Lent 5 - Towards the Passion

A sermon preached by the Revd Ivo Morshead at St George's Church, Sunday 17 March 2013

Is 43 v 16-21. Phil 3 v 4b-14. John 12 v 1-8

Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Phil 4 v 13-14

Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward, such are the words that Paul writes about himself in the epistle selected for this Fifth Sunday in lent known as Passion Sunday. The word Passion is derived from the Latin passio the meaning of which is to suffer. The choice of title is to direct our minds forward to events of the coming two weeks that in the liturgical calendar lead us through the suffering of the Cross to the glory of the Resurrection at Easter.

The word passion in common parlance is to feel strongly. I heard a politician on Monday on the radio stating her passion for fair play for the poor in spite of the coming cuts in benefits, every love story is full of passion expessing the strong feeling between lovers. Today however, we are directed by the lessons and Gospel especially to concentrate our minds on the events that will unfold liturgically over the next two weeks of Passion-tide. During this period the visible aid to remembrance of a special time is the veiling of the ornaments and crosses all around the church . In the Middle Ages the custom was to have unbleached white cloth as veils throughout the whole of Lent as a reminder of this special time but this was later changed to our present custom of two weeks of purple veils. Today we have two weeks left of Lent. May I suggest that we heed the words of St Paul in today’s epistle as an aid to direct our thoughts during this time. Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Saint Paul had every reason to forget what lay behind him. His job had been to seek out and persecute the followers of Christ. He was by birth a Roman citizen and a Jew and so had every reason to carry out what he saw as a public service in getting rid of a possible threat to not only the Temple authorities but also the occupying forces a threat  that might stem from this new sect. As he wrote to the Philippians, he was of exemplary lineage for that task, born of the tribe of Benjamin, A Hebrew born of the Hebrews, as to the Law a Pharisee, as to the righteousness under the law, blameless. The experience on the Damascus Road changed all that. From a persecutor of  Christianity he became one of the greatest religious leaders of all time and from whom stemmed almost half of the books of the New Testament. He is the exemplar of building on the past so as to be all the stronger in the way forward, as he wrote, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Every week we remember those in the past who spent their lives pressing forward towards that goal.  I refer to the weekly entries in the Newsletter setting out the names and brief details of those in past whose lives the Church celebrates usually on the anniversary of their death or martyrdom. Last week there was just one, Saint Patrick, who after being taken as a slave to Ireland by raiders aged 16, escaped to Europe, made his way back to his parents in England, returned to Europe to become a priest eventually ending up as Bishop of Armagh when he followed in the footsteps of Paul in walking everywhere evangelizing and preaching. How did he go to and fro to the continent via England and Ireland so easily in about 400AD? I suppose the Roman Empire was still in force enough to ensure ease and safety for travelers but there is no question of his determination in the tradition of St Paul with journeys as set out in Acts of The Apostles, after his pattern, to press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Another in this week ahead whose day we shall celebrate is Thomas Cranmer a brief summary of whose life can be found in the Newsletter. Here was a brilliant brain who was used as Archbishop of Canterbury by the king Henry VIII to annul the king’s  marriage to Catharine of Aragon which task he managed successfully and at the same time he defied the then ruling papacy law of celibacy for the clergy by marrying a wife. Sadly for him he backed the wrong claimant to the throne, Lady Jane Grey and paid the penalty at the stake as was customary for high treason in those harsh days of 1556. His legacy of scholarship has been a lasting mark on the Anglican Church in the shape of the first two editions of the Book of Common Prayer and the thirty-nine articles which formalised the distinction between our Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and the Continental Calvinists. Cranmer too followed the example of St Paul in pressing on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call in Jesus Christ as on the day of his execution made his final bold statement of Protestant Faith.

This statement has for over 400 years been contained with the covers of the Book of Common Prayer. During those centuries since 1662 when the final edition was approved by Parliament, the BCP as it became known was all that any-one need know about their faith in England. It replaced a multitude of separate books that had multiplied over the centuries such as psalters for the psalms, Office books for the daily prayer, Mass books for the Communion and so forth. Now, in perfect prose, was one small volume that covered all the services from Baptism, through confirmation, ordination, matrimony, and the service for the burial of the dead and included the 39 articles for good measure to which our new vicar may well have to affirm in due course which I had to do every time I moved to a new parish.

It took over one hundred years for the Book of Common Prayer to evolve from Cranmer’s first edition of 1549 to the final 1662. Likewise it has taken not far short of 100 years to evolve our present Common Worship. The first step was the 1928 revision of the original 1662 prayer book and from then on different drafts were put in use until our present plethora of various books appeared and in this church there are only twenty or so Common Worship Books for use at week day services of morning and evening prayer. The only original prayer books are the ten borrowed from Saint Mary Abbots for use on Sunday mornings at 8 and Wednesdays at 12 when we use the service of Holy Communion and can follow the lessons as printed in the prayer book set for the respective Sunday.

There are some who regret the passing of the old prayer book. The loss of familiar beautiful prose and rhythm and the ability to see what was what in the church’s practice and belief in the various sacraments. On the other hand the gain is immeasurable. First our church now together with the Roman Catholic can not only share a common lectionary, that is the set lessons used daily, we also follow virtually the same order of service such as we are having this morning. Secondly we can now have such a new variety of proper prefaces, that is the seasonal adjustment to the great Eucharistic prayer. Listen and read again that for today when it comes;For as the time of his passion and resurrection draws near the whole world is called to acknowledge his hidden majesty. The power of the life-giving cross reveals the judgement that has come upon the world and the triumph of Christ crucified. He is the victim who dies no more, the Lamb once slain, who lives for ever, our advocate in heaven to plead our cause, exalting us there to join with angels and archangels, for ever praising you and singing: Thirdly we have a wide variety of new services in particular the daily office of morning and evening prayer which changes according to the day of the week and also reflects the liturgical year. Lastly and more controversially all the new service books are in common language as against 17th century usage.

May I suggest on this Passion Sunday on which the lessons and in particular the gospel are to help us look forward to the events of Holy Week and Easter, that we look again at that prayer book that we have at home of whatever edition. If we don’t have one, then consider buying a Common Worship Daily Prayer such as are at the back of the church in the shape of red books which are available on Ebay for about £15. They are a fund of prayer material especially in this Passion Season as we heed the words of St Paul.

Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus
Holland Park Benefice