A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Evensong - The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Picture: Salisbury Cathedral - the tomb of Sr Richard and Lady Katherine Mompesson
Two words stand out from last week’s political turmoil: ‘flextension’, the latest addition to the Brexit lexicon (Brexicon?); and ‘Marxist’, which some Conservative politicians have applied to the Leader of the Opposition, prompting the question: is ‘Marxist’ a term of abuse? After the calamities that have come upon some countries led by regimes calling themselves Marxist, many say Yes. Even so, some of the thought of Karl Marx himself will sound familiar to regular attenders of choral evensong.
Marx saw the human story as one of primitive innocence followed by a fall into alienation – many read the story of Adam and Eve that way; he was sure that history contained a promise that would be fulfilled – the Hebrew prophets would agree – but that revolution must come first – again, few prophets would dissent. They would differ, though, about the shape of that promised glory – there is no delight in the presence of God in Karl’s heaven on earth – and over what would bring it about: for Marx it was the economic forces inherent in history, but for (say) Isaiah it is the sovereign will of God: in this morning’s reading we heard the Lord say, ‘I am about to do a new thing.’ (Isaiah 43:19)
Marx saw himself as a catalyst for revolution, which is how the second book of Chronicles sees King Josiah. Coming to the throne aged eight, in a dozen years he was a revolutionary ruler, purging his kingdom of pagan worship. When his officials found a copy of the law of Moses in the Temple, Josiah made it his manifesto: he decreed that his people keep the Passover – this time according to the law – and our reading describes that revolutionary meal which restored a primitive purity to this feast of liberation.
The Church has itself sometimes trodden a revolutionary road. In 1547, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer preached at the crowning of another boy king, the nine-year-old Edward VI. Cranmer welcomed him as a ‘new Josiah’, looking forward to the reforms – rather, the brutal revolution – that would issue in the Book of Common Prayer, which we use for this service.
In our second reading, Luke’s gospel sees Jesus, like Josiah, preparing to keep Passover in Jerusalem. This will again be a revolutionary meal: Jesus will take the familiar bread and wine and give them a new and startling meaning (‘this is my body’, ‘this is my blood’). It is part of a stark contrast which Luke creates. Jesus has been preaching in the Temple, the great place of sacrifice where God’s glory dwells, while the Temple officials are plotting to destroy him. And now, in the utterly different setting of a domestic room, Jesus gives sacrifice and glory a new dwelling place, as he tells them that he will be among them wherever they break the bread and the share wine in remembrance of him and his sacrifice. The Jesus revolution has several aspects, but this is one: to be at one with God, there is no need for the Temple, that policed and protected place of power; they need only to be with Jesus – and he can be anywhere, wherever (as the Christmas carol puts it) ‘meek souls will receive him’.
In these twelve days that lead up to Good Friday, Luke’s contrasts will collide: the power of the Temple will clash with Jesus and it will destroy him, or so it will seem for a little while. And that presents a challenge for us here. If the friends of Jesus time-travelled from Jerusalem then to Salisbury now, I think they would say that the Cathedral reminded them more of the Temple than of the upper room in which they shared the Last Supper. Yet it is in this grand place, amid the tombs of the powerful, that we are called to be the body of Christ, the people of Jesus, friends of the travelling revolutionary rabbi who fed the poor in the wilderness and who would have not even a grave to call his own.
To do that we must pray without ceasing: pray that, amidst all of this, we do not forget who we are and whose we are; pray that this ‘temple’ is a place where there is a welcome for the one who had nowhere to lay his head; pray that all those for whom he sacrificed himself – especially those of us who know little power in their lives – may feel that here they are among friends; pray that here there may be unashamed space for what Karl Marx saw (and perhaps admired) in religion, what he described as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.’
He also said, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world…[but] the point is, to change it,’ to which we can say a qualified Amen. Yes – but for the change we seek we rely ‘not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.’ (2 Corinthians 1:9)