A big house for a big family – Welcoming all as Christ.

IMG_0952On Friday we welcomed members of the Muslim community, representatives of other faiths and civic dignitaries to an Iftar meal, the breaking of the Muslim fast during Ramadan. The event took place outside the west end of the cathedral on the green. As predicted it has drawn a bit of fire from some who are either angry or upset about this. Some thought we had lost our minds in allowing this and the Muslims were being insensitive, though they were there at our invitation and welcomed by the Dean. For some it presses buttons around inclusion and integration. Would Muslims welcome us to celebrate Easter outside their mosque? It is not quite the same thing. The party was a community event for all, though clearly with the Ramadan celebration it carries a narrative around their prophet Muhammad that is not ours. So there are legitimate cautions around this, but there are also bridges and hands of hospitality which proclaim love and friendship. One of the Imams quoted Bishop Michael Curry from his high energy Royal Wedding sermon when he spoke about the transforming power of love. What’s not to like?

Later today we will welcome 900 fairies outside the cathedral. Life here is varied to say the least. This is an attempt to beat the world record for the number of people dressed as fairies in one place and of course 900 is the iconic number this year as we celebrate our Christian heritage here. Fairies do not appear in the Bible, but we are again offering hospitality to a cause that aims to promote compassion, generosity and wishing the best for people. Anna’s Hope, the charity, was set up in memory of a 3-year-old girl who died tragically of a brain tumour. She loved to dress up as a fairy, as many small girls do, and so this carries her childlike delight in a magical world where all is possible and good triumphs over evil. The good fairy godmother of pantomime and Disney cartoons is there to protect and promote wellbeing. It is a dream of things being better in the transforming power of love. What’s not to like?

Celebrating 900 years here takes us back to our roots and those are set firmly in the Benedictine Rule that the monks here followed. One of the guiding principles of this was and continues to be hospitality to all who come. As the Rule of St Benedict says, ‘Let all who come be received as though they were Christ’ (Chapter 53). We are to greet them with love, honour and blessing in the name of Christ and we do that to all. Every event begins with a prayer, which one of us leads. And the Dean on Friday used my 900th anniversary prayer to welcome the Muslim community and others who had come to be together as they broke their fast, to delight in the transforming power of love. It is a prayer that talks of awe and wonder, new life, love and care for all.

There are differences in how we celebrate and the story we tell, and these matter. We don’t try to pretend that we are not really Christian and our Muslim brothers and sisters would not want us to do that. In fact I find contact with them reminds me to be confident in my faith as they are confident in theirs. It is when we are confident that we are better able to greet with hospitality and love and welcome. Confidence and commitment breeds hospitality and enables us to be generous because it is not threatened by the others existing. So to receive those who come as though they were Christ is to be firmly rooted in the heritage of our faith, the gospel of love, new life and transformation which this ancient holy place sings at the top of its voice – at the top of our voices. So be under no illusions we do not forget who we are and with George Pace’s enormous gilded crucifix hanging in the centre of the nave here, with its Latin tag that the cross is the still place while the world turns, we’d have to screw up our eyes pretty tightly to try to do that. The transforming power of God’s self-giving, hospitable and sacrificial love shines out to all who come here.

Our gospel reading had its critics and those who were concerned that Jesus had lost his mind (Mark 3:20-end). This follows on from last week’s reading where Jesus breaks the Sabbath restrictions on preparing food by helping himself and his disciples to a snack while walking through a cornfield. A strict interpretation of the Hebrew religious law would not prepare food during the Sabbath rest. And Jesus responds to his critics by breaking this law further in healing the man with a withered hand. Again that could be construed to have been work and the surgery should have been shut. This man Jesus doesn’t seem to know when to stop! He clearly must have a demon – which may seem quite a leap in logic to us, but it shows how off-beam they thought he was being. Jesus restores rationality by pointing out that Satan can’t destroy Satan otherwise he destroys himself! It’s a nonsense claim that they are making. In effect he replies that they need to get a grip, or the more diplomatic among us might suggest they get this into perspective, restore balance. (But in my head I prefer ‘get a grip’.)

And Jesus goes on to reflect on what it means to be part of his family. Sometimes I think he puts things in a deliberately provocative manner to get the attention and make us think. So he is not being insulting to his mother and siblings, but using a Rabbinic shock tactic to say ‘listen up’. He says something which makes them say ‘what?’. And then goes on, ‘Now you are paying attention here comes the real point’. ‘If you do the will of God you are not merely disciples or followers, but my closest relations – even my mother, and my brothers and my sisters.’ And ‘sisters’ is in the Greek, so the embracing goes further than just a band of brothers – everyone is included here, which is a quiet radical inclusion, more transforming power of love. In years past welcoming Roman Catholics to celebrate a Mass here would have been radical, and we did that the other day too. We too just don’t seem to know when to stop because the radical love we see in Jesus doesn’t either.

Doing the will God being a mother or brother or sister has echoes or hints and is extended in other passages and themes in the Bible. St Paul had to struggle with how to be hospitable and accept hospitality. A question he wrestled with in his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 8) was whether or not to eat food sacrificed under other religious practices. Halal wasn’t around then, but it is relevant. He argued that it was important to remember who you are and not pretend that what is important to you is not important. So if you are asked to affirm something that goes against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or denies him, then gently decline. But food is food, so don’t over worry. Hospitality is good and to be delighted in. And on Friday the hospitality was the overriding presence. Later in Mark’s gospel (9:38-41) Jesus talks about those who are with us being not against us. When we are building bridges, strengthening bonds and looking to proclaim light and hope in a world of darkness and hatred, then welcome all friends wherever you can find them. Everyone who works for good is not against you! When we welcome and share hospitality and fellowship, we have an opportunity to relate, to engage, to grow in understanding. There is an opportunity to testify to the hope within us. If we erect barriers and refuse to meet, then there is no discussion or opportunity to grow.

Crucial here is the remembering who we are and not denying the light and hope of Jesus Christ. And have confidence in God who came among us in Jesus Christ. So anyone who shines light and hope is connecting at a deep level with the love of God let loose in the world. For as we remind ourselves at every wedding, “God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16). So there is a deep point at which we connect and share a common currency as fellow, beloved creatures, bearing the image of our creator. This is hardwired into creation and it comes from God. So we can join with others. But, and there is a ‘but’, don’t fall into the trap of thinking everyone thinks the same really because narratives matter and they carry all sorts of implications and allusions. And that is where dialogue becomes real when we tease out together just what that means. Sometimes, though, it takes someone who comes at things from a different faith tradition to remind us of aspects of our faith we have forgotten – in this case fasting to delight in goodness, to experience what it is to be hungry to truly empathise with the poor, the importance of simple and humble living, and also of being thankful. Such dialogue won’t happen though unless barriers come down, hospitality is shared and the hands of friendship extended.

So we welcome lots of different people into this place, just as has happened through the west doors for 900 years – and on this site for much longer. They have been and are a diverse group with different backgrounds, outlooks and identities. Some agree, some don’t agree. But all of us are welcomed by the true host, who is enthroned in gold, suspended on the cross from the ceiling, showing just how much love matters and costs. At the heart of this service is the sharing of a meal, in bread and wine, as we break fast together and celebrate the foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people. When we affirm this love, this transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ extending to everyone, we become Christ’s mother and brother and sister. It’s a big house here, for a big family.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Cathedral, Sunday 10th June 2018

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Stories, Sabbath and Integration

IMG_0868Stories matter and the story we share particularly so for bringing people and communities together. Having a common story that tells how we got to here, mapping out the centuries past, is an important part of a community’s identity. And it is important to ensure that each generation knows that story and therefore understands what makes this people who they are, why they see what they see and understand what they understand. I often find I understand people so much better when I know their story and it improves how we relate. We need to know who we are talking to; we are not just talking to some kind of biological robot. To be human is to have been shaped by a story, a journey, and some of that is our personal one and some of it is the bigger story of the people where we are. Each person brings something different into that mix and so the story evolves.

I was at the Cohesion and Diversity Forum meeting for the city the other week and our subject was looking at Integration. There is a Government green paper, the ‘Integrated Communities Strategy’, which has been produced and is out for consultation. The key message of it is that Britain is on the whole a well-integrated society but in too many parts of our country communities are divided, so people don’t mix. This not mixing leads to mistrust, misunderstandings and it prevents the most isolated from taking advantage of the opportunities which belonging and participating in society brings. And the green paper identifies what it sees as being a number of drivers of this poor integration. These are the pace of immigration – where people have arrived at a greater speed than can be assimilated (and we might add the failures to be welcoming and enable joining in), school segregation where children do not meet and so grow up without meeting, the low levels in some communities of being able to speak English at an adequate level, segregated communities where people of different backgrounds just don’t interrelate, employment levels in these places, some cultural attitudes and how much social mixing there is. It is quite a wide range, but related collection of issues. There is an agenda aimed at tackling each of these areas, which in Peterborough looks at language, young people, tackling segregation, increasing economic opportunity and looking at some cultural blockers. Interestingly the budget for addressing the growing homelessness problem in the city is coming out of this agenda, not least a Migration Limitation Fund!

An important factor in Integration will be how we tell stories about who we are. And in the discussions the Heritage Festival came up. How do we use, as a city, this opportunity to tell the story of this city and not just battles? This is a city where people have arrived over many centuries, but where is the story of those who have come here in the last 50 years? How do we help one another understand the story of this place and also the story of the people who are now here, which has to come together? Some of these stories will intersect, and not always well. Those who have ancestors who were slaves mean we all have to come to terms with Britain’s past involvement in the trade and its abolition. Those who come from former Empire lands and places of British rule and misrule, will require a coming to terms with this. Heritage is a mixed legacy. I find in each place I live, I don’t really inhabit it until I have a sense of its story – the good, the bad and the ugly. And sometimes I need to know just what darkness, untold stories lurk beneath the surface, but are still working on the corporate psyche.

The importance of story featured strongly in our readings this morning. The book of Deuteronomy (5:12-15) reminded its readers that they were once slaves in Egypt. Their common story has slavery, oppression, liberation and the forming of that people as they journeyed through the wilderness. The Sabbath, then, so fundamental as a weekly day of religious observance, is a day to remember who they are, their story. God has chosen them and shaped them. God has defined who they are. That story is important for them to remember.

But Jesus was not limited by it and neither should we be by our stories. Walking through a corn field when he and his disciples were hungry, no story should interrupt them from preparing food – just like King David raided the larder when his men were hungry. A man with a withered hand was healed, despite the expectation that the surgery would be closed (Mark 2:23-3:6). The point he was making was that while the story of the Sabbath is important, it was made to assist who we are not us made to serve it. Remember and live, be set free, which is what Sabbath connects with, and being free from hunger and a crippling disease are dramatic ways of demonstrating that.

Stories also set out the direction of travel. They shape how we see the world. So the Christian story is rooted in God the creator, the redeemer and the sustainer of our life. It proclaims the love of God in Jesus Christ and calls on us to live that love in everything we do and are, and to draw others to join in, to follow Jesus Christ too. That is the story that this church sits here to proclaim and stand as a witness to. It is not just an old building that has been around for a while. The Sabbath is to remind us of the heritage of faith which has brought us to this point and which we live today.

And at the heart of this service is God’s presence in word and sacrament. The bible readings have an honoured place, rightly so, in all our worship. They are the story of our faith and it is a living story to inspire and give the hope that means while we might get ‘perplexed, we do not fall into despair’, ‘afflicted we are not crushed’, and however we are ‘struck down, we are not destroyed’ (2 Corinthians 4:5-12). We also remember through bread and wine, as we share together in a meal that has the primary intention of keeping the story of Jesus in front of us: his life, teaching, dying and rising.

So stories matter. They remind us who we are and they change over time as new people bring their stories to join in. Integration requires stories to be known and shared, to be learnt along with the language, and to be celebrated. When they bring different outlooks these need to be brought into the open so that there can be mutual understanding. There is no dialogue if that does not happen and just like we need to know what is important to others, they need to know what is important to us. And significant festivals are part of making that known, to others and to ourselves.

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy… Remember that you were a slave… and the Lord brought you out.” (Deuteronomy 5:12,15) In doing this we are not just observing laws, but allowing the story to shape us, the story of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity 1 – Sunday 3rd June 2018

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Looking up – seeing images of the Trinity in Antony Gormley’s figures

IMG_0895The skyline around the church has changed. Three sculptured figures have been placed on top of buildings and we were privileged to host the celebration of their installation on Friday. The works belong to the city and are by the contemporary British artist Antony Gormley. They are made of sheet lead on fiberglass shells and depict casts of the artist’s own body. They were bought by the city in the early 1980s and, although previously displayed, have been in storage for a long time. It is good that they now have a more permanent siting, where they can be seen by everyone coming into the city centre and I expect will be an additional attraction for visitors to come here, and therefore provide a boost to the city centre economy. And we are right in the middle of them.

The sculptures go under the name of ‘Places to Be’ and are a reflection on the human form occupying a space, what it means to be a place in a space and looking beyond that space to the vastness around us. So, that title, ‘Places to Be’, can refer to both location, where we are, and also what it means to be a place of being in ourselves, who we are. There are three poses for these statues – which are not static figures, unlike military generals and other notables in so much civic statuary around the country. One has his arms outstretch embracing the sky. It is embracing the vast and fathomless space of all that there is, the cosmos and who knows what else beyond. One is looking out to see what can be seen and in wonder. It is looking at all that is approaching and what might be on the horizon, the extent of our gaze. The third is walking, on a journey towards a destination undefined but looking purposeful.

IMG_0906What I liked about the way Antony Gormley spoke about these sculptures at the reception in the church on Friday lunchtime was his openness to possibilities and interpretations. He did not close them down or narrow their field; in fact quite the opposite. He expanded how we might see them and let them draw us to expand our vision. The strapline (and hashtag) from Vivacity for the installation is #LookUp, encouraging us to raise our gaze both literally and figuratively; to raise our gaze from our phones and the immediate. Look up and see what more there is to see. Look up and have our perspective expanded to new hopes and possibilities.

Embracing, looking and walking. Modes of being and places to be. The horizons of our perspective, these being expanded as we ‘Look Up’ and a journey in purpose. These are interesting themes through which to approach Trinity Sunday, which is the day we think about who God is and where God is.

Embracing the vastness brings us to touch transcendence, the origin and vastness of God which is far beyond anything we can hold. Arms outstretched in wonder and adoration is the beginning of faith and religious, spiritual stirrings. God, whom we call Father, is the source and goal of all that there is and can be. This wonder fills hearts with a sense of purpose and being in a place where to be is to exist where there is something rather than nothing. Some aspects, many aspects, may puzzle, even perplex us – and there are great questions with which we struggle at times – but they do not remove or silence the wonder and deep sense that our being exists within this vastness and it is not empty.

Arms outstretched embracing also carries the echo of Christ’s arms outstretched on the cross. And the vastness, the transcendent comes close. The created order is embraced with the love of the God who so loved the world that he sent, that he came among us in Jesus Christ (John 3:16). And that crucial and self-defining phrase, ‘God so loved the world’, was part of our gospel reading this morning. This is God’s answer to the perplexing questions, not least of suffering and mortality, where transcendence shows up and shows that the struggle is held and nothing can separate us from that love.

IMG_0917Looking and gazing also bring us to the one who comes close to us. We ‘look from afar and lo we see the power of God coming’, and he brings healing in his wings. Biblical writers have long yearned for the fulfillment of their hopes and we affirm these in Jesus Christ. We see in him all that we can see of God, of what God is like. Nicodemus, in our gospel reading (John 3:1-17), went to see Jesus at night and the night is dark when there are no streetlights. So he goes, even as a teacher, in spiritual darkness. But he looks and he sees. And seeing leads to an opening of hope and new life. The story of Jesus Christ has to be told and opened so that the narrative can shape and work within us.

We are moving into the third statue and like the Trinity these figures interweave and connect. We do not stay static, just in wonder or looking, as spectators and armchair consumers. That is one of the flipsides of all our seeming connectivity and technology; we live in a society of consumers and observers. We are called by Jesus Christ to follow him. To move, to go on a journey that will lead into unknown territory for us. And the God of the beyond, even of the present and presence, also moves. The Holy Spirit is the wind that blows and causes movement. The Holy Spirit compels us to move and sends us to be agents of God’s kingdom of justice and peace. We walk with purpose and hope.

The Trinity, which we celebrate today, is how we see God in these three persons of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They affirm the great mystery of who God is, who we can see God to be, and how we experience God distant, close and compelling; embracing, the one whom we look for and who makes the journey for us to walk. God is the place where we can be and are, makes us a place for him to be, for his Spirit to dwell in our hearts so that we call him Father (Romans 8:15). Look up and see and be. Look up and see the vastness of God, the presence of God and the sending of God in purpose and hope. Look up and see images that can remind us of God the Holy Trinity.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Trinity Sunday, 27th May 2018

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Places to Be

IMG_0895It was a privilege this afternoon to welcome Antony Gormley to St John’s Church in the heart of the city centre in Peterborough for a celebration of the installation of his three sculptures ‘Places to Be’. These have been placed on top of buildings around the church and the invitation to everyone is to #LookUp. They are casts of his own body, made of sheet lead on a fibreglass shell. They explore what it means to be, to be in a space and to be a space of dwelling – not least around the church, to be a place where the Spirit of God dwells, inspires and fills with grace.

There are three poses – one embracing the sky, even the cosmos. One looking out to see what can be seen and wonder. One on the move, walking to a destination, but on a journey. Three ways of being – embracing, looking, moving.

IMG_0906We are each a place to be a person – created, loved and redeemed by God. Far more than just a thing, we are places where the image of God dwells.

The tagline #LookUp is both practical, you need to look up to see them on the skyline, and also metaphorical. They raise our sights and thoughts are we have to look from where we are to where they are and beyond them, even through them. We have to look up from our phones and take notice.

As is our custom in the church the celebration was begun with a prayer and this is the prayer I wrote this morning to reflect on ‘Places to Be’, being created in the image of God, looking up and God’s Spirit inspiring. It is my reflective response to these wonderful works of art in the city centre.

God of wonder,IMG_0917

as we lift our gaze

so may we find our hearts raised

to delight in the beauty of your creation,

the hope in Jesus Christ

and become a place to be

where your Spirit dwells;

to honour your image in one another;

to the glory of the Father. Amen.

© Ian Black 2018


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Power of Love shown at Pentecost

IMG_0685I don’t know if you have been using the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ material over the last ten days, from Ascension to today. This has been encouraging us to pray, to open our hearts to the life and love of God in Jesus Christ, to seek his kingdom above and in all things, to be longing for the life of the Holy Spirit, which we celebrate today. It has been a period of encouragement to share this hope and longing in all our meetings and relating, to long for others to come and share in this life of hope. Some aspects of the material have been deep and profound, beautifully worded and perceptive of how life can be and feel.

On Thursday the theme was ‘adore’, and adoration and praise is the response our hearts make to the love of God that gives our lives meaning and hope. The reflection that accompanied this, if you were using that resource, popped into my email inbox. And it started so well, reflecting on the lure of celebrity and fame, the illusion of adoration which can mask a deep-seated insecurity and actually feelings which struggle to accept that we are adored and adorable. My disappointment grew, though, when I read words which talked of us not ‘deserving’ this love of God and knowing for ourselves “that we’re not really that adorable”. Oh dear, I thought, that subtle comment goes against so much of what I believe to be true at a profound and fundamental level. It also undermines the message it was trying to convey – an unfortunate slip, but one that may well display more than is realised. Let me explain.

The point of Jesus Christ is that he shows us what God is like. And it is in the nature of God to love. We exist because of this love, and it is God’s gift and giving which is the source and goal of our life. We are held in that love or we are nothing. ‘Deserving’ is not in the equation at all. Worthiness is not in the equation, except so far as we perceive it. God reaches into our lives with a loving embrace. And that can be almost unbearable, and extremely difficult to accept, but that is our baggage and not God’s. “God so loved the world” that he came as Jesus among us. He didn’t come despite the world, despite our unworthiness. That is not part of the deal or even on the table. It is love offered, love given, love shared and poured out for us. And all because it is in the nature of God to do this. So no choosing beyond choosing to be who God is.

This tension between how we see it or feel it and how God is, is expressed beautifully and powerfully in George Herbert’s poem ‘Love bade me welcome’. You may know it from Vaughan Williams evocative musical setting in his ‘Five Mystical Songs’. The soul draws back because it knows it is ‘guilty of dust and sin’. But quick-eyed love observes this and invites the soul to be the guest, ‘worthy to be here’. It is too much for the soul who protests unworthiness. But for God this is not the criterion. God made him and love him. Love says that he should sit and eat. But the soul, accepting to join the meal, says he will do so as the server, only worthy in his own eyes to wait on tables. This is rejected. ‘No you won’t’, says love, ‘you are my guest’. The nature of God is to love and we thrive and flourish in that love. It is radical, transforming and changes people for the better.

Yesterday we saw the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as they are now known. Love has transformed their lives; brought them joy and completion, which is a delight to see. Neither has had to earn that love; they gave it to one another because it is in their natures to love. It is in all our natures to love and in so doing we display the image of the one who made us and reaches out to us in loving embrace. In his sermon, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, Michael Curry, quoted Martin Luther King.

“We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”

Love changes us. As Michael Curry went on to say:

“There’s power in love. Love can help and heal when nothing else can. Love can lift up and liberate for living when nothing else will.”

And this is true because God is love and all loving is hardwired into that nature of God.

So we come to our gospel reading (John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15). In these verses taken from John’s gospel, Jesus talks about the Spirit being sent and given, the Advocate, the Helper and Comforter, depending on your translation. ‘He will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness and judgement.’ This is the anti-thesis of having to earn and deserve God’s gift and love. The world is wrong about sin precisely because it does not understand who Jesus is and what he represents. He represents the nature of God who loves and gives and blesses because that is who he is. It is wrong about what it means to be righteous because it does not depend on deserving, on anything we might do, but on God’s grace alone. We can do nothing to change or affect it. Jesus is going to the Father. That means he is who he is and that gives the authority for what he says. It is wrong about judgement because we have hope. The ruler of the world, the effect of sin, the power of evil and rebellion has been defeated in Christ’s cross and resurrection, in his ascension. God is God and so we bask in that loving embrace in Jesus Christ.

And that brings us to Pentecost, the gifting of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of the fuel needed to fill us with the life and love of being adored. It is the counter to all the false searching in places where there can never be true fulfillment – be it fame, the latest experience of a high however induced: partying, drugs or alcohol, or hollow relating. The Holy Spirit is the grace and charism of God, and that is by its nature infused and overflowing with love.

So we do not come here as unworthy creatures, even if that is how we feel, even if that is how it might look if we measured ourselves up against the perfection of God, fallen as we are. We come as beloved, invited by the love. We come as guests of one whose nature is to give and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon us, and in us, is that love being made complete. For we are not left alone, comfortless, or abandoned by an absentee creator-owner. We are filled with the spirit of the divine which makes love the most powerful force in the world. It changes hearts, puts down weapons and bridges divides – not least oceans between peoples otherwise divided by a common language.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Pentecost, Sunday 20th May 2018

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Megaphone vs Rolling Over? Faith Seeking Understanding

IMG_7967There is a question running through the gospel reading this morning (John 17:6-19) about how we relate to the world. How does Christian faith respond to or live with the world? The passage we heard is part of a long prayer of Jesus for his disciples and his reflection on what is to come as he is about to embrace the final journey to the cross. After this he is arrested and a sequence of events is set in train that leads to his death and he seems to know this. So he is anguished for his disciples, whom he knows he is leaving behind and it is natural to wonder what will become of them. Will they hold true to all that he has been trying to instill in them? Will they hold to the love and power of the good news he brought, or buckle and fall in line with the expectations of the world around them? And so, the central question running though this passage.

At one moment Jesus seems to be saying that there is to be a separation between them and the world, where the world is seen as being something distinct from those who follow Jesus (v9b), something to be protected from (v12). It seems to be the territory of the ‘evil one’ (v15). Jesus’ followers do not belong to the world (v16). In the next breath they are not to be taken out of the world (v15) and indeed are being sent into it (v18). So what are we to make of this and how should we approach what is being referred to here as ‘the world’? What is to be our approach as we hold to the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world that doesn’t always share the same assumptions or indeed understand them?

There have been a number of responses by Christian writers and thinkers over the centuries to this question and we find them in various guises now. At the two extremes are what I will characterize as at one end the megaphone approach and at the other the dog which roles over for its tummy to be tickled. The megaphone is shouty and proclaims loudly and without any reference to the thought patterns or arguments put to it. It sees itself as being distinct and the only really valid approach to the world is to mark out the clear distinction. At its extremes it uses the image of the Ark, where the drawbridge is to be raised so that the church, the Christian community, becomes a place of safety and protection, of remote holiness unbothered by the corruption outside. This starts to be seen when we hear claims that the church has to make sure it doesn’t bow to the ‘spirit of the age’, or sell out to modernity. It needs to proclaim a distinct Christian gospel and not have any truck with all this modern immorality and betrayal of truth.

It won’t be a surprise that I find this wanting. It doesn’t do justice to how life really is. And sets up a false barrier that we don’t need in those terms. It is also not incarnational, where God chooses to come among us in Jesus Christ and share the space with all sorts of surprising people as he walks and talks. Jesus is challenged for doing precisely this when he parties with tax officials, publicans and others of questionable character. The world is where we are and we have to relate to it just as Jesus related to it, indeed came precisely to do this. We are made of the same substance, so can’t ignore it. It is who we are and in that sense we belong to it. Hold that one, though, for a moment because that is not the complete picture.

The other extreme is the dog who roles over for its tummy to be tickled. This is where we so assimilate our thinking that there is no distinction at all with secular and other thought. We have nothing to contribute because all our reference points come from the same shared space as our culture and how the modern age sees it. The dog has lost its teeth so has no bite to offer. This is an ultra liberal agenda and I find it wanting for locking itself in the confines of the here and now, with no reference to anything beyond. While we live in the world and are made of the same substance, share the same cultural influences, we have a gospel to proclaim and that carries elements that look outside of what is current and popular. There is something counter cultural about the gospel. So I’m not content with the tummy tickled dog rolled over on its back either.

Another approach takes a midpoint, where profound faith becomes the lens through which we view and assimilate, access other disciplines and views. This is summed up well in a phrase from an 11th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm. He talked about ‘faith seeking understanding’, where being in the world, the world we seek to understand, we owe our true allegiance to a creator who stands beyond it, indeed on whom it depends. And it is the perspective of eternity that we use to try to understand, drawing on all of the disciplines that we can access in this: science, history, sociology, psychology, medicine to name a few. Faith seeks understanding in being the profound confidence and trust in God, and this being the solid ground from which intellectual enquiry and reflection is launched. We view the world through the eyes of faith and in that we seek to understand the world God made, cares for and loves. It is by no means merely a bolt on optional extra, which can be ignored or sidelined. It is central to the enquiry and the quest for understanding.

With this approach, when Jesus prays for protection it is a prayer for a profound rooting and grounding in the presence and reality of God. Strengthened and protected by this we have nothing to fear in where intellectual enquiry might lead us, even if it brings profound challenge to where we might be at the moment. And that is why the gospel is radical, because it takes us to the core of who we are and who we might become. It doesn’t just lock us in to where we are, or indeed seek to leave us where we are, but transform us in the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit.

On Friday I had the privilege to host Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, when he came to the Cathedral to talk about a past Dean, who was also one of his predecessors as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. During this he talked about education and one of its purposes being to equip people to ask lots of awkward questions. We do not want a civil society that is compliant and docile. We want one which requires those we elect to give account and justify what they do. It also needs to be grown up and recognize the difficult decisions they have to make and the limitations of their options. Too much of our politics is narrow and blinkered at the moment and only looks at questions in isolation, failing to join up the dots. It is one which seems to fit well with the megaphone that shouts without taking account of the context in which it is set and we need one which is more grown up.

So when Jesus prays that his disciples will be protected from the world, he also expects them to stay in the world and struggle with it and all it brings their way. Their faith is to seek understanding, their faith is to protect them from being lost and give them teeth when they need it to provide bite so that they have something to say and offer. Christ came into the world and did not stand aloof from it. Indeed he was about to embrace its pain and suffering in the rawest way that he could, on the cross. As we stand in these days between Ascension and Pentecost we can reflect on the challenge to be of the world and yet know that we view it with a perspective drawn from beyond it, even more deeply in it than the superficial. We are to be ‘sanctified in truth’ (v19).

We both belong to the world, for that is where we are and it gives form to our physicality, and we are not bound by it, for faith gives us a perspective drawn from eternity that seeks to be guided by the Holy Spirit of God. We are not restricted to whatever is fashionable, but also take the best of other disciples seriously. Faith is the place from which we seek understanding; it is not merely a bolt on optional extra.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 7, Sunday 13th May 2018

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Advisory: This sermon contains nuts – Julian of Norwich and the Command to Love

IMG_0555On our way back from an Easter break in Norfolk, we called in at the Church of St Julian in Norwich. This is where the medieval mystic Mother Julian of Norwich had her cell as an anchorite. This meant that she was walled up in the cell attached to the church for 26 years between 1390 and her death in 1416. Once she entered it, she was not allowed to leave on pain of excommunication. She literally lived in that room for the rest of her life and was not allowed to leave. It is likely that she was even buried under the floor. This was so stark that before entering she would have attended her own funeral Mass in the church and received the last rites. When she went in, the door was sealed with wax seals and her only contact was through a small window where she could receive food and Communion. It was a solitary life of prayer and reflection. Today the site of her cell has a deep stillness and peace about it – a place to sit and reflect.

While she was in there she wrote of visions she received when desperately ill some years before and these are known under the title of ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. They are a classic and she is remembered in the church’s calendar this coming Tuesday – 8th May.

One of her writings reflects on a hazelnut, which is why I have given these to you. As she looked at it in the palm of her hand she saw this as a powerful symbol of God’s love, holding creation as in the palm of his hand – and you might like to look at the one I gave you as it sits in the palm of your hand as I read this passage from her writing, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’:

“And in this he also showed a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… In this little thing I saw three properties: the first is that God made it; the second is that God loves it; the third is that God cares for it. But what is that to me? Truly, the maker, the carer, and the lover. For until I am of one substance with him I can never have complete rest nor true happiness; that is to say, until I am so joined to him that there is no created thing between my God and me.” (Chapter5)

God made it, God loves it and God cares for it – the Maker, the Lover and the Carer. The world, indeed the universe, is fragile and vulnerable. It is tiny in comparison to the vastness of space and eternity, even more so for us than for Mother Julian. But ultimately it is loved and that love is the source of our deepest hope in Jesus Christ. It is held, it is cared for by the maker, redeemer and sustainer of all things.

Our Gospel reading mentioned love seven times, in a short passage (John 15:9-17). As the Father loves the Son, so he loves the world. We are to abide in his love and outside of that we are estranged from the very purpose and heart of the created universe. And this love continues to move and touch. As we are loved so we are to love. The Commandment that Jesus gives is to love one another. And to ram home that point he repeats it, just in case the disciples haven’t heard him or weren’t listening properly. This is a direct command. We are who we are, who God calls us to be, when we abide in his love and the sign and outworking of this is the love we show for one another. Grumpy, gripey, grouchy and fractious as we can all be, love is the answer. And in that love we blossom and flourish. We know it for ourselves. We should know it for others.

Julian of Norwich went on in her vision of the hazelnut to talk about how much we are to be of one substance with God. We will never have complete rest or happiness outside of this. Or to use the language of John’s gospel, we are to abide in that love. This is where we are to dwell and know we dwell, where we have our home.

The poet William Blake also thought about the world being seen in something small and through it to see infinity.

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.”

As we look at the hazelnut, resting in the palm of our hand, we find the love of God visible for us. Just as the hazelnut is small it has great potential to grow as a seed into a giant tree. The love which brings and triggers awe and wonder, delight and thanksgiving, brings a glimpse of the eternal and the hope that comes into this fragile and small world. We are looking at eternity in the palm of our hand, to the love of eternity and at the eternal love of the creator.

Julian of Norwich’s time was turbulent. The blackdeath had ravaged and disturbed people deeply. They were very conscious of the reality and ever presence of death. She would have heard the burial carts trundle past outside her cell. The Peasants’ Revolt led to many public executions and her bishop, Henry Despenser led troops to quell rebellions, including in Peterborough, so he was no quiet man of gentleness! A mob attacked Peterborough Abbey and Henry Despenser rode to the aid of the Abbot, leading to 400 people being slaughtered in what is now Cathedral Square, including women and children. So with that background her mystical and hope-filled vision of God loving, rather than hating and threatening, the created world is all the more powerful. It was a similar world to Jesus’, where public executions and summary reprisals could bring death at any moment. So the advocacy of love calls for a putting away of fear and panic, to rest secure and trust in God’s underlying and enduring love. Just like the hazelnut is held, so are we.

Jesus’ command is that we love one another. It springs from the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. In that love we flourish and find our true fulfillment. As we gaze on the hazelnut in the palm of our hand we become aware that we are held in God’s love and care as maker, lover and carer. As we abide in that love so that love is to reach out to everyone we meet.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 6 – Sunday 6th May 2018

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