Sermon for Easter 4 – 2013
Sunday April 21st
SERMON RECORDING PART 1
“The Presence of The Good Shepherd”
In a week when parliament passed legislation to make marriage open to people of the same gender, there will no doubt be many who will be standing up today in pulpits across this country, and indeed across the world – I see the BBC give it a very high rating on their news site – There will be many who will either be declaring words to the effect of – ‘this is the end of the world as we know it – the collapse of the moral order!’ – or declaring this a huge triumph. Whichever way it is thus received, I have to say it is either straining at or rejoicing over a gnat, whilst swallowing a train load of camels. It is almost utterly insignificant, and I believe that to be the case even with respect of the church.
What will happen here in the long run in the church, is that there will be those congregations that accommodate themselves to it, and those that do not – and I use the word ‘accommodate’ advisedly. For we have a church which in common with most western Christian expressions of church is all but indistinguishable from the world in which we live. Thus if we accept this change it is a tiny accommodation struggling to get in to a church already full of accommodation, or if we don’t it is a tiny accommodation kept out by churches that don’t realise how accommodated they already are. If we think keeping pure is the game, we’ve missed it – we’re with the Pharisees 🙂
We do not to recognise how hugely the Spirit of the Age controls almost all our understanding of Christian faith. It controls how we read the Scriptures, it controls our church attendance, it controls how or if we pray, it controls what we do with our money, it controls how churches are governed, it even controls our relationships between clergy and laity and bishops and clergy . . . the Zeitgeist, the Spirit of the age is in charge and by and large we kid ourselves if we pretend that we are led by the Spirit of God.
There are many aspects to the Spirit of the Age which capture us. In a sense this obsession with sexuality – for or against is such a captivation, but that will pass. The old demons are still pretty much in charge. As always Money has a huge effect on us consciously and unconsciously. Our supposed need for financial security drowning out the voice of the Good Shepherd ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.’ . . . ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.’ Why do we fret about money? Of course for those of us who are well off, it is All to easy to say that we know that we don’t, that it is not our financial security that holds us – not realising that our own security is in what we have, we kid ourselves that we are living by the Spirit, rather than the Spirit of the age. We may hear the words of Jesus and sense that we are secure, but our security has another source. It is only when it is taken away that we realise that it was that that we were resting on. It is only the wealthy who by and large come up with elegant dodges around Jesus’ confrontational teaching on money and possessions. ‘Do not store up . . .’
We are in a panic about the finances of the diocese, insofar as we panic about anything in New Zealand 🙂 But the strange irony is that we are very wealthy – put aside a moment the uncomfortable fact that the church has all the money that is in our own personal bank accounts, we are the body of Christ after all, so our money is his – The Diocesan trust board is looking after $25M! Where is this money? By and large it is the money of individual congregations – we are all securing ourselves by ‘our’ money – so we are not releasing it and thus the future of the diocese is called into question. It is like a family where each brother is wealthy, but none is prepared to go to the shops, so all starve. Can we really be hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.’
Very related to this deceitful sense of security money brings – for the Spirit of the age connects and touches everything – the Spirit of the age shows itself in terms of how we are taught to relate to God. Herein we see laid bare, the Spirit of Individualism, rife in our society and our churches. We see it in many ways, not least in this question of hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. ‘My sheep hear my voice’ Says Jesus – and someone may well say – I never hear Jesus speaking to me . . . ‘ I never hear him speak to me’
Now I wonder how many of us feel that way, that ‘I have never heard Jesus speak to me’ I do not at all criticise anyone for feeling like this, a bit excluded by those who make much of ‘their personal relationship with Jesus’. We have not been well taught if we think this way – and we pretty much all have. I know that my own experience was for a very very long time, that the principle significance of faith was ‘my personal relationship with Jesus’ THAT was THE thing.
But listen – ‘my (Individual – possessive – something belonging to me) personal (read private – hotline) relationship with Jesus’. This is Consumerism, isn’t it?? ‘You can have your own house, you can have your own car, you can have your own . . . you can have your own relationship with Jesus, as well . . . I want to come at this ‘personal relationship’ in a roundabout way, through this false god of consumption (a disease of old – TB), in part, because I want to allay your fears if you think you have not heard the voice of Jesus
The language of consumerism is deliberately targetted to keep us away from God and each other. All the worlds economic systems are without exception part of the world which is not hearing the voice of the good shepherd – the Spirit of the Age has no interest in the Life of Christ – ‘You can have your own . . .’ ‘You can have your own . . .’
I have on a couple of occasions over the last 30 years seen the Kingdom of God in incredible clarity – once amongst a group of recovering drug addicts [I may have spoken to you about them,if not I will one day] and once on a trip to Fiji. I remember sitting with a village elder, who was also the Methodist minister as he spoke to a group of wealthy western tourists about how they were very wrong to criticise the Western missionaries who had brought the good news to Fiji. He said, ‘Before we knew Jesus, we used to eat each other . . .’ 🙂 Note his language though, before WE used to know Jesus. Here was a man, a poor man without doubt – he could not afford a simple pair of sunglasses to protect his obviously diseased eyes – not witnessing to ‘his personal relationship with Jesus, but to the faith of his people – when WE came to know Jesus . . . our relationships with each other, were transformed –
and then without meaning to, for there was nothing proselytising in his manner, he said -’ ‘as Christians, we share everything we have’. As if this was OBVIOUS, As Christians, OF COURSE we share everything we have with one another. ‘So if I have no sugar and I need some sugar, i go to my brother and ask him and he gives me some sugar, and if he needs something I have, he asks me and I give it to him. We have no doors on our houses, we come and go – our doors are open to one another . . .’
It was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life and to this day I realise that I was closer to the Kingdom of God there in that very simple hut, sat on the floor drinking kava (and no, not the ‘champagne’ 🙂 )
Life – Shared. Listen to the voice of the economic machine, that we are told must be fed, or the world will fall apart – ‘you can have your own . . .’ We will know that the Kingdom of God is breaking in when Mitre 10 says ‘Buy a lawnmower and everyone on your street will benefit’. ‘you can have your own . . .’ cuts us off from one another. I remember as a young man going to my first ever church conference and being absolutely thrilled to hear about a church where they had a communal store for gardening things – everything was shared -as a result they had far more money to give away and their communal life blossomed.
‘You can have your own personal relationship with Jesus . . .’ A few months ago I was teaching on the nature of the church, BTW if you can have your own personal relationship with Jesus, why do you need the church? (more anon) and I spoke about a book – ‘Hearing from God’ by Dallas Willard. I picked on this book because I had recently been involved in a conversation about it with a friend and had gone back to look at it, but I could have picked almost any contemporary book on Spirituality and prayer from my shelves, and I have my own huge collection of such books. The Church is absent from the book. This is all stuff you CAN do on your own, and indeed there is no expectation than that is entirely HOW you should be ‘Hearing from God’, certainly there is NO sense that we Hear from Jesus ‘as the people of Jesus’ . . . That God Primary address, is always and has always been to a people, to His people, to His flock. That we are addressed AS the church, not primarily as individuals.
Of course one of the reasons we imagine that we can have a relationship with Jesus apart from the church is because as Christian booksellers know all too well . . . yes consumer capitalism operates even here – ‘You can have your own Bible!!’ That that is entirely unremarkable to us is one sign of how difficult it is to recognise the Spirit of the Age. Indeed not only can we have ‘our own BIble’ we can have one in a translation WE enjoy and Easily understand, one which perhaps is full of notes for people ‘just like me!’ So we have Youth Bibles, Bibles for Men, Bibles for women, Bibles for mothers, Bibles for recovering addicts, BIbles for . . . fill in the list, I am sure you can find the Bible which perfectly suits me in my personal relationship with Jesus . . .
We forget that for the first 1800 years of the churches history we couldn’t. Before the advent of the printing press in the C14 all Bibles were hand written and there were very few – if you’d even seen one you’d be unusual. Even after that there were but few and for the next 400 years we would only see a copy in our local church. In my study I have a very old family bible – dated 1804 – it is what a pretty wealthy family could buy (in this case yeoman farmers) – a family bible – note again that it is money that makes this possible. Now in my house we have 30 bibles??? One for every mood of the day 🙂 So we think that reading our own bible is normal, whereas it is very abnormal. No, for most of church hiustory and indeed still for most Chrisitans throughout the word, the Word is shared. People sit togather to hear the Word, to Hear from the Good shepherd. the Word is first and foremost adressed to a people, Christ’s body which by baptism we are all part. We are included in Christ – apart from the body I am cut off from his life. We cannot hear the Word apart from our beothers and sisters – for apart from them we are apart from Christ? The Life of Jesus is our COmmon Life – it is the Life that we share – we cannot know it apart from one another.
Do I hear the voice of the good shepherd? Yes, you do – We do – when we come together to listen to his word in the Gospel – we stand and Hear Jesus – we feed on Jesus – we share in Jesus together. The Life that we have is only Life in that it is the Life that we share – there is only one risen Lord – we haven’t all got our own 🙂