The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury, preached this sermon at the Diocese’s Chrism Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, 24 March 2016
Readings: Exodus 12.1-14; 1 Cor 11.23-26; John 13.1-17
Forget Oberammergau, go to the Poole Passion Play. You won’t have to wait 10 years between performances. It comes round every two. The Bishop of Sherborne and I went on successive nights last week. We walked the way of suffering and saw the events of the Passion, ‘Through the eyes of a child’. The cast were a mix of regular church-goers, people involved in Routes to Roots, a charity for homeless people, and Action on Addiction. You can see them on Easter Day’s Songs of Praise.
There is a very uncomfortable psychological realism in the ways the characters in the Passion Play made me face aspects of myself. Why was my reaction visceral to the smoothly wicked High Priests? I loathed them. Why did I warm to the brilliantly portrayed Pilate who understood the dilemmas of power? The disciples took me apart through their acts of betrayal, denial, cowardice, fear and stupidity.
As we reached the churchyard of St Peter’s Parkstone, a fire eater entertained us standing on the churchyard wall between The Bermuda Triangle and The Bricklayers Arms, where people were drinking, not sure what they were seeing and whether it mattered. In the churchyard, Christ fell as he carried his cross. Simon of Cyrene was standing next to me, and he didn’t want to step in until he was forced to do so. He was so slow, I nearly took his part.
We walked into church and sat in the comfortable seats for a bloody crucifixion. After the burial, and a decent dark pause, Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty early on Easter morning, and screamed in panic: “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him. Help me.” No one moved. She screamed until the gardener came from the other end of the church. In the resurrection, the child who had been searching and following all the way along was told, “You remind me of him, but you are a child.”
You remind me of him. Each of us: a child of God travelling in the way of Jesus Christ; a disciple walking in the footsteps of the Master.
When you have time, read the media releases on the Diocesan website this morning. Freda Meggs, from St Andrew’s Melksham, Joy Parsons from St James’ Southbroom in Devizes, Peter Hooper from St George’s Church, Oakdale, and Jim Wilson from St Mary’s Puddletown are among the 90 men and 90 women from across Britain in Windsor this morning to receive the Royal Maundy money to mark the Queen’s special 90th birthday year. They all say it is a great honour and can’t work out why they have been chosen but they know they are representatives of many others who also live Christian lives of service.
It is much the same with the Archbishop’s Alphege Award for Evangelism and Witness to Chrysogon Bamber; and the Dunstan Award for Prayer and the Religious Life to Brother Sam SSF, the leader of the community at Hilfield. They are both slightly embarrassed but think it is good for LLM’s and those in the Religious Life.
Encourage one another.
Discipleship is the focus for a great deal of hope in the Church at present. We want to bring people to life in all its fulness, turn the disinterested into the passionate, the consumers of life and religion into disciples of Jesus Christ.
The theory is that from well formed lay people will come ministers of the Gospel, lay and ordained, and there is enough evidence to know there is truth in it. That is why we are wanting to appoint a Discipleship Co-ordinator in our Learning for Discipleship and Ministry Team as part of the Renewing Hope agenda to pray, serve, grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. It won’t be an easy post to fill, nor an easy job to do. Details are on the Diocesan website and the closing date is 15th April.
We want to bring people to faith and come to Confirmation because we believe that in Christ we see what it is to be fully human, as well as fully divine. He healed the sick and made people feel better. He gave sight and insight, and taught what it means to love God and love our neighbour as ourselves. He included everyone – women, Samaritans, lepers, the lame. He showed what it was to serve and gave his life for others. This way of sacrificial love is costly but it is the way of life: the more you give, the more you get.
Jesus said he is present where two or three are gathered in his name. We find Christ in community. Whilst I sometimes think it would be so much easier if everyone believed exactly the same as me, it wouldn’t be true to the creative diversity God has made of us. We disciples of Jesus Christ need to work out how to get the best from each other, for ourselves and the Church, as well as for the sake of the world Christ came to save.
Oddly enough we are helped to do this by the seriousness of the dangers in our world, with war and religious violence, the biggest movement of refugees since the Second World War, with the environmental challenge and the need for us to care for our common home. This is part of what Archbishop Justin meant when the Primates of the Anglican Communion committed to walking together in the way of Jesus Christ. Only then will we be credible witnesses to Jesus Christ and as God’s peacemakers in the wider world.
This Passion Gospel is an awkward story. Tonight in churches all over the world Christians will gather to remember the Last Supper and Jesus’ command to take bread and wine and do this in remembrance of him; to enact the new commandment to love one another like a Master wrapping a towel around himself and washing his disciples’ feet.
Whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal is not certain but there is no doubt the death of Jesus was connected with and interpreted by this central story of Judaism. At Passover God’s people came from slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to freedom in the promised land. The death of Jesus, like the Passover lamb, brings us from slavery, through suffering, to the freedom of resurrection and life eternal. In a world bedevilled by religious violence it is God’s awkward gift that the central acts by which we remember Jesus are inextricably linked with the Jewish Passover.
If the Primates of the Anglican Communion thought same sex relationships are difficult to know what to do with, just wait until they get going on the implications of fixing the date of Easter. It is the connection with Passover on which the desire to fix the date of Easter turns and falls. It seems to me a curiously unexamined piece of cultural accommodation that would separate the timing of Easter from Passover and detach us from our Jewish roots.
In a world in which the dominant secular narrative about religion is of division and violence it ought to be a gift that there are shared stories, experiences and scriptures. Passover is not incidental to the Passion. Easter disconnected from Passover misses the point.
What’s more, it is a way into the shared experience of Jews, Christians and Muslims, the children of Abraham and people of the Book. Our job is to live with this connectedness, work with it, explore its meaning including the awkward difficulties and differences to make a more Godly story for the sake of a deeply troubled world.
A Passion Play ‘Through the eyes of a child’ is also an awkward story, with painful evocations for clergy at the moment. We know there is a nasty sub-culture of child abuse, not just in the Church, but there have been some very unpleasant stories recently of historic sexual abuse by clergy. Whatever happened, it is clear that some people’s lives were deeply scarred.
We are struggling with the reality that seemingly good people among us have done bad and wicked things. It is not unlike the first disciples. Peter by the lakeside was re-made by Jesus’ question ‘Do you love me.. Do you love me… Do you love me…’, as if cancelling out his denial. But all the disciples had to be gathered again and renewed in the community of the resurrection. Judas despaired because of the ultimate betrayal.
We are doing better as a Church in establishing a culture of safeguarding. For too long the victims of abuse have not been heard, but we need to avoid a culture of fear and anxiety. How are we to weigh the evidence fairly, especially when it is at a distance, after the alleged perpetrator is dead? Those in authority cannot wash their hands of it. I hope what we are going through as a church and country is a process in which light and truth will bring judgement and healing, and that we will get to a better place, but inevitably there is disquiet and much murmuring along the way in what feels a pretty terrible wilderness.
The Passion is an awkward story, not least because it tells us about ourselves and what it means to be human.
You remind me of him and his first disciples, sometimes brilliantly with your commitment and creativity, faithfulness and love; sometimes less so. Like the first disciples, we are not here because we are perfect but because God loves us. As disciples of Jesus Christ, together in this eucharist at the start of the great three days, we hear God calls us again to Christian ministry, to renew our vocation to serve him and the people to whom we are sent. It is the way of the cross, the way of life.
Photos from the 2016 Chrism Eucharist can be viewed via this link.
+Nicholas, Sarum (Salisbury) preached this sermon on Holy Thursday in his Cathedral – a sermon worth reading, marking, and learning from, in our Anglican Churches at the present time.
His own experience of a motley group of amateur actors of different ages and from different walks of life portraying the Passion story has obviously motivated him to reflect on the existential reality of what belief in the existence and ministry of Jesus was and is, then, at the time of its manifestation and now, in the complexity of our modern everyday working world.
The Bishop’s final words are evocative of what must have been the experience of the first disciples – aware of their own vulnerability and yet aware, also, of the enabling grace that comes from faith in the Son of God as Saviour and Redeemer of all who look to him for life – both here and in eternity.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand