A few years ago we celebrated 350 years of the “Hallelujah Chorus” by singing it at the end of the service. Preparations for this took some time at the Barn, and led in many ways to the current manifestation of the “extended choir” which pops up every now and again on special occasions. The St Luke’s Choir just stood up and sang it….. wonderfully…
Anyway, being part of that learning was tremendous. There is huge power in the piece, created by great harmonies and soaring lines for all the voices, but there is a bit in the middle which came as a surprise. I don’t know why, maybe false memory surrounds such famous music – you think you know it, but when you come to sing it, there are bits that you don’t. All the hallelujahs are only to be expected, as well as one or two lines about King of kings and the Lord omnipotent, but the section in the middle to which I refer is sung in unison:
The kingdom of this world
The kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ
And of His Christ
And then everyone breaks off into four-part harmony again. Why?
Handel was a good Protestant. Despite his stays in Italy, learning the ropes of Italian opera, he never wavered from his Protestantism, and while in London, faithfully attended his local parish church (St George’s Hanover Square), a fact of which the parish is still proud, and is one of the first things you see on their website….. For Handel, the omnipotence of God was a given, so could be sung about in the same way as any other expression of praise. However, the transformation of this world from the human order to the divine order is extraordinary, and is based upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to underline that point, the kingship of Christ, Handel has the choir sing about it in unison, so that no one can be in any doubt that Christ is king of all.
That is where we are today. We have moved through the seasons, high and low, we have experienced the joys of Christmas and Easter and the deprivations of Advent and Lent. We have slogged our way through every chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and now, as we approach a new liturgical year, we are reminded once again that Christ is king of the universe. You may well protest that there isn’t much evidence of that, given the unholy mess that the world is in, but as an article of faith, it is worth repeating: Christ is king of the universe.
But we are good democrats, you may add, we have no need of a king. Yes, but we are good democrats who live in a constitutional monarchy, we have made our peace with kingship and queenship and continue to hold it up as a measure of stability and idealized leadership, whether we want it there or not. The King of Sweden may well ride around on a bicycle, the King of the Netherlands may well be a commercial airline pilot, but when push comes to shove, they are top dogs, to whom obedience is due and whose image appears on stamps and whose signature is required for laws to be enacted.
And the good people of France, who chopped the head off their own king (several centuries after we did) remain fascinated by monarchy the world over, and know exactly what it stands for while trumpeting their republican credentials and mimicking it in their presidential system. We all know what “king” or “queen” means, and so we therefore know what “Christ the King” means.
Or do we? And that is where the problem lies with today’s theme. We all have our idea of kingship, of what it entails, of what it looks like, of what it means for us in terms of behaviour and belonging, but can any of that be applied to Christ? We have a queen who famously doesn’t carry cash, who shouldn’t be spoken to until she has spoken to us, to whom we must bow or curtsey on meeting and possibly from whose presence we should walk backwards. Apart from the not carrying cash – remember that Jesus, when he needed to pay the Roman tax, had to have someone else produce a coin for him to make his point – do any of those other things apply to Christ? We have a queen who rides around in nice cars or gold carriages, in front of whom the roads are cleared by police and military personnel. In Christ, we have a king who rides a donkey, in front of whom crowds strip branches from the bordering trees to make his triumphal way. We have a queen who lives in several castles and palaces, and has several thrones on which to sit. In Christ, we have a king who had no home to call his own, and who is arrayed in purple by mocking soldiers, once they have finished torturing him, and who is enthroned on a cross of wood. I could go on, but you get my drift.
When we say that Christ is King, we are describing something completely different from any model of monarchy or human leadership that has ever existed in this world. This is a kingship of love and self-giving. This is a kingship of holiness and grace, of massive forgiveness and reconciliation. This is a kingship that empties itself of everything to restore to us the fullness of his grace. This is a kingship that embraces lepers, heals Gentiles, forgives those who drive in the nails into his wrists and feet, who draws the denier back to himself with love and generosity, who calls us to feast with him in bread and wine, who welcomes us into his presence at all times as we pray and as we worship.
And this is the king who sends us out to live in exactly that same way, the way of self-emptying and self-sacrifice, the way of love and compassion, the way of inclusion and of generosity. We are supposed to be the ones by whom the world understands the kingship of Christ. By looking at us, everyone around us should see the kingship of Christ worked out in what we say and what we do. And that is terrifying, and challenging, and amazing, that this king should entrust to us such a mission. But that is what today is all about – living Christ the King’s life in everything we say and do – individually and collectively.
May Christ, by his loving, gentle rule, enable us to demonstrate what love truly is, together and individually, today and always.
It seems very hard to imagine, but 100 years ago today, the guns on the Western Front, from the Belgian Coast to Swiss border, fell silent. Soldiers put aside their rifles and the paraphernalia of war, and stepped warily out of trenches and dugouts into a world of peace. On a section of the line, an American sound recordist caught the moment the guns stopped firing, and the Imperial War Museum has posted the soundtrack on its website. Right up to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the artillery was laying down a fearsome barrage on the enemy, but as that hour struck, silence reigns, and within 30 seconds, birdsong can be heard. As humanity’s violence ebbs away, so the natural world reasserts itself. As humanity’s destructive urges are curbed, so God’s way of living returns.
This morning’s readings capture that as well. The remarkable passage from Jonah, where God changes his mind, describes a city-wide act of penitence that has world-altering effects. But Nineveh is no ordinary city. It was the capital of the Assyrian empire, situated on the east bank of the Tigris river, in what is now Northern Iraq. Mosul is the nearest modern city today. The Assyrians were renowned as the most ruthless people of the ancient near east. They were a by-word for excessive violence and vicious destruction, so as we read that God intends to destroy them, we feel a frisson of hope – they deserve everything that they are going to get. But God, who is always merciful, offers them the chance of escape if they repent – and they do, and God changes his mind and does not destroy them.
On this Remembrance Sunday, we read how Israel’s greatest enemy humbled itself before God, and was forgiven. On this Remembrance Sunday, we read that a nation can turn away from violence and bloodshed, and walk humbly in God’s ways. On this Remembrance Sunday, long-term enemies are transformed by the grace and mercy of almighty God. That is our starting point, that is what we have to cling to from the outset: God will forgive those who repent of violence and hatred, and he will transform the lives of our worst enemies because of his love and mercy.
That is why the Allies, in 1918, fervently believed in the potential of the League of Nations. They were exhausted by war, torn apart by grief and destruction and devastated by the flu epidemic that followed hard on the heels of the armistice. Whole rural communities had been wiped out, city streets emptied of young men who never returned, the countries’ finances in tatters, so that even returning soldiers couldn’t find anywhere decent to live. Peace was the only concern for the general population, and a way of living together that would not cause such a conflict again.
Alas, that hope was to prove vain, with the rise of nationalist and extreme political ideologies, that morphed from isolationist rhetoric to ideas of national purity to expansionist dreams of dominance of neighbours, and the whole awful cycle happened again. It is that repetition within human history, that inability of humanity really to sort itself out once and for all, that leads the writer to the Hebrews to contrast that with Christ’s once and for all sacrifice of himself on the cross. What God does once is effective for all time. It takes humanity a lot longer to catch up.
So how do we live, how do we organise ourselves, so that cataclysmic wars do not recur? How can lessons be learnt and past mistakes avoided? The Syrians haven’t learnt that yet, the people of Yemen are on the end of a dreadful replaying of geopolitical violence. Where can some good news be found, some Gospel?
Curiously, given all the passages about peace, about beating swords into ploughshares, about blessed are the peacemakers, we have read this morning the simple tale of Jesus calling Simon & Andrew, John & James, from their fishing businesses to follow him and “to catch people”. Why? The Gospel challenge is that it is in discipleship that the world shall discover how to live together, it is in following God With Us that we shall learn the way of God and be able to live it out. These four rough fishermen drop everything, there and then, to follow this itinerant preacher, who promises to show them the Kingdom of Heaven. And they have three years to watch him at work before they themselves will front the engine of the Kingdom of Heaven – the Church. And from those three years of hands-on observation, they are expected to have absorbed sufficient for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
What have they seen? They have seen this Jesus touch lepers to heal them, he has talked with Gentiles and Samaritans about the love of God and his power to transform. He has fed, not just a few, but thousands with enough to spare. They have heard parables that bend their prejudices back into Godly shapes, they have stood by while Jesus went toe to toe with Pharisees, Sadducees and other religious professionals and left them speechless. And then they have watched him turn away from violent resistance in the Garden of Gethsemane, endure torture in silence, express forgiveness as nails were driven into his hands and feet, show mercy to a penitent criminal and die in pitch darkness, acknowledged as the Son of God by a gentile soldier. Buried in a rich man’s tomb, they find him resurrected, alive for ever, challenging them to take his words and ways to the whole world. Ignited by the Holy Spirit, they do just that, turning the world back up the way it should always have been, and we are their successors.
Our discipleship, our close living out of the life of Christ, will be a means of maintaining peace, increasing peace, refusing the mistakes of the past. We have to be the current Jesus, touching lepers, bringing together those who are at enmity with each other. Our nation is split in two currently, in a seemingly unbridgeable way. The faithful disciples of Christ must work hard to ensure that narrow-minded nationalism does not gain a foothold in our community, and that principles of inclusion and social justice are at the forefront of the way we organise ourselves. We need to affirm visibly and practically that all are welcome here, amongst us, whatever they think, however they feel, whatever they believe, because we believe that all are loved by God in an equally generous way, so who are we to separate anyone from that divine love. If our worshipping community is open and welcoming, refusing hatred and bigotry and challenging unjust practices and attitudes, then that openness and welcome will spill out into the streets where we live, into the places where we work, and take Christ’s all inclusive love there.
This weekend happens also to be the 80th anniversary of Kristalnacht, the day that Nazi anti-semitic violence was fully unleashed on the Jews of Germany. Those anti-semitic sentiments can still be found today, amazingly – why, only last week a synagogue was murderously attacked in the USA, by someone spouting exactly the same rhetoric that was prevalent in Germany and Italy in 1938. There is no place for such thoughts, let alone such actions in our contemporary world. It was a joy yesterday to share in worship at Richmond Synagogue, as they marked on their Sabbath the centenary of the Armistice. But to be part of that service, your name has to be on a list of guests, and the locked gate carefully opened to let you in, for fear of violence and outrage. That happened at every synagogue in our land yesterday, and is a blight on our country. The Jewish Community is wonderfully welcoming, sophisticated and eat together like kings, and yet there is an underlying fear in all their hearts.
The winter night shelter project is another practical way in which the faith communities are expressing their discipleship, as they welcome that too painfully seen group of people, the rough sleepers, to the 7 centres across the borough. Lives are transformed by this project, not just saved in the cold of winter. Pray for the project, volunteer if you can (especially if you can do a Saturday night), donate socks and gloves and woolly hats, or send money direct to Glass Door. 3 primary skools are involved in feeding the homeless guests at St John the Divine on Thursday nights & St Matthias on a Saturday night – young lives influenced in good discipleship by this project. Therein lies the future of social inclusion, surely, and therein lies the future of peace.
It is easy to despair on days like this, to be ground down by the enormity of the sacrifice those millions of men, women and children made during two world wars and other conflicts. But the simple Gospel message of faithful discipleship offers us a practical way of drawing all society into the loving, peaceful ways of God. Penitence for past errors, learning the lessons of the past, and practicing inclusion and welcome passionately and realistically – that is God’s way of bringing this wonderful world into the ways of love and peace that he intends for it.
There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of a man who attends church for the first time, and gets into conversation with the vicar after the service. The vicar asks him what he does, he replies that he is a bit of a musician, so the vicar invites him to bring his guitar along the next Sunday and play for the congregation. When he had finished his solo acoustic account of In the presence of the Lord, the congregation realised that Eric Clapton had moved into their village. Fully knowing who someone is can take a while.
When we read a Bible passage today, we read with at least 2000 years of reading behind us, and more if we are reading from the Hebrew scriptures. Thus, when we hear the extract from Isaiah, it rings various bells in our minds, which set off other trains of thought, and we swiftly move from a 6th BCE prophet to Jesus being mocked by Roman guards before his crucifixion.
But take a step back, and try to put yourself in the shoes of a Jew listening to this text for the first time. Where was it first heard? Who was talking? And to whom? Modern scholarship dates this text to the Babylonian exile, a 70 year period when the majority of the Jewish nation was enslaved by the Babylonians, to work across what is now modern Iraq. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, their king lead away in chains with his eyes put out. Everything was finished. And then, as they gathered to talk of the old country, and to recite psalms together in a place that was approaching holy – by water, outside the Gentile city – this prophet got up and uttered these words. In the first person. Speaking with God’s authority.
Who is the servant? Why does the servant suffer? Surely the servant is innocent – how can this be? Jewish theology at the time would blame the people themselves for all the catastrophes that had befallen them. They had not kept the law, they had strayed to foreign gods, they had disobeyed God and formed alliances with Gentile nations, they had not trusted in their God to keep them safe. But a new generation is growing up, one which was not part of those who had abandoned their God, and they surely are innocent, yet suffering. They must learn patience, they must find again the ways of their God and walk in them, and they will be justified. So, the first answer to the question, “who is the servant”, is the nation of Israel, reborn in synagogue worship and the rediscovery of the Law and Scripture, in exile.
Scroll forward a few generations, the people are back in their own land, and this passage is read again, in the newly rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Who is the servant now? Is everything written by Isaiah fulfilled by their return? No, things are still difficult, Israel is not paradise – there must be a different interpretation of this servant text – there must be a servant, an individual, who will fulfil all these words – and a Messiah is born. So, answer number two is, the Messiah.
Scroll forward again to the time of Jesus, and as his followers watch his miracles and hear his words, as they listen to him preach and teach, then watch him suffer innocently, their minds are turned again to this text, and they see in Jesus this Messiah – and when Jesus asks them about what people are saying about him, they can say for themselves that they think he is the Messiah.
Fine and dandy, you think, but then Jesus proceeds to paint a very different picture of what the Messiah is and does. The disciples, nurtured on a messianic theology of deliverance and independence, reject what Jesus is saying, to the extent that Jesus has to use the same language with them that he used in the wilderness as he was being tempted – the disciples have become the tempter, and Jesus must resist them, and teach them the true meaning of Messiahship.
And that meaning is hard. Jesus talks in terms of a life of suffering, carrying around with us the means of our own execution. This isn’t remotely comforting, nor will it drive out the Romans, but it will lead the disciples into the mind of God. As they look back, post Easter, on the terrible things that happened and then look at the resurrected Jesus, sat with them beside Lake Galilee or in the upper room, they see their God in action in the most radical way. A God who loves extremely – they can see the marks of that love, the nail prints in his palms, the gash in his side, the imprint of the thorns on his brow – and this Jesus they thought they knew, this Messiah they thought they understood, has taken them somewhere completely different. And now they must love in the same way, so that the whole world can understand and meet and know the God who loves them to death and beyond.
We still today have to answer the question that Jesus put to his disciples. Who do we say that Jesus is? He is certainly not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of our childhood, or the baby who never cries in the Christmas carol. We have heard him today treat his most loyal disciple as the devil incarnate. Last week he used the term “dog” of a Gentile woman in not so friendly banter. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he would berate Amazon for not contributing properly to the nation’s wealth in their taxes and condemn the employment practices of modern industry.
Today, where would we find our Jesus? Is there room for him at work? If he did come to your workplace this week, how would he react to what is going on? And how would you explain his radical love to your colleagues? In our homes, where is Jesus? On a shelf, with our other books about religion? And if he wandered in here, what would he make of us? And could we possibly sit down and eat with him?
As the concept of the suffering servant evolved into a Messiah, who then overturned all those preconceptions with his death-defying love, so may our understanding of the Christ, and our image of the living God, inspire us to live and to love as he did, that this world may be transformed into his likeness and all come to see his glory for what it really is – a life lived for others.
We have a new baby in the family – hooray! And she is the sweetest little thing, quite the loveliest baby there has ever been, apart from her big sister, and her mother when she was born, and our other daughter, who is, of course, pushing for parental affection and before you can say “Jack Robinson” you are in a King Lear situation and the world falls apart around you. And that is just within the immediate family.
What happens, asks the writer James, if you do that in church? You betray the God who loved you in Christ Jesus, who showed no favouritism, and redeemed us all through his death and resurrection.
And what is more, James adds, if you favour the rich, you are toadying up to the very people who are making life difficult for the Church and especially for the poor.
Aha, you say, in the Gospel passage today, Jesus does appear to be favouring the Jews over the Gentile woman who comes beseeching him to heal her daughter. Correct, but Jesus does heal the woman’s daughter because she is not prepared to give up, because she is prepared to accept crumbs from the God of love – and those crumbs are sufficient to restore her daughter to fullness of life. Would that we had that much faith – the things we could achieve for God would be astonishing.
And then there is the sign language healing of the profoundly deaf man – an astonishingly gracious act of personalised healing, designed so that he would be involved in the process, understand what Jesus was proposing, and with his faith, bring about the healing that was required and desired.
Plenty to talk about, but it doesn’t really join up. The children this morning are concentrating on the healing of the blind man – they can play seeing and remembering games, blind man’s buff and all sorts, and learn just how precious sight is. But what was wrong with the Gentile woman’s daughter? All we know is that she had an “unclean spirit”, which could mean anything from bipolar to epilepsy, and everything in between. Whatever she was suffering with, it limited her life, and needed to be sorted out. In Jesus, her mother knew she had found the person who could do just that, but race and culture and religion seemed to block the way. Jesus’s first answer is not an outright “no”, just a re-affirmation that his mission is to the Jews first. The mother’s cracking response, spat back at Jesus more in frustration than in anger, demonstrates a parent’s visceral campaign for a child’s wellbeing, as well as playing the game of cross-cultural insult and counter-thrust.
But in the healing of her daughter, the mother gets more than crumbs. Her daughter is healed immediately, at a distance – no need for touch or words, not even for actions to explain what is going on – Jesus simply says that her daughter is better, sends her on her way and returns to the recalcitrant people of Israel – who, for their healing, will need every part of it explained, as Jesus has to for the profoundly deaf man. The Gentile daughter receives the full grace of God in complete healing, everything that the profoundly deaf Jewish man receives – this is radical stuff.
We are not in the business of receiving or handing out children’s crumbs. We worship together in the full grace of God, each one of us a complete recipient of all of God’s incalculable love and generosity. In this feast of bread and wine, God gives us himself, to share with one another, openly and fully. We cannot withhold that from anyone.
As a consequence, we cannot be satisfied with doling out crumbs, but of freely offering the totality of the love of God. This covers everything, from welcome to coffee, from teaching to prayer, to the Peace and to our care for each other through the week. We will not do theology lite: rather, we will dig deep into the Word and stretch our minds and hearts. We will pray with a fervour which goes beyond formulae and into the mind of God. Our welcome will be second to none, gently bringing people across the threshold with love and grace. The Peace will be sincere, the children included in all our endeavours as a unit with their families – there won’t be something for the children, and something for the adults: it will be a sizeable chunk of the presence of God for everyone. Conversation, music, silence, embrace – all will be of the best and the deepest.
We have invited back to church next Sunday all those families who had a child or children baptised over the past 12 months – that’s the start of a season of invitation – everything we do will be suitable to invite anyone along for the first time. Harvest Festival, St Luke’s Patronal Festival, All Saints, Remembrance, Advent, Christmas – it’s all lined up for us. Let’s seize the opportunity, bring people in, and include them from the start in God’s amazing love. This will be fun!
Three is the hardest number. I have two sisters, one older, one younger. When the little one was born, my big sister and I first ignored her, then ran away from her, because she was hopeless at playing (she was 6 years younger than us, it must be said). I’m sure we loved her dearly, but she just couldn’t run fast enough, play tracking properly in the woods, or teach snails how to dance the maypole. My big sister and I were fine, just the two of us. Things are different now. My little sister developed the ability to organise tea parties for worms and a desire to make rose petal perfume, and could make a half-decent sandcastle by the time I stopped going on holiday with my parents and her.
Maintaining a good relationship between three people, at home, at work, as friends, is much harder than between two or four. There is always one on the edge, waiting to break in on what is going on between the other two. Ancient Rome was governed on several occasions by a triumvirate of politicians – they never ended well, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar aptly demonstrates. I look around at the way I work now – trinities surround me – area dean, assistant area dean & lay co chair – me and two Readers – me and two parish administrators – hmmmmm, I need to beware the Ides of March.
Fancy says that God is Trinity to show us the way that relationships can work, that God chooses the hardest combination to reveal to humanity that love can flow from one to the other to the third, equally and powerfully, for the good of the world. Jurgen Moltmann in his book, Creating a Just Future, talks of the creative power of the Trinity of love, which would be absent from a single individual or from a couple – the sparks fly between Father, Son & Holy Spirit, Moltmann states, and so creation abounds in multiplicity and seemingly infinite variety – bees with short tongues feed from plants with small flowers, bees with long tongues leave those plants for other bees and head for the depths of bluebells and foxgloves. A third type of bee has a short tongue but a serrated jaw, so takes a short cut to the nectar by biting through the side of the flower, straight to the source of sweetness. Such is the wildness of the Trinity’s imagination, and we are the beneficiaries of that creativity and love. What in human terms can appear hard work, the relationship between three individuals, becomes lovingly creative and outward-looking in the divine Trinity.
The person who tried to teach me New Testament at theological college, Stephen Barton by name, (the most Anglican Methodist I have ever encountered) always insisted on treating the Trinity as a story, a way of talking about God, which is why the word “Trinity” does not exist in the Bible – its writers are always coming up with other ways of talking about God. So, combining this view with Moltmann’s loving creativity, we get a God who reveals himself first as one, in a world of multiple deities, who then reveals himself as human, in a world where the human had lost track of its worth in the sight of a loving God, and who then fills his people with his very self, forever, so that we, the glorious results of the Trinity’s extraordinary creativity, may live to worship and to care, to share and to heal, as Christ did when he was here, showing us God, as God did, when he was the one true God, as the Spirit always has, from the beginning of created time. Our existence as the Church, the family of God, the newborn Israel, is evidence of the Trinity, of the loving creativity from which this and all worlds spring – God in us, God before us, God with us.
Now all that is fine and dandy, but does it get us anywhere other than a description of God? Is it of any help to us in our daily lives, other than a bedrock of reassurance? The answer, naturally, is yes, but it is to be found in the idea of the creative love of the Trinity. Creative love goes outward, beyond itself, to a wider orbit of operation. Love that looks outward finds reasons to love practically, reasons to demonstrate love in real ways that make a difference, that make whole, that bring healing and reconciliation. Creative love lays on hostels for the homeless, foodbanks for those whose entitled money has not come through. Creative love welcomes all, as each visitor is a reflection of the creative love of God, each neighbour, each stranger is no stranger within the creative love of God. Difference becomes an indicator of divine love in creativity, not a reason for separation. Compassion reflects this creative love by fostering inclusivity. There must be a place for everyone within God’s love and worship, because he created them, so who are we to try to keep them out? We can only love, welcome, include, celebrate everyone and anyone. Not to do so is to deny the love of God, to deny the Trinity of creative love.
So, as good Trinitarian Anglicans, we will love, we will welcome, we will include everyone and anyone who comes our way. Some will be more problematic than others, but that is just the way things are. We all have our rough edges, and those were God-given and are God-proving. And as good Trinitarian Anglicans, we need to make sure that everybody is invited, everybody knows that they are welcome, at home with the God who loves them and has provided everything they will ever need, which, gloriously, includes us.
Well. Just when you were thinking that Lent had some pretty serious texts, and deep things to think about, along comes an action-filled story, with Jesus whipping up some direct action in more ways than one, scattering livestock around the Temple precinct and casting coins left, right and centre before a crowd that watched with open mouths. Who was this person? Why did he do this? Why take to himself the phrase “my Father’s house” when referring to the Temple? The questions just keep coming, even from the outraged Temple authorities – “what sign can you show us for doing this” – that is, what Messianic miracle will prove to us who you claim to be – and Jesus answers in the most runic fashion – “destroy this temple and in three days raise it up.”
Messiahs are not supposed to tear things down. They are not supposed to chase stallholders out of the Temple courts. They are supposed to be loving and kind, gentle and meek. This Jesus is most certainly none of these, at this moment. But in the long run, what he says and what he does make perfect sense, after the resurrection, for no Temple is needed, no special place where God is to be found through arcane structures and dark mysteries. The Temple is walking around in their midst, the Temple, where God’s glory dwells and is to be met, is talking to them, touching them to make them whole, listening to them and teaching them directly.
Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, tabernacles, chapels, cathedrals, gurdwaras and all the other holy places where worship is offered and the deity met, are all temporary, transitory places. They cannot restrict the presence of the God of the universe to such a small space. But we are finite, and need to deal with finite matters as we try to grasp the infinite. We need a place, a centre, through which we can encounter the transcendent. We have a deep-seated need for that place to be impressive, special, slightly mysterious. Better still is if that place has areas which are forbidden, off-limits, as that reinforces our belief that God can only be accessed in a formal way, through the mediation of others – experts, holy people, those who have a special connection with the divine.
Jesus demonstrates that that is not true. God can be met anywhere, through anything or anybody. This is especially true for the baptised. They have Jesus Christ as close to them as their clothing – why do they need some half-explained venue to get closer to God? The baptised cannot get any closer to God than their breath – God is that close to us.
And Jesus takes direct action against those who would make it more difficult to get close to God, rather than easier. The Temple authorities, in a well-intentioned attempt to keep the place holy, had decreed that only Temple money could be used in its courts, so ordinary shekels had to be exchanged for special shekels. The Temple authorities had decreed that only specially approved animals and produce could be brought to the Temple as an offering for sin, for thanksgiving, for intercession – hence the large livestock market and provender stalls that filled the outer courtyard. Jesus reacts violently to this – making a whip, driving people out – because prayer is to be made in the Temple, not profits. Anything that keeps people away from God, that makes it harder for them to get through to the God who loves them and welcomes them is anathema to Jesus. He is fired up with zeal for access to God, because he himself is that access and he wants people to recognise that. The fact that it takes his death and resurrection for his disciples to reach that understanding shows just how difficult that is for us, weak mortals that we are.
So, do we, in some grand Lenten gesture, get rid of our buildings and our finery, our pomp and our traditions, for simple, direct one to one worship of Almighty God? No, for that was not what Jesus was doing. He didn’t want to destroy the physical Temple in Jerusalem, he just wanted people to use it properly, to be able to access it fully and freely. So our Lenten gesture is not to pull our buildings down, but to open them up, to make them more welcoming, more accessible, more understandable, so that access can be easy and understanding of what we do can be complete.
How easy is it to get our minds around what we do this morning? How much of what we do is habit? How much of what we do is simply mouthing words and going along with the flow? Look carefully at the words we say together – they are profound, powerful, God-filled. Even the hymns we sing, the parts of the service we sing, are as God-filled as the spoken parts – they are all drawn from Scripture, no one made them up – they just took them as a unit and put them together as there were no better words to express our love of God, our worship of God, utter dependence on his mercy and grace, our amazing access to a holy God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Look at the objects we surround ourselves with on a Sunday. Candles to show the presence of God, bread on a plate, wine in a cup – because Jesus told us to share them like that – simple, ordinary elements of everyday life transformed into objects that take us beyond ourselves and into the very presence of God. And we do it together, because we are not created for solo living. God made us who we are so that we can live and worship and share together – that is the purpose of the creation, that is our purpose as we worship together.
And sometimes direct action is required to bring people closer to the God who loves them. That is why there is an emergency winter night shelter every night in the borough until Easter, because God does not want people sleeping on the streets, and the structures that were in place in our borough were not enough for the large number of rough sleepers we have. And so we knit, and we donate, to take that direct action. There will be a challenge to direct action on Tuesday night, when two eminent theologians come to the Barn to talk about climate change from a Christian perspective. Our consciences call us to direct action every day, when we are confronted with need, of whatever sort, in our daily life – it is part of our redeemed humanity.
So let us be bold in tearing down that which prevents people from meeting easily with the God who loves them, and may we rejoice together in all that our loving heavenly Father has done for us.