Eucharist Sermon - 11 July 2021

The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Ephesians 1:3–14; Mark 6:14–29
The Revd Dr Christopher Landau, Honorary Cathedral Chaplain

I never cease to tire of the brief conversations one has after evensong as the congregation leaves this place. A few days ago, I met a visiting student from Las Vegas, taking part in a week’s seminar run by the Oxford Character Project. 

The student had a question about the choir. Is everyone in it a Christian? He asked. 

The precentor gave what I thought was a rather magnificent answer – no, but singing evensong is not a bad place to explore faith.

I suspect many who are drawn here in any given week, whether in the choir or congregation, value the cathedral as a bridge – a bridge between faith and doubt – between worldly realities and glimpses of heaven – perhaps even as a bridge between despair and hope.

And of course this particular cathedral has a unique role as a bridge into a world-class university. 

The day after the evensong I officiated at this week, I happened across an item on the university website heralding a landmark partnership with a banking group - for research collaboration on sustainable finance and investment. I realised I recognised the man pictured at a signing ceremony with the vice chancellor – because, like the student from Las Vegas, he too had been at evensong. 

It means both of them heard some of St Paul’s wisdom, from the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans: 

‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.’

Today we have heard from Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians – a breathless opening, forming just one sentence in the Greek, with a vast array of theological claims being made.

But might I suggest one overarching theme: that this faith matters. 
And in this building, whether we are convinced by the gospel, full of doubt, or somewhere in between, we can hardly fail to notice the wholehearted confidence that these earliest Christians placed in the Lord Jesus Christ. 

A confidence in playing their part in his divine plan; and a determination not merely to love their neighbour, but to be holy and blameless in his sight. 

This morning, I invite you to think not merely about what you may or may not believe, but about the kind of person you are called to become.

This building played its own part in my decision to leave behind life as a BBC correspondent and train for ordination. 

In 2006, I brought a BBC News film crew here to interview the late Marilyn McCord Adams, then regius professor of divinity. We wanted to talk with a senior woman priest as the Church of England prepared for an in-principle decision on women becoming bishops. I remember us filming her at a seminar with graduate students, and then here reading at evensong. 

Afterwards, the camera operator returned to London, but I stayed behind, and prayed. 

Somehow I couldn’t shake off a sense that there was work with a deeper purpose going on here; though at that point, it would have seemed utterly fanciful that some years later I would be pursuing my own doctoral research, across the quad with Professor Biggar. 

Given recent local events you may be amused to hear my topic: disagreement among Christians. 

One of the great attributes of the Bible, on show in our gospel reading today, is its unwillingness to gloss over the awkward. Human moral failure, moments of apparent disaster in the church’s early mission, even yes the gruesome details of John the Baptist’s beheading, are not hushed up or airbrushed out. 
This, after all, is a constituent part of the truth that, in Jesus’ own words, will make us free. 

But might I dare to suggest that this is a truth that takes us even deeper than glorious music and architecture. Paul’s concern, one might say, is to ensure that the beauty of Christ is visible - among his followers … not just in their places of worship. If we fail to notice our sin, and atone for it, we fail to live in the fullness of the Christian calling. 

As verse 7 puts it, ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.’

The question is, to what extent have we sought to discover what is then referred to as the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

We are invited to participate in nothing less than this drawing together of earth and heaven. 

In my own experience it can be easy to gloss over that extraordinary claim within the Eucharistic prayer that our praise joins with that of the angels and archangels – but that is the true mystery and majesty of the holy communion we will shortly enjoy. 

Might it be that our challenge, even as we relish an aesthetic experience in this place of musical and architectural beauty; is to dare to ask whether this could be a meal that prompts something even deeper; something yet more profound.

So that we, in our day, to paraphrase verse 12, like those ‘who were the first to set their hope on Christ’, - so that we might live for the praise of his glory.

For a few years now my prayer for Christ Church has been that it will be a place where the truth brings freedom. 

The Christian hope is that no darkness can ultimately overwhelm the light of Christ – but as we well know, that hope alone cannot prevent clouds gathering, nor safeguard us against what the Authorised version refers to as the wiles of the devil. 

I assume that most of us will not have the opportunity to ask for an enemy’s head to appear on a plate. But all of us have the opportunity to choose to live a recognisably Christian life, where we reveal love to our neighbour near and far; where we pursue justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. 

For St Paul, the pursuit of loving unity within the body of Christ was a priority he frequently articulated. 

Not least at Romans 12.18, where we read, ‘If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’

This was hardly Herodias’ approach as she demanded John’s head on a platter. 

Later, Paul reminds the Romans that ‘the Kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’

Whatever our personal state of faith or doubt, hope or despair, these are surely attractive qualities to live by. 

The Kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Please God, may those qualities abound in this place. Amen.