Sunday, 31 March 2013

Easter Day 2013

Farewell to St Giles Cheddington

First Reading Acts 10.34-43

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached – how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Gospel John 20: 1 - 18

Alleluia, alleluia.
I am the first and the last, says the Lord, and the living one;
I was dead, and behold I am alive for evermore.
All Alleluia.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.

“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Each of the 4 gospel resurrection narratives is slightly different, but they all have 3 things in common.

· Inspection of the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning

· Mary Magdalene is present

· The tomb is found to be empty

In today’s alternative reading from Luke, there are a lot more women. Luke has at least 5 – possibly more. “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them” Three named women, plus “other women with them.” 2 of those, Mary Magdalene and Joanna, were named back in Luke 8 amongst the women who provided for the expenses of Jesus’ ministry from their own means.

The men don’t come out of it very well. They don’t believe the account of the empty tomb, dismissing the women’s account as an ‘idle tale’ in Luke. Peter ran to the tomb, but although he returned amazed, there is no real sign he believed. That was why the walkers on the road to Emmaus returned to confirm they had seen the risen Lord, confirming he had appeared to Simon.

John’s portrayal is a bit kinder to the men. When Mary Magdalene came running to find Peter with her news, Peter took off with another disciple who overtook him and arrived first. But it was Peter who impulsively pushed past him and went into the tomb, where he saw the folded grave clothes put to one side.

This evidence clinched it for Peter. Who, taking the body of Jesus would have carefully unwrapped it and set the soiled linen to one side? Peter saw and believed. But the other men still did not understand or remember Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection.

Peter saw and believed. That’s surely the theme of every Easter Day – that we should see and believe. Whatever part Mary Magdalene is always credited as playing – it’s clear she did not link the disappearance of the body of Jesus to anything like his having risen again. For Mary, the body was missing. Who had taken it, and where had they put it? So, after Peter had run back again having believed, Mary stood weeping.

Today is Easter Day. Every Sunday is a little Easter – a weekly celebration of the resurrection – the eighth day of creation as the late 2nd century Epistle of Barnabas puts it – a day when every week we remember Jesus rose from the dead and brought about our salvation.

This might be my last sermon in this place, so for once why not follow the threefold Anglican pattern I have usually ignored? There are 3 thoughts I should like to leave with you:

Firstly, Easter is perplexing. Believing in the resurrection is not easy, but we know the fact of the empty tomb is the one crucial non-negotiable element of our faith. Peter saw and believed. We have not seen, yet are called upon to believe.

Even the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene is perplexing. Why did she not immediately recognise him? Why did the walkers on the road to Emmaus spend so long with Jesus before it dawned on them who he was?

Secondly, Easter provides a tipping point between death and new life. Not only for Jesus himself in those three days, but for us as well. We walk the way of the cross. And as God raised the lifeless body of his Son, so we pass from spiritual death to new life, if only we can have faith in him and what he accomplished for us.

Thirdly, if Easter is the tipping point, what comes after? What comes after is a new creation. It begins with the resurrection. It continues with the proclamation of the gospel – the good news of the resurrection. As the apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:17:
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!

Our first reading this morning came from Acts. It’s mandatory. Whatever else we pick from the lectionary, Acts must be read. Why? Because it includes a speech by Peter himself, laying out what he saw with his own eyes and heard with his own ears. We are witnesses says Peter of everything Jesus did. He was not seen by all the people, but by us, who ate and drank with him. He commanded us to preach and testify...that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

This is of course the Easter message in its simplest form. It’s the message I leave with you. But I don’t want you to remember what I said next Easter, but every Sunday – each ‘little Easter’ – when, as today, we too eat and drink with him.

Mighty God of mercy, we thank you for the resurrection dawn, bringing the glory of our risen Lord who makes every morning new.

Renew this weary world, heal the hurts of all your children, and bring about your peace for all in Christ Jesus, the living Lord. Amen

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Nature of God

Self-sacrificial service – a sermon for Palm Sunday

First Reading Philippians 2: 5 - 11

5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

6 who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death –
        even death on a cross!

9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

Gospel Luke 22: 14 - 23

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
Christ humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him
and given him the name that is above every name.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the kingdom of God.’

17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, ‘Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’

19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’

20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. 21 But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. 22 The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to that man who betrays him!’ 23 They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday all the events were in fulfilment of prophecy. The prophecy of Zechariah is headed “The Coming of Zion’s King.”
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Do a search for the words Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord and with the Palm Sunday references in all the gospels you also discover the same phrase used in Psalm 118:
26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    From the house of the Lord we bless you.
27 The Lord is God,
    and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will praise you;
    you are my God, and I will exalt you.
29 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his love endures forever.

No wonder the Pharisees told Jesus to rebuke his disciples. They were not just hailing their Master, but in the reference to the Hebrew Scriptures at the very least hailing him as King, challenging the status quo, but very likely also Son of God.

What interests me more this morning is not a repetition of all the sermons you have heard in the past about Palm Sunday, but what Jesus was claiming for himself, and what God gave him. The paired reading from the letter to the Philippians is in the form of a hymn. It seeks to explain the things Jesus did which were certainly not what you would have predicted, and absolutely not what the crowds claimed on the first Palm Sunday. This is followed by what God did – and I would add how we should respond in our imitation of Christ which is the total objective of the Christian life.

What Jesus Did

You might have expected the arrival of a King would signal an uprising, leading a rebellion against Roman rule. But that’s not what Jesus wants. Jesus is in very nature God yet he did not seek to take advantage of his equality with God or his divine nature. Instead, Jesus did two things: first, he ‘emptied’ himself by taking the form of a slave: and secondly, he humbled himself by submitting to death on the cross.

Jesus somehow divested himself of his divinity, and embraced true humility. His humility led to self-sacrificing service of others where, alternatively, he might have exploited his equality with God to overcome all obstacles and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven as his disciples expected.

What God Did

The divine response is perhaps very much less surprising. God exalted him to the highest place, and gave Jesus a name that is above every name so that every knee should bow to him and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

You can almost hear these words sung by the early church as a hymn.

Because Jesus the incarnate God reveals to us what God is like, what does this tell us about the divine nature? Well, Jesus existed in the form of God – the NRSV actually translates the Greek as “who, though he was in the form of God” but really the meaning is “because he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”

To me, this means that the way Jesus acted was the way God would have acted, and indeed the way God did act. That means it is in God’s very nature to act in humble, self-sacrificial service.

In the Gospel of John, Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus answers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). The hymn suggests that Jesus’ revelation of God is most conspicuous in his humility and death.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of a book by Thomas a Kempis called The Imitation of Christ. It was composed in Latin early in the 15th century. Even today, this work is regarded as a spiritual classic. The book starts with the words:
He who follows me walks not in darkness. By these words of Christ, we are invited to imitate his life... Our chief effort should therefore be to study the life of Christ.

As we enter holy week and the Easter season, what better aim can we have but to reflect day by day on this one aim, to be imitators of Christ. This means, of course, on Good Friday thinking about what it actually means to take up the cross and follow him. And the letter to the Philippians could well be something to read and think about, teaching us as it does that it is in the nature of God to empty himself of all exaltation and take on the task of self-sacrificial service to us.

Our response must surely be to become imitators of Him, sacrificing our own interests and pursuit of gain and advantage, and in their place serving others, as Christ himself ultimately did in his obedience, even to death on a cross. Amen

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Mothering Sunday

Sermon by Robert Wright at St Giles on 10 March 2013

Gospel Luke 2.33-35

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Jesus’ father and mother marvelled at what Simeon said about Jesus. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Let me take you back to Christmas for a while. The reading from Luke 2 comes after a passage very familiar to us, which is read every Christmas, sometimes more than once.

Caesar Augustus the Roman emperor called for a census. Joseph and his betrothed, Mary, make the journey to Bethlehem, where the baby Jesus is born.

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’

As the law required, sometime later Jesus is presented in the Temple. A sacrifice had to be offered. For the poor, a sacrifice of two doves or young pigeons was laid down following the birth of every firstborn male child.

But before this took place, a man called Simeon approached Mary. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel. For years maybe. It had been promised Simeon that he would not die before seeing God’s Messiah. The Holy Spirit, Luke says, was upon him.

When Mary and Joseph approached, Simeon came forward and took the baby Jesus in his arms. He praised God, in the words of the Nunc Dimittis:
29 ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.’

All good news, you might think, and it was – except for the cloud that would hang over Mary his mother for the rest of her life. This is the reason for the choice of reading on Mothering Sunday, which reflects on the sacrifice of parenthood and its burdens as well as times of great happiness.

Simeon’s prophecy in the Nunc Dimittis predict salvation for all nations through the Messiah. Atonement offered freely by God, not only for members of the chosen race but for all nations. Jesus is the light of the world. His coming into our space as the light which banishes darkness is what we celebrate at Easter, when we re-enact his coming in our Service of Light, this year in Wing Church on Easter Eve at 10pm.

What follows this good news from Simeon is a number of warnings. For many in Israel, the Christ child is destined to cause a falling away and not a rising to new life. This prophecy reminds us of Mary’s own song, in which she sang that God had put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. Salvation through Jesus will not be equally well received. This is the first and most ominous prediction that the narrative which follows will be a story of conflict along with the good news of new life for all who call on his name.

Then Simeon turns to Mary, and tells her a sword will pierce her own soul too. The effect on Mary’s life will be devastating, and there’s nothing she can do about it.

I suppose the ritual of purification is a bit like our modern day baptism. Imagine you have arranged the date. Unwrapped from its tissue paper the gown once worn by a great grandparent for their baptism. Invited family and friends to the service. Fulfilled all the obligations, and made vows with godparents and supporters. Only then are you given a glimpse of the ups and downs of your life as a parent, and the joys and sadnesses you will face in the future. Not great timing is it?

But this prophecy does say something about motherhood especially, and fatherhood too. As we remember and celebrate the lives of our mothers – and the great thing here is that we all have a mother and can all, without exception, share in that celebration and thanksgiving, whether our mother is still with us or not.

At the centre of all this action is the child as he is known. Jesus is mentioned by name only once, in verse 27. Elsewhere he is only referred to as the child. So it’s not the baby Jesus who is the centre of attention, but his parents and the prophets Simeon and Anna. Yet what substantial and dramatic words are spoken of someone so small and helpless.

Luke has been showing us the contrasts throughout the infancy narrative. Born in a stable, yet potentially saviour of the world. His offering is not gold, frankincense and myrrh but two pigeons, a sacrifice only for the very poorest families. And his mother’s joy is quickly turned to dismay when told what is in store for her and her son. Yet knowing what the angel promised, Mary would not change anything, even though a sword would pierce her heart. This is the model of sacrifice and obedience to God’s call that we see mirrored in the sacrifice of our own mothers, hopefully in a more muted fashion. And so, as we give thanks for them and give flowers to everyone present in celebration of all our mothers meant to us, let us give thanks not only for them but for Mary also. For their joys. For the pains they bore for us. For their love, and for their endless care and concern. For all they have given to us, we thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Sunday, 3 March 2013

Whose fault was it?

Lent 3 – March 3 2013 – Holy Communion at St Giles Cheddington

First Reading Isaiah 55.1-9

Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labour on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
because of the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendour.”
Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Gospel Luke 13.1-9

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them - do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig-tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Vicky tells story – mother’s cherry tree – produced fruit only when about to be chopped down for road widening. No second chance for that tree. Too late. But parable of fig tree tells different story of God’s grace.

Today’s gospel starts with serious questions. Whose fault was it when seemingly random accidents occur? Whose fault when people suffer at the hands of a cruel tyrant? Why were some chosen, and not others?

Same questions posed in Job – Lent Course. Job’s friends, like many people, conclude he must be at least partly to blame.

A few verses before this passage – we read Jesus told crowds they were good at predicting weather – but could not interpret the present time. Similar saying in Matthew 16:

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

2 He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,” 3 and in the morning, “Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

The crowds responded with two questions. Two cases of unjust suffering. Told him about Galileans murdered by Pilate in ghastly event. Their blood mixed with sacrifices. Did they deserve it? Was Pilate agent of divine retribution? Were they worse sinners than anyone else?

Second question: a tower fell in Jerusalem, killing 18 people. Were they more guilty than others living in Jerusalem? Or did they just happen to be passing by at the wrong moment?

Those who raised these questions can hardly be faulted. Who was to blame – always first question asked by TV news reporters about almost any event, including natural disasters, acts of God, insane and random shootings, whatever.

The assumption is that we live in a universe of rewards and punishments. That way of thinking is reflected within the Bible itself. The book of Job is a particularly eloquent case. Job suffered severe losses (family, property, and health), and he carried on a long verbal interchange with three friends. According to Job’s friends, he must have done something wrong to deserve his suffering. God is all-powerful. God is not malevolent. Surely God could only allow the suffering of the innocent by deliberate choice, or he would have put a stop to it.

Job throughout maintains his innocence.

How does Jesus respond to these important questions? He addresses the concerns head on. Just like in John 9 when he encounters a man born blind. Whose fault was it? – disciples asked. Who sinned – man or his parents?

Jesus declares Galileans killed were no better or worse than any others. They happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Construction workers, developers or financiers cutting corners, using shoddy workmanship, or cheap materials through corruption may have played a part I suppose – but that’s no reason to blame God for what happened, any more than if the tower had been struck by lightning.

The question of God’s justice persists to the present day. The doctrine is called Theodicy. To think that human suffering is due to divine punishment for sin, or perhaps to some unknown flaw or secret misdeed, is too simple, but very familiar.

Of course, there may be consequences and suffering as a result of risky behaviour. But that’s not the point being made here. Scripture itself has enough instances of divine punishment resulting from human sin, and many of these are much easier to explain. But not the sort of random acts Jesus is being asked about in today’s gospel reading.

Having said those killed by Pilate or the fallen tower of Siloam were not more to blame than any other Galilean, Jesus adds: But unless you repent, you too will all perish. In other words, God is not punishing just those who were killed, but judgement waits for all of us. So don’t focus on seemingly unfair and isolated events – consider your own destiny.

That sounds harsh, but consider the parable which follows. It’s a parable about judgement. The two protagonists are the landowner – that is God – and the caretaker hired to look after the vineyard. The landowner plants a fig tree – that’s probably us - but it never produces any figs. It’s a waste of space, says God, I’ll dig it up and use the land for something more productive.

The caretaker persuades his boss to give the barren fig tree one more chance. He’ll dig round the tree, and fertilise the soil. In a year, the tree might produce fruit, and in any event, a new tree would take several years more to get established. The landowner agrees.

The implication is that God is patient, which gives Jesus’ hearers time for repentance, but there is a limit.

The parable helps place God’s judgment and grace into a wider perspective. God’s grace is greater than God’s judgment. How could it be otherwise? Divine patience is simply another expression of God’s love for us and his grace. As we heard in our first reading from Isaiah:

Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”