Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 17 Sunday 13 October 2019
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
Readings: 2 Kings 5.1-3,7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2.8-15; Luke 17.11-19
“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel”
That injunction to Timothy is one which is addressed to us all and it is in obedience to it – and to our Lord’s own command – “Do this in remembrance of me,” that we gather Sunday by Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. So we come together to hear afresh the gospel which Paul proclaimed and for which he suffered.
Scholars tell us that the opening words of the epistle are probably an early Christian statement of faith – a brief creed expressing faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his status as the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah. We will make our profession of faith, the faith of the Church, in a fuller form in the Nicene Creed at this Mass – and if we come back to Evensong – in the rather shorter Apostles’ Creed.
Timothy’s task as a minister of that same gospel us to “Remind them of this.” It is a task which has been handed down and entrusted to bishops and priests ever since: to popes and patriarchs, archbishops and bishops, to great minds like John Henry Newman being canonized in Rome this morning – and to generations of ordinary parish clergy like Fr. Michael and Fr. Julian and me, whose names will be little remembered; but who week by week, day by day, have tried to be faithful to their called in remind God’s people of this; who stand faithfully in the pulpit and at the altar, in good times and bad, to remind those entrusted to us of this. They are called to re-present and to represent the truths at the heart of the gospel – as the antidote, the preventative, for the tendency of Christians then – and ever since – to squabble and fall out over inessentials – but more importantly so that, “they may also attain the salvation that in is Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.”
In Scripture, and so for us as Christians, “Remember” means something rather distinct from the ordinary sense in which we use it today. Memory is not just the mental activity of an individual. It is more communal than individual: and so we gather to remember. It is closely related to the idea of a name. We make a name alive by remembering it; the name calls forth the person it belongs to.
Remembering is not just an exercise of the mind; it can only be thought of in relation to the activity to which is gives rise. So when the prophet Malachi tells the people on behalf of their God: “Remember the law of Moses my servant,” he means that they are to obey it.
The Old Covenant’s sacrifices of thanksgiving for God’s blessings, which we read of in the Book of Leviticus, were not just words but actions; the giving of things (Leviticus 2.2ff).
So, when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he was not planning merely to keep before his disciples’ minds something they were unlikely to forget; but a concrete remembering, a bringing into the present of one who is not merely a figure from the past but the crucified and risen Lord, victorious over death and present with us.
Just as at the supper he took bread and wine and identified them with his body and blood, made them the emblems of his sacrifice, so we take bread and wine and do with them what he did in remembrance of him. This is not just a psychological exercise – nostalgia for one we have loved but lost – but a real and objective remembrance of him. In the power of his accepted sacrifice, he would be present in the midst of disciples then – and ever since. The sacrifice offered once for all is unrepeatable, but it is continually renewed as we celebrate the Eucharist and are united with it and him in Holy Communion.
“The saying is sure:
If we have died with him,
we will also live with him;
If we endure,
we will also reign with him.”
Here the writer seems to be quoting another early Christian text, a hymn perhaps; one familiar to Timothy. It echoes Paul’s teaching in Romans about our identification with Christ; our sharing in his death and resurrection, our living relationship with him, in baptism. In that relationship we are strengthened to endure, to persevere come what may, by the words of the Gospel and the sacraments of the Church.
We can, of course, reject all this: “if we deny him, he will also deny us.”
As Jesus himself warns, “Not everyone who says, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
But then, the logical sequence is broken: “if we are faithless, he remains faithful – for he cannot deny himself.”
His fidelity is his very being and it is also the source of our hope, the rock on which we can stand when we are shaken by the storms of life, by doubts and fears; when we are ashamed of our sins and failings and fear that they have cut us off from the possibility of salvation – like lepers cast out from society.
But even the lepers, and even we, whatever we have done that separates us from the community of God’s people, however we have marred God’s image in us, can call out to Jesus from afar: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” because “he remains faithful”; faithful to his very being as mercy.
When we were children one of the most basic things we were taught was to say “please” when we wanted something, and “thank you” when we were given it. But that is not only a lesson to be learned in childhood, but one to be relearned throughout our lives.
The Greek word “Eucharist” which is one of the names for this service, means “Thanksgiving.” The great prayer at its heart gives thanks to God over the bread and wine, offered and then received back as the body and blood of Christ. That prayer encompasses the whole of God’s saving work for us and looks forward in hope to its fulfilment.
The Samaritan leper, seeing that he has been healed, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.” We do the same in the Eucharist. We celebrate the Eucharist in order to become Eucharistic people; people grateful for all that God has done and is doing for us.
We will often come to the Eucharist with prayers of petition – saying “please”: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” for ourselves or for others. But the liturgy teaches us, as our parents taught us, to come also with thanksgiving. How often do we come “praising God with a loud voice?”
When the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1662, one of the prayers added to it is called “The General Thanksgiving.” It bids us, it teaches us, to give thanks to God:
“for all thy goodness and loving kindness
to us and to all men.
We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life,
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful,
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives;
by giving up ourselves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days…”
Last Sunday, as we celebrated the dedication of this church; we thanked God:
- for Christ’s promise to be with is when even two or three gather in his name;
- for this place where we may be still and know God;
- for the fulfilling of our desires and petitions as God sees best for us;
- for the blessings of the past and a vision for the future;
- for the gift of the Holy Spirit and new life in baptism;
- for the pardon of our sins when we fall short of his glory;
- for the foretaste of the kingdom and the sacrament of the Eucharist;
- for the blessing of our vows and the crowning of our years with goodness;
- for the faith of those who have gone before us and for the grace to persevere like them.
Nor should we forget to give thanks as well as for those who are with us now – not just those who comfort and support us – those whose goodness inspires us, – but those whose very awkwardness and difficulty challenges us to be better and more than we are.
We can even give thanks for our failures and back-slidings and humiliations, because they can throw us back on the mercy of God.
Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!