What Jesus means to me

"Rector’s Letter"
January 2003

It has become a tradition at St Peter’s for members of the congregation to be asked to give a ‘sermon’ on a given theme during Advent. This year we continue this by printing as a Rector’s Letter, the sermon given by Armorel Young on Sunday December 15 2002

Thank you, Andrew and the PCC, for inviting me to speak. I wasn’t quite so sure that I wanted to thank you for the topic of this series as it was first put to me: “What Jesus means to me”. Isn’t that choice of words a bit un-St-Peter’s-like? It sounds rather dangerously personal, an invitation to describe at a rather profound and intimate level what makes us tick, a request for a sort of personal testimony. Isn’t there a church just down the road from here where you can go if you want to hear faith talked about in those sort of terms?

But if we don’t feel entirely comfortable with the language of “What Jesus means to me” let us allow the meaning of the question to re-clothe itself in slightly different words. I’m in reassuringly good company here because the Rector did exactly that in his sermon on this topic two weeks ago. Andrew pointed out that “What Jesus means to me” is simply another way of saying: “And who do you say that I am?” We’ve have heard that somewhere before. All three of the Synoptic Gospels record how Jesus put this question as he walked with his disciples in the territory of Caesarea Philippi. That question was addressed not to one person but to all the disciples, and it echoes down the centuries to all of us: And you, who do you say that I am?

Age of uncertainty

To the first asking of the question, Peter of course replied with that great confession of faith: You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, to which Jesus responded with the affirmation on which the church and this church would be built: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church”. When the question comes to us, what can we say, speaking as the people that we uniquely are and as people of our time and place? What can we say that comes from the heart, that expresses not what we have learned by rote or feel that we ought to say, but what we have felt and lived and truly believed? The confidence of Peter’s statement of faith might well not come so easily to us. It is, I think, for us both a freedom and a burden that we live in an age when everything can and is being questioned, an age that has more questions than it does answers, an age of uncertainty. Questions lead readily to doubt, and doubt leads to fear, and before we know where we are we can find ourselves in a very dark and inhospitable world indeed. There cannot be many of us here who have not at times in our lives experienced just how deep the darkness of an apparently godless night can be. Let us not be afraid to acknowledge that and to find ways of sharing and exploring that experience if we need to.

But to return to the task in hand. Today it is my turn to, as it were, be tapped on the shoulder by one of those market researchers in Clumber Street and to be asked, not what mobile phone network I use or whether I watch digital television, but what I have to say about Jesus. Of the many possible answers I am going to give just a brief one which to me both says little and says much. It’s an answer a bit like that trick where a magician pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and it turns out to be a whole string of knotted handkerchiefs that appear to have no end. You go on unpacking the parcel and find there is always more to be discovered. I am going to say that for me Jesus is the person who, on the night that he was betrayed, took bread and blessed it.

Facing darkness

Just think for a moment about the first part of that phrase. On the night that he was betrayed. On the night before his execution. On the night preceding a day of torture and trial, humiliation, pain and death. What would you do if you knew that these things awaited you tomorrow? For my part, with the best will in the world, I think that I might be tempted to follow the advice which used to circulate in the school playground:

When in danger or in doubt
Run in circles, scream and shout”.

But this of course is not the way of Jesus. He has another way to show us. It is not the way of panic or despair or self-pity or self-absorption. It is just the way of being there. For it seems to me that in this night of his betrayal Jesus stands alongside every person living and departed who has also faced the night of darkness and despair, whether this darkness be physical, psychological or spiritual, whether it be external or internal. He stands alongside every person who has been tortured or killed for no other reason than that he or she holds the wrong views or belongs to the wrong ethnic or religious group or has incurred the displeasure of a tyrannical government or a lawless mob. He demonstrates a way of being alongside every person who awaits the doctor’s diagnosis or the results of hospital tests, everyone who painfully participates in the progression of another’s illness or decline, everyone who watches the lives of young people be dissipated in joblessness or meaninglessness or anger; everyone who wonders fearfully what the news of tomorrow may bring in personal or national or international terms. And therefore sometimes in a tense or frustrating or difficult situation I will simply say to myself “In the night that he was betrayed…” These are words that give me an alternative to the way of panic or despair; they are words that can continue to reverberate in my mind, underpinning whatever is going on at an outward level; they can take on a life of their own and live in me even when I am not consciously attending to them. Those of you who are familiar with the repetition of the Jesus Prayer will I think recognise a parallel with what I am talking about.

Everyday lives

In the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took bread and blessed it. Those few words, of course, mean so much because they point within themselves to the story which comes after, the story with which we are so familiar because we commemorate it here week by week. Jesus took bread and blessed it and shared it with his disciples. Countless books have been written and sermons preached on the eucharistic theme. To attempt to say anything more about that myself feels indeed like fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. But let me do just one thing, and that is tell you about a picture.

If you go to Belvoir Castle, not very far from here, you can see a picture of the Last Supper painted by the Flemish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst, the father-in-law of Brueghel the Elder, in the first half of the sixteenth century. As in the famous picture of the Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci some fifty years earlier, the twelve disciples sit with Jesus around a long table as he blesses the bread and wine. In da Vinci’s picture the disciples are attentive and reverent, immersed in the significance of the moment and their devotion to their Lord. The painting you can see at Belvoir shows something quite different. In the centre a calm and dignified Jesus blesses the food placed upon the table, but all around him is chaos and disarray. Several of the disciples are engaged in animated private conversations with their neighbours; others are looking bored and have turned away to stare vacantly into space; one has much too large a pitcher of wine and to cap it all a couple of dogs are fighting under the table. It is a picture of confusion that makes me smile, but does it not have a serious point too? For the gift of bread and wine is given not just into the reverence and serenity of a setting such as we enjoy in this ancient church, but into the disorder and muddle of our everyday lives. It is the muddle of the real world, where all sorts of things overlap and conflict and happen simultaneously, the world where, in W H Auden’s words, momentous things happen “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”.

One of the privileges of having been a member of this church for quite some years is that one builds up relationships, gets to know people, and I dare say, gets to be known by them. The truly interesting thing that happens then is that what might to the visitor seem an undifferentiated sea of ordinary faces takes on a quite different range and depth as one gets to know people and events past and present which have made them who they are. On any one Sunday in this church there will be people facing a whole range of different problems and challenges, some of which will be of almost overwhelming difficulty and complexity, although you probably wouldn’t know it by looking at the faces of those concerned. There will be others who are celebrating happy or exciting events in their lives; and yet others who are perhaps bored or finding life a little humdrum because not a great deal is going on for them at all. Life is rarely neat and tidy and it is certainly not one size fits all.

So the bread is broken and shared, not apart from life’s complexities but in the midst of them. It is shared without distinction with the friend and the betrayer, with the bored and the attentive, with the pious and the worldly, with those who think they understand and with the completely uncomprehending. And perhaps the uncomprehending have got a point, for who would have thought that this sharing of bread and wine could be an answer to any sort of problem at all? It is as though there has to be a different framework, a new perspective, a way of seeing things with fresh eyes, and perhaps the invitation to participate in the eucharist is an invitation to step into this world where things are different.

Let us just return to that phrase with which I started out. “On the night that he was betrayed, he took bread and blessed it”. I said that for me part of the attraction of these words is that they encapsulate so much more than at first glance they appear to say. It’s a bit like those words of nurse Edith Cavell on the eve of her execution: “Patriotism is not enough”. That’s not much of a statement, you might say, but what is the corollary to it? “Patriotism is not enough: I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”. Where would road rage be if we all took those words to heart, not as a glib slogan but as an aspect of faith that we have allowed to take root and grow within us. And similarly the words “On the night that he was betrayed, he took bread and blessed it” can take root and grow to reveal more of the presence and the intimacy and the mystery and the hope of this Jesus who meets us here today.

Armorel Young

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 1st January 2003