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And Jesus was transfigured before them – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: And Jesus was transfigured before them.

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 11 February 2024, Sunday next before Lent

Readings: 2 Kings 2.1-12; 2 Corinthians 4.3-6; Mark 9.2-9

 

What do a world expert in the science of spintronics, the designer of a machine to make envelopes, an epidemiologist, a journalist turned museum manager, a biochemist and administrator, and a pair of comedy writers have in common? I have two answers to the question. And I’ll give you the less important one now: this past week, they were the seven recipients of honorary degrees at the graduation ceremonies of the University of York.

Without wishing to diminish the undoubted honour paid to these remarkable people by the university, and distinguished though all seven of them are, their new doctorates are, nevertheless, not the most important thing that they share in common – a fact with which Professor Charlie Jeffrey, the Vice-Chancellor of the University, would, I hope, agree.

For, at a dinner to celebrate these honorary doctors, the VC gave an impactful speech in which he reminded his audience about the core purpose of the University of York, which, when it was founded sixty years ago, identified its vocation to take a lead in ‘ameliorating human life and conditions’ through research, teaching, widening access, and seeing its members (whether student or staff) as ‘citizens of the world’, ‘regardless of class, creed or race’.

Or, as Professor Jeffrey succinctly rephrased it for this age which thrives on soundbites, ‘the University of York exists for public good’.

And Jesus…was transfigured before them.

Some 1900 or so years before the founding of York University, Peter, James and John had a remarkable experience ‘up a high mountain’. An experience that came at a turning point in their relationship with Jesus – an experience that came to throw some much-needed light into an atmosphere of darkening gloom.

For just under a week before this morning’s dramatic story unfolds, Jesus has taken his disciples to Caesarea Philippi – a city mired in the demands of loyalty to what you might call human things, not divine things: named to proclaim the godlike nature of the Roman emperor, and built on top of a shrine to the pagan god Pan. In this, very specifically chosen location, Jesus had demanded to know who they believed him to be. A question to which Peter gives the clear and strong answer that Jesus is the Messiah. So far, so good…

But Jesus muddies the waters and darkens the mood, by immediately explaining that the nature of this messiah-ship means that he must ‘undergo great suffering’ and be killed – the first of three predictions of his passion and death interspersed through the second half of Mark’s gospel. And – as you doubtless recall – Peter’s horrified response to this is to ‘rebuke’ Jesus – only to have Jesus ‘out-rebuke’ him back, denouncing him in front of the other disciples as being ‘Satan’, and telling him that his mind is set ‘not on divine things but human things’.

And, to stress the point yet further, Jesus shocks and embarrasses his disciples by calling a vast crowd to gather round, so that he can explain as clearly as possible that those who wish to follow him must do so by taking up their cross, and being ready to ‘lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel’. ‘For,’ Jesus demands, ‘what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’

That is the context, the backdrop, without which you cannot really understand what was going on when Jesus led Peter, James and John up that mountain, and was transfigured before them.

And the question – the real question – is what exactly was is it that the three disciples saw atop the mountain.

For as we recite the Creed in just a few minutes time, we will rehearse our belief that Jesus, the Christ, is fully divine (‘true God from true God’) – and also that he is fully human (‘was incarnate…and was made man’). And this morning there will be many preachers talking about how, in this moment when Jesus was transfigured before them, the three disciples are given a pure and unadulterated glimpse of Jesus’ divinity, bursting through the gloom and the darkness of imminent suffering and death. A glimpse, if you like, of post-resurrection divinity, given to refocus their attention, and encourage them to journey to Jerusalem and to Good Friday.

But that’s just not good enough. If this mountain-top moment is, as it were, when the chocolate coating of Jesus’ humanity is somehow melted away to reveal the divine, luscious caramel filling inside, then we have got something wrong.

Rather – surely – in this transfigured moment, as the voice of the Father proclaims Jesus to be the beloved Son, we are seeing the glory of what humanity was created to be. It is too easy just to talk about the glory of divinity as Jesus shines with unique brightness on the holy mountain. It is too easy, as it were, to say it is just God being God. But, in Jesus, in the act of Incarnation and with all that Incarnation offers and demands, in Jesus we understand God not just being God, but God being human – fully and properly human.

And, in the Transfiguration, Jesus wants the disciples to understand not just the true glory to which human beings are called, but what the implications of that glory really are.

That is why Jesus has been trying to explain to his followers that not only is he the Messiah… but that the nature of being the Messiah… the anointed one… the Christ… is a self-sacrificial one. A Messiah that exists not for his own good but for the good of the world to which he has been sent. A Messiah, as Professor Jeffrey might succinctly put it, who ‘exists for public good’. A Messiah who understands and who demonstrates what it truly means to ‘lose one’s life for the sake of the gospel’ and to set your mind ‘not on human things but divine things’.

Peter had failed to understand this. And not just Peter, for Jesus’ ‘Get behind me Satan’ rebuke is a public one uttered in front of all the disciples. And it is a rebuke to us – to you and to me – for the many times we set our own minds on human things, rather than on divine things.

Which is why, having explained to all those gathered around him that it will profit them nothing – absolutely nothing at all – ‘to gain the whole world and forfeit their life’, Jesus is transfigured by God the Father. Transfigured so that those who follow him can see just how glorious humanity can be when minds are genuinely lifted above ‘human things’ and set, selflessly, on divine things.

The selfless call to focus on what Jesus calls ‘divine things’ and which the Vice-Chancellor calls the ‘public good’ is, to quote the VC, “a moral compass in good times – and less good times”. And there, inevitably, is the rub. For this call comes, as both Jesus and the VC make clear, at a cost.

Reflecting that “We are now firmly in the latter kind of times,” due, as Professor Jeffrey explained, to ‘the mix of a failed funding system and higher inflation’ we learned that the university (and not just our local university but many others in the country) receives ‘less than 80 pence in funding for every pound [spent] on teaching home students and doing publicly funded research.’

“In other words,” he concluded, “ameliorating human life and conditions is now a deficit making activity!”

As the leader of another major institution in this historic city, I share the Vice-Chancellor’s reflection and lament that we currently find ourselves in ‘less good times’, and that is why it was so good to hear him celebrate not just the seven outstanding honorary graduates, but the DNA-level core purpose explanation that the institution which he leads ‘exists for public good’ – just as, so I fervently believe, does this institution and the entire Church of God.

And in the Church of God, we have known for some while that serving the public good is costly. For if we regard ‘taking up one’s cross’ and ‘losing one’s life’ as being ‘deficit making’ (something with which I think most people would agree) then that cost – as we see so clearly this morning – is at the very heart of the gospel. But it is at the heart of the gospel because this ‘deficit making’ is the only path that leads to true glory.

I am sure that the ‘magnificent seven’ (if I may call them that) looked glorious in their doctoral robes last week. But the fact that they received honorary degrees is a fact of less importance than the simple recognition that what they really have in common is – as the University of York recognized in them – they have each manifested through their life and work a clear commitment to the ‘public good’.

And today, not just in York, but across God’s world, as we live through what many of us feel are ‘less good times’, when ‘public good’ is inadequately funded, and suffering and death are all to visible across the world, even – and especially – now, we get to behold Jesus in transfigured garments even more brilliant than doctoral robes.

And as we gaze on this ‘kingly brightness’, never forget that it is not just Jesus, it is all of us who are called to change ‘from glory to glory’, so that, ‘mirrored here’, our lives might tell of God’s self-sacrificial story of serving the ‘public good’.

Archbishop Stephen tells the story of a vicar preaching on the well-known text in which Jesus says “I am the vine and you are the branches, abide in my love.”  As the sermon progresses, the vicar exhorts the congregation to invite Jesus into their lives, so that they might fully become who and what God is calling us to be in Christ.

At the end of the service, a little boy comes up to the vicar, saying he is very confused and wanting to ask a question – which the vicar duly encourages. “Well,” says the child, “God is so very big, and I am so very small. If I invited Jesus to come and live in my heart… if I invited Jesus to transform my life…. He’s so big, and I’m so small… if he came and lived in my heart, wouldn’t he burst out all over the place?”

“Yes,” said the vicar, “that’s how it works.” Amen.

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“Then Simeon blessed them” – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Then Simeon blessed them…

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 2 February 2024, Candlemas

 

Then Simeon blessed them…

Last night I attended a political Q&A session with one of the candidates standing to be mayor of York and North Yorkshire. The first question addressed to the candidate was from Archbishop Stephen, who spoke of an encounter he had had with the mother of a child of primary school age in one of the most deprived parts of this diocese.

She had described to the archbishop how her child goes to school with an empty lunchbox. Arriving early, breakfast is provided by the school, and in the middle of the day, her child, along with 90% of the other students, gets a free school meal. And at the end of the day food is laid out on several trestle tables, so that her child and many others can pack their empty lunchbox with provisions that will become their supper.

“I’m not going to ask you what you would do to fix this grinding poverty,” said the archbishop, “but what I want to ask you”, he said to the aspiring mayor, “is what would you say to the mother of this child – who has given up all hope in politicians, and cannot be bothered to vote for anyone any more.”

The answer that was offered was broadly about the steps thought necessary to build infrastructure in the region that would enable greater economic growth, the result of which would trickle down to those living in such poverty. And, depending on your political and economic opinions, that might be something important to achieve. But it was not a proper answer to the archbishop’s question… and it was certainly not an answer that relates to the characters we have encountered in our gospel reading on this great feast we call Candlemas.

Poverty is not a new phenomenon, and, although you may not have noticed it, it is a backdrop to the story we have just heard. For Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were required to bring a sacrifice as set out in the Law, of two turtledoves or pigeons. But that’s only a half-truth. If you go and check what the Law of Moses actually say (which is clearly set out in Leviticus 12) the sacrifice is meant to be one pigeon, and one lamb. But if she cannot afford a sheep, it says, she shall take two turtledoves or pigeons.

And so, carrying, as it were, an empty lunchbox, Mary and Joseph go to Jerusalem to fulfil a religious requirement to allow Mary to be declared ritually clean after childbirth – and, in so doing, they encounter a pair of devout, religious old people. Anna, so we are told, simply never leaves the Temple. If we were to translate the story into our own setting, she would be the pensioner who is always at Morning Prayer and at Evensong – doing her religious duty, and probably being regarded as a bit ‘strange’.

And Simeon – ‘righteous and devout’ – he is also, probably, someone who is searching for meaning through his religious observances. And his actions and words – clearly – come over as strange and unexpected, at least as far as Mary and Joseph are concerned. But, eccentric, ‘cracked’, obsessive, whatever one might make of Anna and Simeon, they had the ability to see what was going on. Because, through the grace of God, suddenly they both knew, with astonishing clarity, that something unique and wonderful had happened. Somehow, on this day of all days, as they fulfilled what they believed their own religious, and rather obsessive calling was, they finally saw something different.

The distinguished church musician and composer Sarah MacDonald, who works in Cambridge and Ely, and whose music is regularly in the repertoire of our own wonderful choir, wrote an article in December, reflecting on the monotony that church musicians – and, let me say, clergy – can find during Advent, which brings the inevitable requirement of participating in carol services day after day after day after day. Her moving and illuminating article concluded with her saying:

[Something] that is crucial to remember, particularly for those…currently in the middle of multiple repetitions of far-too-early carol services, is that for many in the congregation…this may be the only celebration of the nativity that they experience this year. It may be the 14th time that we conduct, play, or sing “Once in Royal David’s City,” but for someone in the pews it could the one “And our eyes at last shall see him” moment that we all long for throughout the year, regardless of the liturgical season.

Anna and Simeon were no strangers to multiple repetitions of religious ritual. They had probably gone well beyond the 14th iteration of such things. But Candlemas is the story, literally, of that ‘one “And our eyes at last shall see him” moment,’ which, as Sarah MacDonald so poignantly wrote, is something “that we all long for throughout the year…” if not throughout our life.

And that in itself is a beautiful story, and one which we commemorate in this beautiful, candlelit liturgy. But the story does not end with Anna or Simeon. The story goes back to the empty lunchbox. Because Anna, having had her revelation, goes on to ‘speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’. And Simeon, of course, speaks first to God, and then he speaks to Mary. Simeon answers Archbishop Stephen’s question 2000 years before he asked it, and he answers it properly.

Because, as Luke tells us, “Simeon blessed them”… Simeon passes on the Good News, he does not keep it to himself, and he gives Mary an answer to the question that the Archbishop of York was asking last night – an answer that spoke directly to the needs that Mary was going to face, rather than being an aspirational political soundbite. Because Simeon blessed them.

And what is a blessing? Why is it that in our liturgy tonight and at so many services, do we conclude with a blessing? Quite simply, it is an assurance that God is with us. And that is what Simeon and Anna understood in the most profound, ‘Emmanuel’ way possible – that God, in that vulnerable baby, was literally and incarnationally with us.

And that’s not a magic wand or a lucky charm. Simeon is prophetically very clear about that, warning Mary that a sword will pierce her soul, which – indeed – it will on Good Friday, as she watches her son die a criminal’s ugly death. And the sword will linger around her soul at other challenging and painful moments during Jesus’ life, as the narrative of the gospels makes abundantly clear. This ‘blessing’ does not wipe out the challenges and the pains of real life for Mary – and nor does it wipe them out for you or for me, or for that mother facing the horrors of a breadline existence who spoke with Archbishop Stephen.

But that’s OK. It’s not God’s job to alleviate poverty, just as it was not God’s job to address the Roman occupiers’ attempts at a criminal justice system. That’s our task. The blessing of the Incarnation, which we have celebrated these forty days since Christmas, the blessing that Simeon and Anna recognised is that, while we live in a world of imperfection and injustice, God walks this world with us, understands – first-hand – our pain, and shows us that pain and death do not get the last word, and that Good Friday will be followed by Easter Day.

And if, by some chance, you’d never noticed this before – whether you are a first-time visitor to church, or whether, like some clergy, church musicians, and elderly figures in the gospels – if you’d not realised the full nature of God’s blessing, then I hope that, in the full spirit of Christmastide, tonight, indeed, will be that ‘one “And our eyes at last shall see him moment”’ for which, as Sarah MacDonald so rightly said, we all long. Amen.

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Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Readings: 1 Samuel 3. 1–20; 1 Corinthians 14. 12–20

Date: 28 January 2024, The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany – Septuagesima (BCP)

Shortly before the voters in Iowa took to the polls, a political video appeared on YouTube and has been widely circulated. Showing photos of Donald Trump from throughout his life, a lofty voice proclaims that, “On June 14th, 1946, God looked down on his planned paradise and said I need a caretaker… so God gave us Trump.”

Whether or not Mr Trump proves to be victorious in the election this coming November, there is no doubt, that despite his multiple marriages, his complex relationship with what most of us would call ‘truth’, and allegations of behaviour which would appear to be far from standards championed in the pages of the Bible, Trump is beloved of American fundamentalist Christians, whose significance as part of the US electorate cannot be understated.

While British politics has tended not to make messianic claims for its leaders, that does not mean that fundamentalism, if not of a religious kind, is entirely absent from our own political system. Some would argue that it was a particular kind of economic fundamentalism that brought about the notoriety and the downfall of the remarkably brief administration of Liz Truss.

And even if political life in Britain is not touched by the kind of religious extremism and fundamentalism that is pervasive in the United States, our church life certainly is, as is manifest around the evermore increasingly divisive debates around human sexuality, and whether or not any kind of prayers can be uttered in the buildings of the Church of England for those who are in same-sex partnerships.

But the hard truth is that the current debates and divisions in the church are not, really, about human sexuality. While that may be the presenting issue, at the heart of this deep and acrimonious division is what St Paul, in our second reading, calls ‘the power to interpret’, and about the manner in which we understand the authority of sacred Scripture.

For in that reading we just heard, Paul is concerned about a deep division in the Corinthian community around the question of authority within the church, as manifested in the ‘spiritual gift’ of speaking in tongues.

Now this is a charism or a blessing which has never been part of my own spiritual tradition, and it is not one to which I am very drawn. But I fully recognise that for some people it is a valuable and beautiful part of their prayer life. But in Corinth, those who possessed this gift were using it as a basis to claim a particular authority in the church community in a manner which could not be sustain any intellectual challenge or discussion, and which was therefore being destructive to the life of the church. Which is why, as the great apostle says with some force, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others… than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

And, in a manner analogous to the situation in the Corinthian church, many centuries before Jesus of Nazareth, the early chapters of 1 Samuel also show us the need to allow an intellectually and spiritually honest approach to encountering God to triumph.

For the young Samuel has a night-time encounter with the word of the Lord. God shares with him his deep unhappiness with the corruption of the temple over which Eli and his two sons have presided. But with the coming of Samuel, who, unlike his guardian’s family, is possessed of intellectual honesty in his faith, God announces that he intends to act – to act in a manner which will build up the people of God and not diminish them.

In short, our readings this evening alert us to the dangers created by those whose claims of authority, especially religious authority, are based on fundamentalisms that cannot be subject to challenge by what Paul calls ‘the mind’ as well by ‘the spirit’. And those dangers are increasingly visible across the face of the world.

Professor James Walters, the Director of the Faith Centre at the London School of Economics, wrote an article earlier this month about the place of religion in the current conflict in the Middle East. He says:

What I have seen on numerous trips to Israel and Palestine is an intensification of powerful religious imaginaries that are simply not understood or taken seriously in the West. Liberals talk about a two-state solution…The Right talks about terrorism in terms reminiscent of the disastrous post-9/11 interventions…the Left has adopted a lens of racism and colonialism that continually fails to encompass the complexities of what is happening.

[But, asks Professor Walters], who will talk about religion? Who will open a Bible and discover that land and statehood are not purely secular concepts but embedded in Judeo-Christian history? Who will read of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey in the Qur’an and learn of Jerusalem’s profound significance to the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims? Who will actually pay attention to what people on the ground are saying about God and the promises they believe God has made to them? These will be the people who break through this miserable, hate-fuelled conflict that no side is able to win.

The state of God’s world and the state of God’s church demand a religious literacy and integrity that is sadly lacking, both within and beyond the confines of the Church of God. The desire for what Paul called ‘spiritual gifts’ – and, more importantly, the perceived authority which those who possess such gifts so often claim – this desire can bring with it the danger of division, of distrust, of dehumanization, and of downright hatred and violence.

Eli, the keeper of God’s temple in Shiloh, for all his failings, was gracious enough to advise the young Samuel that when he heard God calling in the night, he should reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’. Both in many stories in the pages of the Bible, let alone in the centuries of history that have succeeded it, we find the opposite sentiment, as people make unfounded claims of authority that say, in essence, ‘Listen, Lord, for your servant is speaking’.

Paul saw the dangers of this in the setting of the Corinthian church, but his words speak across cultures, ethnicities, faith communities, let alone across history. For we – the people of God – we are called to build up the church and not tear it apart. And that’s not because the Church of God has a value intrinsic to itself – it is because we who are the church, our vocation is to try and help build up the world, which is so good at tearing itself apart with fundamentalist ideologies, whether economic, political or religious.

And so, when it comes to matters of faith, let alone matters of politics, economics or any other global concern, do not let Paul’s plea be ignored when you open your Bible, your news website or paper, your bank statement, your school report, or anything else which impacts and relates to your life in God’s world and God’s church: Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults. Amen.

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Matins attended by the Courts of Justice – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Matins attended by the Courts of Justice

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date: 8 October 2023,  The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

break forth, O mountains, into singing!

For the Lord has comforted his people,

and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

 

On, or just before, 24 February, Cecilia Hardy was brutally stabbed just around the corner from Hungate, by the River Foss, about five minutes’ walk from this glorious cathedral church. A widow of limited means, she had what I think was probably the misfortune not to be killed outright, but spent two weeks on her deathbed almost certainly in considerable pain, before succumbing to her injuries in mid-March.

Such investigation of her death as took place, entirely conducted by men, concluded that the likely killer – one John Milner – had been acting in self-defence, although his immediate flight from the city might suggest that such a notion was not one on which the killer himself was relying. However, no record exists of his capture or of any subsequent trial that might suggest the late Ms Hardy ever received justice.

Lest you feel that I recount the sorry facts about this murder in order to score a point about the inadequacies of the legal system, I should assure those of you with any responsibility for the administration of justice in or around this great city of York that you are off the hook. Cecilia’s life was taken… in 1375.

That I am able to recount the sorry and unfinished tale of her murder is due to a remarkable and superbly produced website that has just been renovated and relaunched by the University of Cambridge. Entitled Medieval Murder Map, it features a selection of 14th Century coroners’ records from the cities of York, London and Oxford, and gives a fascinating if rather gory lens into the nature of life, death and justice, in an era when sheriffs were more than just ceremonial, the judiciary, as we know it, was only just beginning to evolve, and a professional police force was still nearly four centuries in the future.

And Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Which, in truth, is how we know who might have killed Cecilia Hardy, even if we do not know what became of the murderer. For it was because of the jurors gathered together by the coroner, drawn – as was then the custom – from the four nearest parishes around this sudden death: St Mary in Layerthorpe, St Cuthbert in Peaseholme Green, and St Andrew and St John the Baptist both of the city of York – it was those medieval jurors who swore on their ‘sacred oath’ that it was John Milner had killed this poor widow.

In the 14th Century jurors were, inevitably, all men – something which, of course, is obviously not the case in our own era. But that being said, they were drawn from a proper cross-section of the community on which they were called to sit in judgement.

And what is equally, and in some ways even more important, is that the local community was not merely involved in delivering the verdicts of coroners’ courts of their day – more often than not, it was also the local community that was involved in the first response to the discovery of a crime, including attempts to apprehend those responsible, through what was known as raising a ‘hue and cry’.

The Murder Map website describes this process as ‘a combination of a 999 call, police sirens, and a collective hunt for the criminal’, and it was nothing short of a legal obligation laid on all of the king’s subjects (women as well as men) by Edward I some ninety years before Cecilia Hardy met her sorry end.

All of which reminds us that, although today, in the majesty of this vast and splendid cathedral, we are welcoming such important people as solicitors, barristers (both juniors and silks), magistrates, coroners, district, tribunal and circuit judges, High Court Judges, and Justices of Appeal – each and every one of them highly trained in legal matters, and almost all of them salaried professionals – despite the fact that today’s service acknowledges a most necessary reality that the administration of the law and the maintenance of peaceful society is now, rightly, in the hands of experts – all of this reminds us that the upholding of what was once called The King’s Peace is a matter for us all – a matter for all of God’s children, and, indeed, a matter for God himself – which is why the prophet demands of us to

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!

 For, says the prophet, the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones  – compassion even on the like of poor Cecilia Hardy, and on the victims of the crimes perpetrated in this city and region over the centuries.

Now the prophet in our first reading was addressing a rather bigger issue than the murder of one poor and probably abused woman. The prophet was addressing the lot of the entire community – the community which he understood as being ‘the people of God’ – the Israelite people of Judah and Jerusalem. And the Israelites had – collectively –suffered something which, from both a religious and a sociological or political perspective, was even worse than murder.

For in 587BC, the army of King Nebuchadnezzar had sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple (which, in modern-day terms was more like destroying Buckingham Palace or the White House than even destroying York Minster), and carried everyone of prominence into a cruel exile in Babylon. And while we look on with horror at the appalling violence in and around Gaza unfolding in these last 24 hours, the events of the Sixth Century before the birth of Jesus represented something of far greater significance than the recent uprising by Hamas.

 For the Temple was understood – literally – as God’s dwelling place on planet Earth, and with its destruction an entire, vast community of people was effectively destroyed, with everyone of importance scattered into an exile that would, with a modern lens, utterly breach the Fourth Geneva Convention’s demands about the resettlement of a resident population. And, most importantly, to the Israelites, it appeared that not only had justice utterly and completely collapsed, but that the covenant relationship with God on which any notion of justice could be conceived had been irreparably, totally and permanently rendered null and void.

But, eventually, help was at hand – and it came from a most unlikely source. Because any study of any period of history tells us that no nation remains a super-power for ever – and after some fifty years, the Persians, under the leadership of their King, Cyrus, crushed the Babylonians and became the dominant force across the Middle East. And King Cyrus – whom this Israelite prophet very remarkably calls God’s shepherd, gentile though he was – Cyrus allowed and even encouraged this displaced community to return home, to rebuild the Temple, and to become once again the people which God had called and created them to be. Which is why, in our first reading, we hear him shout out with such excitement:

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;

break forth, O mountains, into singing!

For the Lord has comforted his people,

and will have compassion on his suffering ones.

For to the prophet and his people, justice had been delivered – justice had been delivered to an entire people. And such is the scale of God’s justice, that it is newsworthy not just for the Israelites, but it is to serve as a ‘signal’ to all ‘the peoples’, and be a cause of joy that will make the very mountains break into song.

And then, some 600 years later, we find the bar of God’s justice raised ever higher, as Jesus sets out his vision for a renewed, God-centered community of people in the text we call the Sermon on the Mount. For we are told – in words that can seem really quite unsettling – we are told that what humans cover up will be uncovered; that secrets will be made known; that words uttered in darkness will be made light; that what is whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.

The words are startling, because there are many people here this morning, including both lawyers and clergy, who are expected to respect and keep a confidence. The act of sacramental confession, after all, would be nonsensical if a priest were to shout the sinful secrets imparted to him or her from the rooftops!

But Jesus shocks his hearers by reminding them that if our society, our communities, if all of God’s people lived a life fully inspired by and focused on the ways of God, we would not need secrets.

Not only would no court ever sit in camera again, but we would not need courts at all. And in the Christ-like world we sometimes call God’s Kingdom – that world for which we pray day by day in the most well-known prayer of all – when that world comes fully into being, there will no longer be an annual legal service. For if we all lived truly Christ-like lives, the North Eastern Circuit, with all His Majesty’s judges, magistrates and all the members of the legal profession would be joyously redundant.

But until that day dawns, as we mark the start of a new legal year, we must turn to God to pray for those gathered here in their various offices, and to thank God for their vocation and commitment – a vocation and commitment exercised as far as I can see in ever more hard-pressed and misunderstood circumstances which potentially undermine not just the professions represented here this morning, but which undermine the communities they are called to serve. For justice is not the preserve of those whose vocation it is to administer it – justice is at the very heart of the children of God.

And so each time we dare to use the words which Jesus gave us, each time we have the audacity to pray ‘thy kingdom come’, we must recognize that the justice which is The King’s Peace, and all that it takes to bring that to being and to maintain it – that justice is not merely the prerogative of our special guests gathered here this morning. It is a God-given calling that rests – and which has always rested – upon the shoulders of us all.

When poor Cecilia Hardy met her end, the community around her, let alone the Sherriff, let alone Edward III whose long reign was nearing its end when she died – the interwoven communities of York and of England knew that justice demanded the commitment and participation of everyone – and in the last 648 years, despite the professionalization of the legal system, that truth remains and endures.

So –  as we prayerfully cheer on those gathered here at the start of this new legal year, and if we truly believe that there must – always – be justice for Cecilia Hardy, her forebears and her successors, then we must all play our part in striving to bring unity to communities divided by the suspicion, envy and distrust that stem from secrets muttered in the dark; we must seek to bring the comfort and compassion of which the prophet spoke so movingly to all of God’s children.

For that, and nothing less, is what is needed if the heavens and the earth are truly ever to sing for joy. Amen.

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Sermon for the Installation of Timothy Goode – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: The Installation of Canon Revd Timothy Goode 

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean 

Date: 9 September 2023

But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation

About ten years ago, when I was a parish priest in Northamptonshire, our bishop organized a vast diocesan conference. To keep costs as low as possible, it was scheduled for December. The pressure of carol services and Christmas preparations make Advent one of the busiest – and most stressful – seasons for clergy, and I imagine that the conference centre charges were probably reduced to reflect this.

Racing around my rectory as I packed and got ready to be absent for three whole days and nights, I remembered that I needed to change my voicemail greeting. I had just purchased a new, all-singing, all-dancing phone, which I found absurdly hard to programme. It took me an infuriatingly long time to work out how to change my greeting message, and, with fast-rising blood pressure, I was just recording it when, with very unhelpful timing, the doorbell rang!

Uttering a loud, four-letter word, I slammed down the phone and went to the door to sign for a registered letter. Now – of course – I returned to my desk, and re-recorded the announcement that I was going to be away for a few days, using calm and appropriate language that did not reflect how I was actually feeling… and then I went off to the Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire – known to many, many Church of England clergy – where, to my delight, I enjoyed a surprisingly uplifting and engaging conference.

At least, I was enjoying myself until the last morning, when I received a text in capital letters from my organist, asking me what on earth I thought I’d done with my answering machine.

For – in my haste and my stress, and my unfamiliarity with an overly complicated gadget – I had failed to hit the ‘save’ button, and rather than transmitting the calm, demure message that was my final attempt to master this technology, my abrupt, four-letter expletive had been greeting every caller to the Rectory since I had departed some 72 hours previously.

So be ye holy in all manner of conversation…

But, of course, not all four-letter words are bad. Not all four-letter words are harmful or destructive. There are times when the right four-letter word can change things for the better – indeed, there are times when a four-letter word can make for a truly ‘holy’ conversation – just as we heard tell in our second reading.

The scene, of course, is Easter morning. It’s the story of Jesus’ resurrection. But – slightly annoyingly – it is only one half of Saint John’s account of Easter morning. What we heard was the second half of a story – a story of which the first half really hadn’t gone that well…

‘Early on the first day of the week’, we are told, Mary comes to Jesus’ tomb – and she immediately knows that something is up, because the stone had been ‘removed from the tomb’. So she goes and gets Peter and John, telling them that Jesus’ body has been stolen, and she doesn’t know where it now is.

And, as you doubtless recall, the two apostles, the two leading figures of Jesus’ former company of friends and followers, these two men, who clearly understand themselves as being in some way ‘in charge’ – they go into the tomb. And we are told that at least one of them ‘saw and believed’ – saw and believed, even though, at that point, they didn’t understand the Hebrew Scriptures that pointed to this moment.

But what did they do? What did these two supposedly great leaders of God’s people do at this turning point in the history of God’s love for the world?

They went home. Perhaps they wanted their breakfast, or perhaps they just went back to bed. We don’t know – but they didn’t even bother to say anything to Mary. They just left.

But not Mary. That’s not good enough for Mary. Mary clearly knows that something ought to be said and done. She cannot leave the story – the story, so she thinks, of the dead Jesus – she cannot leave the story alone.

And it remains the story, so she thinks, of the dead Jesus, until… until, by the uttering of what has proved to be the most important four-letter word in the history of the world, until the risen and anything-but-dead Christ calls her by name – “Mary”, and, with that four-letter word, commissions her to go and have the ultimate ‘holy conversation’.

And thus, as she becomes the apostle to the apostles, it falls to Mary to announce to the disciples, and – through them – to announce even to us, ‘I have seen the Lord’. And that’s when it all really begins.

But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation

Throughout this service, we have been prodded by holy Scripture – prodded to have the right kind of conversations. Conversations which Peter, in that letter which formed the text for Wesley’s beloved anthem that we just heard, a letter written to some early Christians who needed real encouragement in the face of persecution – conversations which Peter calls ‘holy’. And something which is ‘holy’, of course, is simply something set apart for a divine purpose or function or use.

So in our first reading, at the foot of Sinai, God is having a holy conversation with Moses, to enable to Moses to have a holy conversation with the Israelites. God is setting Moses up for what, in our own time, Tim, we might call ‘congregational discipleship and nurture’. For God wants… God needs the people of Israel to be the ambassadors of a good news that they eventually will come to realize is of significance for all God’s children.

And, in the wake of the staggeringly hopeless failure by Peter and John to engage in any conversation at all about the most significant event to have happened since the very creation of the world, mirroring the events of Sinai so many centuries earlier, Jesus engages Mary in ‘holy conversation’. Starting with one, vital, life-changing four-letter word, Jesus commissions Mary to a ‘holy conversation’ that is going to awaken Peter and John and the other nine of them out of their apathy, and which is going to lead to the discipling and nurturing of… well, of the whole world.

Last November, at the end of my own service of installation here, Archbishop Stephen offered me and the Chapter (those of us with the ultimate responsibility for the life of this cathedral and metropolitical church) he offered us a charge. Acknowledging the vast amount of hurt and confusion there is in the world today, he told us – he mandated us  – to, ‘Keep the conversation going, so that we may talk about the things of God’.

As our new Canon for Congregational Discipleship and Nurture, Tim, I rejoice that you have come amongst us to help us in this task. For, in a place as vast, as complex, and as fast-moving as York Minster, you will find all too quickly, that what Saint Peter thought of as ‘holy conversation’ can sometimes be really quite elusive, set, as it must be, in the context of the all too necessary, but absolutely secondary, distractions of strategic reviews, and tourism and marketing plans, and architectural protocols, and finance spreadsheets, and everything else that is an unavoidable part of the management of a substantial institution such as this.

So, as the one specifically called to the discipleship and nurture of the people of God in this place, Tim, on behalf of us all, I beg you to keep us holy ‘in all manner of conversation’. And you can even use the odd four-letter word, if you need to! Amen.

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You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you… – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Date: 21 May 2023  4.00pm

 

On the Monday after Christmas in 2020, a Texan member of the House of Representatives called Louie Gohmert sued the then Vice-President of the United States in the District Court of East Texas. If his Wikipedia entry is correct, Gohmert has compared Barack Obama to Hitler, claimed that Hilary Clinton is ‘mentally challenged’, and asserted that homosexuality is validly compared to bestiality.

Described in a Texan newspaper as ‘a precursor to Donald Trump’s brand of populist, establishment-bucking conservatism that delights in offending progressives and makes no apologies for spreading misinformation’ Gohmert sought to persuade a federal judge that Mike Pence had the sole right to decide which electoral votes he would accept in the arcane process of the electoral college – the body which certifies the winner of a US presidential election.

Former congressman Gohmert, unsurprisingly, wanted Pence to be able to disregard votes from some states which had cast their lot for Joe Biden, and thus certify that Donald Trump had, in fact, won the 2020 US general election. According to the former Vice-President’s memoir, “So help me God”, published last November, Trump called Pence to demand that he put out a press statement in support of Gohmert’s legal challenge – a position that Pence did not want to adopt.

In the course of the phone call, Trump demanded of his Veep, “if it gives you…power, why would you oppose it?” And on the day that Pence’s autobiography was published, a political analyst at CNN seized on this question, stating:

If you had only one quote to understand Trump and how he views the world, that would be a pretty good one. The only thing that matters to Trump is power – and how to wield it. He views the world as a relentless fight for power and control. The winners are the people who seize power – no matter the cost. There is no “right” in Trump’s worldview. There’s only what you can do – and who can try to stop you.

For, as Jesus said, You will receive power […..] when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…

Which, when viewed from the Trumpian lens I have just described, must have been a bit bewildering for the eleven people whose names we heard read in our first lesson. That is, if you can even remember who it is that I am talking about.

I preached my first ever sermon during my first year of theological college, almost precisely thirty years ago. The gospel for the Sunday morning in question was Matthew’s account of Jesus calling The Twelve, and I made myself rather unpopular with my fellow students, by asking as many of them as I could if they could manage to name all twelve of the apostles. Not one of them could – and I wouldn’t mind betting that, if you refrain from looking at page seven of this morning’s order of service, you might struggle to give me all the names which were just read out. And that is partly because, if we are honest, many of them are remarkably obscure.

Even though the book from which that reading was taken is called the Acts of the Apostles, eight of the eleven names we just heard are literally not mentioned again in the entire book – that was their only appearance. From this point onwards, other than non-biblical pious (but historically suspect) tradition, we know nothing more at all of Andrew, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, or Judas son of James. And nor will we hear anything more of Matthias, on whom the lot will fall in eleven verses time, when he is elected to bring the number of apostolic leaders back to that symbolic twelve. Nine people whom, according to Jesus, ‘will receive power’, but who fade into immediate obscurity after Acts chapter one, verse thireen.

Even for the ring-leaders – those whose names who are not obscure – even for Peter, James and John, the working out of this ‘power’ is curious, to put it mildly. John dies in homeless exile on a small and insignificant Greek island, while the others, so we believe, are put to death because of their faith. And before they reach the point of martyrdom, much of Acts depicts years of constant clashing with leaders, governors and rulers, as Peter and then Paul are punished, beaten and imprisoned. Their actual martyrdoms are not described, but Acts ends with Paul under house arrest, imminently expecting a trial and a capital sentence.

And yet, promises Jesus, ‘you will receiver power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you’. But whatever kind of power Jesus means, it is certainly not the kind of power that is compatible with Mr Trump, and his now famous boast from the 2016 election campaign, when he said that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody’ without losing any voters.

It is not the kind of power that unleashes a senseless and evil war on a neighbouring country that has now lasted 452 days. It is not the kind of power that probably attracts even more moderate and conventional political leaders to seek high office, and it is not the kind of power one expects to find being wielded in a board room of any profit-distributing company or organisation.

If you want an insight into how the story continues, the very next portion of scripture we heard, from 1 Peter, shows just how ‘powerful’ a group or groups of Christians are nearer the end of the first century, in what we would now call modern-day Turkey. The recipients of this letter traditionally ascribed to St Peter are experiencing a ‘fiery ordeal’, and being ‘reviled for the name of Christ’, and the author of the letter is reminding them that ‘your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering…’

It is, perhaps, enough to make you wonder what that community of believers, both apostles, the ‘certain women’, and Jesus’ brothers were praying for, in that ten-day period between the Ascension and the actual coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. And therefore, perhaps, this might be a wake-up call for us to work out what it is that we should be praying for – praying for at all times, and perhaps most particularly as we journey through these last days of Eastertide in the build-up to Pentecost.

That first reading from Acts gives us a clue in its opening that the apostles are not thinking along the right lines, when their final question – the last thing they ever get to say to Jesus – is a question about political power: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The fact that it is in his rebuke to this inappropriate question that Jesus talks about how they will receive power should give us the clue that Jesus means something really rather different.

But it is a difference the Church has always been so slow to understand. We would be far from honest if we failed to acknowledge how often throughout history the church has got it wrong. While, here in York, we celebrate Constantine’s accession as Roman emperor, there are some that feel that ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under that great emperor, the church’s love of power has been too cozy and too self-serving.

Major moments in history, such as the Crusades, or the slowness of the English Church to condemn slavery and push for its abolition, would suggest a love of secular power that has been unhealthy. But it is not just an historic problem. If you were listening to Radio Four earlier this very morning, you will have heard one person reflecting on the symbolism of the Coronation and the role of the Church, who said, “I did wonder if Charles III should have put the crown on Justin’s head, instead.”

If we want a clue to what Jesus means when he promises ‘power’ to his followers, we can find it in Luke’s very first use of the word, way back in the first chapter of his gospel, when the archangel Gabriel tells that frightened young woman that ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you’.

For the result of that use of divine power is to turn Mary’s life upside down, not by making her rich or powerful – her life is turned upside down by becoming an unmarried pregnant woman, who gives birth in a stable, and who has to flee to Egypt for the safety of her baby – a baby, who when he grows up himself shows an utter lack of interest in riches or political power, and dies the death of a common criminal, deserted by all his friends.

And the power of God that will come up on the apostles on the Day of Pentecost shows itself at its best as they talk ever the more persuasively of a God of forgiveness, a God of new life, a God of love. Nothing in the power of the Holy Spirit will make them rich or famous. Nothing about the power that will come upon them will make them able to send armies into battle or will elections.

For despite the sickening coziness that exists between president Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, or the reliance of the American hard right on fundamentalist evangelicals, the power which Jesus promises is not power that a Putin or a Trump can recognize or understand. And it was, perhaps, not the power for which the apostles were praying during those ten days in they spent in the upper room, as they wondered what would happen next. For it is very true that we should be careful what we pray for.

But the power Jesus offered them and offers us is the only power that will, to quote a prayer from the end of this service, ‘help us to live the good news we proclaim’ – it is the only power that can ‘strengthen [us] to proclaim the word and works of God’.

And the amazing story of the Acts of the Apostles is that those hapless peasant fishermen and their mates, those first disciples who were so slow to learn, who got it wrong so often, who fled when their leader was arrested, and whose last words to him were still misplaced…

Hopeless though they were – and hopeless as we so often are – they discovered that when they spoke of God’s Word, of God’s works and of God’s love, they could change the world – as we can we. And it simply doesn’t get any better than that! Amen.

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Very truly, I tell you…. , The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  07 May 2023  11.00am

My Sunday newspaper has, I think, some twenty articles about yesterday’s Coronation. Because I read it online, I can’t tell you how many pages of print this represents, but it is a vast amount of what were once called ‘column inches’ about one single event. Now, I’m an Observer and Guardian reader, and therefore several of the articles were critical of the monarchy rather than in praise of it (which is not an outlook with which I happen to agree).

I suspect papers that are more ‘pro-establishment’ may well have devoted even more space to yesterday’s ‘big event’. And even if you are staunchly in favour of the royal family, you may have found the amount of press and media coverage of the Coronation just a little bit overwhelming.

If that is the case, you might prefer to turn your attention to our country’s long-running satirical magazine Private Eye, which dealt with the Coronation very succinctly on its recent front cover. Lacking its customary photo and humorous caption, in bold letters it simply asserted what it felt were the bare facts about what happened yesterday morning: Man in hat sits on chair.

And, in a ceremony which lasted almost two hours, if you were not paying close attention to the proceedings, you might well think that this was an accurate, albeit brief, description of what took place: man in hat sits on chair.

But the one who believes in me…will do greater works than these…

…which must have been a rather strange sentiment for the Christians who lived in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, in the latter part of the first century. For it was to these followers of Jesus, collectively referred to in the NRSV translation as ‘the exiles of the Dispersion’, that the so-called First Letter of Peter is addressed.

1 Peter is not an entirely straight-forward document, and there is a wide range of scholarly opinion about it, including whether or not it was actually written by Simon Peter himself. But what is not in doubt is that its recipients were outcasts. To quote from the passage we just heard, it could be said of them that they, ‘were not a people’.

These early followers of Jesus in what is now modern-day Turkey were (to use a different translation) ‘foreigners’ – foreigners in a strange land, or, at best, ‘resident aliens’. And – just as is the case in too many places across the world today – these people paid a heavy price for allowing their faith to dictate how they lived their daily lives. They were subject to discrimination and persecution and made to live on the margins of their society.

So, if the words of the Fourth Gospel had managed to reach this part of the Roman Empire by the time 1 Peter was written, the recipients might just have wondered how on earth they could do the works that Jesus did, let alone undertake ‘greater works than these’. For, surely, it is a remarkable statement that anyone – in any context or era at all – that anyone could do something greater than Jesus. Even for those who have good reason to be confident about they way they live their lives, the very notion reeks of arrogance. And, for these excluded and marginalized Christians of Asia Minor, the sentiment would, surely, be utterly bewildering.

But, as we heard read, this small and hard-pressed community who once ‘were not a people’, discover that, in fact something has happened and that ‘now [they] are God’s people’.

For the one who believes in me…will do greater works than these…

And that must also have been fairly bewildering for the first disciples of Jesus who heard those words uttered on the very lips of Jesus himself. Especially when you look at this passage in its proper context. For, despite this now being the fifth Sunday of Eastertide, our gospel reading takes us right back to the night of Maundy Thursday – it takes to no lesser a place than the Last Supper. And that is a curious context indeed to be suggesting that any of Jesus’ disciples could aspire to any kind of work or deed that might attract a label to do with greatness.

For just a few verses earlier, Judas Iscariot has gone out into the deep darkness of that night of nights to betray Jesus to the Jewish authorities. And, as if that was not bad enough, in response to Simon Peter’s claim that he would lay down his life for Jesus, his Lord and master has told him bluntly that, in fact, before the cock crows, ‘you will have denied me three times’.

But yet, for all that failure, for all that cowardice, for all that sinfulness and betrayal, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do [says Jesus] and, in fact, will do greater works than these…

How can this be? And – while we are asking some searching questions – was Private Eye correct? Was yesterday, for all its pomp and ceremony, was yesterday’s great event simply a case that a man in hat sits on a chair?

Those are not flippant questions, and nor are they irrelevant questions. For we have no business being in church this morning if we – who claim to be followers of Jesus – if we are not prepared to aspire to the seemingly impossible challenge of undertaking greater works than Jesus himself.

And in an age where not everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a monarchist, it is also neither flippant or irrelevant for us to work out why yesterday’s great liturgy is, in fact, more than just man in hat sits on a chair. Especially as the two questions share an answer that is rooted – deeply rooted – in the Scriptures that we have just heard read.

Speaking just over three hours before the start of the Coronation service, in the Thought for the Day slot on Radio Four, the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded those listening that the Coronation was designed to remind us of a three-way promise involving the King, involving God, and involving ‘the people’ – in other words, involving us.

He spoke of the burdens of expectation that we all carry, whatever our position in life, and of our need of each other – our need of being able to share the burdens that are laid upon us. For, said Archbishop Justin, it is then that ‘we open up the possibility that together we may do something much stronger, much bigger, and much more significant than we would ever do alone’. It is then, to speak the language of this morning’s gospel, that we might aspire to what Jesus calls ‘greater works’.

Which points us towards the heart of the much commented upon innovation in yesterday’s liturgy that saw the Archbishop of Canterbury offer everyone who wished to do so the opportunity to ‘pay true allegiance’ to King Charles.

In the wake of some sharply critical comments about this aspect of the service, Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, also reflected on the imminent Coronation a little earlier this past week, again in a Thought for the Day, making the point that pledging loyalty is somewhat counter-cultural in an age which sets so much value on personal autonomy.

He made the point that what was demanded of King Charles (and freely given by him) was a loyalty very much larger than anything being asked of us in return. “It’s going to be awesome,” he said, “to watch a person pledging himself wholly to the well-being of nation and commonwealth. He’s entrusting his future to people he doesn’t know amid events he can’t control.” Which, as Sam Wells explained, is a statement of faith – “of faith in something beyond our own integrity and autonomy.”

And that is the key both to the importance of yesterday’s Coronation, and also to understanding the call to do ‘greater works than these’. For, if we are to live out Jesus’ challenge, it is not something we can do as individuals, bound up simply in our own sense of autonomy. For the Christian, we are called to live as part of that great community we call the Body of Christ – of which those of us gathered here this morning are a small part – we are called to live as a community dependent on and sustained by God the Holy Trinity.

For, on the night before his death, Jesus explains that, in the wake of death and resurrection, he will go to the Father, who will send the Spirit on his disciples and bring to birth what we call the Church. And, empowered by the Spirit, and working as the Body of Christ, nothing will or can hinder the Good News – not betrayal, not denial, not desertion, not persecution. If we live out lives faithful to God in community, nothing should stop us doing these greater works to which Jesus encourages his followers.

We see this so very clearly in today’s readings. We see it in the story of Stephen the first martyr in our opening reading; we see it promised to the disciples in the gospel; and we hear it explained to the hard-pressed Christian communities of Asia Minor – people who felt of no account and were treated as such, but who were nevertheless called to be living stones of a spiritual community that could ‘proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness’. A community which has rediscovered that being bound together in service, they have become nothing less than being God’s people.

Which is why yesterday, of course, was about so much more than man in hat sits on chair. Whatever anyone’s views about hereditary monarchy, you would have to be stubborn in the extreme not to recognize that yesterday was a celebration of community, loyalty and service – the service of a King, the service of a myriad of overlapping communities that make up this nation and the Commonwealth, and the loving and loyal service of a God who shows us how to live for others principally through the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

That was the example which gave Jesus’ disciples the reason not to let their hearts be troubled; which gave Stephen the first martyr hope as he was stoned to death; which allowed  the dispersed, ‘alien’ Christians who received the first letter of Saint Peter to understand that they were not nobodys but God’s own people. And, as I hope was apparent yesterday, this was the example which, without any doubt, sits deep in the heart of King Charles III, calling him to a service and a loyalty that, despite all the trappings of sovereignty, sacrifices autonomy on the altar of loving service in community.

And so, this morning, we are challenged to take this example to our own hearts, and recognize our own membership of that chosen race… that royal priesthood… that holy nation and remember that we are God’s own people, called to proclaim light in the dark places of the world.

For there are just as many marginalized and persecuted peoples – Christians and plenty of others – as there were in first century Asia Minor when 1 Peter was written. And the victims of persecution and discrimination are the victims of those who chose to put personal autonomy in place of community. Which is why we should rejoice that whether you believe in hereditary monarch or not, the man in the hat sits on the chair to remind us not of his own autonomy and importance, but to point us to something far, far greater – something inseparable from the call of the God who loves us through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday into Easter and on to Pentecost.

And if we pledge our allegiance not just to king or community but to this loving and extraordinary God, then, without doubt, as Jesus said, we can and we will do ‘greater works than these’. Amen.

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A stone was brought…so that nothing might be changed… – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: A stone was brought…so that nothing might be changed…

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  15 April 2023  5.30pm

When it comes down to it, the question, really, is do you believe it? Do you believe what you read or hear read from the Bible? And let’s leave the difference between myth and history and science to one side – I’m not talking about the account of creation in the opening of Genesis. Let’s just concentrate on what people often call ‘gospel truth’. Do you believe that?

I’ll make the question even easier for you. Let’s put to one side some of the really challenging gospel stories. We don’t have to talk about the virgin birth right now; we don’t have to talk about the resurrection. I accept that for some people these can be stumbling blocks. Are you happy to be believe in the parts of the gospel narrative that are not supernatural? That – surely – is not too tall an order, is it?

Well – in my opinion – speaking as the Dean of York from this hallowed pulpit in York Minster – I need to say that you shouldn’t, always, believe what it says in the Bible… even in the gospels. But before you pick up something to throw at me, or start composing your letters and emails to poor Archbishop Stephen, let’s put all of this to one side for a moment or two, and let’s talk about stones…

Because it is the stones that are – or which appear – to be the common thread between these two narratives from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The first stone is, if you like, a reluctant stone. King Darius – who was one of the good guys in the Old Testament – Darius has been tricked into passing a law which the ‘presidents and satraps’ know will lead to the downfall of Daniel. Because this is a law ‘of the Medes and Persians’, and so, as we are told, it ’cannot be revoked’.

And thus, when it is revealed that Daniel has been naughtily praying to the one God, the king has no choice but to condemn young Daniel to death in the lions’ den.

And, incidentally, lest you should think that the lions were elderly, tame, past it or toothless, had we been allowed to have read just one more verse from that story, you would have heard that the ‘baddies’ (the presidents and satraps – and their wives and children for good measure) end up in the lions’ den themselves, only to be overpowered by the lions before they even reach the bottom of the den. So the lions have got all the oomph one needs from a pride of lions in a palace.

And so it is that the king has to seal a stone placed over the entrance to the den – seal it, so we are told, ‘with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, so that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel.’ And Daniel’s fate is – literally – sealed, or so it seems.

The other stone was not so reluctant. Joseph of Arimathea is a good guy. Possibly a slightly cowardly one, but a good guy nonetheless. He’s been rolling a stone to give Jesus a fitting burial place. And treating the dead with reverence and respect and ensuring an appropriate burial has consistently been regarded as an important cultural practice in biblical times, modern times, and just about every other time. So Joseph has done a good and noble thing by rolling the stone against the door of the tomb.

But for all that, Joseph’s stone is still a worry – a worry to those three women who have come to anoint Jesus’ corpse. Which is why we find them saying ‘Who will roll away the stone for us…?’

Two stones. One put in place to condemn an innocent man to death – the other put in place to effect the burial of an innocent man condemned to death. And both seemingly incapable of being removed, whether to free the innocent man in the lions’ den, or to allow the women to complete the burial rites for the dead Jesus.

Two stones in place, to make sure things stay as they are. For, after all, we are told that the law of the Medes and Persians cannot be revoked. Corruption and condemnation have been codified into that law, and that’s how it is going to remain.

And several centuries after the story of Daniel is set, another young man who prays to the one God is condemned to death despite having done nothing wrong, and everything is going to stay just as it always has been. Corruption and condemnation, yet again, are the winners.

Except that, as we see in both stories, the one God has the last laugh, not the stones. For Daniel is vindicated, and Jesus – well, Jesus just isn’t there, and neither is the stone any more. For that stone has already been rolled back, and the Good News that this represents is entrusted to the most unlikely people – to three women (whose voices carry no evidential authority) who, so we are told, flee in ‘terror and amazement’, and Mark’s gospel ends with the stark words that ‘they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’

Which is why you really should not believe everything you read in the Bible. That’s why even ‘gospel truth’ just isn’t, sometimes. For this is the earliest of the four gospels. This is the first account of the empty tomb, let alone of anything to do with the risen Christ. And if Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome really did say nothing to anyone… well I don’t know how you and I got here this afternoon.

The man we call Mark is throwing down a challenge to his readers. A challenge which, in the original Greek, is somewhat easier to perceive. For in the Greek, the ending of this narrative is not a full stop, so much as a ‘dot dot dot’. And Mark is saying, “if you’ve followed the story this far, gentle reader, then now – it’s over to you – see if you can do better…. don’t do what I said the women did…. go and tell…

Because life does not have to be the way it always is. Corruption and condemnation do not have to have the upper hand. Stones can and will be rolled away, and we can tell the story. Because the Body of Christ is not lifeless and imprisoned in a stone-cold tomb behind a door which can never be opened. It is, in fact, alive and kicking, and full of Good News that can not and will not lie down and die.

So roll the stone away, my friends, and, just as the young man in the white robe said, go and tell! Amen.

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Good Friday: The Last Word of All – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: The Last Word of All

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  7 April 2023  5.30pm

When Jesus had received the wine, he said It is finished.

Back in 1993, a 74-minute CD was released by an English composer. A distinguished English composer, who has written some very well-acclaimed pieces that have been performed by a number of internationally renowned artists. But this record was not quite like his other ones, for it consisted entirely of one phrase of music being played again and again, and the music in question was a man singing the refrain of a hymn.

Now if you think it strange that someone could release CD consisting of part of a hymn being sung over and over, what made it even stranger was who it was that was singing. For this was no professional singer – quite the reverse. The singing is actually a tape-recording from the early 1970s, taken from material compiled by the BBC for a documentary about life in slums of inner-city South London now long-since demolished. And the researchers for this documentary came across an old man on a sitting on a lonely bench singing to himself – quite unaware that he was being overheard. And as he sat there he sang:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

The voice of this old man sounds ragged and pathetic; he was clearly someone not only well advanced in years, but clearly not in the best of health. There are frequent pauses for breath in between the clauses of the song, and his aged voice sounds pretty toothless, and conveys all the signs and sounds of extreme poverty. And yet he sung

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

It is a performance, in its way, of great grace and serenity. Were you to listen to the recording, which is widely available in all the usual places, you would realise at once how near the bottom of the social scrap-heap this man must have been. And yet, he sings this genuinely pathetic and touching refrain, this most unexpected and unlikely affirmation of faith in God’s love and support.

Today, of course, we are singing rather older and more venerable songs. Songs not from the 1970s, but songs rooted in ancient traditions of the church. We have, indeed, just sung one of the four accounts of Christ’s passion, and sung it in a musical style the origins of which are more than 1500 years old. And all of that feels, perhaps, appropriately Good for such a distinguished setting as the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York which we know as York Minster – appropriately Good for a holy day that the Church has labelled – so paradoxically – as being Good.

And that, in itself, is a strange last word – a very strange last word to ascribe to the day that the Son of God dies. An even stranger last word to ascribe to the day that the Son of God not merely dies, but is unjustly and cruelly executed by a conspiracy of corrupt and callous humans, too bent on their own agenda to notice the incarnate Love of God present in their midst.

And so it is, on this day of days, that we hear that ultimate, final Last Word: When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”

And this last word is inexorable and inescapable. For century upon century upon century, across the entire Christian world, it has always John’s account of the Passion that has been read on the day that Christ dies. And thus the last word of all is always, and can only ever be It is finished.

For these are very human words. We are finite people, and we live in a world of beginnings and endings. And we know that every beginning comes to an ending – whether the ending is happy or sad. A lovely holiday finishes. A lifetime’s employment finishes. A love affair finishes. Every single life that is lived comes to its conclusion, prematurely, or after many years – life finishes.

This last word is no more and no less than the ultimate statement of the human condition – for we are finite, and thus we have no other destiny but to finish. As creation begins, so it must end – and endings are hard, for every ending is, in its way, a death. And yet…. And yet that old man, who had, I am sure, lived out most of the years of his life, that old man could sing

This one thing I know, that he loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

This one thing I know…. That he loves me so…

And that is the big clue…. That is the key to the mystery of this day… that is the lens through which Saint John calls us to view the Cross, to view the the broken and pierced body that hangs upon it, to view the death of God, inexorably shot through with the Love of God. And, for Saint John, and for the Church of God, it is the triumph of that love which allows us… which dares us…. Which demands of us that we call this day Good.

Nearly 40 years ago, one of the finest priests who has ever ministered in the Church of England, a man with a theological brain that could have guaranteed him a professorial career of great distinction in any university, but who chose to devote himself entirely to parish ministry – nearly 40 years ago, well into his fifties, this man wrote an account of the nature of the church’s ministry that many regard as a spiritual classic of the 20th Century.

In it he explains all sorts of not insignificant ways the church brings benefits to society, many of which are as valid today in the Britain of 2023, as they were back in the 1970s. He would, I am sure, have applauded how the Church of God has, in the last fifty years, become much more conscious of the call of what many people call social justice. But ultimately, he says, it is not for this service that the Church…makes its offering…

 The Church offers itself to the triumph of the love of God… The Church lives at the point where the love of God is exposed to its final possibility of triumph or tragedy – the triumph of being recognized as love, the tragedy of so passing unrecognized that the final gift, the gift of which all other gifts are symbols, the gift of love itself is never known. The Church cannot endure that this tragedy should be…for it recognizes…the love of God is no controlled unfolding of a predetermined purpose according to an assured programme… But rather….

That upon which all being depends is love expended in self-giving…[love] without residue or reserve, drained, exhausted, spent: love…on the brink of failure…yet ever finding new strength to redeem tragedy…and restore again the possibility of triumph.

That weary and broken old man – he knew this. He knew it in the very fibre of his being, which was why he could dare to sing

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

For pretty much everything had failed him. His friends and family had failed him. His community had failed him. His country and his politicians had failed him. All those who should have supported him had failed him, and, in our own day, we fail him and so many like him again and again and again. But Jesus – Jesus, who we see today, so finished upon the cross – Jesus had not failed him – had not failed him and could not fail him. Could not fail him because of and not despite of the shedding of his blood.

For today, on this Friday we call Good, we hear the Last Word of an incarnate God who thinks big – who thinks bigger and more daringly than the world had or has ever witnessed. The God Incarnate who, at the very start of his ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, encouraged his followers to be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect. A tall order you may well think. But in this ultimate last word, we get the clue to that. For last night, were reminded that Jesus loved his own to the end – to love so completely finished that it is made perfect.

And today, on this stark day of horror and of triumph and of life, we see a Jesus who has put all in order, and done all that he came to earth to accomplish. To make sure that all is complete, he’s even prepared to drink sour wine. And then, in triumph, and in control – he bows his head, and he gives up his spirit. This is not just what some might call a good death, it is very much more than that….

When Jesus had received the wine, he said It is finished.

This is the last Last Word, because it is the word not of despair and brokenness, but of completion and perfection. Of a life so perfectly lived in tune with God’s will, and a love so perfectly loved in tune with God’s love.

That is the last word which God’s church is called to proclaim anew in each and every generation – a last word of paradox and triumph, enunciated by a broken figure reigning from a criminal’s cross.

As Gavin Bryars, the composer who made famous this old man’s song, as he was working on this recording one morning, he went to make a coffee, and he left the tape-loop of the old man playing in his office, adjacent to a staff common room in the university in which he worked, unaware that the song would be overheard.

When he came back with his drink, he says, “I found the normally lively room subdued. People were moving about more slowly than usual, and a few were sitting alone, quietly, weeping.”

For in his eloquent and melodic Last Word, that old man sung of love perfected upon the Cross. Of a love which would never fail him – which would never fail the world. A Love that could drink sour wine and proclaim the triumph of God’s work as it exclaims It is finished.

For that is the ultimate last word from the cross and about the cross. It is the Last Word about what Bill Vanstone so aptly called  Love’s Endeavour and Love’s Expense. It is the Last Word on which, and only on which, you and I can dare to rely. For it is the last human word that demonstrates the eternal truth that He only became human, that He only did any and all of this, and did it so perfectly, that we might become divine.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet.

This one thing I know, that He loves me so.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

What Last Word will you dare sing today?

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Good Friday Meditations: The Last Word Series – The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Mark’s Last Word, Matthew’s Last Word, Luke’s Last Word 

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  7 April 2023  12pm – 1.30pm 

Mark’s last word

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When one of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.”  And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.”  Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

One of the big questions raised by the events of Good Friday is a question which sounds very, very simple – but is, in fact, rather complicated. The big question of today is, at its simplest, one of identity: who is it that dies today?

We can, I think, all agree – and by ‘all’, I don’t just mean you and me here in this cathedral this afternoon. By all, I mean the voice of history, tradition and reason that has been the backbone of Christianity for 2000 years. We can agree that a man from Nazareth by the name of Jesus dies today. But that is about as much as it is possible to say without raising some fairly big questions.

For people were executed all the time by the Roman authorities in first-century Palestine. The bad and the ugly, and quite possible a number of the good as well. The rule of the occupiers’ law was hard and fast, and all the more effective for that.

But the question remains, albeit in slightly nuanced form – who, or perhaps what, is it that dies today?

When you embark on the study of theology, one of the disciplines you rapidly encounter is called Christology. Christology is about working out what on earth we actually mean when we talk about the Christ. Or, in other words, just exactly what do we think Jesus whom we call Christ actually was – or, indeed, still is? And the nub of this debate – the key to this question – is all about whether Jesus, whom we call the Christ, is properly human, and/or is properly divine, and/or is both.

This was a big, big question during the first four hundred years of Christianity, and different theologians and bishops had very differing answers. There were those who said it was impossible to hold that God was one, and that Jesus could be divine. There were others who said that, in essence, if Jesus wasn’t divine, all this was a load of fuss about nothing, and of no value to folk like you and me.

And there were arguments about how it might be he could manage to be both. Arguments that sometimes verged on him only appearing to be human, or only appearing to be God – all of which were expressed in philosophical terms that would make any normal person’s head spin in this day and age.

Needless to say, this kind of stuff was, and continues to be really quite hard for most theological students to follow. It feels, in its way, only one small step away from debating how many angels can be found on the head of a pin. But I was blessed with a lucid and clear-minded teacher who said that, to preserve what you and I might think of as a conventional, orthodox Christian faith, there were three simple rules that had to be upheld. And the rules were easy to remember, as they all sounded the same – at least at first.

All you needed to remember, so this wise and learned man said, was

It must be God who becomes human.

And then he repeated this maxim two more times.

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

Our teacher could see that we were still scratching our head, so he clarified it for us – and showed us why he repeated his saying three times. For, he said:

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

It must be God who becomes human.

Or, to be slightly more serious and easy to explain – it must be God, and no lesser being, that becomes human – if the Christ is only a watered-down form of God, that’s no use to anyone, least of all you and me.

And God truly must become human. It can’t be play-acting or make-believe. God really has to do this living as a human experience. The act of becoming has to be genuine, and not a charade.

And, finally, and for St Mark, most importantly, it must be proper humanity that God embraces. In other words, he mustn’t just look like it – he can’t just pop down from heaven in a kind of spacesuit with a human face painted on it. God in Christ really must become just like us.

And that’s a big order – but it is, for St Mark, the last word on the subject. And much of Mark’s gospel, and much of Mark’s passion story is shot through with hints that, in the eyes of this gospel writer, Jesus is gut-wrenchingly human. Indeed, one of Mark’s favourite turns of phrase, often translated in rather genteel terms as indicating that Jesus was deeply moved is really about a visceral response to injustice that gets Jesus knotted up in his bowels or stomach, he is so upset.

And Mark gives us a hint of all this, literally, in the last words he reports from the lips of Jesus. Words which have made generations of clergy stumble to ensure they are pronouncing them correctly: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabacthani – words which, translated, we recognize as the opening words of Psalm 22 – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

We know the translation well. Psalm 22 is one of the great psalms of despair, at least in its beginning. But the question Mark raises for us is what language are the words which Jesus utters? And a secondary question, for those who know the New Testament well, might be whether those words are the same words we find in Matthew’s account of the last words – for Matthew recounts Jesus as crying out Eli, Eli, lema sabacthani. Matthew takes out one letter ‘o’, and Eloi become Eli.

Why, you might ask? Or even more crisply and relevantly – why does this even matter?

I want to suggest to you it’s just a little, very Marcan clue or reminder that this is an utterly human Jesus we see dying on the cross. But you would have to go to a small village about an hour outside Damascus in Syria, really to understand this today. For in the village of Maaloula, which is a tiny little place, the inhabitants of the village are about the only community left in the world who still speak Aramaic as their native language. And Aramaic was the language which Jesus spoke on a day to day basis as his mother tongue.

It’s not a biblical language. You won’t need me to remind you that the Old Testament was written almost entirely in Hebrew, and that the New Testament was written in Greek. And when St Matthew quotes Jesus’ last, despairing cry, he does so in Hebrew – the ‘real’ language of the Jews, and certainly a language Jesus would have known well….but not his native tongue. Mark, however, gives Jesus his last words in his own, real vernacular Aramaic. And the only difference in those four words is that letter ‘o’ – Eloi not Eli.

 That may sound to you a trivial, semantic difference. But Mark, like all the evangelists, was concerned with the detail as well as the big storyline. And for Mark it was not enough simply to have that all too human cry of utter despair. For Mark it was not enough to portray a Jesus showing full, vivid human emotions of anger, terror and despair. For Mark it was not enough to have Jesus die this most abject death, broken, vulnerable, and so utterly alone that he felt even God had deserted him. Mark had to underscore that point, for those who were ready to listen to or read his gospel with care. Mark had to have Jesus speaking his ‘real’ language. Even by the simple, almost throw-away use of one single vowel, Mark is using his last word to say to us, this God has become utterly, completely, fully human.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is.

 

Matthew’s last word

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Ò You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’ ”

Do you remember what you were doing 45 days ago? Ordinarily, that would be an absurd and impossible question to answer. Today, however, you might just have a clue that six Sundays and forty other days make up the season of Lent, and thus the penny might just drop that 45 days ago you were gathered once again in church, to mark out the beginning of Lent.

I don’t know about you, but to me, it feels like a long time ago, and it has certainly been a long journey, as we have inched closer and closer towards the foot of the Cross. And it feels a long time ago that we confronted our own mortality in the simple, chilling formula that accompanies the imposition of ashes – Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Lent opens with a stark reminder of the profoundly ordinary quality of us and our flesh, and the heavy dose of realism that we are no more than dust, and dust will be our final state.

And from those chilling, profound words, we have had a holy season with which to grapple with sin, and with the cause of sin, which we call temptation. And four days on from Ash Wednesday, on the first Sunday of this great season, we are always confronted by the story of Jesus being tempted. Tempted for forty days in the desert, battling with the shadowy figure we call the devil.

It feels a long time ago, but the memory of it, I am sure, lurks in your minds, for it is a well known gospel story. A ravenous, probably despairing Jesus, after forty days of fasting, is rounded on by the devil. And they speak of stones and bread, and pinnacles and dashed feet, and kingdoms and worship. And, each time as the devil goads Jesus, he challenges him by saying If you are the Son of God…

 If you are the Son of God… turn stones to bread

If you are the Son of God…throw yourself down

If you are the Son of God…worship me

If, if, if…. could you bear it? Could you bear it if you knew it all to be true??

The Temptation story is a profoundly uncomfortable story precisely because we know, and Jesus knows, that the devil is right. All that goading, all that taunting… You say you are the Son of God… prove it…

His Majesty’s diplomats – consuls, ambassadors, and other senior figures – are customarily rewarded for good service by being appointed as members of the Order of St Michael and St George, and thus, depending on their status, get allowed to put after their names CMG, KCMG, or GCMG, designating them as being Companions, Knights or Grand Knights of this strange order.

It may be that being an ambassador requires one to put on airs, but the rest of the Civil Service likes to joke that these three sets of letters actually stand for Call me God, Kindly call me God, and, at the most senior, God calls me God.

And here is the devil, doing exactly this with Jesus. He is making him the most truthful member of the diplomatic honors system – he calls him what he is. God – or at least, the Son of God. If you are the Son of God…

And when Matthew tells the story, he deliberately brings it to a climax on a very high mountain, from which Jesus can see all the kingdoms of the world, where the devil attempts to demand that Jesus worship him.  Jesus, of course, as you will remember, has no truck with this, and sends the devil packing, and angels take his place, to wait on Jesus.

But now the angels have gone. We have leapt to the end of our six-week journey, and temptation and testing have been replaced by desertion and despair. We come, today, to the last scene of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, to find him arms outstretched on a cross, nailed there like a common criminal. And it is time for us to look at St Matthew’s account of this dreadful scene, and see if we can work out what Matthew’s last word is on this extraordinary death.

I spoke just now about the three simple rules of Christology that I was once taught. That God really must become fully human, that it must, genuinely, be God who becomes human, and that God must really become human.

Mark’s last word which we considered just now, emphasizes very clearly that God, in Jesus, has become completely and totally human. Now, as we look at the same scene through the eyes of St Matthew, I want to suggest that he is helping us understand that, truly, it is God and no substitute or imitation that, in Jesus, has taken flesh.

Because, for Matthew, I think it hangs in the way, in the precise way, in which Jesus is taunted as he dies.

If….If….If….  If you are the Son of God…. come down from the cross.

 Because, for Matthew, the mocking of the dying Jesus is, incredibly, another temptation.  If… If… If… you are the Son of God – turn stones to bread, throw yourself down into angels’ arms, worship the devil…. If you are the Son of God…come down from the cross.

The Temptation story is not, of course, about If you are the Son of God… The evangelist knows that Jesus is the Son of God. Call me God… Kindly, call me God… yes, even God, calls me God, to use diplomatic language.

The Temptation story if about what it means to be God. The Temptation story is about how God behaves, if you like – it is about how God chooses to show God’s creation the nature of God. It is about how God guarantees God will be, and what God will not do, no matter how much the devil may want it…. no matter how much we may want it.

And for Matthew, his deft telling or re-telling of the crucifixion of Jesus, his unique inclusion in this narrative that has the chief priests, the scribes and the elders taunt Jesus by saying If you are the Son of God… come down from the cross, for Matthew, this is, if you like, a last word on what it truly means to be God.

For God can, indeed, turn stones to bread, and God can, indeed, jump off high places and be guarded by angels. God can utter all sorts of powerful words if God thinks it right to do so. And God could come down from the cross – but then, what kind of god would God be?

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak.

They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne.

But to our wounds, only God’s wounds speak.

And no other god has wounds, but thou alone.

(Edward Shillito, Jesus of the Scars)

Matthew gives us his last word in his unique telling of the crucifixion narrative. If you are the Son of God come down from the cross, they cry out.

And because he is the Son of God, he will not.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is. Amen.

 

Luke’s Last Word

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.  When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”  One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

As we move from hearing Matthew’s last word on the Cross, on the death of the Son of God, to seeing how Luke depicts the final moments of Jesus’ life, things have changed for us, quite dramatically. If you open up the Passion narratives from the four gospels, you will find a great deal in common between Mark and Matthew, but when you come to look at how Luke tells us the details of this ultimate story, somehow the feel is very different.

A few minutes ago, we were considering Matthew’s last word – how Matthew wants us to be clear that it is, indeed, the Son of God who is nailed to the cross. And that last word, as I said, helps us, who are wounded and vulnerable, to know that God has direct and personal experience of brokenness and death.

Luke’s last word, I think, Luke’s last word takes a different tack, but also has something vital to offer us as we contemplate the death of Jesus. The mood that pervades Luke’s account of Jesus’ execution is a very different mood to the other three gospel accounts. It would be going too far to suggest that for Luke this is a happy ending, and not a sad one, but Luke has a last word to offer us that is more overtly Good News, perhaps, than the other gospels. And that, I think, is because Luke wants us to understand that in this death – this very regrettable death – something redemptive is really going on here.

For it is strange, is it not, that this is the day of the year that we call Good? There are so many obvious candidates for the title Good in the Christian calendar, but, if we were starting from scratch, I doubt if you or I would label today, of all days, Good. You might think of putting that label on the Sunday we will reach in two days’ time, when all is joy and excitement – the new life of Easter, surely, is good? Or the day that we celebrate Jesus’ birth in the manger in Bethlehem – surely it is a good day when we celebrate that the Word has become flesh. But this day – this day of all days – this is good?

Well, says Luke, the last words I want to give you are, truly Good News – Good News even in the context of the death of Christ, the death of the Son of God. And for Luke, the news is Good, and the day is Good, because it makes a difference. It makes a difference to you and me. And you can see that it makes a difference.

The nails go in. The Roman soldiers do their job, and nail the Son of God to a cross. And Mark and Matthew and John get on with the action. But not Luke. Luke wants to give us the last word of redemption – Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

The Centurion stands to watch the proceedings and sees Jesus die. The other evangelists have him tell us that this was the Son of God – to which one might, just perhaps, say, “Whoops”. Bad news. Better not to try and execute a relative of the Almighty. But Luke wants to tell us of redemption: Certainly, says the Centurion, this man was innocent. The executioner is prepared to own up to a big mistake right there and then.

Everyone is being redeemed. Things are unpleasant and unfortunate, but blame is being avoided and people are being forgiven.

And then there is the thief – the so-called penitent thief.

And let’s be honest. Was ever a label so inappropriately given? Even Luke – even the kind-hearted and non-judgmental Luke is clear that Jesus is crucified surrounded by two criminals. And while it is certainly the case that one of them gets into an argument with the other one about the merits or not of crucifying Jesus, there is not a hint – not a jot or tittle – not the tiniest scent of anything approaching penitence with this man at all.

I hope that, on this day of all days, I don’t have to remind any of you that penitence means saying sorry. And there is not a single mention of apology with Luke’s portrayal – which is the only portrayal in the four gospels – the man we call the ‘penitent thief’ is actually, when you look at the facts, impenitent!

He’s argumentative – very happy to argue with the other dying criminal. And he’s cheeky, or possible opportunistic – hey, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. (Or perhaps he is plain sarcastic….) But penitent he is not. And it doesn’t matter! That, surely, is Good News. That, surely, is redemption.

This man is a chancer. Perhaps it was being a chancer that got him nailed to the cross for his pains. But he chances it one last time. And he hears the other thief talk up the idea of Jesus being the Messiah. Well, maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. But, like Voltaire, who on his deathbed, when asked to renounce the devil, exclaimed as his last word that it wasn’t the time to be making enemies, in a similar spirit, this thief isn’t going to argue with these Messianic claims.

And so he says, maybe just as an outside chance, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. It is, at the very least, a cheeky request, and there is nothing penitential about it at all. And yet, none of that matters. Truly says Jesus, Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Earlier, as I was telling you about the three ways that we have to think about who and what Christ is, I explained how I was taught that God really must become fully human – which Mark’s last word emphasizes for us. And I explained  that it must, genuinely, be God who becomes human – something which Matthew’s last word underlines for us.

The third piece of that jigsaw to help us understand who and what Christ is – especially who Christ is as he hangs on the cross – is that God really must, properly, have become human. It can’t just be some kind of divine cross-dressing act. God has to have become, and not just seem like one of us. Because only if God has become human can he really do anything to respond to human need. And that’s what Luke’s last word gives us right now, as we look at this extraordinary, cheeky, wonderful encounter with a thief who is a smart lad, but utterly impenitent!

God, who has truly become like one of us, can look at this outrageous character, just as he can look at you and at me, and use last words to say Today you will be with me in paradise.

And if that isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is.

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Maundy Thursday: Love’s Last Word – The Very Revd Dean Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Love’s Last Word

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  Maundy Thursday 6 April 2023  5.30pm 

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

And so the candles are lit, and the people have gathered. Darkness has fallen, and a community is gathered together; gathered together for a very special occasion – a celebration, indeed. An annual celebration, and one that never fails to have a mixture of joy, sorrow and remembrance. A celebration, but a celebration in the darkness.

Thus thirteen remarkable men gathered in an upper room nearly 2000 years ago – themselves, already, the product of a remarkable faith history coupling joy and sorrow in an extraordinary mixture. And one, at least, of these thirteen already experiencing his own very personal mixture of joy and sorrow, in the realisation that what he had come to understand as the sole purpose and mission of his life had come to its very climax. Such a poignant climax that, as he rightly anticipated, this was to be his last earthly meal. And not just a normal meal – this meal was the Passover meal, redolent with the ancient history of the liberation of his people. A meal, which so he himself says, he had earnestly desired to share with his friends and followers before the end came.

And so the candles are lit, and the people have gathered. Darkness has fallen, and a community is gathered together; gathered together for a very special occasion. An annual celebration, and one that never fails to have a mixture of joy, sorrow and remembrance. A celebration, but a celebration in the darkness.

For thus the community of the New Covenant gathers together. Thus the Church,  the Body of Christ gathers together, and as it does its members bring their own mixture of joys and sorrows. Tonight Christians gather together to celebrate the first of the three great darknesses of Holy Week – the joyful and sorrowful darkness of Maundy Thursday, complete with its recollections of feasting and friendship joyfully shared in a moving meal, but recollections also of the scandalous foot-washing, the betrayal by Judas of Jesus, the agony of the Garden, and the arrest, terror and betrayal committed by an entire community of friends. Thus tonight, as every year, faithful Christians come together into the darkness of the night.

But darkness is not easy. Darkness can be overwhelming. Darkness can be scary – for adults, just as much as for children. And darkness can a place of uncertainty and confusion.

After all in this darkness, even Simon Peter was confused. As Jesus is about to wash his feet, Peter remonstrates with him, only to be told You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand. In the darkness of this night, Simon Peter was so confused he could not even recognize love that clearly.

If that sounds odd, then let me challenge those of you here tonight who have ever been blessed to have a deeply loving relationship. Just think back to the time that you first realised that you seriously and profoundly loved that other person, whoever it may have been. For many of us, that moment of realization is also a moment of anxiety – for it is also the moment when we wake up to the awful question about whether such feelings are reciprocated – about whether our beloved loves us. Sometimes, especially in the darkness, it can be hard to recognize love that clearly.

Now think back to the moment that you realised that the person you loved actually loved you back. To that remarkable moment that can be both inevitable and so deeply nerve-wracking – that moment when, after a split second, that

someone – someone who matters more than anyone else –that someone says I love you too for the first time. That moment can be a bolt of flame that glows out in the darkness with an intensity that is incomparable.

And, for that community of thirteen men who gathered in the upper room before the festival of the Passover, love was in the air – but it was hard for them to understand it, as the candles flickered in the darkness of that night.

It was hard for Peter to make sense of it, for it would be many days yet, well after this darkness had turned to daylight, it would be many days hence, when the world would be a profoundly different place, that Peter would be able to look Jesus in the eye and say, Yes Lord, you know that I love you. For you do not know now what I am doing said Jesus, in the darkness of that night, but later you will understand…

Later, they would understand, that Jesus had done what he had ultimately come to do. Indeed, Jesus had done what it was impossible for him not to do. Jesus had come to act out for them the Last Word of love. For having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…

Much of the poetry of the Welsh poet-priest, R.S. Thomas demonstrates clearly just how hard it can be to understand love – but it also demonstrates a profound knowledge of what love can do to transfigure people, and thus transfigure the world. In an understated poem simply called The Chapel he wrote

 

A little aside from the main road,

becalmed in a last-century greyness,

there is the chapel, ugly, without the appeal

to the tourist to stop his car

and visit it.  The traffic goes by,

and the river goes by, and quick shadows

of clouds, too, and the chapel settles

a little deeper into the grass.

 

But here once on an evening like this,

in the darkness that was about

his hearers, a preacher caught fire

and burned steadily before them

with a strange light, so that they saw

the splendour of the barren mountains

about them and sang their amens

fiercely, narrow but saved

in a way that men are not now.

For in the darkness of that poet’s evening, in the darkness of the Upper Room, in the darkness of this very evening, and even deep in the darkness that can sometimes shroud our hearts and lives – in all that darkness there is only one fire that consumes and burns steadily and with a strange light, and that is the fire of God’s love – a love that only comes to us, a love that only comes to you and me, a love that only comes to the world… because Jesus having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.

 But what an end. For this is one of those moments when no translation does justice to the subtlety of St John’s language. This end of which John speaks is the highly ambiguous Greek word telos, which means so much more than just the end of something, be it a street, a sausage, or even a life.

John is trying to tell us that Jesus loved his own to completion, that Jesus’ love was a love which loved to an end that is so complete, that it is made perfect. John is trying to tell us that Jesus’ love for his own is the last word on the subject.

And so, in the darkness of this night, as the candles flicker, Jesus gives his disciples – his beloved ones – two very big hints about this perfect love. He acts out for them a love that is rooted in such a shocking act of service it has Simon Peter almost running for the door in disbelief and horror.

And then, reaching for wine and bread sitting on this table of precious food, he catches their attention yet again, by breaking and sharing what he tells them is his body, and his blood. A gift so profound and deep and precious, that it can make those who receive it Christlike, as we, in our turn, become the Body of Christ.

Or, in other words, Christ gives his beloved ones the flame of love. The flame of a love so remarkable that it can endure to the end. The flame of a love so wonderful that it can bring completion. The flame of a love so unique and extraordinary that it is the only thing which can bring perfection into an imperfect world. The flame of a love that can be hard to understand, but which will pierce the darkness with a light that (so this gospel writer told us at the very outset, in his famous prologue) will never be overcome, and will conquer all that tries to extinguish it.

We may not always understand that love, and often we may fail to mirror it in our own lives. But this is the love that created the world, and which, now redeems the world, and it is a love that burns with an inextinguishable flame that can set on fire the poet’s preacher in that gloomy Welsh valley, and which can set us, can set even me and you on fire. For this is the night of love’s last word.

So as we journey on in the darkness of this night, as we journey on through the darkness of betrayal, desertion and denial, as we journey into the darkness of a sky turned black, and of an innocent man’s death, as we journey into the cold darkness of a sealed tomb, let us hold on to Love’s last word.

Because then, and only then, in that final darkness, before the dawn breaks on the third day, will we be able to perceive that flame of complete and perfect love which will never, which can never again be extinguished. Amen.

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Judas’ Last Word – The Very Revd Dean Dominic Barrington, Dean of York

Title: Judas’ Last Word

Preacher: The Very Revd Dominic Barrington, Dean of York 

Date:  5 April 2023  5.30pm 

 

Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…

Throughout the Christian year, as we follow the calendar of the church from Advent onwards through Christmas, into Lent and then Easter, and onwards into the rest of the year, throughout the year we are used to celebrating saints’ days every so often. Today, on the Wednesday of Holy Week, we do the reverse. We remember – we do not celebrate – a non-saint’s day. For today is Judas’ day – and this day is often known as Spy Wednesday, for it was the day on which Judas struck his deal with the Jewish authorities to receive the infamous thirty pieces of silver in return for betraying Jesus.

And I believe that it is impossible for you and I, as Jesus’ disciples, I believe it impossible for us to work out our last word about the cross – our last word about the death of the Son of God – without us considering the actions of Judas Iscariot. Without us hearing his own last word on the subject.

The Judas story is a sad one, and a complicated one. The sadness is obvious enough, I guess – the complexity harder to deal with. For it is not enough to note that Judas betrays Jesus – surely, we have to ask why he does so. And so we move into the realm of speculation. And the most commonly held theory about Judas’ motive in betraying Jesus is that he was frustrated that Jesus was not being militant enough.

Judas is often portrayed as being the one who wanted to see Jesus make overtly political claims of Messiah-ship. Judas is the one who wanted to see some real action that might signal the end of the ungodly and sacrilegious Roman occupation of the Holy Land by the Romans, and bring in a new era with Jesus as a political Messiah. And perhaps Judas thought that by bringing about a great confrontation between Jesus and the High Priest, all this could and would happen. And if that is what he thought, then he was wrong – so very, very wrong.

And he was wrong, fundamentally, because Judas tried to pack God up into a box no bigger than his own intellect and emotions, with a nice clear label, to be placed on a particular shelf in his mental store-cupboard. Judas tried to make God, and God’s Messiah, an extension of his own desires. He tried to turn the teaching and preaching and ministry of Jesus into a tool for his needs and desires – however worthy these might have been – rather than offering himself freely as a disciple who would follow and serve selflessly wherever and however that might take him.

Judas thought that Judas’ agenda was better than God’s agenda – and he paid the most awful price. A price that echoes down through every generation – after all, what insult is more hurtful that calling someone a Judas?

And today, on Spy Wednesday, we hear again the account of Judas’ betrayal. But before we get too comfortable, gazing down our spiritual noses in distaste at what this man did, we need to work out what we make of his last word, and how it might affect our own last word on the subject.

During the two years that the the Irish writer Oscar Wilde spent in gaol for actions that, thank God, we no longer think of as criminal, there was a particularly black day in the prison, when a murderer was executed one morning. It led Wilde to reflect in a famous poem that

Each man kills the thing he loves

By each let this be heard

Some do it with a bitter look

Some with a flattering word

The coward does it with a kiss

The brave man with a sword

 The account of the last supper which we have just heard tells us of the dreadful story of Judas…. but it tells us the story of ourselves as well. For when Jesus predicts his imminent betrayal, every single one of the Twelve guiltily look around at each other, uncertain of whom he is speaking. And Mark and Matthew flesh this out, reporting that they all ask, Not I, Lord, surely?

So, if those words were spoken, let us never forget that they were not merely a last word for Judas – they were words found on the lips of all of Jesus’ closest friends and followers, all of whom will desert Jesus and flee in terror only hours later. Indeed, as Jesus explains just a few verses further on, even Peter will deny Jesus, and will do so three times before the second cock crow. And the guilty look of betrayal and the guilty words of potential guilt are ours as well, all too often.

For there are times when we want to make God and to make his Christ instruments of our own will and personality. There are times when we want to parcel God up neatly into a box with a particular label on it, constantly forgetting that God is bigger than anything and anyone we can imagine, and that God’s agenda is broader and more wonderful than anything we can imagine.

And we do the same with Jesus. The gospel stories themselves demonstrate clearly to us that there are those who simply want to make Jesus a magician, or a physician, or a teacher, or a preacher, or a friend, or perhaps even a lover. And Jesus is none of these, just as he is none of the things that we try and make him. Jesus’ agenda was and is a bigger agenda than that of the Dean of York, or of anyone else gathered here.

Judas’ last word, that propels him into the terrible darkness of that Thursday night, is a reminder to us that our own last word needs to be big enough and broad enough to allow God to be God and Christ to be Christ, without making them conform to our own devices and desires. And that means, as the writer to the Hebrews understood, that we must run the race God has set before us with perseverance, and that we must look – and look properly and fully – at Jesus, who is none other than the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

For even if our gaze does remain fully focused on Jesus, our own sinfulness will still bring those moments when we nervously wonder if we have betrayed him, for such is human nature. But if we show the perseverance of which the writer to the Hebrews speaks so powerfully, then that Not I, Lord need not be our last word, and we may journey through the darkness of the Thursday night into the dazzling brightness of new life on a Sunday morning. Amen.

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