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Home Who's who Bishops The Bishop of Salisbury Sermons, articles, and speeches Notes for a Sermon Preached at St Nicholas', Moreton, 11 May 2014

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Notes for a Sermon Preached at St Nicholas', Moreton, 11 May 2014

by glynch — last modified 12 May, 2014 12:33 PM

Dedication of the Forgiveness Window

A prayer:

Let us give thanks for St Nicholas Moreton, for all the Whistler windows and now especially for this thirteenth window of Judas. May it may speak to our despair of the limitless possibility of repentance and the seeds of new life in God’s merciful forgiveness and love, for it is in the faith of Jesus Christ and to the glory of God we bless, hallow and dedicate this window in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon Notes

St Nicholas’ Moreton is eloquent about the resurrection. War damage in 1940 led to its rebuilding and in 1955 the first five of Laurence Whistler’s windows. Twenty years went by without addition and then others came at short intervals, as commemorative occasion arose or a donor came forward.  There was no general scheme at the outset because of the unlikelihood of it being possible to complete it, but light was always a theme – candlelight, sunlight, jewel-light, starlight, lightening, the light of the galaxy: “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord. Praise him and magnify him forever.”

The story of the controversy about the thirteenth window has been well told. In February 1987 Whistler wrote to the Rector offering the thirteenth window. He said that,

“Many medieval churches often have uncouth and unholy figures sculptured on the outside, in corbels, as if in contrast with the holy scenes inside. He referred to the blind 13th window near the south-east corner of the church, glazed but walled up inside, adding that Judas was the 13th disciple. He wished to engrave on that window, to be seen only from the outside, a shadowy figure, not clearly defined, but sketchy, of Judas hanging with the 30 pieces of silver falling from his hand and turning into flowers on the ground. That would be the point: the hint that even Judas might, at the moment of death, have sought and found God’s forgiveness.”

(from Press Release and in the service sheet)

The offer was made again in September 1993 when the panel had been engraved and exhibited in Salisbury, not the Judas window but It had become the Forgiveness Window.

 The difficulty represented by Judas is a bit like the controversy about whether we read the whole Bible in church or only the nice bits; whether we say the whole of the Psalms or leave out the violent bits. “Blessed be he that taketh thy children and throweth them against the stones” (Psalm 137.9) is difficult to take when read or sung to Anglican chant in the context of Christian worship of the God of love. But there is a helpful psychological realism to it: acknowledging that we are all capable of murderous thoughts that need transforming into a constructive way of living. If you doubt it just think about the way Boko Haram in Nigeria have dominated the news, or the South Sudan, Syria and Ukraine.

The clear glass means this church is also eloquent about the connection between the church and world, seeing life real and praying for life as it really is.

Whistler added, “To my mind, a church is one place where the conflict of good and evil, life and death should be felt at its sharpest.”

Judas has always been an embarrassment to the Church. How could one of the 12 disciples, whom Jesus chose,  have betrayed him to the authorities?

The name Judas is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Judah, originally a geographical area associated with a particular tribe within in Israel and then an alternative name for Israel. It was a popular personal name in NT times, often associated with a strong sense of Jewish nationalism. It has frequently been said that Judas Iscariot is the most enigmatic person in the gospel story. He was one of the 12 disciples. We aren’t sure of the meaning of Iscariot. It might be connected with the place name of his home, or an Aramaic word for a false one or liar.

There are lots of theories about the circumstances and motivation of his betrayal but we don’t really know. In John’s Gospel we are told he looked after the money box and Mathew says his betrayal was motivated by greed. Various other motives are suggested: he was possessed by the Devil; fulfilling a prophecy; was a necessary part of God's salvation plan; had a political motive; was disillusioned and angry; or, perhaps he didn't actually intend his 'betrayal' to lead to death.

In Matthew Judas repented after he heard of Jesus’ condemnation and tried to pay back the money.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” Mt 27.3-10

This is what is depicted in the window.

Good art creates controversy. It explores the really difficult and challenges the way we see things. Whistler has done this brilliantly suggesting that love and forgiveness are central to the Gospel and that there is always the possibility of forgiveness if the sinner is penitent. In some way it is surprising that it has taken only 25 years to resolve the issue here. It is great the Dorchester museum took care of it but even better the windows here are now complete. Judas is outward facing. On the inside is a monument which says, “Sacred to the memory of...” The window explores whether there are limits to forgiveness. It is a controversial theme.

Forgiveness is at the heat of the Christian Gospel. Jesus taught us to pray, ”Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. How many times should we forgive? Not seven times but seventy times seven; or perhaps in this context Christ on the cross saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”.

In the telling of the Passion, none of the disciples apart from the beloved disciple do well. Most of the disciples run away. Peter denied he knew Jesus three times. Judas betrayed him. It is this despair of having done something so terrible that it can never be put right that marks Judas out. It has much to do with the condemnation of suicide in subsequent Christian thinking.

Judas has entered popular culture. When London’s Docklands were still working, on Good Friday the men used to hang a sack of flour from the cranes, like a body on a gibbet to remind them of Judas: “That’s what happens to grasses”. When churches put on Passion Plays it is usual for the priest to play the part not of Jesus, or Peter or the Evangelist but of Judas. We know what is in us and we know that Christ overcomes evil.

In the resurrection Jesus gathered the company of the resurrection. Peter allowed himself to be remade by Jesus. In the chapter 21 added to the end of John’s Gospel, the risen Christ is back on the shore of the Sea of Galilee fishing with the disciples where they were first called.  Three times he asked, “Simon, son of John do you love me... feed my sheep” as if cancelling out the threefold denial before the cock crew.

It is not surprising that the decision to install this thirteenth window has been controversial. It is dealing with some of the most difficult things in life. Is it ever too late for repentance?

One of the great passages of the NT is that purple passage  at the end of Romans chapter 8:

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:37-39

Whistler’s Judas window became for him and us the Forgiveness Window. Every church, every Christian will be challenged by the question it addresses about whether there are limits to God’s forgiveness. There must be the possibility that we can turn our backs of God but Whistler’s Forgiveness window, seen from outside the church, suggests an answer. He depicts the possibility that we consider both the mercy and the severity of God’s judgement and that in the love of God there are always the seeds of new life in the coins falling on the earth and flowering in the graveyard where the foreigners are buried.  This is a testimony to the power of the life of the resurrection and the glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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