Ostermontag (A) – 17. April 2017

Predigt in der altkatholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Apg 2,14.22-33
1. Kor 15,1-8.11
Lukas 24,13-35

Zwei traurige Jünger, die auf dem Weg nach Emmaus sind. Ihre Hoffnungen sind zerbrochen. Jesus ist tot. Nicht mal seine Leiche ist aufzufinden. Ein Engel hat gesagt, dass er lebt, aber ein Anzeichen dafür hat es bisher nicht gegeben.  Zwei traurige Jünger, Nachfolger des verstorbenen Jesus, die auf dem Weg nach Emmaus sind.  Und nun kommt ein Dritter dazu, ein Fremder, der davon nichts weiß, dem sie die ganze tragische Geschichte erzählen müssen, mit dem sie ihre Unsicherheit, ihre Trauer, ihre Enttäuschung teilen müssen, weil er davon nichts weiß.

Dieser Fremde kennt sich aber gut aus, er kann die Schrift auslegen, diese Geschehnisse, das Leben und Sterben Jesu damit in Verbindung bringen. Aber sie verstehen nicht so ganz, was er sagt.  Sie laden ihn trotzdem ein, mit ihnen zu Abend zu essen.  Sie setzen sich zusammen hin, wollen das Brot essen – und der Fremde bricht das Brot, spricht das Dankwort darüber, verteilt das Brot. Erst dann erkennen die Jünger, dass dieser Fremde doch gar kein Fremder ist, sondern Jesus.  Im Brotbrechen, beim zusammen essen, im Beisammensein.

Was wäre passiert, wenn die Jünger den Fremden abgewiesen hätten?  Wenn sie mit ihm geschimpft hätten, ihn ignoriert hätten, weil er von ihrer Geschichte nichts wussten?  Wenn sie diesen Mann nicht dazu eingeladen hätten, mit ihnen zu essen, den Abend mit ihnen zu verbringen?  Was wäre passiert?  Sie wären in ihrer Trauer geblieben, hätten den Trost nicht bekommen, hätten nie bemerkt, dass ihnen gerade Jesus, der Auferstandene begegnet.

Diese Emmausgeschichte erinnert uns daran, wie wichtig es ist, Zeit für einander zu nehmen.  Wie wichtig es ist, Zeit zu lassen, damit eine Beziehung sich entwickeln, entfalten kann.  Wie wichtig es ist, nicht sofort zu verurteilen.  Wie wichtig es ist, den Weg zusammen zu gehen, sich aufeinander einzulassen, Zeit miteinander zu verbringen – und das Alltägliche gemeinsam zu gestalten.  Zusammengehen.  Zusammen erzählen.  Zusammensitzen.  Zusammenessen.  Einander kennen und erkennen lernen. Somit lernen wir auch Christus kennen und erkennen.

Für Rowan Williams, ehemaliger Erzbischof von Canterbury machen solche Begegnungen Kirche aus:

Die Kirche ist heilig, … nicht weil sie eine Versammlungen von braven, wohlerzogenen Menschen ist, sondern weil sie vom Sieg der Gnade spricht durch ein Zusammenkommen von Fremden und Sündern, die auf wunderbarer Weise sich so vertrauen, dass sie gemeinsam ihre Sünden bekennen und ihr Lob verkünden können.[1]

Dadurch, so Williams, wird unsere Einheit in Jesus Christus wahrgenommen und verkündet.  „Menschlich gesehen sieht Heiligkeit immer so aus:  Gottes Ausdauer trotz unserer Abweisung, seine Fähigkeit, jeder Abweisung mit dem Geschenk seines Dabeiseins zu begegnen.“[2]  Darum geht es in der Emmausgeschichte – um das Geschenk des Daseins Christi.

Die Emmausgeschichte ist aber auch eine Geschichte über eine Gemeinschaft, die auch Gastfreundschaft ist.  Margaret Guenther fragt:  Was passiert, wenn wir Gastfreundschaft anbieten?  „Wir laden jemanden in unseren Raum ein, einen Raum, der Sicherheit und Schutz anbietet. …  Geschichten werden erzählt, es kann gelacht und geweint werden. … Gastfreundschaft ist ein Geschenk vom Raum, körperlich und geistlich.”[3]   Einander Raum geben, einander Raum schenken.  Dass dies wichtig ist zeigt die Emmausgeschichte.  In diesem Raum lerne ich den Anderen anders kennen – und oft lerne ich auch mich selbst anders kennen.

Vor fast dreißig Jahren hat der Priester Henri Nouwen ein sehr bewegendes Buch darüber geschrieben, wie er seine Stelle als Professor für Theologie an der Universität Harvard aufgegeben hat, um in einer L’Arche Wohngemeinschaft mit Menschen mit Behinderung zu leben.  Im Epilog beschreibt er, wie wichtig es war, Zeit zu nehmen, um Beziehungen aufzubauen. Nouwen hat seinen Mitbewohner Adam betreut:  „Er war so gebrechlich, ich hatte Angst ich könnte ihm weh tun, ich würde etwas falsch machen.  Aber langsam lernte ich diesen fremden Menschen kennen und lieben.“[4]  Dabei musste Henri Nouwen auch sich selbst anders kennen lernen.  „Ich musste meine eigenen Behinderungen, meine eigenen Einschränkungen preisgeben, wahrnehmen,“ schreibt er.[5]  Es wurde ihm allmählich klar:  „Ein Leben in Gemeinschaft zu wählen und ein Leben mit Jesus zu wählen: zunehmend sehe ich diese Entscheidungen als eine und dieselbe Wahl.“[6]

Die Emmausgeschichte zeigt uns, dass es nicht darum geht, sich selbst zu schützen, irgendwie vorzumachen, dass nichts los ist, dass uns nichts beschäftigt, sondern offen zu sein für den Anderen.  Das kann manchmal, wie auch Nouwen zugibt, schmerzhaft sein kann.  Denn „Der Glaube ist kein Polster, das uns vor Verletzungen schützt. Der Glaube ist die Kraft, Verletzungen zu ertragen, um der Wahrhaftigkeit willen.“[7]  Der auferstandene Christus ist auch keiner Rückkehr zum lebendigen Christus.  Die Kreuzigung wird nicht rückgängig gemacht.  Die Wunden, die Verletzungen sind noch beim auferstandenen Christus zu sehen uns zu spüren.

Die Emmausgeschichte:  sie zeigt wie wichtig es ist, Zeit für einander zu haben, einander Gastfreundschaft anzubieten, miteinander über Verletzungen zu sprechen.  Mitten in der Trauer, der Verunsicherung, des Zweifels, begegnet der auferstandene Christus den Jüngern.  Weil sie Zeit mit ihm verbringen.  Weil Christus sich immer wieder anders präsentiert, bis sie – bis wir – begreifen, dass es sich in der Tat um den auferstandenen Christus handet.

[1]     Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement, 136.

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Margaret Guenther, Holy Listening, 13.

[4]     Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak, 219.

[5]     Ibid, 220.

[6]     Ibid, 222.

[7]     Te Deum 16.4.2013.

Lent 5 (A) – 2 April 2017

sermon preached at St Mungo’s Alexandria

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 8: 6-11
John 11: 1-45

Today is Passion Sunday.  In two weeks, it will be Easter, and these two weeks will take us on a dramatic journey.  A journey through the celebratory heights of Palm Sunday, the foreboding of Maundy Thursday, and the depths of loss of Good Friday.  A journey through what the Western church has long called Passiontide.

What does Passiontide have to do with passion, we might ask?  These days we think of passion mostly as meaning what the Oxford English Dictionary calls “strong or overpowering feeling or emotion.”  That emotion, in modern parlance, might refer to strong love, deep sexual desire, intense anger, or a fascination for something.  I could have a passion for stamp-collecting. I can feel passion for my husband, or I might fall into a passion about something.  But in the Christian context, passion means something rather different.  Our English word passion derives from the Latin passio, which means “suffering, enduring”.  And passio in turn derives from the verb patior, “to suffer, endure, submit to.”  The passion that we contemplate in Passiontide is of course Christ’s:  these two weeks take us through the account of his suffering, his endurance, his patient submission to the will of his father.  And “patient” is another word derived from patior.

All these Latin terms are related to the Greek term πάθος, pathos which, like passion, can mean any strong feeling, but which also means “pain, suffering, death” or even “misfortune, calamity, disaster, misery”.  These days in English, pathos refers to something that “evokes pity, sadness, or tenderness” (and “pathos” also gives us “pathetic”, with its associations of weakness), but “pathos” too once meant “physical or mental suffering; sorrow.”  Both meanings of “pathos” speak to us of the journey we will be taken on over the next two weeks.  And these are the two weeks that lead us to Easter, called in Latin and in Greek Πάσχα, Pascha, another word related to πάθος, pathos, which in turn is closely related to the Hebrew פֶּסַח Pesach. Πάσχα has an associated verb πάσχω which means “undergo, experience”, or “to suffer at someone’s hands”, or “to suffer a punishment”, so the pascal celebration of Easter is derived from the pathos and the passion which are its preparation.

So the etymology offers us an extraordinary set of insights into Christ’s journey to Easter.  This is the story of Christ’s passion, clearly in the sense of his patiently suffering martyrdom, his giving himself over to suffer at another’s hands, his experiencing pain and suffering and death.  He is, as we will affirm in the coming two weeks, the pascal lamb, given for the sins of the world.  But Christ’s passion is clearly also related to the other meanings of passion.  It is the passionate love of God for the world that takes Christ to the cross to redeem us.  And integral to this story are also the wild passions of the people who will greet Jesus with jubilation as he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, but who, only days later, will be baying for his blood: “crucify him”.  Passiontide is a time of the heights and depths of passion in every sense.  Underlying the modern understandings of passion as strong emotion is that age-old sense of passion as patient suffering, Christ’s patient suffering, which will take him to his death and bring us to our redemption.

Passionate patience.  That is the theme of the next two weeks.

Importantly, this is a passionate patience that does not end with the depths of suffering, but will take us to new life.  Our readings today remind us of that.  Leslie Allen, commentating on vision of the dry bones living, points to how Ezekiel draws on Jewish tradition, and particularly on creedal statements which affirms God as “the one who kills and makes alive.”[1]  This draws on Psalm 116 (8, 9) which calls on God as the giver of life: “thou hast delivered my soul from death; … I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”  Ezekiel calls on that tradition in his prophecy to the community of Israel, to remind them that they too are called to life.  In two weeks’ time, on Easter Sunday morning, we too will celebrate the call to new life, the joyful knowledge and recognition that death does not have the victory.

Ezekiel’s prophecy is taken up in its turn by Paul’s explorations in Romans of what life in the Spirit might be about.  “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death,” writes Paul.  “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. … But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  This true life for Paul is about living in the Spirit. About setting our minds on the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ.  And about recognising that we cannot do this alone.  Christine Chakoian writing at The Christian Century suggests:

This is akin to the person who finally admits an inability to overcome addiction alone, appealing instead to a greater power. God, who raised Jesus from the dead, has the power to give us new life as well—even and especially when life seems dark and futile.[2]

Mary and Martha put their faith in Christ too in the story of the raising of Lazarus.  This story of resurrection is a very difficult story for any of us who are mourning the death of someone we loved very much.  Mary and Martha have lost their brother, and they are disappointed and upset – angry even – that Jesus was not there to heal him from his illness.  In the encounter between Martha and Jesus, Martha affirms her faith in Jesus on several levels:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Martha’s first affirmation of faith, in Christ’s power and authority to heal.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Martha’s second affirmation of faith, in the resurrection of the dead as taught in the Jewish tradition.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Martha’s third affirmation of faith in Christ as the Messiah.  Christine Chakoian points out that here:

The word believe fails to capture what Jesus is asking; for pisteuo is never just a cognitive matter. Do you trust this? Do you rest your faith in this? Do you live toward this?

We might ask:  Are you passionate about this?  Do you give yourself to it?  Chakoian suggests:

It strikes me that Paul’s invitation to set our minds on the Spirit is not altogether different than Jesus’ invitation to believe in him. The outcome is the same: unquenchable life, irreducible peace.

The peace may not feel very peaceful when we are facing the death of someone we loved, watching the end of a deep relationship, facing loss of whatever kind.  In Martha’s words – spoken before the miracle of her brother’s death, there is sorrow, there is anger, but there is also acceptance.  She here is speaking of bearing the pain, of living life with that passionate patience that we see in Christ.

And so, as we enter Passiontide, let us too accept.  Let us allow these two weeks to take us on a journey, a journey through passio to pascha, through suffering, punishment, death.  But in that pascha we will find that death is not the end.  For pascha in the sense of suffering and death will become the Pascha of Easter.  For us too, death will bring the hope of resurrection life.

In the words of George Herbert, let us pray:

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a way as gives us breath;
Such a truth as ends all strife,
Such a life as killeth death.

Amen

[1]   Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, Dallas TX 1990, p. 187.

[2]    https://www.christiancentury.org/article/april-2-fifth-sunday-lent.

Lent 1 (A) – 5 March 2017

sermon preached at the Church of the Ascension, Munich

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

In the name of God, who creates, redeems and sustains us.

The serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

 It has always seemed to me odd that the knowledge of good and evil is associated with the Fall.  Eve wanted to become wise: is that such a bad idea?  It seems very strange that this story is associated with the fall of humankind, with moving away from God, with a loss of an original innocence and the gaining of sin.

And I am not the only one who finds this strange.  In a comment on this passage, the American New Testament scholar Greg Carey writes:  “By eating the forbidden fruit, Eve and Adam grow into human maturity. We may idealize their pre-transgression life in the garden. No pain, no fear, no sin, no alienation. But where the knowledge of good and evil is lacking, so is maturity. Growing in wisdom requires pain, risk, and the presence of sin.”[1]

Carey is here echoing many Enlightenment thinkers.  In the early Enlightenment, many theologians and philosophers came to see the Fall as enabling human beings to embark on education, on learning, and thus to gain in understanding.  “O felix culpa!”  They wrote.  “O happy fault; O happy sin.”  The Easter liturgy in the Catholic Church picks up this theme:  “O felix culpa:  O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer!”

“O felix culpa” – “O happy fault.”  Reflecting on this phrase, Henry Karlson suggests that the need to respond to sin can take us beyond ourselves:  “We are born into the world contaminated by sin. We live in a world full of suffering due to the effects of sin. We are expected to do something about sin in our own lives, and also, to deal with the suffering of others. We are expected to become compassionate, loving persons helping others. In doing so, we grow, we become something greater than we were before our actions. Suffering, sin, has allowed us to develop all kinds of virtues which we would not have been able to possess if the challenges presented by evil were not there before us.”[2]  This is not to suggest that sin is a good thing.  Sin cuts us, cuts humanity off from God.  But as sin draws us away from God, and God responds through Christ to draw us back, the result can be something greater than we could have imagined.

This seems to me a good thought with which to begin Lent, especially a Lent in which we find ourselves enmeshed in debates about accurate information and fake news.  Lent is a time in which we are invited to consider our lives and the world around us critically.  A time in which we are called to look and to see more clearly, and to change our behaviour in response.  A time, we might say, in which we are called to be particularly attentive to the discerning good and evil, and to responding to what we see.

In other words, Lent is about repentance.  The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means to change: to change one’s opinion, to change one’s mind, to change one’s life.  But originally it meant to know in hindsight, to see differently in retrospect.  Writing about repentance, Kathleen Norris tells of a boy who wrote a poem called ‘The monster who was sorry’:

He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town.  The poem concludes, ‘Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’[3]

To sit and say, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that’ is the beginning of repentance.  This is the moment when our eyes open to see the messy house around us, to appreciate the results of our sins of omission and commission:  those things which we have done, that we should not have done; and those things which we have not done, that we should have done.  This is the moment in which we open our eyes to see the pain and the hurt of the world in which we live.  It is the moment in which we begin to see and admit the messiness of the world around us and, in seeing it, feel the need to clear it up.  To repent is admit our messiness and to long to be made clean; it is to open our eyes open to see the mess around us, long to have the messy house tidy, and do something about it.[4]

That is, in order to do something about it, we do have to see it.  You cannot see differently if you will not look in the first place.  I still remember vividly an encounter in South Africa in 1987 with an elderly white woman who was absolutely clear that the poverty and terrible conditions I had seen in the townships around Cape Town and Durban simply did not exist.  I had seen them.  She could not and would not conceive that what I had seen was actually the case.  And because she could not even allow herself see them, it was impossible for her to react.  An attitude of “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” in this ways results in “Do no good.”

“O felix culpa”, “O happy fault”, can only apply if we are prepared to see clearly.  We need to see what is wrong before we can begin to try to put it right.  Putting this another way, we need a measure by which we can recognise sin, or begin to identify evil, before we can start to conceive of the good.  One of the fundamental tenets of Martin Luther’s theology was that without an understanding of how we fail to keep God’s law, we cannot understand our need for God’s grace.  “The Law oppresses the conscience with sins, but the Gospel frees the conscience and brings peace through faith in Christ.” Luther wrote.[5]  The Law judges us and finds us wanting, and leaves us aware of our inability to keep it.  But that is not the end of the story, for in our need, God reaches out to us and strengthens us with grace.  Writing in 1940, in the midst of the Second World War, Dorothy Sayers said something very similar (in the words you have on your service sheet under thought for the week):  “If [people] will not understand the meaning of judgment, they will never come to understand the meaning of grace.”[6]  And that is the underlying meaning of “o felix culpa”:  not the a joy in the lapse itself, but joy in that which, as lapsed and fallen human beings, God nonetheless calls us to be.

All of that starts where Adam and Eve found themselves, with the knowledge of good and evil, and a sense of shame or repentance.  That means, it starts with a clear-eyed look at our lives and at the world in which we live, to see where these are messy places, and with a thirst to understand where God might be calling us to make a difference.

So: where in our lives do we see things wrong that we might do something about?  Where do we recognise injustice?  Let us use this Lent to take a clear-eyed look not just at ourselves but at the world around us.

 

Let us pray:

Spirit of integrity,
you drive us into the desert to search out our truth.
give us clarity to know what is right,
and courage to reject what is expedient;
that we may abandon the false innocence
of failing to choose at all,
and may follow the purposes of Jesus Christ.[7]  Amen.

 

[1]   http://odysseynetworks.org/news/2014/02/28/what-did-eve-want-genesis-215-17-31-7.

[2]   http://vox-nova.com/2011/12/06/o-felix-culpa/

[3]   Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace:  A Vocabulary of Faith, New York 1998, 69-70.

[4]   Adapted from Charlotte Methuen, If you love something…, Peterborough 2004, 21-22.

[5]   LW 25, 416.

[6]   Dorothy Sayers, “Creed or Chaos?” (http://douglassocialcredit.com/Say­ers%20Dorothy%20L%20Creed%20or%20Chaos.pdf ), p. 11.

[7]   Janet Morley, All Desires Known, 3rd edition, SPCK 2005, 9.

Remembering the Reformation: John Calvin – 29 January 2017

sermon preached at Jesus College Cambridge

Genesis 28: 10-22
Mark 1: 21-28

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

These, the opening words of John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, exemplify his approach not just to theology but also to the Christian life.  They may sound remarkably modern (are we not all encouraged to seek knowledge of self?) but Calvin’s understanding of knowledge of self is not that of the modern seeker.  Throughout the many editions of the Institutes, Calvin saw knowledge of God and knowledge of self as pointing to the radical difference, the contrast, between the human and the divine.  Knowledge of God, of God’s nature, is knowledge of “infinite wisdom, righteousness, goodness, mercy, truth, power and life”, of the source of all goodness.  This contrasts radically with the state of fallen human nature which has “lost all the benefits of divine grace” and become “far removed from God” and “completely estranged”.  Calvin’s conviction of the goodness and generosity of God in offering grace, forgiveness and salvation to fallen humankind, and the need for humans to respond appropriately to that grace, is key to his theology.  Brian Gerrish has called Calvin the theologian of “grace and gratitude”:  God’s grace, and human gratitude.  Calvin was always aware of the need to us to show our gratitude for all that God gives us, and especially for salvation, God’s greatest gift of all. Calvin, with the psalmist, wanted to affirm:  “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Ps 34: 1).

Calvin was born in 1509 in Noyen, in Picardy, which although it lay in France fell under the jurisdiction of the Habsburg Duke of Burgundy, who was also the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  Calvin’s father was the diocesan administrator, and, at the age of about twelve, Calvin was awarded a quarter of the income of an altar in the cathedral to fund his education.  Destined to be a lawyer, the young Jean Cauvin studied in Paris, Orléans and Bourges.  Some of his teachers were humanist scholars; and some had an interest in the “gospel teachings”, the evangelical theology of the Reformers, that had been spreading from Germany, since the early 1520s.  Calvin was a second-generation Reformer.  Growing up in Picardy, close to the border to the Spanish Netherlands, he must have been aware of the conflicts between the ruling Habsburg powers and the new religious views, particularly in the nearby counties of Flanders and Brabant.  Initially he opposed the new theology, affirming his loyalty to the traditional teachings of the church.  But in the winter of 1533/34, aged 24, he read Luther’s works and experienced what he described as an unexpected conversion.

1534 was a time of considerable interest in church reform in France, supported by the king’s sister, Marguerite de Navarre.  But the situation for supporters of reform in France became much more difficult when the so-called “Affaire des placards” – the poster affair – showed king François I that there were Protestant sympathisers in his own household.  Posters denying transubstantiation and calling for the reform of the mass were posted across Paris, and one was pasted on the door of the king’s bedchamber. That alarmed the king, and he turned against reform.  Many Protestant sympathisers went into hiding or fled, and Calvin was one of them.  He went to Basel, and then, more by accident than design, to Geneva.  Passing through the city for a night en route to Basel, he was asked by his fellow reformer, also a refugee, Guillaume Farel, to help implement the Reformation that had been introduced there.   Calvin agreed.  Their proposed reforms were too radical for Geneva’s council, however, and at Easter 1538, after a row about the liturgy to be used to celebrate the Easter Eucharist, Calvin and Farel left Geneva before they could be expelled.  Calvin went to Strasbourg, where he was appointed by Martin Bucer to pastor the French refugee church there and was able to gain valuable practical experience.  In 1541, he was invited back to Geneva, where he remained until his death in 1564.

Despite on-going differences of opinion with Geneva’s councils, who remained somewhat suspicious of this refugee Frenchman, Calvin was able to implement a radical vision of the church, reforming not only liturgical practice, but also society.  Faith, thought Calvin, should affect how people live their daily lives.  The state’s structures and the church’s structures should be separate, but the church should be closely involved in overseeing moral behaviour and censuring any lapses. This involved not only the policing marital fidelity and sexual behaviour, but also of domestic disputes and disagreements between neighbours, and consistory courts were also concerned to do away with vestiges of Catholicism (were people praying the rosary, or calling their children after saints?) and to ensure doctrinal orthodoxy.  Calvin wanted to ban card-playing and dancing in Geneva, ideas that would later be taken up by English Puritans.

There is a conundrum here:  if justification is through grace and faith, and not in any sense a reward for good works and good behaviour, as Calvin, like Luther believed it was, then what was – what is – the point of behaving well?  The theology of justification by faith is always in danger of leading to antinomianism.  Calvin’s response was to argue that God’s will was for an orderly society, and that the church shared in the responsibility of preserving that order, and of ensuring that all members of society – which for Calvin meant all members of the visible church – behaved as though they were saved, whether or not they actually were.

Calvin’s life and ministry vividly illustrate the intricate inter-relationships between civic and ecclesiastical powers.  His firm conviction that church and state (or magistrate, to use a term he would have found more familiar) must be separate, was very difficult to establish in practice.   But it lent itself to Reformers who wished to initiate Reformer without the support of the monarch or other political structures, for instance in Scotland, the Netherlands or even parts of France.  In Scotland, as in Geneva, this led to a society which came close to being a theocracy.  This complicated balance between separation of church and state, and yet a close integration of the state in the conception of society crossed the Atlantic with Puritan settlers in North America and helped to shape the religious attitudes in the USA today.

It is often assumed that at the centre of Calvin’s theology was the doctrine of predestination. Calvin certainly taught predestination, but unlike later Calvinist theologians, he did not start there.  Rather he got to predestination through a question about the success of the Reformation.  Now that the gospel as being preached to everyone, why did so many people seem not to hear it, or choose to close their hearts to it?  Predestination was Calvin’s answer: God had already decided who was to be saved, had already chosen the elect.  Those who were not elect could not hear and receive the message of salvation.  Does this see hard on those who turn out not to be elect?  Logically, Calvin felt that this was where everyone deserved to be.  The amazing thing was that anyone at all could be elect, could be justified, could be saved, and this for Calvin was why grace must be met with gratitude.  No-one deserves to be saved, so if you are, be deeply, unendingly, thankful.

Nonetheless, Calvin’s emphasis was on the vital importance of offering people access to the Word of God, to the means of being saved. Predestination was not the main point, and he thought that speculation about whether or not one was saved should be discouraged.  The Word must be shared through the preaching and proclamation of scripture in the churches, and through the celebration of the sacraments, baptism and particularly the Eucharist.  Calvin’s vision, his imperative, was to make the gospel available to as many as possible. For that reason he supported Geneva’s short-lived and unsuccessful mission to South America.

In the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit is central for Calvin.  The Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture, but the Spirit also inspires readers, convicting them of the true meaning of what they read.  For Calvin, as for Zwingli and to an extent Luther, the Holy Spirit was intended to replace the church in defining the correct interpretation of Scripture.  They believed – their philosophy of interpretation told them – that that when educated people, guided by the Spirit, read the Bible, they would agree about what it said.  From our post modern perspective this seems ridiculous, and yet how many debates in the church are still conducted as though this were the case?  The result was conflicting interpretations, and in many cases churches which were in effect defined by the way they read particular passages of scripture.  For Protestants, and particularly Lutherans and the Reformed, ecclesiology and hermeneutics were intimately connected.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the theology of the Eucharist.  Calvin lived, wrote and did his theology in a context in which the Eucharist had already divided Luther’s followers from Zwingli’s.  Calvin sought to mediate between the two positions.  The Eucharist, he  thought, was meant to attest “our unity in true doctrine and love”, not to divide.  Calvin saw an important parallel between the physical eating of the bread and the spiritual partaking of Christ: “… as bread nourishes, sustains and preserves the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the food and protection of our spiritual life.”  This happened through the mediation of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, he taught, is “a canal or channel by which all that Christ is and possesses comes down to us,” and “truly unites things separated in space”.  For Calvin, Christ does not come down to the believer to be received in the bread, as Luther taught; rather the community of believers is lifted up to him.  This was for Calvin the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist:  “In his Sacred supper he bids me take, eat, and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.”

In all of this, faith is fundamental.  Faith is not about “submitting your feelings obediently to the church”, but neither is it about a purely intellectual knowledge. Rather, it is “a knowledge of God’s will toward us,” and awareness “that our salvation is [God’s] care and concern.”  Calvin’s theology was shaped in a very different context from ours.  And yet so many of his questions are similar, if not the same.  How do we understand the role of he church – an faith – in society?  What are our responsibilities as Christians for the good order of society and the welfare of all?  And how do we relate to God in all of this?  In all of this, for Calvin, faith was central.  His faith was full of the conviction that God’s promise applies to each of us:  “the promise of grace, which can testify to us that the Father is merciful.”  A promise that we still receive – and still need to receive – today.

Amen

Baptism of Christ – 8 January 2017

 

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17

Eternal God, who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
keep your people, born of water and the Spirit,
faithful to their calling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.[1]

Today’s collect, for the baptism of Christ may be familiar to some of you.  It is also used in the baptism service here in the Scottish Episcopal Church if the baptism does not take place in the context of the Eucharist, which means that we do not use if very often here at St Margaret’s.  It speaks of the deep connection between Christ’s baptism by John in the river Jordan and our own baptism as Christians.  As this collect reminds us, in our baptism we, like Jesus, are born of water and the Spirit:  we pass through, or are washed in, water, and the Spirit fills us.  But the collect reminds us too that baptism, in the sense of the ceremony or the rite of baptism, is not an end in itself but a beginning. Baptism is not something that just is done to us, but a calling – a call to a new way of life.

We affirm our faith in baptism, and for many of us who were baptized as infants, perhaps more explicitly later in confirmation, often in a form of the Apostles’ Creed, which we can see from ancient documents was an early baptismal creed.  Another even earlier credal statement is found in today’s reading from Acts.  Those who believe, our reading tells us, have affirmed:

how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. … They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:38-43)

We can see here the beginnings of formal statements about what Christians were to believe. These are important for explaining what newly baptized Christians are joining.  But baptism (and indeed confirmation) are not only about affirming the content of our faith: that Christ died for our sins, but about being called to live a life in thankfulness for that.  Richard Rohr writes in a meditation for this week:  “Christianity is meant to be a loving way of life now, not just a system of beliefs and requirements that people hope will earn them a later reward in heaven.”[2]  It is that loving – and I would want to add also prophetic – way of life into which our baptism calls us.  That is, baptism is not an end, but a beginning, for us as it was for Christ.

For Christ’s baptism is the beginning of his ministry.  It is the moment at which it becomes clear that he is come into the world for the people of the world.  Max Koranyi, a German theologian, has written that God did not need Jesus to be baptized.  God already God already knew who Jesus was, and had known it from the beginning of time.  But we needed Jesus to be baptized; we needed Jesus the Christ to enter the water of baptism before us, because in his baptism, Christ shows what he is doing – is going to do – for us.[3]  It is not a coincidence that we celebrate the baptism of Christ immediately after Epiphany.  The baptism of Christ is another Epiphany: it too is a manifestation of the Lord.  It is a moment, as our gradual hymn reminds us, in which time changed:

So when the Dove descended
on him, the Son of Man,
the hidden years had ended,
the age of grace began.[4]

Those of you who were here this morning for Radio 4 Sunday Worship, or who heard it on the radio, will see the connection with the poem “BC/AD” by U. A. Fanthorpe, which we read this morning:

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect.
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.[5]

Jesus’s baptism is also a moment in which “Before / Turn[s] into After,” a call to us like the Magi “[to walk] haphazard by starlight straight / Into the kingdom of heaven.” Through Jesus’s baptism we see him differently:  the opening of the heavens and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the words from heaven, tell us with whom we are dealing: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved – my beloved son – with you I am well pleased.’  We see Jesus differently, we understand that he is the one sent by God, the Christ.  He does not become the Son of God at this baptism (that would be the adoptionist heresy, which the gospel of Mark comes perilously close to implying) but this is a moment in which his Son-ship is affirmed and witnessed, the moment in which his ministry begins.  Christ’s baptism is a confirmation of his calling.  The baptism of Christ witnesses that God is come into the world in Christ, and that through Christ God will make the world new.

One aspect of this, often emphasised by Orthodox theologians, is the renewal of creation, about which Isiah writes so eloquently.  This is a transformation of creation which transforms society also, as we are reminded in our Old Testament lesson, in which God says:  “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Through his baptism, Christ affirms that water – which in the Old Testament is so often a symbol of chaos and destruction – is a symbol of life – eternal life.  Christ’s baptism shows the transformative properties of water, emphasises that water is good, just as God had said at the creation.   We are reminded of this in the blessing of the water in the Scottish Episcopal baptismal liturgy:

Holy God, well-spring of life,
in your love and justice,
you use the gift of water to declare your saving power.
In the beginning your Spirit moved over the face of the waters.
By the gentle dew, the steady rain,
you nourish and give increase to all that grows;
you make the desert a watered garden.
You command the wildness of the waves;
when the storm rages you calm our fear;
in the stillness you lead us to a deeper faith.
In the life-giving rivers and the rainbow
Israel discerned your mercy.
You divided the Red Sea to let them pass from slavery in Egypt
to freedom in the Promised Land.
In the waters of Jordan
penitents found forgiveness in the baptism of John.
There, Jesus your beloved child was anointed with the Holy Spirit,
that he might bring us
to the glorious liberty of the children of God.[6]

The Baptism of Christ is a sign of the renewal of creation, and that renewal includes us – that we might be brought “to the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

As we contemplate Christ who has come to renew the whole of creation we too are drawn into that process of transformation and renewal.  Our deserts – the deserts in our lives – become watered gardens; faced with the wildness of the waves and the raging of the storm, our fears are stilled.  The baptism of Christ reminds us of our own renewal through God, and of the way that we as a part of creation are drawn into its renewal.  But it reminds us too that we are also called to bring this transformation to others, and so be drawn into the task given by God to Christ.  That is, though our baptism, we discover that not only Christ, but we too are sent by God.  For this reason, the baptism of Christ is a reminder also of our own baptism, and that in turn reminds us of our own ministry.  As Timothy Radcliffe puts it, “If eternal life is the fullness of life, then we accept its gift by grasping our present life with enthusiasm,” and sharing that enthusiasm with others.[7]

God’s work of renewal comes about through his love, his recognition, his affirmation which he pours out upon Jesus the Christ, through Christ upon us.  We too receive the love, recognition, affirmation of God:  we too should recognise that we are God’s Beloved, that he is well pleased with us.  God’s words are not only for Christ, but for us:  You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.  And in and through that love, that recognition, that affirmation we are sent by God to share then in turn with those around us.  The Baptism of Christ should remind us that Christ was chosen by God from the beginning of time to be his Son, the Saviour of the world.  And in doing so it should remind each of us also that we too were from the beginning created and designed to be children of God.[8]

We are the children of God, called and sent by God.  Our baptism is a mark of that.  And for that reason, we too should hear God speaking to us, calling us, encouraging each of us to recognise ad accept our call:  You are my beloved daughter, my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.

Eternal God, who at the baptism of Jesus
revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit:
keep your people, born of water and the Spirit,
faithful to their calling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.   Amen

 

 

[1]  See the baptism liturgy of the Scottish Episcopal Church, available at:  http://www.scotland.anglican.org/who-we-are/publications/liturgies/holy-baptism-2006/.

[2]   See:  http://email.cac.org/t/ViewEmail/d/FDE76169832D6813/7FD4418B9959AFED44D0DD5392A9C75A (Tuesday).

[3]  Max Koranyi, Zum Leben gemacht. 365 Andachten (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Aussaat 2011), 14.

[4]  “When Jesus came to Jordan,” verse 2 (http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/w/w307.html).

[5]     See: http://www.journeywithjesus.net/PoemsAndPrayers/UA_Fanthorpe_BC_AD.shtml.  The service can be heard until 5.2.2017 on the radio four website:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b087pjt2.

[6]   Baptism liturgy of the Scottish Episcopal Church, available at:  http://www.scotland.anglican.org/who-we-are/publications/liturgies/holy-baptism-2006/.

[7]  Timothy Radcliffe, Take the Plunge: Living baptism and confirmation, 179.

[8]  Compare: Max Koranyi, Zum Leben gemacht, S. 15.

Hl. Stephanus – 26. Dezember 2016

Predigt in der altkatholischen Gemeinde Bottrop

Apostelgeschichte 6,8-10; 7,54-60
Matthäus 10,17-22

In jenen Tagen tat Stephanus, voll Gnade und Kraft, Wunder und große Zeichen unter dem Volk.

Heute gedenken wir des Heiligen Stephanus, des Diakons und des ersten Märtyrers.  Stephanus, der durch sein Leben anderen die Kraft Gottes vermitteln wollte, der seinen Peiniger die Vergebung ausgesprochen hat, und der bei seinem Tod den Menschensohn zur Rechten Gottes sitzen sah.  Am Tag nach dem Weihnachtsfest gedenken wir einen Märtyrertod.  Wir sind nicht mehr beim Kind im Stall, wir sind auch nicht bei den Kindheitsgeschichten.  Wir sind nicht mal bei Jesus als Flüchtling, als er mit seinen Eltern nach Ägypten fliehen müssten.  Das kommt alles noch.  Aber nicht heute.

Heute schauen wir in die Zeit, als Jesus schon gelebt hatte und gekreuzigt wurde, schon auferstanden und in den Himmel gefahren ist.  Wir sind heute nicht mehr in der Zeit der Geburt Christi, sondern schon in der Zeit der Kirche.  Wir stehen nicht an der Krippe im Stall, sondern wir sind Zeugen eines Märtyrertodes, des Todes eines Mannes, der diesem Jesus nachfolgen wollte.  Seltsam oder?  Seltsam oder?  Aber Maria Wachtler schreibt: „Weihnachten und das Fest des Heiligen Stephanus sind nur scheinbar ein Widerspruch.  Wer tiefer hinsieht, kann entdecken, dass sich hier ein Bogen spannt.  Unter diesem Spannungsbogen steht das Leben jedes Christen.“[1]  Die Geburt Christi, die Menschwerdung Gottes, ist ein Ereignis, das einen Bogen zwischen Geburt und Tod Jesu Christi spannt, und weiter – bis ins Leben eines jeden Christen, einer jeder Christin.  Gerade an der Verbindung zwischen Leben und Tod Christi erinnert uns manches Weihnachtslied, gerade die mittelalterlichen.  Bei den Deutschen Liedern wird eine Verbindung zwischen Jesus Maria und der Rose gestellt, die Rose, die nicht nur eine wunderschöne Blühte, sondern auch Stacheln hat. In einigen englischen Liedern wird von der „Holly“ gesungen:  von der Hülse, der Stachelpalme, die Stachel hat, und blutrote Beeren, die an Karfreitag erinnern.  Wir feiern in dieser Zeit die „gnadenbringende Weihnachtszeit“, wir feiern das Licht, das Finsternis vertreibt.  Dabei ist es uns auch bewusst, dass diese Gnade, dieses Licht, mit dem Tod Jesu – und mit seiner Auferstehung – verbunden sind.

Aber mehr: dieser Bogen wird auch zu uns gespannt, hat für uns eine Bedeutung.  Zu Anfang habe wir ein bekanntes Lied gesungen, der zwar in unserem Gesangbuch zu den Adventsliedern zählt, der für mich zumindest eigentlich zu den Weihnachtsliedern gehört:

Es kommt ein Schiff,
geladen bis an sein’ höchsten Bord,
trägt Gottes Sohn voll Gnaden,
des Vaters ewig’s Wort.

Und die 5. und die 6. Strophen sind für heute besonders treffend:

Und wer dies Kind mit Freuden
umfangen, küssen will,
muß vorher mit ihm leiden
groß’ Pein und Marter viel,

danach mit ihm auch sterben
und geistlich aufersteh’n,
ewig’s Leben zu erben,
wie an ihm ist gescheh’n.

Dieser Bogen spannt in der Tat nicht nur Geburt und Tod Jesus, sondern auch Leid und Martyrium bei uns Gläubigen.  Das klingt nicht schön, ist aber realistisch.  Denn Weihnachten bedeutet keine Flucht aus der Wirklichkeit.

Und wir müssen leider feststellen, dass mit der Geburt Christi Tod und Verfolgung und Krieg, Leiden und Trauer nicht aus der Welt verschwunden sind, auch bei Christen nicht.  Ein Impuls zur heutigen Lesungen fragt: „Wie soll da die Weihnachtsoktave in festlichen Stimmung durchgehalten werden?“  Und antwortet:

Gerade im Blick auf Stephanus, weil er den Tod nicht als Scheitern oder Auslöschung erlebte, sondern als Eingehen in den Frieden, den Weihnacht und Osternacht verheißen.  Es gibt seither kein Leid mehr, in dem Gott nicht anzutreffen wäre.  Ein Weihnachtsglaube, jedoch, der die Nachricht vom Märtyrerschicksal nicht aushält, wäre zu kleinmütig, um wirklich tragfähige Hoffnung zu vermitteln.[2]

Friedrich Weber, damals Bischof von Braunschweig, hat bei dem ARD  Weihnachtsgottesdienst vor ein paar Jahren zu dem Lied von Paul Gerhardt gepredigt, „Ich steh‘ an deiner Krippe her,“ das wir auch gleich singen werden:

Ein jeder von uns und eine jede hat seine oder ihre Todesnächte! Leid und Unfrieden, schlimme Krankheit, offene Gewalt gegen Fremde in unserem Land, Einsamkeit. Aber es gibt Hoffnung! Sie ist im Kind in der Krippe angebrochen. Kreuz und Leid wenden sich, weil Gott das so will. Das Kind in der Krippe ist die Wende, der Grund für alle Hoffnung und jeden Trost.[3]

Auch das heutige Evangelium warnt vor schwierigen Zeiten, Zeiten der Prüfung, Zeiten, in denen wir uns für den Glauben, für die Liebe Gottes einsetzen müssen.  Dabei kann es sein, dass wir Angst haben, dass wir es nicht schaffen.  Da verspricht Jesus noch dem Matthäusevangelium: „Macht euch keine Sorgen, wie und was ihr reden sollt; denn es wird euch in jener Stunde eingegeben.“ Margot Käßmann schreibt über Leben in Krisenzeiten:

Mich ermutigt der Gedanke, dass Gott uns die Kraft zu Bewältigung von Krisen nicht im Voraus gibt, weil wir sonst hochmütig werde. Aber wir dürfen darauf vertrauen, dass Gott uns mitten in der Krise, die Kraft gibt, damit umzugehen, wenn wir Gott darum bitten.[4]

Das Kind in der Krippe ist das Versprechen, die Verheißung Gottes an die Welt, dass wir nie alleine gelassen werden.  Dass es doch immer Hoffnung gibt, dass das Licht in die Dunkelheit kommt.  Dieser Bogen der Zuversicht „beginnt bei der Zusage Gottes an uns:  Fürchte dich nicht. Ich bin bei dir.  Der Himmel steht offen für dich.“[5]  Der Bogen, der auch das mit Gnade beladene Schiff zwischen Himmel und Erde segelt:

Der Anker haft’ auf Erden,
da ist das Schiff am Land.
Das Wort tut Fleisch uns werden,
der Sohn ist uns gesandt.

 

 

 

 

[1]   Te Deum, Dezember 2016, S. 264.

[2]  Te Deum, Dezember 2016, S. 266.

[3]   Friedrich Weber, Fernsehgottesdienst am 24. Dezember 2011, http://www.landeskirche-braunschweig.de/index.php?id=1211&file=772.

[4]   Margot Käßmann, „Kraft in der Krise“, in Lebensfreude. Worte, die stark machen, S. 59.

[5]   Te Deum, Dezember 2016, S. 264.

Advent 1 (A) – 27 November 2016

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Isaiah 2.1-5
Romans 13.11-14
Matthew  24.36-44

 

 

It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

 

Here we are at the beginning of the church year.  Advent is beginning.  Christmas is four weeks today (for this year Christmas Day falls on a Sunday), this time of preparation and waiting is upon us.  Advent is a time of waiting:  of waiting expectantly, of waiting hopefully for Christ to come into the world, to return to the world, to come to us.  There is a paradox here as so often with our faith:  this is a time of waiting for something that is not yet and yet which already is, a time of waiting for the coming of Christ who is already with us.

When will that be?  Nobody knows.  That is the message of Matthew’s Gospel: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  We do not know when, but we need to be prepared.  Matthew again:

If the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

It is time to wake; the night is far gone, the day is near – and yet, we do not know when…  And what is odd about this is the juxtaposition of the coming of the Messiah, which is something for which we hope, with the coming of the thief, for whom we presumably don’t.

That is perhaps particularly striking because we find ourselves this Advent in a time of waiting of a very different kind.  A time of waiting and uncertainty: what is the future going to look like?  How will a Britain without Europe and a Europe without Britain work?  How will an America, and world, with Donald Trump as President of the USA look?  For some these questions too represent a waiting with hope and joyful expectation; for others this is a waiting with deep anxiety bordering on (or reaching into) despair.  Internationally, politically, we find ourselves in a time of waiting, uncertainty: when will this happen and what will it bring?

So the sense of the unexpected that we find in today’s gospel reading seems to resonate deeply with our world, and this extraordinary uncertainty.  We are in a period in which some of the givens of how the world works, its values, its priorities seem to be shifting and changing.  There has been a sense this year of the unexpected happening, of being taken by surprise.  A sense perhaps of the thief coming in the night and finding a house in which half were asleep and the other half awake and welcoming.  A world in which some were very ready for a way of thinking that seems to me at least to be in danger of drawing more on unrealistic hopes, perhaps driven by desperation and self-interest, than a vision of justice and peace and the intrinsic value of all people.  It is hard for me at least not to feel at present that the world has gone a bit mad, and to wonder what on earth all this means, and what I should be doing.

The Benedictine poet and theologian Silja Walter once wrote:

Keeping watch is our job.  Keeping watch.
Over the world as well,
which is so often foolish,
gadding around outside
and not coming home at night.
Does the world not know, Lord, that you are coming?
That you are the Lord and definitely on your way?[1]

That image of the world as foolish and forgetful resonates deeply with me.  There are overtones here of a world that has lost its way, which no longer knows how to wait on Christ, no longer even knows that it should be waiting on Christ.  In this year in which it feels rather as though some old securities and normalities are being shaken, it is easy to wonder if we are not looking at a world which has seriously lost its way.

But it can be hard sometimes to discern how God is working in our world.  It is intriguing that here in Matthew’s Gospel – in a passage which has parallels with Mark’s warning that the master will come at un unexpected hour, and which Luke explicitly connects to it[2] – Jesus’s coming is likened to the coming of a thief in the night.  How is the coming of the master who is to be welcomed, like the coming of the thief, the intruder who is presumably unwelcome?  The unexpectedness is the link.  Or is it?  Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians (1:1-3):

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!

Here too the mixture of the promise and the threat, all brought together in the image of giving birth, the inexorable pains that bring the hope of new life.  Paul goes on, in words which resonate with our reading from Romans 13:

But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

Or, in the words of today’s reading:

The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.

Threat and hope, suffering, pain and new life are all tangled up together here, and what is important is that we are children of light, that we put on the armour of light.  Whatever that means.

Part of what it means, I think, is to remember that it is hard to judge what is happening when it is in the middle of taking place.  Over the last few weeks, I have been reading six studies of the Reformation for a big review in the Times Literary Supplement.  As I was writing the review, it struck me that this is a story we know with hindsight, rather as we know the Easter story by hindsight.  We know it’s going to be all right in the end, because we know how it ends.  But that cannot have been how it felt at the time.  One Good Friday, who knew that Easter Sunday would come?  And so too in the sixteenth century:  when people began to talk about introducing the Reformation, it must have felt as though all the familiar certainties about the church, about society, about how things were arranged, all the things you had learned about how to get to heaven and assure yourself of eternal life, all those things were under threat.  One of my students said in class on Tuesday: I have just realised how disruptive it must have felt, to be suddenly told that you had to receive communion, and receive the bread and the wine, and not to go to confession…

They didn’t know, those people who experienced the Reformation in the first generation, they had no idea how it was going to turn out.  What had they been waiting for?  I suspect that quite a lot of those people nearly five hundred years ago in the first generation of the Reformation didn’t think it was the Reformation.  I wonder what people were preaching on Advent Sunday in, say 1523: did they believe that the Advent hope was being fulfilled?  The answer is clearly that some did and some did not at all.  What was happening must have felt like chaos and disintegration – and yet what emerged, ultimately, and after some very difficult birth pains, was a new order.

Now I don’t myself want to suggest that in Teresa May, Boris Johnson or Donald Trump we have a new Luther.  In my own reading, they are far from it—although I think for some of their followers this is the hope: that something new will happen and everything will better.  But a favourite biblical figure for many theologians of the sixteenth century was Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, who was a gentile and whose reign was in many ways deeply problematic.  However, he gets a good press in the old Testament, despite being a tyrant, because he liberated the Jews, by setting free the people of Israel from their captivity in Babylon.  Cyrus is often cited by Reformers as an example of someone who is not apparently imbued with God’s values, who finds himself, whether he wants it or not, acting on God’s behalf.  An unjust king, an unjust ruler, an unjust magistrate, argue many of the Reformers, can act on God’s behalf to support, or sometimes to punish, the people of God.  There is something here, then, about waiting and watching with an openness to recognising where God is working – even if that is through people and in ways which we do not understand.

This time two years ago, it was becoming clear that one of my close friends was dying of cancer.  He wrote in his last Christmas letter, in words that are also eminently fitted to Advent: “And so this year perhaps we are experiencing Christmas in its real, original meaning, in which the goodness and love of God comes to people who, after long and intensive lives, are now learning what it means to live in darkness and yet receive light.”  For me this is a putting on of the armour of light, a light which shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Let me close with a text by an unknown Christian to which I come back over and over again, and which speaks into times of change and challenge and uncertainty.  Indeed it was used by George VI in his 1939 Christmas broadcast:

I said to the angel who stood at the gate of the new year:  “Give me a light, that I may go forth into uncertainty with sure feet.”  But the angel answered: “Step out into the darkness, and lay your hand in the hand of God. That is better than a light, and surer than a known way.”

And so let us put on the armour of light, lay our hand in the hand of God, and go forward expectantly in hope.

Amen.

[1]    Te Deum, November 2016, S. 110.

[2]    Mark 13:34-36, Luke 12:38-40.