A Sermon preached by Canon Gary Philbrick at Holy Ascension Hyde on the Feast fo Christ the King, November 25th, 2018.
Rev 1:4b-8, Jn 18:33-37
How are your Christmas puddings coming along? I only ask as today is often called ‘Stir-up Sunday’, from the words of the Prayer Book Collect for today, which is also today’s Post Communion Prayer: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’ That’s a call to prayer and a call to action.
So, if we’ve not yet stirred up our Christmas puddings, then we need to get on with it! If we’ve not stirred up our wills to bring ‘forth the fruit of good works’, then we need to get on with that, too.
More importantly, in terms of our Lectionary and our worship this morning, it is the Feast of Christ the King, one of the more recent Festivals of the Church’s year.
The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, in a Papal Encyclical, and was kept on the last Sunday of October – the Sunday before All Saints’ Day. In 1970, Pope Paul VI moved it to the last Sunday of the Church’s year, today, immediately before the Sundays of Advent. From there it became a part of the Common Lectionary, used by most of the Churches of the West, including Roman Catholics, Methodists, and, since the late 90s, the Church of England and other Anglican Churches. When we hear our readings on a Sunday morning, we are listening to the same readings as are being used in most of the Churches of Western Christendom – that’s a lot of people all focusing on the same passages of Scripture!
As we’re on the last session of the Bible Course after the Service today, let’s focus on the broad sweep of the Biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, and how that was interpreted by the Early Church.
Just about 2,000 years ago a baby was born in very ordinary circumstances in Bethlehem. His parents were there for the Census. There was no room in any of the hotels, so the baby was born in a cave, or a cattle stall, outside the inn. We don’t know much about this child’s upbringing – his father was a carpenter, and we assume that he was brought up as a carpenter also. The only story we know of his childhood was when he was twelve, and his parents had taken him to Jerusalem. They lost him in the crowds there, and when they found him, he was teaching the doctors of the Law in the Temple, and they were amazed at his wisdom.
When he was around 30, he was baptised by the prophet John, in the wilderness, near the Jordan. This began a very different phase of his life – the start of his public ministry. For around three years, he travelled round Galilee and the area around Jerusalem. He gathered disciples around him, taught them, taught the crowds, told parables, stirred up a good deal of hostility in some places, performed miracles, cured people, went off on his own to pray, walked on water, and did much else. He was called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘teacher’ by those around him.
One day, on the road to Caesarea Philippi, he asked the disciples who people thought he was, and after some groping around, Simon Peter said, ‘You are the Messiah,’ the one anointed by God, what we would call ‘The Christ’. An amazing statement. He then predicted his suffering and death in Jerusalem.
A lot of hopes built up around this man, so much so, that when he went into Jerusalem at Passover time, great crowds built up around him, people shouting ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. They expected a King who would free them from Roman oppression.
A few days later, after a lot of political wrangling, Jesus was arrested and tried by the leaders of Israel. The crowd turned against him, and he was crucified. So much for the King of the Jews.
A couple of days later though, on the Sunday, rumours began to circulate that he was alive – he had risen from the dead. Various people saw him, including, a week later, St Thomas the Apostle, Doubting Thomas, as we know him. He saw Jesus and said, ‘My Lord and my God’. What extraordinary words from a Jew to use about someone with whom he had spent the previous three years.
After Pentecost, the Church began to grow – the word about Christ, the risen Saviour, the one who had come to his people, began to spread. The stories about Jesus, the things he said and did, were told all over the Mediterranean area – many people became ‘Followers of the Way’, later known as Christians.
Paul became a Christian after his conversion on the Road to Damascus, where he was going to persecute the Christians. Soon after, round about 50AD, about 15-20 years after Jesus had died and risen, Paul began to write letters to the Churches he had founded. Think back to where you were 15 years ago to see how short a time that is, how quickly the Church had spread. In one of those Letters, Paul describes Jesus as ‘The image of the invisible God, all things are held together in him, in him God chose to dwell in all his fullness’. Just pause for a moment to think about the magnitude of those claims being made about Jesus so soon after his death and resurrection.
Not many years later, people felt the need to write down all the stories about Jesus which were circulating in the Church – partly to remember them, and partly to sort out the helpful from the dross. Round about 100AD, perhaps earlier or later, the fourth of the Gospels was written, opening with the words, ‘In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God’.
During these years of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the early years of the Church, through its worship and its experience, the Church had come to realise that the man Jesus was God Incarnate, God, the creator of the universe, in human flesh. They also realised that God had also revealed himself as Holy Spirit – the presence of God with them in their worship and in their lives. And the Church began a period of reflection about who Jesus Christ was and is, which was intense for the first few hundred years of the life of the Church, but which has continued until today.
Around 312AD the Emperor, Constantine, became a Christian, and shortly after so did the whole Roman Empire. The Christian Faith was no longer a matter of concern just for the Church – it became a matter of concern for the whole of the known society. And there were disagreements – how was Christ God? How could he be fully human and fully God? Did he have a human mind or a divine mind? Was he born from God before time, or did he simply exist from the beginning? Was the human nature of Christ swallowed up by the divine? These were important questions, and the Church wrestled with them for many years.
In 325 the Emperor summoned a Council to meet at Nicaea, across the water from Constantinople, to talk about these questions. The burning issue at this Council was the origin of Christ – I won’t bore you with the details, but some people were arguing that Christ was not ‘True God’ – he was a sort of ‘demi-god’, a second order God, subordinate to the one true Father. Now, since the very earliest days of the Church, statements of faith had been produced, summarising what Christians believe – we find some of these in the New Testament. The Council of Nicaea produced a Creed, and this Creed said that Christ was ‘True God of True God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father’. This Creed was developed at further Councils of the Church during the next 150 years, until it reached the form in which we know it by 481 – we call it the Nicene Creed, the one we say here on Sundays in some parts of the church’s year, more properly known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed – you can see why we just call it the Nicene Creed.
It was written in Greek, translated into Latin, and, at the time of the first Prayer Book in 1549, made its way into English – the version which we used was ‘tidied up’ in 2000 when Common Worship was introduced.
During all these hundreds of years of debate, the Church had a very simple line – if Jesus wasn’t fully human and fully divine, then he couldn’t be our Saviour. To bridge the unfathomable gap between God and us, he had to share fully in God – only God can save us – but he had also to be fully human – he had to be one of us to save us. ‘What has not been assumed has not been healed’. ‘God became a human, so that humans could become godlike’. Christ is both God and man ‘without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’ as the Council of Chalcedon in 481 put it.
Each week when we say one of the Creeds or Affirmations of Faith, we are repeating the result of hundreds of years of reflection by the Church on the meaning of the life of the little baby who was born at Bethlehem 2000 years ago. We are repeating what the Church has affirmed, and has affirmed because it leads to our salvation – the life, death and resurrection of Christ has changed for ever our relationship with God. It has opened ‘the gate of heaven to all believers’.
Christ is the King – so the Church has always believed, and so we proclaim today. That is what, as Christians, we try to show in our worship and, equally as important, in our lives.
Let’s proclaim that faith as we say the Creed, as Christians have done, Sunday by Sunday, using the words of the Apostles Creed, for over 1600 years. AMEN.
A Sermon preached at Fordingbridge and Breamore Churches on the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, July 22nd, 2018, by Canon Gary Philbrick.
Ps. 42:1-7, II Corinthians 5:14-17, John 20: 1-2, 11-18
Lord God, take my words and speak through them,
take our minds and think through them,
take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.
St Mary Magdalene is a really significant figure in the New Testament. At twelve mentions in the four Gospels, she occurs more often than most of the Disciples.
So, let’s start with what we do know about Mary Magdalene, before moving on to what we don’t know.
The most likely reason for her name, Mary Magdalene, which distinguishes her from the many other Marys in the Gospels, is that she came from the fishing town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about three miles North of what was then the brand new City of Tiberias, founded by the Herod Antipas, who is mentioned in the Gospels, and named in honour of the Roman Emperor, Tiberias. So Magdala was part of the very Romanised section of Israel, although that doesn’t mean that Mary herself was part of the Roman community.
Her first mention – and this is really important for the later part of our story – her first mention is at the beginning of Luke, chapter 8: ‘Soon afterwards [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources’ [Luke 8:1-3].
So, she was part of that group of at least reasonably wealthy women who travelled with Jesus and his Disciples, and who supported him in his ministry. And, apparently, this group of women had been cured of various illnesses, both physical and mental. In Mary’s case, we are told that ‘seven demons had gone out’ of her – a detail that is also mentioned in the so-called ‘Longer Ending’ of Mark, a later addition to the rather abrupt ending of Mark 16.
This introduction of Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 is quite early on in Jesus’ ministry, so it appears that Mary and the other women supported Jesus for quite a while.
And all four Gospels are agreed that Mary Magdalene was there at the time of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, although the four Gospels have slightly different accounts of what happened. In Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, just after Jesus has breathed his last, and the centurion has said, ‘Truly, this man was God’s Son’, we are told, in similar words to those we’ve heard from Luke’s Gospel: ‘There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem’ [Mk 15:40-41]. Those verses give a fascinating insight into Jesus’ ministry to women, in contrast to much of what the Gospels say about his ministry to men.
Matthew, in chapter 27, repeats Mark’s words, although, apart from Mary Magdalene, he names the women slightly differently [Matt 27:55-6].
But, after Jesus has been buried in the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea, Matthew adds, ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb’ [V. 61].
Interestingly, Luke, who is very sympathetic to women, doesn’t mention Mary by name at the crucifixion, but simply refers twice to ‘the women who had followed him from Galilee’ [Lk 23:49, 55]. And John, like Mark and Matthew, names Mary Magdalene as one of those ‘standing near the cross of Jesus’ [Jn 19:25]. So we have good evidence that Mary was present for the Crucifixion, and probably the burial, of Jesus on the first Good Friday.
At the Resurrection, all four Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene was among those who came to the tomb early on the Sunday morning. In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the women are sometimes described as bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body, but in all of them it is the women who discover that the stone has been rolled away, and that the tomb is empty [Matt 28:1, Mk 16:1ff., Lk 24:1ff, esp. v. 10]. We’ve become so used to this, but the fact that it was women who were the first witnesses to the Resurrection, in a society where women’s testimony in courts of law was considered of very dubious reliability, is really significant.
But it is in John’s Gospel, in the passage set at the Gospel Reading for today, that the most significant encounter between Mary Magdalene and Jesus takes place [Jn 20:1-2, 11-18]. Mary finds the tomb empty, runs to fetch Peter and ‘the Disciple whom Jesus loved’, usually thought of as John, and then is in the Garden by the empty tomb, when she sees whom she thinks is the gardener, but we know is Jesus, and she discovers that fact when he addresses her by her name. His words to her, ‘Do not hold on to me’ [V. 17], are often known by their Latin translation, ‘Noli me tangere’, and this scene has given rise to a whole series of paintings, both in the Western and Eastern traditions of art, such as the second of the icons on the hymn sheet you have.
St Mary Magdalene is clearly a really significant figure in the New Testament.
But I just want to pause for a moment to reflect on what the Gospel’s don’t say.
If you can remember as far back as the beginning of this sermon, we heard how Mary Magdalene was introduced in Luke, chapter 8, along with the other ‘some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities’ [Lk 8:1-3]. But at the end of Luke 7 [36-50] there is a really important story about Jesus being invited to a meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee, and a woman, known to be a sinner, comes in and washes Jesus’ feet with her hair – it’s worth reading, as it’s a very moving story.
But what the Luke doesn’t say is that this woman was Mary Magdalene. And, as we’ve heard, he introduces her in chapter 8 in a very different way.
John’s Gospel has a similar story in chapter 12, where it is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints Jesus feet with expensive pure nard, leading to an interesting dispute with Judas about the poor.
And yet, by the 7th century, Pope Gregory the Great, in a sermon on the story at the end of Luke 7, remarks, ‘This woman, whom Luke calls a sinner and John calls Mary, I think is the Mary from whom Mark reports that seven demons were cast out’ [Patrologia Latina 76:1239]. This comment has had a very unfortunate effect on Mary’s reputation, and she has been assumed to have been a prostitute, and portrayed as such in in lots of different ways – think of the song in ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’, or Dan Brown’s book, ‘The Da Vinci Code’, with its supposition that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married, and had children – for which, although it’s a cracking good story, there is no historical evidence at all. And just in the common imagination of who Mary Magdalene is. He was a very naughty Pope to say such a thing about her!
There is a tradition, reflected in the icon of Mary you have on the sheet, where she is holding an egg, that she became a leader in the Early Church, and preached, amongst others, to the Emperor Nero. She is said to been the first to have used an egg as a symbol of the Resurrection, as we still do at Easter today. As with so many other women in Scriptures, we simply don’t have the evidence to know clearly – we know that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was around in the Early Church, but very little is said of her in the Acts of the Apostles or the other New Testament writings, and it’s the same with Mary Magdalene.
What we do have in the Gospels is a picture of Mary as a faithful disciple, a supporter of Jesus, both financially and by her presence in Galilee and Jerusalem, a part of a group of well-of women who had been attracted by Jesus’ message, and stayed with him through the trauma of the Crucifixion, and were witnesses to his Resurrection.
What might we learn from her story?
Faithfulness in discipleship; following Jesus through thin and thick – we often have to go through the ‘thin’ in life, before we get to the ‘thick’; the importance of financial support for the mission of the Church.
And, above all, as we reflect on the encounter between Mary and Jesus in today’s Gospel, the importance of looking for Jesus in the unexpected places – in the gardener, in the person we bump into in the street, in the member of our family whom we find most difficult. If we are able to look and to listen through our tears and frustrations, we will hear Jesus calling our name, as he did in that one word he said in the garden on the first Easter Day – ‘Mary!’
Jesus calls each of us by name, and when he calls our name, it is with love, as it was with Mary. So often, we are so preoccupied with our own lack of worth, and poor image of ourselves, that we miss the gentle, loving call of Jesus on our lives when we most need it. As we hear in the Book of Isaiah, ‘I have called you by your name, you are mine’ [Is 43:1].
We’ll keep a few moments of quiet to reflect on what we have heard of Mary Magdalene’s story and significance, and, if you wish, to look at the two icons on the hymn sheet – in the silence we might reflect on how we are called by our names, and we are loved by Jesus.
And then, after a pause, I’ll read a poem by Ann Lewin, whom some of you have met, and who wrote the book we used for our lent Course this year.
Known by Name
Who were you, Mary
From whom devils were cast out?
Did you disturb respectability
By washing his feet with tears,
An uninvited guest;
Or in embarrassing extravagance
Pour precious ointment on his head?
Were you notorious in your day,
Or a woman in the crowd from Magdala,
Who found new purpose
Being set free to love,
And used your gifts
In faithful ministry?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
Perhaps, like all of us,
You were a mixture:
Damaged and healed;
Longing to be loved,
And struggling to relate;
Passionate and reserved
By turns, working out
The important moment
Was when you heard your name,
And answered and were sent,
No longer clinging to what kept you safe,
Strong in the power of the risen Lord,
To witness to new life.
[Ann Lewin, Watching for the Kingfisher, p.68]