When I was thinking about where to film this final recorded sermon before I move on to Newport, one place in the cathedral came to mind first. It was here, near to the Hedda Stone. This is a link with the earliest days of this religious house. It’s not completely clear what this is, though there are traditions, folk-lore and theories. Is it a grave marker? Is is part of a shine or something else? Were the holes for relics thus making the whole stone a sacred object?
What it does seem to be is a link with the monks who were massacred by the Viking invaders in the 9thcentury. And it is a reminder that this place has seen much over the centuries, including total annihilation. But it has come back. The faith that first sparked here, has not been extinguished for ever, though there was a time when the light went out, or we have no record of anyone keeping vigil here, which of course may not be the same thing.
That is both encouragement and warning. It is a warning that what we see and love can be destroyed. It can, it really can come to an end because it has. And just like that would be a seismic shock today, it was devastating in the past. While churches are built as symbols of the new Jerusalem, we know ‘here we have no abiding city’ (Hebrews 13:14). Everything is transitory, even structures that look indestructible and permanent.
The encouragement, though, is that this wonderful place is here; it rose from those ashes. It is glorious, striking beyond measure and lifts the heart with awe and wonder. So many people come through the Norman Archway and stop roughly level with our dining room window and we see them mouth ‘wow’. I spoke a little about that last year on Trinity Sunday when I spoke about Golden Hour, filmed at the West End at 6.00pm one evening in the mid-summer when the sun was fully in the west and hit the west front full on to make it shine golden with the shadows lined up perfectly with the arches.
But what of the faith? This building is just a heritage site without the faith that has animated it throughout its centuries and animates it today. Without the faith, this building is a facade and this a lump of stone. The life comes through the resurrected life of Christ for us, in us, working through us. And it is the faith that inspired the resettling, to rekindle the flame, the light of hope. It was built to be a sign and symbol of the faith.
Mark, whom we remember today, wrote a Gospel, a story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He wrote this, because he wanted the story to be told and retold. He wanted to make sure that it wasn’t forgotten or lost, but was able to animate and reanimate, to change lives. He created a structure of words to point us to God in Jesus Christ, to assist with passing on the story in each generation.
That story is one of regime change and so is worthy of the name gospel. That’s a word that means good news , but not just any ‘good news’. This is good news which changes the landscape. The one announced here changes our relationship with God, with one another; changes our outlook. It is life-changing. And while it is a story that tells us about this, the problem is not so much whether we know it, but whether we live and love it. So it’s a story that changes how we see the world, ourselves and our neighbours. This is the story that gives this building life and vibrancy.
This is a bit of a challenge for us. Whenever I post a picture on Twitter of the stunning building it goes viral – shared and liked multiple times. When I or one of my colleagues post something about faith, it doesn’t get anywhere near the same response. That may be a question for us to consider about communication styles, but whatever lies behind it, without the faith this building would be just a shell. The challenge is to make the stones point to the life-changing story, and not just themselves.
We have a story to tell, one that changes us and inspires us to seek to change the world for peace, justice and flourishing in Christ’s name. Mark is concerned with story, with the story that is to inspire our story, to shape it as it shapes our lives. The clue to how we capture this comes in how it is lived and how that shines through. Mark wrote his story because he wanted to make sure this life-changing news wasn’t forgotten, or at least had a call back when memory started to reinvent.
Here, in this apse chapel, this lump of rock is for me a reminder of the fragility of life, of the faith that lies at the heart and root of this very special sacred space. We have a story to tell, one that inspires today as it has through many centuries to change lives, to bring hope and to proclaim God’s love for us.
It is a faith that refuses to be extinguished and has been rekindled even after the darkest moments of turmoil. May the light continue to shine from and in this place, making it a beacon of faith, hope and love. The stones are not the real story, they point to it and in each generation there need to be people who will tell it, who will be changed by it to live it.
I have tried to do that in a small way over the past few years and now as I move on to Newport hand on that baton to others. God bless you all. For all that has been, thanks; and for all that will be, yes.
Sermon for Peterborough Cathedral online, Sunday 25th April 2021