It is very good to be here. Thank you for the music. Thank you for all that is invested in giving glory to God through choirs across the Diocese and through the Royal School of church music.

What do you think is at the centre of the universe? The excellent new Dr Who last week was in Sheffield but I think tomorrow ventures into outer space. Perhaps we will find out.

A long time ago, our ancestors believed the earth itself was at the physical centre of creation. The sun and moon and stars orbited our own planet. We were ourselves therefore near the centre of the universe.

Almost 500 years ago, Nicholas Copernicus, the German mathematician and astronomer, demonstrated that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the solar system. It was a massive revolution in self-understanding. The planets orbit the sun and not the other way round.

But then we discovered that our sun is one of billions of stars and our galaxy is one of millions of galaxies and a rather modest one at that. We learned that the universe has been expanding for the last 14 billion years since the Big Bang. And actually there is no physical centre for reasons I don’t fully understand. We are in a vast expanse of space but the universe itself gives no clue about meaning, except that we are physically a tiny part of creation.

So what is at the centre of the universe?

If you love the Anglican choral tradition, you will soon grow to love the psalms – at least I hope you do. Their phrases will stay with you for years. The psalms are at the very centre of the Bible. The psalms emerged from generations of Hebrew poets, men and women, wrestling. They were wrestling with faith and anger and pain, guilt and passion, pride and shame, trust and hate: all the things we feel.

The Hebrews of our Old Testament were forbidden from making graven images. It’s there in the second commandment. The visual arts played very little part in their worship for that reason. Instead the energy of the Hebrews was poured into crafting songs and choirs and music in which all the drama of life was present. Their mixed choirs were famous throughout the civilised world. People would come on pilgrimage to Jerusalem especially at festival time. They would camp around the city, like an early Glastonbury.

By and large they would come not to sing but to listen and often to walk in procession. They would come with their questions and their suffering and their wrestling with meaning. And as they listened they would identify with the psalms where everything was falling apart and with the drama of the ancient stories. But then slowly, as they listened their world would begin to make sense again. Patterns and meanings and reason begin to appear in the beauty of the liturgy and music. There would be new strength and healing and reconciliation and new resolutions for the journey home.

What is at the very centre of the universe?

Psalm 118 was sung to us this evening, very beautifully. Thank you. Psalm 118 contains all of that wrestling and drama. It is a song about suffering and danger and death and victory and coming through adversity and rejection to triumph. Psalm 118 is a collection of songs for different choirs and soloists. It’s the libretto for a whole drama to be acted out in procession.

And at the beginning and the end of the Psalm there is an answer to the question: what is at the very centre of the universe? The question is answered not in terms of geography but in terms of meaning.

O give thanks to the LORD for he is good
His steadfast love endures for ever.

Let Israel say, His steadfast love endures for ever.
Let the house of Aaron say, His steadfast love endures for ever.
Let those who fear the LORD say, His steadfast love endures for ever.

At the end of the psalm we return to the beginning:

O give thanks to the LORD for he is good.
His steadfast love endures for ever.

The same refrain runs through many of the other psalms. At the very centre of the universe, the psalms tell us, is nothing other than love: the strong, steadfast love and mercy of God, enduring generation after generation, deeper than any human sorrow, higher than any human aspiration, wider than any human heart can embrace. This is a love which endures, which forgives, which believes and which hopes.

This is the story you commit yourself to singing as a musician of the Church. It’s the story and the centre of all church music. As you play and sing, you are rehearsing the love of God. Through your art, you are helping others to find and understand a little more the love which is beyond our understanding.

This is the story and the song which runs through the best of music in every generation, which recurs in unexpected places: that love is powerful and strong and endures despite all of the evil in the world.

This is the very centre of the universe. This is the love which takes flesh in Jesus Christ. This is the love which guides and shapes our lives.

In the words of the recent song by the American country singer, Carrie Underwood:

Love will, love can, love still, love wins.
Love will, love can, love still, love wins.

To sing of that love with the best of human skill and craft, to dedicate yourself to the telling of love’s story is a high and holy calling. May God bless you as you sing:

O give thanks to the LORD for he is good.
His steadfast love endures for ever.

The choirs practice together before the service starts at St. Mary’s Church, Banbury

A sermon at the RSCM Annual Diocesan Choirs Festival

Saturday, 13 October 2018


Here is a vital part of the Christian story, unknown now outside the Church and often neglected within it. The world preserves a memory of Jesus birth. The world preserves a memory of Jesus as a healer and teacher. The world remembers, when it tries, that Christ was crucified and on the third day rose again. The Church remembers that for forty days Jesus appeared to the disciples, teaching them many things and ascended to the Father.

But the world has forgotten this part of the story. It is fifty days after Easter, the Feast of Pentecost. People from all over the world are gathered in Jerusalem, a bit like Windsor yesterday. Around 120 disciples are gathered together in an upper room. It is early in the morning.

There is a sound like the rushing of a mighty wind filling the entire house where they are gathered. Fire falls from heaven. A tongue of flame rests on each of them. The four ancient elements are all combined. These men and women made of earth have been baptised in water and their hearts made new. Now they are filled with wind and fire, symbols of creations power.

Straight away they begin to speak in other languages. The miracles which Jesus did are deepened and multiplied as Jesus said they would be. The Spirit gives wisdom and boldness. The Spirit pushes a timid church out into the streets to tell the gospel of salvation to all the earth. The Spirit breathes life into dry bones and the Church of Jesus Christ, his body, is born.

This is not the first appearance of the Spirit in the great drama of salvation. Not by any means. The Spirit of God is active on the first page of creation, breathing over the chaos which is before creation, brooding over the face of the waters. The Spirit of God has inspired Moses and the prophets. The Spirit of God has been given to artists and scholars, judges and kings. But there is a difference to the Spirit’s action now.

Before Jesus, through the long wait for the Messiah, the Spirit is given only to a handful of people at most in every generation. Sometimes whole generations go by and the Spirit is not given. The Spirit is given only to the Jewish people; only to those anointed by God; only in extraordinary moments.

One of those anointed by the Spirit, Joel, tells of a time when the Spirit of God will be poured out on everyone.

“In the last days it will be that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions and your old men will dream dreams”.

The Spirit of God is given to Jesus at his baptism and descends upon the Son of God in bodily form like a dove, that most gentle of birds, the sign of peace. God says through the gift of the Spirit: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1.11). Remember those words. We will come back to them.

And now the Spirit descends on the Day of Pentecost, in the Upper Room and fills the Church.


Women and men.

Children and old people.

Members and leaders.

Peter preaches the sermon of his life.

Read on in the story. The Spirit descends and fills not just these 120 but all those who come forward and are baptised that day – all 3,000 of them. Every one of them is filled with God’s creative life and energy. Read further and you will find there is a chain reaction. Wherever the good news of Jesus is preached, the Holy Spirit comes and fills the life of the disciples. Whenever the Church gathers to pray, the Holy Spirit comes to renew and refresh and fill the Church with boldness.

The Church learns and relearns that the Spirit is not an impersonal power. The Spirit is God and God is Spirit, personal, creating, loving, warming, empowering: the fire that does not consume us, the wind which comforts and disturbs us, the life force of the universe, the third person of the Trinity, making God’s home within us.

Why does God give his Spirit to his people? There is no single answer. There are many good, rich, deep answers and we could spend all week exploring them. I hope you will.

Acts tells us that the Spirit is given to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things: to perform signs and wonders; to preach the good news clearly and with boldness; to go into all the world and proclaim the gospel and form churches. There are many examples of the Holy Spirit still enabling ordinary people to do extra-ordinary things today. We need the Spirit’s grace in this for we have a whole world to change. We cannot serve God’s mission without God’s Spirit and God’s strength.

John tells us that the Spirit is given to lead the Church into truth: to guide God’s people as we wrestle with the problems of the age and finding God’s way through them. Acts gives us the same message as the early church faces problem after problem and prays and finds a way through.

Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is given to transform us from within: to take the desert of our inner lives and water it and grow good things within us, flowing out into the world. Paul names the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Holy Spirit of Jesus makes us more like Jesus Christ. John and Acts say the same thing in different words.

But it is Mark in the very first chapter of the first of the gospels to be written down who gives us the most important reason. It is Mark who tells us the clearest and most important reason why God gives the Holy Spirit to the Church to every disciple and in every generation if we will welcome him.

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”.

God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts to speak that same word to us, because in Christ we have become God’s children. God sends the Holy Spirit to dwell in us to help us to understand at the deepest level of our being that we are loved by God, that we are his children, that God is well pleased with us.

When God speaks his creative word in the story of creation, it is a word of great power. Seas part. Dry land appears. The glory of creation comes into being. This word of love has the same power within our dry and dusty hearts.

We do not always hear and receive words of love when they are spoken to us. Parts of us become twisted and damaged by what life does to us and by what we do to ourselves. God comes in to the very core of us, to the very depths of our being. God comes not for a moment but to live there for ever. God comes to speak this word of love not once but every day, continually, this word “Beloved”. “You are my child”. “In you I am well pleased”.

The whole world is asking the question “Who am I?”. The Spirit knows what it means to be human. The Spirit knows that we find out who we are only by understanding we are loved. We find our purpose only in knowing we are loved and that our calling is to love.

So come this Day of Pentecost in prayer and find life and renewal. Welcome the Spirit’s presence afresh into your life and the life of this part of God’s Church. Invite God to do a deep work of renewal in you.

Come seeking grace and strength and power for the great ministry and work of love to which God has called you.

Come seeking guidance into all truth from God’s Spirit where you are perplexed and struggling.

Come seeking God’s renewing grace as you walk in holiness and bear the fruit of the Spirit in love and joy and peace.

But come most of all to hear again the life giving word which is the Spirit’s presence in your life and know that you are loved beyond measure, without limit, for ever, by your creator:

“You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased”.



+Steven Oxford
Reading Minster
20 May 2018