Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Dedication of Westminster Abbey 2020
Even the Dean of Westminster could not, should not tell you what the outcome will be...
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 18th October 2020 at 11.15 AM
I grew up in a house where we simply did not go to church. Never, not even Christmas carols and as the only child of two only children there were no family baptisms, or weddings. Church was profoundly unfamiliar. My mother had had a faith, but it had foundered. So, Christianity was never mentioned as I was growing up, but there were a few books on the shelves—C S Lewis, The Bible as Literature that kind of thing. And, of course there were bibles, books that my parents had been given in Sunday school in the 1930s. The Authorised Version, forbidding dour black cover, dense text and a few pastel pictures, Daniel in the den of lions and Jesus, all pale blue and cream and a little green hillside in the background (we must assume these artists had never been in Israel). My first encounter with Christ, the firstborn of all creation, and he came to me as Jesus, meek and very mild.
Later I found my way to church. By now it is the mid-seventies I was wearing awful clothes. I apologise unreservedly, I was young and we thought flares were a good idea. Born in Lancashire, I was now living in the Home Counties and my excellent parish church was steeped in an intelligent and liberal Anglicanism. I came to understand that God really loved me, indeed God loved everyone, because love was where it was at. These were days when we all thought the questions were more interesting than the answers. Jesus had now become a fellow traveller on the pilgrimage of faith, a very human figure, inviting me into a sort of spiritual introspection; a man I once heard described as ‘the barefoot Galilean’.
At University, reading theology, even those claims seemed a bit much. We wondered if anything could really be said to be true. One of my most impressive teachers wrote a book about doing theology on Dover Beach the place where the Sea of Faith ebbs out on a tide with melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. We were dubious that words could carry weight and meaning. Lost in that thin mist, the baton passed to others with other and more pressing needs. You did not meet Jesus easily in the Divinity School, because we wrote essays about the words he had spoken having been composed by Luke or the mysterious source called Q. Instead we heard about the Jesus who was committed to the poor and to empowerment and liberation. Jesus the social revolutionary - meek and mild no longer—in 1999 he appeared, in a poster, looking very Che Guevara.
There are other encounters possible in which Jesus is differently described again. We have one of them in front of us this morning. Jesus with a whip of cords. Jesus cleansing the Temple. Jesus neither mild, nor meek. Jesus alarming and assertive:
Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple... He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" John 2: 15–16
We need to get the measure of this moment, need to think about this Jesus and decide what difference he makes to us.
I have already suggested that getting to know Jesus can be a tricky business. We come to him with assumptions we have formed, we come looking for something determined that we will find it, the barefoot Galilean or Jesus Guevara. This story of Jesus in the Temple is no exception, we can too quickly assume that we know exactly what it is all about.
Fifteen years ago I went to Dublin for the first time and I found, in the shop of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin that you could buy holy socks. They had verses of scripture printed on them and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. I didn’t buy any and when I came back I preached in the Cathedral, a sermon that began with the fact that in Dublin you can buy holy socks. ‘Isn’t that amusing’, I told them in the Cathedral, and they laughed politely. Unfortunately, I had not done my research and it was swiftly pointed out to me that, in the Cathedral shop in Gloucester, you could buy holy socks.
There then followed a conversation about holy socks. It was briefly, an issue. The question was asked, if Jesus came to Gloucester would he storm into the shop and throw them out? And there, just there, is our problem. When we hear the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple that is what we imagine. We think of him coming here and scattering the postcards and the books and the scarves in the Abbey shop. That is after all surely exactly what he did that day in Jerusalem.
Well, no, it isn’t. Jesus in the Temple did something quite different. Just think for a moment about the opening chapters of St John’s Gospel (it is John’s gospel we heard read). The first miracle at Cana, water into wine. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, who believes in Christ, against all the odds. The disciples of John the Baptist, who come to Jesus, and Jesus in Samaria, meeting heretics and Gentiles. A great and quick sequence of glimpses of who Jesus is and of the people who recognize him. They call this bit of John’s gospel The Book of Signs. Have you seen the signs, have you asked the key question—‘Who is this man?’
I am afraid we too often read this passage and think of holy socks, or teddy bears dressed as monks. We think we see Christ full of righteous indignation tidying up the Temple, insisting on reverence and holiness. That is not what the story is about. This is just another moment when we recognise who Jesus is. The people Christ drove from the Temple were money lenders, the sellers of sheep or pigeons and they were there to sustain the worship of the Temple. They were there so that the faithful could buy animals to sacrifice. Without those people the worship of the Temple would have collapsed. Attacking these people, overturning their tables, Jesus wasn’t tidying up, he was attacking the worship of the Temple itself. The parallel is not an assault on the Abbey shop, it is a much more shocking prospect of Jesus in here knocking candlesticks off the altar, tearing the rather splendid vestments the clergy wear.
Jesus does not tidy the place up. He stops the Temple doing what it did. He is not making a point about decency, he is making a point about religion. The Temple was the place where you went to be religious. In the Temple you could be close to God. In Christ, however, all that changes. Seeing him, knowing him for who he is, is to realise suddenly, that we meet God not in holy places and at holy times, but in his human life.
So, to return to where we began, we have to set aside our snapshots of Christ, meek and mild, Jesus Guevara. What we see in Christ is the depth and height, the richness, of a human life lived fully, lived in God, inseparable from God. What we see in Christ is our lives and a summoning to live that same life, fully. That is what faith means, it is what religion really is.
That is perhaps more than enough to be getting on with. We can and should however, say something more. This encounter with Christ, this moment of shattering recognition takes place in the Temple. It is the gospel reading for today because this is our feast of Dedication. We are invited to think about Christ and our faith today. We are also asked to think about this place, about the Abbey, and what it means.
I began this sermon talking about meeting one Jesus and then another. I acquired and accommodated versions of Christian faith. Now I am the Dean who knew versions of the Abbey. Arriving in November, I have had Abbey large, Abbey spectacular—the Commonwealth Service with Her Majesty the Queen His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and so many more. I have had a carol service walking in with the Archbishop of Canterbury beside me while guardsmen of the Household Division played trumpets from the organ screen. Then I have had the abbey in lockdown and perhaps the most intense Holy Week I can remember a small community of about a dozen of us in this extraordinary building in near silence, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday. I have had the Abbey going into lockdown and emerging from it, feeling our way, less confident, accommodating and adapting. I have the abbey now, surer footed in managing this crisis but squaring its shoulders for a tough winter and staring, fixedly, at a bleak balance sheet.
Which Jesus, which Abbey? Well the truth is of course, it is always a work in progress, it is God’s work in progress and we are here reading the Book of Signs. Even the Dean of Westminster could not, should not tell you what the outcome will be. It is not mine to make. I will say this though. Summoned into the humanity of Christ, summoned to live fully as he lived we are, above all, summoned to live together. It is not an individual vocation, not me being more Christ like here and you being more Christ like there with a polite nod as we pass in the Cloister. This is God’s common humanity, Christ is the word of God, the language for us all. And, in this church above all, in this church of coronation and national memorial, this church of queens and kings, this church of Commonwealth and nation our fundamental responsibility is to witness to the common life, the shared hope, the generous greater justice. That common humanity, that shared hope, is in jeopardy; we are a nation pulling apart, north and south, young and old, rich and poor, and many more divisions. Christ calls us back into the humanity we share with him and to this Temple, where we meet him and acknowledge under God that we are redeemed together or not redeemed at all.