Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist with Confirmation on the Second Sunday after Trinity 2017
Start Date 25th Jun 2017 11:15am

The Right Reverend Michael Marshall, Honorary Assistant Bishop, Diocese of London

But surely you might be thinking, there’s so much to be afraid of in today’s world, at such times as ours—‘the best of times and the worst of times,’ as Dickens says. Yet it’s precisely such times, which paradoxically and retrospectively can be experienced and perceived as the ‘right time’—or ‘high time’—God’s time, at times like our own time, when the very foundations of our civilisation are being shaken; an age of both amazing promise, yet of immense peril; yet it’s precisely at such times, that our God of surprises, frequently calls out and marks out men and women, marking them for life, as this morning in baptism—for that new life, distinguished not by self-serving, or privilege, but rather as a life of sacrificial service in the wider community, no longer living for themselves, but for and in the One, who Himself came 'not to be served, but to serve and to give his life for others'—that same new life which takes a fresh hold of us, from deep within us.

And in today’s Gospel, Christ pulls no punches. He makes it clear at the outset that to be a disciple, in such an age, inevitably draws us into conflict, radically re-configuring, as Jesus warns in today’s Gospel, family life, and the life of the prevailing culture with a new world view and new priorities.

And it’s in the face of all that, as Jesus says to all of us this morning, and especially to the candidates and all who have come this morning seeking re-affirmation and Confirmation: ‘Have no fear: do not fear: do not be afraid.’

And it’s precisely in order to override fear with faith and trust, echoing those words of Christ, that I shall ask all the candidates here this morning, at whatever stage on their pilgrimage of the heart, the same question: ‘’Do you believe and trust? And also three times!

But in what? No: in whom?

For, Christian discipleship isn’t so much what you know about God, but rather who you know, with that knowledge of the heart, as Pascal says—namely, the person of Jesus the Christ, who you will spend the rest of your life coming to know ever more intimately, placing your life in his hands, as you will later in Holy Communion, take his life in your hands.

For as the saying goes, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know?’ Of course in their preparation for this morning, all the candidates will have learned the doctrines and teachings of the Church. But, you can know a lot about the Christian faith—we call it theology—but that’s all theory, which is useful as far as it goes. But Christianity isn’t a philosophy or an ideology or even a religion in the strict sense of the word. Christianity isn’t anything: Christianity is somebody: it is Jesus and the resurrection and that new way of life—that eternal, abundant, enriched life, which all of us are invited to lay hold of as a free, unearned gift from the Lord of life.

One of the difficulties of being the bishop dragged in to confirm is that I don’t know the candidates’ stories, the journey of their lives, or what the various factors are that have brought them to this turning point in their lives. I suspect there are many differing factors converging together which have mysteriously led them to this point: the nature and nurture of parents, godparents, family and friends, together with the hidden promptings of God’s own Holy Spirit, working unrecognized through their studies, transcendent experiences, like singing in worship in this glorious House of God, for the choristers being confirmed, which has to have had an impact; or lasting friendships; something they’ve read, someone they’ve met; often times of breakdown, when God can break through, or whatever, But, be quite clear—this is all God’s initiative, who touches our lives, in ways we find difficult, like all life’s deepest experiences, to put into words.

Pope Benedict in his latest book, says, ‘Faith is nothing other than the touch of God’s hand in the night of the world.’

So perhaps the easiest way is simply to say that God has touched our lives, which is why in the sacrament of Baptism and Confirmation, as an outward and visible sign of that touch of God, I shall touch and sign George for his Baptism, and lay my hands on the heads of the Confirmation candidates, to re-affirm the touch of God and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, saying, ‘God has called you by name and made you his own.’ You, see, beloved in Christ, you are precious to God, irreplaceable, unique as your DNA or as Jesus says in today’s Gospel ‘even the hairs of your head are numbered.’ (A greater miracle in some cases than in others!!)

So, for George, today is a turning point both in Baptism and Confirmation, as well as those who are to be confirmed and are as I shall say, ‘ready from their own mouth and from their own heart,’ together with George, ready to affirm their trust and belief in Jesus Christ; and it’s also a turning point for John to be received into the communion of the Church of England, together with Ruihan and Benedict who come this morning for a further blessing and affirmation from the Lord of life, in preparation for confirmation within their own traditions.

So, all alike at different turning points on this journey of faith, yet all responding earlier or later in their lives, from differing perspectives to the same question, I shall ask, ‘Do you turn to Christ?’ Christ the Light of the World.

And of course, when you turn and face the opposite direction, from the darkness to the light, you see everything from a different point of view—from a new perspective—a more enlightened perspective on every aspect of life. Sadly the reverse is equally true: when you turn your back on the light, you’re walking into your own shadow and darkness: self-centred. But—when you turn to face the light,—the light of Christ—not only do you see everything from a different perspective, but your shadow is now behind you, as you walk freely forward, in the light of Christ, re-centred in God, whose ‘centre is everywhere,’ as Augustine says and ‘whose circumference is nowhere.’

So I shall say to the confirmation candidates: ‘Shine as a light in the world' and to Ruihan and Benedict: ‘May the light of Christ shine on you in your journey of faith’: and to all the candidates, as for every one of us this morning, may Christ continue forever to enlighten our minds, warm our hearts and to fire our wills in loving service in God’s darkened world. For as St Catherine of Siena assures us: ‘Become what you were created to be and you could set the world on fire.’

So, from start to finish, our guide and companion on this journey of discipleship, is the living Lord of life, Jesus the Christ, who came to show us God’s way of being fully human, in an age when dehumanising forces threaten to overwhelm us; yet empowered by the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ to follow in the way of discipleship, and a costly discipleship at that, as today’s Gospel is at pains to make clear; seeking to make a difference in the world for the common good, as ‘man for others’ as opposed to the prevailing culture of the kingdoms of this world, where it’s so often, a case of ‘every man for himself.’

So, let’s face it, such Christian discipleship in this post-Christian era is a tall order—a bumpy ride. For you see, the gospel of Christ isn’t about slick, neatly packaged, black-and-white answers to rainbow shaped questions: rather, it’s about living with the questions and walking the talk, content not to know, yet sustained and nurtured with scripture, sacrament, prayer and worship, and rooted and grounded in God’s great love for us—that perfect love, which as St John says, casts out fear—all fear; and always, ‘daily increasing in the Holy Spirit more and more’ until we are finally repossessed in the heart of God, where all our longing is ultimately to belong.

And in the meantime of God’s time, both at ‘the worst of times and the best of times,’ constantly praying:

O let me see Thy footmarks
And in them plant my own.
My hope to follow duly, is in thy strength alone.
O guide me, guard me, call me,
Uphold me to the end;
And then in heaven, receive me,
My Saviour and my Friend.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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