Letter from America (1)

I think we experienced a pretty broad range of church today.

This morning we were at St Mark’s, the church we have made our home while we are here in Columbus.  God was there in the serenity of the building, the echo of the music, in the depth and unfussiness of the liturgy, and in the warmth of the people.  This morning was more special than usual because Joanna and Daniel sang in a robed choir for the first time (and in parts, too!).  I had a proud parent moment at how grown up they are getting (even though Daniel looked tiny in his cassock!).  I saw them take their place as ministers not just as children but as musicians and worship leaders, and I rejoiced at how their music brought heaven and earth closer. 

Then this afternoon we went to our neighbours’ garden to witness their teenage daughter baptise one of her friends in the swimming pool, alongside five other baptism candidates from their church, each of whom had chosen who would baptise them – often the people who had been most instrumental in bringing them to faith. It was an occasion full of joy, completely informal, completely humane, and completely full of God. 

I was moved by both events: I saw my own children take a step in their journey of life and faith this morning, and then as I heard the testimonies this afternoon I found myself hoping that my children will grow up to speak and sing of God and life so fearlessly and with such love.  The words and gestures that we use and the ways that we express our faith are so richly diverse, yet it is the same love, the same life, the same grace that animates all praise. 

Sermon for Easter 1 (John 20.19-end)

I posted a snippet from this last week. Here’s the whole thing. Now I’ve actually written it....

St John reports that at Jesus’ mockery-of-a-trial, Pilate asked at one point, “What is truth?”  That enigmatic question finds an unexpected echo in today’s gospel, in Thomas’ own need to know what truth really is.  He is not just asking his friends whether what they have told him is literally true, that Jesus is actually live. He’s asking for an experience of the reality of that fact.

Thomas is remembered for his doubt. But should we not rather remember him for his extraordinary desire to experience the fullness of the resurrection for himself?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, certainly, but blessed also are they who undertake a journey of discovery in doubt, in order that they might experience more fully the truth they seek.  I admit it, I admire Thomas, and I am glad that the gospel records the fact that Jesus granted him his very own resurrection moment.

And in truth, there were many people to whom Jesus granted such a moment.  Yes, the resurrection was a one-off historical event which occurred at some point shortly before dawn on the first day of the week, as we know from the accounts of scripture. That’s a fact that we may either accept or choose not to accept. But the truth of the resurrection is that it was not one moment but many moments. Nobody witnessed the ‘real’ resurrection, but every one of Jesus’ disciples had their own moment where it became real for them.  Mary in the garden, the disciples (minus Thomas) in the room, Thomas himself a week later, the two friends of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and most poignantly of all, Peter on the beach in John 21, finally being released from the guilt of his betrayal and given his commission.

Yes, in factual terms the resurrection was a one-off event, but in spiritual terms it took time – time for Jesus’ friends to see it, to understand it, to believe it. And in fact, I would go as far as to say that in spiritual terms, the resurrection is still happening. Because it happens every time a modern-day disciple has a resurrection moment – a moment when it becomes real, when the truth that is sought is suddenly found, and found to be more deep and broad and high than the seeker ever dreamed.

So which of these is the ‘real’ resurrection?  The historical moment of Jesus’ own death turning to life, or the spiritual moment of our own death turning to life, each one of us, as it becomes real in our lives?

Which leads us back to Pilate’s question, and  back to Thomas’ doubt.

Attendances in church over Easter were up on last year.  Not just here, but all over the country. And the number of people attending worship in Cathedrals – where mystery and awe and wonder are most clearly in evidence in worship – has increased 30% in the last ten years. Among all the fears that as a society we are becoming ever more materialistic, ever more secular, there is good evidence that there is still – and perhaps more than ever – a desire to engage with God, to engage with things that go far beyond the world of the senses, and yet are revealed in what we see and experience in the world.

We might well feel like the gathered few behind the closed door sometimes, but we gather in expectation:  that there is a truth that is bigger and deeper and broader and higher than we can imagine.  We want some token of our doubtful seeking that, yes, we can see and hear and touch.  But we also want something that shows us that what we see and hear and touch is not the highest reality that there is, but can point us to that greater reality.

We may tend to think of material, physical reality as the most ‘real’ form of reality there is. If we were to see someone walk through a solid wall or a locked door, we, like the disciples, might assume that the person was somehow insubstantial, less ‘real’ than the physical barrier they just passed through.

But what if the reason why the risen Christ can walk through walls is not because he is insubstantial, but because his risen form is so real, so substantial, that the wall is insubstantial in comparison?

This physical reality – the material world around us – cannot be at odds with God. I’m not trying to advocate some kind of ‘spiritual is good, material world is bad’ kind of dualism.  Rather, what we see around us can help to show who and what God really is.  Again, that’s why cathedral worship does it so well – it’s absolutely about saturating the senses with beauty.  And that’s why people often feel close to God in gardens, on mountain tops, and so on. They are places where our senses are assailed by such beauty that we start to be able to see beyond it.

In today’s gospel the disciples see in the person of Jesus just a glimpse of that greater reality.  May we too, be granted such glimpses, and be changed by them, so that as the resurrection becomes real for us, so the light and life and love of God made real in us can spill out and become real for the whole of God’s creation.


The Way of Life

Way of LifeIn Ely Cathedral there is a simple, yet spectacular, relief sculpture in cast Aluminium.  It  is mounted on what used to be the blank north wall of the area at the west end of the cathedral.  When people look at it, they see many things:

  • a winding path – the journey of life is not a straight line
  • dark areas and light areas – the journey of life is not all all in the light
  • a cross at the end – there are moments of suffering, as well as a sense that we are travelling towards God
  • a rough texture – the road is not always easy
  • a very tiny crucifix, very near the top of the sculpture, almost too small to be seen with the naked eye


The image of the Way of Life quickly became iconic of Ely Cathedral as a place of pilgrimage and iconic of the journey of life. Its simplicity makes it immediately appealing and fascinating.  The fact that its creator, Jonathan Clarke, was himself exploring faith during the time the sculpture was being conceived and made, may also contribute towards the appeal of the work to all who see it.

This time of year we might see the winding path, with its pits rough edges, twists and turns, as the journey of Jesus to the cross.

We might see it as our own journey – and we might identify the twists and turns that we have faced, or are about to face, the challenges that we can foresee, and those that may confront us with no warning.

ImageWe might see the path as our own journey of faith, for the progression of faith is rarely straight and smooth either.

We might even see the path as a sport relief mile: a short (but for many people, hugely challenging) journey undertaken in order that so many people whose life journey is unimaginably hard might find their path made a little easier. 

ImageIf there is one thing about this image that leaves me troubled, it is that the tiny crucifix is so alone.  Christ’s path to the cross was lonlier than it might have been (to the mortification of the disciples who failed to stand by him) and our own paths of suffering, or of doubting enquiry, can seem equally lonely.

But we are not alone. When we look around us in church, or at school, or at work, or to our neighbours, our friends, our families, we see fellow travellers. Their path and ours will not be identical, but they are nevertheless travellling, if not with us, then at least near us.  And we are also not alone because the fact that Jesus has already been on the human journey of life, all the way to the cross means that there is no height, no depth and no breadth of suffering (or indeed of joy, or thinking, or challenge, or worry or any other human experience) that is beyond the scope of his love.