‘Mystery Worshipper’

Back in the late 1970s, there was a quirky Christian magazine called Ship of Fools. It didn’t last long in print form but resurfaced as a website on April Fools’ day 1998. One of its regular features is a report from a ‘Mystery Worshipper’. Like the ‘mystery shoppers’ who go into department stores and report back on the service they experience, the Mystery Worshipper attends a church and writes about what they find. The Mystery Worshipper records everything from the welcome they got on arrival, the style of worship, and the length and quality of the sermon, to the coffee served afterwards.

It’s quite difficult to be a Mystery Worshipper when you’re wearing a clerical collar and there’s a seat at the front that’s reserved for you, but occasionally I get the opportunity to attend a service as a regular punter. We were able to do this after Easter, when we were on holiday in Australia. Now to be fair, when I’m on holiday, I don’t always go to church. Shocking, I know, but sometimes it’s nice to luxuriate on a Sunday morning with coffee and pastries. On this occasion, however, we managed to stir ourselves in time to catch the train into Melbourne city centre and arrive for the main morning service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral.

St Paul’s is the mother church of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne and the Province of Victoria, and is the seat of the Archbishop of Melbourne, who is Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia. (Fun fact: the word cathedral comes from the Latin cathedra which means a ‘seat’. The cathedral is where the bishop’s seat is located, from which the bishop teaches and presides over the diocese.) From its service sheet, we learn that St Paul’s is “home for worshippers from more than two dozen nations” and is situated on the traditional lands of the Aboriginal Kulin nation. On the sheet and verbally in the service, respect was paid to “the traditional owners of the land”.

The service we attended was 10:30 AM Choral Eucharist. As we were there on the Sunday after Easter, the cathedral choir was on holiday. The music, however, was ably lead by the Cathedral Consort – which I guess is the ‘B Team’, but very good they were. The music ranged from a 16th century anthem by Orlandus Lassus, and pieces from Benjamin Britten’s Missa Brevis (1959) to hymns by Charles Wesley and John Bell, a good catholic mix.

The service was led by the Precentor, the Revd Canon Heather Patacca. The preacher should have been the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, but, we were told, he was off sick. Instead, we were to hear one of the assistant clergy, whose regular responsibility was for the 9:00 AM ‘Family Friendly’ Eucharist. I was looking forward to the sermon because I wanted to see how a ‘family friendly’ priest would address the Choral Eucharist congregation, but I was disappointed that, instead of speaking her own words, she simply read the text of the Dean’s prepared sermon. The sermon ended dryly with, “the Dean would like to invite you to consider…” In their defence, the Dean had prepared a series of addresses on the Gospel of John for Lent, Holy Week and Easter, and this was presumably a follow-up to that, as the gospel reading was from John (20:19-31 – Jesus’ resurrection appearances to the disciples and then to Thomas). In my humble opinion, a sermon is not a text that can be read, but something that happens when the preacher and the congregation work together, and, as they say in certain circles, “God shows up”. I’m happy to elaborate on this if requested!

When we turned to the Lord’s Prayer, we were each invited to say it in our own language. As we were in Australia, most of the worshippers spoke English, but the service sheet gave the opening words to the prayer in French, Spanish, German, and, what I later learned were Malay, Maori, Chinese and Japanese. This was an interesting expression of the cathedral’s emphasis on the diversity of its congregation. It was also good to share the Peace with those around us.

The invitation to communion was inclusive (“all baptised Christians”) and came with a word to the wise: “Please keep your valuables with you”.

I’m afraid we didn’t stay for coffee – or ‘Morning Tea’ as the Australians call it – not because we didn’t feel welcome, but because the sun was shining, and we wanted to be outside. We enjoyed brunch at a riverside café instead.

One of the things that caught my attention at the cathedral was their use of ‘Tap and Go’ technology: their collection plates are fitted with a device that reads credit cards and automatically takes a donation of $20, which, they say, is the average weekly contribution made by their worshippers. As well as on the collection plates, ‘Tap and Go’ devices were located in various places around the cathedral. It’s a thought! (But if we install those in our churches, what amount should they be set to ask for?)

In the Ship of Fools Mystery Worshipper reports, there are a few questions which must always be answered:

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For me, as so often, it was the music, particularly the Benjamin Britten and the anthem.

And which part was like being in… er… the other place?

Nothing really, although, as I said, listening to someone reading a sermon they haven’t written, doesn’t do a lot for me.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?

Yes, it was good to feel at home so far from our actual home.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days’ time?

Probably the ‘Tap and Go’ technology.

Alan Jewell

Experience Easter

On the day before Palm Sunday, a group of church people, directed by Ruth Mock, came into St Matthew’s to prepare for ‘Experience Easter‘. They went to work with fabric and greenery, pebbles and props to create a series of six displays which were to be used to tell the Easter story, from Palm Sunday to the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. And a fabulous job they did, too – the church looks great!

‘Experience Easter’ came (like a lot of good things) from the Diocese of Gloucester as an attempt to engage children and adults with the message of Easter. We live in a world where, increasingly, people are not familiar with even the basic elements of the Christian story. ‘Experience Easter’, as its name suggests, it not just about telling the Easter story: rather it aims to get participants to ‘experience’ the dynamic of Holy Week and Easter in a journey through six ‘stations’.

  • Hopes and Dreams

We start with the ‘Hopes and Dreams’ of Palm Sunday. Those who take part in ‘Experience Easter’ are asked what they hope for, what they dream of. Some talk about their career ambitions – especially if they want to be a pop star or professional footballer. Others share their hope that a family member will recover from illness.

We tell them that the inhabitants of Jerusalem dreamt of a day when God would send a saviour to rescue them from their oppressors, the Roman Empire. Riding into the city on the back of a donkey, Jesus looks like a saviour – albeit an unlikely one. He is greeted as a king by cheering crowds. Going against everything we usually say to children when they come into church (‘be quiet!’), we invite the children to wave palm leaves and shout as the crowds did: HOSANNA! They process around the church and are then invited to sit (near the font) to hear about ‘The Servant King’.

  • Servant King

What kind of king did Jesus know himself to be? And how can a king be a servant? Jesus kneels in humility, like a lowly slave, and washes the feet of his disciples. We explain to the children that, in Jesus’ day, when you arrived at someone’s home you would do so on foot. Having walked through the hot, dusty streets – trying your best to avoid the ‘messages’ left by donkeys and other creatures – your sandaled feet would be in quite a state. Your host might instruct a slave to wash your feet before dinner. But who would choose such a job? In this station, the leader offers to wash the feet of one of the children taking part. (It’s a moving experience to be the person doing the washing.) Drying the child’s feet with a towel, we explain that Jesus said he was giving an example: that those who follow the Servant King should also serve. We ask the children to think how they might serve others.

  • Remember Me

In the next station, we gather around a table set for a meal – the last supper at which Jesus explains to his disciples that he will die, giving his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out. The station is called ‘Remember Me’ and we ask the children if they have something at home that reminds them of someone special. Children talk about photographs of pets and grandparents that have died. Others have precious objects, like a teddy or necklace that belonged to a family member. Jesus takes bread and wine, gives thanks to God, and shares them with his friends. ‘Do this’, he says, ‘to remember me.’ We give the children a small piece of pitta bread and some blackcurrant squash (no, not real wine!) to eat and drink, and invite them to remember something about Jesus.

  • Alone

After the meal, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane. There he wrestles with the agony of what he must face. But his friends can’t even stay awake to support him and one of them will betray him. This station is called ‘Alone’. Children from Year 3 at the school had prepared poems about loneliness and they show a deep and moving appreciation of what it feels like to be lonely. In our Garden of Gethsemane, we read words of scripture that Jesus may have thought about: how God is always with us, even in our darkest hours and that, with God in our lives, we are never alone.

  • Sharing our Sorrows

Next, we move to the Cross. As you can imagine, this is a difficult subject for all of us, never mind primary school children. But even young children have the capacity to engage with difficult things. We ask them to sit in silence, holding a small cross, and looking at the wooden cross which stands in the pulpit, draped with red fabric. We ask them to share what the scene makes them think or feel. A number of them talk about the sadness, to think that Jesus died in pain. We explain that the station is called ‘Sharing Our Sorrows’ as we think of how God comes into our world with all its darkness and brokenness to share our lives, sorrows and all. We invite the children to bring their thoughts and prayers (and the crosses they have been holding), and to leave them at the foot of the cross before moving on.

  • Resurrection

     

If this was a Holy Week service for adults, we might end there and invite people to come back to church on Easter Sunday to hear the next part of the story. But we don’t do that with children; we don’t leave them with the sadness of the cross. The final station is, of course, ‘Resurrection’. We have a beautiful Easter garden with an empty tomb set up in the sanctuary of the church and invite the children, like those women on the first Easter day, to look into the tomb. What do you think those women felt? Afraid? Worried? Excited?

‘Experience Easter’ ends with the children being given time to ask questions and to look again at the six stations that tell the story. They are also given a small chocolate egg to take away and challenged to remember, when Easter comes and they open their Easter eggs, the story that they have shared through ‘Experience Easter’.

Many thanks to those who created the six stations and to those who have loaned items to decorate them. Everyone who comes into church will appreciate what has been achieved. ‘Experience Easter’ is a wonderful thing and I hope we will be able to repeat it in future years.

I’m writing this in Holy Week: for me, the full experience of Easter still lies ahead. But our prayer is that many visiting the church for an Easter service, or simply coming in to look around at the stations, will experience the Easter message for themselves: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world for good.

Happy Easter!

Alan Jewell

The Twelve

Mark 14:12-16, 22-25

Last week we heard the story of an unnamed woman who anointed Jesus – he says – in preparation for his burial (Mark 14:3-9). Her giving was lavish and extravagant, to the annoyance of some who were there, but accepted by Jesus. I wondered if, instead of a frugal Lent, we might have an extravagant, lavish Lent – a Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.

Today we think about Twelve men. They have names we might know, although it’s not easy to compile a definitive list. Two of them – Peter and Judas – we will come back to on these Wednesday evenings. Tonight we think about ‘the Twelve’ as a group. It seems that Jesus had a purpose in choosing precisely Twelve apostles, or ‘messengers’ (Mark 3:16–19; Matt 10:2–4; Luke 6:14–16; and Acts 1:13). They are called by Jesus. They spend time with Jesus and are instructed by him. They are promised a role in the coming kingdom (Matt 19:28) and are sent out by him preach and heal. But why 12? What is the significance of their twelveness?

In the Hebrew Bible, the people of God consisted of the 12 tribes of Israel. Way back in Genesis (35:22–26), the patriarch Jacob (AKA Israel) had 12 sons who became the heads of 12 tribes which made up the people of Israel. The number 12 turns up in various places in the OT symbolising the whole people of God. In Exodus (24:4), Moses “built an altar … and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel”. Joshua was told to choose 12 men, one from each of the tribes, to take a stone from the river Jordan and to set them up as a memorial to their crossing the river (Joshua 4). In calling 12 men, Jesus seems to be gathering around himself a new people of God. In the OT story, the 12 tribes became divided and factional: the united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon became a divided kingdom, one northern (Israel) and one southern (Judah). Both north and south went into exile and were dispersed. The idea of drawing the 12 tribes back together became a potent one.

So, Jesus chooses his 12 and sends them out as missionaries to the contemporary people of Israel. In the OT, God’s calling of his people, from Abraham onwards, was never just about them: the people of God were supposed to be a blessing to the whole world.

I’ve just finished reading a book about mental health and I’ve started a book on politics – they are different subjects but there have been some interesting overlaps. Both books talk about community. Our ancestors were social beings. The human race has done so well as a species because we learned to cooperate. On the African savannah our ancestors were surrounded by large, fierce creatures. They managed to survive because they learned to hunt together and to defend themselves as a group. They learned the value of looking out for one another. Both books talk about the loss of community that began in the C20th and has accelerated in the C21st. We live much more separate lives – we have become ‘atomised’. My dad left school and did his apprenticeship at Dowty Rotol. They made parts for aeroplanes. When he retired, he had never worked anywhere else. Every morning he got on the bus and went to work. Every evening he came home on the bus. Some Friday evenings he would take us to the works sports and social club. In the summer, there were fetes and at Christmas, a party for the children. When we went on holiday, usually to Butlins, he would invariably meet someone he knew from work. My children, by contrast, have already had more jobs than my dad had in the whole of his working life. We talk about the gig economy. Zero hours contracts. Work is precarious. Increasingly, people work from home or on a rented desk. Work is no longer providing community.

We think of loneliness as being a problem of old age. And it is. But it’s also a problem for younger generations, who have social media but no social lives. Who have facetime, but no face-to-face time. The image of the modern family is of parents and kids, even in the same room, all looking at different screens. We no longer gather around the telly to watch the Morecambe and Wise show, we binge watch box-sets on demand. Families don’t eat together like they used to.

When I was at university, the personal stereo – the Sony Walkman – was invented. Seeing people walking in the streets with their earphones in, someone I knew commented, “defeated the object of being human”. And now we all do it.

The two books I have referred to both see this as a loss: one talks about the damage we are doing to our mental health, the other to the loss to society of shared experience. Both books say that building community is a project vital to our wellbeing.

But isn’t that what church has always been about? Community? Like the 12, centred on Jesus, learning from him, and sent out by him to mission and service. The time we spend together, the experience we share, the support we give and receive, equip us better to live our lives and to love one another, including those outside the church fellowship

The numbers attending worship are dwindling – partly because of the phenomena I’ve mentioned – and yet the need for community has not diminished. The 12 weren’t perfect – we know that – and neither is the church, present company excepted. But what we have found is – we believe – what the world needs. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t know that it needs what we have! And we are not very good at sharing it.

Jesus calling the 12 is a clue: although our faith is personal, the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone. It is meant to be lived in community; that community is not meant to be a fortress that keeps others out but a beacon of light that welcomes others in. And he calls them together around the meal table.

The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

Mark 14:3-9

When I was in the first year of secondary school, I knew that we were grown up now because our RE teacher, Mr Potter, said to us, conspiratorially, “of course, boys, you know that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute”. I have to say, I didn’t know that: it had never been mentioned in primary school. But it made me feel like an adult to have this information shared with me. By the time I was an adult, I learned that Mr Potter, RE teacher, was wrong. He wasn’t alone. He was repeating an error made in the C6th by Pope Gregory the Great. It turns out that the church hasn’t always been good in the way in which it handles the stories of women. Gregory had confused Mary Magdalene, the disciple from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, with a number of other women in the gospels. As we hear the story of the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany, let’s try to hear her story and not get distracted by any other stories from the gospels.

Mark is probably the earliest gospel: Mark (the author) invented the genre. And the earliest part of Mark’s Gospel is probably the passion narrative (chapters 14 to the end) – which existed before the gospel as we know it, either in written or spoken form. This part of the story is told in more detail than all of Jesus’s life up to this point. In fact, Mark’s Gospel is 16 chapters long and by the start of chapter 11, we are already entering Jerusalem, the beginning of the end (apparently).

Mark gives us the story of Holy Week day by day, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the resurrection of Jesus. So, two days before the Passover, the chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus and have him killed. Not during the festival or there may be a riot. So, Mark tells us, it’s Wednesday of Holy Week (as we would call it). Jesus is in Bethany, at the home of ‘Simon the leper’, eating a meal, and a woman arrives with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, which she pours on Jesus’s head.

It’s perfumed oil, made from an exotic plant. At St Matthew’s a couple of years ago, in Holy Week, we thought about the stories of the passion narrative in terms of our senses – sight, sound, taste. touch… – and we used this story to think about the sense of smell. In our world, scented candles, aromatherapy oils and diffusers are common. But Mark tells us that the woman had an alabaster jar of “very costly ointment”. She broke open the jar and poured the contents on Jesus’s head. This is an extravagant gesture. The scented oil was worth more than 300 denarii. A denarius is a day’s wage for a labourer. This perfume cost getting on for a year’s wages.

What a waste! The disciples say. What a waste! We could have given that money to the poor! Jesus’s reply (“you always have the poor with you”) could sound callous. His point is not, There will always be poor people, get used to it! What he says is, you will have many opportunities to give to the poor – his assumption is that giving to the poor is a natural part of what it means to be a follower of his – but at this precise moment, what this woman has chosen to do is to make a “lavish offering of inspired devotion”. It’s spontaneous and generous and extravagant. She may not have understood what she was doing but Jesus gives an interpretation: she has anointed my body for burial. She has done what she could. At this precise moment in the story, what more could anyone have done, other than anoint his body in preparation for burial?

At this point, I could break into a sermon about giving: this woman gave a year’s wages. How much do you put in the plate on a Sunday? I want you to get out your chequebook – we don’t take cards and you won’t have enough cash on you – and prove your love for God by making an extravagant donation!

But I’ll spare you that. The story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is a story of extravagance – there were 12 baskets left over after everyone had eaten! Jesus turning water into wine is a story of extravagance – 120 gallons of wine, after everyone has been drinking for days! This woman gets it.

When we are afraid, we live in a world where resources seem limited. “There’s a limited supply of happiness. If you’re happy, that takes away from my happiness.” But it doesn’t work like that! If you can be happy for other people, you’ll discover there is an unlimited supply of happiness. (“I’m happy for you” is sometimes said through gritted teeth. But what a skill to master! You’re happy. I’m happy! There’s an unlimited supply of happiness!)

How much love is there in the world? A limited supply? If you’ve got love in your life, does that mean there’s less for me?

No. As the children’s song has it:

It’s just like a magic penny,

Hold it tight and you won’t have any.

Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many

They’ll roll all over the floor.

For love is something if you give it away,

Give it away, give it away.

Love is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

 

We often think of Lent as being about abstinence, being frugal. But what about an extravagant Lent? A lavish Lent? A Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.

The unnamed woman with the alabaster jar gets it. And, Mark tells us, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”. And it is. And her story challenges us to get it too.

Love Is In The Air…

This year, Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, falls on 14th February, otherwise known as St Valentine’s Day. This may cause problems for devout romantics as we try to reconcile our Lenten discipline with the extravagance of love… (Maybe transfer your Valentine’s celebration to the day before and take your beloved out for pancakes?)

We will be marking the start of Lent (on Valentine’s Day!) with a service of Holy Communion, with the imposition of Ashes, at St Matthew’s at 7:30 PM on Ash Wednesday. Then, on the following Wednesday evenings during Lent, we will have our usual service of night prayer (also known as ‘Compline’). If you have never been to one of these, I recommend them: it’s a short service (about 25 minutes) of quiet reflection and prayer.

I am also hoping that we will have enough takers for a Lent Course. This will probably be held on Tuesday evenings at the vicarage. If you are interested, let me know and I will confirm the details for you.

For the romantics, with thoughts of love around this time, we are again holding our Weddings Afternoon at St Matthew’s. It will be at 2:00 PM on Sunday 11th February – the nearest Sunday to St Valentine’s Day. As in previous years, we have invited couples who have booked weddings at St Matthew’s to attend but the occasion is open to anyone who would like to join us. I’m sorry to say that we have very few weddings currently booked – there are just 4 at St Matthew’s and 2 at St Cross for the whole of 2018.

The dearth of weddings being planned may make you wonder whether love is, actually, all around or not. Of course, people still fall in love and get married. But increasingly, they don’t make the connection between romance and family life, and what the church has to offer. The most recent statistics show that only a quarter of weddings (26%) include a religious ceremony. These days, the choice that couples have is greater than ever – from hotels to stately homes and other venues. The Christian Church needs to make more of the fact that the very heart of our message is love:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4.16).

Making that connection – between the love of God and people’s daily lives is our constant challenge – demonstrating that our faith in the God who is love makes a positive difference to the lives that we lead.

One of the problems with Lent is that it might look like we are not really good enough for God; that we have to improve our lives before God will find us acceptable. But that is not the message of the Gospel. Before his public ministry begins, Jesus is baptised by John in the river Jordan. As he comes out of the water, he hears a voice from heaven:

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1.11)

This is before Jesus has done anything! Before his public ministry of teaching and healing; before his miracles; before his death and resurrection. Before any of that, God affirms that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and that God is already pleased with him!

As we make our journey through Lent and as we celebrate the love that we have for one another, maybe we need to hear God’s affirming word to us:

You are my child. I love you. I’m pleased with you!

And on that basis, let’s get on with loving God and loving one another. Not in order to win God’s favour but in simple gratitude for knowing ourselves loved. We need to know that love is, actually, all around!

Alan Jewell

Two stories…

In Mark 3.7-12 we read of the crowds following Jesus. There is “a great multitude”; we hear of “great numbers” and Jesus is concerned that he will be crushed by the crowd… And then we look at the church that we belong to. At our church council meetings, we receive a report on attendance. Spoiler alert: attendance is dropping. Year on year, fewer people are coming to church. As a vicar, that’s discouraging. And it’s not just us. In 2011, the Church Growth Research and Development website described the Church of England as being in the ‘Last Chance Saloon’. That was six years ago. Things have not improved. Of particular concern is the attendance of children. In the decade to 2016, adult attendance dropped by 13%. With children (under 16s), the fall was 22%. The average Church of England church has three children in it. 25% of churches have no children at all. (Last Sunday, at St Matthew’s, there was one child. I think there were two at St Cross.)

As you know, we are about to employ a children and families worker to try to address this situation. But what of the church we hope that children and families will join?

In Mark 3:8 we read that the crowds had heard all that Jesus was doing. That’s why they turn up to see and hear for themselves What is our community hearing about us and about Jesus? What they hear is a church that often inward looking, fighting its own battles – many of which are irrelevant to the wider world – and on its way out. Those of us who are part of the church know that there is good news too: in church, people find love, welcome, acceptance and purpose.

There is healing too – maybe not as spectacular as the miracles we read about in the New Testament – but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. People find support which helps them to live their lives.

I was reading an interview with Russell Brand. You may know him as a comedian, actor, writer and political activist. Many churchgoers would find his comedy and his persona crude, coarse, and vulgar. He is a brash, shocking character who has struggled with addiction. He was in a self-destructive cycle and was rescued from addiction by a 12-step programme. But this interview quotes him as saying something which may be most shocking of all:

“My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been.”

As an addict, he believes that the world of today is addicted to instant gratification. How do we break out of that cycle? By inviting God into our lives. That’s what he learned from his 12-step programme and he’s become an evangelist for it.

I’m not holding up Russell Brand as a perfect example of orthodox Christianity – far from it! Who knows whether his transformation will last and what long-term impact it will have? But the story he tells about Christian faith and spirituality is far more positive than many we hear.

Brand believes that investing in Christian spirituality has saved him. That’s old-fashioned language, ‘saved’! Most Christians don’t talk like that any more. But Brand believes that what he has discovered personally has the power to transform the world. He says the Lord’s Prayer every day and found himself asking, what does it mean to pray “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven”? It’s not enough to be transformed oneself. We need to seek the transformation of the world in which we live. The world is addicted to instant gratification and needs to be saved.

So there are two stories about Jesus. The one the church tells which is often negative and unappealing. And there’s the one told by those whose lives have been transformed by their encounter with the God who is made known in Jesus Christ.

Salvator Mundi

Sermon preached at St Cross, Appleton Thorn at 11:30 PM Holy Communion on Sunday 24 December 2017 / Christmas Night

Introduction

On 15th November this year, a painting came up for sale at Christie’s in New York. The successful bidder paid $450 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. In 1958, it had gone for £45, which, with inflation, is a little under £1000 in today’s money. So, what happened? In 2011, the painting was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Before that, it had been believed to be by one of his pupils or some unknown artist, possibly a copy of the original. (Some art experts are still not convinced that it is a genuine Leonardo, so, you pays your money…)

The picture is called Salvator Mundi – Saviour of the World – and was painted around 1500. It’s a picture of Jesus Christ, holding the cosmos in his left hand and raising his right hand in blessing. Jesus is the Saviour of the World and he could be yours for $450m.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser, writing about Salvator Mundi makes a connection between what was happening in Italy in the early 1500s, when Leonardo was active, and what was happening in Germany not long after. In 1517, an Augustinian monk in the university town of Wittenberg had been struggling with how to get right with God. If God is righteous, what chance do we stand?

The monk’s name was Martin Luther and he had concluded that

despite his rigorous standard of living, nothing he was capable of as a human being would ever be good enough for God. And that, if God was entirely just – that is, if God judged us according to our merits – then all of us are in deep trouble.

Luther was reading St Paul’s letter to the Romans and trying to understand the expression, “the righteousness of God”. He took this to mean that God is just and punishes the unjust. How could God do otherwise? Luther knew that, as a monk, his life was impeccable. And yet he also knew himself to be a sinner. Nothing he could do would ever satisfy God. Luther the monk didn’t love God. In fact, he hated God because he believed that God was and ought to be angry with him.

And then Luther looked again at St Paul’s phrase, “the righteousness of God” (Romans 1:17) and the idea that “the just shall live by faith”.

Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…” (Here I Stand, A Life of Martin Luther)

In other words, Luther the impeccable monk knew that he wasn’t good enough for God. Imagine trying to save up to buy the Salvator Mundi. It doesn’t matter how much I save or how hard I work, even if I save and work to the day I die, I’m never going to achieve the $450m. I don’t stand a chance! Luther knew that he could never earn God’s salvation. What he discovered in scripture was that God is not just ‘righteous’ but also merciful. You’ll never be able to afford the Saviour of the World – no matter how good you are or how religious – but what if the Saviour of the World offered himself to you as a gift, a free gift? This insight, that God offers us salvation not as a reward for being good, but as a gift to be received by faith, transformed not just Luther but the world in which we live. It was the rediscovery of this idea that began the protestant reformation 500 years ago.

Conclusion

The Good News of Christmas is that the Saviour of the World comes to us as a gift. God isn’t waiting for you to be good enough or religious enough. The New Testament says that it was while we were still sinners, that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

That’s how we know God loves us. The Christian life is not about being good or being holy or righteous or religious. It’s about being loved. And loving in return. And love cannot be bought or sold. It can only be given and received as a gift.

And, unlike Santa, there is no naughty list, no nice list, there is just a ‘loved’ list. And your name is on it. Whether you are naughty or nice, your name is on God’s list. The point of the Christmas gospel message is that it is a free gift. Jesus, laid in a manger, the servant of all, obedient to death on a cross, risen, ascended, glorified, is yours.

Additional Collect

Eternal God,
in the stillness of this night
you sent your almighty Word
to pierce the world’s darkness with the light of salvation:
give to the earth the peace that we long for
and fill our hearts with the joy of heaven
through our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.