This sermon was preached on the 30th of June 2019 at St Mary’s Diss on the occasion of my first celebration of the Eucharist having been ordained a Priest at the Cathedral of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Norwich on the 29th of June, 2019.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet there’s no knowing where you’ll be swept off to.” This is the cautionary advice of the Hobbit Bilbo to his nephew Frodo* in the Lord of the Rings. Bilbo, of course, was the protagonist in Tolkien’s story The Hobbit but when we encounter him in the Lord of the Rings he is celebrating his eleventy-first birthday and while he has the strength to make a couple more journeys it falls to Frodo to embark upon the adventures which are chronicled in the Lord of the Rings.
We shall today resist the temptation to be drawn too deeply into the dramatic action and the plots of the Lord of the Rings, even though I personally am terribly fond of them and have often described them as a part of my own private mythology; that is a part of the collection of stories which present us with the values and frames of reference which we use when we’re processing and reflecting on life.
However, there is something to be said for appreciating that the events of the Lord of the Rings mark the transition from one age into the next. Tolkien achieves this in many ways but by no means least through the handing on of the one Ring, a magical ring which, among other things, allows the wearer to become invisible, from Bilbo to Frodo. There’s also a wonderful scene, inspired by a scene in Beowulf, where Bilbo thrusts his sword Sting into a wooden beam and Frodo has to tug it free and carry it himself. There’s a sense that Frodo is receiving not just a ring but also a duty and responsibility.
And as such, Bilbo warns him affectionately, “It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step on the road and if you don’t keep your feet there’s no knowing where you’ll be swept off to.”
I suspect that each of us in different ways can relate to this advice. Life doesn’t perhaps turn out as we expect. Sometimes we might even find that life turns out to be the very thing which you once said it never would be. There’s certainly an element of that within my pilgrimage from being the son of a priest to now having been ordained a priest myself. However, this idea of not knowing where we will be swept off to doesn’t mean that it’s simply random or by chance.
During my vocational journey I’ve often been reminded of one of Bilbo’s poems; “the Road Goes Ever on and on down from the door where it began and now far ahead the road has gone and I must follow if I can, pursuing it with weary feet until it joins some larger way where many paths and errands meet.”
While I was on Retreat, I took a seven mile walk out of the Village on those public footpaths sign-posted across fields, and over hills. Sometimes the path was clear and you could follow it with ease. Other times we find that the grass has grown and the way becomes faint until you’re simply walking through a field in roughly the right direction, hoping that you’ll find the next signpost or catch sight of a stile across the way to guide you onwards.
This imagery resonates because it is the heart of the pilgrim life to be on a journey of faith where sometimes the path and sense of direction is less clear than at other times. Prayer, which has come as naturally as rain falling from the clouds, can become an uphill struggle. Worship which has filled our hearts with joy can at times feel like a weary rhythm which takes up a morning we could have spent with family or in the garden. The pathway becomes less clear, and we’re in an open field and there’s not even enough mobile signal to check google maps to help us find our way. All we can do is put one foot in front of the other until we find that larger way once again.
The pilgrim path through life can feel lonely, but as Christians we trust that even and especially in the loneliness we are never really alone. Indeed, we are not on this path accidentally but much as Frodo receives the ring, and his duty, from Bilbo, we have each received our calling to be the Children of God.
Perhaps this was clearer for us to grasp yesterday when I was ordained as a priest. I was called forward to kneel before the Bishop as priests, including Tony, John, David and my Dad, put their hands on me as a prayer and sign of receiving the graces of the Holy Spirit to be enabled and empowered to serve the church by preaching the Gospel and by celebrating the sacraments. This was a hugely profound moment which it’s impossible for me to properly articulate in words; it was a moment which will reverberate throughout my life.
Earlier in that service you, the Church, affirmed that it was your will that I should serve you in this way. It was also confirmed by representatives of the Church that I had made the following declaration:
I, Samuel Thorp, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorised or allowed by Canon.
That is, that it is not for me to come with new truths and ideas which will revolutionise what we believe and bring us into a new and glorious future according to my own sensibilities and great creativity. Rather that I testify to that which has come before. Namely, to the Gospel of Jesus which I have grown up hearing and learning, which I have studied and pondered, and which I am charged to preach to you this day.
This is the strong message of Paul in the letter to the Galatians, which opens with these words of horror:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!”
The Gospel which I proclaim, and the faith which I teach is to be the Gospel faith which I have received from the Church, which Paul says received it herself from Jesus Christ.
This Gospel of Jesus and this faith in his death, resurrection and ascension, is the same gospel faith into which you have been baptised with water in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – as Jesus in Matthew commands us to do.
That which we have received we believe. That which we believe we participate in. And that which we participate within is the eternal love-filled life of the God who has conquered sin, death and the devil to claim us, by name, as his sons and daughters.
That is, as Paul says in our Galatians reading this morning, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
In baptism we have been set free from sin, from not just those things which are wrong to do but also from the power of those things to trap us. Sin remains a reality much as a spider attempting to cast a web around us so that we might struggle until we give up and come to rest enclosed in its trap ready to be devoured. The freedom of Christ does not prevent the web of sin from trying to stick and cling to us or surround us, but his power at work within us through repentance and faith means that in his name we can stand firm, resisting the snare of sin and its yoke of slavery much as Samson could burst out of any ropes and cables Delilah bound him with.
If you feel trapped, or are afraid of being trapped by sin in any form, then I implore you to trust in Christ Jesus who our Gospel reading tells us set his face determinedly towards Jerusalem, and by extension was determined to die for you upon the cross so that with his resurrection victory over death you might be free. And to remain free he has promised us a helper, the Holy Spirit of God which is the presence of Christ himself within our hearts; within the core of what it means to be ourselves.
Paul says “Live by the Spirit, for you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.
We are to live by the Spirit, and living by the Spirit for Paul means to live out the fulfilment of the Law, to live out the holy expectations God has had for our lives since the times of Moses: love your neighbour as yourself. Step by step, day by day along the pilgrim path of life we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves, because we are free to love them even when they have wronged or offended us. To refuse to love our neighbour, to refuse to be gracious even to those we think are a pain in the neck is to refuse our freedom from the snare of sin which tempts us to hold grudges and to stew in our own negative energies as we grumble, complain about and ignore our neighbour.
To love our neighbour is to stand fast in freedom and to be led by the Spirit.
And if we are led by the Spirit, let us also walk with the Spirit. Here we find two subtle ideas which are crucial for us to notice and understand. Namely:
“It is the Spirit who does the leading, but we who do the walking.” (John Stott**)
We might have followed the Spirit thus far and discovered that the way seems less clear, but when the path has gone we are still called to keep on walking, eagerly or wearily, until we find that larger way once again. The story of God with his people is precisely that, of God with his people; he will be with us but we still have to live our lives and do what it is for us to do.
Indeed, Frodo will come to a point in his journey where he will say “I wish it need not have happened in my time”. To which Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
And so we return to this idea of passing from one age to the next, not just of Bilbo passing the ring on to Frodo, or of my being received into the priesthood and all the responsibilities and opportunities for service which come with it; but to an acknowledgement that the world in which we find ourselves seems to be changing, perhaps beyond measure.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of the social and cultural shift which has been influenced in so many ways by the astronomical developments in technology of all kinds, from that used to create weapons and wage war to that used in medicine for healing and the preservation of life, through to the internet, online shopping and the increasing sense of an augmented reality which is being ushered in through social media, changing and affecting at almost every point the way in which we relate to and communicate with one another. More daunting perhaps is the realisation that this technological development, as great as it has been, is perhaps only just getting started as we see the rise of autonomous vehicles, the interconnected “internet of things’ and an Icarus-like pursuit of Artificial Intelligence.
Society, of course, has changed in more than just the technological, along with these developments have come cultural changes in attitudes to politics, morality, and the arts.
In the midst of all these changes and uncertain trajectories which seem to be accelerating out of history into what once could only have been imagined as science-fiction, what place is there for a Church anchored in what she has received from so long ago?
I would suggest the same place as ever, in the faithful gathering around Christ in the proclamation of his Gospel and the administration of his sacraments; in each, the gift of himself to us as our Lord and Saviour. Every generation feels the winds of change tugging at their sails, but the Lord which we confess is not just the one who died and was resurrected 2000 years ago but who ascended and is living and reigning at the right hand of the Father in heaven even as I speak.
We are right to heed Bilbo’s warning. It is a dangerous business stepping out your door. You step on the road and there’s no knowing where you’ll be swept off to.
But for Freedom Christ has set us free so let us stand fast and refuse to submit again to the yoke of slavery.
Therefore, my pilgrim friends, walk with me and I will walk with you as we walk by the Spirit on this path through life. And let us come together to the table where we receive again, by faith with thanksgiving, the gift of God himself; broken and poured out for us for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Feeding on him, let him nourish our souls and bodies with his Holy Spirit so that whether by our life or through our death we might glorify his most holy Name.
*Of course, Bilbo and Frodo are actually first and second cousins once removed either way, but they regarded each other as Uncle/Nephew.
**This quote of John Stott from his Galatians commentary is a gentle nod to my mother’s father (my Grandfather) who was himself an evangelical priest in the Church of England and who returned home to Christ five years ago.