Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity

Sermon preached at the Community Eucharist
All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane
The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley, Director of Studies, Wesley House
22nd January 2015

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.  (John 2:1-12)

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I was walking home the other evening chatting with a friend.  “I’m preaching at Westcott Thursday evening,” I said.
“You’re preaching Westcott?” was the response
“Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,” I explained.

And what better place for me to preach during this Octave when we pray for the unity of the Church?  After all, the seeds of this ecumenical Cambridge Theological Federation were planted when, in the 1970s, there was great concern about the future of theological education and ministry within the churches.  The story goes that the then principals of Westcott and Wesley developed a plan to join up the training of their students with the goal of preparing them for shared ministry.  After all, there was talk of a covenant between the Church of England and the Methodists.  What better time to prepare ordinands for what looked like the inevitable reunion of Methodism with Anglicanism.  Well (much like the hoped-for reconciliation of John and Charles Wesley) the reunion never happened, but a great friendship between the houses did.  “The Catholic Spirit” is the title of John Wesley’s sermon in which he talks about unity between Christians in the doctrines of the apostolic creeds.  Based on I Kings 10:15, the sermon is built around the words, “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart. . .If it be, give me thine hand.” The modern Methodist paraphrase of this is: “If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”  When, over the last three years, I’ve needed open hearts or a hand up, so often Westcott people have offered both.

“What are you preaching on at Westcott?” asked my friend.
“John 2 – the wedding at Cana in Galilee.”
 “That’s one of my favourites,” he said.
“Mine, too.”

Actually, I suspect that this story or perhaps some other narrative in John’s Gospel would be among our favourite parts of the New Testament, perhaps of the Bible as a whole.  After all, John presents Jesus as so together, so confident, so certain of his identity and the timetable on which his glory is to be revealed.  He knows when his hour has not come and when it has come – as if he has some internally implanted iCal.  Don’t we wish our ministry were like that, so organized, so clear, so driven toward a salvific goal.  What is more, he can do wondrous things.  Of course, his miracles aren’t miracles in the sense that the Synoptic gospels tell such stories, but signs; revelations; epiphanies; bits of divine light shredding the darkness to reveal God’s glory in our midst.

As many times as I’ve read this text, thought of it, preached on it, used it in prayers, I did ponder how to approach it for the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is a story so rich in symbolism – that it takes place on the third day, the 6 water jugs, that it is a wedding feast.  You can tell quite a bit about a preacher’s theological commitments simply by how that person handles the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the text – is she commander, mediator (or mediatrix as Thomas Aquinas calls her), or just overbearing?  You could, like John Chrysostom, focus on how Jesus’ presence at the wedding blesses the institution of marriage? He was writing at a time when there was some rancorous division in the Church over marriage.  One can pick up the joyous line of the steward, “You have saved the best wine until the end,” an exclamation that always reminds me of a couple in my first congregation. We were shocked when he was diagnosed with leukemia in January and devastated when he died in May.  Still, I remember his wife of 48 years telling me that amidst the pressures of his illness, they made the most of the dwindling time together: “We sit around the table at night, remembering good times.  We tell stories and just laugh and laugh.”  Good wine, gracefully coming at the end.

None of these approaches seemed quite right for this community.  In reflecting on who we are and what we are doing here, many of us with our partners and families, and what you will do when you leave here, the point of the text that stands out to me is this: Jesus turned the water into wine and his disciples believed in him.  Here is a sign happening as people grow aware that their resources are lacking, of there not being enough.  Jesus, amidst the rising anxiety among the servants, gracefully transforms the simple substance they have at hand – water – into the best of wines.  The Word of God incarnate does what he does to reveal his glory so that his disciples will believe.  And they do believe.  Then, they follow him. While I could make something of the fact that Jesus’ next act in chapter 2 is to cleanse the Temple and drive out those whose primary concern was money, I’ll refrain so as not to impose any more of an agenda on you or the text.

The thought occurred to me that in this celebration Christian unity, we seem to share more than belief in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. It seems to me that the across denominations we are united in a deep sense of anxiety [No, I’m not referring to the Common Award].  We seem to be anxious for the Church, for Christianity’s lack of influence in society, for Christianity’s lack of relevance to society, and all sorts of related concerns about lack of money, lack of buildings fit for purpose, lack of effective mission, and a host of other issues.  [So much so, that we would question the value of what we have in communities of formation!]

Our response uniformly seems to be a sort of clerical Pelagianism. What I mean by clerical, perhaps even institutionally-fostered, Pelagianism is a false belief that if we only work harder, find new programmes to implement, sacrifice ourselves on the altar of institutional maintenance, then, and only then, will we restore the dwindling wine.  The Church will flourish when we learn to manufacture grace and generate a spiritual power that makes us all holier, makes Christianity more marketable, gives us more personal charisma, makes us all thinner and better looking, too.  Better yet, some new, completely out-of-pastoral-context mission programme from a ‘branded’ nondenominational mega-church across the Atlantic, product of some other leader’s zeal to save, will show us how to turn water into wine.

The frantic pace of work and ministry under the auspices of the Church can be crushing. I will confess to you, my friends, that I’m as guilty as anyone else.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  Ministry is vocation, our calling – and quite emotionally hard work.  I’ll never be asked to preach at Westcott again if I propose some sort of quietism, or suggest that you just sit down during your curacy or amidst some future incumbency.  There is much work to be done and we accept the full diary as being part of the post.  We’ve been called to ministry for who we are and the gifts we have to offer; gifts poured out for transformation by the Lord.  After all, Jesus is not going to come wrestle with the PCC in your stead or write your sermons for you.

The truth is, however, that the power to turn water into wine is not ours to possess or manufacture.  It seems to me, really and truly, that this is good news.  We are called to see the signs, believe that Jesus is Lord, participate in his transformation of us and of the world he loves, but we are not called to accomplish this transformation under our own power or for our own glory.  We are not the Saviour; he is.  And this, my friends, is really good news.  It is good news of which I’ve needed near constant reminding since my first years in ministry.  Back in the day when my thirtieth birthday was still a future milestone, and I looked out the rear window of the manse on to one of the Western ridges of the Appalachian mountains, a more senior minister in my conference did me a favour.  He’d served the same congregations 25 years before.  He listened to some of my concerns as I expressed all that I’d been trying to do to change my churches.  He said, “Cindy, listen to me.  You are not going to save those churches.  You are not going to save those people.  You are not the Saviour.  Jesus is the Saviour.”

It took me by surprise.  Really, it did.  To be honest, it hurt a little bit, but I realized it was true.  I wrote it down on a post-it note and stuck it to the fridge to remind me (must have lost it before coming to Wesley).  It is hard, though, not to be seduced into thinking that we have the power to save.  Jesus is the Saviour.  What we are asked to be are disciples attentive to the moments when the glorified Son of God shares a vision of his glory with us and believe that he is the Word Incarnate, the wellspring of living water, the Way, the truth, and the life. We share in his work, but we do not accomplish it apart from a deep and abiding relationship with God and with each other.

This is the point at which I should turn to telling you what more you need to do to make this happen.  That, however, would be hypocrisy.  Instead, I would share my hope for us all that we will be believers in the one whose presence is being revealed among us.  I suppose that I would want us to be confident in the gifts he has provided to us here to sustain and transform us: the liturgy that invites his presence, the bread and wine, and one another. His Real Presence with us in the Eucharist transforms us, awakening us to the graceful moments with one another when he lightens and enlivens us. When there is much work to do, we need even more to be nourished by Christ’s presence with us in the sacrament and in the grace we receive through our relationships with other people – the coffee with a colleague that unexpectedly becomes the sustenance of friendship; or when a lunch of fish finger sandwiches becomes a communion. These outpourings of wine shift our attention from what we lack to what we are being given.  It is not about doing something to make it happen, so much as it is about being in the moment with other people.

I suppose, though, there is one thing that I would ask you to do.  Some day when you see me walking along Jesus Lane and I look especially worn, engage me in a conversation that should go something like this:

“Hello Cindy.  You look you need reminding that you are not the Saviour.”
I’ll respond, “And neither are you.”
And after we laugh we might going on our way thinking, “Thanks be to God.”

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

Twelfth Night

Homily preached at the Eucharist to mark the beginning of the Lent Term
College Chapel
The Revd Dr Will Lamb, Vice-Principal, Westcott House
5th January 2015

There is a studied ambiguity about Twelfth Night these days, poised as most of us are between two celebrations of the Feast of the Epiphany. Many of us will have celebrated Epiphany yesterday, chalking it up above the front door, and yet we will celebrate Epiphany – again – tomorrow.
While experience shows the pastoral necessity of celebrating Epiphany on the nearest Sunday, I also see the wisdom in celebrating the twelve days of Christmas, to allow a little more space to share in the simplicity of the shepherds and to ponder the depths of the mystery of the incarnation.
While the octave of Christmas is filled with a rich diet of one liturgical festival after another, today on the plain old Monday after the Second Sunday of Christmas, we can ponder once more the miracle of Christmas.
And yet, we do so not by contemplating an infancy narrative but by thinking about the call of Philip and Nathanael. John’s gospel of course has no birth narrative as such. He begins with a majestic prologue, which many commentators describe in terms of the poetry of a hymn: ‘In the beginning was the Word…. and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. He passes almost immediately to the baptism of Jesus, and the call of the first disciples: Simon, Andrew and then Philip.
Jesus finds Philip and says, ‘Follow me.’ And Philip responds by finding Nathanael and telling him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ And yet the remarkable thing about Nathanael’s response is that he appears to suggest that the origins of Jesus were thoroughly unremarkable: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’
Nazareth, a town described by one American commentator as ‘Nowheresville’. We associate it with basilicas and pilgrim bus tours, sometimes even villages in Norfolk, but in the first century, who would have thought that ordinary little Nazareth would ever produce a Messiah?   But we perhaps discover here an insight that the poetry of the prologue fails to convey, the very beauty of its language distracting us from the simple fact that ‘flesh’ is ordinary.
There is an economy about John’s language in this passage – far more is left unsaid than is ever expressed in the short pithy statements that follow. Philip says, ‘Come and see’, echoing Jesus’ own words to Simon and Andrew in the passage immediately before this.
And yet the exchanges which follow are far from ordinary.  Jesus sees Nathanael and says, ‘Truly, an Israelite in whom there is no guile’. In these words, there is an intimation of the shadowy figure of Jacob, who lived by his wits and stole his brother’s birthright. ‘How do you know me?’ ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ For early commentators, drawing on the story of the fall and the fig leaves used by Adam and Eve to conceal their nakedness, the words suggested that Nathanael still lived under the shadow of sin. But for more modern commentators, the image is suggestive of Nathanael’s obedience to the law.
And yet, the goal posts have shifted. We have moved from the ordinary to the extraordinary. There is this moment of mutual recognition. Jesus recognizes Nathanael and Nathanael recognizes Jesus: ‘’Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” And then Jesus says, ‘Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these.”  And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
St Augustine argues that in this tangential reference to Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, Christ is here revealing his divinity in a beautiful way. The passage moves from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Or rather, by discovering the extraordinary in the depths of the ordinary. It is an insight captured wonderfully in a Christmas poem by UA Fanthorpe, entitled ‘Angels’ Song’.
Intimates of heaven,
This is strange to us,
The unangelic muddle,
The birth, the human fuss.
We sing a harder carol now:
Holy the donkey in the hay;
Holy the manger made of wood.
Holy the nails, the blood, the clay.
(U A Fanthorpe, New and Collected Poems (London, 2010))
St Augustine also argued that good preachers, who preach Christ, are as angels of God ascending and descending. They ascend through contemplation, just as Paul had ascended even to the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2); and they descend by instructing their neighbor, by sharing the fruits of their contemplation.

So as we look to the term ahead this evening, let us make sure that we devote ourselves to prayer and spend some time contemplating the mystery of the incarnation, learning to see with the eyes of faith, with the eyes of Nathanael, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

On Twelfth Night, as we pack away those Christmas decorations and take down the Christmas cards and we prepare for a new term. Let us remember that in the work that God has given us to do in response to his call, ‘we are all called to do, not extraordinary things, but very ordinary things, with an extraordinary love…’ (Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (London, 1989), p. 298).