Recording of a talk given on the ‘New Monasticism’, as we begin to explore our future Life Together, here at St John’s
Sermon for Sunday 23rd February, 2014
Second before Lent, Year A (Ordinary Time 7)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
‘Do you not know who you are?’
Many of us, I am sure spend little or no time reading the book of Leviticus. Being in the Old Testament some of us have been led to believe that it is somewhat primitive, a heresy the church has had to combat ever since its earliest days. But listen again to these words we have just heard. As you listen hold in mind also the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which we have also heard announced to us.
You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ – Jesus introduces no new teaching when he declares this – He is reminding his own people of their roots, of their identity. We cannot understand who we are as Christians without a profound understanding of where we have come from – our Roots, of Who we are. It is not possible to live as Children of God in the World without great confidence about that identity.
And knowing deeply who we are helps us better to grasp what seems to be the impossible teaching of Jesus. We listen to the words of the Gospel – ‘Do not resist an evil doer’ – ‘turn the other cheek’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ – and almost always, almost without fail we qualify them. We hear the words of Jesus and either, as so many do, we dismiss them as a hopelessly unrealistic counsel of perfection, that doesn’t address our lives. Or hang grimly onto them in a horribly legalistic sense, but to fully comprehend, to grasp in the deepest sense the meaning of Jesus teaching, we need to know who we are.
And when I say ‘Who We are?’ I want again to emphasise that First We are the Body of Christ, and Only Secondly, individually members of it. That our Primary identity is as the people of God – again, if we do not understand this, then these texts become oppressive to us and they are not meant to be, indeed they are words of Liberation of an unimaginable order. For this is Always the truth of the words of Jesus.
But first I’d like to turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he is profoundly concerned with this question of identity, realizing that in truth everything springs from this. When he says ‘Do you not know . . .’ he is asking ‘Do you not know who you are?’ And Paul’s concern is for the Church, and how the church is built up as a body. This of course is a concern for us – building on the foundation which has been laid, how do we in our generation continue to build the church.
Paul has laid the foundation – he has made known the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Gospel. This is a matter of literally fundamental importance. The foundation is Jesus Christ. There are churches which say ‘we stand on the Bible’; or ‘we are a church of social action’; or ‘we are a spirit led church’. All of these good things, but secondary – they are not the foundation – the only foundation for a church can be Jesus Christ, crucified and Risen. We must even be careful when we say, we are a church founded ‘on the gospel’, for even in Paul’s time, there were many ‘gospels’ doing the rounds – not particularly written ones, but messages. Even the Roman Emperor proclaimed the Gospel of his reign. So saying ‘we are a Gospel church, a Good News Church’ is problematic as it then requires someone to ask ‘what is your Gospel?’ For The Foundation is no mere message, it IS Jesus Christ, Crucified, Risen and Ascended, who sits at the right hand of God and in whom all things hold together. He is the foundation of our Life – HE is the Vine – we are the branches. Apart from Him, apart from this foundation we are not a church. And in large part that is why we come together each Sunday – to hear His words, to share with him in the Feast of the Kingdom – his very life in bread and wine.
So then – knowing that foundation we go a LONG way to knowing who we are. As we build, our reference is always to our foundations – is our work True to the Crucified and Risen Lord of Creation? Like a master builder we build in such a way as Always in reference to our foundations. If we do not, well the building will eventually collapse. Imagine if you will the leaning tower of Pisa – the building is not out of line from its foundation – it cannot stand except it is externally propped up – and indeed it may well be the case that through Christendom the church has survived in large part because it was propped up. But Society has no interest in the church now, and here and there churches fall as societies ‘support’ withers. As we look together at our common life through Lent, continually we will be asking about our foundations in Christ, and this I pray will be the focus of our ongoing work and life together.
Well of course Paul knows that not all builders are careful – some understanding the nature of the work they are involved in build with gold and silver and precious stones. They spend themselves in building in such a way that the testing of Fire will reveal its true worth – but others take little care – they cast around for whatever comes to hand – wood, straw, hay – ‘Aw, she’ll be right!’ they say . . . ‘The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”’
Why this care? Why? Paul answers this saying ‘Do you not know who you are?’ We build carelessly when we lose sight of who we are – we might say the more we lose sight of our foundations, the more the building is likely to be out of line. Paul reminds the Corinthians of something which he is concerned they may have forgotten. Do not forget, Paul is addressing folk he has spent time sharing the Good News of Jesus with, he has taught them. What he says is meant as a reminder of his teaching. ‘Do you not know that you are God’s Temple . . . and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s Temple is Holy and you are that temple.’ Even a few minutes quiet meditation upon this teaches us that carelessness in building the church is a truly terrible thing.
At the opening of the Great Thanksgiving we declare, The Lord is here, GOd’s Spirit is with us’. I recently saw someone suggest that this was terribly presumptuous – that it was safer to say ‘The Lord be with you, The Lord bless you’ But that is only ‘safe’ in the manner of the man who hid his talent out of fear of his master!! In the end it is utterly unsafe – we Must stand in the confidence of what God has done and is doing amongst us and at once in boldness and Holy Fear, declare ‘The Lord Is Here, His Spirit is with us’
Well there are of course those who dismiss all this – those who think themselves wise in this age – in Paul’s day as well as ours, but this is not the time to concern ourselves with them, indeed too often in the church we expend ourselves on such tilting at windmills.
To conclude, let us return to the words of Jesus – who is our foundation. More specifically, how do the words of Paul, reminding the Corinthian church of who they are, help US to inhabit the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, neither dismissing them as hopelessly out of touch with the realities of our lives, nor allowing them to become heavy burdens, which at first sight Jesus’ words ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ Is not this after all the Ultimate counsel of perfection???
First those verses about turning the other cheek, about not resisting an evildoer, about giving more than just your coat, about walking the second mile. Our response to this usually falls into one of three categories. Firstly we speak in the abstract ‘Well, if I gave to everyone who asked me I’d have nothing!!’ To which the only answer is – ‘I suspect you have never tried to follow this counsel . . .’ Seriously, just for a moment consider, are you constantly harangued by the needy? Are they bashing your doors down? We respond in the abstract, and indeed reveal our own lack of generosity – Oh yes, we say, We are generous, on our own terms. And for some of us this is how we see God – a reflection of our own paltry generosity, who grudgingly gives himself to us, who demands lots of things in return, who will only give you presents if you are good . . . The second response would be . . . but people are rogues and can’t be trusted . . . and of course We can??? Sometimes to hear folk talk I think we would rather let 9 genuinely hungry starve so to avoid the mistake of feeding that one who can feed himself . . . How Unlike Jesus who cleanses ten lepers even though only one shows gratitude, who feeds thousands without running a check over their deservingness, How unlike God who would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah if only there were ten, or rather One righteous family within its walls. For the sake of such a few Good he would show mercy to thousands . . . and Jesus forces the point home, ‘do not resist an evildoer!!’ Even if you know them to be of bad character, see to their needs, Love them, pray for them, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous . . .
‘Ah!’ we say, trying to play a trump card over Jesus’ words ‘but this can become an abusers charter’ . . . and of course there are many who live in such abusive relationships . . . but I want to suggest that to participate in the Life of Christ, to live fully into who we are requires a daring act of renewed imagination, for in regards to abuse, and the effects of living in obedience to the words of Jesus we only ever think of these things as they relate to us as individuals. We need to change our very way of thinking about ourselves, we need a fuller and richer understanding of who we are.
What might it mean for us, understanding that we are the holy Temple of God, the we are the very dwelling place of God’s Spirit, that we are children of the one who loves and indeeds dies for his enemies, indeed who has loved and died for us whilst we ourselves were yet his enemies . . . what might it mean for us together to share with one another in living out these commands of Jesus? What might it mean for us together to understand that ‘all things are ours, either the world or life or death or the present or the future – everything belongs to us, that we belong to Christ, that Christ belongs to God and nothing can pluck us from the hand of our Father in heaven.
What might it mean for us as a people to be literally captivated by this understanding of ourselves, set free from our fear of others – set free to love as God in Christ loves us – set free to be his children in truth and Light.
As together over the coming months we explore our shared life, may God in his infinite Goodness and mercy draw us ever more deeply into the apprehension of who we are in Christ – The Home of God, and the Children of God.
Sermon for The Feast of the Presentation – 2014
‘Why do you think you are here today?’
Picture the scene, perhaps a familiar one? – it is a house not very far from here and someone shouts up the stairs – ‘You need to get out of bed, Now!!’ – ‘I don’t want to get out of bed!’ comes the reply – ‘You need to get out of bed. It’s Sunday. It’s Church’ – ‘I don’t want to go to Church’ – ‘You’ve Got to go to Church – It’s good for you!’ – ‘I don’t care!’ – And there’s a baptism this morning – ‘I’m already baptised’ – Well you’ve go to go anyway – you have no choice – ‘Why??!!” Because you’re the Vicar!!
Well that explains why I’m here 🙂 But Why do you think You are here? Because you were told you had to? Perhaps you’ve come along as part of Freya’s family for her baptism? Perhaps we’re here because we think people will miss us if we’re not – because it never occurred to us not to be, or like me, because it’s my job 🙂
Well, today is a special day in the Church’s year, an Important Festival – The Feast of the Presentation. We always call our festivals Feasts – indeed its the same word. When we celebrate, we eat! Food is at the heart of our Christian faith – so we always come to celebrate at the Lord’s table.
And The Feast of the Presentation is an important festival because if you like, it is all about coming to church, Jesus’ first visit to church! Well not quite but it gives you the idea. Our Gospel reading today finds Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is only 40 days old at this point – today February 2nd is when we celebrate this – 40 days after Christmas day – you see, it all fits together 🙂
And like you and like me, Mary and Joseph have THEIR idea about why they are going to the Temple. They were devout Jews and went for the rite of Purification and dedication to God. Jesus as their first born technically belonged to God, so they in a sense went to ‘buy him back’ – to redeem him. And as they were poor they offered a gift of either a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. And there was nothing at all unusual in that – but they were in for a Surprise!!
‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple’
I wonder if anyone has ever thrown a surprise party for you? Last year as a church we threw one for Sarah on her 50th birthday. The idea had been around for several months – invitations had been sent out – but most important of all, we needed a cover story. She needed to think she was coming to something else. We had to get her into the church hall without her realising what was happening. She thought that she was coming to someone else’s party 🙂 – indeed to allow last minute preparations we even sent her to collect the birthday cake – her own 🙂
She thought she was coming to the church hall for one reason, but there was something very different going on! And she got a Big surprise.
When Mary and Joseph arrived at the Temple – all of a sudden They were the focus of attention – or rather their baby was.
For all THEY thought they knew what their visit to the Temple was about, something else was going on, something Much bigger than a simple religious rite. As with a surprise party, people had been getting ready for this moment for quite a while – there had been a sense of expectation . . . but not for a few weeks, or months, or even a few years. People had been waiting for this moment for Four hundred years!!
If we are familiar with the story of God’s people then we know that things have gone from bad to worse – they have been taken away from the Promised land into exile – they have returned but things are not the same, and one foreign nation after another has stamped all over their land. They are waiting, waiting, waiting for God to come to rescue them and restore to them their Life and their Land.
Can you imagine what it is to wait for Four hundred years? Of course not, this is a waiting that is not about ‘you’ or ‘you’ or ‘you’. It is the Waiting of a people. Something which in our lonely age of individusalism we cannot imagine. Our family got some wonderful news this week, one of our daughters and her husband are coming to visit us in August. It’s fair to say ‘we cannot wait’, but of course we will have to. But I wonder if we can even begin to imagine what it would be like to wait as a people? Something which our comfortable and isolated lives (and the two are closely connected) can scarce apprehend. Waiting for someone to come without knowing When they would come – for Four hundred years. A whole people, a nation waiting – the waiting passed on through the fifteen, sixteen generations. Four hundred years ago the prophet Malachi had said ‘The LORD whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple’ – But When?
Today we celebrate that day.
Mary and Joseph turn up at the Temple to go through the required rituals and suddenly two very old people come up to them. We know their names – they were called Simeon and Anna. Two old folk who symbolise the waiting of the people.
Simeon we are told is guided by the Spirit of God, to go to the Temple and seeing Mary and Joseph, he takes the baby Jesus in his arms and says the most extraordinary things. For some of us these are very familiar words – those of the Nunc Dimittis – but take a moment to think of their meaning – Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.
Lord, you are letting your servant depart in peace. Simeon has waited for this moment all his life – seeing this child he knows he can die at peace. Often when I am with those who are dying, there is something or someone they are waiting for. Simeon is very old – he has been waiting for God’s promise to Come to his people to be fulfilled – and now the waiting is over. His life has been all about waiting. It is as if this is the entire meaning of his life. He knows it is complete. He can depart in peace – Peace is the sign of fulfillment. He has waited – he knows that his Life’s work is Complete. Imagine the significance of saying – ‘Now I have seen this, Now I can die’
Imagine the young parents.This old man sees his Life’s work, his waiting fulfilled in their child. They need an explanation and they are given one – summed up in Prophetic Words. It is announced Who this child is.
Now when we are born, our parents have all sorts of hopes and dreams for us. We live in an immensely privileged culture, and we should not forget that. For many many children their parents might merely cling to the hope that the child will live long enough to look after them in their old age. Mary and Joseph are poor, they live in a country under the domination of a harsh Empire who thinks nothing of taking their money in taxes and killing the people almost on a whim. Their hopes for Jesus?? Yet Simeon doesn’t speak of hopes and dream, he Speaks a word of Prophecy – ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ The Life of this child will affect the lives of all with whom he comes into contact changing their lives in ways you cannot imagine – their rise, their fall – and for you Mary their will be great sorrow – a sword will pierce your own soul . . . and that wasn’t all. There was also old Anna – a widow – she had been praying in the Temple night and Day – Waiting – Waiting – And now he has come and she rushes out and told all who would listen – the one we were waiting for has come . . .
Mary and Joseph just thought that they were going to the Temple for the necessary rituals – they did not know that they were going to fulfill an Ancient promise of God. . . . and it was all to do with their Son . . .
Which brings us back to our opening question, or rather a variant of it
‘Why Are we here today?’
Mary and Joseph had Their ideas as to why they went to the Temple that day – but that wasn’t why they were their
We may have a hundred and one answers to the question – Why do you think you are here today? But like Mary and Josephs visit to the Temple, our agendas, our reasons aren’t The Reason. We like them are being caught up into the Word and Works of God in Jesus Christ.
Quite simply we are not here for ourselves or our reasons. Like Simeon and Anna, Like Mary and Joseph, we are here today for Him – For Jesus Christ. He is the focus of our Life together. The meaning of all we do – in prayer and listening to the Bible, and of course in the Holy Communion – where He comes to us in bread and wine, in flesh and blood, as he came to the Temple.
We are here for Him. As Simeon’s life is summed up in hopeful expectation of the arrival of Christ Jesus, He IS our Life.
In a few moments we will baptise Freya – when we baptise someone this is no mere symbol – we are doing no less than including them in the Life, the Death and the Resurrection of Jesus – Freya will become part with us of the Work that God is doing in Jesus Christ by becoming part of the Church. As I said in the parish magazine, yes we are welcoming Andrew as our new curate today, but FAR FAR FAR more important, we are baptising Freya. Andrew is already part of the church by baptism, and his significance amongst us is merely as a symbol, a reminder of who we all are. Freya is starting out on a new life – a Life in Jesus, With Jesus and through Jesus as a member of His Body, Here and indeed throughout the world.
We are here for Him
Some important thoughts from +Nick.
It is interesting that this is published at a time when there have been a flood of articles re concern over pornography on the internet. +Nick wonders about the possibility of a Doctorate exploring Narcissm and conversion based on fear of hell. I wonder if there might be one in exploring the link between the rampant self disclosure of much social media and what we term ‘darker’ aspects of internet freedom? Are they at base too closely related for comfort?
Hiddenness, an oft and blatantly ignored aspect of The Kingdom of God is not a dominant characteristic of contemporary life in liberal democracies – the internet is one of the most powerful symbols of our age.
(And yes, I am not unaware of the irony of thus ‘thinking out loud’)
Naomi Wolf, writing in the NY Times addresses the link between pornography and the disappearance of mystery, which is a significant correlate of ‘Hiddenness’
The first day of my sabbatical. Thirty books to start on – two months to read as much as possible. I am afraid there's going to be an awful lot of book stuff on this blog in the next few weeks. (Enjoying Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike today.)
Then there's the closing of the January transfer window with Liverpool having bought nobody to strengthen an inadequately broad enough squad. Oh dear.
But, what has grabbed my attention is an article I picked up yesterday on the Die Zeit website. Written by Ulrich Greiner (publisher of Zeitliteratur magazine) and sparked by the announcement that novelist Henning Mankell has decided to record in print his 'journey with cancer', the piece is headed “Man sollte diskret sterben” – one should die discreetly. His point? This sort of description of suffering is essentially narcissistic.
Apparently, Mankell has decided to record his “fight against cancer” (a…
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