Healthy Churches – attending to the roots
1 John 4:7-21
North Island – Kauri
Silence and Awe
Sharing in Being
But there was a deeply troubling side – Die back
And from something no-one looking up at the tree would notice – the Roots
these majestic trees were dying, from the roots
The oldest – Tane Mahuta – Biosecurity measures, to protect the roots
About 2000 years old?
Which makes me think of the Church . . .
Shortly GSTHW will gather in Hamilton, to discuss . . . anything except the health of the Church – or the Roots of the Church – the parishes, and our Life in Christ. But this is nothing new.
I clearly did something very very wrong in a previous existence for I have sat through somewhere in the region of 70 Synods – And a consistent feature of all of them has been a) their machine like quality, and b) their failure to pay any attention to the roots of the Church. We’ve been so in awe of the Tree, of its manifold branches – its structures and committees and initiatives, and strategies – so in awe of what we have done, that we have paid no attention to the root, or the source of life.
At a simple level, as I have said before this is reflected in the inattention to the life of the parishes. As I told Synod here in Dunedin last year, we shrank numerically by 15% in 2017, but no one seemed to think this worth our attention. For the first time in the history of this Diocese there less than 100,000 attendances at church in a calendar year and the fall away was dramatic . . .
So today’s readings offer us a Gift, a gift that is constantly offered to us, that of Life
Both our Epistle and our Gospel today direct us to our roots, to the true nature of the Church and the Christian, and direct us to Health, to Life
To return for a moment to The Kauri. We had a bit of a Kauri day, for we drove on from Tane MAhuta, to a Kauri grove, where we found possibly an older tree – certainly a fatter one 🙂 Te MAtua Ngahere – Father of the Forest – a breathtaking 54 feet in girth
On the way to visit the Father I stopped for a brief moment by another Kauri – perhaps a ‘mere’ 800 or so years old, based on my observations of the ancient trees and their ages. The boardwalk in going over the roots afforded the one opportunity of the day to place a hand against the trunk of this being . . . and there I spent a few moments Knowing that together we shared in what the theologians call, the First Grace – that of existence, of being, by virtue of being Created. We shared this. It is a perception that it is hard for us to appreciate in our Modern World. I can think about myself. I can thing about the Tree, I can think about the way we are both ‘living things’, I might make some tenuous connection in my mind – but to press my hand against the trunk and to Know Shared existence . . . this is a different type of Knowing. A Knowing that The West has long ago abandoned.
It is a Knowing that has little or nothing to do with mental assent, it is a sharing in Life. it has a strong parallel in Marriage, in which a man Knows his Wife, and in that Knowing the fruit of Children springs forth. It is the Knowing which our beloved patron John speaks when he says ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.’ Which bring us to the Second Grace, the Second Gift – that of Redemption, or better perhaps, Theosis – through the Risen Jesus sharing in the very Life of God. Not merely the Life of Creation, but to come to Know within us the Life of the Father. To Know God. A Knowledge which brings forth the Fruit of Divine Love. Not as it were to ‘know about God’, as an idea, or to ‘know about Love’ as an idea – but to Know God and Know Love as His Life in and through us
As we hear the words of John, about Knowing, we need this radically Participative way of Knowing in the foreground – two become One in Marriage and in the fruit of marriage, the One flesh of the Child, so ‘we abide in Him, and He in Us’ and Bear Fruit in the World. This is to Know Him. So The Bridegroom abides in the Bride, Christ in His Church, to Bear fruit for the glory of God
It is we might truly say ‘natural’, in the sense we use the word. It flows naturally as water flows naturally from its source to the ocean. For it is the Divine Life which we See within the persons of the Trinity, every flowing from its Source, back to its Source
It is this simple – bluntly so – ‘If we Know God, we love one another.’ ‘If we don’t love one another, we do not Know God’ So Jesus speaks of this deeply participative Knowledge ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit’ It is in sharing in the Life of God , Knowing the Life of God in Jesus the Risen One, that we bear fruit to eternal Life
But in the same ‘natural’ way, cut off from the Source of this Life – the Life ceases to flow. ‘Apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’ Like so much dead wood that no longer has the life flowing through it, wood that has lost connection with the Root.
John goes on in his letter – ‘Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ If you do not love, you are not connected to God – to the Source, to the root. John goes on to make it quite clear that this Love is not something we summon up alone from within ourselves, it has a source, a Root ‘God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.’ The Initiative is Always God’s – He is the Source of this Eternal Life and Love – ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.’ The Initiative, the Source, the root is God’s Love for us – that we might Share in that Life and Love.
So the absence of Love, is the Absence of God. “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Hatred of a fellow Christian, is failure to recognise the shared Life – it is to say No to our being together Children of the Same Heavenly Father. Hatred of another baptised person is always a sign that we have become cut off from our roots.
Of late I have seen a tendency to speak more and more of the ‘God loves me’, rather than ‘I love God’. This is not unimportant, for all too often it masks, or fails to mask despising other Christians. ‘Those dreadful people, but I am secure in the love god has for me . . .’ well it is quite simple and plain that if we have hatred for our fellow Christians, we are cut off from the Love of God – we are in a prison of our own resentment, often Self satisfied, not troubled by the fact that we cannot abide certain people.
John is having nothing to do with this ‘Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’ To Hate and yet to claim to know the love of God is an oxymoronic way of behaviour. Such love is finally only the pitiful love of self, cut off from the source
So finally back to Health, and healthy Churches. I am the Vine and you are the branches says Jesus – to rework the imagery slightly ‘I am the Root of your Life’. Rather like Martha who is distracted by many things, the Church has lost Sight of Her Life, The Bridegroom. She is unlike Mary, not devoted to Him. Mary chooses the One necessary thing – devotion to Jesus the Christ, who is the Source of all Life and Love.
It is not natural for Churches to wither and die, however accustomed we have become to it. For the Bridegroom comes to the Bride, to woo her and to bear fruit to eternal Life.
If the Church is withering and dying it is only possibly for one reason, that we have stopped paying attention to our Roots, to the Fundamental Source of our Life and being, that is our Risen Lord.
So it is that when we attend to The Word made flesh, together wether we are physically together or not, Listening to Him in Scripture – wooing us, ‘I am your Life’ – ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ – ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’
Towards the end of Jesus great prayer he utters these words
‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’
Eternal Life is to Know God, intimately in and through Jesus, The Vine. It is to know his correction, his pruning, his cutting off all that is dead in us, that we might bear much fruit. It is to grow more and more in the way of Love which flows from the very throne room of God. It is to Live because he Lives – it is to Know His Life amongst us
Where this Love, where this Life is Known, The Church flourishes. Let us attend to the Living Word, the True Vine, present amongst us, in Word and Sacrament, and in the Love we have for one another
Sermon for Easter 2
The Resurrection of the Body
One of the ‘unusual’ delights of my work is conversation with undertakers. Many a book could be written in the occasional series ‘travels with a coffin’, for perhaps not surprisingly, all of life is present in those journeys to a cemetery.
Undertakers know the human body better than any of us – and above all, they realise that our bodies tell the story of our lives. Not so very long ago, one undertaker told me, they had discovered a new crease. Creases of course can reveal many things and as it were they were well mapped out, but as the way we live out our lives change, so do our creases. So a new crease has come to light, created as we now pay homage not to the gods, but bow in humble adoration of our mirrors, or cell phones as they are commonly described.
A new crease, and under the chin tells of this ‘development’. Facebook and Google – who benefit greatly from our cell phone addictions claim to know their users better than they known themselves – and anyone who has had an uncanny advert pop up must realise some of the truth of this – but they don’t know anything about your body . . .
The idea that we can know someone apart from their body is novel, and like novels we should perhaps be alert and questioning. For can we truly be known apart from our bodies?
The multitalented stage director, Dr Jonathan Miller is an atheist. Like all atheists he reveals his misunderstanding of Faith by his critique of it. He says ‘I cannot believe in life after death, for how would we know each other without our bodies? It is a very good question and of course for many Modern Christians it may be problematic. But Modern Christians are barely (pun intended) Christian at all.
I vividly remember arguing with some church people about the resurrection. Someone telling me that he could not believe in ‘the resurrection of the body for’- revealing some knowledge the source of which was obscure – except it is a popular perception, – ‘Life beyond the grave is a matter of pure spirit’ (pun not intended). We ‘left our bodies behind’ And I had to ask, ‘how do you know?’
The Resurrection is no mere matter of ‘Life after death’ it is a New Creation, and it is bodily. The Truly shocking thing about the Christian message is the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, that having assumed mortal flesh in being born of a woman, God in Christ takes the Body through death, and raises IT!
Jesus Appears to his disciples. Although in some regards, say the Emmaus road narrative and Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the Garden, there is a strong element of not recognising Him, we must not leap to the conclusion that he was unrecognisable, for indeed who WOULD expect to see him, and we are very much trained in seeing only what we expect to see. Human beings for their own well being in some regards are adept at filtering out anything that doesn’t make sense to us, as otherwise we’d go mad! But as all the gospel writers are at pains to point out, the disciples See Jesus. He invites them to examine his body, his wounds. He makes a fire and cooks fish – he eats food in their presence.
Whilst St Paul scolds the Corinthians for getting all tangled up and probably falling out over questions about ‘the resurrection body’, what he does not in any sense deny is that the Resurrection IS about the body. That God when he created us with bodies did not regard them as mere temporary shells, separate from who we truly were. To be human is to be embodied. And so if our humanity is buried with Christ in our baptism, it is bodily raised in the resurrection. Everything that the Lord made he declared Good – our bodies as much as anything else, and though they are subject to the fall, to change and decay, having forfeited their eternal character by ‘one man’s disobedience’, ‘by the one man’s obedience’, they are taken into the ground to die, to bear the fruit of the Resurrected body.
We see this again in the emphasis on bodily healings in the gospels. The story for example of the paralysed man to which I referred last week beautiful illustrates this. The man’s friends cannot get to Jesus, because the house is too crowded, so they have to dig a hole in the roof, and lower the paralysed, immobile body down . . . he is being buried. Jesus Heals him – forgives his sins, and then restored to Life – he takes up his mat and walks! Death and Resurrection, of the body!
Today , our reading from Acts shows this same power at work in the body of Christ, the Church as Peter responds to the shock of the healing of the paralysed mann at the gat Beautiful who must be carried everywhere.
Well it may well seem that I make too much of this. ‘Of course’ people might say, ‘we believe in the resurrection of the body – of the significance of our bodies’, but we live in an age where bodily significance is seemingly everywhere denied.
The Modern World is in flight from the body, or at war with the body. Insofar as many of us ‘actively participate in the world’, it is by no more than moving our hands over keyboards
The roots of this go way back in history, but Rene Descartes famously is involved for he withdrew the human from the body. ‘I think therefore I am!’ How did he come to this conclusion? Because he distrusted his bodily senses! Literally he lost his senses in an effort to discover what was true about existence he posited a thinking thing . . . something that does not need a body . . . and so we move on and on into an age now where for example whether we are male or female is apparently nothing to do with our bodies, its about how we think about ourselves And this has not left vast swathes of the people of God unaffected
In many denominations people sit in comfy chairs, which hide our bodies from us, increasingly ‘worship’ is bodily passive. Bands sing and we watch. Preachers preach and we listen. Then we go home. Given the highly passive nature of so much contemporary so called worship – it is hardly surprising that people think that they can do it al online. You don’t even need to get out of bed, just lie there inert, plugged into your electronic device which will convey worship to you.
But orthodox Christianity requires us to stand, to kneel, to face the gospel reader, to walk to the Altar. Bodily movement is something apart from which you cannot know Worship in the Church. Speaking the liturgy requires a voice which requires a body – We even Eat and drink as part of our worship. And what is it we eat and drink – but the blood of Jesus, and his Body. For we do all these things, speaking, singing, moving, standing and kneeling, together, as one body
Jonathan Miller in a sense touches on something very important to us. We cannot be known apart from our bodies, for if in any meaningful sense we have a Life, and existence, it can only be known by others because of our bodies, and any experience we have of the world is bodily.
The true Value of our bodies is however revealed in the True Human, Jesus Christ, whom God raised BODILY from the dead. He takes all of our Life, all of who we are through the healing of Death, to the Life of Resurrection. When this Life is revealed, bodies are healed, and the dead are raised
Sermon for Easter 2 – 2018
1 John 1:1-2:2
‘truly our fellowship is with The Father, and with his son Jesus Christ’
1 Jn 1:3
As I was reminded vividly last week – words change their meanings over time. We were reading the collect for Easter Day from the Book of Common prayer and it includes these words ‘We humbly beseech thee that, as by thy special grace preventing us thou dost put into our minds good desires’ Grace preventing us? Puts into our minds good ideas? So is God’s grace trying to stop good ideas?? Very confusing – until you realise that prevent used to mean – ‘go in front of’
Well our epistle from our beloved John, has a similar issue – or rather a word that’s meaning has weekened. When he says ‘truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his son Jesus Christ’ he is pointing to something much richer and deeper than ‘we can now hang out with God as we would with a friend’ – or as a cartoon strip used to put it, ‘Coffee with Jesus’. The Deep meaning of this word is Shared Life, Participation in Life.
This is the deep meaning of the Easter mystery, that through it, we may become participants in the very life of God, or become His Children as John has it at the beginning of his gospel – we may share in his Life, the Life of God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit which he has breathed upon us.
As of old God breathed into Adam in the act of Creation, so as St Paul puts it, ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new Creation.’
And unless we begin to understand this and take hold of it, we never get off first base in Christian Life, for Christian Life IS the Life of Christ, crucified and risen. We are baptised into his death and raised to new life with him. Again, St Paul, ‘since you have been raised with Christ, set your minds on thing above.’ As I have been at pains to point out as we have expired the Lord’s prayer in our evening gatherings, this prayer is not as it were a firing a dart into the unknown heavens in the vague hope someone might hear it, rather it is the Expression of Christian Life.
Well, this may well be news to some of us. Certainly it is not the prevalent understanding of Christianity which is that Christians are people who ‘believe certain things to be true, and then try and live by their beliefs – more or less successfully and if unsuccessfully can be set up as ‘hypocrites’’.
Just this past weekend I read the annual article on ‘how can anyone believe what Christians believe’ – as if it was assent to a set of facts that made you Christian – rather than that to be Christian is to be born anew, to be a participant in the Life of God, to have a share in this Life of God manifested in Jesus. But then, maybe it is just easier to believe in the fact of the resurrection, and get on with your life . . .
This Life we see manifested in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles ‘Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul’ in other words, they had but One Life – the Life of the Risen Christ – breathed into them. We may well be struck by what follows ‘no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common’. And we might read that as ‘they thought sharing what they had was a good idea’ which of course it is, but that is missing the point. This is simply the same thing – they had one life. Not one of them had part of their life which was separated out from the other. The Life was Shared – there was just one life amongst them – that of the Risen Jesus.
And look at what happened! ‘With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus’ Well of course their testimony had power – that Life was evident to anyone who looked at the Church – they had fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ – one in heart and soul – just One Life – the Life of the Risen Lord. In looking at the church you saw the Risen Christ!
This episode is followed by one of the least preached on passages in the New Testament. The story of Ananias and Sapphira – where they both drop dead! Why? Well they sell a field to help out with things, but keep some of the proceeds back. They act as if they have a life separate from the Life of the Church, separate from the Life of the Risen Jesus. And so it comes to pass. They don’t participate in this new life, and to cap it all, they lie about it. The Life isn’t evident – it isn’t manifested in them, for they have cut themselves off from Fellowship, from sharing in the Life of God in the Church. They cut themselves off from Life – they die.
All of which brings us to Thomas – whom I dare to call a model disciple. Again – we have a problem with words – for we are so drilled in the way of understanding ‘belief’ in terms of ‘facts’ and doubt in those terms also.
As if they were something separate from Jesus’ We believe these things ‘about Jesus’ we might say . . . but that is not ‘belief’ in Jesus – for Belief in Jesus is to identify ourselves with Him, with His Life.
Thomas does not need to touch and feel – he purely needs an encounter with The Life . . . which was from the beginning.
And he moves in true terms from ‘unbelief’ or Death – that is ‘not identifying his life with that of Jesus’ – to Belief, to Life – ‘My Lord and My God’. He declares Jesus to be His Life – for this is the meaning of those words. Our Lord – the One whom we take our direction from – our God – that is The Very centre of our existence. He has passed from darkness of unbelief, to the lIght of Life in Christ – and let us never forget that it is this same Thomas who goes out into the World to spread the message of Christ -and establishes perhaps the oldest still existing manifestation of that Life -the Church which bears his name in India – where he is eventually martyred. I
t is in many regards a travesty that Thomas bears the moniker ‘doubting’ – rather we might say he is the first true convert to this Life of Christ.
Like the other disciples he has been in the presence of Jesus but not seen. He says to Jesus ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus answers ‘I am the Way, and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except they come through me’ – no one can know the Life of the Father unless they share in my life for I AM the Way. Not ideas about me, or facts about me, I AM.
And again Philip goes on ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘all this time I AM with you, Philip, and you do not know me?’ To become a disciple of Jesus is to move from unbelief to belief, from not knowing him (as Peter declares three times) that is not sharing in his Death and Life – to Knowing Him. To sharing in his death and Life.
Briefly to digress – these words Jesus to Philip might be addressed to the Church today. I think of our young people who told me that ‘being a Christian’ we knowing someone was there for them. But that is not it at all – rather we are for God. Does not Jesus perhaps say to us – ‘all this time I AM with you, and you do not Know me?’ Do not share in my life, because you still think it is all about your life?
Thomas moves from not Knowing Jesus, to Knowing Him and as he himself prophesied before Jesus raised Lazarus, ‘let us go with Him, that we might die with Him’
Thomas I think is very like the two women who went to the tomb on Easter morning. They had pinned their lives on him and he had taken their lives to the Cross. So Thomas seemed to know that following Jesus would lead to his death. What he did not see, what he could not believe, was that following Jesus to his death would eventuate in being raised with Jesus to newness of Life – to sharing in the Life of Jesus, to Knowing Him, in the deepest sense . . . Life with Him is all that is Left –
Yet – Knowing Jesus in this sense is not a message about having ‘a personal relationship with God in Jesus’. As if it is about ‘knowing he is there for us’. No, It is about becoming part of His body in which his life resides. It is about knowing that Life which is shared around HIs body, for we do not have it for ourselves. We can only know it in fellowship with God and with one another – loving him with all we have and are AND our neighbour as ourselves. There is no such thing as an unchurched Christian. We only Know Jesus, His Life as part of His body
Note how often John uses the first person plural . . .
this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and [we have] heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship [our life, our very existence] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
Our readings leave us with the question – ‘Do we Know this Life, amongst us?’ ‘Do We Know God in Christ – not you or you or you, or me – but do we know this life amongst us?’ Is an encounter with us an encounter with the Living God for in truth his Life is Ours? Can we speak in truth about our life? Can we proclaim with confidence the resurrection of Jesus, because this Life is manifested amongst us?
This is what our beloved patron Saint, John, calls us to, as Thomas is called – from unbelief to belief, from death to Life – from lives in separation, calling things our own – to Life shared and flowing between us, manifesting the very lIfe of God in our midst . . .
. . . for ‘these things written so that [we] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in his name.
May we in Truth say ‘‘truly our fellowship is with The Father, and with his son Jesus Christ’
May we with Thomas declare ‘My Lord and My God’