Bishop of Clogher's Sermon The Second Sunday in Lent, March 8 2009
Bishop of Clogher's Sermon The Second Sunday in Lent, March 8 2009

Holy Communion in St George’s Cathedral, Diocese of Jerusalem

Sermon preached by Michael Jackson, bishop of Clogher, Ireland

Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-23; St Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8.32: Jesus said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

You may remember that, last Sunday, we heard of the covenant made by God with Noah. This week we hear of the covenant made by God with Abraham. The first covenant sets out in detail the new relationship between God and creation. The second covenant sets out in detail the relationship between God and Abraham and, by extension, all nations. Here we have the opening of a fresh chapter in the work of God in loving the world into being, in actively restoring to right relationship everything that is now out of place and in freeing everything and everyone he loves to live a renewed life. Notice – in Noah - not only that God’s creation is freed from the cloud of wickedness as represented in the Tower of Babel. Notice – in Abraham - also that creation is freed from the scourge and limitation of exclusivity in that a multitude of nations will flow from this covenant. And nationhood of itself brings the recognition of diversity as a working model of living. As we know, all too well, we are only as mature politically as we treat and respect those who differ from us. Diversity is our friend, not our enemy.

The gift of the future, therefore, is what all creation receives from God in this type of covenanting. And all of this is entirely in line with the Collect for Ash Wednesday which we use daily throughout Lent and particularly with its opening clause:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing that you have made and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may receive from you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Original love is stronger than original sin – and this repeatedly is the message which we receive and read in the Season of Lent.

In regard to the creation, the challenge of the wilderness annually asks us if we can see in the deepest tracts of emptiness the seeds of growth. Our world and the people who inhabit it today is battered by many events and situations, and at present none more so than the people of this land. The suffering in human terms which we who are visitors and pilgrims have seen on television and read in newspapers can only represent a fragment of the range of suffering endured by people who have become victims by being in the only place they have to call home at the wrong time. Your own bishop has spoken courageously and compassionately of the gift of love ‘that gives us strength to respect the human dignity of all people, Christian, Muslim and Jew alike; we are all created in the image of God.’ And, in the midst of the human devastation and escalating violence the bishop went on to say: ‘The world waits in eager expectation for people of good will, courage and vision to set aside personal agendas, to encourage the change of heart, to empower all people of faith to tear down the walls of cruelty, fear and hatred. We cannot diminish or escape from the challenges before us which are very real and confront our people. Peace, a just durable peace, is rooted in the reconciling love of God for all the people of this land.’ The courage of this statement walks hand in hand with its compassion. It gives the rest of us who, in our own context, seek to live out this spirit of generosity in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus Christ that essential gift of love - hope – a hope that God travels with those who suffer in their suffering and still shows the life and love of the new creation in the rubble of the old. We hear also of the witness of Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, serving the needs of those whose bodies and minds have been attacked by fear and suffering, maimed by mortar and masonry – and again we are so grateful for the common witness in action on the part of dedicated individuals who give of themselves to those who are brutalized and dehumanized by war and its catastrophes.

The Orthodox Traditions within Christianity, themselves very much the backbone of contemporary Jerusalem as we know it and custodians of some of the most evocative sites in the Old City, are very strong on the importance of creation in redemption; of the relationship between reconciliation and the poor; and of Jesus Christ and the cross. Let me quote from a recent popular book on the Orthodox Tradition entitled Light through Darkness by John Chryssavagis: …‘We have learned not to treat people like things; we must now learn not to treat even things like mere things. All of our ecological activities are measured ultimately by their effect on people, especially upon the poor. And all of our spiritual activities are judged by their impact on our world, especially on the environment …’and: ‘There is a price to pay for our wasting. It is the cost of self-discipline. The balance of the world has been upturned; it is an ‘outstanding balance’ that can only be countered by the sacrifice of bearing the cross.’ The second emphasis is taken up in the Collect of today: Give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save …In both of these extracts we see the wider range of responsibility which lies on us as stewards of God’s creation: we dare not to distance ourselves from the part of the creation which, at least until the work of Charles Darwin whose bicentenary we celebrate this year, we would have thought of as ‘beneath’ ourselves; as well as being in human solidarity and creative tension with those who are poor, we need to see that self-discipline is part of solidarity; the enactment of justice is intimately tied with the sacrifice of cross-bearing.

You who live, worship and witness as Christians in Jerusalem have the unique privilege of the holy places of history along with the living tradition of worship – but you also have the pain of suffering which you carry daily. And so I return to my text from that briefest of Gospels, St Mark, which in many Manuscripts concludes starkly with the disciples running from the Tomb, trembling with amazement and saying nothing to anyone because of their acute fear. St Mark 16.8: (Jesus) said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Mark is quite insistent that there is no way forward for teacher or disciples without accepting that the Son of man must undergo great suffering if there is to be resurrection. There is no point in Peter trying to hope for another way for Jesus or for anyone else. Taking up the cross at this pivotal point in the Gospel becomes the definition of what it is to follow and in following to be fulfilled. In this very specific way do the things of heaven become the things of earth.

It may indeed seem to be no time at all since we were celebrating the things of heaven becoming the things of earth in an entirely different way, the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact it was when we were eagerly expecting this arrival, on Advent Sunday, that I last preached in this Cathedral Church. There we saw innocent and vulnerability. There we saw kingship and splendour. But there we also saw myrrh among the gifts of The Wise of the East, prefiguring burial. Hope and sorrow are but two sides of the one coin – they do not contradict one another; they co-exist and explain one another.

This thread is drawn also by the very theological Paul who is often what we might call heavy weather but is also what L’Oreal calls ‘worth it.’ He draws out from the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham the thread of invitation leading right to the present and right to the door of this church: Now the words ‘it was reckoned to him’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. Let us never forget that we too are children of Abraham as are our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers and that they too are likewise children of Abraham. The two covenants are ours within the love of the God who hates nothing that he has made … as the Collect for Ash Wednesday constantly reminds us throughout Lent. For us as adopted children of Christ, as the Christmas Collect reminds us, this reckoning comes through that vital Christian combination of death and resurrection. The earthly Jesus refused to hide this reality. St Paul refuses to hide this reality. It is our calling daily to follow and in following to show the way of the cross in the common things of life.

Date: 8 March 09