A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 5 May 2019 by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos, Dean of Salisbury.
(Acts 9. 1-20; John 21. 1-19)
The Biblical witness to what Lazarus does with his new freedom is, at best, slim. Saint John records that the chief priests planned to put him to death because many of their people were following Jesus on his account. At the very least that verse confirms that Lazarus did not slip away to a quiet retirement growing root vegetables in Galilee. The new life he had received; the new liberty he had been given bore witness to the one from whom he had received it.
That sliver of reality may inform the ancient tradition that, threatened with death, Lazarus fled Judaea for – where else - Cyprus, where he became the first bishop of Kition. The site of his eventual burial can still be visited in Larnaca (another tradition suggests that he became bishop of Marseille, but for what I hope are obvious reasons I prefer the former). Whichever. Scripture and tradition point to a man who was raised from the dead, and, being raised, who was publicly and visibly identified with the cause of Jesus Christ. For his restoration to life was restoration to life in Christ.
We gather in Eastertide. We gather as those who have ourselves, in baptism, been restored to life. We gather as those who have been unbound and let go - let go for a life in Christ that we must learn to inhabit. In the very course of our gathering we discover what that life is. For it is in worship and prayer that we learn it. Worshipping reveals the truth about living.
Worship has God as its object: not fine architecture, not theological acuity, not liturgical elegance, not even musical virtuosity. Those may help, or they may not. But the object of worship is God: the holy one on whom we wait; the holy one whom we praise; the holy one whom we entreat – and all for no other reason than that the holy one is God. Every clergy vestry needs a sign which reads “It’s not about you”.
Worship teaches us to be thankful. That’s its default setting. Attending steadily to the source of all beauty, truth and goodness recalls us to gratitude for and wonder at all that we have received of those. Attending steadily to the one who at Easter brings glory out of agony calls us even in our darkest moments to thankfulness for the death-defying power of that holy one.
Worship requires us to look around us. It does not allow us to be deaf to the enormous needs by which we are encircled. How could it? If our gaze is on the world’s one God and if our hearts are full of thanks for God’s world then how could we simultaneously ignore its suffering in all its many forms? The impulse of worship is always to call this to mind and simply to hold it before God.
We turn away from ourselves; our hearts fill with thanks; we become aware of the pain of the world. This we learn in worship; thus we live in Christ.
I suppose that at the installation of a new Precentor I would say all that. And in a building as beautiful as this and a liturgical setting as magnificent as this I further suppose that worship may present as the eccentric obsession of a clique of enthusiasts. But the vocation of Salisbury Cathedral is to offer worship for the formation of our life in Christ as individuals and as a body. We inherit a precious tradition, but our calling has never been to contain it in aspic. Historically what has been said, done and sung in the liturgy here has had huge implications for the Church of God. Salisbury is about tradition and originality. Salisbury-watchers should keep an eye out for those two words – you heard them here first. New patterns of worship have emerged in this place where five rivers meet, and it may be that they will again. No pressure, then, Anna.
We are the mother church to a diverse diocese which itself reflects a diverse community; our worship needs to take account of that diversity. We are a Christian church in what is sometimes termed a post-Christian society; our worship needs to acknowledge the concerns of the age as well as the rhythms of the calendar. We are a church that professes its doctrine in its liturgy, but we do so in a doctrinally illiterate word; our worship needs to interpret the faith afresh for our generation.
The prophet Isaiah records the faithful words of King Hezekiah as he is returned to health. “The LORD will save me,” he writes “and we will sing to stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD”. The King is saved in order that he might worship. Like Lazarus, we have been raised with Christ in order that we might live in Christ. We are saved, that we might sing, and that in singing we might learn what it is to be saved.
“Unbind them, and let them go”. For we are an Easter people – and Alleluia is our song. Amen.