|6:00pm||Passion Sunday Organ Recital - Simon Johnson|
Sermon preached on the Sunday before Lent (26 February 2017) by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean
The Dean asks, "What do you and I live for? And what would we be willing to die for?", and explains that "Understanding with the head what faith is about is important, but not as important as following with the heart."
It was reported last week that a 50 year old British man who had converted to Islam and been in Guantanamo Bay, the notorious American prison for terrorists, paid compensation by the British government for mistreatment, had blown himself up in a suicide bomb attack near Mosul in Iraq. He was one of hundreds of British people who have gone to Syria to fight, most for the terrorist organisation Daesh, but some to fight against them with the Kurds and other groups.
People throughout history have risked their lives, and lost them, for causes they believe in, however good or bad those causes might be. And what do you and I live for? And what would we be willing to die for?
Our society isn’t very good at dealing with sacrifice and death. We’re encouraged to consume things, to have a good time, to enjoy life to the full as long as possible. Putting your life on the line isn’t generally on the agenda, unless it’s in pursuit of what you individually want.
But even we, from time to time, are willing to suffer for what we believe in. Whether for example you’re a professional sports player or a recreational jogger, taking exercise for fun or for health reasons, you may find yourself being physically challenged and running through the pain barrier in order to achieve your ambition.
The church celebrates its martyrs throughout history, those who witness to the power of commitment to God in Christ by being prepared to suffer and if necessary die for their faith. This month, for example, we’ve remembered Christians killed for their faith in 1597 in Japan, Janani Luwum bishop of Uganda killed by Idi Amin in 1977, and Polycarp an 84 year old bishop in what’s now Izmir in Turkey, killed for refusing to deny the lordship of Christ around the year 155.
If you speak of martyrs today, people are likely to think, not of Christian saints who witness to the power of God’s love and self-sacrifice, but of Islamic Jihadists who seek to kill as many people as possible along with themselves, debased witnesses to an ideology of hatred that replaces the all-compassionate God which Islamic faith proclaims by a God of violence, vengeance, power and death.
The Bishop of London has pointed out that our civilisation is doomed if no one is prepared to die for it. In this cathedral, we’re surrounded by memorials to soldiers and sailors who gave their lives in the service of their country, defending what they believed in. And if they did that for our country, how much more should it be so for our faith.
Earlier this week I was listening to a youth worker who said that in his experience, young people are looking for a cause to live for, something which they would be prepared to die for, and that in his experience Christian faith in the radical love of God is a powerful force in motivating young people in service and sacrifice.
This afternoon’s reading from the New Testament is a passage from the later period of the ministry of Jesus, beginning with the experience of transfiguration and ending with Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal, execution and resurrection. It comes at the turning point in the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus’ disciples have recognised that he’s the Messiah, the Saviour of the Jewish people, and Jesus has to tell them that salvation comes, not through military force, not by violence, but through self-sacrifice and accepting death in God’s service.
It’s in that context that the vision of transfiguration comes, when Jesus appears in glory as a foretaste of heaven, and an affirmation of his divine calling, coming down with glory from the mountain, facing spiritual conflict and evil, and preparing to see that conflict through, into and beyond death.
In this passage we see the power which enables each of us to face death with something to believe in. It’s the power of the radical love of God, the vision of God which fired Jesus and which he shares with us, the God who comes to us to set us free from the power of sin and death.
Christians don’t long for death or seek to inflict it on others, but are instead driven by enthusiasm for love, life and joy. It’s the vision of the glory of God’s love which sets us free, together with Polycarp and Janani Luwum, to be able to live and die entrusting ourselves to that amazing love.
At the beginning of this service I had the privilege of installing Adam formally as a minister of Christ in this cathedral choir as a Vicar Choral. One of the things that he and the other members of the choir and musicians do here, day after day, is to invite us through the power of music to get in touch with the power of the vision of God which Jesus had on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Understanding with the head what faith is about is important, but not as important as following with the heart, being inspired in body and soul with the vision of God’s love to renew the world, to undo the power of evil and suffering in people’s lives, to bring transfiguration, peace and glory to those who live without hope. Now that’s something worth dying for.
At General Synod, the church’s parliament, ten days ago we had a modern language version of Evensong. And I was struck by what had been done to one of the responses that comes after the Lord’s prayer. In Cranmer’s original version, the prayer goes, ‘Endue thy ministers with righteousness and make thy chosen people joyful’; but the modern language version prays that God may give his people knowledge and true godliness. Joy is replaced by knowing.
That’s pretty typical of modern political correctness, whether it comes from Christians or secularists. Modernity says you should know the right thing in your head and do the right thing in your life, so that you make sure that you are right and others are wrong. To get it right, we need knowledge, and we need to put it into practice.
The problem with this is that it’s heartless: it’s about what we think and what we do, and not about who we are. Mere knowledge and living correctly leaves our vision untouched; there is in it no life or generosity, no transformation by a power beyond ourselves, no height of feeling or depth of commitment to another.
Later in the New Testament, towards the end of the letter to the Hebrews, it says that Jesus endured the cross for the sake of the joy that was set before him. It wasn’t knowledge and godliness, but the joy and generosity of love that took Jesus from the top of a mountain to the embrace of the cross, through suffering and the conflict with evil. It was that joy which fired up the apostles and gave them strength to face what happened to Jesus, and to follow in his footsteps.
And so it can be for you and I. Whenever we hear the word ‘martyr’, whenever we’re challenged as to what we believe in or what we’ll give our lives for, let’s recall that it’s the vision of glory and of life transfigured, the joy of love that beckons us on through life and death into the arms of God, no matter what sufferings may await us on the way.
Jesus says to his disciples on the mountain, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ Here is something that we can die for, the reason we’ve been made, the joy and wonder that music speaks of, and that we see in the lives of those who give themselves in love for the sake of others. Let us get up and follow Jesus Christ, and not be afraid. Lord, make thy chosen people joyful.