Grace, Faith, Crucifixion and Church- A Sermon by Rachel Murray.

A Sermon preached by Rachel Murray, Ordinand, on 25th January 2017 for the feast of The Conversion of St Paul.
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If you had told me…. 4 months ago…on 25th September, the first day of the Michaelmas term that today  I would voluntarily be preaching to you on the Conversion of St Paul…..I would have been in the words of the epistle, trembling and astonished.

Actually today – I feel privileged and not just because it’s the feast day on which Brother Malcolm made his Life Profession – in 1975.

As a cradle Christian I am fascinated by conversion stories.  Possibly even slightly envious.   I have a friend who was an atheist for most of his life until fairly recently.  I wanted to know – what was the moment when it all changed, what happened – was it  highly dramatic,  were you surprised by joy – what did you experience?  I know God had been doing some work on him for a while and my friend said he was just sitting on the sofa watching television when in a moment  – unexpectedly – the universe shifted, it tilted, it changed, all was the same, yet all was profoundly different.   The scales had dropped from his eyes.  He was looking at life through a God lens.  Nothing would ever be the same again.

And so to St Paul – born as Saul of a Pharisee household…grounded and steeped in the Jewish faith.  Destined to be a Pharisee.  All he wanted to do was serve God.  The law of God was his life.

When he heard the teaching of Peter – he was appalled – he knew if this message continued it would overturn the laws of the Pharisees.  And so he began his fight against the Gospel with threatenings and slaughter– at its height – not only did he approve of the slaying of St Stephen  – but he held the coats of the men who did the stoning.

What happened on that road to Damascus has been described as the genetic moment for our Christian faith, it was the moment that caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world – it’s impact is never over and has become universally relevant for Christianity today.

I have identified 4 basic Pauline beliefs.  You may know more – I’m sure you’ll tell me later!  Firstly – we are justified by faith – Pharisees were justified by keeping the law.  Faith depended on what you did.  Paul radically subverted this by preaching that the gift of faith is not something to be achieved – it is something received in Grace.  Salvation is found in the life of Jesus, demonstrated by the action of the Cross, witnessed by resurrection and empowered by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, Grace was a keyword for Paul.  God does not love us because we are good but to fashion and fill us with his love.  This was a huge source of Paul’s exhilaration and joy.  The Grace of God  given not by reward but by his nature of neverending love.

Thirdly Paul wrote time and time again of the crucifixion of Jesus and it’s meaning for the world.  He did not witness it but the event was writ deep in his soul.  This is incredibly significant as to a Jew, crucifixion was unspeakably shaming and damning.   You were not just cursed in the eyes of humankind – but also God.  So it is remarkable that Paul came to see and write of the crucifixion of Jesus – not as God’s curse but a saving act of liberation and forgiveness.  At the foot of the Cross, Paul found himself to be a helpless sinner – but not a sinner forsaken.  It was there he was a sinner forgiven.  The Cross and forgiveness are inextricably linked.

And fourthly, The Church and the Body of Christ.  Jesus on the Damascus Road asked Paul  – ‘Why are you persecuting me?’  Gradually Paul came to see and know that the body of Christ was made up of Christian believers and saw that Jesus and his followers made up a single body which we now call the Church.  All Paul’s morality was based on the foundation given through baptism  – in which a Christian puts on Christ and Christ dwells in them.

Paul was changed on that Damascus Road – but it took time for his theology to mature.  He has to be befriended and instructed.  Baptised, we are told – so that the eyes which were blinded in that conversion were opened.

That Damascus Road experience is not confined to Paul, nor to a definite time or place.  Our coming together at this college, to this service has the Damascus Road written deep within it.  We travel that road countless times in our lives and the Spirit of the Living God is here to work His purpose of change and renewal within us.  We are here to be converted and re-converted.  To be converted to a greater truth.  To be converted ever more deeply into our true selves – the selves God wants us to be.

And with that conversion comes challenge –  can we as priests prepare people to be open to the transformation, to the conversion that God holds for them?

 

Our conversion is never complete in this world, rarely dramatic, maybe long and slow – but simply by the fact that we are here today, the conversion of St Paul tells us that by the cross of Jesus, we receive the grace of God and it is through grace and faith…forgiveness and love that we are justified before God.

 

And so today we say:

Thanks be to God for Paul
For his conversion on the Damascus Road
For his teaching, preaching, travelling and writing
For his work which founded the Christian Church
And that each one of us
By the Grace of God
May be able to say
Now I see
Now I understand
Now I know
Now I believe
Amen

Westcott Foundation 2016-17 Programme

WF programme 2016-17 cover smallerIt is a great pleasure to publish the programme for this year’s Westcott Foundation.

As ever, there is a range of study days to resource church leaders in worship and mission, preaching and pastoral ministry, drawing on the riches of the church’s tradition to enable engagement with the contemporary context.  You can download study day programme here: Westcott Foundation Study Days 2016-17 

The annual retreats (for Deacons, and for established clergy) make the most of Westcott House as an oasis in the heart of Cambridge, perfect for taking time out to reflect and recharge.  You can download the retreat programme here: Westcott Foundation Retreats 2016-17 

All events are also listed on the main Westcott House website and calendar

To book a place at any of the events, simply call 01223 741000, or use the downloadable booking form.

You can read more about our first event this year (5th October) here, timed to resource planning and thinking in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday, and in the wider context of current conflict and the centenary commemorations of WW1.

The Bible, the Great War, and Remembrance
Wednesday 5th October 2016, 10am-4pm
Led by Andrew Mein, Nathan Macdonald, and Ally Barrett
Remembrancetide is challenging. How do we meet so many diverse needs and expectations? How do we both remember the past fallen and speak into the complexity of contemporary conflicts? 100 years ago, as the world faced the horrors of total war, the Bible was crucial in enabling Christians to make sense of their experience. Introduced by the leaders of a Cambridge University research project on the use of the Bible during WW1, and by Westcott’s Director of Pastoral Studies, we will reflect on current practice of remembrance, and draw on the use of the Bible during 1914-18 to find new resources for theology and preaching.

 

Easter Term Opening Eucharist Sermon

Easter Term Opening Eucharist – Monday 18 April 2016

Sermon preached by The Rev’d Dr Will Lamb, Vice-Principal

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10.10)
+In the name of the Father…
When I was first ordained as a Deacon, I remember having to learn the Exsultet, the Easter Song of Praise. As you will be aware, the Exsultet is sung at the Easter Vigil on Easter Eve or early in the morning on Easter Day. It takes some practising. And I remember learning it and singing it again and again during Holy Week, determined to get it right. But I also remember feeling slightly awkward singing these words as we journeyed through Holy Week – surely I should wait until after Good Friday before singing this Easter Song of Praise. ‘Rejoice, heavenly choirs! Sing choirs of angels! Exult all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King is Risen!’
Surely I needed to enter into the depths of the tragedy and dereliction of Good Friday before rushing too quickly to the resurrection. I needed to stand steadfastly at the foot of the cross. And with the pious intensity of youth, surely what I needed to ensure was that my Holy Week was really grim.
And yet, John the Evangelist subverts all that. Life can be grim enough, and he reminds us that Jesus came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly.
We should not lose sight of the fact that if the gospel is good news, then it is quite simply life-giving. Yes, in the course of ministry we may well find ourselves standing alongside others on Calvary, not because we choose to be there but because God has called us there. The important thing to remember is that God shows in Jesus that he loves us so much that he wants us to rise up and to become fully alive. He calls us out of the tomb we carry within us.
To live life to the full, to share in life abundantly, is not to ignore the reality of human experience and human suffering, but it does mark a refusal to be overwhelmed by suffering and the deadliness of death. 
Baron von Hugel, a lay Roman Catholic, had come originally from Austria and lived in London from the end of the nineteenth century onwards. There he developed a ministry as a spiritual director and a great authority on the mystical tradition. If you’ve ever come across his letters to his niece, you will have some inkling of his wisdom and judgement of character, above all his sense of humour.

He met many of the leading theologians of his day, including Cardinal Newman, and Fr Henri Huvelin, one of the great spiritual directors of his day and who exercised a profound influence on Charles de Foucauld. In his little book, The Life of Prayer, he writes this: ‘I used to wonder in my conversation with John Henry Newman, how one so good and who had made so many sacrifices to God, could be so… depressing.  And again twenty years later, I used to marvel contrariwise, in my conversation with the Abbé Huvelin, how one more melancholy in natural temperament than even Newman himself, and one physically ill in ways and degrees in which Newman never was, could so radiate spiritual joy and expansion as, in very truth, the Abbé did.’  
What does it mean to radiate this kind of spiritual joy?
It is a joy which finds its strength and confidence in the hope of the resurrection. I remember once a priest telling me that Christian ministry demands a very high doctrine of death and resurrection. In other words, the ministry of a priest is shaped by the Easter mystery. These fifty days, which culminate in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, should be a time when we seek to explore the depths of that mystery.
And I want to suggest to you that the discovery of the kind of spiritual joy that von Hugel describes lies in cultivating two things: and I want to invite you to ponder these two things as we begin a new term.
The first is about grace – and grace is about recognising that everything we are and everything we have and everything we ever will be is simply given to us as a gift. We may think that we can earn status or friendship or love by good works – but the truth is that God acknowledges each of us as a beloved child, as a source of delight to him, and that is not earned but given to us. The whole drama of salvation, everything we have celebrated at Holy Week and Easter, is given freely to us.
And do not underestimate the transforming power of grace. Here we begin to understand the real depths of the generosity of God. Grace is transforming  because it presents us with a challenge. And the challenge is whether we can find it in ourselves to be generous in our dealings with one another, just as God is generous to us. I promise you that you will never regret being kind or generous in your dealings with another human being. There is joy in generosity. There is joy in kindness.
The second thing is about prayer – it is no accident that von Hugel offers these reflections about joy in the context of a discussion about prayer.
A few years ago, I found myself in a conversation with a Carthusian monk, who had spent over ten years in silent contemplation at the Grande Chartreuse, high in the Chartreuse Mountains in south-eastern France. This kind and gentle monk had been on quite a journey and he was responding to a call to be a priest in the Church of England. He had been on a series of parish placements to become more familiar with parish life. I was interested to learn something of his impressions of the parish. He spoke animatedly of the role of the laity, of outreach and mission in the local community, and of the sometimes frantic busyness that characterized the parishes he visited, and then he looked a little puzzled and he turned to me and he asked me this profound, unsettling and yet simple question: ‘When do you adore God? When do you adore God?’
Westcott House Chapel
One of the regular puzzles about life at Westcott is its frantic pace, the busyness of each working day, packing so much in, classes, placements, tutorials, meetings… In some respects it mirrors the busyness of parish life. And yet when the bell rings, everything stops. We are called here to offer prayer and praise to the God of Life.

In these times of prayer, the Risen Christ comes to us, the Risen Christ gives himself to us. We learn to rediscover the reality of his grace and mercy again and again and again. And this is the source of all our joy. Whether we come to the altar tired or doubtful or sad or just messed up, or whether we come to it bursting with laughter and energy, it is the same constant Christ who gives himself into our lives in order that he might draw us more fully into his. And it is here that we discover again and again the One who is our resurrection and our life.

Thoughts on the Conversion of St Paul

Carol Backhouse, current senior student at Westcott House and all-around legend, shared some of her meditations today, the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul:

Acts 9.1-22. Matthew 19.27-30

Let’s fast forward seven months. Or nineteen months. Or thirty one months. It’s a Monday morning, and you’re heading for morning prayer at your new shiny parish church, wearing your new shiny dog collar. You come around a bend in the road, and you see a small car ahead of you, complete with boy-racer stripes and souped up alloys. And the car is wrapped around a lamp post.

So you stop, and you go over to help. You go to the quietest victim, and open his airway. You’re relieved to watch his chest rise and fall as he starts breathing again. So you phone for an ambulance, and wait on the side of the road, saying a very different morning prayer to the one in the red book.

Later that day, you visit the local hospital to see how that young lad is getting on. He can’t remember anything that happened, and knows only that he will not be able to walk again. His life has changed beyond anything he could imagine. He’s no idea what the future will hold, and is dreading the moment when he sees his Mum and Dad again. He is scared, and seems to have aged ten years. Yet he’s glad to be alive.

Let’s fast forward a few months. You keep in touch with the young lad, as he makes his way out of hospital, through a rehabilitation unit, and starts a retraining programme that will enable him to work. You get to know his family, his Mum, his Dad, the girlfriend. You listen to all of them, as they chew over their anger and fear, their frustration and their guilt. You hear of the milestones and the miracles, and share in the joy and the regret. The new shiny dog collar becomes worn and scuffed, and you still travel that road wary what you will find on that corner.

I find it difficult to relate to Paul’s dramatic Damascus moment. I have more sympathy for Ananias, the spiritual first responder who brings first aid, prayer and comfort, and who tries to put this life-changing moment into some sort of context. I wonder whether Ananias and Paul stayed friends in later years, whether Ananias continued as Paul’s spiritual director.

It strikes me that we’re more likely to encounter Ananias moments than Damascus moments in our own lives. It strikes me that ministry is having the faith and hope that we too can be Ananias to people like Paul who experience life-changing transformations. Ananias converts the situation into one where Jesus can continue to speak into Paul’s life and work, where Jesus can continue to be present in Paul’s life so that Paul knows him as a friend, a companion; God incarnate.

We can be like Ananias, who responded to God’s call to speak good news to a man who would have killed him for his Christian faith. We can be like Ananias, who calls Paul his brother and makes him welcome despite his misgivings. We can be like Ananias who offers Paul baptism, food, healing and sight. We can be like Ananias who encourages Paul to go out and preach good news.

Ananias’ compassion and courage, those few words and deeds, will continue to transform and nourish Paul for the rest of his life. Without Ananias as the spiritual first responder, would Paul have gone one to such a stellar ministry? Ananias’ words have far-reaching effects: every single day Paul will know the impact which such courageous care and compassion can have on a life, and Paul will seek to repeat this care and compassion as he ministers to the fledgling church.

We may not encounter many Damascus moments. But our constant compassion and care enable us to be Ananias to other Pauls, to enable God’s good news of transformation to be constantly heard in the lives of those we minister to. Amen.

Listen in to Westcott and Cambridge Theological Federation on BBC Radio 4

Students from Westcott House and the wider Cambridge Theological Federation gathered (even earlier than normal!) on Sunday morning the 24th of January for a recording of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday Worship’ Programme.

Marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme for this service was ‘Salt and Light.’ Music included Howells’ Jubilate, Westcott Principal Chris Chivers led the service and the preacher was Revd Dr Jane Leech, Principal of Wesley House.

You can listen to the entire service (~38 minutes) on the BBC Radio 4 website here.

Nurturing Urban Virtues

 

An article by Professor Philip Sheldrake, who will be leading a seminar on Nurturing Urban Virtues for the Westcott Foundation (Wednesday 24th February 2016, 11am – 4pm).  To book a place, contact us, and for more information, click here.

Over 80% of the British population now live in urban areas. Since the 1960s British cities have also become more densely populated and radically diverse. A sense of “place” is vital part of human experience. It makes us feel connected to the surroundings and to other people, evokes a sense of belonging and provokes commitment.
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Urban contexts have a special capacity to focus a range of physical, intellectual and creative energies precisely because they combine differences of age, ethnicity, culture, gender and religion in unique ways.

Sadly, for a range of reasons including increased mobility, many urban areas also nowadays suffer from a serious breakdown in a sense of community identity, mutual communication and neighbourliness. This has made a number of social commentators reflect on the importance of urban virtues. Can we identify the critical social virtues for our day and how may they be nurtured as a way of reversing an increasing sense of social fragmentation and of redeveloping what might be called a “civic imagination”?skyscraper2

A range of urban virtues have been suggested. These include:

  • the recovery of the value of casual conversation and active neighbourliness;
  • greater attentiveness to and respect for our surroundings (both the physical street or apartment block and the others who live in it);
  • a willingness to participate in a place and to become socially engaged;
  • alleyway2courtesy and mutuality;
  • confronting prejudice and exclusion;
  • mercy in its wider sense of kindness and compassion;
  • inclusivity and hospitality to those who are in any way “other” or different from ourselves;
  • cultivating reconciliation to counter violence or mutual suspicion;
  • passionately committing ourselves to a process of negotiating the “common good”.

If the Church is supposed to be “good at community” what currency do our local faith communities have to offer to the wider urban environment? How can local churches and people in urban ministry actively help to reverse the loss of community identity or neighbourliness? This demands reflection on key Christian values such as the pursuit of the “common good” and how to communicate this to people beyond the Church.
But, equally importantly, cycle2it also demands we take practical action, some of which may be initially uncomfortable to religious “insiders” such as the use of church space for neighbourhood activities or the replacement of vital local facilities (e.g. a Post Office) that are being shut down.

The study day at Westcott House on Wednesday 24 February will offer the opportunity for participants to reflect on how local Christian communities and people in urban ministry can better help to underpin civil society in our cities.
To book a place, please contact us.

 

Creative worship for Advent

Our second Creative Worship for this term took its inspiration from monastic communities.

The altar party prepares in the cloister

A small choir sang the Advent Prose at the start of this service which included beautiful plainchant, a homily from S Gregory Nazianzen, communion and a rousing chorus of O Come, O Come Emmanuel as the recessional.

The Gospel procession  –  the chapel in collegiate seating

Listen to a snippet of the Agnus Dei and the Gloria below.