Epiphany 3 (C) – 27 January 2019

sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands

Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

This past week has been the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  As our diaries would have it, Scott and I spent Thursday afternoon here at St Margaret’s with a group of students from the University of Glasgow recording four early services for BBC radio Scotland, to be broadcast at the end of February and into March.  Several of those students are candidates in training for ministry in the Church of Scotland. So there we were, an ecumenical group, praying and worshiping together (in as much as that is possible when you are being recorded), right in the middle of our week of prayer for unity.  What is more, the services we were recording were based around the hymn “Thy hand O God has guided…” with its refrain that proclaims unity: “one church, one faith, one Lord!”  And yet, this was not our theme in these services.  No: our theme, drawing on the verses of the hymn, was calling.  How does God draw us into God’s mission for the world?

Reflecting on that question, we might ponder what God’s mission in and for the world is.  There has often been a tendency to associate mission very closely with evangelism, with conversion:  the winning and nurturing of new believers.  And this remains important: the church exists to share the gospel, to spread it, to draw in new believers, to make new disciples.  But the point of making those new disciples is not to grow the church; the point is to witness to God’s presence in the world.  And we do that also, as the five marks of mission remind us, not only when we preach and proclaim the gospel and when we teach, baptize and nurture new believers; but also when we respond to human need by loving service; also when we seek to transform unjust structures in society and to bring about peace and reconciliation; also when we strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and to sustain and renew the life of the earth.

In today’s gospel, Christ preaches his first sermon as testified by Luke’s gospel.  He quotes Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And then he says to the people: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  The coming of Christ, the implication is, is about the transformation of the world. We are called not only to believe, but to allow ourselves to be drawn into God’s transformative work.

Last week we were with Jesus at the wedding of Cana.  We were wondering at the miracle of turning water into wine, which in John’s gospel marks the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry.  John shows us Jesus’s ministry beginning with a feast.  Jürgen Moltmann’s explored this theme in his book The Living God and the Fullness of Life (2014).  He points to the words of Athanasius, a theologian of the early church: “the risen Christ makes of life a never-ending festival.”[1]  But while John’s gospel shows Jesus’s public ministry beginning with a party, Luke’s shows us Jesus’s public ministry beginning with this call to justice, a calling for the transformation of the whole world. This, Jesus tells his hearers, is the stuff of the gospel. This prophetic vision of the transformation of the world is what he has come to fulfil. This is a party, a celebration that is meant for everyone.

Jesus’s hearers are not going to react well to this, but that is a challenge for next week’s preacher.  What should matter to us, as we hear this passage read, is the realisation that accepting the gospel into our hearts means becoming drawn into the transformative processes of the world. And this is, in a very profound way, a call to unity.  Understanding discipleship as becoming involved in God’s mission to transform the world calls us as Christians to be and to work together, with each other, and also with others who would not identify as Christian. This is the central theme of the materials provided this year for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Drawing on the experiences of the preparatory group in Indonesia, these materials emphasise that Christian unity is not exclusively – not even primarily – about overcoming denomination or confessional difference in a theological sense:

Our prayers for Christian unity are offered within a context of a world where corruption, greed and injustice bring about inequality and division. We ourselves are often complicit in injustice, and yet [we are] called together, to form a united witness for justice, and to be a means of Christ’s healing grace for a fractured world.[2]

Sometimes, this may be a call to the church to repentance at its own complicity – at our own complicity – in unjust structures, as the preparatory group acknowledges:

the Bible does not present faith in the abstract, something only with a spiritual dimension, but one lived in the visceral reality of the world as we find it. And because the world contains injustice the church too can become a place that is embroiled in the very injustice that exists today.[3]

What is important is that Christian unity cannot be separated from the world’s unity; our wholeness cannot be separated from the world’s wholeness:

when we pray for unity, we also pray for a world made whole. When we pray for unity we are acknowledging that unless we end our divisions, the Church is a poor advocate for justice and when we pray for unity we also acknowledge that the injustice in our society also intrudes to our shared Christian life together.[4]

Our response should be to work together for the transformation of the world.  But this means recognising that the world is a place that needs transformation. The poet Maggie Smith recognises the challenges:

For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.[5]

“You could make this place beautiful.”  I am not sure that Maggie Smith thinks this is possible, but Jesus does. Jesus tells us we can do this:  we can make this world a place where the captives are released, the blind recover their sight, and the oppressed go free.

Each of us has our own part to play in this process of transformation, and it is an important part.  Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians emphasises that we all have different gifts. His words are often related to the church and ministry within the church, but they are just as much about how we live our lives in the world, seeking to make it whole.  “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” None of us does all these things, but each of us offers at least one, and all these things are needed, as Paul emphasises: “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”

Each of us has a part to play, and none of us can do it all.  We need each other. We need each other to work together make this world a better place. But we also need to recognise, as Paul reminds us, that “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” We are all affected by the captivity, the oppression, the silencing or the blinding of others. John Donne emphasised this, writing in 1624 at a time when the world probably felt as unstable as it does now, and in words that seem particularly poignant at present:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were…[6]

This brings us back to Christian unity, and the recognition that not only each individual, but also each confession, each denomination, has its own gifts and insights to contribute to realising God’s mission in the world.  Each of us has so much to give.   Recognising that, let us pray that we may be true disciples, in the words of Mark Wilcox’s “Uncomfortable blessing”:

May the Spirit bless you
with discomfort at easy answers,
half-truths and superficial relationships
so that you will live deep in your heart.
May the Spirit bless you
with anger at injustice and oppression,
the exploitation of people and earth
so that you will work for justice, equity and peace.
May the Spirit bless you
with tears to shed for those who suffer
so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them.
May the Spirit bless you
with foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world
so that you will do the things which others say cannot be done.[7]  Amen


[1]  Jürgen Moltmann, Der lebendige Gott und die Fülle des Lebens. Auch ein Beitrag zur gegenwärtigen Atheismusdebatte, Gütersloh 2014, p. 192.

[2]   See https://ctbi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/WPCU-2019-English-pamphlet.pdf, p. 3.

[3]  See https://ctbi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Sermon-Starting-points-for-web.pdf.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]   Maggie Smith, “Good Bones” (https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/good-bones).

[6]  See https://web.cs.dal.ca/~johnston/poetry/island.html.

[7]  Cited at https://wesleyanrudy.com/2013/04/17/an-uncomfortable-blessing/.


2. Sonntag im Jahreskreis – 20. Januar 2019

Predigt in der alt-katholischen Friedenskirche, Essen

Jesaja 62, 1-5
1. Kor 12, 4-11
Johannes 2, 1-11

Im Namen des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes.

Seit sehr lange Zeit wird am zweiten Sonntag nach Epiphanias diese Stelle aus dem Johannesevangelium über die Hochzeit zu Kana gelesen und gepredigt. Es ist wohl so, weil in dieser Geschichte Johannes den Anfang Jesus’ öffentliches Wirken darstellt.  Es werden keine Fischer berufen, sondern Jesus wirkt bei einem menschlichen Fest, bei einem Hochzeitsfest sein erstes Wunder.

Später wurde diese Stelle als göttliche, biblische Bestätigung für die Ehe als Lebensform verstanden.  Im sechszehnten Jahrhundert gibt es lutherischen Predigten über die Geschichte der Hochzeit zu Kana, die zeigen wollen, dass nicht das Mönchtum, sondern die Ehe die von Gott bevorzugten Lebensform sei.  Nicht als Mönch oder Nonne, sondern als Ehepartner, Ehepartnerin könne der Christ, die Christin am besten Gott dienen.

Diese Geschichte wird immer noch sehr häufig bei Trauungen vorgelesen, manchmal – was gar nicht so unkompliziert ist – bei einer zweiten Ehe, die somit bewusst oder unbewusst mit dem besten Wein verglichen wird, der nicht am Anfang, sondern erst später angeboten wird.  Und sie wird auch manchmal – zumindest in der Diskussion in der anglikanischen Kirche – so verstanden, dass Jesus – und somit Gott – durch seine Anwesenheit bei diesem Hochzeitsfest die Ehe ausschließlich zwischen einem Mann und einer Frau, zwischen einem Bräutigam und einer Braut anerkenne.  Dieses Wunder – die Verwandlung von Wasser in Wein – wird dadurch als Bestätigung einer bestimmten Beziehungsform verstanden.

Solche Auslegungen, die die Betonung auf die menschliche Beziehung, auf das Ehepaar legen, übersehen meines Erachtens die Stellung dieser Geschichte im Johannes­evangelium.  Es handelt sich hier um eine metaphorische Darstellung, die das Wirken Jesus als Neuanfang darstellt.  Der Wein, der bisher angeboten wird, bedeutet die Lehre, die Religion, die vor Christus dargeboten wurde, die jüdische Tradition, für Johannes vielleicht sogar auch die griechische.  Sie war gut – es war kein schlechter Wein, der anfangs angeboten wurde.  Aber das, was Jesus nun anbieten kann, übertrifft das alte.  Das Wunder, die Umwandlung deutet also auf einen Neubeginn hin.

Es ist aber auch ein feierlicher Neubeginn.  Der dänische Bischof Elof Westergaard schreibt: „Das Weinwunder in Kana ist ein Mirakel, ein Zeichen für die Macht Jesu und die Kraft Gottes zur Veränderung und Erneuerung. In einem alten dänischen Kirchenlied wird die Verwandlung als ‚erstes Zeichen für das Fest der Freude‘ bezeichnet.“  Das Thema der Freude durchdringt unsere Lesungen heute.  Jesaja verwendet ebenfalls eine Ehemetapher um die Freude Gottes über das zurückgekehrte Israel auszudrücken: „man nennt dich «Meine Wonne» und dein Land «Die Vermählte». Denn der Herr hat an dir seine Freude.“ Auch hier geht es um die Freude, die da ist, wenn zwei Menschen zueinander finden – die Freude des Paares, die Freude ihrer Familien, ihrer Freunde und Freundinnen, ihrer Bekannten. Auch hier dient die Ehe, das Hochzeitsfest eher als Metapher für ein freudiges Ereignis.  Gott freut sich riesig über sein Volk, das zu ihm zurückgekehrt ist: „Man ruft dich mit einem neuen Namen, / den der Mund des Herrn für dich bestimmt. Du wirst zu einer prächtigen Krone / in der Hand des Herrn, zu einem königlichen Diadem / in der Rechten deines Gottes.“  Wie Ragan Sutterfield schreibt, wird hier die Freude Gottes aber auch die Liebe Gottes für sein Volk dargestellt.[1]

Auch im 1. Korintherbrief wird das Leben in und mit Gott feierlich beschrieben: hier wird betont, dass alle begabt sind, alle begnadet werden: „Es gibt verschiedene Gnadengaben, aber nur den einen Geist. Es gibt verschiedene Dienste, aber nur den einen Herrn. Es gibt verschiedene Kräfte, die wirken, aber nur den einen Gott: Er bewirkt alles in allen.“  Es geht darum, dass jede und jeder auf eigener Art und Weise in das Mitwirken mit Gott einbezogen wird – und Gott freut sich darüber, dass wir in unserer Grundverschiedenheit dabei sind: „Juden und Griechen, Sklaven und Freie; alle wurden mit dem einen Geist getränkt.“

Die Lesungen heute bringen uns eine wichtige Erinnerung: Gott freut sich über uns, mit uns. Der Glaubensweg wird manchmal hauptsächlich als Kreuzesweg verstanden.  Das ist auch wichtig, denn Gott ist auch bei uns in den schweren Zeiten, in den traurigen Zeiten, in Zeiten der Angst und der Verzweiflung.  Aber Gott lädt uns auch ein zu ein „festliches Leben“, wie Jürgen Moltmann auch betont. Für Moltmann gehört das Festliche zum Wesen des Glaubens:

Der moderne, säkularisierte oder laizistische Europäer fühlt sich nach einem vielzitierten Wort des Religions­soziologen Max Weber »religiös unmusikalisch«.  Er nimmt das Religiöse als Begabung an, die manche haben, viele aber nicht haben und auch nicht entbehren, und verfehlt damit die transzendenten Räume des Lebens. Man kann ohne Musik leben, gewiss, aber mit Musik wird das Leben reicher. Man kann areligiös leben, gewiss, aber mit Religion wird das Leben weiter und festlicher.[2]

Schon im vierten Jahrhundert schrieb Athanasius, Bischof von Alexandrien: „Der auferstandene Christus macht das Leben des Menschen zu einem ununterbrochenen Fest.“[3]

Ein Fest heißt feiern aber nicht chaotisch feiern.  Im Apokryphen Johannesakten wird das Feiern der Glaube mit dem Tanz in Zusammenhang gebracht: „Die Gnade tanzt. Flöten will ich, und ihr sollt alle tanzen.“[4]  Es gibt Tanzgruppen, die ihr Tanz als Gebet erleben, die erfahren, dass Tanzen Himmel und Erde verbindet: „Die Tanzenden fühlen sich eingebunden in ein größeres Ganzes und getragen von einer Gemeinschaft, entwickeln Vertrauen in eine Balance aus Bindung und Freiheit.“[5]  Der Franziskaner Richard Rohr schreibt sogar über die Trinität als „göttlicher Tanz,“ versteht das Wesen Gottes als feierlich, tänzerisch:

Was immer in Gott geschieht, ist ein Durchströmen, ein Ineinanderfließen, eine radikale Verbindung, eine vollkommene Gemeinschaft dreier Wesen – ein Kreistanz der Liebe. Aber Gott ist nicht nur der Tänzer, er ist der Tanz selbst.[6]

Und Gott lädt auch uns ein, in diesen Tanz mitzutanzen:

Wir hören ihn nicht nur aus der Ferne, sondern wir spüren ihn, wenn wir die Hand auf den Boden legen, ebenso wie im Wasser, im zerrissenen Brot und im eingegossenen Wein. Das Gerücht tief in unserer Seele sagt uns, dass eine Feier stattfindet, und wir können kaum glauben, dass wir eingeladen sind. … Kann es sein, dass sich eine Hand zu uns ausstreckt und uns zum göttlichen Tanz auffordert; dass uns jemand ins Ohr flüstert, wir seien seit jeher dafür gemacht?[7]

Im Glauben zu feiern, im Glauben zu tanzen: Dazu werden auch wir eingeladen, dazu sind auch wir begabt.


[1]   Ragan Sutterfield, The Joy of Not Being in Charge (http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/blog/2010/01/the-joy-of-not-being-in-charge/).

[2]  Jürgen Moltmann, Der lebendige Gott und die Fülle des Lebens. Auch ein Beitrag zur gegenwärtigen Atheismusdebatte, Gütersloh 2014, S. 21.

[3]   Moltmann, Der lebendige Gott und die Fülle des Lebens, S. 192.

[4]   Moltmann, Der lebendige Gott und die Fülle des Lebens, S. 192.

[5]  Siehe https://www.erzdioezese-wien.at/site/nachrichtenmagazin/schwerpunkt/kirchekunst/article/54855.html.

[6]   Richard Rohr, Der göttliche Tanz. Wie uns ein Leben im Einklang mit dem dreieinigen Gott zutiefst verändern kann, S. 19.

[7]   Richard Rohr, Der göttliche Tanz. Wie uns ein Leben im Einklang mit dem dreieinigen Gott zutiefst verändern kann, S. 12-13.

Christmette – 24. Dezember 2018

Predigt in der alt-katholischen Gemeinde Münster

Jesaja 9,1-6
Titus 2,11-14
Lukasevangelium 2,1-14

Das Volk, das im Dunkel lebt, sieht ein helles Licht; über denen, die im Land der Finsternis wohnen, strahlt ein Licht auf.

Das feiern wir in dieser heiligen Nacht: Das Licht, das in die Dunkelheit gekommen ist.  „Denn uns ist ein Kind geboren, ein Sohn ist uns geschenkt. Die Herrschaft liegt auf seiner Schulter; man nennt ihn: Wunderbarer Ratgeber, Starker Gott, Vater in Ewigkeit, Fürst des Friedens.“  So schreibt Jesaja, so singen und beten wir in diesem Gottesdienst, so glauben wir.  Durch dieses Kind, dieses Christkind wird alles neu.

Heute vor zweihundert Jahren wurde das erste Mal das Weihnachtslied „Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht“ gesungen.  Die Wörter wurden von dem jungen Priester Joseph Mohr schon 1816 geschrieben, als Hilfspriester in Mariapfarr im Lungau, kurz nach Ende der Napoleonischen Kriege und des Wiener Kongresses, die zu politischen Unsicherheiten und Neubestimmungen von Ländern geführt hatte.  Im Dezember 1818 wurde dieser Text von Franz Xaver Gruber vertont und das erste Mal gesungen.  „Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht“ ist als „Trostlied für eine traumatisierte Bevölkerung“ zu verstehen, entstanden in einer Zeit des politischen und sozialen Umbruchs und der Verunsicherung.[1] Das war eine Zeit, in der viele Länder Europas in einer Krise steckten.

„Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht“:  dieses Lied steht in einer Reihe von Weihnachtsliedern, die Hoffnung und Frieden in Zeiten des Krieges, wie Paul Gerhard, der den ganzen dreißigjährigen Krieg erleben musste, als junger Mann schon die Verwüstung Helmstedts mitbekommen hatte und später seine Frau und vier Kinder verloren hatte.  Er wusste, was er sagte, als er von tiefster Todesnacht“ schrieb:[2]

Ich lag in tiefster Todesnacht, du warest meine Sonne, die Sonne, die mir zugebracht, Licht, Leben, Freud und Wonne. O Sonne, die das werte Licht des Glaubens in mir zugericht, wie schön sind deine Strahlen.

Joseph Mohr, Paul Gerhardt:   es waren beiden Menschen, die verstanden haben, was es heißt, die Dunkelheit durch das Licht der Inkarnation Christi durchleuchtet zu wissen. Die verstanden haben, dass uns die Botschaft Christi und Licht und Hoffnung in eine manchmal sehr dunkle Welt bringen.

Das sind Weihnachtslieder, die in einer dunklen, unsicheren Zeit geschrieben wurden, die aber vom Licht der Welt erzählen.  Auch Jochen Klepper, ein deutscher Theologe, der mit einer jüdischen Frau verheiratet war und sich 1942 mit seiner Frau Hanni und deren Tochter Renate das Leben nahm, betonte voll Überzeugung „Gott will im Dunkeln wohnen und hat es doch erhellt.“  Diese letzte Strophe des Liedes „Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen“ wurde in der Adventszeit 1937 oder 1938 geschrieben.  Damals schrieb Klepper voll Hoffnung: „Die Nacht ist schon im Schwinden, / macht euch zum Stalle auf!“  Denn er war die feste Überzeugung: „Ihr sollt – ihr werdet – das Heil dort finden.“

Somit sehen wir, dass Weihnachtslieder immer wieder Hoffnung gestiftet haben und immer noch Hoffnung stiften können, auch in die dunkelsten Zeiten. Es wird erzählt, dass im ersten Weltkrieg das Singen von „Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht“ um Weihnachten zu einem Waffenstillstand geführt hat.  Die deutschen und die britischen Soldaten haben von beiden Seiten geliebten Weihnachtslied gemeinsam gesungen, sie haben sich friedlich getroffen, ein Fußballspiel organisiert, eine kurze Zeit Frieden miteinander gefeiert.

Und wir: erfahren wir auch diese Lichtblicke im Dunklen?  Oder suchen wir eigentlich irgendwo anders?  Eva Zeller schreibt:

ich glaubte
meine Hülfe komme
anderswo her

nicht vorbereitet auf
diese Niederkunft
in der kleinsten
unter den Städten
im jüdischen Land
auf den Salto mortale
Gottes ins Fleisch

und schon gar nicht
darauf gefasst
dass Könige
sich verneigen
und die Welt
alle Jahre wieder
den Atem anhält[3]

Aber heute Nacht – in dieser heiligen Nacht – kommen auch wir zum Stall, schauen voll Erstaunen, voll Wunder wie Gott sich auf das saltus mortale, auf den Sprung ins Fleisch eingelassen.  Wir stehen an der Krippe, wir erleben, wie Gott zu uns in diese Welt, die komplizierte, traumatisierte Welt kommt, um uns und die Welt zu retten.


[1] Vgl: https://www.stillenacht.com/de/geschichte/europa-in-der-krise/.

[2] Vgl. Predigt von Bischof Friedrich Weber, 24.12.2011:  https://www.landeskirche-braunschweig.de/index.php?id=1211&file=772.

[3] Te Deum, Dezember 2018, S. 227.

Advent 1 – 2 December 2018

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Jeremiah 33:14-16
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

So here we are again, at the beginning of Advent and the start of a new church year.  And we find ourselves confronted this morning with a gospel reading which reflects the apocalyptic tone of our readings over the last four weeks.  These days, the liturgical year ends with what some call the Kingdom season, during which we are drawn to think about the end of time, the last judgement, and eternity.  But what do we find in our readings, on this first Sunday of the new liturgical year?  The end of time, the last judgement, and eternity.  In this passage from Luke’s gospel, Jesus speaks about the huge uncertainty, the deep disorder that will precede the end of the world:

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

And it is in the midst of that uncertainty that the Second Coming of Christ is to be expected: “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”  And so Christ urges: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Anyone who is following the news at present might well feel that what Christ is describing here is a pretty accurate portrayal of the level of political and environmental uncertainty that we are currently experiencing.  And while I think there is something in that (we certainly find ourselves living in interesting times), my sense as a historian is that down the centuries there have been very many sets of circumstances that seemed to fulfil this apocalyptic prophecy.  Many people must have felt like during both the so-called world wars of the last century that events around them were fulfilling this prophecy.  Many of the people of Yugoslavia must have felt they were witnessing the apocalypse as their country disintegrated into war and violence nearly thirty years ago. The sixteenth century, the century of the Reformation, was experienced by many as a time in which there was “distress amongst nations” accompanied by “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” and the Reformers expected the end of the world to come very soon, which was one reason they felt it imperative to reform the church. The Thirty Years War engendered similar reactions.  And of course the first disciples believed, as today’s gospel emphasises, that “this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”  And yet: the world has not (yet) ended, and the prophecies of the Second Coming have not (yet) been fulfilled.

Is this prophecy empty, then?  The American Methodist theologian, artist and poet Jan Richardson thinks not.  She sees it as a Jesus’s way of reminding his listeners – which is all of us – that they, that we, need to be attentive to the world to recognise in it the signs of his coming presence:

[Jesus] is not offering these apocalyptic images in order to scare the pants off people but rather to assure his listeners that the healing of the world is at hand, and that they need to stay awake, stay alert, and learn to read the signs of what is ahead. He is calling them not to crumble or quail when intimations of the end come but instead to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus urges his hearers—and us—toward practices that help them stay grounded and centered in their daily lives so that they won’t be caught unawares in the days to come.[1]

There is something here about recognising and admitting that when we are most lost, when the world around us is most chaotic, then we may be most receptive for Christ.  That is when we may be most aware of the need for Christ.  Douglas Galbraith, when he was Convenor of ACTS, reflected on this passage: “Advent seems to call us to face the worst, forbidding us to gloss over the misery that knowingly and unknowingly people perpetrate upon each other.  To acknowledge the problem, perhaps, is to reach with greater urgency for the promise.”[2]  Perhaps we might even say, to acknowledge the problem is to be even more vividly aware of God’s promise.  James F. Kay, Professor of Homiletics at Princeton, thinks so:

the message of Advent is that we can never take our own projections more seriously than God’s promises. When we least expect it and when there is no evidence for it, God’s power comes into this godless world in ways the world itself could never predict or foresee.[3]

I remember beginning a sermon on this passage by offering an account of seemed to me then my somewhat chaotic life, and affirming that according to this passage then, Jesus must be very near – even though (or precisely because) I was feeling lost and overwhelmed and profoundly uncertain.  It was telling me, I think now, and it tells us, never to give up hope.

Advent can confront us with the reality of the world, whilst affirming that we should not give up hope precisely because Advent points us to the coming of Christ.  Advent counts us down – or up – to Christmas and the incarnation.  But at the same time Advent reminds us that the incarnation is not the final redemption. As James Kay observes, “The birth of Jesus does not bring redemption to Jerusalem; the teaching of Jesus does not bring redemption to Israel; even the death of Jesus on the cross does not bring redemption to the world.”[4]  When we recognise that, we realise that Advent points us beyond the incarnation too; it counts us down – or up – to the fulfilment of the world.  For Douglas Galbraith:

Advent does not end with the Incarnation and the coming of Christ when in a ‘wonderful exchange’ God lodged in the material world to make it ready for redemption; nor does it end with the returning Christ at Easter to rescue and transform wounded humanity; nor with his coming as Spirit at Pentecost to accompany and renew us in our earthly pilgrimage. It is only with the coming of Christ at the end of time that Advent is complete.[5]

That is, as we enter into this period of Advent, this time of awaiting the birth of Christ, we are also entering into a time of awaiting the last days.  Incarnation and apocalypse are closely related: that is why Jesus Christ is “the alpha and the omega, … the one who is and was and is to come,” as Revelation put it in the last week’s reading for Christ the King Sunday.

Advent reminds us, therefore, that we live in an oddly, in-between time.  Jan Richardson writes in a poem about Advent:

It is one of the mysteries
of the road,
how the blessing
you have traveled toward,
waited for,
ached for
suddenly appears
as if it had been with you
all this time.[6]

Advent is a time of Christ’s being already present and yet to come. A time that is full of promise, pregnant with hope. And because of that, as Douglas Galbraith affirms, “Advent offers far more than a dose of realism; it is part also of the solution.”[7]  It is part of the solution because Advent reminds us that God engages with that reality.  And that makes Advent a time that calls us to live in, and to live out, that hope.  It is not just Advent that is part of the solution, but we ourselves.

For Douglas Galbraith, this realisation is part of what it means “to live as people ‘alert at all times’, not knowing when ‘that day’ will arrive.”  He describes the challenges of the Advent calling:

It is one thing to accept the desirability of loving one’s neighbour but quite another to do this consistently, and indeed to recognise the many small and large opportunities to do so. Such an alertness implies a readiness, openness and sensitivity to those amongst whom we live. This is not a call to rigorous discipline at all times so much as seeking to ‘live with expectation’. It is as if into the ordinariness of the everyday we were to ‘fold’, like a good cook adding ingredients that make all the difference, this feeling of Advent anticipation. We look towards the final Coming, but the light is not in the distance but seen reflected in our own faces.[8]

Bernadette Farrell has explored that Advent calling and the hope it brings in a hymn that we might have sung this morning, “Christ be our light”:

Longing for light, we wait in darkness,
Longing for truth, we turn to you.
Make us your own, your holy people,
Light for the world to see.

Longing for peace, our world is troubled.
Longing for hope, many despair.
Your word alone has power to save us.
Make us your living voice.

Longing for food, many are hungry.
Longing for water, still many thirst.
Make us your bread, broken for others,
Shared until all are fed.

Longing for shelter, many are homeless.
Longing for warmth, many are cold.
Make us your building, sheltering others,
Walls made of living stone.

To be Christ’s light; to be Christ’s voice; to provide food and shelter.  These are central to the Advent calling, to the Advent hope.  And it is good to remind ourselves of them as we embark on the busy business of the run-up to Christmas; it is important to remind ourselves of them in these days when the news seems more irrational and uncertain by the day.  In these times, we need to be open the kind of reassuring hope which Jan Richardson sees as infusing the Advent journey:

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.

And so let us pray:  God, in times of fear and foreboding, help us to know that you are very near, and in all that we are and in all that we do, help us to proclaim the hope of your redeeming love to the world. Amen.


[1]  See http://adventdoor.com/2009/11/23/advent-1-practicing-the-apocalypse/.

[2]  Douglas Galbraith, “2nd December: 1st Sunday in Advent,” The Expository Times 124 (2012), 74-82, at 74.

[3] James F. Kay, “Redemption draws near,” The Christian Century 114/32 (12.11.1997), 1033.

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Galbraith, “2nd December,” 74.

[6] See http://adventdoor.com/category/poetry/.

[7] Galbraith, “2nd December,” 74.

[8]  Galbraith, “2nd December,” 75.

32. Sonntag im Jahreskreis – 11. November 2018

Predigt in der alt-katholischen Gemeinde Münster am 10. November 2018

1. Könige 17, 10-16
Hebräer 9, 24-28
Markus 12, 38-44

An diesem Wochenende fallen viele wichtige Erinnerungstage.  Gestern vor einhundert Jahren dankte Kaiser Wilhelm II. am 9. November 1918 ab.  Morgen vor einhundert Jahren wurde durch einen Waffenstillstand der erste Weltkrieg beendet. Es begann ein neues Kapitel in der Geschichte Europas und vielleicht besonders in der deutschen Geschichte.  Ein Kapitel, das zur Reichsprogromnacht – gestern vor achtzig Jahren, am 9 November 1938 – führte, und schließlich auch zum Mauerfall am 9. November 1989.  Es sind bedeutsame Gedenktage, die am diesem Wochenende fallen.  Morgen wird in Großbritannien das hundertjährige Jubiläum des 11. November 1918 durch das ganze Land bedacht.  Angela Merkel und Emmanuel Macron trafen sich heute im Compiègne, dort wo der Waffenstillstand unterzeichnet wurde.

Also: In diesen Tagen vor einhundert Jahren ging der erste Weltkrieg zu Ende. Es waren vier lange Jahre gewesen, Jahre des Verlusts, Jahre der Trauer, Jahre der Angst.  Am Volkstrauertag gedenken wir den Vielen, die im Krieg ihren Leben verloren haben – nicht nur im ersten Weltkrieg, sondern auch in anderen Kriegen im zwanzigsten Jahrhundert. Viele davon werden Soldaten gewesen sein, die gefallen sind.  Andere sind Opfer des Blitzkrieges, oder sind an den Folgen von Hunger oder kursierenden Krankheiten gestorben.  Es waren sehr harte Zeiten für alle, die diese Jahre erlebt haben, es waren Zeiten, die Familien Jahre, Jahrzehnten danach geprägt haben.  Mein Großvater väterlicher Seite wurde als junger Mann im ersten Weltkrieg verletzt, er litt sein ganzes Leben an den körperlichen und psychologischen Folgen.  Wir kennen wahrscheinlich alle solche Geschichten in der eigenen Familie, denn wir alle hatten Vorfahren, die diese Kriegsjahre durchgemacht haben.

Ich habe mich in Rahmen eines Forschungsprojektes in den letzten vier Jahren immer mit Predigten und Schriften aus der Zeit des ersten Weltkrieges beschäftigt.  Manches war sehr einseitig, sehr populistisch, sehr nationalistisch.  Aber manches auch nicht. Und ich bin immer wieder beeindruckt, wie treffend manche Aussagen auch für uns in dieser Zeit sind.  So schrieb ein anonymer Theologe im Herbst 1914 zum Thema „Liebt eure Feinde“:

Es ist so, dass der Gott und der Vater unseres Herrn Jesus Christus [unsere Feinde] liebt. …  Wenn Gott sie nicht liebt, können wir auch nicht sicher sein, dass er uns liebt. Und wenn er sie liebt, müssen wir sie auch lieben.[1]

Glauben wir wirklich, dass Gott diejenigen liebt, die wir eigentlich nicht leiden können?  Die Frage, wie wir unsere Feinde lieben sollten, diejenigen, die uns fremd vorkommen, bleibt auch heute – gerade in unseren gespaltenen Zeiten – eine Herausforderung.

Die heutigen Lesungen deuten aber auf ein Thema hin, das seltener angesprochen wird.  Wir haben heute die Geschichten von zwei Frauen gehört: die eine Frau, die ihre letzten Geldstücke als Tempelopfer gibt, und eine andere Frau, eine Witwe, die bereit ist, ihr letztes Öl und Mehl als kleinen Kuchen für den Prophet Elija aufzuarbeiten. Zwei Frauen, die bereit sind, das zu geben, was sie haben – alles zu geben, was sie haben.  Man kann vielleicht darüber entsetzt sein, dass sie sich in dieser Situation überhaupt befinden – ich hörte am Dienstag eine Predigt, die diese Frage gestellt hat, die bemerkt hat, das die Frau im Markusevangelium in einem Kontext dargestellt wird, in dem die religiösen Führer den Witwen ihre Häuser weggenommen haben.  Alles ist dieser Frau genommen worden, und sie gibt trotzdem weiter.[2] In den Erfahrungen dieser Frauen wird die Lebenserfahrung vieler Frauen früherer Generationen gerade im Krieg exemplarisch dargestellt. Die wenigsten Frauen haben im ersten Weltkrieg direkt gekämpft.  Aber Frauen hatten als gemeinsame Erfahrung, dass sie zuschauen mussten, wie ihre Männer, Brüder und Söhne sich zum Krieg freiwillig gemeldet haben oder auch eingezogen wurden, um zu kämpfen, oft um verletzt zu werden oder zu sterben.  Wie sie manchmal alles gegeben haben, und noch weiterhin geben mussten.  Denken wir an die vielen Frauen, die ihre Mann und ihre Söhne dem Krieg opfern mussten.

Die Solidarität der vielen trauernden Mütter wurde schon im Herbst 1914 Thema.  Damals schrieb Elma Katie Paget, Ehefrau des anglikanischen Bischofs von Stepney in London:

Wir [Frauen] geben unsere Männer als Krieger gegen den Krieg. Wir kämpfen darum, dass [der Krieg] sterben wird. … Sterben, damit andere leben könnten: dies trägt den Abdruck des Kreuzes.[3]

Diese Vorstellung, der erste Weltkrieg sollte der letzte Krieg sein, der Krieg, der alles Kriegerische in der Gesellschaft überwinden sollte: das war ein wichtiges Thema dieser Zeit.  Für Paget hatte aber die Trauer der Frauen, und besonders der Mütter, vor allem ihre Bereitschaft, alles zu geben, mitten im Streit etwas Verbindendes:

Trauer allein bleibt allen gemeinsam. Es gibt hier weder Deutsch noch Russisch, Belgisch, Österreichisch, Serbisch, Französisch oder Englisch. Und diese Trauer beruht hauptsächlich auf den Herzen der Frauen, sie überwindet alle Unterschiede, und wir erkennen, dass wir in unserer Mutterschaft eins sind, als nichts, wie sonst nichts eins ist. Mutterschaft, Weiblichkeit, hat ihren Kalvarienberg erreicht.[4]

Ich habe mich mit englisch-sprachigen Predigten und Schriften beschäftigt, wir würden aber bei deutschen Frauen ähnliche Stimmen finden. Denn der erste Weltkrieg wurde zum Auslöser einer internationalen Frauenbewegung, die sich für den Frieden eingesetzt hat – einen Frauenkreuzzug für den Frieden („Women’s Peace Crusade“).  Diese Bewegung baute auf die Erfahrungen, die Frauen im Kampf um das Wahlrecht gemacht hatten. Sie ging davon aus, dass Frauen der Politik etwas Besonderes anzubieten hatten: eine besondere Fähigkeit zur Liebe und zur Versöhnung.

Wir gedenken in diesem Jahr nicht nur das Ende des ersten Weltkriegs, sondern auch hundert Jahre Frauenwahlrecht in Deutschland und in Großbritannien. Eine von vielen anglikanischen Frauen, die sich sehr für das Frauenwahlrecht eingesetzt hatten, war Maude Royden.  Außergewöhnlich war, dass sie während des Krieges regelmäßig in einer Londoner Freikirche gepredigt hatte.  Maude Royden durfte im Frühjahr 1920 bei einer internationalen Versammlung zum Frauenwahlrecht vom Kanzel Johannes Calvins in Genf predigen.  Sie sprach über die schwierigen Zeiten, die Europa und die Welt gerade durchgemacht hatten:

wie wenig haben wir uns über diese Siege [d.h. die Einführung des Frauenwahlrechts] gefreut! Wer hätte gedacht, [die Entscheidungen dafür] könnten so dick und schnell sein, aber so wenig Freude, so wenig Triumph mitbringen? Sie sind gekommen und wir haben sie begrüßt. Aber wir haben einen solchen Schmerzsturm erlebt, begleitet von einer solchen Qual des Verlusts, dass wir uns nicht wirklich freuen konnten – und können es immer noch nicht.[5]

Royden nannte in dieser Rede eine besondere Fähigkeit von Frauen in dem Wiederaufbau nach dem Krieg:

Schenket der Welt euer schöpferisches Evangelium. Vergesst das Unrecht, überwindet eure Ängste, hauchet in diese politische Maschinerie die Kraft an, die sie alleine bewegen kann, hauchet in diesen Völkerbund [d.h. League of Nations] den Geist der Liebe an. Wendet euch eurer höchsten Aufgabe zu und machet aus der Nation eine Familie, aus allen Brüdern und der Welt ein eine Heimat, ein zu Hause.[6]

Das war die Vision vieler – Frauen und Männer – in diesen Tagen, in dieser Zeit vor einhundert Jahren.  Die Hoffnung, dass die furchtbaren Jahre nicht umsonst gewesen waren.  Viele haben geglaubt, wie wir am Anfang des Gottesdienstes gesungen haben:

Gottes Volk kann siegen, über Hass und Streit.
Stärker als Gewalttat ist Gerechtigkeit.
Tausendmal getreten, tausendmal verlacht,
doch nun strahlt die Hoffnung neu in unsere Nacht![7]

Wir wissen, dass es anders gekommen ist. Wir wissen, dass  der erste Weltkrieg nicht das Ende vom Krieg bedeutete, sondern eher der Anfang eines sehr dunklen Kapitels der europäischen Geschichte.  Aber wir sollten an dieser Vision festhalten, an der Hoffnung, dass Europa, dass die Welt ein Ort des Friedens und der Versöhnung werden könnte.

„Machet aus der Nation eine Familie, aus allen Brüdern und der Welt ein eine Heimat, ein zu Hause.“  Das ist eine Vision auch für uns heute.

[1]   X., The witness of the Church in the present crisis (London: Oxford University Press, 1914), 11.

[2]  Mit Dank an Professor Heather Walton für ihre spannende Predigt!

[3]  Elma Katie Paget, The woman’s part (London: Oxford University Press, 1914), 5.

[4]    Ebd., 6.

[5]    Maud Royden, Sermon preached … in the Cathedral at Geneva on the occasion of the meeting of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance. Sunday, June 6th, 1920 (London: Athenaeum Press, 1920), 7.

[6]   Ebd., 12.

[7]   Aus dem Lied, „Pilger sind wir Menschen“, Str. 3.

Proper 25 (B) – 28 October 2018

sermon preached at St Margaret Newlands

Jeremiah 31: 7-9
Hebrews 7: 23-28
Mark 10: 46-52

“Jesus said to Bartimaeus, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”

Healing stories are often uncomfortable passages, prompting us to reflect on the brokenness and pain of our un-healed world, calling to mind those whom we would love to see healed who are not, and those whom we would love to have seen healed and were not. Accounts of miraculous healing can leave us struggling to understand a world in which pain and death are so present.  How do we read these stories when our own experience is that healing seems not to come so easily?

Most years since I moved to Glasgow, I have celebrated a service of prayer for healing and wholeness with Glasgow’s Church of Scotland ministerial candidates as part of our regular Tuesday worship. The introduction to this service, drawn from Common Worship, the Church of England’s liturgical resource, reminds us that “healing, reconciliation and restoration are integral to the good news of Jesus Christ. … God’s gracious activity of healing is to be seen both as part of the proclaiming of the good news and as an outworking of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the Church.”

The Common Worship introduction goes on to offer an number of cautions:

Such prayer needs to be sensitive to a number of simplifications or misunderstandings. It should not imply a simple link between sickness and sin… . The receiving of forgiveness and the act of forgiving others may open the way to healing and wholeness. Prayer for healing and strengthening should not involve the rejection of the skills and activity of medicine which are also part of God’s faithfulness to creation … . Prayer for healing needs to take seriously the way in which individual sickness and vulnerability are often the result of injustice and social oppression. Equally importantly such prayer should not imply that the restoration of physical wholeness is the only way in which Christ meets human need. Healing has always to be seen against the background of the continuing anguish of an alienated world and the hidden work of the Holy Spirit bringing God’s new order to birth.[1]

That is an important reminder as we reflect on Mark’s account of the healing of Bartimaeus, in which faith and physical healing seem so closely entwined with each other.  “Your faith has made you well,” says Jesus to Bartimaeus, the blind man who can now see again.  How are we to understand this story?

One way into it may be found in the approach to the text taken by (amongst others) a Dutch New Testament scholar, Maarten Menken.  Menken suggests that this story is as much about the calling of Bartimaeus as it is about his healing.[2]  In Mark’s gospel, Bartimaeus is presented the last person to be called by Jesus.  Bartimaeus offers somthing of a contrast to Peter, James and John, who, Mark shows, were the first to be called, very early in Jesus’ minstry, but who seem not quite to understand what that calling means.  James and John in the passage immediately before this story ask Jesus to place them beside him in his glory.[3]  they have not understood that jesus’s way to to the cross. Bartimaeus, in contrast is “an example of faith which overcomes boundaries, of prompt reaction to Jesus’ call, of having his eyes opened by Jesus and following him.”[4]  For Menken, the implication of the positioning of this story in Mark’s gospel is that Bartimaeus, unlike Peter, James and John, understands that following Jesus means following him to the cross.  The seeing are blind in faith.  Bartimaeus, in contrast, the blind man, has seen the truth about who Jesus is and understood the implications of his call.  Similarly, Judy Hirst, English theologian and counsellor, points to the contrast between Bartimaeus and the story of the rich young man earlier in this same chapter: “We have … a rich young man who thinks that he can see God’s way but who is actually blind, and a blind man who can actually see.”[5]

Mary Ann Beavis, also a biblical scholar, points out that Bartimaeus

seems to be the first human character in Mark who accurately and openly identifies Jesus using a messianic title. … Although he is blind, Bartimaeus accurately perceives that Jesus is the ‘Son of David’.[6]

Moreover, Bartimaeus proclaims who Jesus is although the onlookers try to silence him.  And Mark shows us Christ accepting Bartimaeus’ proclamation of who he is, unlike his response to Peter’s affirmation, when Jesus responds by telling him to be silent. This blind beggar, this person at the margins of society, whose disability and poverty, according to contemporary cultural understandings, showed that he was not favoured by God, this marginalised, blind beggar recognises that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah.

In this proclamation of Jesus as the Son of David, Beavis sees Bartimaeus as standing in Graeco-Roman and Hebrew traditions of blind prophets who see the truth and speak it to power.[7]  His name might hint at an underlying shift of worldview.  He is Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus:  are we meant here to think of a follower of Plato, the author of the Timaeus?  Dan Clendenin comments that “in the Timaeus and elsewhere, Plato famously contrasts ‘seeing’ the mere physical world while being ‘blind’ to Eternal Truths.” Is the cloak that Bartimaeus casts aside a philosopher’s cloak?  Clendenin qualifies this connection with Plato as “at best a ‘definite maybe’.”[8] Certainly it seems unlikely for a philosopher to be a beggar, but Mark’s hearers could well have associated the name Timaeus with Plato.  Here is a blind prophet who sees, and who sees in a quite new way from that of the Greek philosophical milieu in which Christianity was emerging, but also quite differently from how the Jewish tradition has defined holiness, which was tied up with external measures of success. His emergence as a disciple, as a prophetic witness to Jesus as Christ turns expectations of success and failure upside down. As Judy Hirst reflects, “mostly we work with the world’s way of seeing success and failure and what we have to learn is to see in God’s way. … [This is] something that was always making the disciples flounder.”[9]

All these readings of the story of Bartimaeus suggest that this story is about transformation: from blindness to sight; from exclusion to inclusion, from being a beggar at the margins of society to a true follower of Jesus, who recognises him as the Messiah.  Bartimaeus experiences a movement into discipleship, into faith.  His encounter with Jesus has transformative power.  In that it resonates deeply with today’s reading from Jeremiah:

See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labour, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble.

Our reading from Hebrews emphasises that Christ is a priest in eternity:  “he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him.”  Such encounters are possible for us too. And they can change us, transform us, transport us.  Tom Clammer, Precentor at Salisbury Cathedral, writes of such encounters, “coincidences of the world, humanity and God” as having the power to transport and transform us.[10]  Clammer is writing about the liturgy, but his point is larger: “Movement and being transported [are] important theological theme[s].”[11]  The story of Bartimaeus reminds us that the encounter with God, with Christ is transformative.  Or can be.  If we let it be.  If we are open to it.  If we can bear it.

Times of difficulty, times of challenge, times when we are brought up sharp by our limitations and have to acknowledge our blindness, may help us to see better, to believe. They may. They may also not. In his inimitable way, the Jewish theologian Lionel Blue warned against assuming that all experiences of illness or suffering will bring this kind of transformative encounter:

Many problems just have no answer, so it’s no use trying to invent one.  You can only learn to live with the problems to transcend them.  It’s no use saying they will go away and that there is a happy ending in this world for everyone—for this is not true—though you can try it.  If you are visiting a sick person, over-hopeful chatter gets you off the hook, if your visit isn’t too long, but you can tell by the expression on people’s faces that they know you’re playing the game to help yourself, not to help them.
It’s also no use pretending that God isn’t in it or involved.  If He isn’t, then He is only present in buttercups, and simply divine with daisies, and who wants that sort of twaddle—not a person in pain.  And it’s no good saying that suffering sanctifies you and pain redeems you.  Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. You need some energy even for sanctification, and suffering or intense pain strips you, so that you don’t have much energy left.  You need every bit you’ve got just to hold on.
But there is something more.  I have met some afflicted people who were not especially saintly or particularly pious.  They certainly did not ask God to forgive them.  Many felt it was their job to forgive Him.  But they knew that the centre of the world was not in the world, and in their affliction and in their pain they managed to fix their attention on God and keep it there.”[12]

Lionel Blue reminds us that it is all right not to be transformed by suffering.  That sometimes we simply can’t bear it.  But he gives us hope that transformation is possible.  And this is what Bartimaeus does: he fixes his blind sight on Jesus, the Son of David and keeps it there.  And in his blindness, he is granted sight.



[1]   From “Wholeness and Healing, Theological Introduction,” in: Common Worship: Pastoral Services (London: Church House Publishing 2005), online at: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/wholeness-and-healing/wholeness-and-healing#mm067.

[2]    Maarten J.J. Menken, “The call of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52),” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 61 (2005), pp. 273-290, online at https://hts.org.za/index.php/hts/article/view/442/341.

[3]   Ibid., p. 287.

[4]   Ibid., p. 283.

[5]   Judy Hirst, Struggling to be Holy (London 2006), p. 106.

[6]   Mary Ann Beavis, “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 14 (1998), pp. 19-39, at pp. 30, 31.

[7]    Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[8]   See https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/412-blind-bartimaeus.

[9]   Hirst, Struggling to be Holy, pp. 107, 108.

[10]   Thomas Clammer, “‘Be born in our hearts’: Being Transported and Transformed by the liturgy,” in: Aidan Platten (ed.), Grasping the Heel of Heaven: Liturgy, Leadership and ministry in today’s church (Norwich 2018), pp. 94-109, at p. 99.

[11]  Ibid., p. 103.

[12]  Resources for Preaching and Worship Year A, pp. 150-151.

Dedication Festival – 21 October 2018

sermon preached at Exeter College, Oxford

Genesis 28: 11-18
1 Peter 2: 1-10
John 4: 19-26

On 18 October 1859 – 159 years ago this past week – this chapel was consecrated by Samuel Wilberforce, then Bishop of Oxford. It replaced a chapel built in the seventeenth century, which may (or may not) have been structurally unstable.  As Geoffrey Tyack explains in his study of the design and building of this chapel, “The decision to demolish, rather than rebuild, the seventeenth-century chapel can probably be explained on religious and aesthetic, rather than utilitarian, grounds.”[1]  A number of Exeter’s fellows had been influenced by the Oxford movement and were open to introducing more eucharistic worship, and a more ornate style of church architecture, than that represented by the seventeenth-century chapel.  Ayla Lepine has commented on the way in which high church architecture of the nineteenth century “invited new ways of experiencing the beauty and wonder of sacramental life, particularly the Eucharist.”[2]  Although the fellows got cold feet after it was built and banned the regular celebration of the Euchrarist, Eucharistic worship is what this chapel was designed for.

This chapel is part of the Oxford Movement’s call for liturgical change. Its story – indeed its very existence – reminds us that changing ideas about the church’s priorities impact on understandings of what churches should look like, change conceptions of sacred space, indeed raise questions about whether churches should be conceived as sacred space at all.  Gilbert Scott was the architect of this chapel.  His beliefs about what defines sacred space, and particularly his use of gothic architecture with its sense of the transcendent, is a very different approach from that which had been adopted by, for instance, Christopher Wren, whose churches sought to maximise the audibility of the sermon, or from that which would be taken in Germany a generation or so after Scott when many Protestant church architects rejected the gothic style.  They saw it as un-Protestant (and later, in teh 1920s and 1030s) as un-German) and conceived church buildings not so much as holy spaces but rather as secular buildings in which the Word could be preached to a congregation which was not separated from the preacher.[3]  The chapel that was demolished to make way for this one was probably more in this egalitarian, Protestant-preaching mood.

By rebuilding this chapel what Gilbert Scott – what the Fellows of this College – wanted to achieve was a place where, like Jacob in our first reading, people might encounter God: “Jacob was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’”  Gilbert Scott wanted this chapel and the other churches he built to be precisely that, houses of God, gates of heaven, places where people could encounter the divine – and he believed that they would do that through a sense of transcendence, mystery, in the eucharist. But architects who used very different styles – Christopher Wren, or Germans like Otto Bartning and Emil Sulze – also wanted their churches to be a place where God would be encountered. They just had very different ideas about how that encounter would be brought about. For Gilbert Scott that encounter took place visually, with all the senses, through a sense of transcendence and mystery.  For Wren, or for Bartning the encounter took place primarily through the preached Word.[4]  More modern liturgists and architects have different ideas again. Richard Giles in the introduction to his book Creating Uncommon Worship describes the space created in the cathedral at Philadelphia: “stripped of its furnishings and remodelled on the pattern of a fifth century basilica, facilitating free-flowing movement for the assembly between font, ambo and altar table.”  Here the encounter takes place through word, music, movement.

For others, the encounter with God may take place though silence, or through absence.  In his poem, “In Church” RS Thomas writes:

Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.

The point here is that the important thing is not the building itself but the encounter with God, or at least the expectation that a church brilding should be the locus of encounter with God.  That is, churches – church buildings – are (or should be) places in which the people of God – the church – are formed. They are (or should be) places where congregations may achieve what 1 Peter exhorts, “Come to him, a living stone, … and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.”  The important point here is that church buildings point beyond themselves, for being built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood takes us far beyond the building itself, and beyond what we do together when we meet here.

The danger is that church buildings become the focus of what we do and that our sense of being church focuses exclusively on what happens within them. The “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God” that are to be offered in churches through Jesus Christ cannot – may not be empty rituals, but rather, as John’s gospel puts it, “the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” John’s words point us beyond the church building.  They resonate with the Old Testament prophets’ warnings against empty worship, such as Amos (5:23-24):  “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  Or as Micah puts it: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Becoming living stones means becoming the people who do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.  This is where the encounter with God should take us: to live a life that speaks into the injustices of the world.

Jeanne Halgren Kilde points out that “Religious space is dynamic space.”[5] I think this is visionary, a vital aspect of understanding what religious space is about.  Through and in sacred space we believers are – or should be – drawn into the dynamic of faith, of lived faith.  We should be drawn in, sustained, and sent out.  What happens here should be transformative.  What Kilde actually means by this is, however, as she explains, is a bit more mundane:  she emphasises that church buildings

influence worship practices, facilitating some activities and impeding others. They focus the attention of believers on the divine, and they frequently mediate the relationship between the individual and God. They change with religious activities over time. They contribute to the formation and maintenance of internal relationships within congregations. They designate hierarchy and they demarcate community, serving a multiplicity of users with a host of objectives.[6]

Kilde here articulates one of the deepest challenges with buildings: not only can (and do) they come in and out of theological fashion, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the same building may not – almost certainly will not – work for everyone.  But we need not to be fixated on one way of encountering God.  One of the challenges for us as Christians, as church goers, as seekers after God is to preserve our openness to encountering God where we did not expect. When Jacob became aware of God’s presence, he was surprised: “‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”  Are we open to that surprise too?

Kilde points to another important aspect of church buildings:

They teach insiders and outsiders about Christianity, and they convey messages about the religious group housed in the building to the community at large.[7]

Tyack echoes this in his description of this chapel: with its 150-foot spire the chapel was, he says, “a triumph of religious values in an increasingly sceptical age … Moreover, with the west gable and spire termination to the view along Ship Street … that message was proclaimed not only within the walls of the college but also to the outside world.”[8]

What message does this proclaim now, I wonder?  How do the religious values of this chapel, of this community speak into our ever more secular age?  We may not be able to control that, but we can reflect on how we ourselves, as living stones convey messages to the community at large. We can seek to ensure that this chapel is a place in which those who enter it encounter God.  And that those who worship here, who encounter God here do so in such a way that they become living stones, building the church of God.  Let those who encounter us encounter a community which does justice, loves kindness, and walks with God.  Let us as a community, as the church, become, like this chapel itself, a triumph of religious values in an increasingly sceptical and secular age.




[1]  Geoffrey Tyack, “Gilbert Scott and the Chapel of Exeter College, Oxford,” Architectural History 50 (2007), pp. 125-148; at p. 130.

[2]   Ayla Lepine, “Theology and Threshold: Victorian Approaches to Reviving Choir and Rood Screens”, British Art

Studies, Issue 5, http://dx.doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-05/alepine, 21 pp, at p. 1.

[3]  See for instance, Friedrich Weber and Charlotte Methuen, “The Architecture of Faith under National Socialism: Lutheran Church Building(s) in Braunschweig, 1933–1945,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 66 (2015), pp 340-371 at pp. 350-353.

[4]    Richard Giles, Creating Uncommon Worship: Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist (Norwich 2004), p. xiii.

[5]   Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture and Worship (Oxford 2008), p. 3.

[6]    Ibid.

[7]    Ibid.

[8]    Tyack, “Gilbert Scott and the Chapel of Exeter College,” p. 141.