St Bride's: Sermons

Mightier than the sword

Mightier than the sword

There are moments in the life of a parish priest when one looks at the set readings for the coming Sunday, out of which one has to attempt to create a sermon, with a sense of mounting despair.  Because trying to find any point of contact between three set readings that appear to have absolutely nothing whatsoever in common, can sometimes feel a bit like being a contestant in a particularly challenging edition of 'Round Britain Quiz'.

So by contrast it is little short of miraculous to discover that this morning's three biblical readings have not just one, but two themes in common.  The first of these is the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of God which, in our first reading from Genesis, moves over the face of the waters at the dawn of Creation.  The Spirit of God which, in our second reading from the Book of Acts, pours out upon Christians in Ephesus the gift of tongues and of prophecy, empowering them in their discipleship.  The Spirit of God which, in our gospel reading from St Mark, descends upon Jesus, as he is baptized by John in the river Jordan.

And the second theme that all three readings have in common is to do with the astonishing power of the Word of God.  In our reading from Genesis, it is the Word of God that brings Creation into being: 'And God said, "Let there be light" and there was light'.  Similarly, it is a Word from God in our Gospel reading, which reveals the true identity of Jesus, the Messiah, at his baptism: 'Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'.  And in our reading from Acts, the gifts imparted to the Ephesians by the Holy Spirit are also gifts of the Word, because they are the gifts of tongues, and of prophecy.

And these two themes: the Spirit of God and the Word of God, are in fact central to the whole of scripture.  The Spirit is constantly at work, constantly on the move, empowering those whose hearts are open to receive God, and revealing truth to those who can perceive God.  The Spirit brings order out of chaos, but also disturbs us out of our comfortable complacency, subverting all of our expectations.  And the Spirit transforms the most unpromising and hopeless of situations, bringing unity and peace out of disorder and violence.

And similarly, the power of the Word of God also permeates the whole of Scripture.  The Word is there not only at the very beginning of the Bible, bringing Creation into being, but also at its very end, in the Book of Revelation: 'I am the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end' - Alpha and Omega being, of course, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the language of the New Testament.  And perhaps most strikingly of all, it is there in those memorable verses at the start of John's Gospel, which we hear each Christmas: 'In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'.

Spirit and Word - the two ways in which God engages most powerfully and directly with his Creation.  Hold that thought, because I shall be returning to it in a moment.

All of you will, I am sure, have been appalled by the terrible events in Paris over recent days, which are shocking and disturbing on any number of levels.  The seventeen victims of these atrocities have included police (one of them a Muslim), members of the Jewish community, a maintenance worker, and a visitor to the offices of the satirical magazine that was targeted on Wednesday morning - alongside those who worked for the magazine itself.  And it goes without saying that every single one of those deaths is an equally appalling individual human tragedy. 

But as the Journalists' Church, here at St Bride's, the impact of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris on Wednesday morning was felt particularly acutely.  The news broke shortly before our midday Eucharist that day, and so we marked the event in our prayers, by placing memorials on the Journalists' altar over there, and by keeping a special candle burning for all of the dead and the injured.  It was a black day for freedom of speech - but also, as was observed in an email that I received from a news correspondent - a day on which we realized how vital freedom of speech is, too.

Because whatever we might feel about that particular French magazine, the issues that it has chosen to target, and the way in which it has chosen to target them, society needs satire.  Because the best kind of satire holds up a mirror to society, opening our eyes to truths we would perhaps rather not face, or which we are too afraid to voice.  And it calls the powerful and the influential to account through the medium of humour.  Not all satire is good satire, of course, just as not all journalism is good journalism.  But the manner in which a society deals with satire is a measure of its maturity, its liberty, and its civility.

What has been remarkable about the appalling incident on the morning of Wednesday 7th January is the reaction it has provoked.  Those who attacked the staff in the Charlie Hebdo offices were clearly under the impression that by killing them, they were also killing the magazine.  It is now abundantly clear that nothing could have been further from the truth.  On the contrary, they have merely succeeded in boosting its sales to the point where a million copies of this week's edition are being produced, and a million French citizens are expected to take to the streets this afternoon in outrage at their actions, and in support of the principle of freedom of speech.  The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo have been tweeted, and retweeted, and have generated more cartoons in their wake.  One of the most simple but striking images to have been produced since the killings is that of a broken pencil - which we then see has in fact become two pencils.

The scale of the protest, and the confidence of the protestors, turning out, and bearing placards identifying themselves with the victims and all that they represented, has been  extraordinary to see.  And so it was that a couple of days ago I caught myself musing that, contrary to everything that those Kalashnikov-wielding thugs had evidently assumed, it was not violence that was going to have the final word. 

'The final word'.  Strangely enough, the existence of that very phrase seems to reveal a deep-seated human awareness that ultimately true closure can only ever be achieved with a word, never with a gunshot.  For just as the pen is mightier than the sword, so the word is mightier than the Kalashnikov.

The magazine Charlie Hebdo was a profoundly secular publication, which made a point of satirizing religion - not merely Islam, of course.  Similarly, the reaction the killings have provoked is, essentially, a profoundly secular response - in solidarity with the ideals of liberalism and freedom of speech.  So I need to make my final point with some care, not least because events in France are still unfolding, and there may, of course, still be dark times, and troubling events to come.

Because, unlikely though it may seem, what I have found myself discerning, in the extraordinary aftermath of the terrible events in Paris, are echoes of what I also know to be true of the workings of the Spirit and the Word of God. 

Because even in the darkest of places and situations, the Spirit is there.  The most unlikely of people can be moved and empowered, and have their eyes opened to the truth, and set aside their differences to unite in a cause that suddenly matters far more than the concerns that would normally divide them. Death can be followed by Resurrection; violence and destruction can be overcome and subsumed by solidarity and peace.  Our differences can suddenly and dramatically dissolve in the recognition that, whoever we are, wherever we are from, whatever we happen to believe, we are all of us the precious children of the same Heavenly Father. 

In the same way, Spirit and Word work through connection and communication, breaking down all that causes separation and insularity, and bringing peace and hope.

When I was a student, one of my university friends had a poster on his wall, bearing a message that has haunted me ever since.  It went like this:

I sought myself, but myself I could not see
I sought my God, but my God eluded me
I sought my brother, and I found all three.

Amen

There are moments in the life of a parish priest when one looks at the set readings for the coming Sunday, out of which one has to attempt to create a sermon, with a sense of mounting despair.  Because trying to find any point of contact between three set readings that appear to have absolutely nothing whatsoever in common, can sometimes feel a bit like being a contestant in a particularly challenging edition of 'Round Britain Quiz'.

So by contrast it is little short of miraculous to discover that this morning's three biblical readings have not just one, but two themes in common.  The first of these is the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of God which, in our first reading from Genesis, moves over the face of the waters at the dawn of Creation.  The Spirit of God which, in our second reading from the Book of Acts, pours out upon Christians in Ephesus the gift of tongues and of prophecy, empowering them in their discipleship.  The Spirit of God which, in our gospel reading from St Mark, descends upon Jesus, as he is baptized by John in the river Jordan.

And the second theme that all three readings have in common is to do with the astonishing power of the Word of God.  In our reading from Genesis, it is the Word of God that brings Creation into being: 'And God said, "Let there be light" and there was light'.  Similarly, it is a Word from God in our Gospel reading, which reveals the true identity of Jesus, the Messiah, at his baptism: 'Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'.  And in our reading from Acts, the gifts imparted to the Ephesians by the Holy Spirit are also gifts of the Word, because they are the gifts of tongues, and of prophecy.

And these two themes: the Spirit of God and the Word of God, are in fact central to the whole of scripture.  The Spirit is constantly at work, constantly on the move, empowering those whose hearts are open to receive God, and revealing truth to those who can perceive God.  The Spirit brings order out of chaos, but also disturbs us out of our comfortable complacency, subverting all of our expectations.  And the Spirit transforms the most unpromising and hopeless of situations, bringing unity and peace out of disorder and violence.

And similarly, the power of the Word of God also permeates the whole of Scripture.  The Word is there not only at the very beginning of the Bible, bringing Creation into being, but also at its very end, in the Book of Revelation: 'I am the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end' - Alpha and Omega being, of course, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the language of the New Testament.  And perhaps most strikingly of all, it is there in those memorable verses at the start of John's Gospel, which we hear each Christmas: 'In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'.

Spirit and Word - the two ways in which God engages most powerfully and directly with his Creation.  Hold that thought, because I shall be returning to it in a moment.

All of you will, I am sure, have been appalled by the terrible events in Paris over recent days, which are shocking and disturbing on any number of levels.  The seventeen victims of these atrocities have included police (one of them a Muslim), members of the Jewish community, a maintenance worker, and a visitor to the offices of the satirical magazine that was targeted on Wednesday morning - alongside those who worked for the magazine itself.  And it goes without saying that every single one of those deaths is an equally appalling individual human tragedy.  

But as the Journalists' Church, here at St Bride's, the impact of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris on Wednesday morning was felt particularly acutely.  The news broke shortly before our midday Eucharist that day, and so we marked the event in our prayers, by placing memorials on the Journalists' altar over there, and by keeping a special candle burning for all of the dead and the injured.  It was a black day for freedom of speech - but also, as was observed in an email that I received from a news correspondent - a day on which we realized how vital freedom of speech is, too.

Because whatever we might feel about that particular French magazine, the issues that it has chosen to target, and the way in which it has chosen to target them, society needs satire.  Because the best kind of satire holds up a mirror to society, opening our eyes to truths we would perhaps rather not face, or which we are too afraid to voice.  And it calls the powerful and the influential to account through the medium of humour.  Not all satire is good satire, of course, just as not all journalism is good journalism.  But the manner in which a society deals with satire is a measure of its maturity, its liberty, and its civility.

What has been remarkable about the appalling incident on the morning of Wednesday 7th January is the reaction it has provoked.  Those who attacked the staff in the Charlie Hebdo offices were clearly under the impression that by killing them, they were also killing the magazine.  It is now abundantly clear that nothing could have been further from the truth.  On the contrary, they have merely succeeded in boosting its sales to the point where a million copies of this week's edition are being produced, and a million French citizens are expected to take to the streets this afternoon in outrage at their actions, and in support of the principle of freedom of speech.  The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo have been tweeted, and retweeted, and have generated more cartoons in their wake.  One of the most simple but striking images to have been produced since the killings is that of a broken pencil - which we then see has in fact become two pencils.

The scale of the protest, and the confidence of the protestors, turning out, and bearing placards identifying themselves with the victims and all that they represented, has been  extraordinary to see.  And so it was that a couple of days ago I caught myself musing that, contrary to everything that those Kalashnikov-wielding thugs had evidently assumed, it was not violence that was going to have the final word.  

'The final word'.  Strangely enough, the existence of that very phrase seems to reveal a deep-seated human awareness that ultimately true closure can only ever be achieved with a word, never with a gunshot.  For just as the pen is mightier than the sword, so the word is mightier than the Kalashnikov.

The magazine Charlie Hebdo was a profoundly secular publication, which made a point of satirizing religion - not merely Islam, of course.  Similarly, the reaction the killings have provoked is, essentially, a profoundly secular response - in solidarity with the ideals of liberalism and freedom of speech.  So I need to make my final point with some care, not least because events in France are still unfolding, and there may, of course, still be dark times, and troubling events to come.

Because, unlikely though it may seem, what I have found myself discerning, in the extraordinary aftermath of the terrible events in Paris, are echoes of what I also know to be true of the workings of the Spirit and the Word of God.  

Because even in the darkest of places and situations, the Spirit is there.  The most unlikely of people can be moved and empowered, and have their eyes opened to the truth, and set aside their differences to unite in a cause that suddenly matters far more than the concerns that would normally divide them. Death can be followed by Resurrection; violence and destruction can be overcome and subsumed by solidarity and peace.  Our differences can suddenly and dramatically dissolve in the recognition that, whoever we are, wherever we are from, whatever we happen to believe, we are all of us the precious children of the same Heavenly Father.  

In the same way, Spirit and Word work through connection and communication, breaking down all that causes separation and insularity, and bringing peace and hope.

When I was a student, one of my university friends had a poster on his wall, bearing a message that has haunted me ever since.  It went like this:

I sought myself, but myself I could not see
I sought my God, but my God eluded me
I sought my brother, and I found all three.

Amen

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