We are on the way to Easter. We travel around the Christian year, each Sunday hearing a new reading from Scripture that tells us who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, what the obstacles are and what the hopes. This six-week season of Lent gives us so many Old Testament lessons, so many psalms, epistles and readings either from the Gospel of Mark or John. Here are some of the passages we will hear in the coming weeks. They come from the second year (B) of the three-year cycle of our Common Lectionary.
The Lord said to Noah, Go into the ark, you and all your house.
God said to Abraham, This is my covenant with you: You shall be the father of many nations.
Who do you say that I am? You are the Messiah
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…
You are my Son, my Beloved. With you I am well-pleased
Let us start with these Old Testament readings. We will talk about Noah and Abraham and the covenant which establishes that creation is good, and that man has a good role in it. This covenant is the foundation of our culture and nation, and its hope of continuation. Then we will take a look at the Ten Commandments, which are our old testament reading for the third Sunday. The first commandment is this:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
Why should we worship God? Or rather, why should we worship this God rather than some other? What is the significance, long term, of this God and these commandments of his? The answer gives us the difference between law and morality, equality under the law, the secular sphere, individual responsibility, freedom of conscience, government and the state, and the service of the Church in sustaining all these.
In week three I will discuss these two lines
The Son of Man must …be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes
In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple … poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
Who are the elders, chief priests and scribes in our society? How are things in our national temple? How clean is it in there? Is there anything we can do to nudge our nation’s priesthood back towards their proper functions?
In week four we see the Israelites grumbling in the desert, demanding to be taken back to Egypt. The Gospel of John says
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up… in order that the world might be saved through him. Why must he be lifted up? Why Jesus? Why on the cross?
We may be confident that Jesus is still the right one. But other people aren’t. We need to tell them why they can be confident of this. As they are losing confidence in the faith that created our nation, they are advocating other cults. They are even beginning to impose other cults on us, even though they are doing them and us a deal of damage. Can the same saviour save us? How, and what from? Can the redemption that worked before work now? What will result if we adopt other attitudes and practices that belong to other cults? These are the questions we will look at in these five short talks.
The Old Testament lessons of the five Sundays of Lent summarise the story of our redemption: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, Ezekiel; each reminds us who God is, and that we have been picked for life with him. All Lent is a run up to Holy Week and preview of Good Friday; and all these readings tell us why that Friday is our way to Easter Sunday. In week five I will take a look at Palm Sunday and at Easter as a whole. On Palm Sunday we hear the gospel from Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem riding through ecstatic crowds, the Passover supper, the arrest, trials, passion all the way up to the crucifixion. Then comes the extended service of the Easter vigil, in which we hear passage after passage from the Old Testament, each answered by a psalm, in a recitative that recounts the long history of God’s promises and his delivery on them.
So, the first reading in Lent is this, from Genesis 9:
When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.
The ark carried Noah safely over the flooded world. The waters raged, the angry powers pounded it, but the ark, and mankind in it, sailed on, buffeted but not overcome.
When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
God establishes a covenant under which all creation lives. The sun may beat down, or the rain lash down, but this rainbow is as good as an umbrella. God gives us shelter. He covers his creation, protectively spreading his wings over it as some large bird might. The Lord is tall enough and his cape big enough that we can all creep in and bivouac there beside him, out of the storm. ‘Shall I put up a shelter for you?’, Peter asks when he sees the Lord transfigured with Moses and Elijah. The answer is that the Lord provides shelter for us, and under this covenant preserves creation as his place for us.
There is no more revolutionary, life-affirming teaching. It has underwritten our civilisation. God not only created the world but he likes it, and intends to keep us safe in it. It has meant that we do not fear creation or anything in it. Rather we have the confidence to wonder at it, to explore it, be curious, measure it, shape it and build in it, to pursue technology and science and still be amazed and delighted by it. Yes, science comes directly from this Judaeo-Christian confident in the goodness of creation. Societies without that covenant do not support the confident curiosity that allows them to grow and become open societies or to develop technology and science. We can be thankful for the world’s continuing ability to support us, to absorb our impact and make good our abuses of it.
In the second week of Lent we hear from Genesis 17 about the covenant given to Abraham:
I will make my covenant between me and you … this is my covenant with you: You shall be the father of many nations
On this Sunday last year we heard the preceding line:
Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you
Abraham is called, and with courage he gets up and goes where the voice leads him. He finds the courage required by anyone who gets up, and does something new, or does what is right but not popular. He is called out of comfort, conformity and anonymity. At first he stands quite alone. And he starts out on a long walk, which continues to this day, and in which we join him. Abraham left what was familiar and walked out into a future unknown to him. There is adventure and risk. So we walk on into a future that we acknowledge is bigger than ourselves, the limits of which we have to discover and respect. He leaves a small primitive cosmology, anxious and vicious, and discovers an open universe. We are the heirs of this open universe, and of an enormous cultural confidence.
Abraham discovers for instance that the God he follows is not one of the needy pagan deities who demands sacrifice and payment. In the old pagan ways, a man has to pay the gods for his passage, by handing over something suitably precious, such as his livestock or even his own offspring. In Genesis 22, which we hear in the Easter vigil, Abraham is told that God will provide, so Abraham doesn’t have to. God gives Abraham his Son, without taking anything in return. The relationship of Abraham and Isaac is like the relationship of God and Israel, and so between God and man – unilaterally-established, and then non-reversible and indissoluble. Again the significance of this is that, unlike our pre-Christian ancestors, we don’t think the world is full of forces who have to be won over by sacrifices.
Abraham and the foundation of a culture and nation
Abraham founds a new nation. Or rather, God gives Abraham a new family which grew into a community, and that national community, becomes the foundation for many other national communities. Every Western nation is founded on the Christian understanding of what it is to be a people. The national community is made up of contraries, of those who are wealthy and powerful and those who are not. The wealthy and the poor owe each other and each has something to share with the other. Each can live well in their own way, by living with the other. The point of wealth is charity, having something to share. The point of poverty is likewise, for then you have to discover the grace of receiving, with gratitude and without resentment. These two conditions or classes of man owe this to each other, and as they acknowledge this, they come to form a single national community. God reconciles man to man, and with God’s mediation we can live with one another. Our understanding of the nation rises straight out of the gospel.
On the first Sunday of Lent our gospel is from Mark:
Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens were opened and the Spirit came down to him, like a dove.
Just like the people of Israel, Jesus walks into the Jordan, disappears under its surface, and then re-emerges from it back onto a very different dry land. In the epistle, Peter points out that Jesus is doing just as Noah did. We will come to the next verse in a moment, but let us see what we can understand from this.
For our sake creation is protected. Violent and malignant forces may rage, but we will sail safely across them. The Lord puts us in his ark, and the Church is that ark. The nave of this church is the hull of a great vessel made to take each of us onwards to life, and to take the Church on through the centuries. The Church sails across the waters of modern Britain, sometimes choppy, sometimes calm, as through every other century.
The covenant of God shelters us from the rage and turmoil of the forces, political and cosmological; whether innocuous or sinister, this ark will ride over all their turmoil. The people who have received this promise, for whom it has formed the backdrop for all these centuries, are a confident people and do not find it difficult to set out on new enterprises. A great cultural confidence springs from this covenant; it made us the most world-open nation, the most relaxed hospitable nation, in which fairness and fair-play are characteristic. We celebrate those who play fair, and are able to compromise or give way without resorting to rage and violence.
We need not be afraid of the powers-that-be. We do not need to revere or make sacrifices to any secular gods. We are not afraid to encounter new people and hear their demands. We do not demand rituals or payment or hostages before we trust a stranger. Centuries of successful transactions have allowed us to develop a culture and law, and a peculiar medium of trust that we call credit or money, which allows us to do business with strangers, even with those we do not approve of, who have different and indeed opposing legal codes. This covenant has expanded into a commonwealth, a common life based in justice and fairness and an openness which has spread around the globe. We give this many names – the free market, international trade, globalism.
The nation of Britain can also be likened to an ark. How is it doing? The gospel has powered this ark, deep down in an engine room. Many have attempted to disconnect us from that engine, believing that the ship will sail on without it, just as before. Those of us a bit more sceptical believe that momentum built up over centuries will only carry the ship on for a while. The nation that no longer worships the God of Jesus Christ, is taking a huge gamble; without that power working beneath us, the national ark may lose way, flounder, even break up.
So we are given the covenant and so to some extent are settled. And we are called out and have to set off on a trek. We alternate between being settled, and being nomads: in Lent and Passion week we are on the move again. Here is no continuing city, we are in file behind our Lord and he is taking us with him, though the way takes us through the very darkest places. In Lent in particular we can ask some hard questions. If Christian worship formed the political culture that created this nation, what would happen when Christian attitudes disappear from national life? Would this culture and nation still be recognisably the same, and would we enjoy the same status as citizens within them?
The first thing to say here is that if Christian faith disappears, we do not then live in a religion-free world. People are always committed to some set of goals: if ‘religion’ does not seem an appropriate word for them, we could call them political or ideological. Even the most secular agendas are driven forward by adherents with a fervour that seems religious enough to those who don’t share it. We can say that there is a secular religion-or-morality, which has borrowed lots from Christianity, which sometimes sounds vaguely Christian; but this secular religion-or-morality is often determined to be different from Christianity, is in denial about what it has borrowed, and is even vehemently opposed to Christianity. And this secular religion is particularly in favour with our moral and political guardians and all those who tug at the levers of power.
‘Why do you go to Church, Grandma? Oh, are you religious? I’m not…’.
Oh dear grandson, dear neighbour. You are so deeply religious, so misguidedly yet earnestly committed to such a shallow little religion. It doesn’t call itself a religion, but that deceit just makes it more religious. You make yourself so vulnerable. Forces you cannot name, part economic, part ideological but subtle enough to move slowly and stay beneath the level of your consciousness, nibble away at your integrity. You are being taken in, suckered, robbed, swallowed whole. This undeclared religion also has its priests and high priests and is quite capable of turning into an Aztec-like cult, in which some must be sacrificed so the power of others is preserved.
Leaving Christianity behind makes you more liable to worship gods, not less. It makes you gullible, so that, though you may never notice that you are doing so, you defer to, and make pay-offs to, powers that refuse to give their names. They are more powerful and dangerous when you have no means of naming them and calling them to account.
So as we explain why we worship Christ, we have to contrast our faith with this other amorphous faith that pervades public life and public policy. I will come back to this subject, but first we must say some more about the life and faith we have been called into. So back to our Gospel reading, the baptism of the Lord.
A voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan
Jesus is appointed and anointed by God. The descent of the Spirit is his crowning, the recognition of his victory and so of the resurrection. Then the Lord is ready to go into combat all the forces arrayed against humanity. He tests his strength, against Satan, and so begins the great cosmic trial of strength, Christ against all the forces which have raged out of control, and which must be brought back under control in order so that man can survive. The resurrection makes the passion possible. His invincible life and power make it possible for God to come to us in such gentleness and weakness. Lent is a slow peeling open of layer of layer of the densely compacted marvel of the resurrection, that is, of the life of God, being shared with us.
This life has come to you and to me. It the communion, that is, the society of men and woman who are being made holy, and who are on the way to life with God. In this particular season we play out, more deliberately and publicly than usual, our journey into this great communion, showing that it is accomplished against great resistance, from the world around us, and weirdly even from us ourselves.
We are called here. We have been called to hear the voices of all the British from all generations, to sing the hymns and say the prayers that they passed on to us. When we use their words to confess our sins we are released from the ludicrous attachments trailed before us by the delightful much-promising voices we hear through the media, and are free of the baggage that we picked up during the week. As we hear from the apostles and the saints we get our debriefing, our cleaning up and refuelling, and so we are restored, just enough to be of some service again.
Our civilisation lives from Christianity. When Christianity is dropped, the habits and disciplines that make for civility are forgotten, and we return to that old brutal tribal life in which we all have to pray to and plead with the powers that be, and make payments and sacrifices to them. When Christianity is dropped we are left with our political classes, yanking at the levers of power and persecuting whoever they are afraid of, leaving everyone else gullible and fearful.
But you and I are Christians. We owe it to each other, and to our contemporaries in Winkleigh, in this country, and all around the world, to say that our national public life can only be sustained and renewed by the gospel. When this statement is not made, and not heard, this nation slumps into a self-fearfulness and despising. Our current collapse of morale is completely unnecessary and unwarranted, and we can recover from it. But only through the mercy of God made public in our Christian witness.
Abraham was called and given a promise. You were called and given a promise. Abraham and you. You were called here, to meet with other people from Winkleigh, from England, to represent all Winkleigh and England, to pray for them, and so to be their voice. For, you Christian, you have become their representative and their inter-mediators. This nave is Gethsemane, and this step up into the choir takes us to Golgotha, and that altar is that cross and tomb. As we meet here we follow the Lord through this final confrontation and battle with all the disorderly forces, we do it so that Christ is visible and audible to our contemporaries. We are England before God. And more wonderful still, we are Christ, before England. Though blotched with sin, we Christians, are the way, the very strange way, that the Lord God speaks to the British and stands before the British, here, this new year.
This is why we have a passion to undergo, and a real Lent lies ahead of us. England is afraid, and frightened people tend to kick out. It is our lot to be glad and give thanks to God for what we have had, and to be ready for whatever England may deal out to us in coming years, and to see this as the kindness of God to us, which, through tears, we shall give thanks for. We always give thanks to God. Thanks is all we’ve got. So that is what we will do now.
2. The Law, the Command and the Freedom
We are under the covenant and so we settled. We are members of a robust and confident society, culture and nation. And we are on the move, following Abraham, who is following Christ. We alternate between being settled, and being nomads. In Lent and Passion week we are on the move, in file behind our Lord, and he is taking us with him through the very darkest places. Noah and Abraham, obedient to God’s call, stood up, left their communities and cultures and walked out into unknown, and so became the founders of a new society, Israel. We are amongst their heirs; we worship their God.
But why should we worship God? Or rather, why should we worship this God rather than some other?
In the second week of Lent the Old Testament lesson is this from Exodus chapter 20:
I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
The gods are the powers-that-be. They are forces – whether of nature, or political and ideological, or institutions, governments, and tyrants or some combination of these.
Out of the house of slavery I called you. This commandment, to worship this and not some other God, is the basis of all British history. The British were once in the house of slavery, of war and revenge. The gospel came to British tribes, and was nearly lost again as they were driven out by pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders, who then made their home here and were converted by British missionaries; and were later nearly overcome by further pagan Viking invaders, who settled were also converted by Anglo-Saxon missionaries. The arrival of Christianity reconciles warring tribes and creates a single unified nation; it teaches us not to idolise our kings or state power, and so no totalitarian state has taken hold here. This process is never over. The gospel is not Britain’s in perpetuity. The justice and peace that make possible the existence of a nation are the gift of God, not the achievement of this nation or its permanent possession.
The word of the Lord to Abraham was ‘Come’, ‘Walk before me’. This word is now spelled out in these ten words.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Honor your father and your mother. You shall not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness or covet what is your neighbour’s.
These commandments are the Ten Freedoms, or ten ways of spelling out what freedom is. Do not fear or revere any creature, however light, however dark, however familiar, however cosmic. Acknowledge only that they are creatures, and fellow-creatures. Do not prostitute yourself to other masters, or to your own impulses, or avoid the truth, or give way to envy or attempt to seize what is not given to you. Do not let your own weaknesses become your master. Follow the Lord and grow up into the full estate of man, and so into responsibility and freedom.
The law does not describe all that is desirable. It gives us only these indications of what is not good. It is not a narrow code; it is not a vast to-do list; we are not to be punished for every deviation from it. Almost everything is possible, and almost everything may be explored. We are invited to be free in the good company of God and this freedom can be learned through a long apprenticeship lived out in this Christian communion. Those who take on the discipline of discipleship learn to be free and consenting members of the Church, and, as a by-product they learn how to be consenting and serving members of a nation.
This nation is the by-product of the experience of British Christians over fourteen centuries. Through this discipleship we learn to participate in our own government, for all governance is an extension of our own intrinsic self-government. As a result of it we are governed by consent: without this long experience of self-control through Christian discipleship there is no political consent and so no political freedom, no Magna Carta, no Bill of Rights, none of the covenants of international law and human rights achieved in the twentieth century.
The difference between the legal and the moral is one of the gifts of this Christian teaching. The individual does not have to act in any particular state-approved way. In other words, secularity is a by-product of the gospel, so it is not achieved by wrestling against the gospel. Secularity does not mean the state reducing the influence of the Church; it means that the gospel enables the self-government of Christians and, at one remove, of all other citizens expressed through whatever institutions best enable that local and national self-government.
The individual doesn’t have to prove anything, which gives us the presumption of innocence. If there is any doubt about this innocence, a court has to produce proof, which is examined in public by the public, each of whom knows that a court of law might one day make the same charge against him. Each of us stands in the public assembly, before our contemporaries and equals. Christians insist that we all question and examine one another, and that all are examined by the truth. We are judged by our peers, friends and rivals. And we must judge ourselves, and ask ourselves, one another and even those we do not like, how we are doing? We should acknowledge that our forebears and our successors may also judge us. How are we doing as individuals, as governors of ourselves, and so as a nation. And how is our national government doing?
Our legal tradition has been taken up all around the world. Some, like the Americans, are even more aware of it than we are, and have written it down in explicit principles, a constitution. But it is not the case that once a society reaches such a point that it has this for all time: freedom is not passed down with our DNA. It requires as much constant practice as piano playing. Freedom is not defended by libertinism, but by painful questions, hard debate, public admission of truth, confession, repentance, penitence and quiet seeking and waiting for forgiveness.
Freedom with responsibility is a high calling; the temptation to delegate that freedom is strong. Every political power, which does not give clear public acknowledgement of its own limits, tends to grow. It takes on more responsibilities, become over-ambitious, decreasingly self-aware, and left unchallenged, becomes all-controlling.
The ‘non-religious’ are self-deceiving. They are deeply religious. They are the adherents of a cult without a name. Their religion presents itself simply as a superior morality, but it is held with such conviction, in its fervour erecting new idols and demanding that we acknowledge them too. The fans of freedom paradoxically want to use law and coercion to make its morality binding on the rest of us. Same Sex marriage is one of these cases, as we shall see.
Christian thankfulness has given way to agendas driven by resentment. Our leaders are not believers in the gospel-given call to freedom and responsibility through discipleship. They would rather release us from the burden of responsibility. Their mission creep turns us from citizens and participants into viewers, consumers and dependents. Anxious Britain demands instant solutions and regulation. The state has assumed a power of attorney over us, and regards us as its wards, and a stream of new laws attempts to mould the morality of the population. But excessive legislation has no more effectiveness than magic incantation. So the last four or five generations of English have directed their worship to a god who does not admit to being a god at all. We may hope that the ark of civil society will continue to sail serenely on, but this is a hope of truly religious proportions. For the state that wants to relieve us from the burden of responsibility is attempting to make itself our saviour.
The state that wants to change our morals will not bear criticism patiently. The electorate of 2015, is not responsible only to itself. We cannot simply demand More-of-the-Same; we cannot simply say, ‘Do not threaten my standard of living’. This electorate is responsible to the next. But we have been borrowing from the next generation, in order to enjoy ourselves now. Our welfare state has become rapacious in its demands on future tax-payers. It is our children and grandchildren who have to vindicate the decisions of our generation. Each generation has to allow the next to judge it, and that judgment is about how far we managed a good, honest and confident society and a stable and sustainable living standard and way of life. Our grandchildren will decide whether we made things easy for them, or whether we have left them fewer opportunities than we received. It is harder to dodge these sort of questions in Lent than at other times of year.
So for example, for the last twenty years I have judged, each time I make a purchase, that no supplier in this country is as good as any supplier in China. My every purchase has represented the implicit judgment that China is better than the UK. As a result, I now find that almost no one in the UK has the money to buy the products that I now want to sell them, and so, bound by my own judgements, I am stuck.
In a single century we guzzled a long way through the fossil fuels that made the costs of transport and of manufacturing in plastic negligible. We became globalists, able to fly in any product from any labour force across the world, never worrying about the hollowing out of our own industries. No one knows whether the cheap energy is here to stay and whether this globalisation and disappearance of locality will continue.
You know that every farmer has to stop his animals from eating everything now. You withhold supplies so that you will have feed to take them through the winter. To the extent to which we are prudent and save, giving acknowledgement of the needs of the future, is the extent to which we are not simply animals, but future-oriented humans. That’s all there is to farming, to house-holding, or to governing a nation. The present is not the only time and this generation is not the only generation. Christians are long-termists, who have to stand in the way of the destructive triumph of the Short-Term.
Who dares say that the future will be just as easy as the present? If my economic decisions have run down my own people, who will extricate me and them from the consequences of my short-termism? Who will save us, and how?
The Church – that is, you and I – must say that this present generation is not the ultimate authority. We Christians have to stand surety and attorney for future generations, and so to stand against this, our own, generation. Of course to them it looks as though Christians are uniquely awkward, old-fashioned or deliberately obstructive, and so they attempt to ridicule us out of public life. But generations past and future will be our judges. They will decide whether or not we acted with proper authority. The Lord stands guarantor for them.
Like every other generation, this generation puts Jesus on trial. The Church, and all previous generations of Christians, and the whole cast of English history are in the dock with him. And our moral guardians find them morally deficient and so guilty. Our leaders are in a revolt against all previous generations; they are experiencing a nausea against everything that made us what we are. They are caught up in a great unhappiness that expresses itself as hatred of everything that made us who we are. We Christians cannot share it. Instead we have to say that the leaders of a nation who stop listening to the Church and deride the source of our political culture, are driven by their own unhappiness. They are set on inflicting their unhappiness on the rest of us, and want to coerce us into it, though of course even that would not bring happiness to them.
Jesus is on trial. And yet, it is us who are on trial. Jesus is simply presenting the ongoing trial of man by man. For he is on trial as us. Jesus stands where we stand, alongside us and in our place. When we usurp what is reserved to future generations we threaten them, and because he has promised to do so, God intervenes on their behalf. This is what turns God’s coming to man into a confrontation. The conflict between man’s out-of-control present and the dwindling hopes of the future is a clash between man and man. Is mankind – the responsible being who lives together with his fellows in love and freedom – simply an impossibility? Will the whole experiment of mankind end in disaster, as Satan believes?
The passion and the cross are this terrible collision between man out of control and God, for own man’s sake intervening to make whole everything that man had shredded. The collision between the present and the future is taken and made harmless by the good timely action of the Father and the Son working together. Everything that mankind tears up and trashes, the Son picks up again, and the Father gathers it up from him into an undivided cloth, and so we and all creation are sustained with their eternal life.
All Lent is a long spelling out of the passion and the trial of Jesus. Because we are on trial, Jesus has put himself on trial before us. How will we judge him? Will we decide that it is impossible this man is man-with-God and God-with-man?
We are answerable to others. Our most vocal contemporaries may believe that that they are not answerable to us or to anyone. But we must assure them that they are. We may not allow them to become little despots. This present generation cannot be the source of its own authority; our media opinion-formers cannot be the source of their own authority, the state cannot be the source of its own authority. We judge one another, and we are not at all merciful judges. Each of us stands under judgment and condemnation. We stand under the judgment and the condemnation of our contemporaries and of the next and future generations. Who will speak for us, and who will rescue us from the impasse that we have caused?
When we come to Church we watch this enormous drama taking place before our eyes. We are able to follow it in miniature in this space. It is as though that altar is the screen and this space before it is the stage on which the whole drama of our salvation becomes visible. We make this obvious at Christmas by setting out the crib scene so everyone can see the figures involved in this nativity. We make an Easter garden, and we process around the stations of the cross. All this is a making visible-and-audible in miniature of the man-making work of God in the world. That altar and this transept are small stages, to allow Winkleigh see and hear, and Winkleigh is a small stage to allow England to see and hear how, in his mercy, we may share God’s life and so become human.
We not only watch and listen to this drama of salvation, but we reply and sing and follow it on our feet. As we become practised in faith we see each scene as it is read in the lesson each. In faith we see Noah, Abraham and Moses following the Lord. And we follow the Lord as he enters Jerusalem and hands himself over to the manic powers of the unhappy world; we wait on the Mount of Olives, outside the Council of the Sanhedrin, and we look on at Golgotha, and again in the garden. Just as we watch any weekend evening television drama, we hear and watch this drama here and we sing and make our petitions and responses. But we do not remain the same through this watching; whatever we look at or listen to changes us and slowly conform us to itself. Through this watching and waiting here, we are being conformed, and transformed, to join this heavenly society, this holy communion.
In the second week of Lent we hear this from the Gospel of Mark:
Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of man will be ashamed.
This ‘shame’ is not embarrassment so much as the belief that the gospel is simply baggage and an encumbrance. But the gospel will not hold us back. The gospel is the only thing propelling us forward. British society has always been pleased to take the yoke of the gospel off a while, in order to deal with its own more pressing matters. And yet enough of us Brits have been converted, and allowed that yoke to do its work, and these Christians have taken the rest along with them, and have been the salt that has preserved this nation and spread its Christian culture of openness and fairness around the globe.
Nations are always starting to break up into antagonistic groups and are reconciled and held together by the reconciliatory effect of Christians. But there comes a moment when that ark has too many passengers and not enough crew; it loses way and, as any vessel that is not maintained, it starts to break up. This is what happens when there are not enough Christians around to enable the political nation to find its way. Our society has decided that there is a quicker cheaper way to happiness than promised through Christian discipleship. It believes each of us can find happiness through isolation, without the demands of others, without parents or of children, and so without older or younger voices with their experiences from the past framing their questions about the future. Since it is ultimately God who insists on setting all these people and demands before us, we attempt to isolate ourselves from him.
Our society is not in good health. Arteries clogged, circulation blocked, no organ functioning as it should, it suffers minor strokes, which are left undiagnosed and untreated. It is unable to go far without collapsing on the roadside. It has no idea what to try next, though its denial about its situation is as fierce as ever. It is undergoing its own passion, and its own kind of Lent; but it has no source of hope, so there is no Easter ahead, so it is stuck in a numb and awful kind of passion.
The Christian Gospel sets out the biggest and most ambitious view of who we may be. It gives us the huge figure of the free man. He is free but it must be said that he makes steps towards freedom as long as he consents to be disciplined by this discipleship. He is a willing Son, who learns obedience through what he undergoes, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, and so, able to govern himself, is also able to lead others. So it is the gospel that authors this ambitious figure of the modern individual, who is a citizen, but is also much more than any nation can make him. It gives us our ability to choose for ourselves and to be free of masters. This huge hope created for our identity only makes sense when each individual is formed by the discipline of Christian discipleship with the companionship of Christian life. Without them, it is cruelly unachievable. Christianity is the foundation of modern political culture, and sole means of its continuation.
The world is made up of just two nations – the more or less cheerful, and the more or less cheerless. Those who follow Christ are the cheerful. But they must travel through an unhappy nation, tormented by the memory of an identity too big for it. Sometimes our gladness draws them out of their self-preoccupation, sometimes it makes them more adamantly miserable than ever and determined to take it out on us. The worst favour we can do them is to let their unhappiness rub off on us. So we Christians celebrate the victory of Christ, and give thanks for this victory that redeems mankind and establishes that we may grow up into this enormously high status. But we celebrate this victory as we make our way through the world – and this is our way of the cross. Running the gauntlet of their unhappiness, we make our way through a crowd that is pushing back at us, deriding this hope and attempting to divert us from it. And whether the world we travel through is at any moment welcoming, indifferent or enraged is hard to predict, as we see on Palm Sunday, when the Lord enters his capital to the acclaim of one crowd and then through the fury of another crowd, or even the same crowd, a short time later.
This Church and its services train us for public life and discipleship outside this Church. In this nave we learn and practise our new life together, so that the public trial of the Christian life can be played out now before the British people who need it.
Follow this Lord only. Give up all others. Walk on into responsibility and freedom. The most confident societies in the world have emerged from this commandment and they prosper as they continue to hear it. But ahead of them they have a long walk through a hostile and frightened world. This is our passion. Christ shares it, follows it through the end, and now walks it through again with us just so that, with him, we can get through it. Nonetheless, this passion is ours. Get ready.
3. Christ must Suffer and be Rejected
We are on our way through Lent to Easter, looking at the Sunday readings and learning something about the public contribution of Christian witness. Though we are going through Lent, we already enjoy Easter. For only the power of Easter can take us through the long Lent we have to undergo.
In the first two talks we said that the Gospel brings the reconciliation that allows a national communion to develop. Without Christianity, there is no covenant between rich and poor, or between one tribe and another, and so there is no nation, and no basis for an international community of nations. The law makes us secular: secularity is the achievement of Christianity, not an escape from it. The Ten Commandments are our call to liberty and to communion. They call out of the savage all-against-all isolation of pagan society, and into civil life together. They give us such confidence that we are able to live with those who we do not know or do not like, so this confidence gives us this civility and this civilisation. Only Christian discipleship enables us to grow up towards the vast definition of humanity set out by the Gospel, towards maturity and holiness, made fit by God for life with him and with each other.
The Gospel for the second Sunday of Lent is from Mark 8:
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again
Who do you say that I am? The Lord puts this question to Peter. We might as well ask Peter or any of Jesus’ companions the same question. If we say ‘Who are you Peter?’ Peter might say, ‘I am a follower of this lord, a servant of this master, disciple of this teacher. And we would then say ‘Yes, but there are so many masters and leaders and busy-bodies. Why do you follow this one? Why not some other?’
Through Jesus’ ministry and passion we watch Peter and the others learning, and realising with horror, how difficult their master is to know. For the source of his authority is deeper and more hidden than of any other contemporary leader, and his ambition for broken Israel, its overlords and the world just seems to grow vaster. Too vast, Judas thought, for Jesus does not act as leader of a national revival, throwing off foreign domination. For the God of Israel is the God of all nations and of all creation, the God of gods. Nothing is foreign to him, and no horror created by our viciousness can push us outside his covenant. It is right for Israel to put up with its own discipleship of foreign domination, just so those bully nations can learn from Israel whose God is really God, and therefore so how to be free of idolatry and fear.
But of course Peter could ask you the same question, as could any one of your own neighbours or family. Who are you? And you might say, ‘I am a Christian,’ and admit that your ambition for the world is shaped by Christ’s ambition for it. All week long, and when you go to Church, and even more on Palm Sunday when the whole Church processes out into the open air, you are Christ making himself visible to whoever watches. You are a little Christ. The identity of Christ is the answer to our identity.
But this identity is not easily graspable. Many people make their money and build their little empires by offering us some service and trying to convince us that they are indispensible to us. They don’t want to see us doing too much for ourselves, for they make a living by deepening our dependence on them. Corporations and governments like clients and dependents. They don’t want to be met by independent citizens, with their own private and communal relationships, who are able to shrug off central oversight and control. They don’t acknowledge that we may freely take on disciplines that will make us free. Like any discipline freely adopted by individuals, the cross is perplexing for the wielders of power.
The way of pain and hard work is the way that we participate in this life of Christ; the victory is not only at the end of that hard work, but it is found in it and is so already there all the time. Given that victory, the work is delightful rather than hard. The way of the cross is the way of the resurrection. Nonetheless, it is baffling for our power-brokers. The Epistle for the Third Sunday of Lent is 1 Corinthians 1:
The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Where is the wise man? Where are the scribes? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom. We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.
The message of the cross is foolishness. The gospel of the saviour on the cross is impenetrable to Israel’s leaders: Jews would expect any national saviour to throw this Gentile government out, by military power. So The Son of Man must …be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.
It is impenetrable Greeks who, as all other sophisticates, want to be given good reasons through well-presented, well-evidenced arguments. They expect that rationality to be recognisable, not to be a paradox about weakness being the new strength. Everyone agrees that a strong man must be recognisably strong, not weak, and so God’s’ action is impenetrable to common sense.
For Christ however, strength is not the opposite of weakness at all. His strength enables him to reach us and serve us with such a gentleness that no creature on earth is crushed by it. His reach is so long that the lowest, most miserable, most victimised of us, even the most evil of us, are well within it. This strength can reach us without crushing us, and so it alone can save us.
The Gospel for the third Sunday is the second chapter of John:
The Passover was near and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple … poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.
In the trial and examination of Jesus, his interrogators, the Pharisees and Scribes will repeatedly ask – How? For if anyone one of us were to try such a thing, knowing it will not happen simply because we command it to, we have to seek power by gathering together the resources of manpower and material. We have to take from one place in order to use in another. So how will Jesus do this?
This is the question. By what authority does Jesus make things happen? Will he make a clean sweep of the multitude of tax farmers and their ideological supporters? Will he inaugurate the direct rule of God, by which Israel will triumph over the gentiles and ungodly, driving them out and then take up her task, long promised to her, of subduing and ruling over the Gentiles?
The version preferred by the temple authorities is that Jesus is the front man of some sinister power. The alternative is that Jesus is identical with the true Israel of the prophets, he is God’s front man and thus he is God himself, acting for Israel to free her from all other divinities, desperate and pernicious. They wriggle like eels on a line on the only answer that is possible. Things happen around Jesus by the authority of God. He is the power of God at work before us. It is in order that we are not confronted by a brute fact, but may be free, to follow or not, and so we may act only in faith, not forced to do so by any irrefutable manifestations of power.
By what authority does Jesus act? By what authority does he refuse to act as a king and take charge, but instead, to the distress of disciples, Peter and Judas, presents himself as the candidate for punishment and then on the cross makes himself the epitome of sin and guilt? By what authority does he insist on going through this discipline and punishment, this passion which any other created being would avoid? How can this one, publicly raised as a vile object of national revulsion, be God’s representative and God’s message? Has the God of Israel set himself against Israel? Has God set himself against man?
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
How will he bring down this regime? Here in the temple he knots a whip and drives them out. And in its place will appear the new regime of the rule of the Lord. By ‘this temple’ Jesus means that regime and that set of economic arrangements, which then in predatory fashion lived off the backs of the people of Israel. The people of Israel are preyed on by tax farmers, and left impoverished. In the Gospel of Mark this year we will see the Lord driving out many ambiguous forces, infirmities and forms of alienation. Here he drives out these parasites on the body politics.
Here in the Temple there is a public showdown. Christ is going to engage these vicious masters, defeat them and wrest us out of their power. How is he going to do this? Not by fighting them as the world understands fighting. He does not raise an army, and this is the only occasion in which he even seems to raise his fists. But so we may understand what is doing on he acts out in miniature the battle waged on the cosmic level. He makes a whip and goes in and uses it, driving these predators out, in the same way he drives out all the various pests and contaminations, unidentified and unconfessed, that hold down the people of Israel.
Christ cleans the body politic. This cleansing purge of the temple is the rapid cleaning of the body. The crucifixion is the throwing out of the parasites and unclean spirits. Each of us is this temple, in which God dwells, and dwells with us. Yet each of us is filled with other needy, greedy spirits. They are mediators who have interposed themselves between us, so that, as they insist and we believe, we can only deal with one another through their agency. Each of us is filled with these desperate and hostile spirits. And the Lord drives them out of us.
The life of Israel has become centralised on the temple, so all politics is a battle for control of the temple, to control the taxes and tithes brought to it, the tangible expressions of Israel’s worship. Having bought the loyalty of the political leadership, these money-changers insist that you have to pay taxes in the currency they issue, and which you are obliged to borrow from them. All economic business can only be done in the debased coinage, and this debasement has pushed Israel back into debt servitude, a new captivity. Israel’s future is hostage to their cult of centralisation and debt, the very opposite of grace. Since Israel’s leadership has been worshipping some golden Calf rather than their own God, the people of Israel are in the appalling condition in which we see them in the Gospel of Mark.
Jesus doesn’t intend to throw out the puppet government or the occupation power behind it and doesn’t intend to set up a rival government. He believes that Israel must continue to submit itself to the hard school of foreign power. Having a master is not the worst thing. While the gentiles are in power Israel can be a good student and learn how to rule itself. Israel is not in a position to be master because Israel has not learned self-mastery. It has followed the law of the Lord which makes you free – regardless of whether or not you have a master over you, and regardless of how good or bad, or domestic or foreign that master is. Israel is in no position to rule the gentiles, for she cannot rule herself. Like Israel, we have to stick at our long and painful apprenticeship and there is no release for us before our schooling and our sanctification is complete.
Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.
The Lord says that he can, and will, knock this entire financial and fiscal regime down. This tower of Babel will come down, all at once, in a day. Then there will be silence for a day. Then, on the third day, he will build, a new national jurisdiction in which the people themselves are the true economic product, in which the whole people of Israel, and all the peoples of the world with them, are able to grow tall in the garden of God.
It is a representative battle. But it is played out in miniature here so we can see it. When troops are sent to the Mount of Olives to seize Jesus, Peter asks how many swords they will need. And Jesus answers that two are plenty, enough to represent the fight, so we may understand the truly cosmic battle that is going on here. The Lord fights Satan and Death, and all that we know as the world, the flesh and the devil. We can only see this as the fight that between all the nebulous powers-that-be, malign and desperate. The cross is a wrestling match. The Lord lets death seize him, and take hold and commit all his forces to his destruction. But when Christ has let Death commit all his forces, he snaps his chains, and Death is broken, and every other little god who has sourced and derived their power from Death and our Fear of Death, is broken too. The vicious grasp in which we held one another down is broken too, and our own captives spring free of us. Christ lets Death complete his pincer movement and so is surrounded, and swallowed and taken down, and so the destruction of Christ seems complete. It looks as though Death has deathed Christ, but it turns out that Death has only deathed himself. Christ has shaken Death off and now Death’s hold over Christ and over any other creature of Christ is broken. Now we can live, without limit.
We see this battle with death in the cross. That’s why we sign ourselves with the cross, bless with the cross and have built our church in the shape of the cross. With this sign, the Lord lifts from us the snare in which we are held. The Lord extracts us from the Death with the same power by which he made and maintains us and all creation in the first place. On the cross, the Lord holds out his arms, and there is plenty of space for us there. The cleaned temple is a representation of the future Eden, the restored and completed creation in which we all inhabit the palace and gardens which God has set out for us, and live in God’s good company and so flourish in it.
4. Lifted Up – and true Mothering
The Passover was near and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. He went into action on our behalf. He rode in to the rescue, to take us back out of the power of those who held us captive. John telescopes the whole incarnation and passion into the Passover and its celebration – The Passover is the event of the resurrection and our celebration of it.
The Gospel for the fourth week of Lent is John 3:
Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up… in order that the world might be saved through him
The Son of Man is lifted up. He is picked out from the crowd, selected from the whole assembly of Israel and indeed of the world. Of all these many millions, this one is the One. Having been picked by the selectors, he has been trialled and he has come through all the tests well, the Letter to the Hebrews tell us. He is confirmed and anointed. This is man in all his glory, given by God who intended it for him from the beginning. In this man, God has established the future for all men.
So God glorifies man. God gives man to man. And God receives this man from us. We reject him, but God receives him from us with full approval. We threw him out but God brings him in and sits him down on the throne, there to be our great representative, the truth of us. God gives man to man, and God receives this man from us.
God glorifies him, but we rejected him. Jesus faces three or four trials – Herod, Sanhedrin, Pilate and the softening up by the garrison. The regime punishes Jesus in its own lazily arrogant way so that no one else should think of sticking their head up too high. Then comes the brutal wrestling with Death. Death intends to make an end of him. Death wrestles Life, intending to get it down and extinguish it. This is what is happening on the cross. It is the end point of the long descent to find the bottom to which humanity has fallen, and the place from which it must be lifted again.
In this covenant, God undertakes to maintain creation for us. Everything needs maintenance. Every machine works as long as it receives its occasional oil change. If its filter is not taken out, and cleaned or replaced, any mechanism will clog and stop working. Everything needs to be exposed to daylight or to receive the caustic of public truth. But the poor old British – no home truths have been told them for such a long time. Everything needs a service. And every church service is that service. Christian worship tells us what is missing, and supplies it to us, so that the Church can provide the maintenance that the nation requires.
We look to this king on a cross. He is the image of God. He is not only Christ in glory, publicly and at rest on the throne. The Lord is portrayed enthroned, outside, in the porch, above the south door. There we see him unambiguously vindicated. God lifts up Jesus of Nazareth for us, and puts him in front of us, to admire and receive. And Jesus lifts us up to the Father, and holds us up before him, in continuous intercession.
The Gospel, John 3, tells us that:
The Son of Man must be lifted up….Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness
Jesus on the cross is the dark figure who appears to accuse us. He looks as dark as death. Our salvation has started when we realise, as we are looking at him, that we are looking at ourselves. That awful figure up there is us. That is how we really are. He is the innocent one and we the guilty. So the innocent one is our accuser, and we don’t like the sharpness of his implicit accusation. The innocence of the innocent one is causing pain to us, the guilty. We are the oppressors. At this moment of somersault, we realise that it is not him who is accusing us at all. It is we who are accusing and oppressing him. We are oppressed – only – by the falsehood of our accusation of him. The moment we realise that we are guilty, we are released from the lies by which we had become bound – and from that moment we are no longer guilty.
John is citing Numbers 21, which is the week’s Old Testament reading:
The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
The Israelites are grumbling in the desert, demanding to be taken back to Egypt. They are in pain, as though bitten by unnamed forces. In their pain they cry out and Moses is instructed to save the situation by holding up an image of a snake, the source of their pain. The biter is lifted up, and as Israel sees that the biter has been lifted off them, the biting ceases; the judge and the punishment he inflicts are lifted off Israel.
We have been grumbling in the desert too. We are bitten and we are the biter. As we look up to Jesus on the cross we see our own selves there in pain. We are the judges who have judged him to be the source of our pain. And we see that we are the biter, for we have bitten one another and we are the cause of all this pain. We have been merciless judges, and we are the victims of one another’s merciless judgment. We are the biter, and therefore we are bitten too. But the Lord raises us off one another, so we can bite one another no more. He has taken me off your back, and you off mine. He has released you from me and your redemption has begun.
Mothering Sunday – Man and Woman
But the fourth week of Lent is also Mothering Sunday, in which the lesson is from John 19:
Standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son’. Then he said to the disciple, ‘here is your mother’.
Lifted up high, publicly on the cross, the Lord gives his mother a replacement son, so John takes Jesus’ place. And he gives this man, John, responsibility for this woman, Mary. From the cross he puts us together.
We celebrate Mary the Mother of God, and we celebrate the woman who anoints the Lord in Holy Week and the women who go to the garden on Easter Sunday morning and who are the first witnesses to the resurrection. In this gospel, women, who would otherwise be without a public voice, are raised up and given the first voice and the most public affirmation, in a chastening moment for all male-kind.
So there is a third relationship that sustains our common life, that between man and woman. So this is a moment to consider that the issue of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, for the covenant of God with mankind places us in a covenant between men and women.
Here’s a verse from 1 Corinthians 7. 4:
The wife’s body does not belong to her alone, but also to her husband. In the same way the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife.
Each of us belongs to ourselves, and our labour and our product belongs to us first. So a woman belongs to herself first; but if she marries, without losing anything of herself, she also gives herself to her husband. She gives herself, but keeps herself. There is an absolute reciprocity, mutuality and equality between the man and the woman. Happy the man who is married to a feisty woman. Happy the woman married to man strong enough to be happy because she is feisty. They are equal and complementary. This reciprocity, mutuality and equality is at the foundation of covenant.
A married man and woman have freely chosen to enter a covenant. They take on the protection of one institution which is more fundamental than the state. They owe everything to one another long before they have any wider obligations, to country or state.
Mary simply said, Let it be unto me according to thy Word. Bring us together, Lord, and make parents of us. This first child gives you a new status and identity; their birth made you a mother. So we may say yes to children, and yes to parenting. Mothering Sunday is Parenting Sunday, is Fathering and Husbanding Sunday, Son-and-daughter Sunday. We may say yes to that responsibility and expense, to that work and worry and sleepless nights, in which we wait for their temperature to come down, or for their rage to abate, or wait for them to come in. But England has not appreciated her status as mother of children. Have we passed on to our children enough of the affirmation necessary to make them ready for this service of parenting? Did we pass on all the praise and wisdom and self-discipline we received? Have we spent enough time with these children of ours, engaging with them, keeping them busy and content, and did we persuade them not to rush into sex without love, promise and commitment?
We Christians say mothering, fathering, child-bearing and child-raising are good and we are thankful for having had the chance to pass on the life we received, however second-hand this experience sometimes was. We can say this, publicly, in defiance of two cults which, in opposite ways, come from the same great unhappiness. One is the modern pursuit of sexual equivalence. This new cult of woman in which all maternal functions of care are delegated and centralised. No one has to be mother in a deep sense because the government plays Mother for us. The government provides, and our job is just to take the funding she gives us. So many of us are committed to her cult, and repeat the mantra that we just need more of her centralised bounty. Not many dare dissent from this cult, but we must.
The other is the recently imported cult of male domination of women. This cult promotes a war within each household, in which men must constantly reinforce their superiority over women, by covering, disciplining, punishing and even cutting a woman’s body in an attempt to suppress the God-given dignity of the woman, body and soul.
These are two opposite forms of an idolatry which that does not believe in the mutuality of man and woman. Instead they believe that sexual differentiation and the very form of our bodies are unfortunate, and so in this aspect, creation is not good. But the God of Jesus Christ is our creator, the creator of creation who does find humankind good and so affirms our differentiation and reciprocal orientation as men and women.
It is our calling to be husbands and wives and mothers and fathers. We may live in communion, and Christian discipleship sustains us in this communion. I can only be a good son, or husband or father as I am brought to the Lord to confess my failure in each of these identities, and as he removes the consequences of my failure, and allows me to start again. To be a man and a husband means that I must ask for, and receive, forgiveness, from God and from my wife. To be human is to be forgiven and receive the grace of God. When we celebrate Mary, we do as she does, lifting up this son to our countrymen, and saying England, Behold your Son, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Beloved Son.
The Son of Man must be lifted up….
Christ is lifted up and in glory high up above us. And he now lifts us up. Look at this roodscreen, at this step up into the choir. A rood is a tree, the specific tree of the cross. ‘By thy passion and death deliver us’, it says up there. When we step through an opening in this tree we enter the garden, and once inside we will find that the garden is much, much more spacious than the world outside it. This safe enclosed garden place is what creation is; the savage powers will not be allowed to break in. So this tree is that cross and our way in.
Ash Wednesday was our bleak return to the Church on England’s behalf. We have come through the porch and week-by-week progress up the nave. Good Friday we step up to the sanctuary which is Golgotha. The altar is the tomb in which the body of the Lord is laid, as blank as death.
On Easter Sunday morning it turns out that that is not a wall at all, but the doorway, now open. The Lord has broken through. We wait at that entrance for his coming again. Meanwhile we hear the sounds of heaven and through Scripture we get a reflected view of what is going on.
So the structure and decoration of this church make it a model of creation, redeemed and glorious, just as the temple in Jerusalem was. Here are creatures, vegetation and water, fire and light, planets and stars, moon and sun, night and day are represented here, figuratively and also in the harmonies of the music of their communication and praise.
But it is also a creation that has a safe place for us in which we are not in the immediate presence of holiness, but in a more safely mediated relationship which protects us from too much exposure to that holiness. There is room here for us who are works-in-progress, our not-yet-holy selves. We look forward to life directly face-to-face, at the altar, but meanwhile we are safe here in the nave. But that holiness is expansive, for like incense it wafts down to us, and we can take part in it and sing along with the angels, and with all who bring us the message that this is the good creation of God for us, and God will redeem us and it. Look up and see the angels, each giving us a line from the Te Deum Laudamus – a version of the Gloria – We Praise you, O God. We praise God. Why do we do so? We praise God so that we not misdirect credit to all the over-inflated powers-that-be, the little would-be divinities, who buzz around us, greedily and desperately attempting to source life from us.
Our praise of God is only the backwash from the much greater wave of praise that comes from God to us. The Lord praises us first. He values us, approves of us, gives us credit, extends his credit status to us, so we may charge all things to his account. We may and must remind all powers and institutions not to take too much credit for themselves, not to encourage any cults of personality or celebrity, for that they have a specific mandate, which they may not overstep, to serve us and participate with us in our great well-directed thanksgiving to God from whom all things come and who alone maintains the good functioning of the economy of mutual esteem and credit in which we live.
5. Entry to Jerusalem – Palm Sunday
The sixth Sunday of Lent is Palm Sunday. The Lord rides into Jerusalem. We will read the short version of this entry from Mark, but here is the longer one from Matthew:
When they had come near Jerusalem … Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey
The disciples brought the donkey and its foal… and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Matthew points out that the Lord is now doing what Zechariah said he would:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The Lord is at war, riding out to confront the malevolent forces arrayed against mankind. But this king is so confident in his victory that he does not ride a war horse but a much more peaceful animal.
On that day the Lord their God will save them… The Lord God will sound the trumpet and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. .. He will cut down the chariots from Ephraim and war horses from Jerusalem and command peace to the nations, so his dominion shall be from sea to sea.
The king is coming into his capital. The Lord in full battle array, has ridden out against all our enemies, and we are amongst them, and he defeats them and brings them and us home with him into his city, to the jubilation of all. But of course his own city is now holding out against him and must be retaken. So this is both a day of rejoicing, and the Day of Judgment and of Wrath, Dies Irae, as Psalm 68 tells us:
Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him. … Let the righteous be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy. … O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, the earth shook, the heavens poured down at the presence of God, the God of Sinai, the God of Israel. The leaders of the [enemy] armies flee away. With mighty chariots, thousands upon thousands, the Lord came from Sinai into the holy place. You ascended the mountain, leading captives in your train and receiving gifts from men…
Your solemn processions are seen, O God, coming into the sanctuary, the singers in front, the musicians last, between them girls playing tambourines: Bless God in the great congregation.
Psalm 68 is telling us what we are witnessing in Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem and about the procession that we are now take part of. We go through the world in procession behind the Lord, alternately rejoicing, and lamenting that we held out against him. He leads, we follow, and restoration and healing appear wherever he goes. The Lord is the bridegroom and Jerusalem and now the Church, is his bride; his arrival is her wedding.
So Jesus also goes into Jerusalem as into the storm. Starting this coming week we watch him enter this narrow defile which becomes darker until there seems no way out. On the third day we see him crash through and emerge out of the other side, and riding on through all his creation, imperturbable victor. The Lord takes us with him through it all, so though this is always a victory procession, for us, in this present, this victory takes the form of this very public confrontation.
For at this moment, for our sake, and for own people’s sake we are heading right into this most almighty confrontation with all those frightened and arrogant disordered powers and institutions that have grabbed what is not theirs to control. We have to take their battering. The extent of the opposition coming our way in this country in the coming years will show just how long we have been neglecting own people. We have not told them what they need to hear; we have not even told one another.
A strong healthy community of any sort, whether a business or a nation, has to hear the truth about itself, repent and abandon whatever policies are not working, and start again. Repenting, praying, thanksgiving: Sorry, Please, Thank you – these three instruments are required to keep any community together. Everything needs regular maintenance. An inspection brings malfunctions to light. Everything needs the caustic of truth, won through the discipline of good self-judgment. But our nation has avoided for this for so long, that it and we are now thrashing around to avoid the one thing we most urgently need.
We were born within a vast covenant of civilisation and of civility, utterly precarious, but also fragile, and now despised and vulnerable. Seventy, maybe even fifty, years ago just enough of the virtues that support that civility was passed on through family and public culture. Now no longer.
The generation-to-generation transmission system has bust. We have created a people without memory or means of resisting the powers, a generation of orphans – adults, but infantile. They don’t want to take guidance from us, and some of them will turn on us. This is our Lent to come. Now we must travel through them behind our Lord, taking on their grief and their fury, in hope that Christ’s resurrection will also be ours and theirs. But we can repent, long and loud, on behalf of those who cannot, for we understand what we have received, can be thankful for it and determined to pass it all on to our children and successors.
In week two we saw that a panicked desire to throw away all that we have inherited has turned into a political agenda – a new correctness and new righteousness – which does not like to explain itself, pushed through by a new political caste that does not care to be challenged. Self-deprecation and self-hatred has been turning into hatred of those who do not share this self-hatred. For these, everything we have inherited is wrong, and must be renounced, and every accepted principle is reversed. Their ideology is becoming cultic.
Since we were born into it, have lived in it all our lives we take from granted this Gospel-given political culture, with its two pillars of fairness and freedom, and do not see how partial or fragile it is. We have not passed on much understanding of this covenant or equipped our young with the identity of free self-supporting citizens, who are able to balance freedom with responsibility. Life outside this Christian-formed political covenant can be savage. Yet we have not passed this political culture on, so our children can only articulate for themselves a much reduced political status, as dependents of vast distant corporations and state.
While we have lived in the political and moral culture that is the product of Christianity, another culture, or another cult, has arisen, the bubble of those who want to suppress public acknowledgement of Christian political culture. Through media, and syllabuses in schools and universities, they do suppress it, belittling all memory of a culture that refuses to bow to them. It is for us to show our young how to gather round the true light who is Christ, and teach our children our history and our culture so that this generous, liberal, optimistic, civil culture may continue and they may be treat one another as co- equal citizens in it.
Our offspring will live in a world, and in a country, in which a vast number of people suddenly discover that the modern world, which seemed to promise increasing prosperity and opportunity for everyone, won’t let them in after all. Millions of people see the door closing, and know that they are being shut out. Trapped in vast urban proletarian cauldrons, as the temperature rises the carnage starts. Many are ready enough to lash out and destroy whatever they can because they fear that our culture has no place for them. We have enemies. Of course we do not like to believe this. Of course, we believe the best from all men. Our calling is to innocence, but not to naivety. Great mischief comes from those are in denial about these threats, and are in power and using that power to prevent us from protecting ourselves.
‘We have not yet gone as far as shedding blood….’ Yet others have. In the last year Christians, our brothers and sisters, in churches in Syria, Iraq and Egypt established centuries before our own, have been attacked and killed, their churches and culture destroyed not just as a by-product of war, but deliberately, as policy. Last summer the archbishop of Mosul, Amel Nona, told us clearly that we do have enemies:
‘Our sufferings today are the prelude to yours,’ he said. ‘Your values are not their values. If you do not understand this soon enough, you will become the victims of the enemy you have welcomed in your home.’
In the last year it has at last been made plain that some of youngest and most vulnerable are indeed under attack. We pray that all set in authority ‘truly and indifferently minister justice’. Have police, CPS, and judiciary upheld the law impartially, or if you are female, fifteen, and without a father, are you given a lesser degree of protection that leaves you exposed to whatever favoured but predatory group, has risen above the law to become untouchable? When our young people are attacked it is because they have not been equipped with the self-respect and motivation to support and defend themselves. Have we abandoned them to a terrible Lent of their own?
To live through this rougher period, how much more robust will our children have to be than we have been, and how much better equipped? They must learn every word of this bible off by heart and be able to resort to the gospel just to defend their own citizenship.
In week three we heard that:
The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the Elders, the Chief Priests, and the Scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again
Who are the Elders, Chief Priests, and Scribes? Are they not the centralisers and globalisers who want to make us more biddable, less-than-citizens, less conscious of our full dignity as heirs of European and Western culture – less aware of our status as heirs, or as the bible says, as Sons? Have we not been undergoing a long, slow putsch, in which we let go of our responsibilities and dignity while breaking the covenant between a people and their leaders, the power-brokers accumulate our powers into their hands – all simply because they are afraid. Have they not subtly raised themselves above the law and taken their client groups with them? Now there is not one law for all, but one law for some, and another for others. They have divided the nation, into the new more worthy class, the special reserved groups, and the old despised English – too white and too male.
A confident healthy country with a growing economy can absorb new people. But it must purposefully communicate its culture, and that means it must be convinced that its own culture is worth having and sharing. Then new arrivals will be able to agree, adopt that culture and identify themselves with it, and so it will become theirs. But our leaders seemed to have decided that ordinary people are not good enough. Then have made a most appalling mistake. Over their heads they have brought in others to replace them, peoples with cultures that oppose the fundamental tenets of ours. They seem unable to admit what they have done, and it is not at all clear we can recover from this mistake. Why is this a mistake? After fourteen hundred years of Christianity, Britons have arrived at the conclusion that there is one law for all, that is, that there is equality under the law. And so it must be. Either the civilised world civilises the uncivilised – or the uncivilised destroys the civilisation to which they were drawn, to their very great loss as well as ours.
Our law shapes and protects one sort of society, an open and optimistic one in the individual is supreme. Other cultures make for a society which is fearful, in which the small moral space tends to reduce individual responsibility, but individuals are not of equal status, so women for instance are not equal to men, so family life is not based in the mutuality and complementarity of the sexes. We cannot have both equality under the rule of law and its opposite. We cannot have a government or judiciary which is unsure whether our law is really better than the law of others. We have to decide that fairness is better than inequality, and that our law is sovereign and that there cannot be alternative jurisdictions or ghettos here. We have to discriminate between ourselves and others, and we have to promote the universal law that we have inherited over all its challengers. If we cannot uphold that law we will not remain the people sustained by that law who can exercise the generosity, charity and openness that has made this nation to attractive to others.
In week 5 we read Jeremiah 31
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when … they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall bear their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.
Perhaps the economy is going down and we all about to become poorer. As long as central banks print money, stock markets stay up and pensions seem secure and it is not be easy to imagine any change. But if it turns out that we have been living in a long debt-inflated economic fantasy, then perhaps we may come out of our decades-long trance. We will have to pick up our responsibilities to one another again. When those paid to educate and care are no longer paid – the functions of care, and education will come back to us, and we will have to take of them ourselves at parish and village level, a task well within our ability.
We will have to take responsibility for one another, ourselves, individually and communally. Everyone of us is of unlimited value, ‘they shall all know me’, and has the direct access of one-to-one friendship with God, and with our neighbour, without mediation of power-brokers or centralisers.
This is the covenant that I will make with Israel: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord.
In Holy week we watch our Lord go through the passion in which he confronts all the out-of-control powers. It looks to all the world as though Christ is on trial, is being tried and found wanting. But that is only how it seems to an upside-down world. In truth, Christ is the judge, and his judges can only see in him a reflection of their own fears and misery, and recoil from this; they see and judge and condemn only themselves. Their judgment bounces off Christ and on the third day rebounds on them.
Our rulers seem to be suffering a low-level dread, rising to panic. In their attempt to shore up things-as-they-are, they are in too much haste. To them we must say ‘Do not be Afraid’. We must laugh at their fears. Christ has conquered death and want. There is enough to go round. We must learn to say that, though living standards are on the way down, we are content, for we have enough, and are well able to look after one another.
We are going to go through a prolonged Lent. But we may start going through it now, willingly and publicly in repentance, before God and before the whole British people. In our lifetimes a fake heaven-on-earth, that has taken hold of everyone younger, less sceptical, and more gullible, than ourselves. We may repent that we have not passed on to them what they now need. We have left our own children defenceless and now they are being robbed. The more TV you watch, the more this fictionalised world seems to be your entitlement. We must charge ourselves with having failed the next generation, and Christians must make this accusation against ourselves publicly and clearly. This is what we do when we pray. We repent both on our behalf and on behalf of our ideological leaders who have being elbowing the ordinary people out of political life. They have attempted to marginalise everything that is – or used to be – regarded as normal, and promoting in its place everything that departs from it, so to make family life and national continuity as difficult as possible. The society that tolerates a leadership that behaves in this way will not survive. Our leaders cannot repent. So we repent for them, and plead on behalf of the faithless leaders of the British. Then maybe our leaders will come to join us in this repentance.
We have a demographic crisis. It is painfully obvious here in Devon. It is even obvious in our churches. Where are the young? They need to take up the apprenticeship and learn from us the skills by which they can protect themselves and their own children in future years. Christian faith is an apprenticeship; it is a skill set as basic to life as dressing yourself and tying your own shoes.
We can bring the young to Christ and to church. What it requires is quite obvious and straightforward obvious; we know the elements, we just have to bring them together. Of it is entirely time-consuming and costly. It will not leave little time for anything else so we would to give up some other commitments. And we have to get over ourselves, for we have become the obstacle between our own young and Christ, and our bringing them to him involves our repentance. And it involves doing all the things by which this country was converted to Christianity in the first place.
So, when the vicar says ‘I publish the banns of marriage…’, we shall say, ‘Aha, a wedding. I shall go that wedding. Let us go together. Let’s go and kiss that bride and tell her how pretty she is, shake the hand of that groom, and tell him how proud of him you are, and do the same for the mothers- and fathers-in-law.’ When we go to that wedding, let’s stand outside, lining the path to church door for the bride. Then we’ll raise the roof with ‘Hark the songs of Faithful Zion’, ‘Jerusalem the Golden with milk and honey blest’, ‘Glorious things of Thee are spoken, Zion City of our God’, until their ears ring. Then we’ll line the path again when they emerge as a married couple. Let us deck them with garlands. Let’s invite the bell ringers and the hand-bell ringers, and the Morris Group and the Winkleigh Ceilidh band and, paying whoever needs to be paid, make a joyful noise. Let us stick money in the pockets of the bridegroom, yes, let’s give them money, for money always has to go from the older to the younger. When the young couple receives money from people with less money than themselves, they will be getting the first instalment of a long message of love that has to go from one generation to another. Let’s us not shower them with confetti, but with vouchers, from the butcher, from Fiona, from the garage, from every business from here to Exeter. And let us do this for every wedding, time after time, and eventually everybody will find it natural.
Let us greet this young bridegroom as Christ coming to receive his bride at last. From their union another generation will come and all creation be renewed. Psalm 68 again: Your solemn processions are seen, O God, coming into the sanctuary – the singers in front, the musicians last, between them girls playing tambourines. We are the singers, musicians and dancers at this great festival; we lead the rejoicing, and so communicate to the young what is important and good. That is how each Winkleigh wedding must be.
So when the Banns are published, let us put the names and photo of the couple up at the back of church, let us include them in the intercessions. Let us take the man aside into the secret man’s club and teach him how to honour your woman, and make her happy. We could give them a copy of our booklet ‘How the Eucharist will save your Life’, and in the weeks before the wedding we run our introductory course – ‘How to get married and Stay Married’. Let us celebrate their anniversary each year, and invite them back with the other couples that got married here the same year.
And when this newly married wife becomes pregnant, let us take her the first baby clothes, and when the child is born, let us garland their front door and thereafter take them round a pie every month. Let us give them an allotment, and enrol them in a revived Mother’s Union, which with the WI helps with food and its preparation and nutrition. Let us initiate them into the Baby-sitting Bank, the Home Work Club for the older children, and the young adult Pizza-Dance-&Cinema Society, which we will call ‘All Saints’, that meets alternate Saturday nights, preceded by young adults’ Evensong. Any couple who produces a third child will be awarded the freedom of the borough of Winkleigh.
And anyone around here says that they would like to marry, but they are waiting until they can get a deposit to put on a house, or would like to live around here but can’t afford to, we say Don’t Wait. There are ways of finding a home around here that don’t involve mortgages, because for most there simply isn’t enough full-time work around to make mortgages thinkable. The caravans in gardens and farm yards can be converted to plumbed-in double-wide cabin, rent-free, or for a day’s work a week. The point is to get them started on married life, without being concerned about whether they will come to Church or what financial contribution they will make.
If we kept this up, people would start coming here to be married, the media would scent a story and people wouldn’t be talking about Gretna Green anymore. Winkleigh would even prosper economically. Of course it will need a budget, but that is no problem to us – for money must go from the older to the younger.
A wedding is a public act of Christian worship. All Christian worship is carried on in public. Imagine that we are meeting on an open hillside. Everyone can see and hear us. Our worship of God is a public act witnessed by the whole world. We walk through the world lamenting our failure and apologising to everyone younger than ourselves our failure to pass on to them what they need – and everyone can see and hear us do so. We sing in counterpoint in the voice of lost England, and in the voice of the Lord, calling and comforting. We sing in tears and in triumph. It is our great dignity to get down on our hands and knees, before God and before England, to ask forgiveness, to intercede and be England’s advocate and friend, and to plead with England’s embittered judges to release England and let her start again.
So what is the take home message of these talks? Go to weddings. Greet the young couple with kisses as you would greet Christ, pick them up and carry them around town on your shoulders rejoicing, for today we are the donkey, and they are Christ come home to us.