Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 15th July 2012
15th July 2012 at 11:15 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Amos 7: 7-15; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29
Any chorister hearing the words that began our second lesson this morning will inevitably hear them against the background of the music of Samuel Sebastian Wesley, the Victorian organist and composer, the grandson of the Methodist hymn-writer Charles Wesley and great nephew of the founder of Methodism John Wesley: John and Charles Wesley who were both educated here within the precincts of Westminster Abbey. The words that began our second lesson were these: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We heard them today from the first chapter of St Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. S. S. Wesley in 1834, when he was organist of Hereford Cathedral, chose the self-same words but from the first chapter of St Peter’s first epistle. He set them to music, alongside other texts, for an Easter anthem to be sung by his own choir at Hereford. His musical forces were limited. He had enough trebles for two parts but for the rest, we understand, all he had was one man, the Dean’s butler. He made the best of it – and we still hear his anthem, with its magnificently shocking dominant seventh chord on full organ and its romping final fugue But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. It is often sung at Easter here and elsewhere by far greater and more professional forces than when it was first sung in 1834 in Hereford. It is worth reflecting on the strength in our own day of the Anglican musical tradition in cathedrals and great churches, frequently so much stronger now than in past years. I dare say the Choir of Westminster Abbey has never been better than now.
In today’s epistle, St Paul is blessing God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for having blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. He goes on to reflect that this blessing of God can be compared with the choice God has made from the beginning: ‘just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.’ ‘Just as he chose us’… God chose us. God has given us particular gifts. God has blessed us. ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.’
The idea that God might have chosen us, gifted us, blessed us is quite difficult to handle. And yet that is clearly what St Paul is saying: ‘He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.’ And in Christ ‘we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.’
Generally we like to think that it is we who make the choice. We like to think we have the freedom to choose. And of course, there are many choices we make in our lives. But in fact many of the trivial choices we make and even the big life choices are severely limited and circumscribed by our circumstances and the condition of our lives, by the influence of our relations and friends, of our teachers and counsellors, by the prevailing climate of opinion in the communities in which we live, by what is available and what is practically possible. We are not really so free to choose. Even our personality, our potentiality, is given to us, through genetic and environmental means, through nature and nurture. Think for a moment of the reason and the means by which you come to be here in this place this morning. If you think you have made the choice to be here yourself personally, can you really and truly analyse the sequence of events and influences that brought you to this choice, to this point? It is not so fanciful an idea that the reason we are here, the reason we are taking part in this service of worship, the reason we are this morning blessing almighty God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is that God has chosen us and destined us ‘according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.’
It is not only St Paul who understands and teaches this. St John quotes our Lord as saying to his apostles, ‘You did not choose me but I chose you.’ [John 15:16] Jesus chose his disciples. We know that. The gospels are explicit about it.
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. [Mark 1: 16-20]
The Simon in St Mark’s account is of course Simon Peter, the patron saint of this collegiate church, who, as we know, seemed during his life-time to blow hot and cold, to get something brilliantly right and then immediately to get it disastrously wrong. The night before he died, Jesus predicted that all his disciples would desert him.
Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same. [Mark 14: 29ff]
But our Lord was right. They did all desert him and Peter denied he ever knew him. As we know, he repented. Three times he denied ever knowing Jesus. Three times, after the resurrection, he professed his love of the Lord.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’
St Peter is the patron saint therefore of those who once loved our Lord and followed him, but who later turned their back on him, before finally turning to him again. ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Our Lord has chosen us and he will never let us down. We heard St Paul say this. ‘You were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.’ Our Lord has grasped us and he will never let us go.
St John the Baptist had been chosen too, from the first moment of his conception, chosen to be the forerunner of our Lord. The Benedictus we say or sing every morning reminds us of his father’s song at his birth, a song of joy at God’s good purposes. And yet, as we heard in the Gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist’s life, so often marked by suffering, was to end tragically. The Christian way is not smooth or easy. Despite our Lord having chosen us, we have ourselves to tread the narrow road that leads to salvation, the path that leads to life and bliss eternal with him. May we all faithfully tread that path. I say especially to the choristers who are leaving: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’