The Church has got to face up to the reality of the world as it is lived.
So, Lord Carey has changed his mind about assisted dying by polarising ‘compassion’ and ‘doctrine’, and stating that the church had to come to terms with ‘lived realities’.
Set aside the fact that Lord Carey continues to do what his predecessor never did – keeps on queering his successors’ pitch and seems unable to let go – and we can focus on the nub of his argument. Millions of words are being poured into the media today, so I will put a sideways perspective I haven’t seen pursued in the debate so far today.
Who decides what constitutes ‘compassion’? Especially when we know from many terminally ill people that they might well have urged assistance in their dying at an early point in their process, whilst moving on as they came to terms…
Sermon for Sunday July 13th, 2014
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,
it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples”
What is the purpose of human life? What is its goal? The Apostle Paul had a very short and memorable answer to that – ‘For me,’ he said, ‘to live is Christ’. Jesus Christ was the purpose, the source, the compelling energy of his life. He understood his life as being for Christ. Christ was his life.
And he expresses that understanding in a very particular way that does not sit comfortably with us – as he says in his letter to the Romans But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ, does not belong to him. Christ was Paul’s life – in a way that went beyond many contemporary understandings of ‘Christian faith’. It was not simply that Paul believed some facts about Jesus, but acting on those facts he had repented, turned towards Christ and received the very life of Christ in his own being. ‘Repent, be baptised and you will receive the Holy Spirit’
So he will declare to the church in Corinth, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. That, to use an old phrase, the church is made up of those who have received the very life of Christ himself. ‘To Live Is Christ’. So too, let us listen to our elder brother in faith, St John the Evangelist – Evangelist, one who declares the evangel, the Good News of the Kingdom of God which Is this new Life in Christ. How does John put it in that prologue which we hear at midnight each Christmas? He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
To those who believed in the name of Jesus, God gives power to become his children, his offspring – born of God. To the question, ‘where is the Spirit of God, the Life of God in Christ to be found?’ the first answer is ‘within us’
Today we have that familiar parable of the Sower and as I’m sure we know, there are no parables in John’s Gospel. Parables are about things being hidden. Jesus uses parables a lot. And they are used as Jesus explains, so that those who want things on their own terms won’t understand, that is by and large the powerful, who are usually the wealthy. Those who want something they can turn as it were to their advantage. As the Word is made flesh in one who comes to us in weakness and poverty. Like ‘a child’. So the message isn’t heard by those who cannot become as a little child. As we heard in the gospel last week, Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
But John does not use parables – rather he confronts us with the reality of things. His gospel and The Apocalypse, the book of Revelation go hand in hand – both showing us how it is, Reality – a reality it is hard for us to comprehend or accept. Put another way, we might wonder why or even complain that Jesus speaks in parables which are to the powerful difficult to understand, but then not like what is said when he speaks plainly, such is our perversity. And I use the words ‘us’ and ‘our’ advisedly for Jesus parable of the sower, of the seeds, of the soils, does concern those who never come to believe, but it chiefly concerns those who do – that is those who would call themselves his disciples.
John presents the Reality of the parable happening in front of our eyes and it is about the disciples. So the seed which falls upon the path. ‘When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom and does not understand it . . .’ In John’s gospel, Jesus is accused openly of being difficult to understand, or better, hard to accept – so the word which was sown on the path is snatched away by the evil one.
John 6:60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ 61But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? 62Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64But among you there are some who do not believe.’
In the parable, Jesus then speaks of the seed which falls upon the rocky ground – the word is first received with joy; yet such a person has no root and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away . . .
John again, For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’ Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
Do you see? The parable being worked out in front of us. So there were those who had set off, perhaps even joyfully following Jesus, but when Jesus makes himself clear in his teaching, they disassociate from him . . . when Jesus makes himself clear, they disassociate from him . . . When it becomes clear Who Jesus is, they choose another path. How much contemporary faith pays little more than lipservice to Jesus Christ, how much contemporary Christianity is little more than Deism – that philosophy which understands what it calls ‘god’ to be as it were a chaplain to our lives, and one who often seems to fall down in his duties towards us – a philosophy which does not believe that one cannot know God except in and through Jesus Christ and indeed that Jesus Christ himself is our life, apart from whom we have nothing of true worth. So there are Christians who began with devotion to Jesus but when his teaching became too inconvenient for them, they chose another path . . . one that seems wiser in their eyes, more sophisticated.
Then of course there are the seeds which fall into the weeds – but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the world and it yields nothing. Amongst those disciples is one who betrays Jesus – Judas. Whenever we are tempted to think we can handle money – we should remember the one who handles the money for the disciples. Money and wealth distort our vision perhaps more than anything else. They promise us securuty and power – they take us away from dependence upon God in Christ. Previous generations knew this well, we with all our sophistication and yes, wealth, think we can handle it – but money always handles us. So the cares of life comes and the lure of wealth suggests to us that it might deal with them, rather than casting them upon Christ.
John is the one who reveals the Reality. This Word, this Life that is sown . . . the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us . . . the varied responses to the seed in the parable John reveals to be the response to the Word made flesh, their response to Jesus. For the teaching that people could not understand, which caused some to turn back and which in the end drove Judas to betray was this : Jesus said ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.
Jesus the content of our faith, Jesus our Life, and for that reason, the Eucharist is the heart of our worship. This faith spread like wildfire in just a few brief years. Some might think that such close identification of the elements of the Eucharist with the body and blood of Jesus to be a late Roman Catholic change. But from the first there was devotion to Jesus exemplified in the Eucharist.
Listen to these words of St Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius was Bishop there for forty years – from AD 69 until his martyrdom in Rome, fed to wild beasts for the entertainment of the sporting crowds. His letters to the churches we still have and what is clear is that from the outset THE dispute was around the significance of Jesus. He writes to the church in Smyrna – one of those to whom the Risen Christ speaks in the book of Revelation ‘Glory be to Jesus Christ, the Divine one who has gifted you with such wisdom. I have seen how immovably settled in faith you are; nailed body and soul as it were to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, rooted and grounded in love by his blood . . .’ ‘Let nobody be under any delusion (of course they suggested that the humanity of Christ was such a delusion) – there is judgement in store for those who have no faith in the blood of Jesus . . .’ He speaks of those who do not believe thus: they have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry the thirsty . . . They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Saviour Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins, and which the Father in his goodness afterwards raised up again . . .’ We do not know, but Ignatius in all likelihood would have known John – and they speak with one voice to us.
John does not deal in parables, but he does mention a seed. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus here of course refers to himself. His Life, The Word, the Seed, falls into the good earth and there dies to bring forth a crop, as yet uncounted. For what is in the Seed but Life, and that Life of Christ bears much Life, in Ignatius, in John and down through the ages to us – and in every generation the proclamation about Jesus goes forth, and some do not understand, and there are others who start out with joy but then when the teaching seems to hard they fall away, and others deny him seeking not His Life, but rather the life afforded by wealth or other distractions . . .
What is the purpose of our life?? To bring glory to God. How? “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” And how do we bear fruit? By lifelong attentiveness to Jesus Christ, our life and light. I do wonder sometimes if we tempt people to think that they can move on to some more sophisticated faith by teaching the children all about Jesus? Except of course, what else do we have to offer, but his life in us??
Fruit bearing is our goal, our purpose. As Christ says to his churches, those who persevere to the end will be saved. There is no moving on from devotion to Jesus. And calling men women and children to active faith in him. We are here today because of the faithfulness of many generations of those who loved Jesus Christ – and like seeds bearing good fruit have passed that love on to us. People who endured terrible difficulties for the sake of Jesus.
As this year we remember 200 years of the preaching of the name of Jesus upon these shores it is worth remembering the terrible privations of those who first brought the Gospel to these shores. Of how they laboured for years, often seeing little fruit. Yet their Seed, falling into the ground has continued to produce the fruit of the gospel to this day, which is the life of Jesus amongst us. Holding on to Jesus is Good Work – the work the Father gives is to believe in the one whom he has sent. Listen to how Luke concludes the parable :- But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance. ‘But Why?’ an uncomprehending world might ask? Why? We can only give the answer that Peter did when others fell away ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’
Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God,
that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Amen
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life . . . ” 1 Thess 4:11 (NIV)
John Knox, is reputed to have said ‘It would be better for a preacher to stumble on the steps up to the pulpit, fall and break his neck, than to fail to put into practise what he preaches’ I am very glad that we don’t use the pulpit here, and not only because I should by right have already fallen many times from its steps in the three swift years I’ve been here . . .
15 years ago, last Friday – I was ordained to the Priesthood in the church of Christ. Amongst other things I was charged to model the life Christian life amongst the flock. Authentic Christian life requires us to live lives which are transparent to those amongst whom we live, this is what Our brother John mean when he says ‘Walk in the Light’ – Christians don’t play that dangerously self deceptive game – ‘God knows me, so no-one else needs to’. We confess to one another, it’s part and parcel of the Christian life. Therefore, as the person charged with modeling this life amongst us I confess. I have sinned . . . I have been working too hard.
Just incase you’re worried, I’m not going to engage in public soul searching – just confess it, place it in the light.
I don’t mean to excuse this in any sense when I say ‘I’m not alone in this’. Whenever working people gather the question is – Are you Busy? I can’t recall anyone ever saying ‘No, I’m not’. Indeed I’m not sure what the response would be. Perhaps if you are engaged in paid employment you might similarly reflect upon your own work and fellow workers, and what response someone would give to being told ‘I’m not busy’. It is almost as if the Good answer is ‘of course I am busy. We all are, aren’t we?’ Long hours in our culture are seen as ‘Virtuous’ – Or better we feel they MUST be virtuous. We do not try to think too hard about it. We all Know that no-one on their death bed says ‘if only I’d spent more time at the office!’, but that wisdom doesn’t percolate much into the reality of our lives.
Work has long been a research interest of mine. Amongst the research I note that all the evidence shows that working hours have been rising inexorably since the late middle ages, that is precisely since Western culture began its now completed uncoupling from a Christian world view. On average people work harder now than at any time in history. The less Christian we have become the harder we have worked. Long hours are declared by our political Lords and Masters to be a ‘good thing’. Our government rejects calls from the UN to address the culture of overwork New Zealand – despite the fact that contrary to the myth, Kiwis enjoy a much poorer work-life balance than in most developed nations – scarcely better than that self declared ‘light to the nations’ the USA which has what some learned commentators have called a culture of ‘total work’. ‘Work’ we are told, ‘makes us free!’ [Let the reader understand]
We are encouraged to find our life’s meaning in our work. Aunty Ada asks little Johnny, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ by which we all know she means ‘What paid employment would you like to be engaged in?’. Every time we ask this of our children we confuse their very existence with their Work as we have confused our own. We rephrase Rene Descartes – ‘I work therefore I am’. Therefore for someone to say that your life’s meaning is NOT to be found in your work – that hard work and long hours were not in and of themselves ‘a good thing’ or virtuous, is ‘The end of the world as we know it!’ It would radically call into question that which we hold most dear – to put it in biblical language – it would be an assault upon our idolatry. And it is idols which above all deform our existence.
Terrified of this challenge to our lives, we are trained in NOT condemning overwork as morally reprehensible, (as we did before the late middle ages). Consider had I stood here this morning and confessed to murder, or theft, or adultery – I have no doubt at the very least some would get up and leave, and others might send a quick text to the bishop. But Working too much???
Murder, theft, adultery, might direct our thoughts to the Ten Commandments. Funny how some we treat more seriously than others. I could confess to murder and everything would implode. But I could confess to covetousness (indeed I have done so publicly here in the past . . . 🙂 ) – or working too hard and its likely no one will call me to account in terms of Sin, so much is it part of the way of the world in which we live. Thus the Sabbath is rightly described as one of the Commandments we boast about breaking. The Sabbath is given Precisely NOT as taking a day off, but as a critique of overwork. Sabbath Limits our work under the Old Covenant in which we live not by Grace but by the Law. It stops us allowing the world to shape us too much out of the way of the one who promises Rest
And of course clergy are no more immune to the ‘way of the world’ than others. A few years ago, a colleague of mine leading a Diocesan study day on a book he had written on clergy self care and rest. It was a wonderful day, the atmosphere amongst us changed, we really began to see there was another way as we began to see how we’d been led astray by the working in the way of the world, not as consistent with our faith in Jesus.
And Then right at the end, the Bishop got up to speak. He began by commending the author for a very fine and very thought provoking day, BUT . . . and you felt the sense of hopeful expectation dissolve as he re-inforced what the world had always told us – that we had to work hard!! Still under the Pharaoh – Still in Egypt – ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’ no more than an illusion, or the hope of something better after we die . . .
Being so shaped by the world – is precisely what Paul is speaking of in Romans 7 – and what Jesus encounters as he comes to his fellow Jews. He has come to announce Life and Liberty in The Kingdom of God. John the Baptist, his herald has been trying to clear the way – but no-one is listening. ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ ‘For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
Jesus comes announcing Judgement and Life! But there is no dancing to the message of Life he declares, nor is there mourning over the Judgement. John is too austere for their tastes, and Jesus too Free . . . and it’s very worth asking ‘are we any better?’ Do our lives – better our life together – declare that the world’s ways are under judgement? That ‘the way of the world’ has had its day? Does our life together reveal a life which in its freedom from the way of the world? A Life that might look like the kind of dangerous nonsense one might perhaps Crucify someone for? A Life that threatens our captivity?
It is a commonplace to look at Jesus and say ‘why crucify someone whose message was love?’ But that of course is to only tell half the story, It’s why we struggle to tell anyone the Good News . . . and our gospel has done this again – so we hear these words about dancing or not, about Jesus and John as eating and drinking, or not, but then the next few verses are missing – Then [Jesus] began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.” In Word and Deed the flute – a New Song was being sung, and you did not dance – Judgement of the way of the world has been declare and you did not mourn. It will be worse for you than for Sodom.
For Jesus fellow Jews had by and large conformed their faith to the life they were living. It was easier to conform their faith to their familiar lives, than have their lives disrupted by their faith. Jesus embodied teaching was dangerous nonsense, to obey him – well it would mean the end of life as we know it. . . which of course is true. It is why by and large Jesus teaching is still ignored to this day, even amongst those who bear his name. Jesus said – ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’. Yet many Christians continue to say that someone needs to put bullets in another person to secure the State. Or rather they say ‘wars are just’ – but this is the same thing. Jesus says – sell your possessions and give alms to the poor – How many Christians see no problem with acquiring possessions? Jesus says ‘Do not worry’ and we think him a fool . . . Jesus says ‘Come to me – and I will give you rest’ How many think there is nothing sinful in our culture of constant work. Jesus present in judgement, but holding out the gift of Life, and few respond. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa!
In conclusion I want to think briefly again about my role as a priest amongst us, that bishop of whom I spoke, and the Sabbath.
‘I will give you (pl.) rest’ Perhaps nothing more marks the abandonment of the Hope of the Gospel by a culture than its abandonment of Sabbath – and in Christian circles its pietistic reduction to ‘a helpful individual practise’ at best. Why I must ask do Christian writers not see that an individual Sabbath is no Sabbath at all?? Perhaps because our notions of rest are more shaped by ‘the way of the world’ than by our story, Our Story.
The Sabbath was given to a people and only makes sense in terms of a people Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. (Note, this command is addressed to the powerful – the wealthy! Telling them that if they do not rest, neither will those upon whom their lives rely. If you do not rest, neither does anyone else . . . I’ll come back to that in a moment. The Written word is Always addressed to those at the top. Prophets largely speak to Kings. It rarely if ever speaks directly to the poor and the weak, but to the rich and the powerful, because their lives are the lives on which the lives of the poor and the weak are understood to depend. If the King is anxious, if the CEO does not sleep, then neither will their workers – you are back in Egypt . . .) Remember that you (you heads of families and nations) you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Secondly, then, a powerful person, the Diocesan CEO – the Bishop . . . I still wonder what on earth possessed him to undo what my colleague had done. Why he couldn’t let it be . . . and the only answer I could come up with is that he didn’t trust his clergy. He thought the wheels would fall off if they paid too much attention to rest . . . well if he was that anxious about the church, then perhaps the wheels needed to come off
You see those at the top really do set the tone. In reality, no matter how much our individualised faith denies it, they are or they are not vehicles of Grace and Life for their people. Why else take so much trouble over choosing a parish priest? That is why my overworking isn’t just a matter for me but for us all. My life does affects all of ours and just this week God in his severe mercy showed me something I hadn’t seen.
I’d been aware – it had been mentioned a couple of times at Vestry – and I do keep my ear pretty well to the ground 🙂 that church life had become very busy . . . of course I should have heard that better and I didn’t. Why were we busy? Because I as your priest was – why were we overworked? Because I was overworking. Pharaohs and hebrews, CEOs and workers, Kings and nations, Priest and people . . .
You see, for all we may well at times act as if it isn’t true, we are one body, not a loose afiliation of religiously inclined individuals. We are the body of Christ. And some of us are called by the Church to be channel of Grace and Life to that body, or not. As the scriptures make abundantly clear, those called to lead are held accountable before God, for the life of the whole.
And so not only do I confess to my overwork, and seek your forgiveness, I apologise for it as well and seek Grace to find a better way.
Perhaps some time with the words of Jesus from today’s gospel would be a good place to start. I don’t generally go in for the Message translation, it is after all, very American 🙂 but how about this ‘“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
You see there is Good Work, but only Jesus shows us it – and supremely it is revealed in Who he is not what he does. Perhaps we might train our children better, so that when Aunty Ada asks them what they want to be when they grow up they might reply ‘meek and humble of heart – just like Jesus’ The HIgh Priest whose life, unlike mine, is only and always Good News.