What makes a Pharisee?

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 11th Sunday after Trinity
Date: 7 August 2016
Text: Luke 18:9–14

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Those of us who are familiar with the teachings of Jesus, and have been steeped in the Christian doctrine, know exactly what to think of this very familiar parable of Jesus. Our sympathy is with the tax collector, and we shake our heads in disbelief at the blind arrogance of the Pharisee. How can he be so blind to his own faults, and so oblivious to the mercy of God towards all sinners? How can he boast so blatantly of his spiritual achievements, and have so little concern for the salvation of his humble and penitent fellow-creature in the corner?

But before we settle down too comfortably, it might be worth asking how Jesus would tell the parable were he the one preaching this morning. Who is the Pharisee today, and who the tax collector? Is this a story told to comfort us, or to shake us out of our comfort zone?

So let’s remind ourselves who the Pharisees were. Far from the pantomime villains that we tend to think of, the Pharisees were the good people of their time. They were devout Jews who had dedicated their lives to the study of God’s word, and of applying God’s word to their lives. In the words of the New Testament letter of James, they strove to be more than just hearers of the word, and to be doers of the word as well.

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The Humble King

A sermon on Palm Sunday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
20 March 2016
(You can listen to the sermon here.)

Texts: Zechariah 9:9–12; Philippians 2:5—11; Matthew 21:1–9; Matthew 26:1—27:66


 

Behold, your king comes to you, humble and riding on a donkey.

The people of Jerusalem recognised their king. They knew Him because they knew the Scriptures and they had come to know Jesus. The Scriptures promised a king to sit on the throne of David, who would bring about the restoration of Israel and the restoration of creation. Jesus came with authority over the powers of evil and over the power of death. And so they recognised Jesus to be the promised king. And so they sang, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

But the rulers of Jerusalem did not recognise their king, because they knew neither the Scriptures nor Jesus. They expected a triumphant king who would come and rule in the way that they understood ruling: to lord it over the people, as the kings of the Gentiles, and their puppets in the Jerusalem, lorded it over God’s people.

And the rulers of the synagogues also failed to recognise their king, because although they studied the Scriptures, they did not recognise Him to whom those Scriptures pointed. They sought the Scriptures in order to establish their own righteousness, and did not recognise Him who was coming to bring to them the righteousness of God. And so the rulers of Jerusalem ,and the rulers of the synagogues shouted, “Crucify!”

And the Roman soldiers failed to recognise Jesus as their king, because they neither knew nor believed the Scriptures, and they saw only the weakness and the defencelessness and the abandonment of yet another Jewish man given over to them to crucify. So they mocked him, shouting “Hail, king of the Jews”, and they crucified Him.

And at the end of that week, the shouts of “Crucify!”, the voices of mockery, and the thrust of nails against human flesh drowned out the songs of “Hosanna”, cast out the faith and the joy of the disciples, and draw the lifeblood out of the battered and abused body of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. That night, disciples, enemies and bystanders alike were in agreement: Jesus’ claim to kingship had turned out to be a vain hope, an empty claim. Even the centurion’s otherwise remarkable confession, “Truly, this was the son of God”, was in agreement: this was the son of God. But what is he now? A corpse, a piece of history.

All because Jesus died at the hands of others. Kings who do that cease to be kings, and pretenders—people making a claim to the throne—lose their claim if they die at the hands of others before they manage to take their throne. That’s common knowledge.

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Rejoice in the Lord

Sermon preached at Vespers for the 61st Annual Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of England
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Coventry
2 October 2015
Ps. 119:145–52; Philippians 4:4–9; Luke 11:5–13

There are certain commands that almost always have the opposite effect from what they actually command. An exasperated parent’s “For goodness sake, stupid child, stop being so miserable” is likely to add to rather than reduce said child’s misery. A drill sergeant yelling at privates to “stop being afraid or else” will only add to their fear. When I was a young schoolboy, I was often told by playground bullies to do something or I would cry and do it. It didn’t take us long to come up with what we thought was a great witticism: cheer up, or you’ll cry and cheer up.

At first sight, it appears that in the reading from Philippians, chapter 4, the apostle Paul is guilty of issuing such counter-productive commands. And not only one of them, but several.

Rejoice in the Lord always!
Do not be anxious about anything.

You can’t tell people to rejoice. They either do, or they don’t. Your telling them to do so won’t change a thing, except perhaps put pressure on them to be joyful, thereby killing whatever joy they had to start with.

Likewise, if someone has a tendency to be anxious, telling not to be anxious simply makes matters worse. Before, they were anxious about X, Y and Z. Now they are anxious about X, Y, Z and the fact that they are anxious when they shouldn’t.

It seems that Paul is being as profound as Bobby McFerrin—Don’t Worry, Be Happy—without the catchy tune at least to cheer us up for a moment.

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Holding Forth Jesus

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham (typos and all)

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

“When you fast …” When do you fast? Do you fast?

Jesus certainly seems to assume that you will, and speaks of rewards that we will receive from our Father in heaven if we do. And the Small Catechism likewise commends fasting as fine outward training as part of our preparation to receive the blessed sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. Throughout the history of the church, the whole church, Christians have marked times and seasons of fasting. Except of course in our time, and perhaps for a few generations before us. We don’t have to do that, do we? Isn’t that a Catholic works-righteousness thing. After all, we are not saved by what we do, and external actions are just that. What matters is the faith of the heart, the life of the spirit.

And so we don’t fast.

Or we follow the world’s lead in using Lent as a useful time to regain some self-control—or exercise a bit of self-discipline or just take up a tough challenge—in the matter of eating chocolate, or drinking wine, or getting exercise. Forty days without the excess sugar or unnecessary alcohol makes us feel more in control of our lives and gives us more of an incentive for a more considered approach to diet, or exercise, or whatever aspect of our lives we decide to subject to such discipline.

And so we do fast, but only for earthly reward.

But here we are now, at the start of our forty-day journey to Easter, at the start of the season of Lent, also know by the ancient title ’The Great Fast’; here we are, bearing on our foreheads the mark of death, with the words of the great penitential Psalm, and the call to repentance, still ringing in our ears. What are we to do with these days, and for what purpose?

Jesus calls us to walk the narrow way to the narrow gate that leads to life. Part of the trouble with narrow ways is that you are never far from the ditches on either side. In a fallen world, where death rules through sin and the law, the perverted human heart wants to take every gift of God, turn it into a law and then either reject it or manipulate it. So also with the good gift of fasting and other bodily preparation for receiving God’s gifts.

As he turned his face towards Jerusalem, Jesus proclaimed that if anyone wants to be his disciples, he must take up his cross and follow him. It’s easy to over-spiritualise this proclamation into some general message about self-denial and willingness to make sacrifices. This is not the point of Jesus’ message, however. His point is much simpler: if you are to be Jesus’ disciple, you must follow him into death. You shall die with Jesus, or else you will have no part in him.

To untrained ears, this sounds like a terrible marketing strategy, a project doomed to fail. Who would heed such an invitation. Certainly, the disciples on the night when Jesus’ final plunge into the ignominious death of the cross began, were unwilling to follow him and scattered.

But living on this side of both Good Friday and Easter, and having received the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit to open to us the Scriptures, we know better: the invitation to die with Jesus is not an invitation to destruction, but a rescue from certain destruction. Unless you die with Jesus, you will die without Jesus! And I you die with him, you will certainly also be resurrected with him.

And so we must learn to die to ourselves, so that the life of Christ may take shape in us. So much is clear from Scripture. But since this is a gift of God, rather than an odious burden, it comes freely given, and given in freedom. It isn’t a matter of setting up hoops through which the church is to jump, but a matter of setting forth Christ, and the church in each place and in each generation fixing their eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

And so we have Lent, not as a time for earthly or spiritual achievement, but as a time when we work with renewed vigour for the reward our Father in heaven has prepared for us.

And that reward is the reward won for us by Jesus, who accomplished all that the Law demands for us, to break the stranglehold of death over us by his death once for all.

Our life in this flesh, while we await the day of resurrection and our entry into God’s eternal kingdom, consists in the daily putting away of the old Adam, and the daily clearing away of anything that obscures Christ, so that he may be all in all for us.

And so we fast and deny ourselves, and we cross ourselves, and we bow and we kneel, to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return; to remember that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord; to remember that to eat and drink is necessary but ultimately futile postponement of death, whereas to eat the body of Christ and to drink His blood is hope-filled partaking of eternal food and drink and a foretaste of the everlasting feast in the kingdom that is to come; to remember that just as Christ came not to be served but to serve, we too are called to serve our neighbour in need, and so it does us good to cut economise on luxuries so that we might be able more freely to give; to have our face set towards Jerusalem and the cross and empty tomb of Jesus Christ, so that the fruits of his passion and death, and the reward of his victorious resurrection, may grow in us and we learn to set our face towards the heavenly Jerusalem, where he has gone ahead of us to prepare a place in his father’s roomy mansions.

Dear saints in Christ, don’t look or feel gloomy at the thought of the forty days of the Great Fast. Fast away, but with anointed head and washed face, full of the joy of the resurrection life which Christ has won for us and already delivered to us in the washing of the new birth and anointing with the Holy Spirit in the Holy Baptism. The Lord has been jealous for his land, he has had pity on his people, and has sent us the grain, wine and oil of gladness.

See, the fruits of Calvary are set before us, and the first offerings of the heavenly feast are being prepared for us to receive tonight. Let us set aside every thought that hinders, and fix our eyes on Jesus, who is here with forgiveness, life and salvation. Come, you who are dying, and eat that you may live and not die.

In the holy name of ✠ Jesus.

Amen.

Maundy Thursday: Eating and Drinking Life

Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 17 February 2014. You can listen to a recording of the sermon here.
Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23–32

We have heard read tonight the institution of the Holy Supper of our Lord, as narrated by St. Paul to the church in Corinth, and with our own mouths we have confessed what this Sacrament is, does and signifies. Let us spend a few moments longer contemplating the great divine mystery, which we will not only study but receive before we leave this place.

It is not an exaggeration to say that God in the Holy Scriptures is extraordinarily focused on our eating. The first thing we are told about the Garden in Eden, the home of the first man and his wife, is that “out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.” The very first commandment had to do with eating:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

In the middle of the Garden was the Tree of Life, which was the source of eternal life. For after the Fall, in order to prevent from fallen mankind to live forever under the curse, God placed cherubim with flaming swords to guard the Tree of Life and to keep man from eating from it.

And since man is what he eats, death began its reign. Cultivating a cursed ground for his food, he remained under the curse. Eating dead food, he himself was destined to be consumed by death.

But since God was determined to remain true to His loving purposes and be faithful even when we were faithless, He continued to provide life-giving food for the people.

When Abraham gave tithes to Melchizedek, the priest of God Almighty and the king of Salem who foreshadowed the true High Priest of God and the King of Peace, our Lord Jesus Christ, Melchizedek blessed Abraham and gave him bread and wine.

When the Lord redeemed Israel from the yoke of slavery in Egypt, He sent the people into their freedom fed with the meat of the Passover lamb and the unleavened bread.

In the wilderness, when the people were perishing for want of faith when food and water were scarce, God sent them bread from heaven and water from a rock.

When the Lord gave Moses the Law, He provided a sacred meal, the peace offering, so that the worshippers gathered in the tabernacle might sit down and eat the meat of the sacrifice in table fellowship with God Himself.

Through His prophets, God promised a time of restoration when there would no longer be a curse on the ground, when creation would be freed from its bondage to sin, when death would die. The people would once again eat the fruit of the land in all its abundance. “Open your mouth wide,” says the Lord, “and I will fill it.” (Ps. :)

* * *

However, not everything was suitable to eat. There was food that was unclean: food that came from things that had been distorted by the fall, and perpetuated the fallenness of creation—such as beasts that ate not the grass of the field but one another.

But there was one eating prohibition that stood above all others. Unlike the laws about clean and unclean food, which were given to Israel through Moses at Sinai, this prohibition was given through Noah to all mankind: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen. :)

This commandment was repeated when the Law was given through Moses, not once but six times, and the whole of chapter  of Leviticus is devoted to it. Why was it such a terrible thing to eat blood? Because the blood was the life: eating the blood was to eat the life. Israel’s pagan neighbours would eat and drink blood, or pour it over their crops, to benefit from the life-force of another, whether an animal or a human.

To Israel God said,

If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.

Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. (Lev. :–)

Life comes from God and it returns to God. You are not to take what is God’s for yourself. Nor should you seek to gain anything for your life, except from God, who has created you and numbered your days. The only use of another’s life is for the sake of atonement, one life for the sins of another, as commanded by God: hence the Passover Lamb and the sacrifices of atonement.

* * *

Today, we share the condition of Adam and Eve, of Noah, Abraham, Moses and the Israelites. Today, we still live off a cursed ground, in mortal bodies, eating dead food and being consumed by death. Our sins and the sins of others are still destroying us, until the wages of sin is paid out to us.

But today, we too are fed by God. Like Melchizedek, Christ brings us bread and wine and His blessing. But the bread and wine are not mere bread and wine, mere signs and symbols without a power of their own.

No, this bread and wine are combined with the all-powerful words of Christ. By the power of Christ’s words, the words of institution, we are given the flesh of Christ to eat and His blood to drink, hidden in, with and under the bread and wine. That’s right: we eat flesh and we drink blood. Only now the drinking of blood brings with it not punishment but blessing. Why? Because the blood is the life. The blood of atonement that was made once for all, the blood of the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, is now given to us so that our sins might be covered, that the angel of death may pass over us, and that we might have in us the life of Christ, who overcame death and hell and lives forever.

Jesus said,

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (John 6:53–57)

We eat Christ and we drink His life—the flesh with its blood. Not dead food that nourishes a dying body for a moment, but living food that nourishes the body and soul to life everlasting. Really and truly—hidden but undoubtedly present.

The tree of the cross is for us the new tree of life, from whose fruit we eat so that we might live eternally in an imperishable Paradise. The blood shed on that cross brings us atonement, covering our sin and washing us so that our scarlet sins are made white as snow. Our garments, soiled by transgression, are purified and made white in the blood of the Lamb, and now we can stand with confidence before the throne of Almighty God, and His Son who will judge the living and the dead.

Thus though we don’t see our Bridegroom now as He is with our eyes, He is not far from us. Rather, He comes to us in a most intimate union, making Himself one flesh with His bride, the Church, and with each of her members. We are not left only to think about Him, whether in remembrance or in anticipation—no, He lives within us in His body and blood.

In this way, the miracle of the incarnation is echoed at Christian altars each time the words of institution are spoken over bread and wine: the Son of God makes His dwelling among us in the flesh of the Son of Mary. This is why Christians bow or kneel during at the consecration, to recognise and reverence the great mystery: that Jesus, our Immanuel, is with us. This is why Christians sing the Agnus Dei, the hymn to the Lamb of God, not to the backs of their eyelids, or up to the ceiling, but to the altar where the Lamb of God to whom we sing is present.

And this is why also the Church exercises great care in admitting people to this most holy meal: whoever eats such sacred food and drinks such sacred drink without recognising in faith what is being offered and for what purpose, profanes the holy mysteries and thereby incurs judgement rather than forgiveness, wrath rather than blessing.

And so, dear friends of Christ, we have come to the Holy of Holies, to the presence of יהוה of Sabaoth, the God of Israel. The benefits of the sacrifice of Golgotha are being delivered to us tonight, and Christ is giving us His immortal body and the blood of His eternal life to us to eat and to drink.

Examine yourselves, therefore: Are you a sinner in need of forgiveness? Are you weak, and in need of strength? Are you starving and in need of feeding, parched and in need of refreshment? Are you a sojourner, longing for your true home? Are you dying, in need of life?

Here is forgiveness and life; here is strength for the pilgrimage; here is food and drink; here is a foretaste from the banquet prepared for every prodigal son and daughter by the Father, a full token of Christ’s love for His beloved bride.

Come, open your mouth, and it will be filled!

The Lord Who Saves

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 5 January 2014
Text: Matthew 2:13–23
You can listen to the sermon here.

La fuite en ÉgypteWhat’s in a name? For us moderns, not a lot. Names are labels chosen from a stock of traditional or (increasingly) non-traditional stock. We name children after relatives or celebrities, or we pick a name that we like the sound of. We avoid names that we dislike, or names that bring back bad memories. Yes, there are all sorts of more or less complicated reasons for our names, but in the end, it’s all about our preferences and tastes.

In the Bible, however, names have a far greater significance. Numerous times in the Old Testament, when a person is named, a little explanation is added to tell us the significance of that particular name. Adam called his wife Eve, which means life-giver, “because she was the mother of all living”. God took Abram, whose name meant ‘exalted father’, and re-named him Abraham, which means ‘father of a multitude’, “for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Likewise, God took Jacob, whose name meant ‘he deceives’, and gave him the new name Israel, ‘he strives with God’.

And this Israel, the man who strove with God, gave his name to all his descendants, to whom God promised to give all that He had promised to Abraham and Isaac, all the blessings He had intended for His creation. In Israel and through Israel, God would do His work of restoring the creation that had fallen when Adam and Eve disobeyed the Creator.

It didn’t take long, however, before it seemed that God’s promise to Israel would be snuffed out before it had even begun to manifest itself. Jacob and his sons were on the verge of extinction, because there was a great famine about to fall on the land. The curse on the land that their forefather Adam had earned for himself and all his descendants, was about to undo the promise to the woman’s seed, that the serpent’s head would be crushed and the curse lifted.

But God’s promises will not be thwarted. God turned the evil intentions of the ten older brothers for His own good purposes. When they plotted to destroy their younger brother Joseph, God used their evil plot to send him ahead of them to Egypt—so that he might feed them and their families there. And so it was. Joseph, the younger brother, rose to power in Egypt just in time to feed his father and his brothers when they ran out of food, and to give them a home in the rich land of Goshen. He who was the son and the younger brother to Jacob and his sons, became a father to them, and under his care and by God’s blessing, they were fruitful and multiplied. For his name was Joseph, which means, ‘he will add’.

In the fullness of time, God took Israel out of slavery in this foreign land and led them home to the land He had promised them, a land flowing with milk and honey. During their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, they proved to be an unworthy bearer of their forefather’s name. For they strove not with God but against Him, again and again.

Nor did their rebellion end when they were safely established in the Promised Land. Time and again, they contended against God and the prophets whom God sent them to call them back to His good and gracious care. They were busy forfeiting the promised redemption through their idolatry and disobedience. Judge after judge, things got worse, until God gave them kings to be shepherds of his people. But king after king, things degenerated yet further. The kingdom was split, brother against brother after the image of Cain and Abel, and then first one, then the other half of the kingdom was destroyed by their enemies—a just punishment for the rebellion of Israel, their insistent striving against God. The nation that had been called to be a kingdom of priests, to shine the light of God’s truth in a fallen world, instead left her God and went the idolatrous way of the world.

And so Israel embodied in her history the history of all humanity: a called, redeemed creation refusing to heed the call of Him who made and redeemed it. Insisting on its own way, the broad highway of death, over the narrow way that leads to life. Rejecting the wisdom of God, preferring instead the folly of this world. Heeding the siren-call of what our eyes see and ears hear, here and now, rather than receiving by faith what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard, what God has prepared for those who love Him.

Separated from the Lord, whose name is יהוה, ‘the one who is’, the world is rushing head-long into oblivion.

But this name, יהוה, tells us something more about God than a mere label would. He is the one who is, the being one. And as He is, so is His word. As the one who is, He will endure forever. As He is, so is His word: it will endure forever.

Therefore, once He has made a promise, He will by necessity keep His promise. Otherwise, His word of promise would fail to endure. And so in the fullness of time, God sent His Son, born of a woman, and gave Him a name that would change everything: Jesus.

The English name Jesus comes to us from the Greek transliteration of Jesus’ Hebrew name Yehoshua, or Joshua. This name is made up of two parts, God’s own name, יהוה, plus the verb, ישׁע , which means ‘he saves’. God sent His Son, and called Him, יהוה saves’, ‘the one who is saves’, ‘the Lord saves’—for, as the angel told Joseph, He was to save His people from their sins.

And in this Jesus, all the promises to Israel were to be fulfilled: the promise that Israel were to be His chosen people, that Israel were to be blessed through the keeping of God’s Law, that Israel were going to receive an eternal heritage from God in a land flowing with milk and honey, that Israel’s prayers were going to be pleasing to God, that Israel was going to have a means of atonement and God’s forgiveness forever—and that through Israel, all the nations of the world would be blessed.

And what Israel according to the flesh, Jacob and his offspring, failed to do, the Son of God undertook to do. And so God took the evil intentions of Herod who wanted to destroy the beloved Son, and used them to take Joseph to Egypt. There, Joseph became father to the one who was his creator and his elder brother, by taking care of his wife’s son, Jesus. And having been taken to Egypt, Jesus traced the way of the Israelites: from exile in Egypt back to the land of Canaan. There, he grew in Galilee, the land of the people living in darkness, obedient to His earthly parents and to His heavenly Father.

In the fullness of time, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world by taking on the sinners’ baptism of repentance from John the Baptists. He faced the wilderness for forty days, but resisted the temptations of the evil one, repelling Him with the word which both Adam and the people of Israel disregarded to their own peril. Keeping the Law to the end, He strove with God in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking the cup of suffering to be taken from Him, but only if it was the Father’s will. Thus, having been obedient to the point of death, He was crucified and destroyed for all of Israel’s transgressions—and for the sins of the whole world. When the first Israel, Jacob strove with God at the brook of Jabbok, God relented and let Jacob go with His blessing and the new name. When the second Israel, Jesus, strove with God on the cross of Calvary, God did not relent but forsook His obedient Son, so that He might bless all the disobedient sons and daughters of Adam and Israel who had incurred His wrath by their disobedience. Thus, the cross of Christ was set up as the beacon for the world, where those weighed down by sin may leave their fatal burden and find a gracious God, and the crucified Saviour was the priest who brought the light of God’s truth to all the people.

But what has all this to do with you?

Everything. When you were baptised, you were truly Christened: you received the name of Christ and were made a Christian. Your incorporation into Him by the circumcision of the heart in baptism made you a member in Him—a member of Israel. Thus, all the promises of God to Israel throughout all of Scripture are His promises to you. He striven with God for you, so that you need not strive but to rest in His salvation. You have been brought from the Egypt of slavery to sin into the freedom of the Promised Land of God’s Kingdom, where you are not a slave but a son and heir. You, a member of His body, are as beloved as the head. He has defeated Satan, and all of Satan’s accusations and temptations, for you. He is your mighty fortress, to which God has gathered you from among the nations, as we sang in the  Gradual.

In short, יהוה, the Lord, has saved you. Now you are a member of that nation of priests, Israel, called to proclaim the excellences of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. He who has done this, He who has promised all this, is the one who is and stands forever, whose word stands forever. Whatever temptations, anguish, discouragement, persecutions come your way, He will see His promise through as long as you stay in the One who has done all this and who has won the victory for you, Jesus, the Lord who saves.

May God give you His grace in this New Year to enjoy His great gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, seeking His kingdom in the joyful knowledge that all other things will be added to you as well.

In the holy name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.

The extraordinary ordinary

Homily preached at the Lutheran Women’s League of Great Britain Workshop at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
9 November 2013
Text: Romans 16:1‒16; Luke 8:1‒3; 10:38‒42

The lists of names in the final greetings of the New Testament Epistles tend to pass us by in our daily reading. When I first started reading the Bible regularly as a teenager, I was very keen, so I read everything. But after a few years, I began to skip about, to leave out certain bits. And the first thing to go were the lists of names. They just didn’t seem to have any spiritual value, nothing in them for me. Later, at university I learned that they were not entirely without worth: scholars of the New Testament use these lists to cross-reference names in different books to try and get a sense of what was written when, who knew whom, and so forth. Very interesting, if you are into that sort of thing. But still, hardly heart-lifting spiritual edification.

Are you with me?

Well, I hope you are not, because I was just plain wrong. These lists, these names of people about most of whom we know nothing at all except that Paul knew them—they are you and me. Ordinary Christians who were known to the apostle, who had sat in the services where he preached and been members of the churches he had planted. Some of them had served him, or served the churches in various capacities. Others were fellow-preachers, tasked with proclaiming the same apostolic and prophetic message that had been entrusted to the apostles.

Continue reading The extraordinary ordinary

Funeral Homily for Forbes Morris

We mustn’t speak ill of the dead. Sometimes, that’s hard. Not today.

We have come to pay our last respects, and commend to God’s everlasting arms, a person who was truly remarkable. In the past couple of weeks, I have spoken to a good number of people about Forbes—to family members, colleagues, friends, church members—and come away with the impression that no one seems be aware of anyone who knew Forbes who did not like or respect her. It seems that there was precious little ill to speak … with the possible exception of her time-keeping. And even that, to someone with my time-keeping habits, was something that made my life easier and more pleasant, because that made her at least one person who was truly sympathetic to my weakness.

No, Forbes really was remarkable in the way that she attracted the respect, admiration and love of others wherever she went. Her colleagues admired her intelligence, her professionalism and hard work, her utter devotion to the care of her patients, to the way she nurtured younger colleagues, and was unflappable in her support of anyone who needed her support, in a 45-year-career of dedicated service to the NHS. In the church, she was faithful, generous, helpful, kind, tactful, caring and dedicated. She served as treasurer, as chairman, as Sunday School teacher, she provided church music, and together with Paul seemed to run the unofficial church guest house. She came as close as you can get to being declared a saint in the Lutheran church when she agreed to take on the role of treasurer to the whole church body—a demanding role which she performed without grumbling and with her customary competence, thoroughness, tact and dedication. She even took the ELCE’s finances with her on holiday, sitting up in the hotel late into the night poring over e-mails and spreadsheets on her laptop.

And to her family—what could I possibly say that is adequate? Not only Ian and Paul, who might be accused of bias, but their many friends have paid tribute to the Perfect Mum, the mother you would want if you didn’t happen to have one already, the mother you would design if you got to make one in a lab—utterly devoted to the happiness and well-being of her family, and eager to extend that same love to many others who had the fortune of visiting the Morris home, whether briefly or for long stays. To Eleanor and Eloise, to Clare and Annika, to her siblings and their families—to all the family—a heart of love and loving care that cannot be replaced. To Paul, a faithful and kind life’s companion, a stable keel in a long and happy life as a couple and a family. I could go on for a very long time in this vein, yet words fail to express the depth of affection, admiration and love—and the depth of loss—felt by seemingly every life touched by Forbes.

And everywhere that same description: selfless. Focused on the needs of others, careless with her own time and energy for the sake of others, at home, at church, at work. A model of self-sacrificial service to others, whether by sewing buttons or making birthday cakes, doing chores or operating the church music laptop, getting down on the floor with holiday club children or doing accounts, making patient care plans or listening to colleagues in their time of need.

Yet most striking for someone of such noble character—there is no better word for it—was her self-effacing modesty. It’s utterly telling that it wasn’t until they found the tell-tale glass trophy in a box inside a box only last week, that Ian and Paul learned of Forbes’ award for excellence from the Chief Executive of the NHS Trust—one of several accolades, and of well-kept secrets. The fact is that whichever sphere she operated in—family and friends, work, church—she was deeply appreciated, but people in one sphere would know very little about her life in the others, not only because she was a private person but because she was never one to blow her own trumpet. No matter how great the kindness shown, or the effort made, for others, she would just say with a smile, “Oh, that’s all right”, and move on. We call her modest precisely because there was so much to commend her.

It’s partly because of that modesty that, as we all know, Forbes wouldn’t enjoy these words, this focus on her and her qualities, one bit. They would make her very uncomfortable indeed, and might even have cracked her serene exterior.

But it’s not mere modesty that would have done that, but a genuine humility. I don’t know how many of you ever said to Forbes, “Oh, Forbes, you are so lovely, or so kind, or so good.” I know that people did say such things to her, and that the answer tended to be the same every time: “Oh, no I’m not.” And as odd as it may sound, after all I have said so far, and with all the memories each one of us has, that wasn’t false modesty. In genuine humility, she meant it, and she was ultimately right. In the words of the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, “It is a truism of the Christian life that the most saintly are the most conscious of sin.”

For many of us, both those of us who share her Christian faith and those who do not, the strength and depth of her Christian faith was remarkable. Even in the darkest times, at the time of her diagnosis last October, in the throes of the terrible, debilitating treatments she endured, and in the last few days in hospital after the penultimate, near-fatal hæmorrhage as she waited for the final, fatal one to strike, Forbes’ faith in the goodness of God and of the good heritage prepared for her by her Saviour Jesus Christ never wavered. She lived the words of the Psalm we just sang, “Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale // Yet will I fear no ill; // For Thou art with me and Thy rod // And staff my comfort still.” Even as she lay dying, in discomfort and experiencing all the ugliness of that final enemy, there was no fear—because there was no uncertainty as to where that dreaded portal would lead her: to the promised rest of those who sleep in the life-giving wounds of Jesus. This faith was a gift of God, but it was a gift she cherished and cultivated by faithful reception of God’s word and sacrament in church and Bible study, a diligent study of God’s word in her daily life, and a life of prayer. In this, too, she has left us an example to follow and emulate.

And the root of Forbes’ faith, and of all true Christian faith, was her recognition of her own sin. Some of the last words I heard Forbes speak from her hospital bed were the words of the confession of sin: “O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.” She knew, both from God’s word and from personal experience, that however selfless, giving, diligent and kind she was, she was still a sinful member of a fallen human race, in need of God’s forgiveness by the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Her trust and confidence before God’s judgement were not based on her own character or deeds, but on the fact that she had had her sins washed away. All her remarkable attributes were not her ticket to heaven—they were God’s gift to all of us. She was God’s gift to us, above all as an example of faith, hope and charity, with all of which God had endowed her to a remarkable degree.

Now that Forbes is no longer with us, we no longer have those gifts to enjoy—though we have many beautiful memories to treasure and to hold up to ourselves as examples. But neither does she need anymore. She no longer has faith—for her faith in God’s promises has turned into seeing, as she sleeps in the arms of the Saviour to await the resurrection of the dead. She no longer lives in hope—for her hope has been turned into fulfilment, as she rests beyond the clutches of sin, death and the devil. Only one thing remains: charity. She now lives in full enjoyment of the love of God, and is able for the first time to love perfectly as she herself is perfectly loved. We might not be able to imagine how you could have improved Forbes—but that is precisely what God has now done by releasing her from death’s dark vale, and removed every stain of sin from her.

And so it remains for us to give thanks to God for this beautiful, wonderful gift of a life lived in service of others that He gave us in our dear Forbes. But she would want us to do more than that—and again, for reasons greater than mere modesty. Forbes loved her family, her friends, her work, her colleagues and patients. But above all, she loved her Saviour who had loved her and given His life for her. Her life was not her own, but it was the life of Christ in her—which could not but flow out in munificent love towards others. She loved you, she loved us—and that love was poured into prayers for those whom she loved, most of all the prayer that that love would not die with us or remain a mere memory, but continue into all eternity. Dear friends, just as you want to see Forbes again, Forbes wants to see you again! Her dying wish was to be reunited with her loved ones. That is her will for you—and that is God’s will for you!

This is why she chose the readings we heard read a moment ago: she placed her trust in the way, the truth, and the life, even Jesus Christ, knowing that through faith in Him, the way to the Father and to eternal life was open to her and to all who believe in Him. And where she has gone, she wants you to follow, by imitating her in her faith in that faithful Lord. Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord, that for Forbes, death has been swallowed up in victory and it can no longer sting her. May God give us grace that we too be given steadfastness in faith, so that one day we will be reunited with Forbes, and together with her and all the saints who have gone before us, we may enjoy the joys of God’s unending love to all eternity.

Let us pray.

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end. Amen.
(A prayer of John Donne)

The Holy Spirit in Context

A sermon preached on Exaudi, 12 May 2013, at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham
Text: John 15:26—16:4
A recording of the sermon is available here.
What follows below is unedited, typos and all.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the name of ✠ Jesus.

But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.

Throughout the Church’s history, there have been approaches to putting together the lectionary, the sequence of readings from one service to another. Often in the early church, they used a continuous lectionary: one one Sunday, the preacher would expound a part of a book of the Bible, and the following Sunday he would simply carry on from where he left off, until he got to the end of the book and start on another book.

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Quick to hear, slow to speak

Sermon on Cantate—28 April 2013
Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, and Oxford Lutheran Mission
Text: James 1:16–21
A recording of the sermon from Our Saviour, Fareham, is available here.

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In the holy name of ✠ Jesus.

Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

What starts as a piece of common-sense advice on good manners and a constructive attitude to conversation—essentially: speech is silver, silence is golden—very quickly turns to something a whole lot more serious. St. James, the brother of the Lord Jesus, is not writing a letter to the Christians of Asia Minor in order to improve their social skills or make them better learners. What he has in view is nothing less than the righteousness of God.

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