Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Lent – Choral Evensong Sunday 15 March 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Our Lenten topic this evening is the fourth question from the baptismal ‘Commission’: ‘Will you seek and serve Christ in all people, loving your neighbour as yourself?’
The service of others is a test of true Christianity. The letter of James reminds us of this to the great discomfort of protestant gnostics who claim to stand for truth but despise practical love. The Catholic faith is, distinctively, about the materiality of our lives, and theological arguments about faith and works have too often obscured that fact. Anglican Catholics, especially, have stood for the incarnation as the heart of the Gospel. If that is true, then love of others, and proper love of the self, too, are essential to living a Christian life, and insisted upon by Catholic tradition.
One of the greatest of our forebears in the faith, Bishop Frank Weston, a fearless defender of orthodoxy, and also a practical missionary bishop, concluded the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923, arguably the high point of our movement within the Church of England, with an address which has never been forgotten. You will have heard this before, but it nails this evening’s topic so completely for Christians of our tradition that it bears repetition.
Weston’s concern was that we should never be self-regarding or self-congratulatory in the restoration of Catholic practices: the proper love of the self must not degenerate into narcissism.
He saw the true connection between the materiality of the sacraments and the necessary service of the poor. Some of those he identified as poor and exploited are less present in modern Britain than in his day (though others, sadly have taken their place, in the criminality of human trafficking and child-abuse), but all of them are present in the global economy from which we benefit. This address was a seminal moment in our shared history in the faith and, sadly, it has not dated:
I want you first to listen to the call of the Christ of Bethlehem, eternal God made Man for you, made Man for me, Jesus the Babe of Bethlehem. I want you to listen to him as he leaps from the Father’s Throne across the gulf that separates the Creator from creation, across the gulf that separates holiness from sin. Listen to him as he leaps that gulf and appears in human form amongst us men. Listen to him as he speaks to you: By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples if ye have love one to the other. I recall you to the Christ of Bethlehem and I suggest to you, as I suggest to myself, that it is our present duty to return into our own parishes and into our own dioceses and to see whether it is not possible to work out there the problems in the solving of which we seem to lose our love and to care only for ourselves. …I recall you to Jesus of Bethlehem.
I recall you […] to the Christ of the Blessed Sacrament. …the one great thing that England needs to learn is that Christ is found in and amid matter—Spirit through matter—God in flesh, God in the Sacrament. But I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.
Now mark that—this is the Gospel truth. If you are prepared to say that the Anglo-Catholic is at perfect liberty to rake in all the money he can get no matter what the wages are that are paid, no matter what the conditions are under which people work; if you say that the Anglo-Catholic has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the levels of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. You have begun with the Christ of Bethlehem, you have gone on to know something of the Christ of Calvary—but the Christ of the Sacrament, not yet. … I am not talking economics, I do not understand them. I am not talking politics, I do not understand them. I am talking the Gospel, and I say to you this: If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly—it is madness—to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.
There then, as I conceive it, is your present duty; and I beg you, brethren, as you love the Lord Jesus, consider that it is at least possible that this is the new light that the Congress was to bring to us. You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.
I commend the whole address to you. It was entitled ‘Our present duty’ and you can find it at: http://anglicanhistory.org/weston/weston2.html.