Sermon for Festal Evensong, Te Deum & Benediction Sunday 20 April 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
On Easter Evening exactly forty years ago I was at a similar service to this at Christ Church St Laurence in Sydney. We had also benefited from an episcopally-preached Holy Week, with another Bishop John, one John Charles Vockler, a contemporary of my father at the godly diocesan seminary in Sydney, Moore College. John shared with another contemporary the unusual distinction of having been ejected from the college for a crime of literalism. He and his friend Ian Shevill, having long suffered the tedious repetition of the college principal’s catch-cry (which was ‘only the surplice’) decided to appear at Morning Prayer wearing ‘only the surplice’, literally. Pausing only to insist that they dressed themselves more warmly, the principal expelled them immediately. Both were bishops before the age of 35, but not in Sydney.
John Vockler went to be Bishop of Melanesia, which is an astonishingly Anglican collection of Pacific islands. You may have heard of the Melanesian Brotherhood, possibly the only religious order in the world which still has a sizeable waiting list for its novitiate. John insisted that he must be the last white bishop of Melanesia; he stepped down, still only in his 40’s, to encourage the election of an indigenous bishop, a move which cemented the inculturation of the faith in that place at a crucial moment, and is doubtless partly responsible for the continuing strength of the Anglican church there.
But, as you have already guessed John Vockler was not a man to retire quietly. He left Melanesia ostensibly to become a Franciscan friar, Brother John Charles, in Brisbane. But the Franciscans soon sent him out preaching quite a lot and far afield: the ability fit into a group was not among his many strengths. So he’d come to Sydney for the Triduum. He appeared as a priest on Maundy Thursday; on Good Friday he was in choir in ‘only the habit’, as he no doubt thought of it. And on Easter Day, suddenly, we beheld a stonkingly prelatical bishop in a tall gold mitre. However it was his Easter Evensong sermon which has stayed with me all these years. In addition to the mitre (and, I fear, gloves), he sported a pair of gold-rimmed half-moon spectacles. The office finished and the lights having been dimmed, he slowly mounted the pulpit, evoking Laurence Olivier on one of his fruitier days. Scorning a printed text, he gripped the reading desk and, peering over the top of those glasses, silently fixed individual members of the congregation with a disconcertingly lingering gaze. This went on for what felt like five minutes. Then, at last, he spoke: ‘Some of us’, he said, continuing to stare rather pointedly at individual congregants, ‘some of us, will not see another Easter.’ It was, as Dame Edna would have observed, a bit spooky.
The sermon, needless to say, went downhill after that, a judgement you may equally make this evening. But his point was worth making, at the end of an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, week of liturgical gymnastics. All that we had gone through together, remarkably similar to Holy Week here, forty years later and in another hemisphere, all this will pass for each of us, for it is only a glimpse of the glory that is to be. It is not the place to stop. If we have allowed ourselves to enter into it, so that it becomes part of who we are, it will have worked on the unique person that God has created each of us to be, making us a little more ourselves, more that true self, being ‘changed from glory into glory, til in heaven we take our place, til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder love and praise.’
Why is that true? How does it happen?
Two weeks ago Fr Alan and I, together with colleagues spent a fruitful three days with some ordinands in Keble College Oxford. Fr Alan remarked as we entered the quad, ‘just like home’, for Keble is of course the most distinctively Butterfield environment. And over the High Altar in the chapel is illustrated, in exactly the same mosaic idiom as these pictures around us here, our second lesson, from the first chapter of Revelation.
A decidedly spooky Son of Man is depicted exactly as we heard him described, in grand scale and with all the props. There are the seven golden lamp-stands (which represent the earthly church), happily made over into seven altar candlesticks depicted with brightly burning candles (Butterfield liked to find excuses to depict candlesticks over altars, because they were, of course, illegal at the time – especially if there were more than two). The Christ has the seven stars in his right hand: these, corresponding to the lamps, symbolize the heavenly church (the stars are the wise among Israel who have been resurrected to heavenly glory, possibly as angels). He has the massive two-edged sword protruding from his mouth: this, from the prophecies of Isaiah 11 & 49, representing his role as judge and Messiah. He holds in his hand a book inscribed with Alpha and Omega, the Greek letters he uses to express his eternal being: we are looking at the ‘ancient of days’ of the book of Daniel from which this imagery comes.
The Keble reredos is a striking representation of this passage. It is also a reminder that (perhaps today of all days) it is essential to remember why we do what we do together in church. We have a distinctive revelation of God to celebrate and share, and here is a majestic picture of it, which we heard in words to fire our imagination tonight, words which also inspired Butterfield’s visual imagination. Why is this so significant? Because it is a revelation of the person of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Son of God, at the heart of our faith. That may not be news to us, over-accustomed as we are to hearing it. But it is news, and good news, for the world. For the Word of God is a person not a book. That means that there is, truly, hope for every one of us, individual persons, corporately Christ’s Body on earth.
Because it is Easter evening I’m going to risk one more brief Sydney anecdote. Two churches stick out in my childhood memory. One was my local Roman church: over the chancel arch was written, magister adest et vocat te: ‘the teacher is here and calls you’, from the story of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus: the words pointed there, to the tabernacle. The other is St Stephen’s Newtown, a Sydney Anglican church, where someone had appropriated a verse from last night’s gospel to inscribe over its chancel arch, ‘he is not here, he is risen’. That church was known to us spikes, obviously enough, as ‘the church of the real absence’.
We should beware of using scripture to make party points like those, because both statements are true. He is here, and he does call you, tonight and every day; but he is not only here. We can’t stay here forever. This place, our worship, and fellowship, and all our striving together to make a Christian community, are viaticum, food for the journey, a journey to the glory that, pray God, awaits us all. Similarly, Bishop Vockler was both right and not right in suggesting that some of us would not see another Easter; for as I’m sure he went on to preach and pray,
Christ is risen, we are risen;
shed upon us heavenly grace,
rain, and dew, and gleams of glory,
from the brightness of thy face;
that we, Lord, with hearts in heaven,
here on earth may fruitful be,
and by angel hands be gathered
and be ever safe with thee.
That Easter memory of John Vockler is important to me because he too was very much a person, not a book or an idea, not a cipher for someone else’s idea of a bishop, or a Franciscan friar, or whatever else. He was no more perfect than I am or you are. Like many large ecclesiastical personalities he found retirement hell and went off in some decidedly odd directions late in life. But he was, gloriously, the person God loved and created him to be. And whatever his eccentricities, you noticed his faith.
Easter is not a destination, it is not just the end of Lent, though too often it feels as though we’ve ‘arrived’ at our forty-days’ journey’s end. But of course the new life of Easter is not a full stop, any more than it is a beginning without a past. It is, I pray, for each of us, another step in being ‘changed from glory into glory ’til in heaven we take our place’. And you notice that this evening Jesus says to us, as so often (for it is the most frequent commandment in the bible), ‘Do not be afraid. … I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever’. He says that not for himself, nor as a piece of divine theatre for us to admire: he says it, he does it, for us.
Some of us, perhaps I, may not see another Easter Evensong at All Saints Margaret Street. But, pray God, we shall all see him face to face.