Jesus said, ‘Take all this out of here
and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.’ (2:16)
Being a priest I often hear belittling comments about church worship. There is the timeless “I don’t need to go to church to speak God, I can do it from home”; or again “I don’t go to church because I don’t like x, or y, or z…” This last one is, in my opinion, the best one of all because it crosses boundaries between every Christian denomination. So, this morning I would like you to take a few minutes reflect the attitude we ourselves have towards worship, church buildings, and religion in general. As we do this, John’s gospel presents us with the story of Jesus clearing the temple – a well-known episode in which Jesus gets angry and starts to teach the crowds by using a whip rather than his words. In this reading there are three aspects about Jesus’ attitude towards sacred places, worship, and religion which we would do well to imitate ourselves.
First, we are told that Jesus travels to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and once there he enters the temple. Jesus is God-with-us, God-made-flesh, yet he longs to be in that holy place, as if he was incarnating the words of Psalm 84, ‘My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord’ (Ps 84:2). Jesus burns with holy enthusiasm for that sacred space. Isn’t this bit of a far cry from the apathy many Christians feel towards church buildings?
Then, Jesus speaks of the temple as his ‘Father’s house’ (2:16), the house where Jewish people believed God dwelled among his people from one generation to another. The ‘Father’s house’. How many times Christians employ possessive language about churches saying “my” church, or “their” church, but rarely ‘God’s house’ or the ‘Father’s house’?
Finally, we see that Jesus does something we might not expect. He does not dismiss the temple and its worship; instead he compares it his own body (cf. 2:19). How many self-professed Christians stay away from churches because what goes on inside is not their “cup of tea”, rather than seeing buildings such as these as physical representation of what it means to be Church?
In this text Jesus shows what we might think as un-Jesus-like emotions such as anger and strong disappointment towards the people in the temple. But, looking closely, Jesus drives out of the temple only certain types of people and not others. He drives out neither the worshippers – who bought the animals sold on the market stalls – nor the priests – who offered the sacrifices. In other words, Jesus does not cast out of the Temple those who, like him, used that sacred space for its appointed purposes – for worship and for encountering God. Instead, rather tellingly, Jesus drives out those who use religion in order to pursue personal gain, and are rather cynical about the spiritual significance of the Temple In other words, Jesus casts out those who use religion, worship, and holy places like parasites. For example, Jesus throws out the money changers and overturns their tables because of the corruption that underlined the business of converting different currencies into Temple money. Jesus drives out the animal stock not to put a stop to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant but because by buying them worshippers were encouraged to become lazy, to spare themselves the trouble of bringing a genuine offering, something truly valued, from their own homes. Come to think of it, as well as corruption and personal gain, is it possible that Jesus is casting out “lazy worship”, I wonder?
The story of the clearing of the Temple should make us think of the people driven out by Jesus in a much broader sense. It should remind us as of those who misuse religion and church buildings for other purposes besides worship and the sustainment of the Church. It is in this sense that St Augustine, in interpreting John 2, says ‘Those who sell in Church are those who seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ.’ Then, how do we make use of these things?
Our religion, our worship, and our churches are all incredible gifts of grace through which the world can encounter God more readily and build a stable relationship with him. To misuse of this grace in order to be fickle Christians or to pursue personal gains are great sins. So this Lent, let us examine closely how we look at our churches and our worship. Let us God for true repentance and for forgiveness for all the times we have misused of these gifts and we have behaved like parasites of the Temple, so that we may learn again to selflessly put the liturgical worship of God and the service of others before any other pursuit.
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.
‘A light to enlighten the pagans
and the glory of your people Israel.’ (Luke 2:31-32)
Last week during the notices I made a passing comment on how many traditions the Church treasured for centuries have been thrown away like the baby with the proverbial bath water. This streamlining of traditions can sometimes be a positive thing, but more often than not it has been prompted by a misguided belief that progress has made certain things redundant. Even the today’s feast has undergone drastic changes. Although it is still nicknamed Candlemas, many of the ceremonies have gone and this celebration has been completely rebranded to reflect a shift in people’s perceptions of childbearing, and to put more emphasis on the Lord Jesus, who – though an infant – is at the very centre of the gospel reading. Slightly older members of our congregation might remember Candlemas being called “The Purification of the Virgin Mary”, but today it is called “The Presentation of the Lord to the Temple”. Back then the Feast of the Purification went hand-in-hand with something called “the Churching of Women”, a service at which mothers were blessed after giving birth and formally readmitted into the liturgical life of the Church. But now, the Churching of Women has been largely discontinued by most Christian denominations, and so has the ancient name of this Feast. Back then the Feast of the Purification was a special festival in honour of our Lady; but now our attention is drawn especially towards her Son who enters in his own Temple at Jerusalem as God-made-flesh for the first time. Reflecting the gospel reading, now our Lord is at the centre of Candlemas; and he is once more the reason for our celebration. The old focus of Candlemas was Mary and Joseph coming to the Temple to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish Law. Now the liturgy calls us to look upon the infant Jesus with the eyes of Anna and Simeon, and to see in him light and salvation.
One ancient tradition, however, survives; the blessing of candles. About one thousand years ago Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching on this feast said of these candles,
‘The wax which is the product of the virginal bee, is the Flesh of our Lord; the wick, which is within, is His Soul; the flame, which burns on top, is His divine nature.’
And a few moments ago, we were holding the same lit candles, the same symbol of Christ, like the people in Anselm’s congregation did, and like countless generations of Christians before them. One of the reasons for the enduring popularity of this tradition is found in our gospel reading where Simeon describes Jesus as ‘a light to enlighten the pagans’ meaning that, through Jesus, God is revealed to all, not just God’s ancient people. Through him – our Emmanuel, God-with-us – no-one is barred, and in him everyone is given access to God. Then, Simeon also says that the Jesus has come ‘so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare’; meaning that, in his brightness, the Lord is able to bring to light our innermost thoughts, even those things we hide from ourselves. So our candles are visible tokens of the spiritual enlightenment Jesus brings. They remind us that for us nothing should be more vital than the light of Christ; that we must learn to rely on his light while we journey on, rather than our sense of direction; and that we should follow the road that Christ illuminates for us until we reach our home.
Traditions may come and go. A few may be discontinued for good reasons; others may just fall out of fashion only to be revived later on. But what remains of Candlemas has survived unchanged because it is a practical representation of Christ – the light at the centre of our celebration and, more importantly, the light that must shine at the centre of our hearts.
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.
‘…falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Matthew 2:11)
The story of the Magi has captured the imagination of countless generations of Christians, and why wouldn’t it? The Wise Men appear mysteriously on the scene lead by a star; they turn up to the house of the Holy Family unannounced; they bring with them precious gifts, they worship Jesus as Saviour and God, and then they leave as quickly as they arrived… Rivers of ink have been spilled about these star-gazers from the East, and there is so much we could talk about after reading their story. But perhaps the most important thing we can do this morning is to travel in spirit to Bethlehem with the Magi, and to learn something about worship from the way in which they greet the Christ-child and the gifts they bring. We read that the Magi ‘fell to their knees’ – or as the Greek text puts it, they prostrated themselves before the Christ-child. This is the way people acknowledged the presence of God in ancient times, and the way in which followers of other religions still worship now. Yet, we seem to suffer with stiff knees, don’t we? And when we cannot avoid kneeling we do so begrudgingly. Yet, the Wise Men teach us that kneeling in prayer and greeting the Lord is this way is an act of devotion, of love, which – if we are able – we should imitate.
The Magi offered gold. Tradition associates this gift with the Kingship of Christ, because in ancient times only rulers and members of royal households could afford to wear gold, and only the palaces of kings or the temples of the gods could be decorated with it. But there is more. Gold was also a currency – as it still is today, and in offering it to Jesus the Magi offered financial support to the Holy Family who found themselves far from Nazareth, and on the brink of a perilous journey into Egypt. It is as if by worshipping Jesus with gifts of gold, the Wise Men were the first to put into practice the commands Jesus will give to assist those in difficulty. Likewise, the gifts we ourselves offer to the Lord – both to make his house a beautiful and resplendent place fit for the King, and to lift the poor out of misery – are an essential part of the Christian life. And the Wise Men teach us that giving is an important aspect of the way we worship God.
The Magi offered frankincense. Tradition associates this gift with the Divinity of Christ, because in ancient times incense was offered only to the gods. In the Jerusalem Temple an altar was dedicated to this purpose alone, and in the house of Bethlehem the Magi offer incense to the Christ-child, to our God-made-flesh. Likewise, the incense we offer in this place (and more generally the beauty and the ritual of our liturgy) is part of the Christian life.
The Magi offered myrrh. Tradition associates this gift with the Passion and Death of Christ, because in ancient times myrrh was often used to preserve the body from the effects of death and stay its decay. And in this sense it is a gift we cannot offer to the Lord anymore, because he has risen from the dead and death does not have power over him. But there is another meaning behind this gift. Myrrh was mixed with oil for anointing and consecration, so through their gift the Magi honoured the Lord Jesus as the Eternal High Priest who sacrificed himself for us. We too have been anointed with oil mixed with perfume at our Baptism and Confirmation, then – like myrrh – our life are ought to be a fragrant gift to God through the Lord Jesus
‘…falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Matthew 2:11)
We may not be able to follow a star to Bethlehem like that Magi, but every time we approach the altar we too come into the presence of the Lord Jesus, so our worship and love of him should be inspired by theirs. These mysterious travellers teach us that the worship of Christ is something beautiful and all-encompassing; including our emotions, our senses, our posture, and our possessions. Or as a Passiontide hymn puts it,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
‘What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ (Mark 13:37)
In our society New Years’ celebrations are usually quite cheerful affairs, sometimes featuring a staggering amount of food, drink, and fireworks; all of this in order to break as much as possible with the old, and usher in the new. And once the partying ceases, we make improbable New Year resolutions wishing to become that new person who is as different as possible from our old self.
Then, perhaps, we might find it odd that the new Christian year opens by repeating the gospel message we have been hearing for some time now. Last week the Feast of Christ the King brought the Sunday cycle of the Christian year to an end with the reminder of Jesus sure return as Lord and Judge of all creation. But as today we officially begin a new liturgical year, Mark’ short parable – about the man travelling abroad who leaves his servants in charge of his household – takes us back, not only to last week, but also to a number of other parables we have read recently. And it’s meaning, like that of all those previous parables, is quite clear; when we will find ourselves face to face with Jesus, he will judge each one of us according to our deeds; according to our trustworthiness and commitment to him. But, perhaps, we may find it even more surprising that the new Christian year should open with sombre notes and reduced singing, rather than with a loud bang and cheerful noise. In this, Advent looks a little bit like Lent. Both Advent and Lent are marked by a pressing call to prepare ourselves for that which it to come. Both of these seasons are defined by the colour purple (or violet), the colour of penitence, introspection, and repentance; and the singing of the Gloria, like the flowers that usually adorn our church get put away. So much for New Year cheerfulness!
Even the Scripture readings set before us are geared up, not so much towards the joy of Christmas, but rather towards the more sobering thought of being confronted by our faults.
This morning the prophet Isaiah holds up a mirror to us all, and gives us a talking to, as it were.
‘We were all like unclean people,
- all that integrity of ours like filthy clothing.
We have all withered like leaves
and our sins, like the wind, have carried us away.’ (Isaiah 64:6)
And Jesus then says,
‘What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’ (Mark 13:37)
This combined message is simple enough and yet difficult to hear at a time when we are all so busy with shopping, parties, and making everything just perfect in time for Christmas. Nevertheless, Advent calls us to assess candidly the state of our society so that we might wake up from injustice, consumerism, and selfish behaviours to prepare our world for the coming of Jesus, and so be found ready to meet him when he will come to us as our judge. We must stay awake in a spiritual sense, so that through prayer and good works, we may be prevented from sleepwalking into the hidden snares of vice.
The collect from the BCP for this season helps us to put the Advent message into prayer…
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness
and to put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
that on the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.
Jesus says, ‘you have only one master, and you are all brothers.’ (Matt 23:8)
The Bible texts we have just read, with their references to priesthood and teaching ministry, are sadly not the texts used at ordinations within the Church of England. Maybe this is a missed opportunity for checking, at the eleventh hour, that the candidates standing before the bishop truly understand what they are letting themselves in for. But I suspect that introducing these texts might also lead to an increase in the numbers of last-minute drop outs.
In today’s gospel, we see Jesus criticising once again the religious elite of his time as we have seen him doing many times already in the last few weeks. These people, and especially the scribes, were considered the official interprets of the Law, of the Scriptures, and because of this they could claim for themselves position of power in Jewish society, the respect and admiration of everyone, and they could also express judgment – often harsh judgment – on the morality of others. And so the Lord reproaches them because they exalted themselves above fellow Israelites, because they themselves failed to live up to the high standard they set for others, and because through their strict teachings they caused people to stumble in their faith (cf. Mal 2:8). The Church too does not have good track record on this issue. History records countless times when individuals charged with the governance of God’s people have abused their positions of authority, promoted moral double-standards, and failed to care for the flock of Christ. So both the Lord’s criticism to the scribes and Pharisees, and the prophecy of Malachi in our first reading, still ring true today.
Yet, the Lord’s teaching is not directed to the scribes and Pharisees, or priests and theologians, alone; it is aimed to all his disciples and the crowds as well. This is because the point Jesus is trying to put across is not a subversive message against the entire religious establishment, but against those who misuse religion for personal gain, to acquire for themselves moral high ground in every situation, and to conquer the respect of others. The point Jesus wants to understand is this ‘you have only one master, and you are all brothers’ (Matt 23:8). If we excuse the gender exclusive language, Jesus is saying that we are all equal before him, and all equal before the Father in heaven. Jesus does recognise that there are people called by God to positions of authority and by saying, ‘You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say’ (Matt 23) he invites everyone to respect their ministry and, if possible, to learn from them – even when these prove themselves to be wanting in the way they lead their lives.
Within our Christian family there are those who have special responsibility, people entrusted with a duty of care, but this does not change the fact that we are all fundamentally siblings – beloved children of God by adoption whom the Father sees as equal members of the body of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. In this sense, when Jesus commands us to call no-one father or teacher he wants us to reflect on what those titles mean. This is not a blanket ban on using the words “father” and “teacher”. Jesus is not saying that to call a priest Father is wrong, like many evangelicals would have us believe. In ancient times fathers had the ultimate say in everything – even life or death – for everyone in their household, they could even sell off their children. Teachers too could be harsh masters of their pupils. So Jesus says, no-one but God should have this level of authority over anyone of us, because we are all brothers.
The words of the liturgy help us understand this better. However we refer to our priests in terms of titles – Father, Reverend, Mother, Vicar – at the moment in which the offerings of bread and wine are placed upon the altar, the celebrant says, ‘Pray, my brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father’. As the liturgy of the sacrament enters into its most profound part, the balance between congregation and priest, the balance among the people of God, is redressed to highlight the fact that actually “we are all brothers and sisters” before God the Father.
The ground-breaking teaching of today’s gospel is not “don’t call anyone father or teacher” but is ‘you are all brothers and sisters’ before God. And, as our society appears to become more and more fragmented, more and more divided by the partisan language of “us” and “them”, the Lord’s commands us to rediscover what it means to be part of the same family, the same household of God.
‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’, says the Lord,
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.’ John 6:55-56
On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday the Church of England keeps the ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ and this is the solemnity we celebrate transferred to today under the more common name of Corpus Christi.
Churches in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England tend to stand out a little bit more than the others during this feast; but while it would be easy to think that this is all down to the solemnity of our liturgy, or the ancient customs that we observe today, the thing that make churches like ours to stand out is, in fact, the faith and devotion that should inspire our celebration. In other words, what should motivates us to pull out all the stops for this feast is the fact that today we make the point to reaffirm our belief in the most precious of all the gifts we have ever received from the Lord Jesus; the gift of his own very self – body, blood, soul, and divinity – under the simple and very ordinary forms of bread and wine. Faith in what is called the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is what makes us stand out today from others Christian communities where the Eucharist is considered a disposable add-on to the faith.
But in today’s gospel we hear how a number people at the time of Jesus were already uncomfortable and sceptic about this teaching, and how some of them were even scandalised by it, and because of it they stopped following the Lord.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they said (John 6:52). A legitimate question from non-believers that prompted Jesus to affirm many times how his own body and blood are true nourishment from those who receive them, and the principal means of union with him. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them’ (John 6: 56), say Jesus, and the Lord’s own word, should be enough for us.
Again, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, although we cannot see him face to face in this present age, he is always going to be with us. And the Church has come to interpret his words to be a promise that the Lord is indeed always with us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.
In the Blessed Sacrament, in the Host we place on the altar after Mass Jesus truly dwells with us; his silent and unassuming presence brings comfort and healing to those who approach him; his humble self-giving to us under the appearance of Bread teaches us to give ourselves for others… A traditional hymn says, ‘Thou art here, we ask not how’ and yes, although we cannot fully contemplate or express this mystery, I do hope that those who took part in the 40 Hours of Prayer two weeks ago, managed to experience what it means to spend time in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The past weeks have borne witness to a considerable number of needless tragedies culminating with the harrowing disaster of Grenfell Tower in the last few days. Confronted by these events, where it seems that it always the poor or innocent people to pay the highest price, it would be easy to despair, to lose heart, or worse, to let sorrow fester into violent anger. But as we sit in this place we should remind ourselves of the words of a beautiful hymn about the Eucharist,
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
Here, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is the very place where the Lord wants us to be so that by feeding on him and adoring his presence among us, we may go out and be strengthened to work in diffusing anger, striving for justice, begging for mercy, fostering love, and bring the life and peace of this Sacrament to a suffering world.
Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us
in the sacrament of your Body and Blood.
May we offer to our Father in heaven
a solemn pledge of undivided love.
May we offer our brothers and sisters
a life poured out in loving service of your kingdom
where you live with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.