Sermon by the Rev’d Jay C. James for April 5, 2020, Palm Sunday

Blessed is He who cometh in the Name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest.

The Church’s calendar has brought us to the end of Lent and to the beginning of another Holy Week. This Lent has been unlike any other we have known.  It is similar to past Lenten seasons in an ecclesiastical sense; forty days in length, more frequent Scripture reading, more intense and directed prayer, and acts of disciplined sacrifice. This was expected. From a medical, biological, and social perspective, this Lenten season has been unprecedented. The Covid-19 pandemic has dramatically and drastically altered our lives and still dominates our lives at home, at our employment, and certainly with our lives of worship. I read on a website a week ago where a man quipped, “This is a little more than I wanted to give up for Lent.” So this Lent has been like no other and on this Palm Sunday we begin a Holy Week that will most assuredly be like no other.

Prayers are asked for those afflicted with the virus, healthcare workers trying to combat the spread of the virus and caring for those infected, all those in any way affected by the virus, and all those in countries around the world battling the virus.

Holy Week re-presents for us those central acts through which Our Lord has brought us salvation. It is therefore the center of our Church Year.  It is the holiest and most solemn period.  Our lives as Christians all through the next year depend on and are derived from, what we live through spiritually this next week.  One of the tragedies, among many tragic events brought on by the battle against the Coronavirus, is we will not have the Holy Week liturgies in our parish Churches. The opportunities we have to keep Holy Week will have to be different. The commemoration we have of those precious events of Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, His institution of the Mass and giving us the New Commandment to love one another, His crucifixion that wrought forgiveness, and his glorious Resurrection with the gift of everlasting life, will all be remembered in different ways given our severely altered circumstances. Every attempt we can make to remember these holy days will only emphasize how central they are to our lives as Christians.

There is a unifying aspect between how we have kept Lent and how we have fought the awful virus. It lies in our efforts as a community. The way we attempted to keep Lent with our Lenten Journey programs allowed us to keep our disciplines together. We read the same Scripture readings on the same days. We gave up the same material things during the same weeks.  We prayed the same prayers of petition, intercession, thanksgiving, confession, and adoration at the same time. It was a communal effort. We were trying to grow spiritually together. On a larger but similar scale, we are being asked to make sacrifices as a nation. We are asked to stay-in-our homes as much as we can. We are asked to give to organizations that will help provide protection and needed equipment to our health care workers. Our families are asked to help, if we can, those who cannot get the essential things they need like food and medicines, or essential life-supporting needs. We could keep Lent as a parish family and we can fight to overcome this pandemic as a national family. Keeping Lent and defeating Covid-19 are both bringing us together in ways that will make us spiritually stronger.

Reliving these events in Holy Week that confront us rapidly and intensely are intended to remind us of all that God has done for us in His Son Jesus Christ. Calling back to our memories means more than “thinking” about them. We remember them by reliving them and thereby entering them in a very real, spiritual way. Those events are brought back to us to relive them in the present. That is why celebrating Holy Week is so central and essential to our individual Christian lives and the life of the Church. It’s why we relive it over and over.

This repetition we have in our Common Prayer Tradition, preserved for us in our Prayer Book, by saying the same prayers at the same time and in the same way, is intended to jog our memories. Not only do we say the same prayers at the same time, but also we do the same things from year to year. We recall the law that was given to Moses. We call to mind time after time what Jesus said and did. We bring back all that happened in those precious days before our Lord’s earthly ministry was ended. We do this for a very good reason.  We want to have our memories imbued with the images from the Bible. We want the images that were revealed by God in the Holy Scriptures to become a part of ourselves. We want our souls informed so they can be formed.

The whole purpose of living through another Holy Week is that if we don’t live through it one more time two things may happen. One, we might forget and grace will not have an opportunity to convict and convert us. Every time we go through Holy Week, or the Church Year for that matter, the holy words and images from Scripture are brought back to mind and made present. When they come to our minds, they inform our souls. They are indeed saving images, because God reveals them to us. The images I speak of are the acts that God performed; saving the Israelites from slavery by parting the waters of the Red Sea. The resurrection of the bones in the valley of death spoken of by the Prophet Ezekiel. The image of the heavenly city Jerusalem.  The images of Jesus Christ dying on the Cross and rising three days later to save us from sin. These are just a few of the hundreds of images presented to us.

The second reason to repeat Holy Week is when the images come to inform our souls, grace has the opportunity to strengthen, comfort and guide us back to the source of our lives, that is Jesus Christ. These images open our hearts and minds to what God has done for us to make us open to grace. The goal is to build in us clean souls. Each time we relive the Church Year and more immediately when we relive another Holy Week we are opening ourselves to God’s grace by recalling revealed images. It is only in bringing back to our memories what God has done for us that the right images are preserved for us and for our children. The revealed images that are God-given have been the reason Christianity has survived and even flourished. Thank God that we have the images from the Bible to keep us in the right faith and believing the right things.

Our Palm Sunday is marked by hearing The Passion according to Saint Matthew. We cannot have the dramatic singing of the Passion done in parts this year. We will have to hear it or read it on our own. Take time today to read it. It will help us brace ourselves to relive those images all week. Then read the Passion according to Saint John on Good Friday to relive that awful death and remind ourselves that we put Jesus there on the Cross. On Saturday reread the passages describing our salvation history from the Prayer Book’s liturgy for The Great Vigil of Easter. The whole of salvation history will reveal to us once again why we need a savior. It is all so we do not forget, because we must tell our children. But memory is far more than just an intellectual exercise to preserve history. We hear these stories and call them to mind because the stories are true and give us the saving teaching, doctrine the Church calls it, that comes only from God through His Son Jesus Christ. When that happens, grace comes to us to save us. That is what Holy Week and Easter are all about.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sermon by the Rev’d Dr Jeffrey A. Hanson for March 29, 2020, the Fifth Sunday in Lent

One commentator has said that “The raising of Lazarus is the Gospel in miniature.”

I think that is right, because this miracle, unique to John, fulfills his Gospel’s intent for the reader, encapsulates all John’s major themes, and occupies a crucial place in his telling of the story of Christ.

The raising of Lazarus is the last and most dramatic of the miraculous signs done by Jesus in John’s Gospel, and yet like all signs as important as the event itself is, just as important is how people respond to it.

More than once John tells his reader that the Gospel is written that those who read it might believe that Jesus is the Son of God. It is for the same reason that Jesus performs this miracle, to demonstrate his divine origin. At the same time, I think he performs this miracle for entirely understandable reasons that emanate from not just his divinity but his perfect humanity.

First we must speak of Martha, who takes the initiative to meet Jesus on his way to her house. Her faith is strong already, surely as a result of her family’s deep friendship with Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Martha is 100 percent confident that Jesus has power to heal the sick.

And yet Jesus will deepen her faith in him yet further. “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Notice the open-endedness of Martha’s faith: She does not know how God will empower Jesus the Son, but she does believe that God will empower Jesus the Son with whatever he asks no matter how daring or unexpected.

Her faith is already open to the possibility that not only can Jesus heal; he can raise the dead, and to prove that he can raise the dead, he raises just one dead man now, his dear friend Lazarus.

Much as he provided literal bread to thousands of hungry people to prove that he is the true spiritual bread that comes down from heaven, and much as he opened the eyes of a blind man to the literal light of the sun to prove that he is the spiritual light that enlightens all people, so now he raises a man from literal death to prove the truth of his resounding words: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Now we know that believers in Christ will face the end of their mortal lives; even Lazarus dies after having been raised. When Jesus speaks of himself as the resurrection and the life he means that mortal death is not the end of our lives, and that anyone who believes in him will never die in the sense that their life is indestructible, though of course in this world that life comes to a temporary end as it did for Lazarus.

Jesus then sharpens this extraordinary teaching and promise by putting the question directly to Martha: “Do you believe this?” It is not enough to think this might be true or to believe it in the abstract, and her answer proves that her already strong faith in Jesus is now even more profound and personally appropriated: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”

There is in John’s Gospel no more perfect confession of faith, nor a more complete realization of John’s intention in writing this Gospel. It is John too who will quote Jesus as saying blessed are those who believe without seeing. Martha has not yet even seen the miracle, but she already believes in Jesus’s words of promise.

The faith of Martha is precisely what John’s Gospel is for, and what this miracle is for: to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God.

But we must also speak of the faith of Mary. Notice she says the exact same thing as Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She too, like her sister, is 100 percent confident that Jesus can heal the sick.

Yet we can learn something distinctive from her experience with Jesus too.

Mary’s companions think she is going to the tomb of her brother to mourn him with weeping; she falls at Jesus’s feet weeping; she is joined by others in the shedding of tears.

And Jesus is deeply disturbed by her pain as he will be again in the next chapter when John uses the same words to describe Jesus’s being deeply disturbed by the contemplation of his own imminent death.

Their shared grief precipitates the shortest and most emotionally poignant verse in the NT: “Jesus wept.”

Here we see I think another perfectly valid reason why Jesus performs this miracle: He is the perfect human, and like all of us he has friends, and Lazarus is a dear one.

Martha and Mary’s neighbors can see from his pain that Jesus loved his friend, so it’s not surprising that they wonder whether he could have kept Lazarus from dying in the first place.

Of course we know he could have, but this sign, like all signs, is for the glory of God, as Jesus himself says in verse 40.

Christian faith is not in denial about sickness, suffering, and death.

These are unavoidable realities for the human condition.

And when faced with sickness, suffering, and death Christian faith does not require stoicism.

Jesus was not stoical. Jesus wept. He wept because his friend is dead. He wept because death is our enemy and there is no good in it.

But Jesus did not just weep. He knew Martha was right: God would give him anything he asked, even the favor of raising his friend from the dead. He did not deny death—he used it as proof that he had been sent by God, and he used it to turn tears into joy.

He did not stand mourning by the grave, he broke it open and in a loud voice commanded the impossible: “Lazarus,” my friend, “come out.”

For the Christian death is not the last word. The last word is the glory of God, which bursts forth even from death as surely as Lazarus burst forth from his own grave, by the victorious power of Jesus Christ.

Like Martha, we have not seen what we believe. Like Mary, we shed tears of grief at all that has been lost to us in these trying times. Like their friends, we are puzzled why it could not have been different.

Like them both, may we use even this moment—may we use every moment—to build up within us the saving faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God that alone conquers death and secures for us all the resurrected life that he promised.

Amen.

Collect for Palm Sunday

Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Collect for the season:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (“Laetare”)

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Collect for the season:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Jay C. James at the Church of the Advent, March 15, 2020, the Third Sunday in Lent

The woman said to (Jesus), “I know that messiah is coming, he will show us all things.”  Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

There is something in us that naturally draws us to water.  Beyond the physical need to have water when we thirst is a pull, an attraction, a deep desire to be near and enjoy water.  Maybe that’s why we treasure living in Boston. Here we have the pleasure of the inner harbor and the banks of the Charles.  This need to be near water has always been in us and is universal. Of course, we need to be near water to survive, but there is something more basic and elemental about being near bodies of water.  One of Massachusetts’ native sons and our thirty-fifth president, John F. Kennedy, knew well of the attraction of the sea. He and his family frequented their home in Hyannis on Cape Cod. He expressed love and desire to be near the sea in his address at a dinner for the America’s Cup crew in 1962:  I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it’s because in addition to the fact that the sea changes, and the light changes, and ships change, it’s because we all came from the sea.  And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea – whether it is to sail or to watch it – we are going back from whence we came. President Kennedy’s pull of the sea he attributes partly to biology but in his description we also easily sense a romance, a mystical quality to the sea and our being drawn to it.

There is a well of water in Sychar, Samaria, in the Gospel passage for today and it is to that well that we are drawn and hear the well-known exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  The attractions of the water here can be attributed to both material and spiritual phenomena. One could make the case that there is the physical thirst Jesus must have as He is on His hurried trip through Samaria.  It could be that thirst that has brought him to the well. This is similar to last week’s Gospel passage in which Nicodemus is questioning how one can be born again. Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?  Beyond and above this literalism, there is also the spiritual desire of the woman at the well for the water of life, who is Jesus.  That attraction to the living water that is Jesus is the more powerful. It’s more authoritative because it feeds the woman with the truth.  

The pull of the supernatural and divine grace of Jesus is present and active in the Samaritan woman and it is that grace that converts her and moves her to bring others to see Jesus as the Savior.  We learn from this that in matters of religion, persons will be drawn by the supernatural. There has to be a sense of mystery in our worship lives just as there was a deep sense of mystery in the woman at the well concerning Jesus.  She declared to the people in the city, Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ?  She knew this man must be of divine origin because he was telling her things about her past even though this is their first meeting.  She would not have been amazed and awed by Jesus without that evidence of His divinity.  

We know it’s true here at the Advent.  We come here because there is a sense of mystery and awe and wonder in our worship.  That mystery lets us know that there is someone out there, for us it’s God Almighty, whom we need to have shed His supernatural grace on us.  We would not come here if the worship was just a reflection of what we see and experience all week long. We need to be drawn by the open space that makes us move our eyes upward to heaven.  The beauty of the art and architecture, the color, the music, the other-worldliness of the worship moves our hearts and minds to someone other than ourselves. As transcendent as God is shown to be in our worship, still He seems to know us intimately and we ask Him to come and love us personally.  Especially in these times of uncertainty visited on every one of us by the Coronavirus. Don’t we naturally look to the God who sees all, knows all, and will have the power to bring us through the crisis. At the same time, we want and need to know that He knows each of us and holds us in His heart.  In the end, we count on His mysterious and wondrous love to pull us through.  

It must have been the same for the woman at the well.  Two actions of Jesus let the women know that Jesus is no ordinary man:  He promises her water that will lead to everlasting life. Every one who drinks this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  Then he told her things about her life that could only be possible if someone could know her heart and soul.  In response to Jesus’ bidding the woman to get her husband she responded, I have no husband.  Jesus, having never met her, said, You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.  The woman is not ashamed or offended by this.  She is amazed and awe-struck and even overcome with joy.  She responds, Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.  Jesus tells her the truth about herself.  She knows that Jesus sees her as she really is.  When she knows that He is the purveyor of the truth, she has a sense of joy and wonder and even freedom.  Jesus converts the woman and the conversion is so strong that she must run and tell others. 

The woman at the well becomes a convert.  She knows that the Messiah, in her words, …will show us all things.  Jesus had just shown her everything about herself and then declared, I who speak to you am he.  Like most excited converts she runs to share this new found truth and belief with those in the city and begins her work as an evangelist.  Many come out from the city to see Jesus when she bids them, Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  This shows the universality, the catholicity, the all-encompassing love and grace of Jesus Christ.  Everyone has a soul and Jesus sees down to the heart of it.  

So what do we do?  Where does that leave us?  It leaves us in the middle of Lent, working on our own souls.  Maybe asking ourselves the question, “When Jesus looks at me and sees down to my heart and soul, what will He find?”  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Will He find me as I truly am supposed to be? If He finds things there that are not the way He wants me to be, can I have His grace help me make them right?  Part of the serious and important work of Lent is taking on Lenten disciplines. In setting aside the habits that are not helpful, and denying ourselves the things that are not necessary, we make opportunities to turn more to God.  The simple acts of our Lenten disciplines peel away layers of things that are not needful so we can concentrate on the things that matter to the soul. Praying at more frequent intervals. Not taking in foods that are not essential so we have more control of our bodies.  Opening the Scriptures for longer periods so the revelation of God in Christ comes to us. All these acts and more have the effect, with the correct attitude, of allowing Christ’s forgiving and healing grace to come into our souls and work His will.

What was good for the Samaritan woman is also good for us.  She was offered to drink from a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  When she, by faith, believed that Jesus is who He said He is, new life-giving water was given to her.  In Jesus she found that the endless supply from that well lasts until it brings her to eternal life. More of the Good News is that everyone can have that water.  Everyone is drawn to the water of life much like we’re drawn to the sea. It doesn’t matter who we are, the water from the well of life is necessary and open to all.  At the well a Samaritan woman was converted just like the Jewish disciples of Jesus were converted.  Later the same conversion is open to the Gentiles.  We find that the wellspring of life is for everyone and that’s why the believing Samaritans from the city declare Jesus the Savior of the world.  

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff at the Church of the Advent, March 8, 2020, the Second Sunday in Lent

In the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.

The third chapter in the Gospel of St John is remarkably dense with reference and theological significance –and one verse –sixteen—almost sums up the entire Gospel:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Then, besides that monumentally clear declaration,  setting out that we have only to believe in him to enjoy eternal life, much of the rest of the chapter is taken up with the story of the fascinating if slightly strange encounter with Nicodemus.

Few of the subsidiary figures in the Gospels have occasioned as much scholarly interest,  however, as Nicodemus in the Gospel of St john (which speaks of him uniquely as he is absent from the Synoptic tradition) and he is manifestly a puzzling, enigmatic figure, for he only appears three times and in a manner that seems to leave much unresolved

He appears early in the Gospel, as we hear today, with a rather tentative profession of faith of a sort in Christ  (3:1-21) “we know that thou art a teacher come from God’. Then there is the second appearance by Nicodemus in chapter 7 (45-52) where he, again somewhat tentatively he defends Jesus before his fellow Pharisees and gets another rebuff,  albeit much more forceful.  Finally, in chapter 19 he appears at Jesus’ tomb with that other curious and ambivalent figure,  namely Joseph of Arimathea, this time saying nothing at all —but disconcertingly– bearing a truly vast quantity of burial spices  (v 38 onwards) such as might be used for embalming,  though that was not a Jewish practice.              

All of this means that, as one commentator put it, Nicodemus “appears in the narrative often enough to evoke curiosity, but not…often enough to satisfy it”.            

And on top of that enigma,  there is the further question of just where to place him in the great divide between who have true faith and those who do not which so defines the other figures in the Gospel.   And here it is of interest to note that through the course of history some readings of him yield a positive assessment and others do not.  The Eastern Orthodox and Oriental churches hold him to be a Saint as does the Roman Catholic church which venerates him together with Joseph of Arimathea on August 31st. [1]And the overall picture we have of him in all his tentativeness invites reflection on what it took to convince him, what kind of evidence did he need?

_____________

One of the great temptations – to which our culture ever more readily invites us at such times as those when our faith may falter —is  to suppose that if only we had more empirical evidence about the person and reality of Christ, faith would all be so much easier – much perhaps as we think of the Apostle Thomas desiring empirical proof after the crucifixion and resurrection.

Indeed, to the modern mind, the gold standard would presumably be to have access to a live video of the Resurrection, either from CNN or Fox news –for then all would be well, many might suppose and the truth would be clear.

But just pause for a moment and think about that whole line of thought. What could such a video actually show – be it of the Resurrection or even some other miracle that Christ performed? As soon as one asks that question, it becomes evident that the key problem would in fact remain–no matter how good the hi-definition images might be, and however impressive the number of pixels at work on your wall-to-wall television screen–and that question is about the meaning of what happened and certainly not the image of it                                                                                                                         

Thus do we see that the issue of the meaning and what it was that actually happened are shown to be inextricably entwined.[2]

But looking at the matter more theologically,  one can see much of this thinking as lying behind the periodically recurring quests to discover ‘the historical Jesus”.[3]

Moreover,  theologically, one can even say that the motivating thought behind the quest for the historical Jesus is fundamentally Nestorian.   (And that is not a compliment)

This is because such a project assumes that there was ultimately a human person, Jesus, in or through whom,  the Son of God became present to this world and that it was this human person who could be and was known like any other man which carries the implication that it is upon the encounter with the merely human Christ that we should, and indeed must, actually rely

But this is very much not the Gospel view, for the Gospels are deeply, Chalcedonian in this regard. (And that saying this is a compliment, for it references the Council of Chalcedon which emphasised the complete and perfect unity of the two natures in one hypostasis of Christ.

And just for the record, Nestorianism was an early church heresy that stands in contrast to the orthodox teachings of Chalcedon[4]  and — if I may indulge in a few brief technicalities for a moment: 

Nestorius (who lived from 386–450), was no less a figure than a Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, and was influenced in his thought about how best to understand Christ by the Christological teachings of that old friend of John Chrysostom, the wonderfully named Theodore of Mopsuestia of the (Middle) School of Antioch. But Nestorius reached the point that he and his followers opposed the concept of hypostatic union (i.e. of individual existence/substance, of person) and emphasized instead that the two natures (human and divine) of Jesus Christ were joined by will rather than personhood.   A perspective which yields a Christological position that can be defined as one of radical dyophysitism –for those who like grand historic names for their heresies.   This line of thought –as so often— stood  as one end of a heretical polarity with, at the opposite end, the error known as Monophysitism which held that Christ  had but a single nature, his human nature being absorbed into his divinity.)[5] 

But with all that said, in saying then that the Gospels are Chalcedonian I mean that they affirm that Jesus Christ,   the person who taught, suffered and ultimately died was actually,  in the fullness of his reality (which is to say as both perfectly human and fully divine) ultimately such as to transcend all human categories. In fact he would have to do so in order to be adequate,  not merely to the claims made of him,  but in order for him to participate fully in the triune Godhead, in which lies the ultimate cause of all of creation outside of itself.

But that fulness of reality in Christ, (i.e. as divine) could not be grasped or comprehended in a human way ultimately at all, though his life and person was such—the Gospels show–  as to ground the beliefs of his followers a body of affirmations which we capture in the Creeds and statements of faith, and thus affirm as true  – even though the full meaning of what is entailed in those affirmations and in order for those propositions to be true, is more than we can possibly know in this life, short of the beatific vision of the world to come.

All of this entails, that there was a sense in which the person of Jesus was recognized by those who were closest to him,  as somehow always transcending their reach when considered  in its fullness.

Thus it can be said that the more they got to know of him the more they realised that their knowledge was incommensurate (which is to say inadequate) to its object.

Knowing him thus was not something that comprised merely an enriching of one’s own life by sharing perceptions of another; it was ultimately to begin to approach seeing Him and the whole (of his) creation sub specie aeternitatis – from the perspective of eternity—And to embark on that level of understanding is to embark in a sense upon the threshold of eternal life; for it was an adumbration made possible by the Holy Spirit of seeing him, whom no one has ever seen,  namely God the Father[6].

But getting back to that point about the ultimate impossibility of (or perhaps it would be better to say an ultimately misguided) the quest for the historical Jesus, this can be held to have a rather surprising corollary. This is that from the Gospel perspective we are invited and enabled to capture the specific, and unrepeatable historical events of his life by means of  identifying ourselves with those individuals presented to us in the Gospels and who thus witness to us the deeds of Christ.  In other words, it is not so much a quest for the historical Jesus that should engage us but rather a quest for the historical followers of Christ that we are instead more truly called.

The Resurrection indeed stands as a cardinal, or hinge concept, as well as utterly fundamental reality in all this, for it stands in a three-way relationship both to them and to us, and through them, to Christ.   The Resurrection would be nothing but a day dream, even for his closest followers,  if not for the encounter they had with the risen Christ.

Thus it could be nothing but a day dream for us,  if not for the encounter with the words and deeds of Christ, that they make possible for us,  through them,  as we identify ourselves with them.

This is something that goes beyond mere empathy, for we are enabled thereby to experience (as re-presented to us in an instance of anamnesis) something of the impact of what they experienced –as we apprehend what the Gospels set forth.

For this reason,  it has been well said that

“If we take the Gospels on their own terms, try to enter into the intentions of the Evangelists, and let their story work on us in the way that its authors meant it to, Gospel-reading (and a fortiori Gospel Commentary) will be a quest not for the historical Jesus, but for the historical Peter, James and John,”[7] and all the apostles as well as his other New Testament disciples and followers. 

Deposition of Christ or The lamentation over the Dead Christ (the Bandini Pieta), 1547-55, by Michelangelo
(who is generally understood to have offered likeness of himself in the guise of Nicodemus)

But what then of Nicodemus?

The characters in the Gospels are sometimes understood as symbols or even mere allegorical representations. And in such a perspective Nicodemus can stand for the Pharisaism and the established Judaism of his day, just as the Samaritan woman for Samaritanism and the paralytic could stand for mankind, unable to save itself. But such an approach must be untrue to the historic immediacy of the Gospels themselves,  while Christ at no point is interested in movements, schools of thought or “isms” of any kind,  but rather only and always with individual people. 

Nonetheless, there is a sense in which the Samaritan woman is still with us and so is Nicodemus for he has been present as was once said from ‘….the Academies of the ancient world, and the salons of seventeenth century France, in College common-rooms and TV discussion programmes today”.  And in fact it is quite easy for many of us actually to identify with Nicodemus.

So let us look again to the context and today’s Gospel.

This was a conversation that took place fairly early in the public ministry of Christ  before the Sanhedrin had begun to take any official action (John 7: 50), but even so Nicodemus finds it more expedient to meet by night –which conveys a suggestion of something private, or even furtive about it.

Is it not all too easy to recognize in Nicodemus here the stereotypical cautious public figure wanting to do the right thing but nonetheless unwilling to commit himself or get himself involved. 

Then again there is more than a hint here that night enables Nicodemus to avoid committing himself and to deceive himself into thinking that he can have some of the advantages of faith without paying the full price. Thus does the night both hide Nicodemus’ contact with Christ from others but also it hides him from himself.

Yet the somewhat jarring dialogue with Jesus disrupts any such delusions, far from having his learning acknowledged and tastefully advanced in a dialogue enriched with Socratic method,  Nicodemus is told bluntly that no matter what learning he has laboriously acquired before,  he must start again now and go back to the very beginning.

Far from being invited into an elegant debate about ideas,  he is presented with a challenge that is almost offensively personal and particular,  and one that is set out in an almost shocking imagery of his needing to be reborn in the manner of a baby.  What he needs is a child-like heart unprotected by the elaborate and ultimately self-defeating defences and sophistical subtleties of Rabbinic wisdom.

Yet for all the implied insult, Nicodemus responds graciously, albeit with a degree of subtle irony,  by asking simply “How can a man be born when he is old?”

He would have known well that the prophets had declared that God could and would raise even dry bones to life (as set out in Ezek. 37: 1-4) And that God could give a new heart and a new spirit to his people (Ezek. 36: 26). But it was still not unreasonable to ask how these wonders were to come about – which is the point made by his question.    Can Jesus Christ seriously be saying that all the discipline,  good habits, right impulses and judgements are to be scrapped, and that an educated, decent and pious man in mid-career has to start from scratch all over again?

But Christ’s answer is uncompromising: if rebirth is to mean anything it must involve a kind of death.  Nicodemus may retain the mature wisdom of the tradition of the learned rabbis of the people of Israel but he must place no reliance on all that in the end,  for it cannot leave him aright with God or “save” him. Form in terms the Kingdom of God all this is utterly irrelevant.

For such is not just a matter of incremental behavioral improvement, or even a change of heart, but instead something far more radical,  namely total transformation and complete commitment in short,  a whole new creation. This is something far beyond well laid plans and piously implemented intentions. Moreover it is, as birth is to a baby, a gift conferred, something that happens to us, not something we do.

And if you see here at once an echo of baptism you are right.

Nicodemus is thus implicitly but bluntly presented with his need for the sacraments: water and the Holy Spirit.

Why not water alone, he might have wondered? After all,  would it not be enough that a man turn from his past life and, say, by some symbolic act (like the baptism of John) declare simply a firm resolve to lead a new life? But the answer is no, because man cannot forgive any sins –least of all his own. In the deepest sense he cannot create new life for himself. None of us can restore a right relation to God on his own.

But why not then Spirit alone?

For surely God does not require water in order to confer new life? No again, but we do –by virtue of what it is to be human– in order to receive it.

Pure spirits cut off from the rest of Creation, might experience death or rebirth as some kind of purely internal private event. But for incarnate creatures that are of flesh and blood, rebirth is appropriately enacted through a physical act that speaks to our incarnate nature.

The physicality of Christianity –with its sacraments–  reminds us that it is not just a philosophy,  or a collection of more or less interesting religious views, but instead a life that is always of, and lived out within,  the community that is the people of God, which is his Church.

Discipleship is not some mere frame of mind, or intermittent disposition or “lifestyle choice” like some kind of tasteful “exterior décor” of the person. Rather it involves belonging to the church militant.   As Augustin put it tartly,  to one who had expressed himself piously as favourably disposed to Christianity —philosophically speaking—  “I shall not count you as a Christian until I see you in the Church of Christ’ (Confessions 8, 2)

And still we have that wondering sentiment of Nicodemus who muses about all this: “how can this be?” 

And if Jesus seems almost harsh in his response it is important to remember how much of what he was saying should have resonated to a man as learned in scripture as Nicodemus.

He should readily have recalled that the prophet Ezekiel, once again,  had prophesied that in some unspecified future time God would sprinkle clean water upon his people and give them and new heart and new spirit. (Ezek. 36: 22-32).

So this should have been a conceptualization that might have been expected to receive immediate recognition, understanding and acceptance from this “this famous teacher of Israel”. But instead he raises difficulties.

Moreover such difficulty in accepting the basic imagery of rebirth would have to auger ill for the capacity of Nicodemus to accept that the agent of this needed new birth was none other than the Son of God taking human flesh and then being lifted up so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. 

But then great mysteries of the incarnation and redemption carry their own conviction among those who will allow themselves to be reached and saved. In the words Simeon had prophesied to Mary, Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel….that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:34-5).

It is then at a quite late stage that  St John introduces for the first time in his Gospel the term the potentially terrifying word ‘judgement’. But this is understood in a characteristic and unique way.  For here, it is not primarily a sentence passed on us by Christ at some future occasion, or at the end of time, but rather something that the sinner brings on himself by rejection and a falling back into his darkness and a pulling away from the kindly light of Christ and his Cross – and it that reality of the Cross that judges us.

Yet for ultimately, all the hesitancy and ambiguity present in the Nicodemus presented to us in today’s Gospel,  it is not the end of that story.

For much later in the Gospel we see,  however quietly,  that in the end the cautious, sensible, self-reliant Nicodemus emerges again and slips back into the narrative after the crucifixion when he comes to the tomb.

This time he has no need to speak at all, for his actions are perhaps far more eloquent than his words ever were, for now we see him as one who has found the Cross and understood its meaning for the reality of who Christ was and is, after all.

In between that last appearance and the Gospel today when the Sanhedrin first sets in motion Christ’s judicial murder, it was Nicodemus alone who spoke,  however cautiously,  in the name of decency and justice (7: 50-I), and it is after the Crucifixion, when darkness appears to have been triumphant, that St John’s Gospel presents him as one no longer ashamed to be numbered openly among the disciples.

This means that for him in the end when it really counted it was it was at last no longer night.

So too must we pray —  in this season of personal reflection and preparation—that it will be at the last for each of us. Amen.


[1] But not everyone has taken such a view, see the work of Dorothy L  Sayers (1943), The Man Born to Be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Written for Broadcasting , discussed in an unpublished paper by Margaret

[2] Lurking in the background there is of course a philosophical issue about the very possibility of uninterpreted experience —which I shall leave to one side– beyond saying that in my view the answer to a doubt about that possibility would be “yes”.

[3] A line of thought which actually goes back further than the time of Albert Schweitzer even if he most famously launched an explicit search framed thus in relatively recent times.

[4] A background that comes readily mind, given that I recently had occasion to address the subject of heresies and how to choose your own,  in a Theology on Tap event recently here in Boston for which I had a handy little list of 50 or so we could explore – another time!

[5] A brief definition of Nestorian Christology has been given as holding: “Jesus Christ, who is not identical with the Son but personally united with the Son, who lives in him, is one hypostasis and one nature: human.”[ Martin Lembke, Centre for Theology and Religious Studies, Lund University, 2010.] This contrasts with Nestorius’ own teaching that the Word, which is eternal, and the Flesh, which is not, came together in a hypostatic union, ‘Jesus Christ’, Jesus thus being both fully man and God, of two ousia (Ancient Greek: οuσία) but of one prosopon.[

Nestorius. The Bazaar of Heracleides] Both Nestorianism and Monophysitism were condemned as heretical at the Council of Chalcedon.

[6] Cf. John 14: 9; Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?, 1: 18, 1 7: 3.

[7] Laurence Cantwell, “The Quest for the Historical Nicodemus”, Religious Studies, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Dec. 1980), pp. 481-486.

Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Collect for the Season:

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This Week at the Advent, March 15-21, 2020

Welcome to the Church of the Advent! If you are new to the area, visiting, or seeking a church home, we are glad you’re here and hope to have a chance to greet you in person. Please join us downstairs following the service for a coffee hour.

Welcome cards are located in each pew; please fill one out so we can keep in touch.


TODAY


No Entr’acte or Church School until after Easter.

Coffee Hours are suspended until after Easter.

No Advent Tours today. Building tours with verger Ray Porter, usually offered on the third Sunday of each month, have been cancelled for March. We hope to have them resume in April. 

The Evensong & Benediction scheduled for this evening has been cancelled.

The Advent’s full COVID-19 response, including any updates to the service schedule, has been added to the parish website and will be posted on our Facebook page as well. Please check these regularly, as the situation is constantly changing.


THIS WEEK


Lenten reminders:

  • Morning Prayer will be said at 8:00 am.
  • The women’s reading group that has been meeting on Mondays is transitioning to a virtual meeting; please contact Agnes Coakley Cox (agnes.coakley@gmail.com) for information on participating.
  • Wednesdays: Readings in John study immediately following the 6:00 pm Healing Mass, in the Hunnewell Room (Library). Light refreshments are served.

ODDS & ENDS


Can you help the parish Flower Guild? Preparing the floral decorations for Easter would be utterly impossible without reinforcements from outside the guild. Please join us if you can on either or both of the following days:

  • Maundy Thursday, April 9, 10:00 am to noon and/or 1:00 to 3:30 pm
  • Holy Saturday, April 11, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm — please try to arrive by 11:00 am, but you do not have to stay all afternoon; even an hour or two is helpful.

No flower arranging skills are required — if you can carry a bucket, climb a stepladder, use a broom, or fill a trash bag, we can use you! And if you like flowers but have never made an arrangement, this is a great chance to learn some basic techniques. Help is especially needed on Saturday, April 11.


First Holy Communion Class for students in the 2nd to 4th grades will be offered on Sundays in Eastertide during the Christian education hour. If your child is interested in participating, please speak to Meg Nelson or Fr Jeff.


Report of Sunday, March 8 — Attendance (all Masses): 219; Collection: $4296


FROM THE ADVENT ARCHIVES


Bishop William Stevens Parry (18321898) wrote The History of the American Episcopal Church, 15871883, published in 1885 by J. R. Osgood in Boston. Volume II of this magnum opus includes a monograph by the Rev. Phillips Brooks (18351893), then rector of Trinity Church, entitled “A Century of Church Growth in Boston.” Speaking of the founding of the Church of the Advent, Brooks writes,

“This great movement — this Catholic revival, as its earnest disciples love to call it — was most natural. It was the protest and self-assertion of a partly neglected side of religious life; it was a re-action against some of the dominant forms of religious thought which had become narrow and exclusive; it was the effort of the Church to complete the whole sphere of her life; it was the expression of certain perpetual and ineradicable tendencies of the human soul.”

Brooks is quoted at length in King’s Handbook of Notable Episcopal Churches in the United States, by the Rev. George Wolfe Shinn (18391910), rector of Grace Church, Newton, published by Moses King Corporation, Boston, 1889. Shinn notes that with 600 communicants, the Church “has a congregation that tests its seating capacity.” He describes its design in great detail:

“The Church edifice is built of brick, with brown-stone trimmings. It is not yet entirely completed; but when the tower and other additions are made, it will be one of the most beautiful structures in the country…Upon entering the building, two things attract the attention of the visitor: the first is the great height of the nave, some ninety feet, and the great size of the chancel. The latter is thirty feet wide and forty-eight feet deep, divided into choir and sanctuary, and is separated from the nave by a rood-screen of gilded iron-work. All the interior walls are of brick, with occasional spaces of brown-stone, some of which are elaborately carved, while others await their final decoration. Their [sic] are some good specimens of stained glass already in position, but other windows will be filled later on with bright colors. The use of brick-work for the interior shows what wonderful solidity and beauty are possible by the judicious use of a material not yet well appreciated in this country.”


THIS WEEK AT THE ADVENT


March 16-22, 2020

Monday, March 16

Tuesday, March 17
6:00 pm: Community Supper

Wednesday, March 18
6:00 pm: Healing Mass followed by Lenten Bible Study
7:00 pm: Bellringers

Thursday, March 19
Saint Joseph

Friday, March 20
11:30 am: Rosary

Saturday, March 21

Sunday, March 22
The Fourth Sunday in Lent (“Laetare”)
7:30 am: Morning Prayer
8:00 am: Low Mass
9:00 am: Sung Mass
11:15 am: Solemn Mass

Holy Week Schedule