This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

One personal casualty of current travel restrictions is a long-planned trip to Germany in May where I was booked to preach in Eisenach in the church where Johann Sebastian Bach was baptised and where Martin Luther preached. Looming on the hill above the town is the Wartburg – the castle where Luther was held for his own protection.

Today is the 500th anniversary of the event that led him there. He was summoned to the city of Worms where the Emperor, accompanied by the princes, listened to Luther’s defence against accusations of heresy. The Diet of Worms was not, as many children assume, a bad food day; rather, it was more of an inquisitorial court which had the power to condemn a man completely.

The story goes that Luther concluded his defence against the charges with the bold statement: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Even though there is no evidence that he did actually say this, it sums up his position well and justifies the pair of socks I was given in His home town of Wittenberg that has it imprinted on the sole.

What I find interesting about this episode is that it was Luther’s courage that gave credibility to his position as a reformer rather than purely the content of his theology. People so admired the personal bravery of a man who was willing to deliver himself into the hands of the authorities that they then paid attention to what he was saying.

In other words, character was as important as content when it came to the credibility of his case – what we today call virtue ethics. Luther would not recognise the term, but he exemplified it. He was a complex man who demonstrated the resilience and determination to stand up for the truth (as he saw it in the Bible), but he was also rude, obstinate and difficult. While he was being protected in the Wartburg – and translating the New Testament into German, a work of historical and cultural significance – his colleague Andreas Karlstadt took up the Reformation mantle; but, when Luther emerged a year later, he reversed many of the changes Karlstadt had made.

Luther is recognisable as, fundamentally, a disciple of Jesus. I wonder if, when he was translating the gospels in the Wartburg, he saw in the first followers of Jesus a similar complexity to his own. For the early apostles and Saints were just as complicated, obdurate and contradictory as he was.

Luther stood before the emperor on this day in 1521 not knowing if he would see tomorrow. What his courage demonstrates is that nothing is inevitable in history – that the world is changed by people who embody integrity today – who love truth, even when they have their own limited relationship to it.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Show:

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh last week at the age of 99 puts into sharp relief some of the cultural changes we have seen in the world during his lifetime. Much is being said and shown about his long life and some of its ups and downs. For a younger generation, especially one that goes to Netflix’s The Crown for its history lessons, his choices might cause some discussion.

Prince Philip was a husband and father as well as consort to a monarch. But, the questions raised by these roles – how they co-exist and which should have priority when – demonstrate the personal cost of public service for him. Put simply, would he live to fulfil his own potential, or would he put his own interests at the service of his wife, the Monarch?

These are not trivial choices. Prince Philip decided to serve his country and the Commonwealth by serving – not always comfortably – the Queen and not himself.

I only met him a few times, but found him astute, combative, curious and very funny. He lived through so many social, cultural and political changes that his ability to keep abreast of it all seems even more remarkable. Indeed, his establishment of St George’s House in Windsor, a place for conferences, debates and learning, was one outcome of his commitment to enabling real development of people, not just flashy events.

Yet, perhaps he earned the respect of many people around the world precisely because his wrestling with a changing world was not always hidden. Noted for his frank talking and acute – sometimes un-PC – observations, he always ran the risk of saying more than intended and opening a crack into which the light of realism might shine. In other words, he was a real human being who strove to fulfil his duties and work out his choices within the constraints of the particular times and mores in which he lived.

He also was clear about questions of faith. Having preached at Sandringham one Sunday morning, he took me to task over the content of my sermon. It made for an interesting and feisty dinner. But, he avoided indifference and, wanting to press the matter, pushed me on content and sources. Now, this might sound odd, but this is how Christian life should be lived: arguing and wrestling with the Bible and with faith – not merely nodding as if it really didn’t matter what was said, thought or believed.

My prayers are with the Queen and their family as they grieve their personal loss. This is not diminished by fame. Prince Philip has lived long and well. The country and the Commonwealth owe him a huge debt. May he rest in peace … and rise in glory.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:

Back in 2010 in Munich I attended a remarkable public conversation about the nature of the Church between two elderly academic theologians from Tübingen: the Protestant Jürgen Moltmann and Roman Catholic priest Hans Küng.

Küng died a few days ago at the age of 93, leaving behind him a long legacy of intellectual and spiritual enquiry. He wrote prolifically, always unafraid of truth and undaunted by the opposition he engendered within the Church hierarchy. His approach is probably best summed up when he realised as a child that he could swim “because the water’s supporting me”. What he called “the venture of faith” could not be proved theoretically by doing a course on dry land. In other words, commending or deriding the exercise of faith could not be done from any place of security, distant or removed from the experience of actually living it.

And this is where Küng found his courage and clarity. He not only dug deeply into theological themes, but also pursued, in conjunction with the world faiths, what a “global ethic” for the religions might look like. In 1993 he famously declared that there could be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

This is where Küng was remarkable. He refused to separate intellectual curiosity from the search for truth – both rooted in his passionate commitment to Jesus Christ. Although his persistent challenges led to his licence to teach in the Roman Catholic faculty in Tübingen being removed, he continued in academia and in exercising his ministry as a priest. He once remarked to an interviewer that “I do not have many prejudices before starting, as I do not fear the outcome.”

This was evident in the conversation in Munich. Apart from teasing each other about things they had said in the past, they also agreed that Christians should be like human beings: eat and drink together first, then discuss theology afterwards. It is a nonsense to do it the other way round, they said.

And it is this that goes to the heart of Küng’s often controversial views. Mutual hospitality creates the context in which committed, curious, honest and intelligent conversation can emerge. Our common humanity is the starting point, rather than the evident points of difference.

Some people assume that religious people must live in two worlds: what their ‘church’ tells them to believe, and what they actually believe. Küng took Jesus seriously in denying the split. In 2009 he published ‘What I Believe’, demonstrating that nobody need fear the outcome of such rigorous and honest exploration. But, believing meant commitment, not just intellectual assent to a set of ideas.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2 with Matt Lucas.

I went for a walk the other day.

You’re supposed to be impressed! Most days for the last year or so I’ve been stuck in my house behind a screen, talking to people or ‘enjoying’ meetings. I know we’re supposed to get exercise, but it hasn’t always worked out.  And that app on my phone that tells me how many steps I haven’t done each day – well, it’s an embarrassment.

Thirty years ago we lived in the Lake District and one of the great pleasures – when it wasn’t raining – was to get out into the fells. I’m not good at walking on my own, but loved doing it with family or friends. I actually discovered that you have a different sort of conversation when you’re walking than when you’re sat in a room.

This is why I am taken with the story at Easter of the couple walking home the few miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, deep in conversation about how to make sense of what had been going on at the weekend. They couldn’t work out how Jesus, in whom they’d invested so much hope, had got himself nailed to a cross and killed. It didn’t compute. Nor did the stories of him now being seen again by his friends.

While walking and talking, a stranger joined the couple and asked what they were discussing. They were surprised he didn’t know the gossip about the dead man walking, so they told him anyway. And it was only when they’d finished trying to explain it all that the stranger offered to re-tell the story in a way that did make sense. But, it meant they had to risk seeing God, the world and themselves differently. Not easy.

One element of this is simply that walking and talking is good for us. Given the last year in which many people have felt trapped or stuck between four walls and a screen, the spring opens up the space to walk and talk. To express what has been going on. And possibly, by talking about it, to draw some of the sting of loss. And share the hard questions of what it all means.

This is the text of my sermon in Ripon Cathedral this morning as the light streamed in.

Don’t tell me of a faith that fears
To face the world around
Don’t dull my mind with easy thoughts
of grace without a ground.

[Chorus]
I need to know that God is real!
I need to know that Christ can feel
the need to touch and love and heal
the world, including me!

Don’t speak of piety and prayers
Absolved from human need;
Don’t talk of spirit without flesh
Like harvest without seed.

Don’t sate my soul with common sense
Distilled from ages past
Inept for those who fear the world’s
about to breathe its last.

Don’t set the cross before my eyes
unless you tell the truth
of how the Lord, who finds the lost,
was often found uncouth.

So let the Gospel come alive
in actions plain to see
in imitation of the one
whose love extends to me. (John Bell, The Sorrow)

“Whose love extends to me.”

One of the really intriguing things about the story told through the sixty six books of the Bible is that people keep having their name changed. Note: they don’t change their own name; their name is changed for them – and apparently without the courtesy of asking them first. Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah; Simon becomes Peter (the Rock) – although the granite he assumes is meant turns out to be a leaking limestone; Saul becomes Paul.

Names matter. They are not simply a moniker or a label. They say something about the nature of the person. Or, in these cases, the nature God sees in them … despite the evidence to the watching world around them.

Take Simon who becomes Peter, for instance. He’s the one who constantly misunderstands Jesus, but, still pledges undying allegiance to his friend … just hours before denying even knowing him when asked by a young girl in a garden. It is this Peter who deserts Jesus at the point when his need is greatest and his loneliness most powerful: on the cross. This Peter returns to the old life, fishing on the familiar lake in Galilee, the hill country of the north which was home until the carpenter’s son drew him into a whole new world just a couple of years before. And it is this Peter who has the most beautiful and excruciating conversation with the risen Jesus at his old workplace, the beach, in which his failure is laid bare … before he is restored by love that suffers no illusions.

This same Peter, the one who ran away and who doesn’t seem to “get it”, we read later is out on the streets risking life and limb while telling anyone who would listen that his friend had been executed, was truly dead, but now was alive. Not resuscitated. Not recovered from a bad swoon or fainting fit. Not popping back to life like some magic trick. But, raised to new life by the God about whom many were sceptical.

In our reading from Acts 10:34-43 we find this same Peter having undergone in the preceding verses a radical conversion. Put simply, his assumptions about who God is for were turned upside down. To misuse a different image, a stone had been rolled away and now he could see that God could not be trapped by human limitation or prejudice. I think he might have appreciate the lines from the Welsh poet RS Thomas (I quoted in a Thought for the Day on Radio 4 on Good Friday):

History showed us he was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

The implications of the resurrection gradually shook Peter’s view of God and re-shaped his love for people. And here he is, speaking boldly in public about the resurrection of a dead man. Even mockery or ridicule won’t stop him now.

As Tomáš Halík, the Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of sociology in Prague, says in a newly-published sermon for Easter Day in lockdown (The Time of Empty Churches, available only in Czech and German at the moment): “We believers have no monopoly over Christ”. In other words, not even we can trap him within the limitations of our own pieties, prejudices or prayers. The resurrection whispers that God is free, that death does not have the last word after all, that Jesus will not be trapped in a place of decay behind a stone that won’t be rolled away.

But, it’s not just name changes that matter in the Scriptures. Names themselves are significant. As Mary Magdalene found out in the garden on Easter morning.

Let’s have a look at John 20.

In John’s Gospel light and darkness are very significant. John asks us to pay attention to light and darkness as we encounter the people who met Jesus along the way. Here, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb “while it was still dark”. She expects to find a corpse and is shocked to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. In John’s account she is alone, so runs to tell the men – including Peter – that someone has done something with the body. The implication of verse 2 – “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” – is that the authorities have, for their own ends and purposes, removed the body.

Confusion, bewilderment, fear. Not joy, excitement, understanding.

Then, after the men have seen for themselves (because women’s witness statements didn’t count until verified by a man) and returned to their homes, Mary weeps and cannot leave this place of poignant mystery. When asked “Why are you weeping?”, she reprises verse 2: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

And it is here – right here in the place of bereavement and inexplicable loss – that the risen Jesus comes to her. He doesn’t wait for her to get her act together and approach him; he comes to her. Mary, thinking he might be one of them, asks him to tell her where the body is to be found. And here we have the beauty, the simplicity, the directness of the mention of a name: “Mary.”

It was this that dispelled the darkness and opened her eyes. Jesus, the same but different, knows her by name. And in this gentle naming of her, in her place of despair, she knows that she is loved.

That is the Easter story. And it is this that the Christian Church is called to live out in whatever context or society we find ourselves living.

But, the story doesn’t end there. Her instinct is to grab Jesus, to hold onto him, to not let him go again. And Jesus won’t let her. There can be no bolder statement that we cannot possess Jesus. We cannot trap him within our own needs or wants. We cannot mould him to suit our political or ideological preferences or passions. If he won’t be contained by the grave, then he is unlikely to be constrained by my desires, comforts or conveniences.

I don’t know where all of us stand today in relation to the world’s suffering or the imminence of death and loss. But, I do know that the encounter between Mary and the risen Christ fills the world with hope and light. We might feel that we only ever come to him in the darkness, where we are confused or afraid or suspicious; and that’s OK. We might approach this Easter Day with tears and weeping, feeling lost or bereft – for whatever reason. We might feel the absence of God or the fragility of faith. And if we do so, sharing what a Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka called ‘the solidarity of the broken’, then we will not be ashamed to hear the questions put to Mary: “Why are you weeping?” and “For whom are you looking?”

Why? Because when we have let down the defences and faced the powerful reality of loss and fear, then we are able to hear the whispering of our name by the one who knows us inside out and loves us to death and beyond. He is not the disinterested judge who looks for our faults or inadequacies, but, rather, the Wounded Healer who holds out hands with holes in them and speaks our name into the silence of the place of darkness.

That, I think, is why we can rejoice. No bland escapism or romantic attachment to a comfort blanket of faith. Rather, the courage to be exposed to the searching love of the crucified and risen Lord who cannot be surprised by us or by anything the world can throw at him. This is the liberating power of Easter and resurrection: we look for God, for hope, for deep meaning in life and society … and we end up discovering that God has already found us … and spoken our name.

This is no faith that “fears to face the world around”, or “dulls my mind with easy thoughts of grace without a ground.”

I want to conclude with a verse from another song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday and in Wakefield Cathedral last night at the Easter Vigil. It takes seriously the reality of the world and our experience; but it looks to the future,  changed by life’s experiences – a pandemic and all that has happened in the last year, for example – and beckons God’s people, the followers of this same Jesus, to be surprised by joy:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the basic text of a sermon in Wakefield Cathedral at the Easter Vigil:

“Who will roll away the stone…?” (Mark 16:3)

It’s an entirely reasonable question in the circumstances. But, it is also quite revealing.

The three named women – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – will have spent the sabbath in empty agony. Jesus is dead and buried. The sabbath is not the day for visiting tombs or touching dead bodies; so, they must wait until the sabbath is over, the sun is shining on a new day, and they can resume their shocked grieving. They come early to the tomb of Jesus, expecting to find a corpse whose dignity will be honoured by being anointed in the usual way.

That’s the point. They expected to find a buried body. Everyone knows that when you are dead, you are dead. (And Professor Alice Roberts, President of Humanists UK, was surprisingly theologically orthodox when she tweeted yesterday that dead people do not come back to life. Christians strongly agree. We believe that “God raised Christ from the dead,” which is different.)

If we are to live this story and not just intellectually recall its drift, then we must inhabit the imagination of Mary and Mary and Salome. They came to the tomb expecting to find the body of Jesus. They didn’t pitch up with a sneaky suspicion that he might not be there. They didn’t predict the surprise that awaited them. They weren’t playing some game of emotional forgetfulness that then dissipated in the joy of resurrection.

In fact, what they encountered at the tomb didn’t fill them with unbridled joy; the message of resurrection, accompanied by the experience of a vacated grave, terrified them. Verse 8 tells us that “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Let’s just stick with this for a moment.

After I did Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4 yesterday morning (Good Friday), I quickly got an email from a woman who wrote: “A disappointing, wasted opportunity to share the story of the cruel, unjust crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday. I learnt more about Winston Churchill and R S Thomas than I did about why Jesus died and what it means to know him as my redeemer through his glorious rising on Easter Day.”

Apart from confusing the Today studio with a pulpit (and not understanding the medium), she also made the mistake of wanting to rush to Easter Day before having lived through Good Friday or the emptiness of Saturday. And we cannot begin to understand what the gospel is telling us unless we work hard imaginatively at living with the story as it unfolds – not knowing the ending.

I don’t wish to be too controversial, but it seems that we would be much more ‘biblical’ if we were to recognise that the resurrection was met not with joy and bubbles, but with terror and fear and amazement. The joy can come later when, to quote Luke’s account of the couple on the road to Emmaus, their journey and conversation with the risen Jesus – incognito at first – “their hearts burned within them” as Jesus re-framed the narrative that made his death a necessity rather than an error.

I venture to suggest that we might benefit as Christian disciples from staying with the text and what it describes before moving on too quickly. Which means watching these women as their world begins to shake beneath their feet.

On one group visit to the Land of the Holy One, we were taken to a convent in Nazareth where we descended some recently excavated steps down into the earth. At the bottom was a tomb with the door-stone rolled back. When it was excavated they found a mummified body of a bishop – suitably attired – keeping watch over what was, to him and his community, holy ground. It is thought this might have been the burial site of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Apparently, when they first opened the cavity, the smell of ointments and perfumes, kept sealed for centuries, wafted up and out. I still have the photographs I took of a real tomb with its stone removed.

Looking at it, I remember making sense of these women who made their way to the garden where Jesus had been buried, asking “Who will roll away the stone for us?” As I said, it is a perfectly reasonable question.

But, as they found themselves confronted by emptiness and alarm, they also discovered that Jesus cannot be imprisoned, manipulated or contained – by prejudices (about how the world is or why it is the way it is), by past experiences (death is the end of everything), by our sin and failures (of which we need little reminding), or even by death itself.

In fact, what these women find is that God has already found them. He has gone before them, brought order out of chaos, seeded new life out of death, a new beginning out of the ultimate of endings, a new future from the ashes of the past.

This, I think, is powerful for us in our world at this particular time. We need no reminding that the coronavirus pandemic has brought death and misery across the planet – caused in part by our careless exploitation of the planet as if it is ours and not that we are stewards of it. Every community will know the cost – in every sense – of the last year. And when we ask the entirely reasonable question “Who will roll the stone away for us?”, we will find ourselves challenged to think afresh – what the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann calls being “freshly faithful”.

You see, resurrection has become a useful metaphor for new life and hope – like bunnies and seeds and so on. But, to leave the resurrection there is to leave the stone unrolled. It is to lack either curiosity or seriousness. The resurrection is certainly not less than a metaphor for what, again, Brueggemann calls “newness after loss”; but, it is certainly much more than a metaphor. Something happened to Jesus, the disappointingly dead man.

Clearly, the Romans could have stopped the new and completely challenging Christian movement on day one – by producing the body. They didn’t. Is it really credible that the first friends of Jesus went through unimaginable struggle and suffering for what they knew to be a lie – if they had hidden the body? No, the women found an empty tomb; the men didn’t believe their story, so eventually saw for themselves; and the women became the first evangelists – quite fitting as they were the ones to stay with Jesus to the bitter end.

And what do they find? Jesus is the same, but different. Jesus knows them by name. Jesus bears the wound marks in his risen body. And, as the story develops, they find that it wasn’t just a grave stone that had been rolled away, but also their understanding – their assumptions – about God and the world and themselves.

This is why at the heart of the Christian faith is not some vague optimism about the future – no lazy or seductive ‘pie in the sky when you die’ crutch with which to navigate life. Nor is it some spiritualised faith that disconnects God from the material world and splits human being into compartmentalised bits. No. At the heart of the Christian faith is a real cross planted in a real rubbish tip outside the city walls … and an empty tomb that, if we can’t find an explanation, still cries out for a response.

At Easter we don’t just celebrate a ritual that makes us feel better when life is tough. Rather, we unashamedly and unapologetically plant ourselves with the friends of Jesus who, bewildered and maybe even afraid of the implications of all this stuff, offer the world a different way of seeing and believing and being. That is why we eventually sing alleluia. This is what makes sense of those people in the gospels – often disregarded women – who find in Jesus that they need not be imprisoned in their past, nailed to a reputation or fear that pins them down and traps them behind a stone. Here is life. Here is hope. And a community of Christians who have been grasped by grace and love and mercy has no option but, with a confident humility, to live it out in generosity, forgiveness, love and mercy towards our neighbours.

The Easter fire will not be put out. The Easter candle might sometimes flicker and fade, blown by the draughts and pressure changes around, but it will stand proud, bearing witness to the stubborn conviction that death does not have the last word after all.

What these women went on to experience was that this same Jesus, by his Spirit, empowered them for all that lay ahead. When in the Eucharist we proclaim: “The Lord is here, his spirit is with us!”, we are not just mimicking the old banner I saw in a photograph in Pravda many years ago – a banner hanging in a Soviet factory exhorting the proletariat to work harder at the five year plan: “Lenin is here; his spirit is with us” would have been the English translation. (Was it a promise or a threat, I wonder?) No, the Lord who is with us is the one we read about in the gospels, pouring himself out in love and mercy for broken people.

And this is why tonight, as we celebrate the rise of the Easter Son, we can bear the name of Christ with confidence and faith; for, as I have framed it many times before, we are not driven by fear, but drawn by hope.

The Czech Roman Catholic priest and professor of theology in Prague, Tomáš Halík, made the point recently in an address to clergy in the Wakefield Episcopal Area that the resurrection did not herald a return to how things were before crucifixion. The world has changed and so must we be changed and change … if we are to be faithful to the transformative power of the risen Christ.

As we emerge into a changed world, our hearts, minds and imaginations grasped by the haunting mystery of the resurrection, let us be faithful to the call of the risen Christ to walk with him and together into an uncertain future – just like the first Easter people.

I conclude with a verse from a song by John Bell – one I quoted to the clergy of the diocese on Maundy Thursday:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Winston Churchill is famous for many things and renowned for his way with words. It is a little ironic, then, that what I always associate him with is a brick wall.

If you go around the back of his house at Chartwell in Kent, there is a walled garden. One wall was built entirely by him as he tried to cope with the black dog, his deep depression. The first time I saw this wall I wondered: why a wall?

Well, it struck me eventually that if you are building a wall in solitude – and remember there would have been silence rather than the ubiquitous noise and talk and music we carry around with us today – you have to stop thinking about other things, focus on one point, and pay attention to detail. It slows you down, narrows the focus for a time, shuts out the distractions that can debilitate a fragile mind. You have to look and stare and coordinate hand with eye and material stuff.

Silence and paying attention to one thing.

Around the world today, Good Friday, Christians will contemplate the events and meaning of the day when Jesus, having celebrated a final meal with his friends – a meal, ironically, heralding liberation – is brought to trial before an imperial governor. It is clear where power lies in such an encounter. Yet, Jesus remains silent in the face of questioning and, subsequently, goes to his execution.

Betrayed, denied and deserted by his close friends, he suffers in silence. Today many Christians will sit in front of a wooden cross and, in unhurried silence, look at the wood, recall the events of the first Good Friday, and let their imagination run while the questions are fed by the mystery of meaning.

But, this is no idle staring at some material idol. Rather, it is the quiet space in which we refuse to fill the gaps with noise or words, decline to run away from the agonising reality of human suffering, resist the powerful urge to avoid the pain. Contemplation of the cross is no empty escapism; in fact, it is the opposite.

The Welsh poet RS Thomas, in his poem The Letter, writes: “I gaze myself into accepting that to pray true is to say nothing.” This is the same poet who once wrote: “History showed us / He was too big to be nailed to the wall of a stone chapel, yet still we crammed him between the boards of a black book.”

Today’s gazing and silence creates a unique space in which, coloured by the story in the gospel books, I can face the realities of a fragile world, own the undeserved suffering of too many people, and refuse to give in to easy answers.

This is the basic text of my Maundy Thursday sermon in Bradford Cathedral and streamed for the clergy and lay ministers of the Diocese of Leeds:

“Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1)

We do not lose heart. Good for Paul.

But, what if we do? What if mood or circumstance or experience close down our horizons and dim the lights of love and vocation? What if the exigencies of the last year have ground us down and diluted our confidence? What if we are no longer sure how to do our ministry when the ground has moved and the familiar ways don’t work any longer?

Do we carry on pretending, in the hope that things will improve? Or that my mood will change when the sun comes out and the trees begin to blossom? Or that God will do a miracle and transform my personality and make everything OK again? (I remember when I was younger thinking that this is exactly what God had done to me; but, it turned out to be the steroids.)

Well, I recently had a conversation with someone I hadn’t met before who challenged my contention that what we need in these strange and testing times is hope and not optimism. Optimism assumes that things will get better – often despite all the evidence; whereas hope draws us through the reality, however good or bad that might actually prove to be. I think the challenge was around whether that hope ought to be showing a bit more brightness (optimism) – an upbeat vision for the future. I will return to this shortly, but it is a challenge I have thought about a lot since the conversation.

Because I think this goes to the heart of where we are as a church – and as clergy and lay leaders – emerging from a dreadful year of lockdowns, isolation, tragedies and loss. Without warning, we have had to adapt practices, invent new rituals, create community using unfamiliar media, try to shape a changed workload – especially when the normal means for exercising pastoral care have collapsed. It has reminded me of my feeling as a parish priest that if I were to have a slogan or motto, if would be in three-foot high letters around my study wall and would say – confidently – “Everything you do is wrong!”

I wasn’t being miserable. It’s just that if I visited one person, then I wasn’t visiting a couple of hundred others, and, to someone’s mind, I will have made the wrong choice. In ministry we get used to having to set priorities in pastoral care that might always prove to be the wrong ones. But, we get on with the job anyway, despite a lack of certainty regarding our choices.

And this last year has demanded of our churches and ministers an exhausting willingness to change, innovate, limit and expand – and all without any certainty that we are, in fact, getting it right.

Did some of us feel overwhelmed by the new demands? Yes. Did others among us look at our neighbour’s creative enthusiasms and feel inadequate (not least, technologically)? Certainly. Did some use lockdowns as an excuse for laziness? Possibly. Did others become manically activist and hide the fear behind new initiatives or organisation? Probably. Did some feel paralysed by insecurity or dread of being seen to fail? Inevitably. And did some look at their neighbour’s weakness and compare themselves accordingly? Maybe.

And that is all OK. If that complex of reactions is the reality, then that’s what we will deal with. But, how might we think about all this on this day, as we sit with Jesus and his friends as they rehearse their foundational story and celebrate the liberation of his people in the Exodus? How are we to think about our re-commitment to our vows as ordained clergy or our commissioning as lay leaders and disciples of this same Jesus?

(I am conscious today that we celebrate this service in communion with our sisters and brothers in very different contexts across the globe, particularly in Sudan, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the USA, Germany and Sweden. The contexts might differ, but the commitment is the same.)

Luke 22:24-30

Jesus has come with his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. Their minds are full of hope that the liberation of God’s people, celebrated in this meal, might now – this year – be incarnated afresh as Jesus leads the expulsion of the Roman blasphemers, heralding the return of God among them. They have been praying for several hundred years for this moment, repeatedly being let down by would-be messiahs who promised much, but always delivered only disillusionment. Yet, now, what Jesus had spoken of as the “Kingdom of God” was imminent – something to be anticipated and celebrated. Spirits are high.

Yet, here, in this upper room, Jesus is surrounded by people who have missed the point and argue about their status. For one of them, Judas, Jesus is not going about things in the right way and his hand is going to have to be forced. No doubting Judas’s passion for the kingdom of God or his personal commitment to seeing it realised. Another of them has a self-image that is illusory and deceptive: Peter might think he is made of granite, but will soon discover that his rock is actually leaky limestone.

Betrayal, denial, illusion, optimism. All are there in that room.

It’s the loneliness of Jesus that gets me.

Yet, what Jesus does is take a longer-term view. He re-frames the story of Israel’s liberation, knowing that his friends don’t quite get it. Broken bread and wine outpoured will one day make a different sense for them, but not just now. Jesus isn’t trapped in the ‘now’ to the extent that he can’t see the way forward. He knows also that things said and done now will, when circumstances have changed, complete a picture. A bit like when you look at one of those 3-D images that look like a mess until your eyes re-focus and you suddenly see the dinosaur looking out at you.

In other words, and translating this to our context, being a minister or leader in the name and image of the Christ whose name we bear means seeing beyond the moment, looking into an uncertain future, but knowing that re-telling the story, re-framing the narrative, adding different colours to the picture, might only make sense later. Our job is to look further and deeper and to tell the truth that goes beyond fear.

Terry Eagleton, the Roman Catholic Marxist philosopher, literary theorist and theologian, in his book Hope Without Optimism glosses St Augustine as follows: “There is no love without hope, no hope without love, and neither hope nor love without faith.” (p.41)

You see the point? We articulate hope because we love the people we serve, and we do all this in faith because the world is uncertain and people are a mystery.

At this Passover meal Jesus strips everything back to its essentials, conscious of the contradictions and limitations of the people with him, then goes out to pray as events take their tragic course. Which suggests that our task is also to articulate the heart of the gospel, expose ourselves I prayer to the God who has no illusions about the nature of the rock from which we are hewn, and then face events with faith and love and courage. Even with hope.

2 Corinthians 3:17-4:12

This is why Paul can confidently urge the Christians in Corinth to hold mercy and encouragement together. “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” We will not be discouraged because each of us knows that our ministry is rooted in the mercy of the God who knows us, and that this mercy has to be experienced before it can be shared.

And what is this ministry of which Paul writes so passionately? Well, he speaks in chapter 2 of “proclaiming the good news of Christ.” He goes on to tell us that we are the “aroma of Christ to God”. We are a “letter, to be known and read by all” – “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit”. (3:6)

This vocation has not changed from Corinth to now. Paul writes passionately about his sufferings and chides the Corinthians for their fickleness, desertion and easy distraction. In other words, he walks in the shoes of the Jesus he serves … in being surrounded by people like you and me and Judas and Peter and all the rest of them. His world is one of uncertainty and fear. His own mortality was ever before him and he demonstrates in this painful letter the real impact on himself of the pressure to adapt, innovate, move on and drive mission, despite the poverty of the tools he had to implement his task.

Does this sound familiar? It should do.

As Paul goes on to note, the treasure of the glory of God is contained in clay jars. After this last year we need no reminder of our limitations and fragilities. But, we also find ourselves re-orientated towards the glory rather than the clay. We fix our eyes on the glory of God and the promise of the good news of Jesus Christ, empowered by that same Spirit that breathes and blows through the chaos of creation bringing order and life.

As spring has brought sunshine and warmth, and as restrictions have been relaxed and people congregated in parks to leave their rubbish in heaps, people in our communities are grasping at optimism and cheerfulness. The vaccines are working their scientific magic and people are booking holidays in the summer. The world feels a bit brighter and shouldn’t we all be joining in and talking it up?

Well, maybe. But, for us as clergy and lay leaders – all of us followers of the Jesus who went to a cross and bore the wound marks in his resurrected body – we are called to a deeper task: to be both realistic and hopeful, courageous and cautious, and to navigate the changing territory with faith, hope and love. If everything opens up, we will not aim simply to go back to how it was in early 2020; and if we face further lockdowns, we won’t be knocked off course, but will adapt again. For our vocation is not to tick boxes or hibernate until the ‘normal’ resumes, but, rather, to navigate reality and create new norms – ones of faith and hope and love … whatever the circumstances that shape our every day.

I guess that what I am commending is what Walter Brueggemann calls “a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways”. (Virus as a Summons to Faith) Freshly faithful among a people whose strength lies in what the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka called “the solidarity of the broken”.

This is why we now need to open our churches and consider how they can be a locus of hope and joy for our communities, not just our congregations. The need for joyful evangelism has never been greater. One day soon we shall be able to sing again; and when we do, we need to offer vocabularies for all the questions, lamentations, hopes and fears, aspirations and meditations that lead us to open our hearts and voices to the God of mercy who has engaged us in this ministry.

Thank you for all your service in the last year. Thank you for being colleagues and not competitors – the very message Jesus was trying to get through the skulls of his friends. Thank you for your patience and longsuffering. Thank you for ordering pastoral care and for kindling the flames of theological and spiritual hope. Thank you for praying when words have failed; for burying the dead when you couldn’t do justice to the bereaved; for living with criticism and a sense of failure, but with conviction and determination. Thank you for keeping people connected, for sacrificing much in order to love your neighbour through this curse of a public health disaster. Thank you for holding out a confident joy in times of stress and struggle.

We are not out of the woods yet. When we do finally emerge, the world – and the church – will be different. And this is a glorious opportunity to take stock, let go, newly embrace, innovate, negotiate, navigate and shape a different future. This is our vocation now, and we are in it together. No shame, no fear.

For “since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or, as John Bell put it in a song I quoted at this service in 2019 – the last time we met together in one place:

Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,

Sing when night refuses rest,

Sing though death should mock the future:

What’s to come by God is blessed.

Amen.

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show with Dermot O’Leary standing in for Zoe Ball.

If you have a thing about round numbers and anniversaries, then today is going to have you shouting bingo out of the window.

150 years ago today the Royal Albert Hall was opened in London – ten years after the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, and a visible expression of her grief. It’s a reminder of the fact that grief is a process and not an event.

I’m glad she decided to honour Albert in this way because when I lived in London for eleven years I always went to Jools Holland’s gigs there and they are unforgettable. Just like the said Albert.

But, Victoria’s grief speaks to us today because it recognises that loss has to be marked. This wretched pandemic has cost the lives of nearly 130,000 people – and that represents a lot of hurt and pain and mourning. Our ability to mark this has been limited, of course, because of all the restrictions.

Grief can’t be “defeated” like an enemy. It has to be lived with, gone through and accommodated, knowing that it is an unavoidable consequence of love.

In a beautiful song about this sort of stuff, the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn wrote: “Each one’s loss is everyone’s loss, you see; each one lost is a vital part of you and me.”

This week for Christians is called Holy Week. We follow Jesus and his friends as the tensions grow, the emotions get fired up, and a cross is planted in a rubbish tip called Calvary. You can read it in the gospels. There is no romance or wishful thinking, no bargains with God for an easy life or an exemption from suffering. The utter realism of Jesus – although, to be honest, his friends weren’t quite on the same page – is striking. He grieved his own impending loss and tried to prepare his friends for their own grief and how to navigate it.

And what did he urge them to do? To love one another, to wash the feet of the undeserving, to recognise that we belong together.

At the end of it all is love and mercy. And that is where the healing begins.

This is the text of a Presidential Address I gave to the Leeds Diocesan Synod this morning via Zoom.

Eighteenth Diocesan Synod, Saturday 13 March 2021

Sometimes there is no ending. We are just left hanging there, wondering what happens next and who might be responsible for deciding.

Think of Jonah who tries to run from a God in whom he believes, but whom he also resents for maintaining an inconvenient generosity towards dodgy people. The prophet, in hiding from the God who calls him to a personally uncomfortable ministry, finds himself vomited onto a beach and into a reluctant agreement to obey the call to preach repentance and mercy to a recalcitrant people in Nineveh. He does the bare minimum and retreats from the market square to lick his spiritual wounds while, to his horror, the people actually do repent and change their ways. Why can’t God be more like him and feel justified venom towards the sinning people? Why can’t God be just and consistent and blow these people away? (Echoes of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son?)

He finds himself taking shelter under a tree … which God then causes to shrivel and die, exposing Jonah to the wild sun. Why, asks God, should I not also be free to forgive and set free the people I love anyway? It is about grace. And Jonah the prophet doesn’t like grace when applied to the wrong people – though he wants it for himself.

And then the story ends. What did Jonah do next? What happened – did he get converted? We don’t know. Some biblical academics have suggested that the ending is missing. I tend to agree with the scholars who have concluded that the story deliberately ends there – leaving the reader hanging – because it compels us to use our own imagination and see whether the ending we imagine (or would like) is faithful to the character of Jonah or the character of God.

We could look elsewhere in the Bible and find other cases of (what I sadly might call) endinglessness. Poor Moses, having endured the miserable behaviour and ingratitude of his own liberated people, meets his own end on the edge of getting his reward – leading the people into the Land of Promise. Jeremiah, faithful despite his own misery, disappears into exile and silence. The ending of Mark’s gospel is, according to some scholars, missing. People bump into and glance off Jesus, and we don’t know what happened next: did the rich young man ever come back and say, “OK, I’ve got rid of my securities; now can I come with you?”

But, the people of God, who have been grasped by grace and captured by love, are not dependent on the endings or the ends being tied up. We can live with uncertainty and without fear in the conviction that an ending is the gateway to a new beginning. As Easter will demonstrate, the death and loss of Good Friday do not spell the end of the story; but, Sunday won’t come before we have walked through Friday and the emptiness of Saturday. And that means leaving stuff behind.

Now, this is supposed to be a presidential address to a synod, not a sermon. But, the business of our agenda today, as we deliberate together in grace and love, avoiding either nostalgia or wishful thinking, has to be rooted in a biblical theology that helps us imagine our own future. And that means taking seriously the context in which we meet and do our work together.

The Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, decades before any pandemic erupted on the world, encouraged the church to be bold in rejecting the dominant narratives of what he calls the empire – those assumptions that explain why the world is the way it appears to be, and insists that everybody thinks the same way. He urges Christians to “re-describe reality” in order for us then to re-orientate towards a different future. That is to say, we don’t accept that today is the end or that death and fear have the last word in this world. We refuse to accept that people are economic cogs whose major function is to consume material stuff in the hope of clouding out the questions about meaning and value. We decline the pressure to think that competition over vaccines is either noble or good. What does “world-beating” imply?

In other words, we are called back to discover the grace of God amid the moral and material complexities of being human in today’s world. Like Jesus looking out from his cross, we look reality in the eye and don’t claim any exemption from the cost of grace and love. We certainly don’t look out in order to claim ownership of the territory from the one on that cross who is there precisely for having given up claims in the interests of love.

This morning we will spend time asking about our experience of a year of lockdowns and pandemic. We will have an opportunity to speak and think honestly about what that experience (and how we think about it) has – or ought to – change us. In his excellent little book Virus as a Summons to Faith Brueggemann writes of Jeremiah: “… the prophetic promise does not intend a return to ‘the good old days’ or a restoration of a previous … arrangement … [It] rather intends a return to the land of promise that will be ordered, organised and lived out in freshly faithful ways.”

In other words, as we confer together the question we face is this: are we open to a future – and an ordering of that future – in which our relationship with one another in the Body of Christ is the holding context and content, and not a fixation on our pet securities, nostalgias or inherited models? Freshly faithful.

Therefore, we join together in considering our future, cognisant of our faithfulness to the past and the biblical narrative of courageous leaving and journeying. The biblical story has not changed, but we might gain fresh insight from our new experience. As I wrote to the clergy at the beginning of the first lockdown last year, having our diaries destroyed has allowed us to inhabit something of the normal life of people in some of our partner/link dioceses in places like Sudan, Tanzania and Pakistan. So, what can we learn? How can we change?

Or, in the quadrant of questions I suggested as a simple framework for planning ahead post-pandemic, (a) what have we lost that needs to stay lost? (b) what has been lost that we need to regain? (c) what have we gained that was OK for this time, but needs to be lost? (d) what have we gained that must be retained and built upon if we are to be freshly faithful?

Across the Diocese of Leeds we will have different perspectives and have enjoyed or endured varying experiences during the last year. But, we now find ourselves moving towards a re-emergence and an honest evaluation of how we might be in and for the future. And we do this not with fear, but with hope, determination and generosity. The pandemic is not the end. The challenge to our churches, not least financially, is not the end. The loss of some familiar routines or practices is not the end. As I have said many times, you can’t argue with reality. But, we needn’t be cowed by reality. Because, as Brueggemann says, we are called to reframe reality – to find ways and words to tell a different story, to read our present circumstances differently, through the eyes of a God who is faithful. Working hard at this will help us in our own churches and communities to live, worship and serve as people of hope and people of joy.

Joy? Really? Yes, unequivocally. Because Christians are not surprised by fear or mortality or uncertainty. They are the raw stuff of Christian living and thinking and praying. For our trust is in the person of a faithful God, not in the outworking of a formula or a convenient bargain with God that ensures our own security.

Our diocese has a strategy derived from three one-word values. Loving Living Learning is not a trite slogan designed to make us feel better. But, our deliberations need to be infused with love (for God, the Gospel, and the creation that is loved by God); with an incarnational commitment to the world as it is, but drawn by a vision (of the Kingdom of God) that comes to us from the resurrection future; with the humility that comes from recognising our fallibility, failings and blindnesses, and sees learning as a virtue and not a weakness.

And what might this look like if we embody these three values? Well, when we come to think about the post-COVID future, we will do so with mercy, humility and love. When we consider the well-being of clergy (which is not in contradistinction to the well-being of lay people), we will look with generosity and hope and not be defensive about where we might have mixed experiences of them. Matters pertaining to the DAC and quinquennial inspections bring these values down to concrete reality: how do we steward the resources God has given us? However we feel about the hard questions of sexuality and identity, will we approach LLF with the humility that allows us to encounter others, listen genuinely, learn from … even if we don’t agree with the conclusions others draw?

It’s a bit like when people say “I love everyone” or “I love the whole world”, but really struggle to love the awkward so-and-so next to me. I call us back to a simple truth: that Jesus did the calling of his disciples and their witness was to follow Jesus together despite their differences of personality, experience and vision. No one was given a veto over who else Jesus could invite on the journey. One of the glories and gifts of Anglicanism is the fact that we are thrown together with other Anglicans, regardless of whether I approve of them or not. That is what deanery synods and clergy chapters are for.

I need to conclude. The days ahead are full of opportunities, some of which we wouldn’t have invited and which we don’t welcome. But, they are the gift we are given, however uncomfortable. The days ahead are full of challenge. But, when has the church (or the human race in any generation) not faced unprecedented challenges? The days ahead are full of promise – the promise of God to be faithful (the “steadfast love” that Brueggemann translates as “tenacious solidarity”) as we seek to be faithful to our vocation as a church in and for England.

I do not know what the future holds. But, I do know we can face it together as the gift that God has given for this generation. We can be confident with humility, creative with fidelity to our story, and merciful as we make decisions of which we might be unsure. In the end, we seek to be the people who answer the prayer we say every day: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

Amen. Let’s get to it.

13 March 2021