On Wednesday this week, it was my privilege to institute the Revd. Gary Wilton as Vicar of All Saints, Ecclesall, to the south west of Sheffield.  Like all institutions it was a big occasion for the parish and for Gary who comes to this new ministry from Brussels where he has been the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the European Union and a Canon at the Pro-Cathedral.

Gary chose as the New Testament reading the profound passage from 2 Corinthians 5.16-21 which sets reconciliation at the heart of the gospel and at the heart of Christian ministry. This is a slightly edited version of the sermon as preached on Wednesday. Reconciliation

“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself and….entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation”

It is very good indeed to be here this evening and to share in this service for which we have waited for a considerable time.  It is good to celebrate a new beginning, a moment of new creation for All Saints, this wonderful church community, and for Gary.  The moment is pregnant with possibility.

It is good to take time to reflect this evening on the wonder of the Christian faith we hold and celebrate.  It is good to reflect on how much that faith is needed in every life, in every church and in every part of God’s world.

“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself and….entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation”

We need no reminder this week that our world is full of conflict.  Enmity, hatred and hostility are on the front pages and at the head of the news bulletins.  All of us will have been moved by the civil war in Syria and the terrible consequences for those who have died, for the injured, for the refugees and especially for Syria’s children.  We share a horror at the effects and use of chemical weapons and we condemn them.  All of us will have prayed for peace.  Most of us will have wrestled with the question of whether armed intervention is right or wrong.  If, like myself, you believe it to be wrong in this case, there is some relief at the decision taken by parliament last week.  But there  remains a wrestling with the dreadful dilemma of what the world can do to help the people of Syria and the region at this time.

The conflict in Syria is simply the worst of a number of conflicts around the world– though it is the worst by a considerable margin.  There is hostility and conflict across north Africa and the Middle East; in Iraq and Afghanistan; across many parts of Africa; between north and south Korea.

We look and we wonder.  What is it that drives people to enmity and war?  What is it about the human condition that divides us and makes us hostile to one another?  We see the evidence of division in our history, in the great conflicts of the world but in bitter disputes within our own nation.  Racial and religious tension is part of life in our own nation. Hostility and indifference to others scars many communities.

The anger and sometimes the violence are the symptoms of the deeper problem.  All of us will be aware of families scarred by deep feuds and divisions and hostility often over many years.  We will know of marriages which end in bitterness, whether or not they end in divorce.  We will know of parents estranged from their children, siblings who do not speak, homes where is hatred rather than love.

Even the Church does not escape the quarrels and divisions which are part of the human condition.  We too easily divide into our tribes as we wrestle with the great questions of the day. Most local churches struggle at some point with disagreement and difficulty and such moments are intensely painful but not, I am afraid, unusual.

Everywhere we look, it seems, there is division and hostility, even when we look inside our hearts.  So let’s listen very carefully to Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians:

“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself and….entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation”

Ponder that phrase: entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.

Paul describes a new vision of humanity and of the world, a way to see things differently. That new vision arises only and directly from the death of Jesus on the cross.  Jesus died for all, he writes in verse 15.

“From now on therefore we regard no-one from a human point of view” (verse 16). Our perspective is changed completely. There is no them and us because Christ died for all.

“If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation, the old has passed away; see everything has become new”.

Because you are in Christ, you have been remade by God and that includes your vision of the world.  The world itself has been remade and is being remade by God in Christ.  That profoundly changes our perspective.

That change of perspective sets the scene for one of the deepest passages in the whole of Paul’s writing about the importance of the gospel for the world.

“All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the message of reconciliation”

Enmity and hatred and hostility are at the heart of the human condition and in our own hearts. As individuals, left to ourselves, we are estranged from God.  God has come to us in Christ.  God has made peace with us through the death of Jesus on the cross.  Reconciliation is God’s gift to us.  Peace is made with our creator deep within our hearts as a person received God’s gift in Jesus, as we repent of our sins and place our faith in Christ.  This is the great mystery at the heart of our faith.

But there is even more.

“All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the message of reconciliation”

Even as we become reconciled to God through Christ, so we are entrusted with the message of reconciliation to others.  Just to make sure we have received that message Paul repeats exactly the same thought in the following verse:

“that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself….and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us”.

Reconciliation is at the heart of the Christian gospel and of the Christian faith. Reconciliation between people and God and reconciliation between different people and different groups of people.  The invitation has gone out from God, because of Christ, for all people to be reconciled to him in and through the cross.  As we are reconciled to God so we are reconciled to one another.  As we are reconciled to God and one another so we become bearers of the message of reconciliation to the world.

There is similar language in Ephesian, words we use in the Eucharist:

“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both Jews and Gentiles one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us……”

“[his purpose is] to create one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross” (from Ephesians 2.14ff).

In Christ we have been reconciled to God. In Christ there is the place of reconciliation between human kind.  In Christ we have become bearers of the message of reconciliation.

In a few moments time, I will formally institute Gary as Vicar of this parish. He will kneel in prayer to God as I read the license which is the warrant for his ministry.  I will then give the license to him with these solemn words:

“Receive the cure of souls which is both yours and mine in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

This cure of souls is not the ministry of being nice to those who come to Church. The cure of souls is the ministry of reconciliation to be exercised among the 20,000 people who live in this parish and the half a million people who live in this city.  The cure of souls is the healing of enmity and division between people and God.  The cure of souls is the reconciliation of families and factions and cliques.  The cure of souls is the proclaiming and living the gospel of peace and justice in God’s whole creation.

The cure of souls is formally entrusted to Gary as your Vicar but this ministry of reconciliation is not his alone.  It is entrusted to the whole Church.  Each of us is commissioned to carry that message, to work for peace, to be an agent of God’s love in the world, to bear Christ in our communities.  Each of you is called in this place to create a community of reconciliation in this parish church in which, God willing, many men and women and children will be reconciled to God through Christ.  Each of you is called to create a community of reconciliation which will influence and shape this parish and this city and, God willing, the whole world.

“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself and….entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation”

Paul ends this part of his letter with a strong appeal to the Church in Corinth: “So we are ambassadors of Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ be reconciled to God”.

Gary is leaving one ministry of reconciliation in his ministry to the European union: a project whose aim is create a single society and community out of diverse nations. He is beginning today a new ministry of reconciliation, building up the body of Christ in this place  for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

This ministry of reconciliation has never been more needed than it is today.  God needs you to be people of peace in the Church, in the wider community and in the world.

“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself and….entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation”


I’ve been to London today for a Celebration and Consultation on self supporting ministry.  The Celebration was in Southwark Cathedral and marked the 50th anniversary of the first ordinations from the Southwark Ordination Course in 1963.  The consultation was with around 80 people from most of the Dioceses in the Church of England about the nature and the future of self supporting ordained ministry.

All the material from the consultations will be on the Ministry Division website in due course but here is my sermon from the Cathedral this morning

Generosity, humility, liminality A Sermon at “A New Pattern of Priesthood” Celebration and Consultation Southwark Cathedral 17th May, 2013

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John do you love me more than these?”[1]

All of us here will have reflected many times on this encounter between Simon Peter and the Lord.  St. John tells the story as a lesson in grace, restoration and love.  But it is especially a story about vocation and the vocation to feed Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross.

For many it is a story which recurs in the account of our own vocation to be priests in the Church of God, a story to which we return again and again as we understand more deeply what it is to offer our lives to this ministry.  A few months ago, I stood beside the excavated tombs underneath the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome reputed to be the tomb of Peter himself and listened again to these familiar words and once again was deeply moved.  In this encounter Jesus calls Simon the son of John to become once again Peter, the living rock from which the church will be fashioned.

A key moment in the story is the phrasing of the first question and Simon Peter’s reply.  “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Here is a question which invites an extravagant, passionate, declaration of love and faithfulness.  Here is a question which tests our hearts in a number of different ways. Simon Peter reply reveals he knows himself only too well.  His love has been tested and is deep and real yet so is his knowledge of himself.  He declines the invitation to compare himself with others and replies, simply: “Yes, Lord, you know I love you”. “Feed my lambs”.

We celebrate today a very significant development in ordained ministry in the Church of England.  Fifty years ago the first candidates were ordained from the Southwark Ordination Course heralding the development of new forms of training and new patterns of ordained ministry.  These new patterns of priesthood have been and are an immense blessing to the kingdom of God and to the Church.  With the hindsight of fifty years, those ordinations stand out as a landmark in the development of the life of the Church of England.  Like the Great Wall of China they are visible from space. The new patterns of priesthood which flowed from them continue to develop. We continue to explore and understand the gift we have been given.  These new patterns are likely to be more not less significant in the fifty years to come.

So it is right that we should celebrate today the generosity and grace of God in these ministries. It is right that we should celebrate the gifts and foresight of those who led this development in the life of Southwark Diocese and the wider church: the prophets, like Roland Allen, the bishops, especially Mervyn Stockwood and John Robinson, the staff of the Southwark Ordination Course and its cousins and successors.

Stockwood writes eloquently about the Course in his autobiography.  In his enthronement sermon in this Cathedral he said “I should like to see cautious experiments with a new type of priesthood and a new type of organization”[2].  The ideas, like all new ideas were resisted.  Stockwood wrote twenty years later:  “I put my plans to the meeting of bishops.  They were not enthusiastically received, least of all by those who had been principals of theological colleges and who found it difficult to believe that there could be an alternative method of training”.  The words may sound familiar.  I couldn’t possibly comment.

It is right that we should celebrate, above all, the gifts and skills of those who have offered their lives as deacons and priests in these ministries and have been a blessing to God’s people and to the world.

What are the benefits of this kind of training?  What is it that characterizes this new pattern of priesthood which we have called by so many different acronyms?

Twenty years after the Southwark Ordination Course was founded, Mervyn Stockwood was very down to earth in his reflections.  He lists four benefits of the course.  “1. It accepted men of different persuasions and trained them together where most colleges cater for a single point of view.” A revolutionary effect.  “2. The men did not learn their theology in a vacuum.” Contextual theology was established. “3. It taught men to work hard.” I quote: “There are too many clergy in the Church of England who are acquainted with only one verse in the Holy Scripture namely how “to be at ease in Sion”.  “4. It was sound economics.”  That remains true today.[3]

But fifty years on, let me offer you three words for reflection.

These different forms of self-supporting ministry are characterized first of all, it seems to me, by generosity.  They are by definition a gift.  A gift of time given to vocational exploration and to training which is costly to the candidate and to their family.  A gift of time and of self given to ministry without financial reward or gain.  A gift of service sustained in similar ways over many years. Self supporting ministry and stability seem to go together.  A gift of love for the Lord and for his church.  As John Chrysostom says, Jesus calls Peter to demonstrate his love for the Lord by care for his flock. This new pattern of priesthood is characterized first by generosity.

Second, this new pattern of priesthood is characterized, it seems to me, by humility.  Humility is present as we have seen in Peter’s answer.  It is enough to say: “Yes Lord you know I love you”.  There is no need to compete with the love offered by others.  It is enough to offer what we can.  Self supporting ministries offer servant leadership in a particular way.  Those who serve in this way have to offer what they can, constrained by time and circumstances, and offer what is needed. They are not caught up in temptations to ambition or influence which afflict those called to stipendiary ministry. This is a liberating gift to the priests themselves and to the wider church though it has its cost.  It is a pattern of priesthood shaped by humility.

Third, I suggest, this new form of priesthood is shaped by liminality: by living permanently on the edge and between two or more worlds. This can be a blessing.  It can also be complex and demanding as many here will know.  But it is a precious gift to the wider church and has many lessons for a church in mission.

A new pattern of priesthood.  A pattern which is still unfolding.  A pattern of priesthood characterized by generosity, humility and liminality.  How is the wider church called to respond to such a pattern?

The generosity at the heart of self supporting ministry calls for appreciation to be shown by the wider church.  We should be saying thank you often and loudly and registering that appreciation in a range of different ways.  All too often we have not done that. Those who trained on courses or offer self supporting ministries have felt undervalued.  Fifty years on we need to turn a page and grow up.  The Church needs to do better.

The humility at the heart of self-supporting ministry calls for recognition on the part of the wider church.  We need to recognize especially the immense wisdom which those called to ministry in these way have to offer the wider body of Christ. Self-supporting ministers seldom exercise power and authority within the Church for all kinds of reasons.  But space needs to be created for them to exercise influence and speak more into our counsels.

And the liminality at the heart of self-supporting ministry calls for anchoring and security on the part of the wider church. It is always difficult to live between two worlds.  One of the things you need are secure lines of connexion and accountability which are both personal and institutional.  As all the research indicates, self supporting ministers are not self supporting in this sense: they need support from their bishops and dioceses in order to sustain this edgy and liminal pattern of priesthood which is so vital for God’s mission.

Generosity calls for appreciation.  Humility calls for recognition.  Liminality calls for security.  For here’s the mystery.  The new patterns of priesthood in the economy of God have simply revealed more clearly what it means to be a priest in the Church of God.  For every priest, of course, is called to be generous, to be humble, to live between two worlds.

We will see the patterns continue to change and evolve in the next fifty years, I am sure.  I hope that more and more we will lose the distinction between priests who are stipendiary and priests who are self supporting.  I hope that all of us will learn to be generous, to be humble, to be liminal.  I hope that we will grow a single ministerial priesthood in which some of us, for some of our lives, receive financial support.  I hope that as a church we will be offer greater appreciation, stronger recognition and more sure footed mutual support.

And I hope that each of us here this day will be inspired by what God has done through the Southwark Ordination Course and it’s students. I pray we may be inspired in our own day to think outside the traditional structures and see new patterns of ministry and training develop.  And I pray that each of us would hear once more the question which lies at the heart of our vocation:

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”. “Feed my lambs”.

[1] John 21.15

[2] Mervyn Stockwood, Chactonbury Ring, Sheldon Press, 1982 p.102

[3] ibid p. 107

Happy Easter!  The Lord is risen!

We have major building works in Sheffield Cathedral at the moment.  The Cathedral remains open for daily and normal Sunday worship but we don’t have the space for larger services.  So this morning we moved across the road to the Cutlers Hall, the home of the Cutlers Company in Sheffield, for the Easter Eucharist.

It was a great occasion with Easter joy, full choirs and orchestra and our traditional Hallelujah chorus at the end.  This is my sermon from the service.

The Risen Christ and the City of Steel A sermon for Easter Day in the Cutler’s Hall 31st March, 2013 Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18

Alleluia. Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Some words from our reading from the Book of Acts.  Hear the good news.

“They put [Jesus] to death by hanging him on a tree but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead”.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a real, historical, actual event which changes everything.

We share together today in a unique event in the long story of Sheffield Cathedral and the Cutlers Company.  We have been neighbours and friends for hundreds of years.  But this is the first time the Cathedral’s main Easter Eucharist has taken place inside the Cutlers Hall.  It is good to be here and warm thanks to the Cutlers Company and to the Master Cutler for their welcome.

Our visit today falls in a very significant year for the Cutlers Company.  One hundred years ago, a Sheffield man named Harry Brearley played a leading role in the development of what was at first called rustless steel and then, eventually, stainless steel.

Brearley’s invention was one of three great developments in the story of steel in this city which have shaped Sheffield in the modern era.  In 1740 Benjamin Huntsman invented a way of making steel in a crucible.  In 1856 Henry Bessemer developed something called a Bessemer converter, further refining the process.  You can still see one at Kelham Island.

If you look back at the history of the city,  you can see how these real events in history and all that flowed from them shaped its life.  It’s the same with the resurrection of Jesus.  300 years ago, Sheffield was a settlement of just 7,000 people.  Imagine that.  Little more than a village with a parish church at its heart.  Then the crucible was developed.

200 years ago the population was 60,000, a small town with a parish church still at its heart.  Then along came the Bessemer converter.  100 years ago, the population of the city stood at half a million.  Harry Brearley invented stainless steel.  The parish church became a cathedral. The Sheffield cutlery industry slowly began to use the new material.  Items made in Sheffield travelled all around the world. The city was on its way to becoming the third largest metropolitan authority in England, which is what we are today.  Steel and manufacturing are the backbone of its life.

It’s no wonder that the city is taking a year to celebrate 100 years since the invention of stainless steel.  It’s a wonderful story of knowledge and innovation combining to produce growth and prosperity.  It’s a story of determination and courage against opposition.  Harry Brearley was mocked when he first suggested this new metal could be used for cutlery.  It’s a story of real, actual events in history shaping and changing the world.

So I take my mitre off to the Cutlers Company this morning and to the steel industry in this city and join the celebrations.  My bishop’s ring is a simple band of stainless steel: a reminder of the importance of this industry to this city and region.  A reminder as well of one of the qualities a bishop sometimes needs.

We are right to celebrate and look back and wonder.  But here’s the thing.  How much more wonderful, how much more wonderful, is the story, the event, the life we mark and celebrate today in this service and in hundreds like it in churches all across this region and all across the world.

Does it not make you tremble?  It was an event in history, a concrete event in history, described just like the day Harry Brearley mixed chrome and carbon with steel.  The accounts we have are from eye witnesses.  They were written down within a very short time.   They put Jesus to death by hanging him on a tree on Friday.  On the Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, there was a day of rest.  On the third day, on the Sunday, God raised him from the dead.

Peter says this: “God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear not to all the people but to us who were chosen as witnesses and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead”.

His tomb was empty.  The authorities could not produce his body when they wanted to deny the resurrection. His disciples were transformed by the event from frightened men and women who ran away to people who would suffer and die to bear witness to this historical truth.  This good news of the resurrection spread across the ancient world like a flame through dry straw.  This was not hallucination or conspiracy or pious imagination or wishful thinking. This was a real, concrete, historical, physical resurrection and from it the church was born.

A few weeks after the resurrection, there were just 120 people gathered together in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.  Humanly speaking they had very few resources: no buildings, no finance, no organization, not much education between them – something the church today needs to remember.   It’s an historical fact that a generation later there were communities of Christians in every major city of the Roman empire and beyond.  This was such life changing, world transforming good news it spread from town to town carried by volunteers.  It is a matter of historical fact that the early Christians were all devout Jews. Yet these devout Jews changed their day of worship from Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, to Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection.  This was the event in time which changed everything.

The good news of the resurrection of Jesus spread rapidly from Jews to Gentiles.  It spread to India, to Africa, to every part of the known world.  The growth of the Christian church was remarkable.  Less than three hundred years after the resurrection of Jesus, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, overturning the old faiths.  More than half the world’s population was Christian.

Last October it was my privilege to be in another upper room in Rome with 400 bishops and cardinals of the Roman Catholic church and their ecumenical guests. There were representatives there from every region on earth all part of this one, holy, catholic and apostolic church drawn from every nation and all witnessing to this single deep and world changing truth that on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead.

Ten days ago I was in Canterbury Cathedral for the enthronement of our new archbishop with the Archbishops of the Anglican Communion drawn from every part of the globe, all professing together that Jesus Christ is risen, living, active in the world today and his death and resurrection affect every human life for good.

There have been many inventions in the history of human knowledge.  But there has only been one resurrection.  That is what makes our faith unique.  Jesus ministry was remarkable: his teaching and his healing and his love for others show us what God is like.  Jesus death was remarkable.  He goes willingly, knowing that he is to die, placing himself in the hands of those who will crucify him.  As we will declare again in this service, in his words at the Last Supper Jesus knows and understands the significance of his own death:

“This is my body which is given for you…..This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”.

The words of a man who is about to lay down his life for his friends.  But if his life and ministry are extraordinary, his resurrection is unique.  “God raised him on the third day”.  Jesus lives. Everything changes. Christians believe that we can know Jesus Christ today in our daily lives.  We believe that because Jesus died and rose again, we can begin our lives again with God and that eternal life is offered to everyone.

Today we look out on our city, on our region and on our world.  We all see the need for economic renewal and regeneration – the kind of renewal which came through Harry Brearley, through Huntsman, through Bessamer and all the others who have contributed to this city.  We see the need for the fusion of science and industry and education and manufacturing skill and entrepreneurial genius. All of those talents are God given and we have them in abundance in this city.  We need to grow our economy from within as we have done in the past. There are more great inventions yet to come from this region.

But as we look out on our city and our region and our world we must also, surely see the need for a still deeper spiritual renewal and regeneration: a need to forgive and to be forgiven; a need to find wholeness and healing and peace; a need for pride in ourselves to give way to humility before our creator and wonder at the beauty of the world; a need to turn away from the greed which drives us and shapes our institutions; a need for honesty, for justice, for love of neighbor; a need for the renewal of communities and relationships and families; a need for peace; a need for faith; a need for the worship of money to give way to the worship of God.

That deeper spiritual renewal cannot come from human effort or invention.  It cannot come from what is physical.  It comes only from a turning back to our creator and maker, to the living God, through Jesus Christ his Son.  It comes from the gospel we celebrate today: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.3-4).

According to a survey released this week, four out of five adults in Britain believe in the power of prayer.  There is a deep longing for spiritual renewal.  But many of those who pray do not seem to know the living God whom they are seeking.

Christ is risen.  His resurrection was a real event, a unique event.  We look back and we see how this one day changed history.  We look around the world we see how this one event goes on changing lives in every place and culture.  We look within and around us and we see the need for new life still.

We come with Mary in the garden.  We come to meet our risen Lord in fellowship together, in the scriptures, in the sacrament. We come to have our faith rekindled this Easter morning.  For you and I and for the world, everything changes.  Amen

I was at St. Saviour’s Church, High Green in Sheffield this morning.  Alan Greaves, the organist and Reader at St. Saviour’s was attacked on Christmas Eve just a few hundred yards from the church as he walked to church to play the organ at the Midnight service.  He died on Thursday from his very severe injuries and a murder investigation is under way.

Today was the first time the congregation had come together since Alan’s death.  Many people from the wider community were present together with Alan’s immediate family.  Maureen, Alan’s wife, is a Church Army Evangelist and she spoke very movingly in the service about her grief and pain, about the support she has received and about the faith she and Alan shared.

I often feel inadequate before, during and after a sermon and sometimes all three – as this morning.  Who is sufficient to speak on this kind of occasion?  The words I did speak are below and there is an audio on the church website:

There will be a download of the audio of the sermon later today here: http://stsaviours.info

It’s been a week to appreciate the ministry of church organists and Readers.  St. Saviour’s have received many messages of support from people like Alan across the country.  It’s also been a week to appreciate the remarkable ministry of many parish clergy in times of tragedy and grief in a community.  Canon Simon Bessant, Vicar of St. Saviours, has worked tirelessly this week supporting Maureen and her family and many others in the community.

Thanks to all those who have prayed today for Alan’s family and for St. Saviour’s.  Please keep praying!

A tragic death A sermon in St. Saviour’s, High Green 30th December, 2012 Colossians 3.12-17; Luke 2.41-end

It’s very good to be with you this morning as some of Alan’s immediate family gather together with the church family here, with the wider community of High Green, with the wider community of Church Army.

There is a sense of shock and a sense of outrage not just in this community but across the whole city of Sheffield.  Alan was the victim of a brutal attack as he was on his way to church on Christmas Eve, as he was walking to this church to bear witness to his deep Christian faith. There will be immense grief for those who knew Alan well, which includes many in this church and community.  There will be fear that such a thing could happen, apparently to anyone.  There will be anger and all kinds of questions and real pain in our hearts today.

There will also be more positive feelings.  First of all love and support for Maureen and Alan’s immediate family. There has been an outpouring of prayer and support I know from neighbours and friends.  People far and wide have sent messages of support to the Church here including other church organists and Readers.  That support will continue and will need to continue into the coming years as Maureen and the family struggle to come to terms with what has happened.

There will be immense appreciation, I know, for the work of the medical teams who tried to save Alan’s life both in the ambulance and in the hospitals.  There will be appreciation for the police for the way they have pursued their investigation and for those who have come forward with information.  Police are still appealing for witnesses to come forward with any information.  Maureen has said very clearly and powerfully that she longs for justice not for vengeance, again bearing witness to her own deep faith in the midst of the sharpest agony of her life.

There will be appreciation for the care offered by the community and church here and particularly if I may say so for the care offered by your vicar, Canon Simon Bessant.

And in the midst of all of this, I am sure, many will be giving thanks for Alan himself, for all he showed us of God’s grace and love.  There will be occasions in the future for many generous tributes to be given.  Simon has referred to Alan this week quite simply as a good man, a gentle giant. Goodness is not as common as it should be and this community and this city have lost a shining light.

And so we come together in this service this morning.  We offer all of these emotions to Almighty God and his gentle love as we lift up our hearts: our grief, our pain and shock, our anger, our questions, our fears on the one hand; our love and prayers and appreciation on the other.

It is somehow harder when any tragedy strikes at Christmas time.  But perhaps we need to read the Christmas story in a different way this year.

Christ was born to save a world which needed saving: a world in which hatred and evil and violence are real.  In Alan’s murder, that violence and hate and evil and waste come all too close to us and steal away someone who was loved and respected and who made a difference.

Three days after Christmas, the Church remembers the darkest part of the Christmas story.  We remember the death of the Holy Innocents.  The story is told in the gospel of Matthew of how the wise men came looking for Jesus in Jerusalem.

King Herod sends them on their way to Bethlehem but asks them to return when they have found the child.  The wise men bring their gifts to Jesus but they return home by a different route.  Jesus himself is taken away from Bethlehem into Egypt.  But Herod is infuriated.  In his fury he sends and murders all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.  An evil act.

For understandable reasons, we don’t tell each other this the darkest part of the Christmas story very often.  But it is the part which shows that Christ was born to save a world in which hate and evil and violence are all too real.  It is the part which shows that the most terrible crimes come not from the actions of God but from the actions of wicked men and women.  It is a part which shows us the reality of evil and the suffering of the innocent in the world of Jesus day just as in our own day. We live in a world which needs saving.

The name Jesus means God saves.  Jesus in his death on the cross won a great victory over evil.  But that victory is not yet complete.

On Christmas Eve that same violence, evil and murder visited this community in the attack on Alan Greaves as he was on his way to Church.  We should feel angry about that.  We should be reminded that this world needs saving and needs a Saviour. We should be recalled and strengthened and deepened in the faith which Alan was living out in his daily life and in the final steps he took.

There is immense sadness and grief and shock in our hearts today.  There will be an immense reservoir of love and care for Alan’s family and those most affected by this tragedy.

But I hope and pray that even in the midst of such a senseless attack and such a bitter loss, our Christian faith will be deepened and strengthened and will become more real to us.  I hope and pray that Alan’s example to this community will be stronger even in his death than it was in his life and that he will inspire many people to be involved in serving Christ and in serving others in and through this local church.

In this time of crisis hold fast to one another.  Hold fast to the faith you have been given.  Turn your anger into action, your grief into giving and your tears into service.

Let me end with verses from our first bible reading which seem so appropriate for Alan who was a genuine servant of Christ, a Reader who preached in this church and an organist who loved to help God’s people sing his praises:

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly: teach and admonish one another in all wisdom and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.  And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3.16-17)

Happy Christmas everyone.  This is my Christmas sermon from 2012, from the Midnight Eucharist at Sheffield Cathedral.

Christmas Sermon 2012 24th December, 2012 in Sheffield Cathedral Isaiah 9.2-7 and Luke 2.1-14

Some powerful words from our Old Testament reading and the ancient prophecy of Isaiah:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

One of the most memorable news stories of 2012 was the story of the unclaimed Euromillions jackpot.  Sometime back in June in the Stevenage area, someone bought a lottery ticket.  The numbers on the ticket came up. The holder was entitled to claim a staggering £63 million in prize money.  Think of it. But no claim was made.  Despite an extensive search, the ticket was never found.

It’s no use checking your pockets.  The deadline was 4th December.  Somewhere for six months there was a ticket in the back of someone’s wallet or down the side of the sofa or behind a fridge magnet which could have brought unimaginable wealth.  Perhaps one day, someone will find it and ponder what could have been.  Hold that thought for a moment.

What is that brings us together this evening in this ancient and holy place? What is it that draws people all over our land to churches at Christmas time? We are drawn, I hope, by more than the beautiful music, by more than a place of prayer, by more than the love of family and friends.

We are drawn by a longing for something, an ache, an emptiness, a void, a restlessness, a sense that life is incomplete.  It’s there all the time in different ways.  Often the noise around us drowns it out.  Sometimes when life is going well we forget it’s there for months on end.  Then suddenly it’s back again: like a voice calling from the distance, a thirst deep within us, a sense that we are incomplete.

In times of happiness, that joy we feel has nowhere to go.  In times of sadness, it’s a longing for comfort beyond ourselves. In times of confusion the ache becomes a cry for guidance.  In moments of darkness, a sense the light is there, if only we could see it.  In times when we do wrong it’s a sense of guilt and regret.  In the times when we are crushed it’s a desperate cry for help, a longing for someone to be listening.

Sometimes it feels like a distant memory of childhood.  Sometimes it’s an echo from a far away future.  Sometimes it’s a cry in the midst of the pain of the world. Sometimes it’s a glimpse of peace amidst turmoil and misery.  Sometimes it’s a gentle whisper in the silence of the night.  Sometimes a dis-ease for which we can find no cure.  Sometimes it’s a longing for someone or something we cannot name, something precious but just out of reach.

All down the ages men and women like us have felt this longing, this restlessness, this emptiness whenever we have tried to live without God.  However deeply we try to bury it, however much we hide from it, however difficult it is to face it, the sense remains that there must be more to life than there seems to be.  We know we are called to something deeper, more real, more meaningful than this world seems to offer.  We long in our hearts for more.

God is calling us all down the long years.  Christians recognize this inner voice, these questions, this restlessness as the voice of God calling out to each person in creation, to every one of us.  You were made with a purpose and a high calling, each of you, to know your creator and to live in friendship with God.

It is part of the great mystery of life that our friendship with God has been fractured by the evil which is in the world.  But even that broken friendship leaves its traces in that sense we have that life is incomplete, unfinished, hollow, unless we find the meaning.  From time to time we listen and know and understand that God is reaching out to us, longing to draw us home.

The story of Christmas can only be understood as a rescue mission.  Humanity is lost.  By ourselves we cannot find our way back to God.  So God sends to us his Son, born of a virgin, a child in a manger, to help us find our way.

Many people who celebrate this Christmas with turkey and tinsel will be like the owner of the lost lottery ticket.  They will simply not understand what they have been given.  They will not claim the treasure which could be theirs, the treasure which is worth more than they can ask or imagine.

So pause for a moment this Christmas and ponder again the wonder of the scene we know from cards and nativities all the world over.  See the stable, rough and ready, feel the straw under your feet and the chill night air.  Hear the animals, imagine the farmyard smells.  See Mary, a young girl, full of holy wonder.  See Joseph, kneeling by the crib.  See the fearful shepherds crowding in the stable door.

And in your minds eye see the child, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.  See this child who is called by the prophecy so long ago wonderful counselor: the one in whom the wisdom of the ages rests.  See this child who is called Mighty God: the Lord of heaven and earth born as an infant, taking flesh becoming human.  See this child who is called in the prophecy, Everlasting Father: the one through whom the stars were made becomes a boy in a stable.  See this child, born in the midst of conflict, who is named the in prophecy Prince of Peace.

Come and see Jesus.  His name means God Saves and this Jesus has come to save us and all the world from our sins and draw us back to God.  According to Isaiah, his coming brings light.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  His coming brings joy.  “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy”. According to Isaiah his coming brings freedom and peace and order and justice and righteousness such as the world has never known.

Remember as you look, this is the child who will grow into the wisest teacher, the most compassionate friend, the mightiest healer the world has ever known.  This is the child who when he grows will feed the hungry, calm the storm, drive out the demons and raise the dead – mighty works and signs of a greater reality.  This is the child who when he grows will call men and women to follow him and become a new community which will spread over all the earth.  This is the child who will grow into the man of sorrows, who for the love he bears us, will go to his painful death on the cross for our sins, who will again be wrapped by his mother in strips of cloth, and who three days later will rise again, the conquerer of death itself.

Don’t hurry from the stable.  Stay a while. Kneel with the shepherds and ponder. If God really came to earth as a tiny child, then that one truth changes everything.  It changes the way you see God.  For God is not distant waiting for you to come to him.  God is present longing for you to receive his gift.

It changes the way we see ourselves.  You are not just a number, a statistic, a grain of sand on the seashore.  You are infinitely precious to your creator.  You are meant to be here.  You are chosen and called and saved. Your life has meaning beyond itself.

It changes the way we see the world.  For every child is precious to God, loved, cherished.  God’s love does not change as we grow older.  God’s love is not affected by race or the place where we are born or the human family we are born into.  No-one is just a number.  Each is a person, unique, created in God’s image, loved and able to be redeemed.

Our world is meant to be different.  It is meant to be a place of peace not war, of fairness not inequality, of health not disease, of love not hate, of honouring one another, not exploitation, of truth not lies.

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Listen again at Christmas time to the voice of God calling to you down the ages and calling you home.  Come and kneel on the floor of the stable with the shepherds.  Receive the most precious gift of all this Christmas time: the gift of Jesus, the gift of life.