A Sermon from Sherborne

Total loss, total gain

A sermon for Mattins at Castleton Church, and Evensong at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 17 March 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Today’s reading from St Luke’s Gospel [13.31-35] encapsulates in a few short lines two conflicting emotions which all human beings feel from time to time: anger and love. And Jesus was no exception. Never imagine that he didn’t have feelings, emotional or physical. Christians have made that mistake time and again down the ages, but the evidence of the Gospels is absolutely clear. Physically, he knew what it was to be hungry, and thirsty, and to feel pain – ultimately, excruciating pain. Emotionally, he hated religious hypocrisy. He boiled with anger at many of the senior representatives of faith in the Palestine of his day. Yet he wept at the death of his close friend Lazarus [John 11.35] just as he wept when he came in sight of Jerusalem, as Luke tells us six chapters on [19.41]. In today’s reading, his anger is directed at Herod – ‘that fox’ – and his love to Jerusalem: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!’

Of course, we are all familiar with the many places in the Old Testament where God appears horribly offended by the slowness and the laziness of his people, by their moral and spiritual idleness. Often he is represented as wrestling with his own anger, a struggle sometimes dramatically portrayed. Think of the great disaster scenarios, where God floods the earth because it is utterly corrupt, or wipes out the Cities of the Plain, or sends scorpions to chastise the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. His anger is constantly at boiling point, and in constant tension with his love. His justice wrestles with his mercy.

With all of that we are familiar, but we liberal-minded western Christians too often tend to overlook the offence of the hard words of Jesus Christ. We gloss over his anger and his indignation, the urgent warnings of the great and terrible Day of the Lord. And yet always there was in Jesus a fierce impatience to call people to account, to make them aware of the great danger they were in. He calls them to repent, to turn back, before it is too late. With a frightening clarity he sees the inevitability of judgement for those who persist in their wilful, selfish, journey to destruction.

And yet – the terrible judgements of Christ and his most withering denunciations are immediately succeeded by a gentleness, a tenderness, a heartbroken pity and yearning for us in our lostness. You sense the overwhelming force of his desire to gather us into his arms as a hen gathers her brood under her wings – and we would not. It is an agonising paradox, and yet in Jesus we feel ourselves to be at the same time totally rejected and utterly accepted. In him, somehow, we come close to total loss and to total gain.

And this truth about Christ is mirrored in the Church. It explains how a parish priest can seem to swing between anger and love for his people: he is impatient for their holiness, their sanctification, and at the same time he is possessed by love and tenderness for them, a complete acceptance of them as they are. It explains why in our Anglican Communion we are so often torn between wanting to proclaim the divine Law and needing to practise the divine Love. It explains why a Pope like John Paul II could fly into country after country to rehearse a long list of denunciations and negatives, and yet reveal time and again the love and compassion in his heart for the oppressed and the poor.

What we need to remember, all the time, is that the Church is not the divine Judge, is not God, and priest and primate and pope alike have to learn to come before God with nothing left in them except deep, deep love and compassion for all their people. Their job – my job – is not to judge but to plead: it is the Church’s job to plead with the divine anger on behalf of the divine mercy. And above all our job is to explain how the apparent conflict between love and judgement is resolved in Christ. 

For resolved it is. Not in anything Christ said. His words are still that agonising mixture of ambiguity and paradox upon which we attempt to impose patterns in vain. Never join in the barren and destructive exercise of firing the words of Jesus backwards and forwards between Christian people like machine-gun fire, or lobbing texts at one another like hand grenades. We can all make words mean what we want them to mean. The thing to grasp is that Christ’s words are not all that he left us. It is as if he realised that his words alone could not save us, and so he stopped speaking. The voice that entranced us with tender acceptance and withered us with towering denunciation was stilled. There was silence over all the earth. And a silent word, the Word made flesh, was spoken in Christ’s dying. The divine love died to bear the divine anger. What could not be resolved in words or formulae, Christ brought together on the Cross.

And so, it seems to me, the last and most enduring word of Christ is forgiveness. But it is not a cheap word. The terrible demand of God remains, and so does our failure. The divine anger is still directed at us. We cannot be at ease in Zion, and certainly not in Sherborne, because we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But in the end the divine anger is overruled by the divine love, overruled in Christ’s body on the tree. The final mystery is forgiveness; forgiveness is the crowning mystery of God. We dare affirm it not because of what Christ said, but because of what he has done, done for us. And so it is in awe and trembling that we should come to worship, in awe and trembling but also in overwhelming gratitude and praise. In the words of a prayer I often use with the Abbey Choir before a service:

Remember, O Lord, what thou hast wrought in us and not what we deserve, and, as thou hast called us to thy service, make us worthy of our calling, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 17/03/2019
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Castleton