Protecting the Powerless – 19 September, 2021

The story of the child today is a lovely part of Mark’s gospel. Our Lord and the disciples reach Capernaum, where they have a house. Our Lord asks what they’ve been arguing about among themselves on the walk there and they don’t answer him. They probably felt sheepish and might have looked at their feet or food or off into the distance (still inside the house), pretending not to hear him. So, he sits the twelve down. This is not a crowd or a medium-sized group. This is the twelve, the twelve who have committed to following him — literally following him around the countryside — to whom he is giving the next two teachings.

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Now, the disciples have been fighting over who will be first, and Our Lord tells them who will be the first: the person who doesn’t want to be, the person looked at as not having ambition, the person who shows vulnerability and servanthood rather than seeking their own glory.

Then he takes a child, puts that child in the midst of them, and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Now children weren’t welcomed in the first century. They were tolerated. Children were an economic asset, able and expected to work. They were property until they were either old enough to own property themselves — boys — or sold in marriage to another male — girls. They couldn’t speak for themselves and had no power.

Yet, a child — powerless against the world around about, vulnerable to the powers that existed, and unable to defend oneself — is who Our Lord tells the disciples to welcome: the powerless, the vulnerable, the ones whose voices are ignored in the world. Our Lord says that by welcoming people like that, the ones who can’t influence society and don’t strive to be in charge, they welcome Our Lord. Not only do they welcome him, they welcome God who sent him. Welcoming the powerless is a far cry from arguing over who is the greatest!

The powerless has always been one of the particular concerns of Christians, and we fail that task at our greatest peril. Today I would also like to talk about one particular response we had to the powerless one hundred and fifty years ago this week. For this week commemorates the 150th year of the death of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson.

One hundred and fifty years ago the growing expanse of international trade created opportunities in Australia and the Pacific for the development of new resources, particularly cane sugar. Europeans had developed a craving for sugar from the 17 C and exploited slavery in the Est Indies and then the opening of new colonies in the Pacific led to the exploitation of blackbirding in the 19 C, which was a legal fiction to overcome what was slavery, the forcible removal of indigenous men to work in the canefields. Slavery was banned within the Empire, but a ships forcibly removed men from the islands claiming they had signed contracts for labour, thus avoiding the slavery definition.

The growth of the Anglo Catholic movement has always been linked to issues of social concern, caring for the powerless, and the establishment of new bishoprics around Australasia led to these bishops trying to protect the Maoris and Melanesians from exploitation and this salvery. The first bishop of New Zealand, George Selwyn, took on Patteson in 1855 to be a priest with the Melanesian Mission, and was so impressed with him he consecrated him a bishop for Melanesia in 1861.

Patteson visited Sydney several times to raise awareness of, and funds for, the mission. He attended our sister church Christ Church St Laurence several times on each visit.

But the blackbirding for the canefields was continuing and Patteson was killed, in the Solomon Islands, on 20 September 1871. The killing was thought to be in retaliation for the abduction, a few days earlier, of five local men and the killing of one other by blackbirders.

His death galvanised mission work in Australia. ABM had been set up in 1850 to raise money for a boat for work in the islands, and had continued to raise money. But the martyrdom of Patterson, as a result of blackbirding, led to a huge rise in interest in raising money for mission work. His death transformed ABM and made it the major mission agency for the Anglican church, with its emphasis on our near neighbours such as PNG and the Solomons.

On the Sunday after news of the murder reached Sydney, 12 November 1871, the bells of Christ Church rang a muffled peal for Patteson. Funds were collected in Sydney for a memorial at the Cathedral, including a very generous personal donation for a “figure” of the martyred bishop. That was considered very popish in those days, and the rules of Sydney’s St Andrew’s Cathedral, even then a bastion of the low church, would permit only mural monuments, so the sculpture was located instead at Christ Church St Laurence, where you can see it to this day.

The resulting missionary work led to the establishment of St Barnabas’s College in Norfolk Island for the training of local missionaries for the Solomons. However, that island was too far south and too cold, and eventually the mission was relocated back to the Islands. Anglicans are one of the biggest churches now in the Solomons. You may remember the islanders we had in our congregation here a few years ago, including one Coleridge, named after bishop John Coleridge Patteson. His grandfather or great grandfather trained on Norfolk Island at that College. Patteson’s death also led to a concerted campaign by the Imperial and Colonial authorities to stamp out this slavery.

How we look after the powerless, in this case the islanders, is how we welcome our Lord. Our Lord’s example of taking a child has been a call to us to look always to the powerless in our midst. After this pandemic is over we will have many nations around us, including our old friends PNG and the Solomons, in need of help again as their tourism industries have been devasted by our closure. We will need to be generous again. But we must remember Our Lord’s example and look away from our own delusions of power to the needs of those in our midst.

 Material on Patteson from an article by Joseph Waugh.

Fear and Hope – 12 September, 2021

I’ve been pondering the Gospel during a week when we have been remembering many anniversaries. The most important one this week was, of course, the terrorist attacks in the USA, the 9/11 moment as it is called. But that has happened just after we have seen the end of the war in Afghanistan, after twenty years of conflict deriving from the attack of 9/11. Then we have had the anniversary recently of the Tampa boat incident, which fundamentally changed our refugee policy in Australia. All of these are important events that call upon us to think about what has happened and why.

So, when I started reading about the Gospel today my slant was different. The story of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is a fundamental declaration of who Our Lord really is, a confession of faith that is central to the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John, dear John, of course has a different take and perhaps the equivalent for him is Martha’s confession of Jesus as the Christ in the story of the raising of the dead of Lazarus. But that’s another story.

When Our Lord is the Gospel asks the disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” it is Peter who makes the leap of faith and confesses him as the Messiah. Now, all the stories about the Messiah were not the same. Some Messiahs were angelic, some were human, some were born of God. Sometimes there was one Messiah and sometimes there were multiple Messiahs. But one oft-repeated theme among these many stories was that the Messiah would overthrow whatever empire was in power and deliver the Jews from oppression. This Messiah was sometimes painted as a military champion, someone who came with power and force. They were the hope of a downtrodden nation. You can see why this story would be so hopeful, so needed for a people who had lost so much of what seemed to have been promised to them by God. We are all looking for a way out of our messes.

So, when Our Lord asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responds, “You are the Messiah,” might it be the case that Peter had heard some stories of who the Messiah was supposed to be as he grew up a Jew in a Jewish world? Might it be the case that he had a particular image and vision of this Messiah?

When Our Lord continues the conversation, and he predicts his own personal overthrow, betrayal, suffering, and death, maybe we can understand why Peter rebukes him. It’s not the Messiah story he has signed up for. It’s one thing to imagine yourself as the right-hand man of a powerful figure, not as the right hand man of a dead man. 

Now the core of this seems to be a problem of fear, which I find fascinating at this time. Peter was perhaps afraid for what would happen to his friend, Our Lord, and himself. Death and suffering makes one afraid.

One of the best reflections I find about the nature of fear is that of the great mediaeval saint and theologian, Thomas Aquinas. He asked, why do we fear? – and he saw fear as the response to a future evil. We fear a future pain or hurt. If someone dies now, we do not fear: we have sorrow, but not fear. Fear is when we see some evil result in the future, that brings us hurt in some form.

So, Peter feared a future of the death and suffering Our Lord told him. That is why he started to rebuke Our Lord. This was not the future he wanted.

Then Our Lord then turns around and tells him that he is concentrating on human things, not divine. Get behind me Satan!

Instead, Our Lord holds out for his followers, us, the need for us to take up our cross and follow his way of suffering instead. 

Now, reflecting on the incidents of 9/11 and Afghanistan we can remember our fears at the start of this century. Fears that we would be attacked continual by terrorists. That every plane trip became one of anxiety. That Afghanistan was going to be a source of endless extremists attacking us. Or that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The end of the 20th C had seemed so hopeful – Communism had fallen in Europe, and it seemed as if our pluralistic capitalistic world had a golden future ahead of us. Instead, we entered a new century with fear. Fear of terror. Also fear of being swamped with migrants, which was the Tampa Boat incident that ended Australia being a hope of refugees. It was fear that then drove the response of the start of the wars of this century that are still being played out now.

Let’s get back to Peter. Our Lord’s rebuke of Peter was an act of true love. It was a way of shaking him free from the paralysis of fear. Our Lord wanted Peter to think clearly and to face this future suffering with courage, acceptance, and faith. Courage provides strength. Acceptance cures anxiety. And faith is the remedy for all fear. These and other similar virtues were necessary if Peter and the other disciples were going to be able to endure the suffering and passion of Our Lord Jesus. They needed to know that this perceived evil was going to be transformed by the Father in Heaven and used for the greatest good the world had ever known. They needed to know that Our Lord “must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly…” It was the Father’s will. Because it was the Father’s will, the greatest good would come from the greatest evil because of God’s almighty power.

You see, the opposite of fear is hope. Hope is the expectation of future good. Hope produces joy. If the death of Our Lord would bring about the freedom from sin and the knowledge of the love of God and life eternal, then that future expectation is far, far greater than pain and death. That’s the joy that drives out the short-term pain. That’s why the angels time and time again say, “Do not fear!” – for they bring messages of great joy.

I think so much of the response of the last twenty years has been driven by fear, fear of those who are different, fear of those who do not share our faith as Christians, fear of those who do not share our Western complacency, fear of those who might question our hoarding of wealth and resources. We tried to give hope to places such as in Iraq and Afghanistan by creating a society that mimicked our own and we failed. They did not share our hopes but instead shared our fears of those who were different.

But we should not forget that in many places we have helped and given hope. Our help in Timor for example. Or less well known, the Ramsi mission in the Solomons that stabilised a country heading into civil war. The Solomon Islanders we have had in our congregation could tell you what a blessing that was for their country. These smaller stories of hope should not be forgotten in the larger stories of fear.

So as I end this sermon today I would like us all to consider our fears. We all have them in some way. But whatever we fear we are a people of faith. We know we have sufferings, like the minor sufferings of the covid restrictions, but in the order of things that is hardly noticeable. Some of our fears, such as illness or poverty or age may seem overwhelming. We may identify with Peter and think Heaven forbid that this should happen. But we have, as Christians, hope, the antidote to all fear, hope that wherever we stumble carrying our cross, Our Lord has worked before us and walks besides us still. Hope gives us the courage and endurance we need as we walk our paths.

The Church: Past, Present, and Future – Dedication, 5 September, 2021

Often when I enter a church, I think of all those clergy who have been here before me. Our parish, has been blessed with many great priests, the most notable being a Fr Wise, who for forty years taught the faith, fighting with the bishop and making his mark, followed by a line of illustrious priests with whom I try to keep myself up to their standard.

Besides those whose ministry was to be your priest, there were countless others who came, served, or visited. Some preached and touched people. Others may have made you snooze. The ghosts of preachers past populate any church.

Then consider all those who have sat in the pews over the years. You may see there ghosts around, some of you may still think of that particular seat over there being Mrs So-and-sos, or dear What-ever, who prayed there for many years. Yet there are many more timid ghosts, those who snuck in over the years, maybe hiding away at the back, who came and went and never could make a full commitment yet still yearned and sought God in this house.

For this Church is a house of God. It is a witness to the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a holy place that has called to the world around it to find God and follow that call. It is the place where so many have come into and prayed over the last century.

Churches are built on the foundations of hope with their spires touching heaven. The hopes of people that there is more than the world, that they can find God in the confusion of life around. This hope touches us through life, with the incessant calling that cannot be ignored. Some may ignore it. Some may pervert it into ways that attempt to satisfy cravings. Others may follow that hope and find in faith the love that does fulfil all. When faith is found to fill that hope we find that we do touch heaven. That is the Church.

For Churches mean two things, as you know. A church is a building and a people who are the body of Christ. They are reflective meanings – the building reflects the faith of the people and the people create the building to show their faith. Buildings that so often are filled with beauty to show our love of God in the mystery of worship. Our hope is that through this teaching of the love of holiness faith would be shown to others who would find the fulfilment of their yearning in this way. That people could come here, regularly hopefully, or even flitting in now and then, find God here and touch heaven. All the ghosts who have come into the Church, who we pray, that they may be now in the courts of heaven.

Yet we are not a place that lives only with ghosts – we are a Church that stands and marches into the future. We have tried to teach and show a faith that would provide a future and not bound into the past.

Now that may sound surprising in a Church like ours that is so bound into Catholic tradition. Tradition at its best is the inheritance of the past, the living voice of how others have reached God. It advises us and provides and an example of how God has shown love to our ancestors in faith. We worship God in this particular way because the ghosts of the past have found that this is a way that God speaks.

So, what is it that makes us Anglicans in the Catholic tradition today? We can say it is a love of tradition, a love of worship and a hundred other ways of saying how we have lived the faith in Christ. The one I like best is that is a realisation that there are holy things in the world. That God lives and sanctifies the things around us if we open our spiritual eyes. Being Catholic is the calling to look beyond what we are to the incredible richness of God working around us and asking to work in us. It is the appreciation that holiness exists and can be recognised.

That is why we find this church such an important place. It is not a place that can be a throne of God one moment and a cup of tea dispensary the next. This is where we find holy things. This is where me meet God. This is where past, present and future meet in the sacrament of the altar. This is where the ghosts still whisper in the pews of devotion past as we await the end of time. It is a place where we search for our completeness, our fulfilment with Christ. It is a place that we use to convert others, by showing them the holiness and love of God.

Buildings and people reflect each other: each is church. What we do here should be our way of evangelising for the future, showing others the love of God, and the glimpse of holiness. Our buildings and people should be a sign to the community of the presence of God.

Here in this place we say prayers for those ghosts of the past, those faithful and not so faithful, who have sought here a place of love and forgiveness. Here in this place priests have tried to teach the face and live the life that is a mirror of Christ. Here in this place we continue to seek the holy in a world that rushes by with no time for the present and no hope for the future. The place has many years of the past, but we look with eager longing to our eternity together.

Boundaries – 29 August

Let me talk to you today about boundaries. Boundaries exist around us all the time. Sometimes they are important, sometimes not. We have state boundaries – and at the moment they are very important as we can’t cross them at all. Two years ago, they were almost irrelevant. We have boundaries in our lives, how we deal with others in our lives, how much you can go in an argument or fight before a friendship is destroyed for example. Boundaries exist all the time.

Religion is one area where boundaries also exist. Think back to the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve were warned they could not touch the fruit of the Tree of Life or the Tree of Knowledge. They were out of bounds, and when the fruit was eaten, consequences resulted. The giving of the Law to Moses that is referenced in the first reading today clearly states the boundaries that the Chosen People were to keep. We think that it was this clarification of the Law, this working out what this means, happened particularly in the time of the exile to Babylon. When the Jews were living among other alien races, it was very easy for them to assimilate and be lost, to forget how they were Jews. But the keeping of dietary laws and other customs defined them as a people that allowed them to keep their identity and then return to the Promised Land. But remember, many Jews stayed in Babylon and continued to be good Jews by keeping the Law. Boundaries helped define the people and preserve who they were.

The Law came to be seen as a boundary on how to behave. As long as you kept the commands, you could live inside a safe space that pleased God. In one sense many of the boundaries made no sense, such as some of the eating requirements, but by keeping them you would know that God was not offended.

It’s a bit like our state boundaries – we all know that the lines are arbitrary, often done by decisions in London in Colonial days, and bear no relationship to what the geography means. I quite sympathise with those who argue that Far north Queensland has much more in common with the Northern Territory than southern Queensland. But I quiet agree that Tasmania has nothing in common with the rest of the states.

So, in the Gospel today what the Pharisees and Scribes were concerned about was a boundary issue. If Our Lord and the disciples were eating without washing their hands ritually clean, then they were living outside the safe place of religion. God would be displeased. Not because they may have had dirty hands, but because they were breaching the boundary on how to live a Jewish life. They were displeasing God, and would bring trouble on themselves and the community in which they lived.

But Our Lord moves the argument completely away. He does not justify what he is, or is not, doing. He attacks the very premise that religion is all about boundaries. He says that religion is all about intent, what we think, rather than what we do. Furthermore, he takes it away from a community perspective of a safe community keeping God’s boundaries, to the intent of an individual.

Now St Paul is going to develop this a lot in the next generation as he talks about Law and Spirit. We are a Spirit based religion, where each person has to make a relationship with God and decide what is right and wrong. That does not mean we are without the Law. In St Matthew Our Lord is quite clear that the Law continues. Our Lord said: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:19) So, if “fulfilment of the law” does not mean lawlessness, then what does it mean?

But our faith affirms that we have been freed from the condemnation of the law, not by remaining wilfully ignorant of it, but through faith in Jesus Christ, the sole righteous one. By this faith we are not condemned. By this Spirit we receive the grace to live lives of faith. Faith that keeps us true to a relationship with God that allows us to live.

Ridding ourselves of condemnation by ignoring God’s law, or pretending as though it doesn’t exist anymore, amounts to little more than a Pelagian attempt at declaring ourselves innocent. Such self-willed innocence ends in a kind of benevolent unbelief whereby Our Lord is viewed as a great man or a nice man, like Moses or Buddha, but just a man nonetheless – and quite unnecessary most days.

Now we are saved by faith in Our Lord Jesus, who “ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” (Gal 3:13) Our Lord Jesus, the Word incarnate, was condemned under the law; the Jewish leaders declared: “we have a law, and according to that law he ought to die.” (John 19:7) And he did die. The way to freedom from condemnation, therefore, is not pretending that the law doesn’t exist, but faith in Our Lord Jesus Christ “who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Gal 2:20)

In Christ, we become adopted sons and daughters of God and our entrance into God’s family is through Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. In these sacraments we are like Paul who said: “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.” (Gal 2:19-20)

By these means, which were given to us by Christ while he walked on Earth, we are initiated into communion with the Trinity through full communion with the Church, which is the Body of Christ. Through this we receive the Spirit to guide us in right living.

But it all comes down to us, each one of us. There is no way we can live good lives by just living within boundaries. What we are challenged to do instead, is to live are lives where we judge the intents of our hearts, and see our failings and seek forgiveness. Christian life is not about boundaries, it is about living and understanding our failures, and finding instead God’s grace and power to stand up again and go forward. We die in Christ through our sins, but rise through faith in his resurrection, the breaking of all boundaries.

Mary MacKillop – 8 August, 2021

Today I am going to talk about an Australian Saint, Mary Mackillop. It’s her feast day today, the 8 August, and we don’t have many recognised Australian saints, and she deserves to be better known.

First, the background details. She was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne in 1842, nine years before Victoria became a separate state from NSW. Her family was poor, and her father not a good manager of family finances. She became a governess with her aunt and uncle at Penola at 18. There she became friends with the local priest, Fr Julian Tenison-Woods, who encouraged her to expand her teaching duties to establishing a school at Penola for poor children when 24. It was then she started wearing a habit and the order started under the supervision of Fr Tenison Woods. The school was soon teaching move than 50 children. She was joined by other women and they began to call themselves the sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and opened a school at Grote Street in Adelaide by the invitation of the bishop, Lawrence Shiel.

Now, if you want to found a community, you need a rule, and this was worked out by Fr Tennison-Woods and herself. It emphasized poverty, a dependence on divine providence, no ownership of personal belongings, faith that God would provide and willingness to go where needed. By the end of 1867, ten other women had joined the Josephites, who adopted a plain brown religious habit. Due to the colour of their attire and their name, the Josephite sisters became known as the Brown Joeys.

By the end of 1869, more than 70 members of the Sisters of St Joseph were educating children at 21 schools in Adelaide and the country. MacKillop and her Josephites were also involved with an orphanage; neglected children; girls in danger; the aged poor; a reformatory (in Johnstown near Kapunda); and a home for the aged and incurably ill. Generally, the Josephite sisters were prepared to follow farmers, railway workers and miners into the isolated outback and live as they lived. By 1871, 130 sisters were working in more than 40 schools and charitable institutions across South Australia and Queensland.

However, rapid success always causes problems. The main problem was that the Joeys was not an independent order. Now, we all know from our own bishops that they like to control and Roman bishops are just the same. They didn’t trust what they often thought were uneducated women who were not part of an approved order, especially for teaching. So, the bishops wanted to control what was taught and whom was taught. In Brisbane the Sisters had to withdraw owing to the opposition of the bishop there, and most famously she then fell out with the bishop of Adelaide, a man called Shiel.

Part of the problem lay with Fr Tenison-Wood, who had become director of education for the diocese and fell out with the other clergy. Bishop Shiel demanded changes to the Order and MacKillop refused, so Shiel excommunicated her in 1871. This meant she was also homeless. Forbidden to have contact with anyone in the church, MacKillop was given the rent-free use of two houses in Flinders Street, Adelaide by prominent Jewish merchant Emanuel Solomon and was also sheltered by Jesuit priests. But Shiel did not live much longer and the excommunication was soon lifted.

But Mary MacKillop had also become wiser, and she realised she needed better support. So she travelled to Rome to get approval as an Order – this enabled her to resist the pressures of local bishops. The Rule was also changed to make it more practical by removing the requirement that they own nothing. To run schools and control them they needed to own them, and Rome saw that the Order had to change.

This change of Rule led to problems with Fr Tenison-Wood who had written the original rule. In part Mary had outgrown him, and saw more clearly the needs of her sisters. She had moved on to a much more practical way of living and running the one of the biggest teaching orders in Australia. She also had moved from the strict control with which he had initially run the Order.

Let me give you an example. Her order established an orphanage at Kincumber on the Central Coast, not far from where I grew up. She took the boat there for a visit and a boy who had been found stealing bread was brought to her. She asked him why he had been stealing and he said he was hungry. So instead of some pious statement about the evils of stealing, Mary told him to go to the kitchen and tell the kitchen that she said he needed more food. She knew what it was like to be poor and was practical.

In 1883 Mary moved to Sydney to run the Order, and although she did remain always in charge, she was the guiding light until her death on this day in 1909.

Her order was unusual at a time when women were still controlled tightly by church authorities. Firstly, the sisters lived in the community rather than in convents. Secondly the Order’s constitutions required administration by a superior-general chosen from within the congregation rather than by the bishop, which was uncommon in its day. However, the issues which caused friction were that the Josephites refused to accept government funding, and were unwilling to educate girls from more affluent families. Not all bishops accepted this.

In South Australia they were a great Order, with schools in many country towns including, Willunga, Willochra, Yarcowie, Mintaro, Auburn, Jamestown, Laura, Sevenhill, Quorn, Spalding, Georgetown, Robe, Pekina, Appila and several others.

I wanted to talk about Mary MacKillop for several reasons today. Her emphasise on education for the poor is very similar to what Fr Wise tried to achieve here later with our own parish school which was also free. Also, we know her. Many of you would know the schools or remember the Joeys. If not you knows the locations.

So often when we consider the saints, we think of them as not part of our world. Part of this comes from their locations in distant lands or distant times. But Mary MacKillop walked these streets that we walked. She had fights with bishops and tried to organise her sisters in a way she knew would work. She is very much one of us, not some distant figure.

For sainthood is not an unreachable state, but one that we are all called to be. We will have fights with authorities and friends, but we are all called to live lives that are filled with the presence of God.

I should also mention today another remarkable woman, who feast day is tomorrow, Mary Sumner, who founded the Mothers’ Union. She was the wife of an Archbishop of Canterbury and certainly outshone her husband. She died 100 years ago tomorrow.

The process to have MacKillop declared a saint began in the 1920s, and she was beatified in January 1995 by Pope John Paul II. Pope Benedict XVI prayed at her tomb during his visit to Sydney for World Youth Day 2008. She was canonised on 17 October 2010, during a public ceremony in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican. She is the first Australian to be recognised by the Catholic Church as a saint.

Filling the Void – 1 August 2021

Bread: it’s such a simple thing. Made usually from wheat it has formed part of our diets for millennia. We have evidence for the bread making going back 14,500 years, and the first wheat and barley started being cultivated 10,000 years ago. That’s a long association for us. We even have loaves of bread left over from Pompeii. They are not very edible now, but they still exist.

Bread is also what Jesus took and said was his body.

The gospel today is from John. We have just had Our Lord taking the five loaves and two fish to feed the five thousand, and now we move onto a discussion on how he is the true bread.

In John’s Gospel there is a long search by people for signs. They seek signs of the coming of the Messiah. There was a belief that the Messiah would come; and his coming would be seen by a variety of signs. Now not everyone was agreed about what the signs would be – some though the Messiah would be a military leader, but not all. The signs that were particularly looked for were the signs that had accompanied Moses, the Great Prophet, when he brought the people into the Promised Land. Now, during the forty years in the wilderness the people had ben fed by a heavenly bread called manna. Manna had been found each morning, and continued until they reached the Promised Land. So, the re-occurrence of manna would be a sign that pointed to Jesus being the Messiah.

This is the significance of the people being fed with bread: it pointed to the manna, in that it came from heaven and was not made.

There was also another bread that was important: what we often call the shrewbread, which was the bread that was put out in the Temple every day. It was the holy bread that the priests would eat, and twelve loaves were made each day, to represent the twelve tribes. Even more important at Passover the altar, that the bread was placed on, was lifted up and shown to the people as the face of God as part of the celebrations. So, there was a link between the presence of God and the Shrewbread of the Temple.

So, when Our Lord creates the bread for the feeding of the five thousand, he gives a sign that he is the Messiah.

But what happens next is that the crowd don’t understand the sign. They see the sign as one of abundance, of free food, and want to make him king to supply them forever. So Our Lord slips away with the disciples and crosses the lake.

Then comes the discussion about the nature of the bread. The giving of manna by Moses is raised, and Our Lord says the manna came not from Moses but from the Father, from God, Our Lord then says that he is the bread of life, the great “I am” showing the divine name, identifying himself with God in that statement.

In the statement that Jesus is the bread of life Our Lord sets up the basis of what will happen when he says at the Last Supper, that this bread is his body. Drawing on the image of manna and shrewbread he identifies himself with God and makes the bread his flesh.

Now, eating flesh is abhorrent. In fact, Our Lord’s insistence that people will need to eat his flesh and drink his blood would put people off – and Our Lord does this deliberately. There are several ways of saying eat in the Greek, but the word that Jesus uses to is the word that is used for animals eating – he is asking people to guzzle and munch his flesh and drink. It is deliberately affronting.

This is where we come to the heart of ancient worship – sacrifice, the killing of animals or even humans to appease the gods. Even the sacrifices of the Jewish Temple were to appease God. The meat was then eaten – in the Temple by the priests and Levites; in the pagan temples the meat often was then sold on in the market. In the ancient world most of the meat that people consumed was associated with sacrifices. But of course, sacrifice had to be done over and over again to continue to appease the gods.

Now think about the crowd: they see the sign of the feeding of the five thousand, but search Our Lord out for another sign. They see the signs but are not satisfied, they keep coming back for more signs. They have a craving that cannot be satisfied.

Now, if you are still with me, here we have two things that are never satisfied – sacrifices to appease the gods and the cravings of the crowd. Both cannot be satisfied.

Then Our Lord offers them fulfilment – they will come to him and not be hungry and they will believe and not thirst.

What Our Lord is offering is the end of the sacrificial system – God will be satisfied, and people can end their cravings. How – by belief in Our Lord Jesus who becomes the sacrifice himself and fulfils the needs.

Furthermore, this bread is special: usually what we eat becomes us. Eating this bread makes us part of the bread, Our Lord, the Bread of Life.

That’s the technical part. What it means for us as believers is that we have found a way to escape our endless need for something to fulfil our emptiness. This emptiness may manifest by trying to have more and more money, or possessions, or addictions in some way – for part of the weakness of being human is want more and more. But if we believe in Jesus as our God, he offers a way to escape this craving – believe in him. It is in the love of God we find more than enough, and we can end our mindless pursuit of fame, money, power, drugs or whatever. The deep need for sacrifice is to fulfil our cravings and emptiness. Our Lord gives himself – if we believe, we can be filled. The hole of emptiness is waiting, not for darkness, but the love of God. Our taking of the bread and wine here, at this altar, is part of the closing of the circle of sacrifice. The guzzling of flesh of sacrifice is over, it never filled the need. The emptiness remains – and only by taking God can we fill it. Our Lord is bread, but he wants to fill the hunger of our hearts and not just our stomachs. He wants to fill the gnawing, aching emptiness that we try to fill with lesser things, to satisfy the longing or the boredom that we use substances of all sorts to quiet, to put an end to the grasping, fretting, worrying about having enough of anything that will in the end possess us, rather than allowing ourselves to fall into the hands of the one for whom we were made.

The Gift of Benedict – 11 July

In the year of Our Lord 476 the last Roman emperor, the boy Romulus Augustulus, abdicated following his capture by the Vandal general and king, Odovacar, and was allowed to retire to a villa near Naples, and there disappeared to history. Thus ended the long reign of Rome of nearly a thousand years, and the imperial rule disappeared in Western Europe.

However, there was still an emperor in Byzantium, the great city that the first Christian emperor Constantine has built as a new capital, that still survives under the name of Istanbul. Even though the empire was divided, those of the Eastern part, in the Byzantine palaces of the Bosphoros, remembered their ancient heritage as Romans and yearned for a untied empire once more.

Odovacar was not to rule long, for Italy was then invaded by a new tribe, the Goths, who established a new kingdom. Rome the city continued, poorer than the great days of the Emperors, but substantially intact, with its great walls, monuments, the great aqueducts bringing fresh water from the hills to fill the baths built by long dead Ceasars. Within these walls were newer Churches, some founded by Constantine, others built in the ruins of closed temples. Yet in this city continued the semblance of the ancient Romans, speaking a Latin of sorts, maintaining a link to the time when Rome ruled the world.

It was to this city of Roma that a little boy Benedict was sent for schooling. He was born around 480 in a little town called Nursia, now called Norsia, an ancient town mentioned in the Aeneid as frigida Nursia, a place long known for its cold. He was probably in Rome when the statues to Odovacar were overthrown and the Goth Theodoric was proclaimed ruler of Italy.

He soon left there to pursue a holy life, away from the evil he saw. This was not uncommon, many saw only decay in the disintegration of the old rule of law under the barbarians. The Roman life was fading under the barbarian rulers and many saw only decay around them and sought for a purer life. Some tried to live as hermits, others tried to live together in communities. Benedict would live first as a hermit, settling at Subiaco, some little distance from Rome, where the Emperor Nero had once a stately villa, and whose waters were channelled into those great aqueducts that supplied Rome. However, his early efforts were difficult – he lived as a hermit and then was asked to lead a community, who found him too strict and tired to poison him. He left them and soon had twelve communities, so great was his fame, but soon found himself caught up again in the fights within the very people he tired to live with.

Yet his fame spread and soon the nobles of nearby Rome were bringing him their sons for education. Yet Benedict disliked the quarrels of the monks there and left (one story is that the monks tried to poison him), going south to a place halfway to Naples, where on a hill overlooking the great ancient highway, the Via Latina, he founded his new monastery at the place which would henceforth be known as Monte Cassino.

It was for this community that he wrote a rule to guide the monks on how to live a life together. It is a rule noted for its moderation. It is not proscriptive, it is merely an outline that helps any community wanting to follow a monastic life. Its core values are stability of residence, obedience to the abbot, and monastic zeal. Its very moderation makes it easy to live by, yet calls for a devotion and commitment to the way. The abbot would be elected by the monks for life, preserving the rule of democracy within its tradition while the rest of Europe made do with kings and conquerors. It would be endlessly adapted and adopted by other communities, and would provide the stability for those seeking a monastic life in Europe for centuries.

I’m a middle-aged man now, and St Benedict when he wrote his rule was middle aged. He had tried fervour and strong will and it hadn’t worked. It’s a rule of balance and adaption. It’s the wisdom of middle age. Yet there is a strength in it as well. He knew that living in community and working together was the way to help bring the Kingdom of God closer. So many of the middle-aged people I talk to hate their jobs. They are tired of office politics, endless reports, political correctness, and sheer boredom of so much work. Jobs that often demand long hours and no security. In part that is because the corporations of the world offer the false gods of wealth and power that are never going to satisfy human beings who yearn for God. Benedict gave a Rule that allowed flexibility so that people could realise their desire (what is your desire is what we are asked as we join the community, and we respond that we desire to offer ourselves to God).

Meanwhile the emperor Justinian sent the great general Belisarius to reconquer the lost territories of the West. He re-conquered north Africa and then a few years later in 534 marched up the Via Latina past Monte Cassino to take Rome. He would then be surrounded by the armies of the Goths for several years, during which time the aqueducts would be destroyed and much damage done. One attack on the citadel of Hadrian’s Tomb would only be repulsed by the stratagem of throwing all its statues down on the attacking Goths. The city would eventually fall and be retaken, but by the time of Benedict’s death in around 550, it would be a ghost city, largely deserted, its monuments ruined, its walls pulled down and rebuilt, with space enough inside to grow crops in the forum which had once teemed with life. The great baths that the aqueducts had supplied would remain empty and useless, to crumble into the past. Italy would be ruined, impoverished by the passing armies, its institutions destroyed. Rome the city had passed into history.

Yet Benedict and his rule would continue and provide the stability that the old empire lacked. His rule would become the foundation of all monastic institutions in Western Europe, so much though that within the start of a new Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne would make inquiry if there was any other rule known throughout his empire. The monastic schools would flourish with the growth of the monasteries and preserve the institution of learning in the West. From these monasteries would grow again the schools and universities that we know.

For us Anglicans the influence has been profound. It was the Benedictine monks who came with St Augustine that helped to restore the faith to England. This was done by the special monastic missions, based around Churches called minsters, that were established in the pagan areas to bring the faith to the new tribes that would one day become the English nation. One of the inherited characteristics of that system would be a strong sense of parish, a reflection of the vow of stability that St Benedict marked in his Rule. That special devotion to the local parish is still a characteristic of Anglicans, and of our parish here with its great loyalty to our little church.

Our civilisation has a lot to thank Benedict and his rule for its moderation and wisdom that gave a way for the monastic way of life to flourish admidst the uncertainties and turmoil of the early middle ages.