Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Homily for Holy Cross Day, preached at St Paul's, Camden Square, London

Christ humbled himself that he might be lifted up- and we with him.

This is the lesson of today’s feast, the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Let’s keep hold of it as we trace the story of God’s redemption through today’s readings. In our first lesson, we find ourselves in the wilderness with the Israelites. Tired and thirsty and hungry, they grumble against God and against Moses. As punishment they are tormented by poisonous serpents.

It was the serpent who tempted Eve in the garden and led her and Adam to sin against God. The serpents in the wilderness recall that time; they remind us of our first parents questioning God and grumbling against him. The serpents also remind us of the darkness in our own hearts, the fears and the pain, those things which make life so very hard. But notice- God hears the cries of his people. He provides a remedy for pain and protection against death.

Moses is told to make a bronze serpent. Isn’t that a strange thing? Yet all who look on it live. The painful bites are healed; those who would have died are saved.

The Israelites didn’t know it but St John says that the bronze serpent was a type of Christ. The healing that came from looking at it, believing that it could heal, foreshadowed the healing and saving power of Jesus Christ. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.

What’s the connection between the bronze serpent and Jesus? What does it mean when two things are alike? The bronze serpent was like the living serpents. It looked similar. However it was made of different stuff and it had a different purpose. Those hissing, slithering serpents brought death; the shining bronze serpent brought life. Here’s what St John means: Even though Jesus looked just like the rest of us there was more to him than his humanity.

In our second lesson St Paul brings it all together. Jesus Christ, equal with God the Father, humbled himself. He came down from heaven and took on the form of a servant. He became man. Jesus, God born of Mary earth, had a true human nature- Deity made in human likeness.

We see in one lesson a bronze serpent made to heal the wounds of living serpents. In the other, we see Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, born to heal our wounds. Though equal with God, Jesus made himself nothing by becoming like us. Lifted up on the cross, Jesus’ shining divine nature brings life to us when we look on him with faith. One man being made in the likeness- in the image- of others, but with a different purpose.

Jesus walked and talked and ate. He was hungry. He experienced pain. He was angry. Sometimes he was deeply sad. He left his heavenly glory and took up our poverty, our realness, our mess. And with his perfect divinity, he lifted us up with him high on that holy cross in the wilderness outside Jerusalem.

Our pain, our death, remedied in the perfect suffering body of the Son of Man. Our weakness, our guilt, healed and washed away in the glistening sweat of the heavenly human Lord. Our sweet Jesus suffered all that we have suffered and ever will suffer so that we might be healed. He was lifted up in death so that we might be lifted up to new life.

On this feast of the Holy Cross we celebrate the humble Jesus lifted high, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness. Made in our likeness, he has reconciled us to God through his blood. Let us turn in faith to him, worship and adore him and receive at his bleeding hands pardon and peace. ‘We adore you, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world.’ Amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

John Owen on the Loveliness of Christ

Christ and the Two Marys
William Holman Hunt

'When the spouse hath gone thus far in the description of him, she concludes all in this general assertion: "He is wholly desirable,—altogether to be desired or beloved." As if she should have said,—"I have thus reckoned up some of the perfections of the creatures (things of most value, price, usefulness, beauty, glory, here below), and compared some of the excellencies of my Beloved unto them. In this way of allegory I can carry things no higher; I find nothing better or more desirable to shadow out and to present his loveliness and desirableness: but, alas! all this comes short of his perfections, beauty, and comeliness; he is all wholly to be desired, to be beloved;" —

Lovely in his person,—in the glorious all-sufficiency of his Deity, gracious purity and holiness of his humanity, authority and majesty, love and power.

Lovely in his birth and incarnation; when he was rich, for our sakes becoming poor,—taking part of flesh and blood, because we partook of the same; being made of a woman, that for us he might be made under the law, even for our sakes.

Lovely in the whole course of his life, and the more than angelical holiness and obedience which, in the depth of poverty and persecution, he exercised therein;—doing good, receiving evil; blessing, and being cursed, reviled, reproached, all his days.

Lovely in his death; yea, therein most lovely to sinners;—never more glorious and desirable than when he came broken, dead, from the cross. Then had he carried all our sins into a land of forgetfulness; then had he made peace and reconciliation for us; then had he procured life and immortality for us.

Lovely in his whole employment, in his great undertaking,—in his life, death, resurrection, ascension; being a mediator between God and us, to recover the glory of God’s justice, and to save our souls,—to bring us to an enjoyment of God, who were set at such an infinite distance from him by sin.

Lovely in the glory and majesty wherewith he is crowned. Now he is set down at the right hand of the Majesty on high; where, though he be terrible to his enemies, yet he is full of mercy, love, and compassion, towards his beloved ones.

Lovely in all those supplies of grace and consolations, in all the dispensations of his Holy Spirit, whereof his saints are made partakers.

Lovely in all the tender care, power, and wisdom, which he exercises in the protection, safe-guarding, and delivery of his church and people, in the midst of all the oppositions and persecutions whereunto they are exposed.

Lovely in all his ordinances, and the whole of that spiritually glorious worship which he hath appointed to his people, whereby they draw nigh and have communion with him and his Father. 

Lovely and glorious in the vengeance he taketh, and will finally execute, upon the stubborn enemies of himself and his people.

Lovely in the pardon he hath purchased and doth dispense,—in the reconciliation he hath established,—in the grace he communicates,—in the consolations he doth administer,—in the peace and joy he gives his saints,—in his assured preservation of them unto glory.

What shall I say? there is no end of his excellencies and desirableness;—"He is altogether lovely. This is our beloved, and this is our friend, O daughters of Jerusalem."'

Sunday, August 10, 2014

East window, Peterhouse College Chapel, Cambridge

The east window of Peterhouse College Chapel, Cambridge is a rare survival from the Chapel’s original 17th-century glazing scheme.

The window depicts a scene of Christ’s Crucifixion- the moment that a Roman solider on horseback, pierced Jesus’ body with a spear bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The design is taken from a painting by Peter Paul Rubens entitled Le Coup de Lance (1620).

Peterhouse College Chapel was built whilst Matthew Wren was College Master, 1625–1634. In order to fund the new chapel Wren appealed to Friends of the Colleges, past members and personal acquaintances. An astonishing £2,365 was collected, although the actual cost of building exceeded this amount. The seven chapel windows were glazed in 1632 'Ornatus fenestrarum sacris histories depingendae' and cost £118. The work began in 1628 and the Chapel was finished in time for its dedication on 17 March 1632.

Under William Dowsing, the carved wooden angels on the Chapel roof and the statues were destroyed along with the six side stained glass windows, also glazed in 1632. Some fragments of old glass remained in the windows after the Civil War.

The Flemish stained glass which filled the east window is thought to have been removed and hidden during the Civil War, thus surviving until the present day.

--- text adapted from Stained Glass, Laudians and Puritans: The Case of Peterhouse College Chapel, Cambridge

Peterhouse Chapel
showing the window
in context

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Value of Guilt

I had occasion this morning to read a very interesting post by Jayson Bradley titled Emotional Bullying: Using Guilt to Lead Kids to God. What struck me as I read was the degree to which I both agreed and disagreed with some of his remarks. Naturally, this led me to meditate on the idea of guilt and its place in the Christian life, particularly private devotion. There is a long history of Christian writers using what Jayson called 'extremely dramatic language, imagery, and metaphors' and I cannot help but think this is both natural and beneficial.

But first, to Jayson's comments. It is obvious that guilt can be used as a weapon. Perhaps even more than in the Church, it happens in families. We're all familiar with the stereotype of the guilt-inducing mother harping on her trying-to-be-dutiful son or daughter. Paul's admonition to parents in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 that they not exasperate their children 'lest they become discouraged' certainly applies here. 

In the Church the potential for such discouragement is greatly expanded. Jayson is right; children are very sensitive (and many adults are as well) to the emotional manipulation that can come along with what may be well-intentioned appeals for moral rectitude. It can be tempting to use guilt like a goad, a tool to force the required action. A steady diet of this unquestionably would be damaging, 'creating relational difficulties' and, potentially, resentment and mistrust.

Yet, I wonder if all such appeals to emotion- to the feeling of personal guilt- are misplaced. Perhaps the problem is one of degree. Might we see the value in reminding ourselves that our sins really were the cause of his Passion? 

The popular hymn 'How Deep the Father's Love For Us' makes use of what might, by some, be seen as such an appeal to guilt: 'It was my sin that held him there/Until it was accomplished.' Placed within the context of the rest of the hymn, the line holds out the promise of a personal redemption to cover a personal guilt: 'But this I know with all my heart/His wounds have paid my ransom.' The wounds that came upon Christ because of our sin are the very wounds that save us. Our guilt is real and so is our salvation.

If we look at an older example of the devotional expression of guilt, 'Ah, Mine Heart, Remember Thee Well' we see how the resolution of guilt is to be found in amendment of life.

Ah, mine heart, remember thee well,
And think on the pains that been in hell.

Ah, mine heart, remember me well,
how greatly thou art bound indeed;
Thou thinkest on Him never a deal
That helps thee ever at thy most need.
Alas, for sorrow mine heart doth bleed,
To think how grievously I have offended;
I cry God mercy, I will amend.

With weeping tears most lamentable
To God above I call and cry;
I will ask grace while I am able,
I have offended so grievously;
Me to amend I will me [haste],
For all my life-days I have misspend:
I cry God mercy, I will amend.

But it is not cold amendment of life, virtue apart from personal relationship, that this poem highlights. While the guilt is real- the fear of hell is palpable!- true amendment of life is found only in reconciliation. As Paul says in Colossians 1, 'And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him...'

The legitimate expression of guilt is found in relationship. Jayson remarks of a friend that his sense of personal responsibility for Christ's death 'made him feel mortifying shame.' Well shouldn't it? Does knowing our sins to have caused our beloved Lord such agonies leave us feeling cold?

I am convinced of the value of guilt. The expression of real emotion, of genuine anguish over our sins, has a place in the Christian life. And it is appropriate for God's ministers to remind us from time to time of Christ's Passion undertaken in our place. Bishop Jewel writes,

'Call to mind, O sinful creature, and set before thine eyes Christ crucified. Think thou seest his Body stretched out in length upon the Crosse, his head crowned with sharp thorns, and his hands and his feet pierced with nails, his heart opened with a long spear, his flesh rent and torn with whips, his brows sweating water and blood. Think thou hearest him now crying in an intolerable agony to his Father and saying, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Couldest thou behold this woeful sight, or hear this mournful voice, without tears, considering that he suffered all this, not for any desert of his own, but only for the grievousness of thy sins?'

This hard truth stood on its own could crush us and that, I think, is the value in Jayson's objection to the misuse of guilt. As with any difficult thing, the answer is in the balance. For Jewel later says,

'Therefore (dearly beloved) if we chance at any time through frailty of the flesh, to fall into sin (as it cannot be chosen, but we must needs fall often) and if we feel the heavy burden thereof to press our souls, tormenting us with the fear of death, hell, and damnation, let us then use that mean which God hath appointed in his word, to wit, the mean of faith, which is the only instrument of salvation now left unto vs. Let us steadfastly behold Christ crucified, with the eyes of our heart. Let us only trust to be saved by his death and passion, and to have our sins clean washed away through his most precious blood, that in the end of the world, when he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead, he may receive us into his heavenly kingdom, and place us in the number of his elect and chosen people, there to be partakers of that immortal and everlasting life, which he hath purchased unto us by virtue of his bloody wounds: To him therefore, with the Father, and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end, Amen.'

This is the salve to the sting of guilt- the exercise of true and lively faith. Christ's death was for us and still is for us. His merits apply not just to our past actions but those of today and those of tomorrow. His righteousness which is poured out upon us like his blood poured out on the cross assuages that guilt so, while we may feel it at various times in our lives, we are not defined by it nor has it any authority over us. Guilt forgiven by God may legitimately be remembered by the Christian.

Relationships are never easy. Our relationship with our Saviour is perhaps the deepest and most complex relationship we will ever have. We needn't be afraid of our real feelings of guilt. Neither should we be hesitant in expressing them. In fact, we must express them if we are to open ourselves to receiving comfort and forgiveness. There is nothing so awful as guilt felt for guilt.

When guilt arises, let us recognise it, give a place to it, and be willing to receive the free pardon and release of our redemption in Jesus Christ. Having triumphed over the power of our guilt, Our Lord has enabled it to become a nudge to greater gratitude and love.

Lo, man, for thee, that were unkind, 
Gladly suffered I all this. 
And why, good Lord? Express thy mind! 
Thee to purchase both joy and bliss. 
Jesu, mercy, how may this be?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Divine Impassibility

It is a serious mistake to impute any kind of thoughts to God that are cast in the same mold as human passions—as if God possessed a temper subject to involuntary oscillation.

In fact, a moment's reflection will reveal that if God is 'subject to like passions as we are' (cf. James 5:17), His immutability is seriously undermined at every point. If His creatures can literally make Him change His mood by the things they do, then God isn't even truly in control of His own state of mind. If outside influences can force an involuntary change in God's disposition, then what real assurance do we have that His love for us will remain constant? That is precisely why Jeremiah cited God's immutability and impassibility as the main guarantee of His steadfast love for His own: 'It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not' (Lamentations 3:22). God Himself made a similar point in Malachi 3:6: 'For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.'


God is unchanging and unchangeable, but He is not devoid of affection for His creation. His impassibility should never be set against His affections. His immutability does not rule out personal involvement with His creatures. Transcendence isn't incompatible with immanence.

God is not a metaphysical iceberg. While He is never at the mercy of His creatures, neither is He detached from them. His wrath against sin is real and powerful. His compassion for sinners is also sincere and indefatigable. His mercies are truly over all His works. And above all, His eternal love for His people is more real, more powerful, and more enduring than any earthly emotion that ever bore the label 'love.' Unlike human love, God's love is unfailing, unwavering, and eternally constant. That fact alone ought to convince us that God's affections are not like human passions.

--- Phillip R. Johnson, God Without Mood Swings

Christ in Majesty
Master of the Brussels Initials
c. 1400

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Vae Nobis Miseris, a Jesus Antiphon

In many religious foundations of the mid-sixteenth century it was required that there be 'an Anteme in prycksong immediately that complayn be fully done' so as to foster the devotion of the laity to the Virgin and also to the name and Passion of Jesus. Eventually the Jesus-antiphon increased in vogue as the cult of the Virgin declined during the reign of Henry VIII. One such antiphon is Vae Nobis Miseris.

Vae nobis miseris quia quum ad peccata commissa inspicimus et supplicia intelligimus quae pro his pati debemus non parvum timorem habemus. Quid ergo remanebimus quasi desperati? sine consilio sine adiutorio? Non. Sed ad te fontem pietatis et misericordiae Iesu Christe currimus et festinamus in quo iam tot et tantos peccatores absolutos vidimus et agnoscimus. Obsecramus te igitur Domine Deus noster da nobis gloriam tuam ut a vitiis et a morte animae resurgentes in virtutibus semper floreamus et in soliditate fidei ambulemur ut quae sursum sunt quaeramus et sapiamus non quae super terram. Tibi gratias agimus bone Iesu pro inceptis in nobis gratiae tuae donis quae deprecamur ut misericorditer perficias nosque in viam salutis dirigas per tuae claritatis virtutem purga animas nostras a tenebris peccatorum. Et per eandem virtutem in die universalis resurrectionis caro nostra resurgat ad gloriam. Ut in futura resurrectione delicatam tuam invocationem gaudenter in electis tuis audiamus te dicente: Venite benedicti patris mei percipite regnum quod vobis paratum est ab origine mundi. Amen.

Woe to us wretches, since we have no small fear when we consider the sins that we have committed, and understand the punishments that we must suffer for them. Why then, shall we remain almost in desperation, without advice, without help? No! But we run in haste to Thee, Jesus Christ, the fount of pity and mercy, in whom we have seen and acknowledge so many and such great sinners absolved. We therefore beseech Thee, our Lord and God, give us thy glory so that, rising from our vices and from the death of the soul, we may ever flourish in virtues and walk in the firmness of faith, that we may seek and savour the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. We render thanks to Thee, good Jesus, for the gifts of thy grace that Thou hast begun in us, and we beg that Thou shouldst mercifully perfect them in us, and guide us into the way of salvation. By virtue of thy brightness cleanse our souls from the darkness of sins, and by that same virtue may our flesh rise again to glory on the day of the universal resurrection, so that in the future resurrection we may joyfully hear thy tender summons amongst thine elect as Thou sayest 'Come, ye blessed ones of my Father, receive the Kingdom which has been prepared for you from the beginning of the world.' Amen.

The Throne of Mercy
Colijn de Coter
(c. 1440- c. 1530)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Hark, My Soul, John Austin (1613-69)

The Risen Christ
reredos of the
Lesley Lindsey Chapel
Emmanuel Church, Boston
Ninian Comper (1921-24)

Hark, my soul, how everything
strives to serve our bounteous King;
each a double tribute pays,
sings its parts, and then obeys.

Nature's chief and sweetest choir
him with cheerful notes admire;
chanting every day their lauds,
while the grove their song applauds.

Though their voices lower be,
streams have too their melody;
night and day they warbling run,
never pause, but still sing on.

All the flowers that gild the spring
hither their still music bring;
if heaven bless them, thankful, they
smell more sweet, and look more gay.

Only we can scarce afford
this short office to our Lord;
we, on whom his bounty flows,
all things gives, and nothing owes.

Wake! for shame, my sluggish heart,
wake! and gladly sing thy part;
learn of birds, and springs, and flowers,
how to use thy nobler powers.

Call whole nature to thy aid;
since 'twas he whole nature made;
join in one eternal song,
who to one God all belong.

Live forever, glorious Lord!
Live by all thy works adored,
One in Three, and Three in One,
thrice we bow to thee alone.