1 Kings 3.5-12
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The famous Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky developed a theory of what he called “Permanent Revolution”. And at times we might be forgiven that the Church of England has adopted his theory as its guiding principle. My lifetime has seen enormous changes in the Church, especially in its ministry and in its liturgy. Some of us will feel that some of those changes have been welcome, some of us will feel that some of them have been less so, some of us will feel that the changes have not gone far enough, and others will wish that none of them had happened at all. But I am fairly sure that everyone will agree that we have lived through a period of change, and that doesn’t look like changing any time soon.
Some of you will have heard the news about the closure of a number of well-known church and even cathedral choirs as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This news has been met with shock and grief by many, the more so as there is a suspicion that these closures are more about a preconceived agenda of radical change than about responding in a pragmatic way to a crisis. I cannot comment on that, because I am not party to the facts in any of these cases. And please rest assured that there are certainly no such plans here. But it is true that there are many within the Church of England, including many of the clergy, who have little sympathy with the traditions of the Church, whether that be our sacred spaces or our sacred music, or our liturgical traditions. There is a profound sense of a loss of confidence in our own ways of doing things, and an inflated level of respect given to ideas from the secular world. In this view, our churches should be re-ordered to look like offices or living rooms; and managerial rather than theological or pastoral experience is most highly sought-after in senior clergy appointments.
Of course this is an exaggeration, a caricature, but it contains an element of truth. There is a sense of change for change’s sake, of embracing things that come from outside the Church because they look new and different, with inadequate refection on what is lost in the process.
Change for change’s sake is damaging and wrong, but what those of us who are more traditionally-minded must guard against is a cold traditionalism that rejects change out-of-hand. There has always been change. Throughout its history, the Church has been renewed by new movements, things that seemed startling and strange at the time, but which came to be accepted and embraced.
The point is to discern which changes are the right ones; which changes are natural and helpful developments of our faith and practice and tradition, and which are not. We might be forgiven for thinking that we will need the wisdom of Solomon for this task of discernment, and we could do worse than to pray with Solomon for that wisdom.
“…every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
Many biblical scholars regard this mini-parable of Jesus as the evangelist’s calling-card. The gospel according to S. Matthew is the gospel that is the most deeply-rooted in the traditions of the Jewish faith of Jesus’ time, and in its sacred texts. The Hebrew scriptures are cited again and again, and Jesus is portrayed as both a new Moses and a new David. “…every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Against those who would throw out the riches of the Hebrew scriptures and the traditions of the Jewish faith, S. Matthew suggests that we must value that which is old, that we must delve into the ancient treasures to find the keys to our present experiences. But that must not stop us from also treasuring that which is new.
And so in our own context we can see that which is new. You can see down there in the pew the computer and camera. We have had to use new technologies to bring our worship into the homes of those who are unable to join us, and for a while this was the only way for us to worship together at all. This is new, and yet in another way it is not new, as the church has throughout history used technologies to more effectively proclaims the gospel, from the printing press to the television to the internet.
We have also introduced many new things together here over the past couple of years, some of them sadly now on hold. We have found news ways of doing bible study, we have introduced a toddler group and a youth group, we have sought ways of involving children in our liturgy. We have found new ways of giving to the parish. And we will have to continue to do new things as needs and circumstances change.
But that does not mean that we have to throw out that which is good of the old.
If you look at the inside cover of your service booklet, you will see a quotation from something called the First Apology of Justin Martyr. Justin was a second-century Christian, whose writings are one of the most important sources we have for the practice of the early church after New Testament times. I will read you slightly different extract from the same work:
We do not consume the Eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink…
The Apostles, in their memoirs, which are called “Gospels”, have handed down to us what Jesus command them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: “Do this in memory of me. This is my body”. In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: “This is my blood”. The Lord gave this command to them alone.
On Sundays we hold an assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or in the outlying districts. The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us urging everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.
When we have finished praying, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks as well as possible, and the people give their assent by saying: “Amen”. Then follows the distribution of the food over which the prayer of thanksgiving has been recited; everyone present receives some, and the deacons take some to those who are absent.
You will have noticed that what is described here is what we are doing this morning. The form is essentially the same. The language of course has changed, and no doubt the culture of the second-century Church was very different from that of the twenty-first. But still we gather, we hear readings from the sacred scriptures, you listen to my attempts at explanation and exhortation, and prayers are offered. Bread, wine, and water are brought to the altar, and I offer prayers and give thanks as well as possible, and you give your assent with an Amen.
This has remained at the heart of Christian worship since the Last Supper. There can be no doubt about that. There is consistent testimony to this fact in the gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles, in S. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and in such documentary evidence as we have from the earliest Christian decades. The smell of wine on the breath on a Sunday morning could send Christians to their deaths, and still they met and shared the holy mysteries together. Through the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Black Death, the Reformation and the Thirty Years War, the Industrial Revolution and the appalling conflicts of the twentieth century, this has remained the consistent pattern of Christian worship, or to put it another way, the Church has been faithful to our Lord’s command.
And in one sense we might think of this as bringing out of our treasure something old. Of course it is old, a little short of 2000 years old. And we might think of it also as bringing out of our treasure something new, as the context and culture in which the liturgy is celebrated changes and continues to change, and we find new ways to express eternal truths and to celebrate this ancient rite. But on another level, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we are bringing out of our treasure something which is both old and new, because the Lord Jesus who we receive in this sacrament is both old and new. He is the One who stands outside of time, the Word of God, eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds, the One who says “behold, I make all things new”. Through His presence and in the power of the Holy Spirit we are refreshed and revived, our faith is renewed, and we are a new creation in Him, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and forever.