In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I am thrilled this evening to be licensing you, Mark, to the post of Vicar-Chaplain of this ancient and significant, and peculiar, in the technical sense of course, church in the heart of Cambridge. Thank you for saying yes: we couldn’t be doing this without you! And our prayers are and will be with you and Bettina, Nathaniel, Madeleine, and Annabelle as you settle in to this new place and your new role.
You come of course with an impressive background in biblical and especially Old Testament studies, so I nearly cried foul when I realised you had chosen a reading for this service that Brevard Childs calls “one of the most difficult in Exodus”. And the great difficulty, as Driver says in his magisterial introduction, is that one thing is commanded and another done. Moses is told that God will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets that were broken. But if we follow the story of Exodus at face value, the former words were the Ten Commandments, but the new words are a rather longer list of often ritual requirements. Something is not what it seems: something has happened.
In terms of textual and transmission scholarship, our best guess as to what that something is goes like this. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, are a compilation of earlier Israelite texts, which they quite commonly preserve alongside each other as doublets or parallels – Mark, you could explain all this much better, and I’m tempted to ask you come up here and carry on, but that would be rather unfair! In this case the theory is that our present passage began life as a doublet, by a different writer, of the original giving of the law on Sinai, a law which in its original form had both the Ten Commandments and the wider Code as part of it. When the texts were later assembled together, the first version was focussed on the Commandment alone, and the second reshaped to provide an account of the renewal of the covenant after it had been broken – literally by Moses smashing the tablets, fundamentally by the people of Israel worshipping the Golden Calf.
Honesty and open-ness are key values of St Edward’s so I won’t beat about the bush any more than your own parish profile does: the tablets have been broken here too. There is a clear need for new ones to be written and a new start to be made. It’s painful. It’s holy ground. But it is also not in a way unexpected. Over the long sweep of this church and every church’s history there have been, and have been time and again, times of growth and times of decline, times of closeness to God and times of falling away from God. We are both mud and stars. As the church and as individuals we are both of God – made in his image, his body on earth – and at odds with God, both sinners and saved. Time and again we need to be turning back to God in both sorrow and hope, remaking the commitments of our baptismal faith, rewriting the tablets. It needs to happen here, but it needs to happen everywhere too; and if it can happen well here – and you are committed to that – it can be a sign and encouragement to others who might either have thought that things could never go wrong for them, or be thinking that they can never go right.
But what is to be written on the tablets? The Church, as we heard in the Declaration of Assent tonight, is called upon to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation. The faith remains, but its proclamation must be fresh. St Edward’s has a strong tradition of welcoming those, from right-on reformers like Latimer to thoughtful thinkers like Maurice to struggling saints of recent years, who have sought to walk and sometimes test the boundaries of how the eternal faith and its generational freshness can both be proclaimed. What words on the tablet can be the anchor for such a challenge, for such an adventure?
At this point I have to say thank goodness for the New Testament and for Christ our Lord and turn to what for me is the more familiar text of the Gospel according to John, and to the crown jewels of our faith, the direct words of Christ himself to his disciples then and now, which take the full panoply of the Old Testament law and refine it into words that can be written on the back of a playing card. And yes I am consciously remembering the two famous sermons “On the Cards” that Hugh Latimer preached from this pulpit at Christmas 1529 when he pulled a pack of cards from his sleeve and used them – his cards being in fact biblical texts – to play a game of Triumph with the congregation and lay before them the doctrine of sin and salvation – their sin and their salvation – that set Cambridge ablaze and launched the English Reformation.
I too have a card for you tonight: the Ace of Hearts, and its text is the new commandment of Jesus Christ to his disciples, the new tablet of the new law: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
This is the love that Christ is not just speaking of but showing when he washes the disciples feet, and commands them to do so for one another too. And he explains that in so loving, he is himself showing and sharing the love of the Father in which he himself is held. God is love: it is not for him passing attribute; it is his identity, his spiritual DNA. In love he called creation into being and gave us life. In love he came to lead us back when we were lost to it. In love he comes now through the power of the Holy Spirit to sow and keep sowing that same love into our hearts so that we can reap its harvest and give it away to others, to one another, to our neighbours and even to our enemies alike. His DNA becomes ours.
And that’s it. That is what’s on the cards. That is our commandment for now. Love, without limit. And it will be the power of that love that will enable you to fulfil your mission, God’s mission for you, in tackling the deep questions of the Christian faith with spiritual and intellectual integrity; in welcoming spiritual seekers from diverse backgrounds, particularly those who struggle to find a home in other churches; in fostering spiritual growth and meditative Christianity; in reaching out especially to those marginalised. And it will be the power of that love that will also enable you to do all these things with love shot through them like shimmering silk, always pointing back to the one from whom all love ever flows, Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be all praise and glory, now and to all eternity. Amen.