Sermon on 17th May 2015
Revd Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster
“If they could see me now…” is a great showstopper from the musical “Sweet Charity”, and a definitive performance by Shirley Maclaine is the trademark of a great show. Perhaps that’s such a popular song because it touches what so many people think on certain occasions.
Time was, of course, when people “knew their place” and never strayed from it. If you were born “Upstairs”, your family was from a certain echelon that expected to be served and to be part of the ruling class. If you were born “Downstairs” your family was in service, and expected to serve those who were born upstairs. People knew their place and didn’t stray from it.
However popular Downton Abbey may be, that time is long past, and people have been straying wildly from their station in life for almost a century now.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself, and remind myself who I am! We were very much a “Downstairs” family. My aunt was in service up in Scotland, and on visits there we had the occasional glimpse into the “Big Hoose.” My father was a coalminer (colliery ripper is what it says on my birth certificate), and when he left us for pastures new when I was still very young, my mother had to go out to work as a cleaner to top up the meagre benefits we received so we could, as a family, make ends meet. Time was, when my life would have been mapped out for me – I, too, would go down the pit as generations of my family had done. I’d get silicosis, as they did, and I would probably have be dead by 50.
But times have changed (that’s another quote from a musical, if anyone’s counting) and by virtue of passing some exams at school (and I realize that’s a sensitive subject at the moment!) I was able to escape to university (the first of my family to do so) and find a future potential that no one in my family had ever before been able to achieve.
After a few false starts, that education led me to where I am now. (If they could see me now!) And it has led to all sorts of privileges and opportunities that I have not failed to grasp. I have been to places across the world once thought beyond the wildest imaginings of my family – none of whom ever even possessed a passport. I like to think that I’ve made up for their lack of travelling by my constant globetrotting!
But most significantly I’ve had the opportunity to meet the most amazing people, many of whom had been thought to be so remote, their status was thought to be almost divine. I’ve met some extraordinary people, including prime ministers and presidents, a few princes and princesses, as well as a King, and 3 Queens. And I’m not talking about a hand of poker!
The first time I met “The Queen” was the most memorable, as I was working at Durham Cathedral at the time, and Her Majesty was visiting as part of the 1300 anniversary celebrations of St Cuthbert. As we gathered awaiting HM’s arrival in a small reception room, there was a notable buzz of anticipation in the air, and the old hands were recounting previous meetings with the Queen with an almost casual air. But when Her Majesty arrived in the room, there was a definite change in the temperature, and even the most jaded person present was transformed by the presence of our Head of State, our Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, for whom we pray in our BCP services; whose face we see on stamps, coins, as well as the bank notes – so that the most instantly recognizable face in the country (if not the world) is standing before one and, actually speaks to one, it is remarkable how the capacity to form a coherent sentence disappears, and one is reduced to monosyllabic responses to the greetings and ever-so-light questions that Her Majesty may ask.
And then Her Majesty moves on and we breathe again, though somehow a little of the reflected glory rubs off, and we all feel a little special to have had a moment in the presence of The Queen.
A Sovereign Monarch or Head of State has the highest honour that earth can give to another human being – we have to behave in a certain way; certain protocols exist, and a certain deference is due. But with all the panoply of state, we still hear that whisper in the ear spoken to a victor in a Roman Triumphal procession “Remember that you are mortal!”
In the Church since the time of Constantine, all the trappings of earthly power and majesty have been applied to Christ, and certain images, the “Christus Rex” (Christ The King, or Christ in glory) take the robes of state of an earthly king and place them on Jesus, a crown of gold replacing the crown of thorns, and royal robes replacing the purple robe placed on Jesus at this Passion as a cruel mockery of the claims that he was “King of the Jews”.
But today we find in our readings, our hymns and prayers today words which reflect the exaltation, the triumph of our God and King, inheriting his eternal kingdom and power. Words of imperial power and dominion are now placed on Jesus, the carpenter’s son, who was executed as a common criminal, but raised from the dead as Lord of Life, and taken up into the heavenly realm at his Ascension as heaven’s eternal King.
And we give to Jesus the glory, the splendour, the victory and the majesty because he has been raised to that glory by God our heavenly Father for as God’s Son he was born and lived among us, and so came to know all our joys and sorrows, our pain and our woes, our hopes and our fears. And as the sinless one he was crucified to bear our sins.
This Jesus, whose Ascension to the highest heavens we celebrated on Thursday, we now worship as Lord with songs and hymns of triumph, and we acclaim his sovereign majesty over all things.
But as our ancient Collect reminded us things do not end there. (And we will have an opportunity to hear the Collect a second time, as the choir will be singing it in its 17th century wording as the communion anthem today – the words are printed in your order of service).
In this Collect, we praise our God who has exalted His Son Jesus to His heavenly kingdom – but we also beseech God to “leave us not comfortless”, and send the Holy Spirit upon the Church.
This now, is our time of waiting – for the gift of the Holy Spirit to descend upon the Church at Pentecost – the 50 days after Our Lord’s resurrection. Jesus’ words as a teacher to his disciples were not enough. Fallible men could not – by their own strength – do all they had to do to carry the message of Christ to the ends of the earth so that the whole world might know its Creator Saviour, and redeemer. They needed the Spirit of God to be at work in them to fulfil the task entrusted to them by Jesus.
At Jesus’ Ascension, Jesus’ disciples were told to return to Jerusalem, and there to wait for that Holy Spirit to come and give them all that their Lord had not been able to give them while he was yet with them. We, too, symbolically wait for that coming of the Spirit into our lives at Pentecost. And as we wait, we remember that those humble disciples were exalted by God to do wonderful things – all recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, which we are reading from throughout this Easter season as our first reading instead of the usual Old Testament lesson – enabled to do so by the powerful Spirit of God working in them.
That same Spirit of God is still alive and active in our church today, and the second half of the Collect calls on God to send his Holy Spirit to us that we may be strengthened (for all we have to do in this world, to build his kingdom of love, justice and peace here on earth) and (when He shall call us) exalted to that same place where now he reigns in majesty as King of all earthly kings and queens, Lord of lords, and yet our crucified Redeemer, friend and brother, now and forever.
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