The Vicar Writes . . .
If we haven’t already met, since Christmas, then a Happy New Year to you! I must admit that Christmas and the New Year all seem rather a long way away now, as January turned into a rather busy month, but Sarah, the family and I did manage to ‘get away’ for 12 days, exploring more of our beautiful land. [For those who are interested, we travelled up the West Coast (in good weather!!) and on to Abel Tasman. Many many Km travelled and Too much to take it all in!]
Whilst we were away though, you have never been far from our thoughts as is right. Being part of the church is being part of God’s new family. It is not that being part of church is ‘like being part of a family’, rather the other way round. Our human families, with all their joys and sorrows point us to the fundamental Family that we are part of through our baptism into Christ. So that you were on our hearts and minds is entirely natural.
Being this New Family of faith, with our friend, brother and Lord, Jesus will be the focus of our teaching and thinking in the year to come as together we seek ‘to build up our common life’ in the Peace that only Christ can bring. This Lent (which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 5th) we will be thinking together about how we might move deeper into the reality of our shared life. We will explore how we might grow deeper into praying and worshiping, sharing in hospitality and mission, and revealing the Life of God amongst us. As before there will be opportunities to do this either on a Tuesday afternoon, or a Sunday evening. I would encourage you all to make this a priority in your diaries for what I hope will be a time of mutual growth and envisioning for our future life together.
Of course talking of families reminds us of two significant new additions to our family here at St Johns this month. As in our thinking about families and the family of the church, we tend to get our thinking back to front on this. It would be understandable, but wrong!! ( 🙂 ), to think that the arrival of our new curate The Revd Andrew Barlow and his family as the most significant arrival. Certainly it is wonderful to be able to welcome them all more fully into our midst, but THE most important arrival in our family will probably have happened by the time you read this, as we baptise Freya Beaton as a member of the Body of Christ. (As our human families are only signs of the deeper reality of the family of faith, so the ordained are merely signs pointing us to the deeper reality of the life of the baptised!!)
Two final brief items. 2014 is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the gospel on these shores. In response to this 1) During Lent we will welcome a brother from Kenya, one of a team of evangelists spending two weeks with us here in Dunedin. I will give more details through all the channels available as soon as I have them. He will be with us from 27th March until Palm Sunday, April 13. Help will be needed with hosting etc. etc. etc. but more anon!!
. . . and 2) and just as important, Bishop Kelvin will through Lent be walking the length and breadth of the Diocese on a Hikoi of Joy, as part of our Diocesan Celebrations. There will be many ways we can join together in this reminder of our Life Together, from shared prayers, to walking a leg of the hikoi ourselves (indeed one leg is a journey on the Taieri Gorge Railway – the train is booked and we can take 600!!). We will start this with a renewal of our Baptismal vows, across the Diocese, early in Lent. Reminding ourselves that ‘we are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it’ 1 Corinthians 12:27
With Much Love, Eric
Sermon for Epiphany 3 – Year A
Sunday January 26th, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake,
and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ Mark 8:35
One of my, as yet unrealised, dreams is to teach in a Seminary, a place where men and women are trained for ordained ministry in the Church. Of course dreams are deceptive – they promise much and even should they deliver, the reality never matches the dream. In my imagination I see a community of committed prayer, 100% harmony, and total dedication to the cause of the church. I have in mind of course the Seminary I attended in England – and those of my former tutors who might be reading this may well chuckle at my rose tinted perspective. Yes it was a Good time, a good place to be, but Not a place of total harmony!!
I was alerted to this almost violently one morning as I sat with the rest of my class awaiting our tutor. One of if not the best preacher it was ever my privilege to be challenged by, a man of literally passionate faith, tried in the field of mission, with a quiet but steely desire in all things to follow Jesus Christ, he was, probably unbeknownst to him one of the greatest influences on my life and ministry. In dark and difficult times his memory still inspires Faith, and his occasional messages of prayerful support do more than he can know. He was, unusually late – I think the staff had been in a meeting and obviously it had not been easy. He stormed in – quite clearly far from happy – threw his folder down on the desk and asked rhetorically of us all ‘What is this ‘Spirituality’?? Whatever happened to discipleship?!!’ The question was left to hang – we didn’t explore this, it clearly wasn’t the time, but it has stuck with me these past 17 years.
Another small incident also stuck with me. Sarah and I for many years hosted a church small group. One year our Vicar asked me to write a course on discipleship for all the small groups to follow through. Most everyone in the church belonged to such a group. So I worked hard to come up with a ten week course exploring discipleship – to be met by the oddest comment at our first meeting. Cath, a wonderful Christian lady, who’d been brought up in a rigourous tradition, who knew her bible better than anyone else in the church probably, said ‘Oh I don’t think we should be studying this. We’re not all called to be disciples, you know.’
One has to ask, ‘Why the avoidance of Discipleship?’ Why do we increasingly spend far more of our time and energy studying ‘spirituality’? Why do some think ‘discipleship’ only for the few? Why, when the last words of Jesus to his followers is to make Disciples, is this at best reduced largely to ‘making converts’ – which is not the same thing at all. Perhaps our Gospel reading today confronts us with the answer. Discipleship costs us everything.
John the Baptist has heralded Jesus as the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with Fire. Jesus has been baptised at the Jordan – a baptism which as I have said is our baptism too. He has been declared to be the Beloved of God, and we in Him are also so declared. But then, before any rose tinted dreams are allowed to intrude, he is led, or indeed driven up into the wilderness to be tried, as gold in the furnace – to have Everything called into question in that repeated phrase of the devil ‘If you are the Son of God . . .’
Which is where we come in today. Jesus returns from the wilderness – Luke tells us he is ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ – he hears that John has been arrested (already we see that the gospel is hugely costly) – and he withdraws to Galilee – the place of almost all of his preaching and enters into ministry.
And What an Entry!! Matthew moulds the words of the great prophet Isaiah to declare that God is powerfully at work “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John, the Herald of the gospel, has proclaimed this same message – but now in Jesus, the Good News has taken on flesh and Nothing can be the same. Now Everything is up for grabs – there is No allegiance which can stand up to this gospel proclamation. Jesus walks onto the stage and all of a sudden, all that was fixed, all that was certain is thrown up into the air. Life is Revealed to us – and the call comes to abandon all else.
Imagine if you will, the scene. There on the shores of Galilee, the people had been fishing since time immemorial. From father to son the business had continued, generation to generation – one generation learning from those that went before. It was all they knew, it was their livelihood in the strongest terms it was their security. Jesus walks into the middle of it and they abandon it all.
Like the Servant of the Lord that he is, Jesus’ face set like flint. There is no gentle dialogue – he strides into the midst of the fishermen by the sea and seeing Peter and Andrew casting their nets, he walks up to them and Commands them – it is an order – Follow me! And I will make you fish for men. They abandon their nets – the precious tools of their trade which they had tended, fixed, looked after – the source of what meagre income they could make – just dropped – scattered on the shore.
Jesus casts around, the net of his eye scans the crowd. He breaks in through to another boat – perhaps a larger concern ‘Zebedee and Sons’ – You, James, John!! Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
He became their life.
Why Spirituality – why not discipleship? Why do some think we are not all called to discipleship? To Obey his call to follow Him? Because being a disciple of Jesus will cost us everything we have. We give up our life and follow him. I can think of more than one person of my acquaintance who has seen this quite clearly – who has seen that it is all or nothing – who has found clear descriptions of the life of Discipleship to be utterly terrifying. And Jesus doesn’t as it were ‘sweeten the pill’.
A little later on in the journey, Peter will declare, Lord we have left everything to follow you – homes, husbands wives, parents, – and Jesus doesn’t suddenly stop and say ‘hmmmm . . . I think I may have overdone this . . .’ He doesn’t suddenly turn round and say ‘Hey I didn’t mean you to take this stuff literally!! It’s all metaphorical!!’ Put another way, Jesus doesn’t say – ‘you don’t need to follow me, just sign up to read a few books on Spirituality and do some daily spiritual exercises . . .’ The first disciples set the pattern for those who will follow. They find their Life in him alone . . .
SO we can of course think of a thousand reasons why we should ignore the call of Jesus – Family and work commitments being right there at the front of the queue – and indeed the world is full of those who claim to follow Jesus and at the same time have devised clever schemes and rationales for avoiding following Jesus disguised as obedience to His call. Ways of making it Jesus AND . . . But it cannot be thus. His call is Everything. Something we have lost sight of. But this was not always so.
For the first three hundred or so years of the life of the church – followers of Jesus were terribly persecuted, not least because their way of life together was seen to be so destructive of all that the world held dear. The early Christian apologists found it an almost full time task to rebut suggestions that their way of life in following Christ was not sending the world ‘to hell in a basket’, but actually was the way God was using to save the world from itself. St Augustine’s City of God is in part a significant part of that rebuttal.
But nowadays who would accuse Christians of this? Who would look at Christians now and see anything but a reflection of their own lives? Where is the critique of family or work or indeed a way of living together that those first disciples obedience created?
No-one now can accuse Christians of the foolishness of leaving everything to follow Jesus, as following Jesus has been reduced to some ‘inner journey’, in opposition to simple obedience to his command.
For Christian faith became the religion of Empire – and whenever the Gospel is accommodated to the World it is no longer the Gospel. The Roman Empire and every power since required stability if its goals were to be met. ‘Family values’ were and are often trotted out in defence of the status quo. As we are all taught to fear that God ‘Economy’ – then there are those who will write and speak at length of the value of ‘Work’. But all such speech and writing, almost entirely coming from those with most invested in the world as it is – the rich and intelligent and powerful – can only do its work by avoiding the words of Jesus; by making a special case of those first disciples; by making out that only a few are called to this path; by turning concrete obedience to Jesus into an inward journey or ‘spirituality’.; By avoiding the Word made flesh, and the Cross which is obedience to his Command. We have all largely grown up in a church which is much more to do with the preservation of the things we have been taught to hold dear, rather than a church committed to taking Jesus at his word. And so much of so called spiritual writing takes this as its starting point. God as chaplain to the world and the hope of heaven at the end, as opposed to God as Saviour of the World in Jesus Christ, calling men and women to follow him, that Light might shine in the darkness. This is very clear when we consider Jesus definitions of family and work.
For the disciple of Jesus, ‘family’ is the community of brothers and sisters who have been called by Him. Work is what we do to put bread on the table – to support the community in its desire to follow Jesus. Of course for those with nothing, then family is whoever you find yourself with and work is what you do to feed. The poor, those who are blessed by Jesus have neither the time nor often the deceitful sophistication, or ‘eloquent wisdom’ to impute more meaning to them than Jesus did . . .
A couple of brief reflections to conclude. This call of Jesus will persist until he returns – the Risen Christ still calls men and women to follow him, and as a model of Church largely founded on accommodation of the Rich and powerful with Empire turns to dust, his voice is once more heard. The call to follow – the call to the church to once more become what it truly is, a community of disciples of Jesus, who live for him and through him alone.
Yes, Seminary wasn’t perfect – the church never has been – but there was amongst us a very real sense that we knew what we were about. In the early days of the current obsession with ‘Spirituality’, my tutor’s anger rang a lot of bells. We were part of a community called to follow Jesus in costly discipleship, recognising that to those who clung to the things of this world the way of the Cross was foolishness, that Jesus meant what he said – that it wasn’t clever metaphors for ‘the spiritual journey’
And secondly, I don’t know if you remember your first Bible? When I was very young I remember reading my fathers old ‘National Service Bible’ – lacking a sense of irony it was stamped with the stamp of Empire – the Insignia of the Royal Air Force. But the first Bible that was given to me was by my godparents at my confirmation. It was unusual in that it was a ‘Red Letter Bible’. That is, all the words of Jesus were in red.
As the church in the West stumbles out of the ashes of Christendom, one of the bright lights are those Christians who have once more heard the call to discipleship, who sometimes are called Red Letter Christians. In other words the focus of their life together is the words of Jesus, as opposed to those who wish to maintain the Status Quo, who can only do so by ignoring Jesus and his words.
As we seek a way forward together as the community of those called by Jesus to follow him in this place, to rediscover what it means to be a community of Disciples, the words of Jesus seem as good a place as any to start. After all, Simon Peter, having left his work, and his family behind discovered, ‘To whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God’ Jesus Was the Life of those first disciples – and He desires to be Our life also.
Let us together seek to Respond to his Word to us ‘Follow me!’
Sermon for The Baptism of Christ – Sunday January 12th, 2014 – Year A
The Baptism of Christ, and The Church
And so the ‘House of Pain’ is all but gone. Carisbrook Stadium reduced to rubble, with a bright new shiny stadium in its place. But it isn’t the same . . . Although I never watched a game of rugby at Carisbrook, I knew something similar. Whilst still at school I managed to obtain tickets for the Calcutta Cup match at the Old Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh, before it too went the way of the bulldozers. Stood on open terracing amongst thousands and thousands of others, prey to the elements – Edinburgh’s weather is often a match for its namesake, Dunedin – it was my first powerful experience of being part of something which was much bigger than myself. We shouted ourselves hoarse, as what were to me in those days legendary names in British rugby put on a grand show.
To stay with the rugby reminiscences for a moment, and indeed who wouldn’t at the memory of that great Liverpool winger Mike Sleman putting the Scots defence metaphorically to the sword, I was fortunate to have been there that day – Tickets were like Gold Dust and The Scottish Nationalists were on patrol, trying to eject from the ground English supporters with a Union flag. Fortunately for me, my school was affiliated to the Rugby Football Union and I’d ‘borrowed’ my church’s St George’s flag especially for the occasion (being head choir boy had its perks 🙂 ). [Of course at this stage I was not as powerfully aware of my Scottish heritage as I am today! :-)]
Those themes of ‘Identity’ and ‘being part of something much bigger than ourselves’ find their true home in our baptisms. However in our times, the way in which they do has changed to the point where their true meaning is in effect denied. With regard to Identity, it’s meaning has become the opposite of that which Classical Christianity taught, and as a result there is little or no sense of our baptism being about being caught up into something much larger than ourselves. And like at Murrayfield on that Saturday in 1980, Entry has become a contentious matter. Particularly as for so many, blinded by the modern World, Baptism is no longer seen as Costly Privilege, Costly Grace, but as yet one more choice.
Child of the modern world as I am, I remember for many years wastefully wrestling with the issue of Adult vs Infant Baptism, not least at theological college where some of our classes were shared with Baptists and one or two of my fellow Ordination candidates revealed themselves to be more Baptist than Anglican in their thinking! If for the sake of this sermon I pretend that modern ways of thinking are helpful [Let the reader understand!!] I might say ‘There are of course arguments to be made both ways, but there are two powerful arguments which support the baptism of infants, arguments which are of particular import in this culture.’
Firstly that we believe it to be true that the Grace of God s far bigger than anything we can imagine and is far more important than Our decision or indeed the faith we bring as individuals to Baptism. It is Not Our Choice which is Sovereign, it is the Merciful Grace of God. And a young child cannot be anything other than a Recipient – this is not a matter of their own ‘responsible Self determination’. Indeed it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Right to Choose for ourselves whether or not we are baptised is in itself willfully sinful. For God in his Mercy Welcomes us to a feast of Life and we stand there and wonder whether or not we shall Deign to oblige Him with our presence . . .
Our forerunners in faith, the faithful Root of the Jewish people from which Jesus sprung forth, did Not choose to be God’s people. They were Chosen, and that wonderful passage from Ephesians we heard last week said the same of us – that we were chosen before the foundation of the world.
But this is so very hard for us to swallow in our contemporary culture where that perverse caricature of the human, the Self determining and Self actualising Individual, who in his or her pride surveys the choices before them . . . note this is the way we’re pretty much all brought up . . . and decides out of THEIR grace to become a follower of Christ.
So, to follow secondly, that Baptism is Not Primarily about You! Or to put it more inclusively, Baptism is Not primarily about Us and Our Salvation – and the theologically alert amongst us will not doubt be wondering if I haven’t fallen right into the trap of suggesting that it is. For today, the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany is the Feast of the Baptism of Christ! And here I am speaking about our baptisms . . . and I will come back to that, but it is not primary, indeed in the light of the Baptism of Christ it would seem utterly self aggrandising to think it is even secondary.
We consider the Baptism of Christ, because THAT is the only lens though which we can begin to consider what it means for us to be a baptised people . . . not the meaning of your or my baptism, no, what it means to be a baptised people . . . for I suggest that to spend time at all considering, and indeed agonising over our own individual baptisms is to attempt to undo what God has done in Jesus – to Undo Salvation, to break apart. To try and justify ourselves!
Jesus first public appearance in all four gospels – slightly nuanced in John, is at his baptism. And Matthews account contains the discussion between Jesus and his cousin at the Jordan
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
John has come preaching a Baptism of Repentance towards God – and many were being baptised Confessing their sins and being baptised. However there is something John cannot yet see in Baptism – for he has not seen the Cross – he has not known the Resurrection. The true meaning of Baptism is Only revealed in the Baptism of Jesus, the Crucified and Risen one, the One who Is the Truth. Apart from Jesus we cannot know the Truth. The True significance of Baptism is revealed in the Baptism of Jesus. And that is the self offering of faithful Israel to God, the revealing of the Servant of the Lord. Necessary to fulfil all righteousness.
And that self offering is Answered! In the Baptism of Jesus there is a dual move – down into the waters of Baptism as self offering to God, and God the Father’s response, the annointing of the Holy Spirit, God’s self offering to Man.
So too the Cross and Resurrection, down into the waters of death, and raised to new life.
And that is necessary for Us – for in our baptism we are included in Christ’s work upon the Cross – we die and are raised to new life – His Life. We die, We are Raised – We are included in HIs Baptism. The Baptism of Jesus is the Baptism of faithful Israel both those who have gone before and those who will follow . . . Follow Me says the annointed one – come after Me. Jesus Is faithful Israel, and We are His Body also. And this is why this isn’t about you! Or I 🙂 It is about Christ, and it is about Us.
When we are baptised we are included in Christ’s baptism – indeed at a Baptism in the Orthodox Church the priest prays “That the Lord our God will send down the blessing of the Jordan and sanctify these waters . . .” That the waters of the Baptism of every new Christian Are at once the waters of the Jordan – for there is only One Baptism. When we think of second baptisms we tend to think of rebaptism – not our own!!!
So We are included in Christ’s Baptism, HIs Righteousness, His Life His Death, His Resurrection. And so we are made One with the children of God. This is Our identity. As we cannot understand our Baptism Apart from that of Christ, so also we cannot understand it apart from the other members of the church. We become through baptism as St Paul says, ‘Members one of another’ – to be a child of God can only be understood in terms of our paricipation in the life of the body of Christ. That our Identity, who we now are is known only in our shared life in Christ. That who I am, and who you are is now a secondary characteristic as our primary identity as members together of Christ. Just a moments reflection reveals how radically we have reversed this and indeed how our sense of self is assaulted at the thought that this might possibly be true, but it is.
Our shared life is primary, and that our ‘individual’ life of faith is derivative of this. Put another way, one might say “ I am a Christian by virtue of being baptised into the Body of Christ. Here I think that the parallels with God’s ancient people the Jews are significant. Identity was GIft, and resided in being part of the whole. So one might say I am Jewish because I am part of the Chosen people. And we might say, I am Christian because I am made part of the Church through Baptism. To use Paul’s analogy of the body – you may be a part of the body, a finger or a knee, but that means nothing apart from the body.
This it must be said is the complete opposite to what in effect our Individualistic culture has taught us about what it means to be a Christian, in which belonging to the body is secondary to our identities as Christian. And it is for the Church a fatal error. In a sense because in our arguments over baptism and in many other ways we have tried to be gatekeepers for the grace of God, we have sidelined the significance of the Church – the centrality of the body of Christ, and thus unwittingly have displaced Christ, who we are foolish to believe we can comprehend in isolation from the church, from the centre of our faith, replacing him with a weak reflection of ourselves, as many critics of Christians see only too clearly.
This is very hard for us to accept because of the hyper individualism of the age, with is the air we breathe and of which we have only the merest grasp of how it has infected our Lives. It is also why in many regards the future of the church looks uncertain humanly speaking for more than ever it is composed of ‘Individuals’, that is who understand their own life and faith as primary and ‘membership’ of the church and its life and worship as in a sense subservient to it.
So we might ask whether Church ‘serves my needs’. We may look for a church to my liking – thus we remain at the centre. ‘Is my participation in the body of Christ helpful to my personal faith?’ is not only a modern question which our forebears of the Classical era would not have understood, it is also a blasphemous question for it denies that we are joined one to another In Christ. In truth it is the question of one who is outside of Christ.
As we consider further our life together here at St John’s, and that is on my mind and heart my every waking moment – it is this aspect which is the most challenging, for it is this that the World would have us deny under the guise of ‘faith’: that it is in our Life together that Christ is known; in shared worship that we are most truthfully ourselves; in praying together that we truly pray – for then the body of Christ prays, for then the body worships – that our Common life is our Christian life and that wherever we are, we are in our essence and by virtue of our baptism part of the body.
As I said, being part of the rugby crowd was this experience of being part of something much bigger than myself. An Experience in which I was present, but at the same time lost. I was a necessary part of it – but it was only because we were joined together that I experienced what I did. My ‘I’ was only known in the context of the greater whole. I could not have known that ‘something greater than me of which I was part’ in isolation. In a sense this is precisely how church Is. It is just that we are trained from the moment of our birth in the modern world to seeing things so much on our own terms we miss this. We are too ready I think to be as it were standing apart – judging the body of which through baptism we are an integral part.
Of course the other big debate about baptism was about the method – immersion or sprinkling – well again I don’t offer a conclusive answer – but we DO need to be immersed in our common life, and an occasional sprinkle does not do justice to who we are and our inclusion in something far greater than ourselves – that in Christ, as part of His body we are part of something Far bigger than ourselves. Indeed we become participants in God’s Salvation of the World in and through Christ. We were taught that Baptism was all about us – it’s not, it is about Something far far greater, in which our lived find their true meaning and purpose, caught up as members together of Christ in the Life of Christ, to the Glory of God the Father.
Sermon for Christmas 2 – Sunday January 5th, 2014, Year A
Ephesians 1:1-14 John 1:1-18
“Of Heaven and the Children of God”
As a resident of Dunedin, you are without excuse if you haven’t seen one of the great natural wonders of the world, that is an Albatross in flight. After all this is the ONLY place in the world where these mythical wanderers of the Southern Ocean wastes nest on the mainland. I remember when I first saw one. I was on interview here back in 2010 and Jo and David Fielding kindly drove me out along the Peninsula to the colony. And we stood in the car park for some considerable time watching the flocks of birds. Occasionally a ‘much larger than usual’ gull of some description flew into sight and I thought ‘Ah! That must be an Albatross!’, but it wasn’t. For when the Albatross came into sight across the headland, there was NO doubt! Whilst it didn’t exactly block out the daylight, it was just on a Completely different scale to all the other birds. There was No mistaking it. And that is God’s intention for His children – when you meet one you will Know that there is something Very different. Their lives are on a different scale – related but not the same.
Every now and again, something in the news catches your eye which reminds you of the difference Christians make in the world. How the world would be a Very different place if it weren’t for Christians. Such talk I must say can make some of us uncomfortable, but it is true. Just the other day I was reading an article about Food Banks in the UK, and how the main Nationally recognised food bank operation, The Trussell Trust, was established and continues to be run almost entirely by Christian volunteers. And it is at present supplying food to somewhere in the region of 500,000 people. Of course here we are very aware of how Christian social agencies, our own AFC and Presbyterian Support, along of course with the work Andrew does at Brockville, sees Christians providing a huge percentage of such support here in Dunedin.
It may be something of which the wider world is unaware, indeed in some places, especially in the UK at present it is a highly politically inconvenient fact, but Christians make a difference . . . Why? Because Christians ARE different . . . and that perhaps is even more difficult for us to swallow. Like viewing an Albatross, meeting a Christian should be something which leaves folk in little or no doubt that they have encountered someone who Is like them, but also in a way that affects Everything, is not. But we are trained Not to accept this and that is a terrible thing for reasons I shall unpack a little at the end.
We are still in the season of Christmas, and part of our discomfort with the idea about our being different rests I think in the phrase which I spoke briefly about last week in reference to modern carols – ‘God is With Us’. As I suggested it can leave folk feeling either ‘that’s nice’, or ‘So What’. Like ‘We have Electricity!!’ it’s somehow significant but not something we pay any attention to. As we prepare to host our reverse Mission partners here later in the year, it is worth asking, What is the message, What is the Gospel which is to be proclaimed? ‘God is with us’ is not perhaps a message that will cause people’s lives to be radically changed. I know this from my own experience in my early years when I heard over and over God loves everyone, God is with us all, and I thought, what then is the point of making Any effort with regard to faith. Certainly getting out of bed on a Sunday as a student for church was Way too much of an effort, and ‘God loves me anyway’
Like the message – ‘everyone is a child of God’. We teach people ‘Everyone in a child of God’. But Like the phrase God is With Us – we have to ask – what does it mean??? What difference does it make
The temptation, as with ‘God is With Us’ is to reduce it to an idea, a helpful metaphor. As if Faith was just a list of self help tips to get you through another day – but what if we were to take it with full seriousness? As I have said before, I wonder what would happen if we awoke to the reality of The Eucharist and what was happening when the Priest declares ‘The Lord is Here’ – so too, what might happen were Christians in general, and we gathered here at St John’s woke up to the reality of being children of God?
We conclude each Eucharist in Christmas with the following Blessing – a blessing which takes this with Full seriousness – ‘May Christ, who by his incarnation has drawn into one things earthly and heavenly, bestow upon you the fullness of inward peace and joy and make you partakers in the divine nature’
Let’s just take a moment to ponder that blessing – ‘May Christ, who by his incarnation has drawn into one things earthly and heavenly . . .’ We are Very used to the language of Christ in his humility coming down FROM heaven . . . but the language of this blessing is that once more he reconnects Earth with Heaven. We are given the sense that Christ leaves somewhere to come here, but the deeper reality and the truth which the scriptures point to is that by his birth, Heaven and Earth are once more interwoven. Jesus who is at once the Divine Son of God and the human Son of Mary, in himself becomes the meeting place of heaven and Earth, the meeting place of God and Humankind, the Way by which we may Know God. As John says in his gospel, God the only Son has made the Father known. At once we see that this language of ‘God is with us’, if used in the common contemporary way as if God were some divine chaplain come to help us out with our life, is somewhat undone. Indeed John puts it very differently in his prologue – The Word [that Is God and With God in the beginning] became Flesh and dwelt amongst us. Now literally here the word dwelt should be read tabernacled – that is In Jesus we See the restoration of God’s presence at the heart of His people. The Tabernacle of old in the desert and the first Temple, were the place where God’s presence was to be known on earth – put another way – the tabernacle, the Temple WAS Heaven. So In Jesus now we encounter Heaven, Not just a remote God sending his son from Somewhere else, but in the birth of Jesus, Heaven and Earth rewoven together . . . and in fulfilment of the words of the prophet ‘God is with us’ – that reconnection finds its home HERE, in the heart of his gathered people.
Which leads us to our second point, that is with regard to what it means to be a child of God. Access to the Father is through Jesus, the Word made flesh . . . now here perhaps as much as anywhere we Must See why the language of Father Son and Spirit is Vital and Life Giving.
Jesus, St John tells us the Word, living amongst us revealed the Glory, ‘the glory as of a Father’s only Son. Jesus the Son through HIs relationship with the Father draws Us into that relationship also, in the fullest of senses. As He is the eternal Son of the father, eternally begotten, So we might Also become Children of God. He ‘draws into one things earthly and heavenly’. He doesn’t abandon the heavenly aspect of his being and comes to share in our human nature. No he brings his heavenly nature so that our human nature might be once more made heavenly. This to be frank is all but beyond our capacity of speech. St Paul as he wrote to the Ephesians was SO enthralled by the message of what God has done in Jesus, that he writes one of the worst bits of grammatical Greek you will find anywhere!! Almost the entire reading of the Epistle is One sentence, verses 3-14 is One sentance in the Greek – Paul is Just so overflowing with wonder – it just pours out of him. He is thought to have written by dictation, but here the poor transcriber can hardly keep up! And at the heart of it ‘before the foundation of the world . . . he destined us to be adopted as His Children, through Jesus Christ’
Jesus in his Incarnation draws into one things Earthly and heavenly . . . one of the Great flaws of So much Incarnational theology is that it pays NO regard to this juxtaposition. In effect it is written as if Christ abandons his divinity to be with us. Whereas the truth is far more profound – in his Incarnation the Life of Heaven is revealed on Earth – as John puts it ‘And we have seen his Glory’ Glory a word associated with ‘Heaven’, with the very Presence of God. AND this reconnection of Heaven and Earth makes itself known in all who believe in Jesus in the most breathtaking of ways . . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
Just for a moment, ponder . . . born of God. What does it mean that we Really Are God’s Offspring. If its more than a nice theological idea, a bumper sticker, or a label we can use to describe humanity humanity in general. What does it that as much if indeed not moreso as we are children of our earthly parents, we are Born of God??? What If God is our True parent?
Through faith in Jesus Christ we are made partakers of the Divine Nature. He becomes One with us, not so that we can continue in the life we once knew, but SO THAT we might become one with Him. The Purpose of the Incarnation, of the Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus is that we might participate in the Divine Life, the Life of Heaven, the Life of the Triune God. Why do we NEED forgiveness of sins?? Not primarily because we are sinners, but because God Desires above all to forgive us SO that we might share in his very life. And thus as St Paul puts it Live for the praise of his Glory. That our LIves are His lives, that He lives in us and therefore In Us, the World encounters Him.
The denial of this is perhaps the very worst thing we can do. So much modern theology seeks in one way or another to do this, and we are often taught that we are no different – but we are. Put another way, like when that Albatross first flew into view, there should be No Doubt in the minds of those we encounter that we are His children
The story of the Prodigal reveals this in utter clarity – the Overwhelming forgiveness of the Father is a Welcome into the Divine Life, symbolised by the Party that is thrown for the Prodigal. The Life is revealed and Then becomes Invitation to the elder Son. A gospel which pronounces forgiveness of sins WITHOUT participation in the Divine Life is no gospel at all, because the Gospel IS the one who comes to us, in whom heaven and Earth hold together. Christ the Lord. The Word made flesh, God with us, that we might be born of God.