Founder and Director of CTC, Canon Dr Angus Ritchie preached the sermon at Evensong on Sunday 16th June at St Paul’s Cathedral. Mentioning Pope Francis, the Wesley Brothers and the funniest joke in the world, you can read the text below…
Back in 2002, Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire did some research to discover the funniest jokes in the world. He set up LaughLab, a website where people could submit and vote on different jokes, in order to establish which ones had the broadest appeal across ages and cultures.
Alas, many of these jokes aren’t exactly suitable for a sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral. But, whether they are dodgy double-entendres, or rather more innocent puns, the best jokes exploit the fact that many of our words are ambiguous. (Apparently, one of the most popular jokes goes like this. Two fish are in a tank, and one says to the other: How on earth do you drive this thing?)
Of course, the ambiguity of language doesn’t just provide us with good jokes. It can also generate our worst misunderstandings. Because words are ambiguous, verbal agreement can mask great differences in our attitudes and expectations.
In today’s worship, we have used a great many words about God. Our liturgy has spoken of his glory – at the end of every Psalm and Canticle at Evensong, the choir have sung “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost”. It has also spoken of his power and his might – in the Sanctus at today’s Eucharists, and in Brewer’s wonderful setting of the Magnificat. Glory, power and might – they are not only evident in the words of our worship today, but in the music we have heard and in the architecture of this great Cathedral.
We call God glorious, powerful and mighty – but these words also mean different things to different people. As Christians, our understanding of these words needs to be re-shaped by the teaching and example of our crucified and risen Lord.
We see this when St Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ. After praising him for this insight, Jesus goes on to explain that as Messiah, he must go up to Jerusalem to be crucified. Peter cannot hide his shock: this is not how he understands the power of the Messiah. Even though he is the foremost of the disciples, the rock on whom Jesus will build the church, Peter has yet to learn that the power of the Messiah is to be revealed in human weakness, in what the world sees as defeat and humiliation.
Christianity has to hold two truths together. The first is that God is indeed glorious, powerful and mighty. Christianity is not afraid of power. After his death and resurrection, Jesus promises the disciples that they will be “clothed with power from on high.” At its simplest, power is the ability to act; to transform the world around us. The Bible teaches us that God has chosen to share his power with us. When we exercise our power aright, we become co-creators – sharing in his loving stewardship of the world – embodying his creativity and his compassion.
The second truth is that God’s power is revealed most fully on the cross. For it is at the moment of apparent humiliation and defeat that Jesus is glorified and victorious. His most powerful action is his complete self-offering on Calvary.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed captures both of these great truths. The Kingdom of God is like the tiniest of seeds. We find the Kingdom in the people and places our world writes off and insignificant. And yet that very seed is packed with potential and with power. It “becomes the largest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
It is hard for us to hold these two great truths together – and all too easy to place our faith in a different kind of power. In Jesus day, the Roman Empire sought to impose its peace by violence and conquest. The religious leaders sought status and earthly glory – they had become pompous and self-satisfied. The Zealots sought to overthrow the power of Rome by a violent insurrection. Each of these sought power over others, the kind of power which dominates and oppresses, and bends others to its own will. A revolution by the Zealots, had it succeeded, might have changed the faces who wielded earthly power – but their power would still have been based on force and fear.
By his cross and resurrection, Jesus inaugurates a deeper transformation. He seeks to win our hearts by love, not fear – to build a community on sacrifice and generosity. As we read the Acts of the Apostles, we see what this looks like, in very practical and concrete terms. The Gospel is preached with power, lives and communities are changed, and wealth is shared with those in greatest need.
Today, we live in a society unsure of its future direction. We know there is something wrong with our economic and social systems, something wrong with the values around which we have built our common life.
The Parable of the Mustard Seed invites us to look for hope in the very places, the very people, our society belittles and ignores. The history of the church shows that it is only when we grasp this truth – in deed as well as word – that we can experience the transforming power of God’s Kingdom. This is true from Acts of the Apostles to the ministry of St Francis, from the work of the Wesley Brothers to the ministry of slum priests such as Fr Basil Jellicoe. In each case, renewal has flowed from a deeper life of prayer and a commitment to find and serve God among the poor.
There are exciting signs of such renewal in our own day. We see increasing numbers of young Christians – from all traditions and denominations – being called to live and serve in our poorest neighbourhoods. Those who heed this call might begin by saying they have come to bless their neighbours, but as time goes by, they realise that blessing flows in both directions. They do not bring Christ to the poor. Rather, the find and learn of Christ in the poorest of their brothers and sisters.
This is part of the power of Pope Francis’ ministry, which is another sign of hope and of renewal in our time. His commitment to the poor radiates joy and delight, not simply duty and obligation. This is important, for delight and gratitude are at the very heart of the Gospel. We love because God first loved us. Those who live in poverty are more than a source of guilt and obligation to their wealthy brethren. Rather, they embody Christ’s presence and his gift of love. It is when we share our lives with theirs that we experience the power and the glory of God’s Kingdom.
Let me finish with some words on from one of Pope Francis’ recent homilies:
What great harm an easy life and well-being can cause. The gentrification of the heart paralyzes us …The poor, the abandoned, the sick and the marginalized are the flesh of Christ [and we are invited] to love them as Jesus loved us. This does not entail withdrawal into ourselves, into our own problems, into our own ideas, into our own interests, into this small world that is so harmful to us; but rather to come out of ourselves and care for those who are in need of attention, understanding and help.
How am I faithful to Christ? Let us take this question with us, to think about it during the day: how am I faithful to Christ? … Am I attentive to others, do I notice who is in need, do I see everyone as brothers and sisters to love? Let us ask the Lord… to fill our life with the joy of his love.
May it be so for each of us today.
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.