is, however, an edge to this offer. We know that the world in which we live is under judgement. To change the metaphor, and to use another that St Peter uses, the Church is to be an ‘ark’, a place where people can find salvation and eternal life.

St Peter describes the sort of community we are to be and what is to be our purpose. He writes:

‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1 Peter 2:9)

Here and now in the society in which we live, our lives, as believers, are to glorify God and lead people out of darkness to the light of Christ. St Peter’s hope is that when people see how we live, how we endure suffering, however unjust, they will want to know the reason for our hope. This is why he tells us we should always have an answer for anyone who asks us the reason why we have the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15).

As followers of Christ, we are radical by not being what society expects radicals to be. We bring change, not by changing society, but by being changed ourselves. We don’t seek to overthrow the Emperor and those in authority like him. The Emperor is not our enemy. Our enemy is the devil himself, who, St Peter tells us, prowls around us ‘looking for someone to devour’ (1 Peter 5:8). But we resist him by being firm in our faith, which means knowing the One we have faith in and why we have faith in him.

I realize that all this can seem somewhat unreal and detached from the reality of the lives we live. It can sound like no more than empty rhetoric, fine maybe for a sermon on Sunday, but of little relevance the rest of the time. It was, however, not empty rhetoric for St Peter and his readers. For them, it was all too real. St Peter himself was to be crucified by the Emperor Nero not long after writing this letter, and his fellow believers in Rome were burnt as torches for the Emperor’s amusement. Theirs was to be quite literally a ‘fiery ordeal’.

We don’t, thank God, have to endure such terrible pain. While we may not have to experience the suffering that St Peter and his readers faced, maybe instead we can make the effort to put up with the inconvenience and unpopularity of being a believer in our own age.

Finally, my own perception, for what it worth, is that it is going to get progressively harder to be an orthodox believer in our world. I know that many fear for the Church in China. Perhaps it reflects my own cultural bias, but I fear for the Church as much, if not more, in the west and in western societies.

You may be safe, if you are willing to abandon an orthodox approach to the faith as represented by the Bible and the Creeds. Indeed, many are going down this route, not primarily to escape persecution, but because they have signed up to the progressive agenda. As a result, the changes taking place in society are being mirrored in the Church with those holding to an orthodox understanding of the faith finding themselves not only aliens in the world, but aliens in church as well.

For those of us who are unwilling to take this path, the way ahead looks hard indeed. Already believers are discovering that there some things that it is hard to say publicly and are finding themselves, to use the jargon, cancelled on social media. My suspicion is that suffering for being a follower of Christ is going be coming to us as it did to those St Peter writes to in this letter.

We may not for the foreseeable future have to suffer for Christ like them, but, whatever happens, we do have to live for Christ like them. St Peter would challenge us, as he challenged them, to take seriously what being a follower of Christ means for the way we think and live, even if it does involve us being cancelled and unpopular.

Having to live as an exile and an alien in a foreign and hostile world is a frightening and disturbing prospect. St Peter would, however, encourage us, as he encouraged his first readers, with the words with which he closes his letter:

‘And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.’ (1 Peter 5:10-11)

May we too, like St Peter’s readers, knowing the grace of God, stand firm whatever trials we may find ourselves having to face as we wait the revelation of Jesus Christ.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday 2021

Here is the transcript of my sermon for Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday

Reading: Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21

One of my favourite passages in English Literature is the opening to Charles Dicken’s novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Many of you will be familiar with it. Let me read you the passage:

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way …’ (A Tale of Two Cities, Para.1, Line, 1)

The best of times and the worst of times. This, I think, describes rather well our own times.

Why they may be described as the worst of times is obvious. We are living through a pandemic the like of which none of us could ever have imagined even just over a year ago when it first began. It has resulted in Governments around the world having to take actions that are more of the kind that you would expect in war-time: locking down their citizens and taking economic measures the consequences of which we are all going to have to live with for many years to come.

If, for example, a politician before the pandemic had suggested Government borrowing and spending of the magnitude we are seeing, people would have thought them mad. And yet billions of pounds and dollars have been spent without even the whisper of opposition. Commonsense, however, tells you that there will eventually be a price to be paid, and it will be the young who have to pay most of it. The pandemic itself may eventually go away, but its effects will be with us for long time to come.

The financial cost, however, is as nothing compared to the cost in human life and suffering. The number of deaths from COVID has been a tragedy unseen since the second world war. However, there is not only death and physical suffering, terrible though this is, but also the psychological, emotional, and mental suffering it is causing. It is having a significant impact, on the one hand, on the elderly, who have been particularly isolated from family and friends, and, on the other, on children whose parents are fearful of them going outdoors and who forbid them to play with their friends. We have yet to see what psychological effect all this will have on young children who have been locked up and deprived of schooling and who are being brought up surrounded by images of death, disease, and dying.

The worst of times indeed.

Imagine, however, if this had happened 20 years ago, when I first came to Hong Kong. Yes, we had the internet, but it was still relatively in its infancy. We hadn’t heard, for example, of smartphones, Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. You may think that not having heard of them would not be not such a bad thing, but I certainly wouldn’t be talking to you now if we didn’t have them.

The internet and the communication it makes possible represents a technological achievement that has made living in lockdown more bearable and is now changing the way we work, study, shop, play, and live. This Lent, for example, I have registered for a Virtual Pilgrimage to the Holyland. It may be just a small thing that I am able to do this, but it is symbolic of great human achievement and ingenuity.

And great human achievement in these times isn’t confined to technology and communication. The speed, for example, at which vaccines have been developed would not have been possible in previous times.

And this, the best and worst of times, has brought out the best and worst in people. The best, as we see medical staff selflessly working around the clock to care for those who are infected, and workers in Care Homes putting themselves at risk to look after the old and vulnerable. We have also seen the heroic efforts of people volunteering in different ways to help others less fortunate than themselves.

But we have seen the worst too as we see people who put others at risk by refusing to abide by the restrictions. Those whose selfishness goes even further and who not only don’t obey the Law, but organize parties and social gatherings knowing that it is precisely such events that spread the virus.

Then there are those like the so-called ‘social influencers’ who care more about getting a tan in the sun than they do about people gasping for breath on ventilators. Their selfishness is mirrored by the behaviour of rich nations. The rich nations only care about getting vaccines for themselves, so they can open their economies, and couldn’t care less about poor nations. The poor nations, for their part, don’t have an economy to open, and people in them are being left to die while the rich nations look forward to basking in the sun of economic recovery.

It has brought out the best and the worst in Churches as well. The best as Churches have sought to provide services online and to offer pastoral support to those who are lonely, isolated, and afraid. The Church has genuinely tried to reach out to those who are sick and to those who have been bereaved, and, in reaching out, to offer them comfort and help.

But the worst too as many church members have abandoned all thought of church and who will probably never return. And this is not to mention the scandal of the Church so readily allowing the pandemic to achieve what the black death and world war failed to achieve. We have kept our supermarkets open, while shutting our places of worship. Jesus words: ‘man shall live by bread alone’ have a cutting edge to them this Lent.

What, you may be wondering, has this selective Litany of good and bad got to do with Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent? Well, Ash Wednesday also reminds us of the worst in us. The best in us we don’t need any reminder of for we are quick to see it.

There is much that we as individuals can accomplish and do. But we can do it because we are made by God in the image of God, and being in the image of God means we are capable of great creativity and achievement. We reflect something of the character of the God who created us in the way a great painting reflects the character of the artist who painted it.

We don’t, however, need to be reminded of our capacity for greatness. We are always telling ourselves how amazing we are and how much we can achieve if we just believe in ourselves. ‘Just do it’ is the slogan of an age certain it can do just about anything if it puts its mind to it. We are careful, however, to leave God out of any explanation of how we are able to do anything that is worth doing.

Ash Wednesday reminds us, however, that, no matter how great our achievements, we are also capable of great wickedness and sin. Our Collect today talks about how God ‘hates nothing’ he has made. We like that. But it goes on to speak about ‘acknowledging our wretchedness’. We don’t like that. We don’t like being told that we are sinful, rebellious, and will die. St Paul tells us that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23) and ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23).

Death is the one thing none of us can escape. Tragically, the virus has killed many people, but our sin will kill us all. The Imposition of Ashes is meant to challenge us and remind us of our mortality: ‘remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’. It reminds us of our weakness and our limitations. For we too will die.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus says:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ (Matthew 6:19-21)

Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent. This is a time in the Church’s year for spiritual reflection. It is a time to reflect on our own lives as individuals: to reflect on who we are, what we have become, and who we can be.

The times we are living through should themselves cause us to pause and think: to ask ourselves what matters most to us and to examine our priorities. Lent this year, seen in the light of the times we are in, gives us the chance to ask where our own heart is.

Do we, for example, long for the end of the pandemic and a return to normality so we can go out to eat, drink, and consume again without restriction? Is our main concern being to travel and book a holiday? Or are we looking forward to being able to meet with the body of Christ and to worship God together again? Are we longing to receive the body and blood of Christ? Have we felt hungry and thirsty without it?

The experience of the present time should, in other words, lead us to look at the condition of our hearts, that is, our spiritual condition. Some people give a great deal of thought to their physical well-being. They will wear, for example, smart watches that monitor every bodily function, but, sadly, they don’t give more than a passing thought to their spiritual health.

Lent is 40 days long because Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness preparing for his public ministry. He was challenged there during this time about his own priorities and attitudes.

Would the focus of his ministry be on material well-being: what would come first bread or the Word of God? (Matthew 4:3-4; Luke 4:3-4)

Would he seek power and glory as he pursued his dream of being the Messiah or would he worship God and serve only him? (Matthew 4:8-10; Luke 4:6-8)

Would he see God as the One who was there to serve and protect him whatever he did, or would he trust God whatever happened to him? (Matthew 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12)

We know the answer. Jesus chose the hard and lonely path of suffering and death rather than the easy and popular path of self-fulfilment and success. And he challenges us to do the same. For us, his followers, his path is to be our path, for it will only be by losing our lives for his sake that we will find them.

As humans, there are times when we long for the best, but all too often end up doing the worst. As St Paul puts it:

‘For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do.’ (Romans 7:19)

As followers of Christ, we know that there is no good in us and that left to ourselves we will only stumble and fall. In the Communion Service, we say together the Prayer of Humble Access:

‘We do not presume
to come to this your table, merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in your manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table.’

It may seem that this makes being a follower of Christ sound very gloomy and miserable. St Paul, however, wrote that it was when he was at his weakest that God was at his strongest (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). It is after death that there comes resurrection (Romans 8:11).

In our Collect, we asked God to ‘create in us new and contrite hearts’, and, at Easter, we will see that there is indeed the hope of new life, but it is life we will only find when we are prepared to acknowledge our wretchedness, abandon trust in our own righteousness, and turn away from sin and follow Christ, as we are urged to do in our service.

I began by quoting one of my favourite passages of English literature. I would like to close by quoting from one of my favourite books, the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien saw his great trilogy as expressing the truths of the Christian faith. He said it began implicitly Catholic and ended explicitly so. At one point Frodo says to Gandalf:

‘I wish none of this had happened.’

Gandalf replies:

‘So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.’

The time of the pandemic will pass, but what will we be like when it does?

Lent gives us the opportunity to make sure that for each of us the best time is yet to be.


Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Sunday next before Lent (Quinquagesima)

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Sunday next before Lent (Quinquagesima).

The Sunday next before Lent

Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Last week, our Gospel reading was the first eighteen verses of St John’s Gospel. This is what is known as the prologue to St John’s Gospel. We focused in particular on verse 14:

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14)

Our Gospel reading this morning is St Mark’s account of the event in our Lord’s life known as the transfiguration. This is when Jesus takes three of his closest disciples - Peter, James, and John - up a mountain where he is ‘transfigured’ before them. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear to him. The Voice that had proclaimed at his baptism that Jesus was God’s Son does so again. St Peter, writing years later, describes this experience with Jesus on the mountain as seeing Jesus receive glory (2 Peter 1:16-18).

In St John’s Gospel, St John describes Jesus’ miracles as ‘signs’ that point to his glory. This glory is revealed in its fulness when Jesus’ hour has come and he dies on the Cross. St John writes that ‘we’ have seen his glory, including in the ‘we’ himself and his fellow disciples, those who believe through them, and those who are with him when he writes including the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. St John invites us his readers to see Jesus’ glory through what he writes, so that we too, like them, might come to believe.

This is one side of the story. There is, however, another side. Many of those who saw Jesus’ signs did not believe in him. Many since who have read the Gospel account of Jesus’ life and who have heard the good news of Jesus also have not come to believe in him. They have seen Jesus, but they have not seen his glory.

This is puzzling: why is it that some see Jesus and see his glory, but others see him and see only another ordinary human being? More puzzling still is that although Jesus came first and foremost ‘to his own’, that is, to his own people the Jews, ‘his own received him not’ (John 1:11).

Jesus came as the Messiah his people had been expecting and hoping for. His first disciples followed him believing he was this Messiah, the Son of God, the One who would redeem Israel. At first, his death shattered them and led them to question their faith, but when the Risen Jesus appeared to them, they came to see that the Messiah had had to suffer and die. St John’s Gospel is written with the express purpose of convincing those who read it that Jesus is the Messiah and that through believing in him they may have in his name (John 20:31).

Originally, the first believers, who were themselves all Jews, thought that Jesus had only come unto his own, that is, to the Jewish people. However, they became persuaded that the good news of Jesus was also for the pagans, that is, the Gentiles (it is the same word in Greek). But again, while many Gentiles did believe in Jesus, more in fact than those from his own people, many more did not.

So why did people not see Jesus glory? Why did they not even see it when he was with them performing miracles amongst them? And why, we can ask, do people not see it today?

These questions St Paul seeks to answer directly in what we now know as his second letter to the Church at Corinth. We only have a small part of his answer in our second reading this week. St Paul has been writing, since the beginning of chapter 3, about the glory of God and of why people do not believe in the Gospel. As I have said many times, one of the major issues for the early Church was why Jesus’ own people did not receive him. St Paul will discuss this issue again in his letter to the Church at Rome, chapters 9 to 11. Here, in 2 Corinthians, he tackles both the specific question of Jesus’ own people’s unbelief and, also the question of why people more generally don’t believe. St Paul does this by reflecting on chapters 32 to 34 in the book of Exodus and, in particular, on chapter 34.

To understand what St Paul writes, it is essential for us to be familiar with the events described in these chapters of Exodus. (As an aside, this reinforces the importance of reading and knowing the Old Testament!)

In chapter 34, we read how Moses, like Jesus in this morning’s reading, has gone up a mountain to meet with God and to receive God’s Law for his people. This is the second time Moses has been up the mountain to receive the Law. The first time he had gone up to receive the Law, the people of Israel had become impatient and had got fed up waiting for him to return. So, they asked Moses’ brother, Aaron, to make them idols who they can see and who can lead them. Other nations can see their gods, why should they be different? It didn’t end well for the idolaters, but that’s another story.

Now this second time, while up the mountain, Moses sees the glory of the Lord and talks to God face to face. When Moses descends from the mountain, he does not realize that his face is shining as a result of him having been in the presence of God. When the Israelites see him, they are frightened by his unnaturally shining face, so Moses puts a veil over his face to cover it. He only removes it when he goes into the Tabernacle to talk with God.

St Paul uses this to illustrate the difference between God’s covenant with Israel and the new covenant in the Spirit. It is a careful and detailed argument, but, essentially, what St Paul argues is that if the old covenant came with such glory, how much more glory does the new covenant come with. St Paul writes:

‘For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, much more does the ministry of justification abound in glory!’ (2 Corinthians 3:9)

The old covenant, based on the Law, was a covenant from God, but it was ineffective. It was not able to achieve what was needed for people to experience the life of God. 

In explaining why the Law did not work, St Paul writes that when the people of Israel heard God’s word being read, it was as if there was a veil over their minds to keep them from seeing its meaning and understanding it, in the same way that there was a veil over Moses’ face to prevent people seeing the glory that radiated from it.

It is only when a person turns to the Lord, St Paul writes, that the veil is removed and a person is able to understand what the Law is pointing to. It is only then that they can experience the life of Christ. The Lord who makes this possible, St Paul explains, is the Holy Spirit: ‘for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3:17). The Holy Spirit sets people free to understand the truth of God.

St Paul, however, goes further, and says that not only are we now free and able to see the glory of God in Christ, we share in his glory and are being transformed by it. He writes:

‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)

St Paul begins chapter four by telling the Corinthian believers that because he and his co-workers are engaged in this ministry of preaching the Gospel, they do not lose heart despite the great opposition and severe suffering that it brings, and despite the fact that people still do not believe in the message they preach.

The problem, then, wasn’t simply a matter of understanding. The reason that the people of Israel did not come to Christ wasn’t only because they did not understand the Law and the One to whom it pointed. The problem was that it was if there was a veil over their minds to hide what the Law meant and to stop them understanding what the Law was telling them. But people, in general, don’t understand and respond to the Gospel either. How does St Paul explain this? He uses the same image of the veil.

The Gospel is veiled, he writes, to those who are perishing, and the reason it is veiled is that the ‘god of this world’ has blinded people’s minds to keep them from seeing Christ’s glory. This introduces a whole new dimension to the problem.

The failure of people to respond to and believe in the Gospel is not just about human weakness and people’s inability to understand the Gospel. It is not even simply about human disobedience, although all this is part of the picture. St Paul is saying that not only do people not understand or not want to understand, they cannot understand because they are prevented from understanding by the one whose power and control they are under.

The situation sounds utterly hopeless. And that’s the point: it is utterly hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. Hopeless, that is, unless God intervenes and does something, and that’s the amazing message that St Paul wants us to see. He writes:

‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Corinthians 4:6)

Yes, we have seen his glory. But we have seen his glory, not because we have eyes to see it; not because we are good people; and not because we are clever, spiritually aware, or responsive. We are none of these things. We have seen his glory solely and only because he has shown it to us. No words can begin to express how wonderful this is. Charles Wesley expresses something of it in his great hymn (that goes with the sermon this week), ‘And can it be’. In verse four he captures what St Paul is saying:

‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature's night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.’

1. We have seen his glory

Most of us watching, listening to, or reading this have responded to the Gospel invitation and have seen his glory. But we need to remember that we have seen his glory. The emphasis is on what we have seen and not on us who see it.

Imagine someone having been to see a famous picture in an art gallery, perhaps the Mona Lisa or one painted by another great artist. Then, when describing the experience, they talk not about the painting, but when they went, where they stood, how long they stood there for, and what glasses they wore when they viewed it. We would think that they had missed the point. What they were doing as they viewed the painting should be secondary to seeing the painting itself. The point is the painting.

So, too, the emphasis is, or should be, not on our ability to see Jesus’ glory, but on the glory he has shown to us. On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, we saw that at the wedding at Cana of Galilee, Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him (John 2:11). We too are only able to believe in him because he has revealed himself to us.

Now when we hear this instead of rejoicing at what has been revealed to us, we push back against it. We don’t like the thought that it is not at all about us, we want to get some of the credit for having seen his glory. At the very least, we want to be given credit for having believed in what we have seen. This is why we cling so fiercely to the idea of human free will. For unless we have free will, how can we be praised for exercising our wills and choosing to believe? So confident are we in our freedom to choose, we are pleased with ourselves that, even though we may indeed be weak and sinful, we have at least recognized it, admitted to it, and believed the Gospel. Surely we deserve some praise for that, don’t we?

Many don’t stop there. They want more than praise for having made the choice to believe, they want some praise for themselves: who they are and what they have done. They are convinced that they are not all bad. There is good in everyone, they believe, and that good, they argue, should be recognized. After all, they claim, we are all children of God, and even if we belong to other religions, we are at least all seeking after the truth, aren’t we?

We have to give the devil some credit here. Jesus described the devil as ‘a liar and the father of lies’ (John 8:44). The devil has done a good job in persuading many of us to believe his lies. It is a lie that we are all free to choose for ourselves. It is a lie that there is good in all of us. It is a lie that people of different faiths are all seeking after the same truth. It is a lie that we are all going to be saved if we do our best. The truth is that we are all slaves to sin, blind, perishing, and lost in the darkness. And, as Jesus puts it, unless we believe he is who he says he is, we will die in our sins (John 8:24) and be lost forever.

This sounds like a message of total desperation. It is about as bad as it can get. And this is why the Gospel is such good news. It is not, however, good news for those who believe in themselves; it is not good news for those who are proud of their achievements; it is not good news for those who think they can ‘just do it’ without needing anyone else’s help.

It is, though, very good news for those who know their weakness and inability to do even the little good they want to do. It is good news for those who are poor, weak, lonely, and desperate; it is good news for those who think of themselves as a failure and who don’t where to turn.

So, here’s the thing: if you have given up on yourself and see yourself as a lost cause, you have been given the gift of seeing what is true of all of us. And now, in the darkness of your despair, God wants also to give you the gift of seeing the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ. The light that transforms our despair into hope.

So, what is our hope?

2. Our hope is sharing in the glory of God

If you were to ask most people this question, they would answer in terms of going to heaven when they die. This is understandable given the way the Church has spoken of our hope in the past. There is a positive side to this belief, given that heaven is the dwelling place of God. Often, however, the belief that we are going to heaven when we die carries with it the idea of leaving behind, not only this earthly existence, but this physical and bodily existence as well.

For many years during the Church’s history, believers had a negative view of the body. This was due to the influence of a certain type of Greek philosophy on Church thought. This saw the body as, at best, a burden and a limitation and, at worse, as a prison and intrinsically evil. Death on this view became a liberation, a time when we experienced the joy of heaven. Heaven itself was seen as a place of bliss and happiness where we would live forever, free of all physical burdens and limitations.

We may not nowadays have the same negative view of the body, but the sort of thinking it led to is still very much with us. I hear this sort of thinking expressed all the time at funerals, and it is there in many of the hymns we sing. All of which is a bit odd given that the New Testament stresses that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and that the Risen Jesus goes out of his way to prove that his body is real and not an illusion.

For example, Jesus insists that Thomas, who has doubts that Jesus is risen, touch him and put his finger in the marks of the nails and his hand in the wound in his side (John 20:27). Jesus says to the disciples:

‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ (Luke 24:38-39)

Jesus goes on to eat fish with them. He does this to convince them he is real, and being real means having a body and not simply being a disembodied spirit.

Our hope is not just for our bodies to be raised, but for them to be transformed and renewed. Where the Greek dissatisfaction with the body gets it right is that our present bodies are weak and decaying. It is not though that they are evil, and the physical world of which they are a part is certainly not evil either.

St Paul, in his letter to the Church in Rome, writes about the glory that will be revealed to us, glory that the creation itself will share in (Romans 8:21). Our hope is the redemption of our bodies, not getting rid of them altogether (Romans 8:23). We don’t know exactly what this will mean. In his first letter, St John writes:

‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2)

We do not know all the details, but we do know that being like him means that we too will have bodies that have some likeness to our existing bodies just as his body had the marks of the nails and the wound in his side!

3. We see his glory in our weakness

Our Lord’s appearance and our full redemption is something in the future that we look forward to. However, as an assurance of it, God has given us his Spirit in the present. The Holy Spirit acts as a guarantee of what is to come (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14). What we experience now is real and wonderful, but it is just the beginning. The fulness of our salvation is still to come. ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ St Paul writes (Colossians 1:27). Our present relationship with Christ through the Spirit gives us the confidence that one day, as St Julian of Norwich put it: ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

For now, the purpose of our life must be to serve him in this world. And we serve him in this our present bodily existence, not by denying or abusing our bodies, but by offering them and all our gifts and abilities to God in worship and service (Romans 12:1).

The composer Bach used to sign his finished compositions, Soli Deo Gloria (SDG). This is a Latin phrase that means to God alone be glory. When man is glorified, God is not, but when man seeks to glorify God, the result can itself be glorious - as Bach’s music demonstrates.

St Paul continues in this letter by writing:

‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Our present bodily existence in this world is a time of pain and suffering. We long to be delivered from this existence, not because the physical world and our physical bodies are evil, but because spiritually this world is subject to sin and death, and under the control of the god of this world, who has the power of death (Hebrews 2:14).

We know that Christ has won the victory over sin, death, and the devil on the Cross, but we do not yet see all things subject to him (Hebrews 2:8). The last enemy (still) to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). The forces of evil in this world are still all too real, but we can, nevertheless, be of good cheer knowing Christ has overcome the world and that through him we can overcome it too (John 16:33).

Our experience now in this world, where we do not belong, is meant to prepare us for the world to come, where we do. Again, St Paul writes:

‘For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure …’ (2 Corinthians 4:17)

St Paul himself was no stranger to suffering, and great suffering at that. St Paul is not meaning to suggest that suffering is anything other than painful and terrible for those experiencing it. It is, however, as nothing compared to the glory that awaits us as believers, and God being God can use even the most terrible suffering to prepare us for what is to come for ‘all things work together for good to those who love God’ (Romans 8:28).

The eternal glory that awaits us puts this world and everything that happens to us in it, both good and bad, into a proper perspective. Here and now, in this world of sin, suffering, and death, we are, as St Paul writes, being transformed by the glory of Christ.

Conclusion: We too must speak

If we believe this, then it is clear what we must do. St Paul later in chapter 4 will quote the Psalmist who wrote, ‘I believed, and so I spoke’. St Paul responds, ‘We also believe, and so we speak’ (2 Corinthians 4:13).

We too must speak, not to increase our Church attendance figures, not to boost our finances, not to win praise from people or to gain popularity for ourselves, but so that people may hear the truth of God.

But in doing this what we are up against is not simply human resistance, disobedience, indifference, or sin. We are up against a spiritual power that holds people captive and prevents them from seeing the truth and who, as our Lord explained, like the birds of the air, snatches away the seed of God’s word the moment it is preached (Mark 4:15). ‘Our struggle is not against flesh and blood’, as St Paul puts it (Ephesians 6:12).

One of the holy grails of military research is coming up with military hardware that is invisible to the enemy. If an opposing army can’t see you, or believes you have not entered their territory when you have, then you have a huge advantage. The devil has been thrown a huge advantage by many in today’s Church who have decided that the devil does not exist and is just a figment of the imagination of previous generations. The devil may be invisible to many in the Church today, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t there.

The devil doesn’t need people to believe in him. He is not trying to bring people under his power; he has them there already. His task is to keep them there. And that is made all the easier by people thinking he isn’t real. You aren’t going to worry too much about someone who you don’t think exists.  Meanwhile, because we are not worried about him, the devil, who very much exists, can get on with his work unhindered.

One of the most frustrating experiences as a preacher is not that people don’t like you or reject what you say, but that they don’t give what you say even a moment’s thought. I know that as preachers we often don’t do ourselves any favours, but that’s not always true. Some preachers are good preachers. And yet still people remain stubbornly indifferent. The reason for this is not simply that people don’t care, but that the devil is preventing them from caring. St Paul writes of how people are held captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:26).

People’s only hope is that God will grant them repentance and the knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25). As preachers, and as those who want people to hear the Gospel, we need to focus on the truth of God’s word and not on the results. Yes, of course we want people to respond and to come to a knowledge of the truth, but that is God’s responsibility not ours. Ours is to be faithful in speaking the truth of God’s word.

‘We have seen his glory’.

We pray, then, that God may grant others to see it, and in seeing it, that they may bring glory to God.

‘For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever.’ (Romans 11:36)


Saturday, February 06, 2021

The Second Sunday before Lent (Sexagesima)

Here is an extended version of the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Second Sunday before Lent (Sexagesima).

The Second Sunday before Lent

Reading: John 1:1-18

Our Gospel reading this week is the well-known passage that begins St John’s Gospel. ‘In the beginning was the Word …’, St John writes. This is the passage that we read every year at the Christmas Midnight Mass. It is a passage I have preached on many times. In fact, the last time was only a few weeks ago. You can still listen to the sermon on YouTube!

I both dread and look forward to preaching on it. I look forward to preaching on it because it is an incredible piece of writing that describes who Jesus is. I dread preaching on it because no sermon can ever do it justice. For many years, I have felt that I have never come near, and I doubt that I will ever feel that I have. You may wonder, then, why I don’t give up and preach on something else. It is a fair question! However, my hope is that maybe I can help explain bits of it in a way that can help people to understand it more.

In the sermons at Christ Church during Epiphany, we have been reflecting on words from it: ‘he came unto his own’. We have been looking at what it meant in historical terms for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us. I will be picking up again on this in a moment. I want this week, however, to begin by asking a question of identity. I have just quoted part of verse 14 of chapter one. The verse in full says:

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (John 1:14)

The question, then, is this: who are the ‘we’? Who are the ‘we’ who have seen the glory of the Word become flesh? Understandably, this is a question we don’t take too much time over as there are so many other things to think about in what St John writes in this opening to his Gospel, which is commonly known as the Prologue. There are a number of possible answers.

Firstly, the ‘we’ could simply be an ‘authorial we’, that is, the author is using the literary equivalent of the royal ‘we’. It could be that he is saying that he has seen Jesus’ glory and is now sharing it with us. Preachers use ‘we’ in this way all the time, and I have done so already in this sermon.

This is certainly the least it means. The Gospel claims to be based on eye-witness testimony. It describes the person who gives this testimony as the ‘Disciple whom Jesus loved’ (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20. Some also think the reference is to him in John 18:15-16) He has become known as the ‘Beloved Disciple’ because of this.

Although the Gospel itself doesn’t give a name to the Beloved Disciple, traditionally the Church has identified the Beloved Disciple as St John, one of the two sons of Zebedee who appear prominently by name in the other three Gospels. This St John and his brother St James, we know, were part of Jesus’ inner circle. St John himself is strongly linked with St Peter and appears as a close associate of St Peter in St Luke’s account of the early Church in the book of Acts. St Paul, in his letter to the Church of Galatia, tells us that St John was regarded as a pillar of the Church (Galatians 2:9).

While not all scholars today are happy to identify the Beloved Disciple as this St John, it is interesting that at the end of the Gospel, the Beloved Disciple is also closely associated with St Peter, and I personally think the early Church got it right. I am going to continue to refer to the author, then, as both the Beloved Disciple and St John and to see them as one and the same person.

However, returning to our question of who the ‘we’ are, we can say that it at least includes the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Gospel - whoever he is!

Secondly, though, the ‘we’ should not be limited to just the Beloved Disciple. The ‘we’ is more than just a literary royal ‘we’. ‘We have seen his glory’, includes the Beloved Disciple, but it also includes the Beloved Disciple’s fellow disciples. On the Third Sunday of Epiphany, we looked at the first sign that Jesus did at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11).

There are seven signs in St John’s Gospel. ‘Sign’ is the word that St John uses to describe Jesus’ miracles. Jesus’ miracles are not simply amazing acts that Jesus performs. They are that, but they are more than that: they reveal something of who Jesus is. They point us to his true identity. St John concludes his account of the first sign by writing:

‘Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.’ (John 2:11)

It has been both puzzling and somewhat embarrassing for believers that Jesus chose as his first sign to provide 120 plus gallons of wine for people who had already had a lot to drink. How does this reveal his glory? It may reveal his generosity and show his power, and sermons typically focus on these two points, but does it really reveal his ‘glory’?

We saw that there are two clues in St John’s account that help us to understand what is going on. The first is that it is a wedding at which Jesus takes over the role of the bridegroom whose responsibility it was to provide wine at a wedding. Secondly, wine in the Scriptures is symbolic of the Messianic age when it was believed God would redeem his people. With this sign, then, Jesus is revealing himself as the Divine Bridegroom who has come for his bride and who, as the Messiah, will provide the new wine of his Kingdom.

His first disciples, whose calling St John has described just before his account of the wedding, know their Scriptures and understand what is going on. This is why they believe in him. St John has told us that they have become Jesus’ disciples because they are looking for the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel. After this sign they believe in him. Not because they have all this lovely wine to drink, although that must have been nice, but because the sign points to Jesus as the One they are looking for and whom they will continue to follow after the effects of all that wine have worn off.

The ‘we’, then, includes the apostles, the first disciples of Jesus, who followed him believing him to be the Messiah, and to whom he entrusted the task of being his witnesses. What we are reading about Jesus in St John’s Gospel is not a story that St John has made up, but something that really took place for which there are eyewitnesses: they saw it; it happened.

Thirdly, and this is where we move beyond the obvious answer to the question of who the ‘we’ are, the ‘we’ also includes, as well as the apostles, all those others who believed in Jesus at the time.

So, it includes, as a good friend of mine points out, people like Nicodemus who saw Jesus’ signs and who were prepared to follow where they led, even if it took them a while to get there. It includes the woman at the well in Samaria and the blind man in Jerusalem. It also includes his friends in Bethany: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, who, only this past week, Pope Francis has approved a special day in the Church’s calendar to remember them on. (The day is July 29!) It includes others like them, such as Mary Magdalene, who was one of the first witnesses of the resurrection, Jesus’ ultimate sign.

But it includes, not only the apostles and those during Jesus’ ministry who believed in him, but also those who came to believe in him through the testimony of the apostles and the first eyewitnesses. Some of these helped to give us this Gospel. At the end of the Gospel, we read:

‘This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.’ (John 21:24)

The Beloved Disciple was part of a community of faith who helped produce the Gospel. Some in this community would have themselves come to believe in Jesus during his earthly ministry; some, however, would have become believers subsequently through the testimony of the Beloved Disciple. A prominent member of this community of faith was the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. We know this because the Beloved Disciple tells us explicitly in the Gospel that she is. The Beloved Disciple writes:

‘When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’ (John 19:26-27)

When it comes to seeing ‘these things’, you don’t get much closer than this.

We have then defined the ‘we’ quite widely: the Beloved Disciple, the apostles, those who first believed and those who believed because of them, especially those with the Beloved Disciple when he wrote, most notably the Blessed Virgin Mary. But we haven’t finished yet.

Why did St John and those with him write this Gospel? One answer is that having seen Jesus’ glory they wanted to tell people what they had seen and to provide a historical record of it. And they certainly did want to do that. They stress that the Beloved Disciple’s testimony is true. He saw it; it happened. This is not something they have made up. And contrary to what some scholars argue, it isn’t just St John putting words on Jesus’ lips. He saw Jesus’ glory, and he is sharing it with us.

But his main purpose in writing his Gospel isn’t primarily ‘so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed’ as it was for St Luke (Luke 1:4). Although he is concerned as an eyewitness to assure us of the truth of what he writes, St John shares the story of Jesus so that you and I his readers may see Jesus’ glory for ourselves and become part of the community of faith together with him and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Sts Peter, Nicodemus, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and all the others who believed in Jesus. We know that this is his purpose because he tells us it is. He writes:

‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:30-31)

The first disciples when they meet Jesus recognize him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the King of Israel. They see his glory and they believe in him. Now they want us to join them in following and believing in Jesus: to become one of the ‘we’.

By describing Jesus signs, St John wants us to see them and to see Jesus’ glory in them, so that we too may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and by believing may have life in his name.

‘Life’ is a major theme of St John’s Gospel. ‘All things came into being through him …’, St John writes (John 1:3). ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind’ (John 1:4), he continues, bringing together the theme of Life with another important theme in the Gospel, that of Light.

Jesus tells the woman at the well in Samaria that he gives the ‘living water’ that leads to eternal life (John 4:10, 14). He tells those listening to him in Jerusalem that he came that those who become his followers ‘may have life and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10). At the climax of his public ministry, Jesus says to Martha:

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ (John 11:25-26)

These are well-known words, and they are often read at funerals bringing much comfort and hope. They provide us with a positive message that we need to hear when confronted with the awfulness and apparent finality of death. The pandemic has brought home to us just how mortal we are and how every one of us is never far from death. We begin today, on this the Second Sunday before Lent, to look forward to the start of Lent. Our mortality is a reality that we will be reflecting on more during Lent.

Jesus does indeed offer us life beyond death. But it is more than a prolonged physical existence. The life Jesus offers is not simply the immortality that delays our physical death or avoids it altogether. In fact, it is far from clear that everlasting life in this limited sense of physical survival is even a desirable thing to have. The many, including children, who commit suicide in large numbers every year would seem to indicate otherwise.

The life that Jesus came that we might have is indeed everlasting, but it is to be measured qualitatively as well as quantitatively. The fact that Jesus came that we might have it suggests that we don’t have it already. What is more, despite what many like to think, we don’t all receive it automatically now that he has come. After Jesus has told Martha that those who believe in him will never die, Jesus asks her a question that St John intends as a question for us as well:

‘Do you believe this?’ (John 11:26)

Martha gives the answer that St John hopes we will each give:

‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (John 1:27)

In the opening to the Gospel, St John has already told us that many in his day did not believe this. Many during Jesus’ earthly ministry saw his signs and didn’t become his followers. They saw the signs, but not what they pointed to and, as a consequence, they missed out on the life that Jesus offered. It is possible to see Jesus’ signs and not to see his glory and so instead of receiving his life to come under judgement.

Tragically, ‘his own did not receive him’, unlike Martha they did not believe this. However, St John tells us that we have been given the chance to receive what his own refused:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:12-13)

There is never the time in a sermon to say all that could or even should be said, but there are a couple things I would like to say in the light of all this.

1. We are not all naturally children of God

St John’s narrative is a very different narrative to the narrative we have been fed in which we are all ‘children of God’. Sadly, this narrative that assures us that we are all naturally the children of God is one you hear even in the Church. St John challenges it and challenges our secular versions of it in which we are all ‘children of the universe’, or in which we are told there is a ‘divine spark’ in each of us that if we discover will enable us to realize our potential. St John tells us plainly that the world is in darkness, and that includes us unless we come to him who is the Light.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, a religious leader in Jerusalem, that he must be ‘born again from above’ (John 3:3, 7). We are not naturally God’s children: we must become them. Spiritual enlightenment is not something we can achieve for ourselves: it is not by the ‘will of the flesh’. For us to become God’s children and to be made alive spiritually, something must happen to us; it is not something we can make happen ourselves.

All of which is so strange to us, so alien, that it passes over us. We can’t believe we are in darkness and not naturally children of God. It is, however, precisely because it is so alien to us that our new birth as children of God must happen by a direct intervention from God. The Father must draw us to Jesus, as Jesus himself puts it (John 6:44). We are so lost in the darkness, we won’t come to him otherwise.

2. We need to see his glory

The only way out of the darkness is to see his glory, which brings us back to where we began, to the ‘we’ who have seen his glory and to the need for us to believe in Jesus, so that we too may see it.

It is, then, perhaps now time to ask the question: what exactly is his glory? St John tells us that it is ‘the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).

But what is it?

We talk today of a person’s ‘moment of glory’. These are occasions when we feel a sense of achievement. They are moments that reveal something important about us, perhaps something about us that has previously been hidden. We all have our own moments of glory, and they are different for each one of us. For an athlete, it could be winning a medal in the Olympics. For an actor, being awarded an Oscar. It could be achieving a significant promotion at work; graduating after years of study; or a moment of outstanding heroism or bravery – the sort people get awarded medals for. Or it could simply be doing something that really challenged us.

Before Jesus performed his first sign, he said ‘his hour’ had not yet come (John 2:4). In St John’s Gospel, everything is building up to this moment, to Jesus’ hour. When it arrives, Jesus says that this is the reason he has come (John 12:27).

His hour, his moment, is what his coming is all about. This is what his signs have been pointing to. But what is this moment when we see his glory? It’s the Cross. It’s dying a cruel, shameful, painful death rejected by his own to whom he came. It was this that was his hour; this was his moment of glory.

St Paul tells us that the Cross was a stumbling block to his own people. They couldn’t believe that the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of Israel could die such a humiliating death and at the hands of the very people he was meant to deliver them from. The Greeks thought it was just foolishness to suggest that such an appalling death could be anything other than a sign of weakness and failure.

We don’t necessarily put it like this today. But we still pass over the Cross as quickly as we can. If we were to dwell too long on the Cross, it might imply that there was more to it than that of a good man dying for what he believed in as many have died before and since. The Cross happened, we know that, but it happened, we think, because of people not understanding or liking Jesus’ teaching, or because they felt threatened by it. We don’t think it was necessary as such. The Cross doesn’t show his glory; his glory came later with his resurrection and his triumph over death. His death was a means to an end, but in no sense do we think it was an end in and of itself.

But we are wrong: the Cross was entirely necessary. And not only necessary, it was planned: God planned it. The Cross had to happen because the Cross was the only way for us to be able to see his glory and to become children of God. The Cross wasn’t the end in the sense that it ended Jesus’ life, but it was the end in that it was whole point of his life. This is what he came to do.

And now, his moment of glory must become ours as well. If we are to experience his life, we must share in his death. Jesus said that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we do not have his life in us (John 6:53).

When Jesus said this many of his disciples stopped following him. The idea that Jesus death was both necessary and that we have to completely identify with and participate in it was more than they could accept. It still is more than many of us are willing to accept. And yet, for those with the faith to see it, from the Cross shines the light of the glory of Christ offering us hope and life.

His glory is still there for us to see. Will we look at it or will we turn away? Will its light be too much for us? Will we prefer darkness to light? St John writes:

‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3:19)

We will all have had the experience of being in a dark or dimly lit room and someone coming in and putting the light on. Our first reaction when this happens is say, ‘Turn it off!’. Many tried to turn off the light of Christ and many still try today, but the Light continues to shine in the darkness. It shines in the darkness of this world with its false values and priorities. It shines exposing the world’s emptiness and superficiality; its wickedness, evil, and sin. It exposes our emptiness and superficiality; our wickedness, evil, and sin.

As the Light shines now on us, we can turn to it or away from it. St John today invites us to become one of the ‘we’ who turn to the Light, and who in the Light of Christ see his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

We have seen his glory.

Have you?