Crown him and Crown him Lord of All!: Sermon for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin

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This Sunday we are celebrating the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary (usually the 15th August). Anglicans often find it hard to articulate why Mary is so important, but I say there are three good reasons.

  1. Mary’s faith
  2. Mary was an awesome prophet
  3. If Mary is Queen of anything at all… that is only because we believe that Jesus is King and Lord of everything in heaven and earth.

Sunday 13th August – Feast of the BVM

And a little musical something from the end of mass here in Newcastle (perhaps sung slightly less elegantly).

All peace and good,
Fr Thomas

 

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Sermon: Leather squeaking in the rain at Newcastle Cathedral Pride Eucharist

It was a great pleasure and privilege to preach at the Eucharist for Northern (Newcastle) Pride this Sunday evening. A great crowd turned up and we prayerfully lifted up to the Lord a remarkable weekend of events.

My sermon encouraged queer Christians, allies and friends, to share the Gospel with those whom the Church often forgets. And I believe I mentioned leather squeaking in the rain from the lectern of an Anglican Cathedral. Life goal achieved.

PDF available here: Pride Service Sunday 23rd July 2017

With grateful thanks to Canon Clare and the Dean and Chapter of St Nicholas’ Cathedral.

All peace and good,
Fr Thomas

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Sermon: I am a prisoner of God

This Sunday’s readings challenge us to remember that we cannot get away from God, even when we want to, even when every fibre of our being wants to pretend God is not there, to run to the farthest corners of the world to get away from Him.

God does not let us get away, and I am immensely grateful for that.

All peace and good after a fun day at Northern Pride,
Fr Thomas

Sermon Pdf: Sunday 23 July 2017 Mass

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Queer Acts 2.37-end: Welcome to the Church of All Believers (Peter’s Sermon 3/3)

In the third section of Peter’s sermon he challenges us to welcome people into the Church hopefully, practically and with the eternal promise of God. Luke then offers a picture of the Church as it should be. Is this depressing? Or is it a hopeful challenge that lends perspective to the institutional reality we inhabit?


 

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Offering a Welcome into the Church (vv.37-41)

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ 38Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

People very rarely turn to Christ becausethey like the idea of Christ. They turn to Christ becuase they want to receive something or they feel they need to do something. So it was with the people who heard Peter’s sermon: “they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?'” (v.37). I wonder whether I would have come to faith if I had not always been involved in Churches which gave me things to do!

Peter’s response is difficult, and the number of occasions when this is the appropriate response is pretty slim. But it offers four things which we should offer to those who are being touched by the Gospel:

1) A challenge / hope of change. Peter tells them immediately, “Repent” (v.38). Repentance is a difficult subject, but often when people come with pain, with burdens and weariness, the offer of a different sort of life is one that brings hope. “Repent,” might not be your exact words, but conversations helping someone to think about how life can be more joyful, more hopeful, more peaceful are often the most wonderful conversations to have.

2) A practical entry into Church. Peter tells them, “be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven” (v.38). It is easy to leave a conversation hanging, and sometimes it is the right thing to do. But sometimes people benefit from a nudge, a practical path forward. Especially if church seems an alien thing to them (even more alien than Christ might seem!) an invitation, a question can make the impossible, inconceivable next steps seem possible, attractive, even obvious. ‘Were you baptised as a baby?’ ‘Shall we find out?’ ‘Have you been confirmed?’ ‘I’ve got a friend from Church I really think you’d get on with. We’re meeting up for a pint on Thursday. Do you want to come?’ Baptism may be the result of our conversations, but very often offering an easy way for someone to put their foot through the door and have a peak is the drop that begins the deluge.

3) Offer the Promise. The promise Peter offers the Jerusalemites in God’s name is great: “so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v.38). So many of us have such fear of our sins, even if we don’t call them sins. Offer freedom from guilt, and offer joy. Testify to how you have wrestled, and how you have learned to live and love. The promise of God’s forgiveness and loving presence is only real to others when we tell them how it has been real to us.

4) The Promise is Always There. Sometimes people aren’t ready to commit now. Or they seize up when they feel that we have made them a target, that we want to see them convert before our eyes for our own satisfaction and self-worth. But this is not how God works. God offers an eternal promise, that we may turn to at any point and receive God’s good gifts.

This last point highlights the particular message this passage has for queer people. Hear again Peter’s description of the promise: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (v.39). I wonder how many times we as queer people have sat in church and experienced that promise as a non-reality in the day-to-day life of the Church. We like adding ‘if’s to God’s promises: that temptation is almost in the DNA of the Christian Church. But all Peter says is, “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (v.38).

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Does Peter think that all those repenting and being baptised are rendered utterly Holy, perfect and blameless in their works? Not for a moment. That’s not how Christian baptism works. The 3000 who “were added” (v.41) that day were not made into good conservative sexually non-ambiguous Christians. They were still gamblers, addicts, cheats, evil-doers of every kind. But now that they had heard of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they had turned towards him and wanted some of that resurrection life. “Repent, and be baptised” (v.38) is only the beginning of the journey. And we must never place stumbling-blocks in the path of any who seem to desire that journey. So, churches which have put stumbling-blocks in front of us need to repent, yes. But what ‘if’s to we add to Peter’s invitation to baptism? What ‘if’s do we add to Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I shall give you rest” (Matthew 11.28)?

I was once struck when attending an inclusive service how alienating it might be. It was serving a specific function, to be inclusive to a particular group of people who are usually marginalised, and that was a very good thing. But the whole Church can’t be like that. Even the worst sinner, the worst homophobe, the worst gambler, porn-addict, self-hater, abuser, cynic, transphobe… the list goes on… even to these we are called to say, “Repent, and be baptised”, to offer hope of a new life, to offer God’s promise, and a helping hand into Church.


 

A New Fellowship of All Believers (vv.42-47)

42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Many of us will remember a time when going to church has felt amazing, where we have known enough people for it not to be awkward; where we have had jobs we can do which make us feel a part of things but which weren’t so hard we felt put upon; where our relationships with people have been good and the holy fireworks have been firing in our prayer lives as well.

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This is something of the picture which Luke paints for us as a result of Peter’s sermon. I don’t know whether this picture of a fledgling church makes me hopeful or envious, or just a little cynical. But it is a wonderful picture.

The new converts “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (v.42). The spiritual fireworks are going off: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” The believers are liberated to live the sort of life a lady at my first church would have described as ‘too pious by half’ as they “had all things in common” (v.44) and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (v.45). They seem to be in a 24 hour spiritual frenzy as “day by day” they “spent much time together in the temple” and “broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (v.46). They spend their time “praising God” and the fear of persecution before has completely evaporated as they had “the goodwill of all the people” (v.47).

And, bad enough for those of us who are members of churches which utterly fail to live up this ideal, they are even growing: “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (v.47).

It makes you want to be sick.

And it’s kind of meant to.

The picture Luke paints is one of a church working perfectly, utterly as it should, where everything is going right. Of course, we can’t live up to this ideal, and by Acts 5 we will see that members of the church are getting into very hot water for failing to live up to it! But just for this brief moment we are offered a snapshot of what the Church could be like.

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Throughout these Queer Acts posts I have steered very clear of any reading of scripture which casts queer people as righteous victims (Christ is the only righteous victim) and conservatives as some sort of satanic opposition to Christ’s liberating will for queer people. Some queer commentators do read scripture this way. And perhaps at times these readings are really useful, especially as an antidote for those who have been burdened by years of explicitly homophobic interpretation, preaching and church life.

But passages like this challenge us to rise above the temptation to see anyone as totally in the right and anyone totally in the wrong. Passages like this remind us that all who believe, imperfect though we are, are called into the fellowship of Christ’s Church. This ideal picture of what the Church could be is meant to shake us out of any complacency in accepting how the Church is.

God’s call for the Church is that we may be one as the Father is one with the Son: that is the core of Jesus’ High-Priestly prayer (John 17.21).

Queer Christians are slightly different to secular LGBT campaigners. We don’t just work for LGB justice or liberation. That might be a part of what we do. But our primary vocation is to be faithful members of Christ’s Church, which is His body, often despite the failings and fractures in the institutional body. That’s hard, and I don’t want to guilt anyone into feeling they have to work with or enter regular fellowship with anyone in a way that is not yet safe for them. But we must have this ideal of a unified and truly faithful church in the back of our minds. When we meet for the Eucharist. When we meet to sing. When we serve those in need. But most of all when we pray, ‘your kingdom come’.

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Queer Acts 2.22-36: How to Tell the Good News (Peter’s Sermon 2/3)

Is the Gospel something to be learnt or something to be lived? Are we ready or willing to answer people’s questions about it? And are we willing to seek out what God is doing unexpectedly in the lives of others, and affirm it in his name?



Acts 2.22-24: A Gospel to be Lived Afresh

22 ‘You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.

In the first section of his sermon, Peter began to prepare the people of Jerusalem for the Gospel. But now he tells them the story of the Gospel. And he does it in a particular way.

“You that are Israelites”, he begins, “listen to what I have to say” (v.22). He knows that he is talking to a particular audience, Israelites, and he addresses them according to that identity. If he were to address Pagans (“Quirites! You that are Romans” perhaps) he would have to go about his telling of the Gospel in a very different way. But these are Jews, and so he will use the Jewish scriptures to help the story of Jesus to land in their hearts: he grows the Gospel on the fertile soil they already possess.

Peter’s first emphasis is that God has been at work through the Jewish people and continues to be at work in them through “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know” (v.22). He summarises the essential facts of the death and resurrection of Christ in a way that allows space for the role of the Jewish people, of human beings, in the narrative whilst affirming that God is acting out his good purposes throughout: “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (vv.23-24, cf. vv.34-36). How would you tell someone the bare facts of the Gospel in a way that inserted them into the story whilst affirming God’s action in this Gospel and in their lives? I try to remember John 3.16 when I find myself in this situation: I try to remember, and communicate, that the cross and resurrection only make sense because God did these things for love of me and the person standing in front of me.

The Gospel is not just an objective story to be delivered. It is an objective truth which invites each and every one of us to live it daily and for eternity. Our task as Christians is to invite others to live that story afresh in their own lives.


A Gospel Which Provokes Questions (vv.25-31)

25For David says concerning him,
“I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
moreover, my flesh will live in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One experience corruption.
28 You have made known to me the ways of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.”

29 ‘Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,
“He was not abandoned to Hades,
nor did his flesh experience corruption.”

In vv.25-31 Peter anticipates some of the questions his audience might have. Perhaps they would have shouted them out? And he uses their scriptures, the language, concepts and terminology which they already know, to explain in greater clarity what the resurrection is. I often see a man walking around Durham with a placard which has a verse of scripture on it, usually including the word ‘Repent!’ But I wonder how effective, and indeed how biblical, this approach actually is. Jesus does not refuse to answer people’s questions, though he often gives confusing answers. Think of Nicodemus in John 3 (picture below), who comes by night and asks Jesus repeated questions about being born again, or of the Samaritan woman who engages Jesus in theological conversation at the well in John 4.


And the Apostles are no different: we shall see in Acts 8 how Philip answers he Ethiopian eunuch’s questions. Likewise, Peter does not hit people with the truth or scripture unexplained, like lobbing grenades at them and seeing whether any of them learn to duck. Peter takes time to meet them where they are, to respond to their concerns and to frame the truth in a way that they need to hear it.

Are you ready to answer people’s questions? Do you let people ask genuine questions when you talk about Jesus? Could you answer them, or are you too defensive or upset because of the way people ask those questions? I know I often am too defensive or overenthusiastic to listen carefully to the questions people are really asking. Peter has listened, and understands their culture, their perspective, well enough to answer their questions.


A Gospel Which Has Been Witnessed To (vv.32-36)

32This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. 33Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. 34For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
35   until I make your enemies your footstool.’ ”
36Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’

And then Peter affirms that “of that all of us are witnesses” (v.32). In an age which tends to value empirical truth above all else, do not be afraid to tell people what you have seen of God’s working in your life and the lives of others, even in the life of the Church! For most people have seen something of the goodness of God: those of us who come to faith as adults very often know on one level that God is acting in the world, but we still just need to realise that “he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (v.33). What goodness, beauty and wonder have people seen in their lives already? What profound change have they experiences which may be God working in them? Now this is a hard one for anyone to hear, but perhaps particularly for those of us who are queer it can be difficult to affirm God working in others. I may find it hard to empathise with someone who is crippled by homophobia, and I may find it hard to empathise with someone who goes to chemsex parties. But God is undoubtedly working in their lives somewhere, and probably a lot more than any of us can realise.

Are you ready to affirm what God is already doing in someone’s life? Or are you only ready to preach to those whose life is like yours?



Conclusion

Preaching the Gospel is a relational activity. So often we think of preaching and evangelism as being like delivering a package. That isn’t true. The Church must always get better at living the Gospel if it is to call others to live it. The Church must be prepared to answer the questions people ask about the Gospel, and honour those who dare to ask questions which seem strange or upsetting to us. And the Church must be prepared to confess the works which God does in the world now, which we see around us; and also to seek out and affirm the less expected wonders he is doing in the strangest of places and with the least likely people.



Queer Acts 2.14-21: Beginning to Preach the Gospel (Peter’s Sermon 1/3)

In this first chunk of Peter’s sermon, Peter challenges us to begin our talking about Jesus not from a place of negativity and cynicism, but from a place of hope and trust in God.


 

An Introduction to Peter’s Sermon

Peter’s sermon is a massive passage. And I am no going to try to write a single full commentary on the whole thing. What I want to focus on in the next few posts is the challenges Peter poses for us in our proclamation of the Gospel.

First of all, stop and think. How would you sum up the Gospel if you had two minutes to do it? What would you say to a friend who asked you over a pint, ‘What do you believe?’

Then think about the sermons you’ve heard, or the books you’ve read. How did people represent the Gospel to you? Were you convinced? What did you think was missing, or superfluous?

The task of telling others about Jesus is more difficult than we very often realise. It’s often only when you have a go that you run up against the buffers.

Peter’s sermon is a literary device. By that I mean that it is highly unlikely that he actually delivered these precise words as a single sermon. Rather, it is probable that Luke is cobbling together sources telling him about the sort of sermons Peter did preach, and also the sorts of things which the early Apostles emphasised in their preaching. Or perhaps, entirely legitimately for a classical writer, Luke has created his own sermon and put it in the mouth of Peter as an oration, a useful way of giving voice to a large amount of theology in an accessible way.

What matters to us is that it has come down to us through the Church in scripture as the first of the great sermons preached. But how does it go?

In the next three posts we shall see that Peter begins with an assurance that God is working in people’s lives. He then offers us a model for how to preach the Gospel simply and effectively. And he then shows us how to welcome people into the Church. All pretty important stuff. And all of which has particular implications for queer people too. This isn’t a guide for evangelism, or for preaching, but it is an excellent chunk of scripture for making us think about how we communicate as members of Christ’s Church, with each other as well as outsiders.


Acts 2.14-21: How to start the Gospel

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams.

18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,

in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

and they shall prophesy.

19 And I will show portents in the heaven above

and signs on the earth below,

blood, and fire, and smoky mist.

20 The sun shall be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood,

before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

How does your talking about the Gospel usually begin? Not when you are asked, ‘How would you sum up the Gospel?’ But when you actually talk about Jesus. How our conversations about what really matters begin should give us pause for thought, for the beginning of a conversation frames what follows, shapes it and changes it: for good or ill. Many of the conversations I have pertaining to the Gospel begin with something like: ‘That sermon was terrible, wasn’t it?’ Or ‘The Church is a really terrible institution to be in as an LGBT person,’ or ‘God, I am so not awake enough for Morning Prayer today.’

It is amazing when I start to think about it how many of my Christian interactions often begin with a grump, sarcasm or a criticism of something or someone else. And I don’t think I am alone in being prone to that particular vice.

But Peter’s talk of Jesus does not begin like this. He begins by telling of something wonderful, something that matters: “let this be known to you, and listen to what I say” (v14). These are the words of someone who has guarded speech, who is learning to speak carefully, and so who has confidence when he really does have something good to say.

Rather than beginning with something negative, a challenge, a problem, something the Church could really improve on or should repent of, Peter begins by telling them about something amazing that God is doing among His people NOW: “…these are not drunk, as you suppose” (v.15). The life of the Church can look pretty odd, or just boring, on its own; but Peter puts what is going on in the context of God’s plans and God’s timeless action and will: “No, this was what was spoken though the prophet Joel” (v.16). Peter manages quickly to place the strange and confusing events of the beginning of the Church into the context of “the last days” (v.17); the babbling of the disciples is what “God declares” (v.17); the antics of a small group bears witness to a promise for “all flesh” (v.17), for “sons and daughters” (v.17), for “slaves”, for “both men and women” (v.18). This strange sight of people talking in the languages of the world is just one of the many more familiar portents Peter’s audience expects and looks for from the Jewish scriptures: “blood, and fire, and smoky mist” (v.19) touching all creation, even the sun and moon (v.20).

And all this context setting is to concretise one message: “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.21).
Peter begins his talking of Jesus not with the negatives, not with the failings of the early community, not with talk of the fear they have had of the Jewish leaders or Judas’ betrayal. He begins by assuring the people of Jerusalem that the things they see around them are part of God’s work in the life of the Church, and in their lives too.

This is how our talk of Jesus must begin. God is working in His creation through His Church. And he does this so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v.21).

This is Peter’s first challenge to us: speak to others about Jesus, not beginning from a place of darkness, of cycnicism or despair, but from a place of hope, and trust in God’s good works in our lives and the life of all his people.