Sunday Sermons

King’s Lynn Minster

Sunday 24th January 2021 – The Conversion of St Paul

Brother Gilbert Rowntree, OC

In the Church’s Calendar, at this time, we are in what is called the Season of the Epiphany. And the theme of all of the Sundays in this time is the same. It is how God reveals himself to his people.  Our God, who so often can seem hidden and silent, is demonstrated in our Sunday readings. He is shown to be not absent at all. Through these stories we hear that he does in fact reveal his presence in many ways.

The season gets off to a beautifully magical start with the Infant Christ being revealed to travellers from afar - the Magi - the Wise Men - the Kings - whatever you want to call them.  On the following Sunday we hear the account of Our Lord’s Baptism and this too is a very dramatic story. For as he comes out of the water the Gospel tells us that the heavens are ripped apart. A startling phrase. They are ripped apart to reveal God’s love as he speaks of his Son, his Beloved. An echo of what is to come at the other end of Christ’s ministry when the Temple curtain is similarly ripped apart as he died upon the Cross.

And then, in this present season - on the next Sundays - we hear further stories that develop this theme through equal drama: the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana and the calling of the first disciples. Each and every one is a tale that enlivens our imagination, that captivates us with what it describes and what it has to say. And, above all, tells us that when we look at Jesus, we see God.

It is one of those divine coincidences that in the middle of this very season we have this Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, which we celebrate today.  For, if you are looking for a dramatic story; a dramatic story that God uses to reveal himself, then here is one to match everything else.  We heard it related to us in our first reading.  This violent enemy of God’s own people suddenly thrown to the ground and surprisingly (out of the blue) being privileged to hear the very voice of Jesus. “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  And simply. dramatically, in one instant, Saul’s life is turned on its head.  Through Our Lord revealing himself to him, he is converted, turned about, and on his path to sanctity and holiness.

The story of Paul, as Saul became, his life as reflected both in the Book of the Acts and through his own words in his Letters, they reveal that this was a rather complex character.  Importantly he had great leadership qualities and enthusiasm; just what the early Church needed.  He was confident. He could write sublime theology.  But he was also clearly perhaps what we might call a difficult man.  Not an easy character.

He used argument and dispute to rock the early Christian boat. He fell out with friends and stamped off in what seems to be a bit of a temper.  He complained if he felt things were going the wrong way.  He often uses emotional blackmail to get his point across. And his employment of passive aggressive techniques is matchless.  He revelled in confrontation. But, of course, he got the job done - the job God had especially designed just for him - what we call a vocation. 

The Kingdom grew and flourished and took its first steps after Christ - its first steps on its journey to fill the world.  And Paul’s part in that is equally matchless.

God’s ways always startle us. And God’s call does too. He often uses the most unlikely of people and often the most unlikely of situations through which to reveal himself. You may remember the words of Nathanael in last weeks’ Gospel: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can God really have revealed himself in a carpenter’s son from a tiny village in the back of beyond?

It is an undoubted truth for we Christians that our God almost always uses the unexpected and the surprising. And just when we think we may have found him in our lives, he taps us on the shoulder and leads us off in the opposite direction. Perhaps even taking steps that we would rather not take at all.

People often ask Christians about the supposed absence of their loving God.  When extreme suffering or disaster or violence occur, as they frequently do, a response is demanded of us.  “Where is your God?” And you don’t need me to tell you that that is such a difficult question to answer.  And even though we believe totally in the presence of God and in his love, how that is revealed and played out sometimes puzzles or even defeats us.  None of us is an expert in hearing God. We have to place ourselves in his way and then, hopefully, suddenly, we will see him and understand the point that he is trying to make in our lives and in our world. And so we place ourselves just as we are - in the present moment - in prayer.  Opening our eyes and our ears and our hearts in prayer. Staying still. Waiting. Waiting for the still small voice that sounds almost noiselessly. 

And as members of the Church, as we are, if you want some dramatic revelation then just watch what God’s priest does with a little piece of bread and a small cup of wine.

Amen.

 

 

King’s Lynn Minster

Sunday 10th January 2021 – The Baptism of Christ

The Revd Angela Rayner

 

I wonder how you decide when to take down your Christmas decorations, and when Christmas is over? In our home, we have the discussion every year; do we leave them until Candlemas in February or take them down on the 5th of January? Can you spot the problem with taking everything down on the 5th ...? Don’t we have visitors still on their way to the manger! At Epiphany, on the 6th, we observe the Magi, bringing their gifts to Jesus. And if they arrive, and find no baby, and everything packed away, they cannot deliver the gifts.

Epiphany becomes like the wedding without enough wine! And so, if you do take down the tree, and the tinsel, maybe consider keeping a Nativity, so the Magi can pay their homage. Time will move on fast enough, and we need to hang on to fragments of joy for as long as we can right now.

This week, we’ve quickly moved from the Manger to the Magi to the River Jordan. Christians in the East originally celebrated Jesus’ baptism and the Wedding at Cana at Epiphany. But Roman Christians, when they began keeping the feast, emphasized the Magi’s arrival. Remember, last week, we celebrated their arrival in Bethlehem and blessed their gifts. And so, we follow the pattern of the Roman Church, observing Jesus’ baptism the week after, and next week, the Wedding at Cana.

These feasts have become entangled because they celebrate the same thing. The Magi come to pay homage to the baby Jesus, to God incarnate. But at

Jesus’ baptism, we hear the voice of the Father, we see Jesus himself, and we observe the Holy Spirit, descending, like a dove. And we pay homage, to God

incarnate. Through Jesus’ birth and through his baptism, we are drawn into God’s life.

But Jesus’ baptism poses a question. Why was he baptised? Why are any of us baptised? Through baptism, we are received into the Church, released from

sin, sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and given entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. But Jesus didn’t need receiving into the Church; he was born as Head of the

church. He didn’t need to be released from sin or sanctified by the Spirit; he was free from all sin. And he didn’t need to be given entry into the Kingdom of

Heaven, for he brought that Kingdom into being. Why did Jesus ask to be baptised? It’s a mystery.

But we heard a clue in Acts. As St Paul was strolling through Ephesus, he came across some disciples. He asked whether they’d received the Holy Spirit when

they’d become believers. “No!” they replied, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”. Oh dear! It’s like when you have a conversation with a

friend about somebody, and realise half-way through that you’ve been talking about different people… St Paul saw they’d received John’s baptism, but it was

not the baptism of the church. It was a prototype! And so Paul baptised them in Jesus’ name, through the Spirit. Notice how he laid his hands on them; he

Baptises and Confirms them at the same time. But, are we any closer to understanding why Jesus asked to be baptised?

When Jesus was baptised, He also received John’s baptism. He was not baptised into the Church as we are. But St Paul also says “John baptised with

the baptism of repentance”. And we know Jesus didn’t need to repent! Why then? St Thomas Aquinas thinks Jesus was baptised for three reasons: to set

an example for us. We follow in the footsteps of our Saviour. Also, Jesus wanted to show that he approved the actions of John the Baptist. The prophet

had fulfilled God’s promises. But the most important reason for Jesus’ baptism by John, was to cleanse the waters. “The coming of the Holy Spirit at

Jesus’ baptism gave baptism the power to do what John had originally intended”. And everybody watched. The heavens were torn open, the voice

came down, and the Spirit descended. You couldn’t have missed it! Baptism is imbued with the power of Almighty God.

How is Jesus’ baptism relevant for us? Perhaps his reasons for being baptised might be important to us too. If he was baptised and didn’t need it, how much

more must we who need it, encourage one another to be baptised, or be confirmed. We can show our approval of baptism, like Jesus! One way is to

mark the anniversaries of our baptisms, and those of our friends and relatives. Do we know what date we were baptised? If not, let’s find out, together!

This day, the day of Christ’s baptism, is one on which we renew our baptismal vows. We are not able to splash by the font together, but later, when the

water is dispensed, we can make the sign of the cross, like this:

Put two fingers and a thumb together.

Touch the top of our heads. (In the name of the Father)

Touch the middle of our chests. (And of the Son)

Touch left, and right. (And of the Holy Spirit)

“The Sign of the Cross is specially connected to baptism. We trace it on people’s forehead before baptism, as a sign that their lives have been

redeemed by Christ on the cross”. “Whenever we make this sign, we renew our baptismal promises.” Making the sign of the cross, then, is encouraged by

the Church of England as a way to integrate our souls and bodies with Christ’s, and to remember our baptism. You might hear people speak of body posture

during mindfulness or yoga. The sign of the cross is one of the ways in which Christians embrace our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit.

The renewal of the vows made for us at baptism is crucial. It matters so much at a time when we cannot be together. For it reminds us that we are still

Christians. We are still Christians, even when we cannot gather in our church buildings. And because we are baptised, we can make our homes into

domestic churches. We can build small prayer corners, add candles, pictures or icons. We can make places within our homes where we can stop, pray, make

Amen.

 

King’s Lynn Minster

Sunday 3rd January 2021 – Epiphany

Andrew Ward, Lay Reader

Most people, whether they attend church or not, will be all too familiar with the story of the Magi, who are often referred to as the 3 kings or the 3 wise men. They form part of the Nativity story and most people will tell you that when they were at primary school they played the part of……Joseph perhaps, or Mary or a shepherd, or maybe they will tell you that as a baby they played the starring role and they appeared on stage as baby Jesus! Others will tell their memory of being a shepherd, an angel or one of the 3 kings. We tend to treat the coming of the Magi as part of the Christmas story, (which of course it is), but the church treats it as a separate occasion and remembers the journey and arrival of the Magi at the beginning of January on what we call Epiphany. My memory of taking part in the Nativity at school was that of being a narrator, while my brother got to dress up in dressing gown and tea towel. How unfair was that? Whatever our Nativity play experience, we learnt about the Magi or wise men when we were young. Coincidentally it just so happens that the narration that I gave at that Nativity play was taken from the words of today’s Gospel reading!

It may well be that, like me, your experience of celebrating Epiphany has been good. Please join me right now as you watch me from home, as I go back a few decades, back to when I was four years old, dressed in white, holding a shiny incense boat. Next to me the server with the thurible guides me in festal procession to the back of the church, behind us the choir singing: ‘From the Eastern Mountains’, and behind them three priests dressed regally in processional copes, each one carrying a Nativity figure of one of the wise men.

From the eastern mountains

Pressing on they come,

Wise men in their wisdom

To his humble home;

Stirred by deep devotion,

Hasting from afar,

Ever journeying onward,

Guided by a star

Please stay with me as I continue to remember being a 4 year old …….

Then, feeling the cold January air, as I stand wondering what will happen next, the hymn stops and, with great solemnity, amid clouds of incense each priest steps forward and the figures of the Magi are placed in the crib and censed. As in the school Nativity play these are the final members of the cast to enter the Nativity stage. The paused hymn continues and the procession returns to the chancel, leaving the Magi to pay homage to the Babe of Bethlehem.

I know the story of the Magi so well, although what is actually written in the Bible differs somewhat from what we have learnt about the wise men over time. The story of the wise men only occurs in Matthew.

The wise men, or Magi, become 3 kings named Caspar from India, Melchior from Persia and Balthazar from Arabia. These names come from a Greek manuscript dated 500 AD and cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. Despite these things there is no reason at all to doubt the authenticity of the story of the wise men and their significance. For significant they are!

This is Epiphany, and perhaps we have grown so accustomed to Epiphany being the day when the church remembers the coming of the Magi that we forget to stop and reflect on the general meaning of the word. Epiphany. An epiphany.

An epiphany is an experience of a sudden and striking realisation. It might be a religious experience, but it could refer to any subject. A grasp of reality or a discovery or an understanding or meaning.

The Epiphany that we celebrate today is that of the Magi. They followed the star and in finding the baby in the manger their epiphany is the revelation of the incarnation of Christ. They will never be the same again. They will be changed forever by this encounter.

And what about the meaning of these gifts? Gold, frankincense and myrrh? If you remember the Nativity story I think there’s a good chance that you will also remember learning that the gifts had a significance, gold indicates that Jesus is a King, Frankincense shows that he has a priestly role and Myrrh, used in embalming prefigured his early death. A verse in the hymn ‘Bethlehem of Noblest Cities’ sums it up beautifully:

Solemn things of mystic meaning:

Incense doth the God disclose,

Gold a royal child proclaimeth,

Myrrh a future tomb foreshows.

They appear seemingly from nowhere, it’s easy to get that impression, as though they simply complete the story that we know so well. Shepherds, angels, innkeeper’s family, Jesus’ family then wise men. But they were predicted long ago! In the Gospel passage we are reminded that the prophet Micah declared that a ruler from Bethlehem would ‘shepherd my people Israel’. Matthew, in his Gospel, continually makes reference to the Old Testament, keen to show that the new was born from the old.

Matthew’s story is influenced by the prophesy of Isaiah, who says: ‘Nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Herds of camels will cover your land’ and ‘…will come bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.’

And in Psalm 72: we learn that ‘the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts, may all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him.’

Long, long ago and deeply rooted in the writings of the Israel, it was known that the Magi would come with gifts and offer praise to the Lord.

And not only does the coming of the Magi indicate the importance of the Jews in the story of Jesus, these visitor from afar represent Gentiles. Now everybody is included and is part of the story. St Paul tells us in Ephesians:

‘the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body’.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, Bow down before him his

glory proclaim; With old of obedience and incense of lowliness, Kneel

and adore him, the Lord is his name.

Thanks be to God.