Christmas Day

Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Christmas Day, Monday 25th December 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger

Lying in bed as a child being read to by my dad, usually the latest Roald Dahl story – is certainly one of my early memories. Stories, it seems, were easier to hear back then when the boundary between real and imaginary was less clear, when the world in my head interacted more openly with the world out there.

One of the cruelties of adulthood is the removal of story from that central position, the relegating of the things of the heart, the things of the imagination to a secondary place. It’s a process, maybe necessary in some ways but also destructive. With the teenage years can come a ‘grown-up’ perspective where story becomes something less than real.

As a teenager I disliked Luke’s soppy story of the birth of Jesus with its shepherds and stable and sheep. I had ‘grown up’ sufficiently to know that it was all just a fantasy, an invention that took place in Luke’s head alone.

Thankfully as I get older I find I can creep back into Luke’s story, peer round the corner of my scepticism into that back yard stable and maybe glimpse something that I never saw before.

Lancelot Andrewes in his 1618 sermon for the feast of the nativity calls the manger in which Christ was born a cratch – in fact its an old Middle English word for a feeding trough or rack for animals and it comes from the Old French Creche.

Andrewes writes:

We may as well begin with Christ in the cratch; we must end with Christ on the cross. The cratch is a sign of the cross… The scandal of the cratch is a good preparative to the scandal of the cross

The beauty of these lines is the powerful link they make between the manger and the cross. The story of Jesus can move us, can transform us but it is when we see the bigger story that our life is changed. When we allow ourselves to hear the story from the cratch to the cross.

Sometimes when we know stories well it can be difficult for us to hear them again, as if for the first time. I am sure all of us have had that experience of seeing a play again after many years have passed or reading a book for a second time that we first read decades ago only to find that the story disappoints or that it hits us like a whirlwind and seems to transform everything. I am not good at returning to novels, but when I have done it often seems like a different book!

Some people are keen to distinguish between nostalgia and the deep longing for a lost innocence – but I am not sure I can always tell the difference. However we are richly blessed by God when he gives us the grace to see this story of the birth of Jesus again, as we first saw it, to rekindle, as it were, our first love.

The word “manger” seems to have lost all its dirt and horror, the word cratch is maybe too niche, and beasts feeding trough sounds too utilitarian. But whatever it is, it holds on this holy night of story, the son of God. It is the sign that the angels have given to the shepherds, a sign that speaks of great humility. Would that we could be overtaken by such humility ourselves this Christmastide.

The profound humility of the manger is a story we can never tire of hearing but it is also a story about love. To quote Andrewes again:

The cratch is the cradle of his love, no less than of his humility, and able to provoke our love again”. How does this story of God coming to us in the Christ child, provoke your love?

The Greek Philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics insists that in certain expressions form and matter are indissoluble, that the transformative power of story and the meaning of the story are grasped through the story itself.

Which is a posh way of saying; ‘read the story dummy – its all there’. God appears to us in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by the beasts of the field.

Luke’s angels and shepherds, his stable and Christ lying in a manger is just a story, the stuff of childhood make believe. By God’s grace may it be a story that leads us from the cratch to the cross and beyond, a story that provokes our love and helps us to see once again the son of God lying in a manger.


Sermons Uncategorized

Midnight Mass

Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Midnight Mass, Sunday 24th December 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie

I can still remember sitting in a Coventry classroom being told about Forster’s novel Howards End. Only…connect’ my lovely English teacher would say gently touching her hands together. I was glued to the BBC version which begins, like the novel with the delivery of a letter. In this novel Words are very important but also how they are communicated.

Our Midnight Mass order of service could also have printed on its cover the words ‘Only Connect’ because we come here at the dead of night to celebrate the mystery of the incarnation, the Word made flesh. God seeking connection with his creation.

When I first arrived in the parish two years a go I delighted in telling people I was the new Adam. The last Vicar was called Adam but ‘the second Adam’ or the ‘new Adam’ is a title for Jesus. God becoming Man in Jesus. The title ‘second Adam’ reminds us that Jesus doesn’t appear out of nowhere. As the 17th century Divine Richard Hooker writes:

“All things which God… hath brought forth were eternally and before all times in God… Therefore whatever we do behold now in this present world, it was enwrapped within the bowels of divine mercy, written in the book of eternal wisdom…” (Bk 5. 56)

The world around us, the created order, our loved ones, our communities, trees, sky, land and sea – all of this is at root of God. But our failure to recognise this, to see God in the world around us has led to a disconnect between us and creation. We live selfishly for ourselves forgetting the poor, the needy, nations torn apart by war and forgetting our place as participants in creation rather than its rulers.

Christmas is the celebration of God redeeming creation through creation. God comes into creation as a human person, showing us the path to a renewed creation.

This Christmas, let’s hold on to the inherent goodness of the created order, hold onto the divine mercy which infuses every part of creation. Did any of you see Judi Dench’s amazing programme about trees? I only caught a bit of it but she seemed to have named all the trees in her garden – maybe after departed loved ones, but she also spoke to a succession of ‘tree experts’ who revealed to her the incredible way in which trees communicate with other trees and with the world around them – changing the taste of their leaves when under attack or sending off clouds of dust to attract or repel. The most amazing thing was the network of fungi on the roots of trees which allows them to communicate underground. The planet in all its diversity is talking to itself in numerous ways we are yet to understand – created through the word of God, those words are still reverberating.

Some Christians get very taken up with the notion that God had to send Jesus because we had messed up the world with sin. While this may be so there is a Franciscan tradition that Jesus was always coming, that this birth carries with it not primarily a note of admonishment but primarily a desire to connect, an opening to joy, to divine sharing.

And just as Jesus was always coming to be with us, so the work of the incarnation continues as the love of God is realised in our living and our connecting. Jesus Christ is not a sign pointing beyond himself to an angry God, he is himself the indivisible God/man, he is the reality he signifies.

I was talking to someone a few months back about my spiritual life and she said something along the lines of – ‘Phil, you are always like water, flowing out, on the move but you need also to remember to be more tree like, to remind yourself of your rootedness‘.

In so much of our lives we can be so taken up with the flow of life that we fail to remember our rootedness. God becoming human in Jesus is not just another event in the endless flow of events which pass us by, another thing to pick up on the way to fulfilled living. It is the calling to a new rootedness in the divine life of the creator God. A rootedness that demands a new connection with the earth in all its variety and diversity.

As Margaret declares in Howards End:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect…

And from our Gospel tonight:

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have see his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.






Lamp Three: Conversation with other Faiths


Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Trinity 19, Sunday 22nd October 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie

I went to see the film ‘Victoria and Abdul’ this week. A film about Victoria’s friendship in the last years of her life with a Muslim called Abdul. The great power of the film lies in its critique of the arrogance and violence of the British Empire. By creating a real friendship and empathy between Queen Victoria and Abdul a link is created between Victoria and the Islamic faith. Where the film fails in my view, is in its air brushing out of any valid Christian spirituality or presence in Queen Victoria’s life. The Church of England gets one mention as part of the colonialist hierarchy, never a source of spiritual comfort. When Abdul is present at Victoria’s deathbed he quotes Rumi but there are no Christians to be seen. The film doesn’t pretend to historical accuracy but to me it is typical of our recent love affair in the West with the spirituality of other faiths.

Today we come to the third of our 7 lamps – Christ at our heart, Health and Healing and today Inter-faith dialogue. We live amidst the diversity of multi-faith East Oxford, this is part of our calling and our vocation as Christians in this place.

At this weeks School Governors meeting the head teacher asked if we could take the phrase ‘Community cohesion’ out of a document. It sounded out of date, community cohesion was, so she said, a Blairite phrase, we changed it to ‘Equal opportunities’. The discussion reminded me of the 90s where a new generation of the Left in Manchester wanted to do away with multi-culturalism and replace it with anti-racist. My only reflection on all this is that community cohesion and Multi-culturalism were attempts to speak about the whole not just to protect the parts. One thing my Christian tradition tells me it that however difficult it is we shouldn’t just speak up for all the different sections of the community we should also try, challenging as it is, to speak to and embrace the whole community.

The secular world view, also so important to this part of Oxford sees Religion as, at best something for the personal consumption of those who like that sort of thing, not part of the discussion about the whole community.

For me the question of what it means to be Christian and yet live in community with Islam here in East Oxford. Dialogue has to be something which we engage in but how can we also proclaim the love that we believe is revealed in Jesus?

This debate between Dialogue and proclamation has been at the heart of Christian disagreement about inter-faith conversations for years, With Conservative Christians focusing on Proclaiming the Gospel and Liberals on dialogue and conversation.

Last year on an inter faith course I had to get a taxi in Birmingham – one of those days when I wish I didn’t go round in a dog collar. The Muslim man who picked me up gave me a 20-minute lecture on Islam. He questioned the legitimacy of the Christian Bible in comparison to the certainty of Islam and the Koran. Unsure how to respond to this deluge which was very much one sided I interrupted “What is the best thing about being a Muslim?” and he spoke for the first time in a more heartfelt way about the Brotherhood and about care for each other including all their brothers in Syria. This man didn’t want a dialogue, he wanted a ‘my faith is better than yours’ conversation. I had to step back and engage in a slightly different way. But what the encounter taught me is that, like my evangelical Christian friends, there are many Muslims who want to prove that they are right and I am wrong.

In the Church of England primary school that the taxi man took me to the head told me that they had unashamedly Christian Collective worship in their 90% Muslim school. No provision for Halal either just vegetarian or meat. I still want to say that I am more dialogue than proclamation but I also think this is a ridiculous division. When are we going to realise that multi-faith consciousness is not just a potpourri of everything, it is a willingness to be in conversation with the Other, if you like with the Jesus we find in Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism. We are not a hermetically sealed Christian identity, the self is a fluid thing which is touched and influenced by all sorts of spiritual and religious experiences.

But we need to start with the riches of our Christian Tradition. This is where God put us, where we found God or he found us – in the church, even if you’re only holding on by your fingertips!

In the 21st century there has been a move amongst some Christian inter faith thinkers to begin not with texts – ‘my book is better you’re your book’ or ‘lets compare my text with your text’ but to return to the Christian monastic virtues of humility, empathy and hospitality – its an approach which sits well with our position here in Benson’s church on the Cowley Road.

Empathy is explicitly dynamic, it is disempowering and decentring. It is not that empathy is the only answer, all these debates are hugely complex but rather than it begins the process of entering the place of dialogue with other faiths.

Being pro-active in our understanding of this multi-faith community means that we also inform ourselves and become more empathetic to other situations. The Rohingya are a mostly Muslim ethnic group, who have lived for centuries in the majority Buddhist Myanmar. Currently, there are about 1.1 million Rohingya but hundreds of thousands of them are being displaced. The BBC doesn’t always show us the whole picture. One of the cleaning staff at Paula’s school showed her horrific pictures of Muslims killed in Myanmar. These things might feel like they happen far away but they are having a direct effect on the emotional lives of our next door neighbours. Why aren’t we talking more?

We need to step back from a religious debate which sometimes feels sterile or stuck and re-engage in a different way. That’s exactly what Jesus does in today’s Gospel when the Pharisees try to trick him into either being pro Cesar or pro rebellion in the question of paying taxes – he side steps the question. He avoids the binary opposites and affirms a practical position.  Sometimes I need to step back from my own passions, angers and disillusionments in order to really hear what is being said to me.

The great Jesuit Jacques Dupuis claims that: the Christ event does “not exhaust the power of the Word of God who became flesh in Jesus” (p.319 TCTP). The power of the Word of God exists beyond its revelation in Jesus.

Dupuis seems to suggest that people in other religions can be saved, can know God, can have penetrating experiences of the divine. Now this isn’t news to me and it probably isn’t news to you but it does lead us to ask what does it mean to be Christian in this multi-faith context?

And there are people who want us to give answers that are oppositional and divisive, just look at todays Gospel. But when we move powerfully to the depths of our own tradition in prayer and contemplation so that we can inhabit the space of our faith then we can engage openly with the many gifts that other faith have to offer us. Empathy, humility, hospitality are the gifts of the Western Monastic tradition that can guide us. The Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff once wrote:


Lamp Two – Health and Healing (Mental Health Sunday)

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Sermon preached at St Mary and St John Church, Trinity 18, Sunday 15th October 2017, by Fr Phil Ritchie

Sermon for Mental Health Sunday

Last Sunday we began a conversation looking at 7 lamps, 7 themes about our life together. We have spoken about Jesus as the word of Life who revealed God to us through his death on the cross and his resurrection. This week we turn to our 2nd lamp – health and healing, we are also marking world Mental health day which took place earlier this week. In this city, together with St. Michaels in Summertown, we are one of two Beacon churches seeking to explore how the Christian community can support the promotion of mental health for all and support those living through periods of mental health distress.

On Tuesday we marked world Mental Health day with a wonderful celebration of the Arts and crafts, a day when people from all over the city came to the Benson hall to demonstrate our solidarity with all dealing with mental health issues. Organised by Alice and her team is was a wonderful picture of what the community of the church can achieve with and alongside the wider community of people beyond these walls. In many ways the warmth, the humour, the caring and the camaraderie of the day reflected what we might believe to be a true understanding of what the community of the church might look like. The Beatitudes, which we have just heard, in a similar way, give us a little snapshot of what Christian community might look like. They sometimes speak to people like a kind of social justice manifesto but they are far more than this, they give us a picture of what Jesus is like, and call us into a deeper communion, to be a community which explores what it means to care for our neighbour, to be alongside those in distress. And further down the path they might help those in the midst of mental health issues to imagine what recovery might look like, what healing might look like and what it means to be on a common journey of discovery.

It seems to me that one of the great discoveries of recent times has been that mental health issues are a part of everyday life. Many people have known this truth for years, but now more and more people are coming to accept it: in any one year about 1 in 4 people will experience at least one diagnosable mental health issue and by 2030 the World Health Organisation forecasts that depression will be the single leading cause of the global burden of disease. But there is still a huge stigma around mental health and speaking about it, as we are doing today, is one way to challenge this stigma.

There are so many things I could talk about but one thing we wanted to focus on is hearing from the real experiences of people, so I want to begin with some quotes from the diary of someone experiencing what is called ‘clinical depression’. What this person writes is not a manual of what to do or what to think, it is the record of how someone felt, what they thought and, like the beatitudes, it’s a text which can help to point us towards being better neighbours, better listeners:

“When you feel bad you feel sad towards others and it reflects in them…cheerful because cheerful, glum because glum

And then the next day:

Not looking forward to the day

Thinking of the future a lot…(Bleak)

Not feeling better

Went shopping

Everyone miserable

Didn’t eat lunch

Now had some cereal

Feeling depressed

How long will this last

Don’t love myself

Don’t feel anyone really cares much

Don’t want hospital treatment – I am a survivor

Others say they are but this is real survival

Have written to say I can’t come this evening

I do hope they understand

Getting through this patch is all I need to do

Must stop repeating myself – my memory is not as good as it was. Can’t remember what I’ve written.

Many people suffer depression, its understanding it that needs to be seen and the more people understand that it is a problem the better…

I have experienced deep depression and thank God if it improves with age. I am not to blame for much of what goes on in my head. What is it that keeps me ticking over?

The street is such a mean place to be even if you are well…I have this constant fear feeling that things get worse if you let them. We all have it in us to make things better…

And a little later he writes after reading a book or going on a course:

“Change how you feel by changing the way you think.

positive thoughts…”

There is always a temptation when we hear someone’s thoughts or opinions that we should interrogate them, work out exactly what they mean, make suggestions about what they need to do.

One of the most important things I learnt on the Mental Health First Aid course I went on a couple of weeks back was to listen and communicate non-judgmentally. One of the videos we were shown on the course was of Pat Deegan. Pat was diagnosed with schizophrenia but the worst of it for her was being told that she won’t ever recover. She said the diagnosis was given to her in a way which seemed to diminish her humanity. The fact the she had friends, skills, degrees all seemed to disappear before this diagnosis, it felt like she was being told to retire from life, to give up.

Pat decided, I will become Dr Deegan and I will change mental health and this became for her a survivors mission – although she was careful not to say to her doctors “God has called me to change mental health in this country”, but it became for her a vision around which to organise her recovery. We need meaning, purpose, a need to move – we can’t build a recovery around a vacuum. Recovery is about changing our lives not changing our biochemistry. Communities like this one can become a place where meaning and purpose are celebrated and recovery affirmed.

But we need to be careful talking about recovery too easily, the way some Christians talk about resurrection as if the cross never happened. It is so important to grasp that recovery is a journey not a destination. Recovery needs to be holistic – its about all of us, body, mind and spirit. And, centrally it is not about returning to where we were before as if nothing has happened. Lastly it needs planned support – this community can act as part of that support – not in a professional sense, we are not health professionals, but in the human sense of being neighbours, listeners, encouragers, people on the Way.

There are still some striking statistics about mental health. 75% of people with diagnosable mental illness receive no treatment. Suicide is the most common cause of death of men aged 20-49. These are frightening figures but they also translate into the everyday lives of people we know and people we love. 16 people a day take their own life in the UK – I am trying to learn a new language, a kinder language, we can’t say commit suicide anymore because a crime has not been committed. Being careful about how we speak, recognising how we speak and having the humility to be corrected is the beginning of a journey into a greater understanding of mental health and well being. Since the Grenfell tower disaster 16 people have tried to take their lives as a result of the effects of that night – suicide is about mental illness but it is inextricably linked to real events, real people and real situations.

It seems to me that part of the Christian response – if we can talk of such a thing – to periods of mental distress, is about being with people on a journey as God came to us in Jesus, about a radical inclusivity which we see reflected in Jesus, and maybe more challengingly the attempt to speak of hope in the face of great sadness and distress. Dignity and respect are at the heart of this whole process.

We never know who we are talking to and the first calling is always to listening. I met a couple who live locally on Friday who were filming in church and we got talking. It turned out their son has a diagnosis of schizophrenia. I listened as she talked about him, in fact it was his 18th birthday that day. They knew that for years he has been desperate to get a Tattoo and as his 18th came near they were nervous about what he wanted, how large it was going to be. But on Friday he said mum I just one two words on my arm – Be yourself.

Listening, being alongside, encouraging, it is so much more about being than doing, in order that people can be themselves. We mustn’t be glib about recovery but we are still a hopeful people, and part of recovery for all people is the recognition that life changes us sometimes in painful and diminishing ways but that life after such experiences can be a deeper reality, and bring with it a profound sense of what it means to be human. This community here on the Cowley road is called to be a place of human flourishing. Not a finished product but people who are part of a continuing process of healing which we are never finished with in this life. A people who know the meaning of Jesus’ words: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.



What Are the Seven Lamps? Lamp One

Sermon preached at St Mary and St John, Trinity 17 (Sunday 8th October), by Fr Phil Ritchie

I want to start a conversation with you about our shared life as the church in this place. And I want this conversation to begin with 7 sermons, 7 reflections from me about the ways in which we seek to live out our calling to be disciples of Christ in this place. The overarching theme of these sermons is: Christ at our heart. And I know some of you may feel that this is a daring or rather an awkward choice of preposition. Shouldn’t Jesus be in rather than at. For me, Christ at our heart is both about a place of meeting or encounter with Christ but also that sense of Christ journeying with us.

The 7 lamps that we have had restored at SMJ hang on the way to the altar, and they represent for us 7 themes – themes of both affirmation and challenge.

On the bookmarks in front of you you have the 7 lamps in 7 words but let me just list all 7: Lamp 1 is Christ at our Heart through Worship, Prayer and Contemplation. Lamp 2 is Sharing the Good News of Jesus. Lamp 3 is Hospitality and Fellowship. Lamp 4 is Discipleship and Exploring Christianity Lamp 5 is Care for Others and for Creation Lamp 6 is Health and Healing – and in fact that is the lamp we will cover next week on Mental Health Sunday. Lamp 7 is Interfaith: Dialogue and Proclamation.

And in 7 words: Pray Share Belong Grow Care Heal Converse

There’s not going to be a test! I mean I can’t remember them all at once, but there they are!

And the first lamp is the one that is already lit, the lamp that represents Christ who we meet in the sacrament, in the scriptures, in prayer and in each other.

At the heart of our life together and at the heart of this building both in its shape and it numerous examples around the church, is the cross of Christ. So we begin with the cross, as a church which ‘must stand over against its surrounding culture and environment and see God revealed in weakness and god-forsakeness, in darkness and negation. And we believe that we are saved by the cross. To save comes I’m told from the Hebrew Jasha (Yey – sha) (with the noun Jeshua, saviour) and its root meaning is roomy, broad, its opposite being oppressed or hemmed in. The cross and resurrection is a victory over death, a liberation but a liberation only achieved through the experience of desolation and pain. In his encounter with Death and darkness, with the abyss Christ brings us the light and the life of God.

So to be Christian is first and foremost to be a follower of the crucified. We are not just remembering a past event or even imitating that event – this sharing in the passion and death of Christ – as we do around this altar -, is – in Bonhoeffer’s words – ‘a participation in the powerlessness of God in the world’. ‘To be a Christian is to be part of a passion centred community, the Church is ‘the people under the cross’.

There’s a wonderful passage at the beginning of the 1st letter of John which I have included on the pew sheet. Reading it seems to sum up much of what we are called to do. In many ways the passage is a reflection of the Prologue to John’s Gospel but whereas in John’s Gospel there is a definite emphasis on the Divine Word – in the beginning was the Word – here the key phrase is the word of life, this life was revealed and we have seen it and testify to it.

All of our life together flows from this, the desire for health and healing that we will look at next week on Mental Health Sunday, the care for others and creation, the hospitality and fellowship. The love of community, of social justice, of serving those in need flows from our crucified and risen Lord.

John of the Cross writes:

‘In giving us, as he did, his Son, who is his only Word – he has no other – he has spoken it all to us, once and for all, in this only Word, he has no more to say’.

We live in a society that is hungry for the new, for the instant, for fresh excitement and gratification so it is sometimes difficult for us to live faithfully within a Christian tradition which can seem life denying, narrow, dogmatic, brittle or lacking sustenance. We can cope with the fullness but not the emptiness, the speech but not the silence.

Faithfulness, fidelity, trust in the Word of Life revealed to us in Jesus is no easy path to walk. Sometimes talk about God – theology – has seemed to be about a great concern with the proper order of things, as if we might finally arrive at a point where the universe made sense, a rational divine economy – 2+2=4 More recently theology has had to deal with the post modern concern with the end of meaning, the contention that the search for meaning is a waste of time. But what Jesus Christ calls us back to is a recognition of our creatureliness, that our understanding is stinted, broken, partial but that through Jesus’s death and resurrection we are offered salvation, the opportunity to be part of a redeemed creation.

I am saved, I will be saved or I am being saved – however we package it, the root of what we are about is sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why we come here. We seek to be alongside people as they explore what it means to know, love and follow Jesus. A deepening of our relationship with Jesus brings us to discipleship, a call which is both individual and collective.

Much of Jesus’ ministry seems to have been concerned with creating a new community and with drawing people into this. It’s a community made up of undesirables, nuisances and nobodies, the socially marginalised, the shamed and the stigmatised. The greatest thing about the falling numbers, the slow demise of the church of England in this country has been the opportunity for us to return the crucified Christ, to return to the hope of resurrection.

It can sometimes feel like there are two kinds of churches, those who focus on the cross and those who focus on the incarnation, God coming to be with us in human form. The Cross churches saying its about the transcendent God out there who through Jesus reveals himself to us and the incarnation churches saying its about God’s solidarity with us, God coming to help us . But the reality is that you can’t have one without the other. God does come to be with us in Jesus but through the death and resurrection he also reveals to us the divine nature, a transcendent truth about what it is to be human, to be God’s creatures.

As a teenager I jumped easily from the birth of Jesus to his resurrection but the authentically Christian path runs through the cross. The resurrection that we proclaim is not a new story, it is the story of THE cross, a story about redemption, about being saved, about being made new but a story that passes through darkness and desolation, in order to draw near to the mystery of our salvation. Amen.



What Sort of Disciple do I Want to Be?: 13th Sunday after Trinity


Sermon preached at St Mary and St John on the the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (10th September 2017) by Canon Robert Wright.

We have a small window between the Summer sermons Writing Home on the NT Letters of St Paul to the early Christian Communities and the seven Sunday sermons Phil will be preaching looking at the seven lamps of our parish community – Christ at our Heart through Worship, Prayer and Contemplation; Sharing the Good News of Jesus; Hospitality and Fellowship; Discipleship and Exploring Christianity; Care for Others and for Creation: Health and Healing; and Interfaith Dialogue and Proclamation.

Our readings today give us two helpful thoughts to reflect on. From the letter to the Romans we heard “put on the Lord Jesus” and from St Matthew’s Gospel ”where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the middle of them” – both probably quite familiar to us : “put on the Lord Jesus” and ”where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the middle of them.” This should be a real encouragement for us for Jesus is quite clearly promising us that he will be, he is, right in our midst, here among us today, now. Jesus’s reassurance about prayer at the end of this morning’s Gospel rests on the assertion that “I am in the midst of them ( us)”, taking us back to Jesus as Emmanuel ( God with us) in Chapter 1 of St Matthew’s gospel, through the great “I am” sayings that we find in St John’s Gospel, and looking ahead to the final words of St Matthew’s gospel, “I am with you to the end of time.” So, with some real confidence we should put on the Lord Jesus; we should seek to shape our lives on Him, we should confidently think of ourselves as his disciples.

What makes us a disciple is not turning up from time to time. Discipleship may be being a student in the strict Greek sense of the word, but it doesn’t mean turning up once a week for a course, or even a sermon. Discipleship is not an intermittent state; it’s a relationship that continues, it is about being consistently in the Lord’s company. And, as Rowan Williams points out, it is about expectancy, anticipation that the Lord is about to reveal more of Himself to us and this morning’s gospel reminds us that we should expect at least some of this to be revealed here, in our midst on the Cowley Road not just in Word and Sacrament but in each other. So as we look at each other we can ask ourselves what is Christ giving me through this person, through this group of people gathered today on the Cowley Road?

So this morning I would like to invite us to think what sort of disciple we wish to be? On the pewsheet I have put:

Lord Jesus, I want to be a ——- (what adjective  would you put in here?)———- disciple.

And now will you talk about that with someone for a minute or two with someone else sitting near you. I will call us back together after a minute or two and ask if anyone is brave enough to share with us what adjective they have used for themselves and some of us may wish to discuss our words over coffee– it could be good, godly… whatever.

* * *

Thank you, that was very precious .I think my word would be faithful: Lord Jesus, I want to be a faithful disciple. And now to finish, the prayer that I have also put on the pewsheet which comes from the Methodist Covenant Renewal service. Beware, it’s dangerous! But you might like to take your pewsheet with you and use this prayer regularly as a preparation for our Autumn course on the seven lamps as we seek to put on the Lord Jesus in the confidence that the Risen Lord is here in the midst of us.

Lord, make me what you will. I put myself fully into your hands: put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,  let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and with a willing heart  give it all to your pleasure and disposal.


The Gift of Laughter: Fifth Sermon on St Paul’s Letters


Sermon preached by Fr James Koester SSJE on Philippians 2.1-18, the fourth of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities.

I want first of all to express my gratitude for the invitation for us to be here today. As you know my brothers and I are members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, known better here as the Cowley Fathers, so it is a delight to be here in Cowley, the parish where it all began.

We have been on pilgrimage to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our founding, as we have explored the roots of Christianity, and thus Anglicanism in this land, but also discovering our own roots as an Anglican monastic community and especially as a particular monastic community that had its origins in this neighbourhood.

One of our customs at the Monastery is to read the obituary at Compline of a brother on the anniversary of his death. So over the years we have read about the small house on the Iffley Road where Fathers Benson, Grafton and O’Neill began the life of our community, and now we have seen, what is known to you as the Isis Hotel, the very house in whose parlor chapel those first three Fathers made their professions on 27th December 1866, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, and thus began the life of our community. We read about the chapel at the top of the stairs where Father Benson’s teaching to the early members of our community acted as the crucible where our community’s life took shape, and now we have celebrated the Eucharist there and explored the rest of the old Mission House, now St. Stephen’s House. We have seen, and even touched, the names of departed brothers inscribed on the walls of the Mission House Lady Chapel, including many of those whom we have known and loved over the years in our Monastery in Massachusetts. We have met and stayed with the All Saints Sisters and the Sisters of the Love of God, whose histories are so tied up with our own. And some of us, having heard about the Gladiator Club, founded after the Second World War by Father Hemming, have now been to the Gladiator Club and met some of its members, had a drink, and watched a couple of rounds of Aunt Sally. We have prayed in the cell in the Mission House where Father Benson died and stood outside this Church by his memorial cross. And today we are here, in the heart of the Parish of Cowley St. John, with you, who are no less the daughters and sons of Father Benson than we are.

We fly back to Boston tomorrow morning with hearts and minds full of memories and images of our pilgrimage. I will remember celebrating the Eucharist in a small side chapel at Canterbury Cathedral being watched by tourists and pilgrims as they made their way to the site of Becket’s Shrine. I will remember shedding a few tears as I preached in the Founder’s Chapel in the old Mission House, where Father Benson himself preached so many years ago. I will remember processing around Norwich Cathedral on the Eve of the Feast of Saint Mary the Virgin singing the hymn Sing We of the Blessed Mother, and ending up by the statue of Our Lady of Pity listening to the choir sing Ave Maria. And now I will remember preaching from the pulpit in this Church where Father Benson must have preached. But most of all, I’ll remember laughing.

It’s a little embarrassing to admit that we travelled 1000’s of miles by airplane and train and coach and ferry to see, and be, and pray in various places and what I am taking home with me is memories of laughter. Yet laughter, at least when you laugh with and not at someone, is a sign that something important it happening. It is, I think, I sign of friendship. As Paul writes in Galatians, laughter is for me a sign of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.1

We say in our Rule of Life that for us no honor exists that could be greater than Jesus calling us his friends. The more we enter into the fullness of our friendship with him, the more he will move us to be friends for one another, and to cherish friendship itself as a means of grace. The forging of bonds between us that would make us ready to lay down our lives for one another is a powerful witness to the reality of our risen life in Christ. In an alienating world, where so many are frustrated and wounded in their quest for intimacy, we can bear life-giving testimony to the graces of friendship as men who know by experience its demands, its limitations and its rewards.2

It is this, I think, that Paul hints at in the Letter to the Philippians when he writes: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourself. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….3 Here Paul is inviting people into a bond of deep mutual friendship marked by love, unity and humility. Echoes of this kind of mutual friendship are heard in that great hymn of love in the First Letter to the Corinthians: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.4

It is this patient, kind, enduring friendship that was manifested by the One who has called us friends,5 who has laid down his life for us6 and who invites us to lay down our lives for one another7 and who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.8

In a world where we can friend and unfriend someone with a click of a button, the idea of laying down one’s life for one’s friends is radical indeed. In fact, is there anyone or anything in your life that you would be prepared to die for? Or who would be prepared to die for you?

The quality of our friendship is defined, not by the click of a button, but by our willingness to die, and that begins, I think with laughter. And that is what I find astonishing! Not only was Jesus willing to die for his friends, but after the resurrection, that company of terrified women and men were willing to die because of what they had seen and heard. As we read in the First Epistle of John: We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our* joy may be complete.9

Something happened to that band of women and men and it began not with threats, or fear, or terror, but with laughter. Again we say in our Rule of Life: Jesus chose to work the first of his signs and reveal his glory at the wedding feast at Cana, and he was the chief guest at many meals held to celebrate the new life he was bringing through the gospel. His joy will abound in us when we celebrate by feasting on the holy days that commemorate the great acts of creation and redemption, and the glories of the saints. He will continue to reveal his glory among us on the joyful occasions when we have festal meals to mark professions, clothings, anniversaries, holidays and special turning points in our life. These feasts are another expression of our eucharistic life, and anticipate the heavenly banquet which the risen Lord is preparing for those who love him. The careful preparations that make our festivities so pleasing are sacred tasks. Our ministry of hospitality finds one of its richest expressions as we welcome guests to join us in these festal liturgies and meals of celebration.10

Something happened all those years ago when the first disciples headed off in all directions to proclaim the Good News of the Resurrection. Those early Christians had discovered what true friendship meant because they had seen it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and it began, not cowering behind locked doors in the Upper Room, but laughing around dinner tables, astonished by the unexpected quality of the wine, 11 speechless at the audacity of the host’s guest list,12 and stunned into silence watching their teacher was their feet.13

Something has happened to me over the last three weeks. I have been astonished at unexpected tears in small chapels. I have been made speechless by the incredible generosity of our hosts. I have been stunned into silence as I have become aware of the presence of God. And I have laughed.

Friendship is marked, not by the click of a button, but by our ability to laugh. Though the Gospels don’t tell us, I am sure that Jesus laughed, and having laughed, he was willing to give up his life for his friends.

Friendship is marked, not by the click of a button, but by our ability to laugh. Though the epistles of Paul don’t tells us, I am sure that Paul laughed, and having laughed, he was willing to give up his life for his friends.

Friendship is marked, not by the click of a button, but by our ability to laugh. And I have laughed this past three weeks, and having laughed I go home, not just as a pilgrim, but I hope a better friend and all that that means.

But that is all about me. What about you? Who do you laugh with? That’s the person in whom you will begin to see the face of Jesus who calls you his friend. It is in the face of the one with whom you laugh that you will discover the face of Jesus, who calls you his friend. It is in the face of the One who calls you friend that you will discover the truth of what this means: no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.14 And it all begins, I think, with laughter.

1 Galatians 5: 22 – 23

2 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Graces of Friendship, chapter 42

3 Philippians 2: 2b – 5

4 1 Corinthians 13: 4 – 8

5 John 15: 15

6 John 15: 13

7 1 John 3: 16

8 Philippians 2: 6 – 8

9 1 John 1: 1 – 4

10 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Rhythm of Feast and Fast, chapter 28

11 John 2: 1ff

12 Matthew 9: 9ff

13 John 13: 1ff

14 John 15: 13


Feast of the Transfiguration: The Clearer Reality of Dreams


Sermon preached at St Mary and St John on the Feast of the Transfiguration by the Revd Katherine Price, Chaplain of Queen’s College, Oxford.

Since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’d like to share a memory with you. When I was little I too used to climb up into a marvellous world to see wonders… not up a sacred mountain but just up the ladder into the loft space in our house! Of course the loft was full of junk but when you’re that age nothing is junk: an empty toilet roll isn’t something that’s served its purpose and needs to be thrown away but just a rocket or a dragon that hasn’t happened yet.

Up in the loft I had my little den, for making up stories. And my dad had his for his inventions. And if I was careful he would let me play with the oscilloscope… Don’t worry, I have no idea what it does either! To this day – it’s just a thing with knobs and switches and wiggly lines. This was before kids had ipads… It was years before I realised this isn’t one of those cute childhood memories everybody has!

And pinned up on one of the beams my dad had put a quote from T E Lawrence – the hero of the film Lawrence of Arabia and it read “the dreamers of the day are dangerous men”.

The dreamers of the day… Daydreaming isn’t generally seen as something very productive. When we call someone a bit of a daydreamer we’re saying they’re not in touch with the real world.

But it seems to me we have some funny ideas about reality. We have this way sometimes of talking about ‘real life’
as if perhaps our lives here in Oxford are less ‘real’ than they might be in somewhere that doesn’t feature in Morse and Harry Potter! Or as if a conversation on facebook or by text hasn’t happened ‘in real life’…

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke is an account of what could be a kind of dream-like state. We hear that the disciples were very sleepy but they had stayed awake or an alternative translation reads they had ‘become fully awake’.
They’re on the edge of sleeping and waking. And there are features of this story which remind us of dreams: for instance, Jesus’ face changed – but they aren’t able to describe how. And then Moses and Elijah are somehow there. Have they been there all along? But Peter somehow knows who they are and he just takes it in his stride, the way you do in a dream.

Now when I say this is like a dream I am not at all suggesting that it is not something real. Our Old Testament reading today from Daniel is also a dream: Daniel says he saw this while he was asleep. People at the time of Jesus took dreams very seriously; I suppose since Freud we’ve started taking dreams seriously again, in a different way: but we’ve all had that experience of a dream helping us to see things differently and perhaps waking up and realising we have an answer or a solution to something that was bugging us the night before.

The disciples see reality more clearly, not less. They see the real truth about Jesus’ divinity. They’re not seeing something that isn’t there but seeing what is there, differently.

That’s what I love about icons, like the one on the front of your pew sheet today. They are pictures of real people and places: – You won’t find an icon which shows Jesus with blonde hair and blue eyes or the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary in an Italian city – But as we might imagine they really are in the eyes of God. They are a reminder that heaven is not ‘somewhere else’. It’s here.

And it’s not just religious images that can do this. It’s all kinds of art and creativity: painting, poetry, photography. A photographer or a poet isn’t oblivious to the real world on the contrary, they are very attentive to what is actually there
they draw our attention to what we might overlook the beauty of the sky reflected in a puddle or the sparkle in the eye of an old man on a park bench. And you don’t have to be a professional artist: if you’ve ever used one of those photo filters online, like instagram or prisma – This is where you take an ordinary photo and turns it into something that looks like it’s been painted. Suddenly we see our lives and the people around us as worthy of art. We see what is there, differently. And we see its potential.

There’s this fashion at the moment for ‘upcycling’ – for making something new and beautiful out of junk. Or there’s that graffiti art just here next to the church: taking something we often think of as destructive, as vandalism and instead making it creative. There’s that phrase isn’t there, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”… I saw a really beautiful and humbling example of this the other day that was reported as part of the commemoration of fifty years since the decriminalisation of gay relationships: there is a man who goes around planting and photographing pansies at the places where homophobic attacks have happened. He has taken something which you would think was entirely negative and he’s found a way of making it into an excuse for beauty.

The Transfiguration, this event on the mountain, occurs as Jesus is on his way to his ultimate appointment with death –
an agonising and humiliating death and yet he talks about his ‘departure’ as something to be accomplished or fulfilled
a creative action. As a society, we are not good with suffering. We treat pain and misery as something simply to be blocked out. We feel bad about feeling bad!

And when someone is suffering and helpless and close to death you hear this phrase ‘die with dignity’ as if a human being who is suffering and helpless is not ‘dignified’.

Jesus needs his disciples to see him as he really is so that when they see him on the cross  there will be no doubt in their minds that he has not only dignity but glory and so that when they see other people suffering and neglected and despised they will look for beauty and glory in them too.

But he’s also teaching us something about prayer. These words from the cloud, “This is my son.” We’ve heard them before: after Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan and again in St Luke that happens again when he is praying. We tend to think of prayer as a very private thing, but Jesus has invited his friends to be there to watch and learn.

Prayer often looks a bit like daydreaming. In fact, when I wander around the beautiful footpaths on the Kidneys here
or in an art gallery I’m sometimes hard pressed to say, am I daydreaming or praying? Either way, it’s not withdrawing from the real world. It is training ourselves to look at the world in all its ugliness and see it in all its glory.



Faith Mysterious and Practical: Fourth Sermon on St Paul’s Letters


Sermon preached by Dr Peter McCullough on Ephesians 3.14-4.6, the fourth of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities


In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Today we reach the midpoint of our tour through the seven early churches ministered to by St Paul – we have already stopped at Rome, and Corinth, and Galatia; next, after a pause for two glorious August feast days, we will travel on to Philippi, Colossia, and Thessolonika – and today we stop at Ephesus. Or do we? Because in fact, most New Testament scholars now doubt whether this letter was originally addressed to the church there, since early copies of it lack the opening salutation ‘to the saints who are in Ephesus’. More than that, scholars also point out that in both its style and its content, Ephesians is very unlike Paul’s other letters – the author here doesn’t address any problems or arguments troubling a specific congregation, he uses language and imagery used nowhere else by Paul, and is even silent on some of Paul’s most insistently addressed topics, like the doctrine of justification. So what many believe that we have in Ephesians is in fact a letter written by a later follower of Paul who was inspired to model his own letter on Paul’s.

But the most uncharacteristic thing about Ephesians if it was indeed written by Paul is what some have called its ‘verbose rhetorical style’ (a bit unfair!), or, more putting it more kindly, its ‘powerful poetic language’. Now, as someone who teaches literature, I have to try hard to avoid letting a sermon become a lecture or a tutorial – so I wonder if Fr Phil was testing me by giving me Ephesians Sunday – but I still can’t resist suggesting that it might help if you have your texts open in front of you. For even this small passage of Ephesians is, it has to be said, beautiful writing – something captured so well, without me even asking, by Soo Tian setting part of it on the front of the service sheet in a beautiful font, and even in the traditional language of the King James Bible (something that has its own aesthetic charge, but that’s something for another time).

But if writing like this is truly beautiful, truly good, it isn’t enough just to pause and appreciate its formal aesthetic qualities, like a picture in a gallery, but to go on and think about why it has been written so beautifully. The author – and let’s just call him Paul – Paul writes with such powerful rhetoric here not for its own sake, or to show off his skill, but because he wants words to match the urgency and importance of his message.

Our reading begins with ‘For this reason’. Now you have to be careful with lectionary excerpts, especially from a book as rhetorically elaborate as Ephesians. The ‘reason’ that Paul ‘bows his knees’ isn’t to be found in what follows in our reading; instead, he’s referring to something he said earlier, and to find it you have to go all the way back to chapter 2, to that great summary of our faith itself: that ‘through the cross’, Christ ‘came and proclaimed peace’, and ‘you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.’ And ‘For [that] reason’, in our reading, ‘I bow my knees before the Father’.

No wonder Paul strains every rhetorical, even poetical, nerve here – because his prayer (which must now be our prayer) is that the universal church, our national church, our parish churches of St Alban and St Mary and St John, may live up to nothing less than our destiny, our obligation, our joy, that, as Paul says, ‘Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith . . . rooted and grounded in love’. [I can’t help but think here of all the effort that goes in to finding catchy mission statement slogans for churches and dioceses – which are almost never Scriptural and almost always banal; why not ‘Christ in our hearts through faith’, or, ‘Rooted and grounded in love’. It works for me.]

But if we’re honest, I think, we have to ask ourselves, just what – exactly – do even purely Scriptural tags like ‘Christ in our hearts’ or ‘grounded in love’ really mean? The original recipients of Paul’s letter, for whom the faith was so new, must have asked it. And we, for whom formulae like ‘Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith’ are dangerously familiar, probably need to ask it as well. And Paul (and the Holy Spirit that inspired him) knows that then and now we need explanations, for the very next next intercession in our reading is to ‘pray that you may have the power to comprehend’.

But what I love most here is that Paul doesn’t give an answer, at least not a direct one, to the question of what the in-dwelling of Christ means. And he doesn’t, as a human being, because he can’t really, any more than we can. If that was something we could comprehend, at least in any recitable, factual way, would it really be something worth knowing? Put another way, would it really be ‘faith’? Here we have one of the central mysteries, the central paradoxes of our lives as Christians – that we pray and we struggle to and know something that is real but impossible to know fully, since, as Paul puts it here, because ‘the love of Christ’ is, wonderfully, something that ‘surpasses knowledge’. But rather than that being a source of discouragement, it is in fact an encouragement, because there is ‘a power’, the Spirit, ‘at work within us able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine’.

Still, that can all sound very abstract, a bit of a mental, philosophical, or mystical puzzle played out in the mind with words. But that is what the ‘therefore’ in the next paragraph of our reading is there for. ‘I therefore’, Paul says, ‘beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called’. ‘Beg you’. Those are strong words, and should be powerfully felt – because this is where faith in the abstract (praying for knowledge that we rightly desire and rightly strive for, but can never completely have, nor comprehend it if we could) that intangible faith has its counterpart, its compensation, perhaps even its fulfilment, in the material reality of faith lived in what we do and how we should do it: ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’

Paul’s language here works hard because the work of living faithfully is hard, but worth the struggle. And in this life we come closest to comprehension and knowledge not by talking or thinking only, but by doing, by ‘making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’. So it should be no surprise that as we journey through these early churches some patterns begin to emerge. We encounter here what Fr Phil showed us in Romans, that as church we come together not to avoid, but to live with difference and diversity; and as Petronella showed us last week in Galatians, we do so by nurturing the gifts of the spirit that are repeated for us here in Ephesians; and the whole of Ephesians is a perfect blueprint for the church that Bp Stephen reminded us is always under construction.

And in our parishes the place where we must regularly, because most fundamentally, come together as the messy but loving family that is the church, where we meet and make our faith a living and incarnate one, is in the sacrament of the altar – where not just words, but nothing less than The Word, Christ, is made flesh and dwells among us, through him receiving ‘one body and one Spirit . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.’ AMEN.


“I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free”: Third Sermon on St Paul’s Letters

Sermon preached by Petronella Spivey, one of our Licensed Lay Ministers, on Galatians 5.13-6.2. It is the third of a sermon series reflecting on the nature and purpose of the Church through St Paul’s letters to the first Christian communities.


One of the very few bible verses I know by heart is in this reading. It must appeal to my love of lists, because, aided by a dreadful tune that I have been unable to find music for (so you are spared that), I can recite all nine gifts of the spirit for you.

Not that I can actually demonstrate them very well in real life, which is maybe part of the point of Paul’s letter.

But being able to remember them in a list gave me an interesting exercise on a recent nine day break — namely to take one gift for each day, and look for opportunities to practice it, spot it in others, and notice its absence in myself.

But that’s not really quite I wanted to talk about.

Phil’s 3 Questions and Paul’s First Answer

Father Phil has been challenging us to discover for ourselves, as individuals, and as a community, the answer to three questions.

Why does the church exist?

What is the church to be?

What is the church to do?

Is there anything new in this letter to the Galatians to help us with our investigations?. Phil has shown us how Paul’s letter to the Romans, encourages to live alongside people we don’t like: and Bishop Steven has found in the letters to the Church in Corinth, an encouragement to nurture and teach new believers. Is there anything new in this letter to the Galatians to help us with our investigations?. Here is a group of churches founded by Paul, living ,as the church in Rome did in a multi-cultural community; wrestling like others, with the tensions between believers of a Jewish heritage, and believers with other backgrounds. What then does Paul’s letter to the churches (and he uses the plural) have to add to this? In Galatians we read that:

The church exists because people have heard Paul’s message.

The church is to be people who have a relationship with Jesus.

What is the church to do?: She must live the message and pass it on.

What is the message?

The message Paul is talking about is the very heart of the Christian gospel: he wants the churches to hear that message, cherish it, stick with it and live it, and pass it on. The main difficulty the Galatian churches are facing is pressure in some quarters to move back to Jewish practice. Paul is against this, and he goes on to contrast a life lived by law (and he means here Jewish law) and the new Christian life lived by faith. This is the message Paul is talking about is the very heart of the Christian gospel: he wants the churches to hear that message, cherish it, stick with it and live it, and pass it on.

What does Paul mean by living according to the law?

Human nature

Firstly, he means the law of human nature: to put self first and others second. We see it in children when they snatch a toy saying “I want it: it’s mine”. We see it in the teenager who expects parents to drop everything and ferry them to a social engagement. We see it at work when a colleague’s urgent project must be done immediately. We see it when we want the last parking space. We see it in a world that prioritise tax breaks for the rich over fair pay for all We see it at the school- leavers; assembly when every parent wants to sit in the front row . We hear it when we want our neighbours to share our preference for silence or our taste in loud music. We see it in a country that turns away the refugee because they are not one of us.. All this selfishness, this “me first” is a sign that to Paul that humans are no longer in right relationship with the creator God. He describes this as is a sort of slavery — to be in thrall to our own selfishness and animal nature

These are the bars that keep us apart from one another. These are the bars that separate us from the perfect love of God. This is why we know in our heart of hearts that the love relationships we have between parent and child: married partners, are so special — they are a sign of how the world was meant to be.

The mosaic law

Secondly, Paul means by law the set of rules God provided to Moses to try and control this human nature. The Jewish law did this in part by ritual ( there is much in Galatians about circumcision that feels alien and incomprehensible to us.) But Paul also means the law that includes guidelines for right living, like the 10 commandments. But this law doesn’t work. Or as Paul says, “no one will ever be justified by works of the law” (Gal 2 v 16) Having the rules doesn’t help: it just labels what we are doing wrong!

Humans want, says Paul, to be reunited with God. Both the law of human nature, and the Mosaic law stand between them. Humans want, says Paul to know how it would feel to be free. Free of sin, and free of the burden of failure.

A life of faith is a life united with Jesus

Such a life of freedom, says Paul, is a life of faith, and it is this he sets up in comparison to a life lived by law. But not blind faith, abstract faith — but faith and trust in the person of Jesus. This is the core of his message: and he urges his readers to live this life of freedom, to put Jesus and not the law, at the very centre of their lives.

Jesus taught how to live in relationship with God

We all know that Jesus taught how to live in relationship with God when he summarised all the law (the ritual and the rules, the ethical and the practical, all the words and words and words) in , “‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Galatians 5:14)

Jesus showed us how to live in relationship with God

But much more Jesus showed us how to live in relationship with God. I think that this was the aspect of Jesus character that was so attractive to people. People clearly came from all over to hear him, and many stayed to follow him., leaving behind families and work. The gospels don’t really make clear what people saw and why they would do this.

Some of us at St Alban’s have been reading (and for nearly everyone except me re-reading) Gerald Hughes book called the God of Surprises. It’s about prayer, but in this case prayer as knowing yourself in the light of the life of Jesus. And it’s made sense to me as I reflect on how people make me feel and how I treat them as a result of that that maybe Jesus was able to live without a sense of his own importance, without ego, and so able to see people as God sees them, without them being influenced by the effect they had on him. And in the same way, to be able to glimpse what it wd be to have a relationship with God like that too — not one distorted by our imperfections, but based on the very best of us.

Christ’s life showed us what it would feel to be free.

Jesus fulfilled the law

Paul says, here and elsewhere, that Jesus fulfilled the law. In mysterious way, the crucifixion and resurrection stories stand for the end of one kind of world-order and the beginning of another. While this is a huge element of Paul’s theology, to the Galatians he emphasises that we are to imitate Jesus in our life.

We are to imitate Jesus

Paul explains how this new life of faith is to be. Finally we can live like we’re longing to live. We are to have a relationship with Jesus, and just as dogs and owners grow to look alike, so we too, shall grow to be more like Jesus. Paul writes I have been crucified with Christ; 20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. Galatians 2:19.

This doesn’t mean that we can now steal or murder at will. Rather Paul writes that we believe now that it is truly possible to live in a way that unites us to the purpose God had for us from creation. We are to embrace what God arranges. Finally, we can show all the love in our heart. This is the fruitful life Paul is writing about, and it is this that describes what we as individuals and as a church are called to be and do.

We can live like we’re longing to live it would feel to be free. For Paul, the church was a group of people who knew Jesus like this. The reason the church exists is Jesus. Christ was in the heart of every member, and at the heart of their communal existence. His picture of this community of free people is a picture of a fruitful orchard bring forth great gifts of love, of joy of peace; patience kindness, goodness,; of faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

May we all have Christ at the centre of your day today, and every day: and may we all show forth the fruits of his Spirit in our lives.