Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sunday before Lent - The Rt Revd Martyn Jarrett

This homily was given by the Rt Revd Martyn Jarrett, the Bishop of Beverly, on 6 March 2011 (Sunday before Lent).


I am sure it is my duty, as long as I am in this tent, to keep stirring you up with reminders. 2 Peter 1 v13

John Rouse Bloxham is hardly a name that immediately comes to mind when most Anglicans recall the great days of the Catholic revival in the nineteenth century. That is, perhaps, a pity for Bloxham was one of Blessed John Henry Newman’s closest friends. Bloxham who had gradually been drawn into Newman’s ever increasing circle of admirers and friends, was to serve for a while as one of Newman’s curates, with special responsibility for Littlemore. Bloxham, though, was never to follow his great friend into the Church of Rome. Newman may once have preached a famous sermon in which he referred to the parting of friends. That sermon, however, was not about the breaking of friendships. Both Newman and Bloxham were to live to a great age and, through all that time, to maintain in their close friendship. We are fortunate that their frequent and warm letters to each other are still available to be read. Bloxham was a frequent visitor to the Birmingham Oratory. In later years, when Bloxham was the incumbent of Beeding Priory in Sussex, a portrait of Newman hung in what was eventually to become known as ‘The Cardinal’s Room’. In 1879, after travelling to Rome to receive his cardinal’s hat, Newman returned to England, landing at Folkestone. Even then, when the great and the good, not least among the Roman Catholic community must have been eager to entertain Newman, within two days he found time to make the journey to the rectory at Beeding and to enjoy lunch with his old friend. As far as we can tell from their correspondence, neither ever rebuked the other for the stance he had taken or tried to argue him out of it. Theirs was a profound Christian friendship that went far deeper than all the controversies of the time. Newman and Bloxham never lost their vision of being reconciled in Christ even as they lived through the painful controversies of the nineteenth century.

Not everyone is as successful as were Newman and Bloxham in remaining loyal to that vision of true reconciliation in Christ. One commonly experienced feature of the Christian life is that of folk falling by the wayside as soon as the practice of the Christian life becomes tough and demanding. God who brought much reassuring consolation in the early days of faith now seems to be the God who uncaringly stands aside, even in the experience of heart-rending bereavement or of ghastly, painful illness. All too many would be disciples seek a faith built on warm and reassuring religious sentiment. Not so for Saint Matthew’s Gospel, read to us this morning. The certainty of the passion has already been spelt out in no uncertain terms to Jesus’ would-be followers. The Lord famously tells Simon Peter, when he suggests that the passion and cross could never be allowed to happen to Jesus, Get behind me Satan. S Matthew’s Gospel is as much concerned with keeping the would-be disciples’ eyes on the glory that is to come as it is with trying to prepare them for the puzzlement, stress and utter pain that are to be inevitable ingredients of the future. In similar vein, when the author of the Second Letter of Peter reminds his readers of what he claims to have seen on the Mount of Transfiguration, he says that his purpose is to encourage them not to fall away, rather
to keep stirring you up with reminders.

The story of the Transfiguration is set out for us today as you and I stand on the verge of entering into our Lenten discipline. There are all kinds of issues deep within us, both to be addressed and to be remedied. There is something about the dentist’s waiting room in these days just prior to Lent. We are beginning to reflect on what we are once again about to let ourselves in for. And, there, in contrast to our feelings, stands the figure of the Transfigured Jesus. Jesus may be about to journey up to Holy Week and the passion in Jerusalem but, already, He is encouraging us with a vision of the grand finale. The Transfiguration is a vision of Jesus as the conquering and unifying Lord. He is the fulfilment of Moses’ law and Elijah’s prophesy. But, it is something more than that. Those writers of Our New Testament knew that they, too, were in Christ, made part of His body through baptism. Everything that is Christ’s could and should be theirs. You and I are joined with Christ across time, some two thousand years later. And, the promise is the same; you and I are open to transformation; indeed, the whole Church of God is open to transformation.

At the heart of the meaning of the Mass we celebrate this morning, as at every Mass, is our re-presenting of the mystery of Calvary. As Saint Paul puts it, we are showing the Lord’s death until He comes again. The Father sees His Son hanging on the cross, still totally obedient to His Father’s will. No matter what is done to Jesus, He never gives up on loving. We human beings throw at Him all that we can and still Jesus loves us. Not even death is able defeat the power of divine love. So it is that every Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, you and I gather to show the Lord’s death until he comes again, knowing that, even in that awesome death, there is the promise of resurrection. Divine love will always have the last word. Every celebration of the Mass is potentially our encounter with the Mount of Transfiguration. The Mass demonstrates the transfiguring work of Christ and invites us, in our term, to be transfigured both by Him and with Him.

There will only ever be one test as to how far you and I are transfigured. You and I will be judged by that degree to which we reflect the love shown on Calvary. Any Lenten piety that fails in producing that fruit is worthless. Left to ourselves, of course, showing such love of others, especially when we have perceived them to have hurt us beyond measure, is impossible. You and I know, though, that we are capable of being transformed by Christ, that is, if we want to be open to His power to change our lives around. Our whole understanding of what it means to be members of His Catholic Church rests on an understanding that we are all bound into Christ’s Body by Baptism. And, because we are bound into Jesus, His life can ceaselessly enter ours and ours His, not least as we share regularly and faithfully in those life changing experiences of confession making and of receiving Holy Communion.

It can hardly be the best kept secret that you and I are, once again, faced with a church in which many are, once again, being faced with hard decisions to make as to where they believe God is calling them to serve Him in the future. Such hard decisions cannot to be ducked just because they are hard decisions. For Newman, as we know, it meant the parting of friends, from some for a while, from others for what was left of their time, this side of eternity. For Blessed John Henry and his friend, John Bloxham, it was even to mean that they would never again together receive Holy Communion. That is never a decision to be lightly made or from motives of frustration, or of anger, or of spite. Newman and Bloxham understood this and so their parting of friends was never allowed to become the ending of an increasingly closer development of their friendship.

God, in His time, calls each of us to make many choices. Yes, some among us may, near continually as it were, have to decide just where we align ourselves in the great issues confronting our Church. For many of us that will probably be a costly decision, one ultimately relating to where we think there is to be had the most authentic experience of Christian truth. For others of us, it might well be the call to decide where God’s justice might better be discerned, be it to the right of politics, to the left, or to somewhere in the middle. God, though, calls us today, as He will continue to do every day, to make another kind of choice, one on quite a different scale of values. Will we, or will we not, whatever might be the cost, embrace the opportunity to be transfigured, as Jesus offers us in this morning’s Gospel? Can we, or can we not, so raise ourselves by God’s grace to demonstrate the forbearing love, that for all their differences, Newman and Bloxham managed to achieve? Can our Lenten exercises so conform us more to Christ that we might arrive at Eastertide as people who more radiate his love, even within the unresolved conflicts of life with which you and I have to deal daily? I have more than a suspicion that, come the day of judgement, our God will be more interested in how we have answered that challenge then how you and I, for all their importance, answered any of the others.