Pentecost Evensong – 2018 – Following Jesus all the way through death to Life

Ezekiel 36:22-28

Acts 2:22-38

‘when they heard this, they were cut to the heart’ Acts 2:37

That wise old sage, GK Chesterton once observed, ‘it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, rather it is that has been found too hard and so not tried’

We tend to think he may be overstating it, but did not Jesus say ‘ ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’
Matt 7:13-14 Suffice to say the words of Jesus mean little to us in these days of our ease . . .

As we have explored through Lent and on through the season of Easter, the seasons of the Church year are given that we might follow Jesus. Not admire him from a distance, but follow him where he goes. When we hear sermons on this topic we tent to romanticise this and ignore the literal command of Jesus – ‘follow me’ – where I am going, you cannot now come, but you will come after.

Today is the Feast of Pentecost. Jesus has if you will, disappeared from the scene, taken from the sight of the disciples, but in strict obedience to him, they have waited in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit has been poured out on them.

As I said this morning, Pentecost is perhaps in Truth, the Easter of the Church. That is it is the Day when the people of God, following Jesus are raised from the dead. To use Paul’s language ‘you were once dead in your sins and trespasses, but God has made you alive in Christ’ Eph 2:1,5-6

So We might ask, what of us?? Why do we not see these things?? Perhaps the answer is that the Way of Jesus is too hard. For to know the Resurrection, one must have died and descended to the dead, as The Apostles Creed teaches us.

Jesus dies on the Cross – He tells us that we too must die to ourselves – he then visits Hell, and harrows it . . . but do we follow him there, or do we merely wait for Him to return?

One of the very few who have followed the hard and narrow way that leads to life, who have followed Christ into Hell, is the Russian Writer, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (Other examples I could name are also Russian, it is a hard land 🙂 ) Solzhenitsyn went to Hell and came to life as a Christian, quite literally

He was in his younger years an enthusiastic party member, a Communist, so when Hitler invaded his country, he joined up to ‘fight tyranny’, not realising that the tyranny he was fighting was more than mirrored by the bloody regime he fought for . . . always beware of ‘righteous causes’. The inexorable logic of the Marxists (copied by Capitalists . . .) sought to purge the state by killing the ‘class enemies’. Eventually, having killed the middle classes and the farmers who made a decent fist of things, the beast started to eat itself, and party members were accused and sent to the death camps, the Gulags. Slave camps where people were worked to death, in their tens of millions ( story of which most of us live in ignorance of ).

Of course Solzhenitsyn was at first shocked, after all, he had been a good party member and played by the rules – in his own eyes a good man and now being oppressed by the very system he had supported. He could easily slipped into resentment and hatred. Broad and easy is the way – after all, didn’t he have a right to be angry with ‘those people’? Instead he chose the hard and narrow way.

He undertook a fearless moral inventory. He went back over his entire life with a fine tooth comb, exposed everything to the light, and what he found there at first terrified him, but later became the source of his Wisdom. He realised that he was every bit as bad as those who had sent him there. He realised that radical evil flows not through particular people, it flowed through the veins of every human being. He had been in ignorance, supposing the troubles of the world were ‘those people’ – he found the very source of Hell was within himself.

Yet, thus exposed to the Light and the Truth of himself, he faced the Light, rather than fleeing it – he found a New Life, a previously unimaginable capacity. He could look even on the camp guards with Love and Compassion, for in them he saw himself as he had been. The one who looks with judgement on others, has either not known the truth of himself, or else has forgotten it, and lost that gift of Life

For one must NOT forget . . . One would think that Solzhenytsyn, having got out of the Gulag alive, in the fullest sense would have rejoiced to see the back of it – yet that isn’t his story. He carried it with him, again quite literally. For several years in the Gulag his bed had been a rough wooden cot made of old package cases – on leaving the Gulag he finally exposed the story of the Hell of ideological Marxism writing his famous work, the Gulag Archipelago. In several respects this book played a significant role in deromanticising the Left in the eyes of many in the West, and to the very end of Communism. He went to live in America and was much in demand as a speaker, giving a famous commencement address at Harvard University . . . yet the Gulag went with him. To the day he died, he slept in that same wooden cot. Its lesson was too precious to him. It was through Hell, that he had discovered Heaven. The cot a constant reminder of the Strange Gift of the Gulag

Solzhenitsyn had been resurrected. And it was no surprise that he became a Christian . . . for that is the path to becoming a Christian, it is to Know that Hell is not as Sartre puts it, ‘other people’, it is much closer than that – it is to realise that Hell lies within us – and turn in Hope to the healer, the one who has gone before and reveals the way out. It was as Carl Jung suggests, ‘that which you most truly desire is in the place you least want to go’

Of course, realising that which is within us may not lead to repentance and resurrection if we are turned in on ourselves, if we chose the path of bitterness and despair, rather than that of facing our truth. In the time between the death and Resurrection of Jesus, Judas chose that route, but Peter did not

And so having gone into Hell, it is the resurrected Peter who addresses the crowds on the Day of Pentecost and His bright Light illumined message opened wide his hearers who ‘were cut to the heart’ – the evil of their heart laid bare.

‘let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’

The evil of their hearts was laid bare – subjected to the dazzling brilliance of Truth and Light. From the darkness of death they cried out ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ and Peter replied ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

Repent . . . ‘turn away from your wickedness – turn towards the Brilliant light which has exposed you, for it is the Burning Sun of the Love of God which forgives yes, even you, for He has forgiven Me! Take your place with St Paul who also knows himself to be ‘the chief of sinners’ – and you will receive the Life beyond all human hope – the Very Life of God himself – The Holy Spirit, the Life which death itself is powerless to contain.

Like the Gulag for Solzhenitsyn, the Resurrection of Pentecost is a Strange and disturbing gift. Tongues of flame – burning truth in preaching from these unlearned Galileans.

We are faced with a question we never thought of – ‘do you wish to be raised from the dead? Is the Truth something to be fled from in the sleep of death, or faced in all its burning and healing Light?

These Strange Gifts come to us in strange readings. This morning we heard of the vision of Ezekiel – of the valley of dry bones and the question of the LORD – ‘Son of Man, can these bones live?’ A vision of a people coming to life beyond all human hope – a people who were saying “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Would they want to . . .

Tonight we hear from the same prophet, the Word of the LORD – ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.’ It is that promise of Resurrection, for all those who have followed Jesus into the place where in human terms all hope is cut off, into Hell . . . we may well ask, why do we not see the promise of the Father? Is it because in truth we do not want to?

Is not this us? Beyond Hope? Perhaps we need to take Jesus at his word and follow him.

Seek the Light which exposes the heart – dare to face the Light and the Truth – and you shall be saved . . .

Pentecost 18 – Awaiting the Resurrection of the people of God

Pentecost 2018
Ezekiel 37
Acts 2

Awaiting The Resurrection of the people of God

At Easter, reflecting on the experience of the women at the tomb who ‘fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’ we were reminded that the Resurrection of Jesus dismantles, shatters and devastates all our ways of understanding the world in which we believe we live. But we should be very careful of merely reflecting, of pondering and wondering, of casual day dreaming . . . before we, getting on with our lives, before getting back to what we have become accustomed to calling ‘the real world’, and move onto the next thing. Of course we are quick to dismiss the Resurrection of Jesus, to infantilize it into a vague wish for the future and ‘a better world’ for it calls into question nothing less than our very existence
Rather we need to sit with it, to Wait on this Word of life which was from the beginning – to ask, ‘what does this mean?’ – to allow it to do its work in us. This isn’t our work – it is God’s work and we must allow that space, or ignore the Resurrection, to our eternal loss. And we have been commanded to this waiting.

Last week we considered the Lord’s command to us, to Wait! To Wait for the promise of the Father – to stay put, until we were clothed with power from on high and in the Church Year we see what happens when we are thus obedient to the LORD – the Day of Pentecost – a Day equally marked by terror, amazement and bewilderment

‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability’.

Only the most casual amongst us would pretend that we understand what this means . . . indeed if we dare face the Truth, we find ourselves not amongst the disciple community, but in and amongst the crowds. Even we who unthinkingly bear the name of Christ find this beyond our Knowledge . . .

We are in the crowds who see this disciple community, declaring the mighty acts of God, each of us hearing it without any need of translation, and with the crowd we ask ’What does this mean?’

Perhaps the greatest distortion of the Christian message is to transform it into something about ‘what happens when we die’. In a sense it is, but not in the sense we have comfortably taken into our lives. Treating out faith as a pass for a nice future ‘after this life’ causes us to dismiss it entirely – it is literally a ‘grave’ deception.

If we truly seek an answer to the question ‘what does this mean’? We must go with the disciples on the Emmaus Road, and allow the Risen Christ to ‘open [our] minds to understand the scriptures’. We by baptism the people of God, have been given the Scriptures that we might know what this means. How quick we are to turn to anything except the Scriptures to come us with an explanation for ‘these things that have happened’ Perhaps we find the question all but impossible to answer from the Scriptures, for they like these things that have happened are alien to ‘life in the real world’

Of course if we are to turn to the Scriptures, we must of course first recognise who we are, the people of God, baptised into His name. That apart form Him we can do nothing, that apart from what he reveals we know nothing. That the Scriptures are not just ‘another source of wisdom we can dwell on,’ but that they are God’s gift, they are our very life support. For the answer to the question, ‘what does this mean?’ is found in the Scriptures, over and over again.

We might say, well Peter explains from the prophet Joel . . . as we have heard so many times, and become accustomed to it, yet not questioned why this Pentecost outpouring is so alien to ‘our own lives’ – so perhaps another Scripture might wake us once more. And here we come to our OT reading from Ezekiel. ‘What does this mean’?
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ Before we respond from either naive acquaintance ‘Yes of Course!, or from the cave of ‘life in the real world’ ‘no’ – we ought to pause – If the strangeness of Easter and Pentecost has taught us anything, at the very least it ought to teach us humility in the face of existence – so perhaps in humility we may respond with the Son of Man – ‘O Lord God, you know.’

Why the dry bones? What are they? Who are they? ‘Son of Man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

We are cut off completely. We have been captivated, enthralled, literally been enslaved by the lives we have made for ourselves, lives which can only wither for their source is in themselves. They are not trees by streams drawing life from beyond them. Indeed perhaps in this age unlike no other we have lost sense of life beyond us which we may draw upon

Who are they? As we have pondered often, what do we see of the church in these days? Would we not also cry out “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.”

It is of note that this reading is used in the Easter dawn vigil – as we wait on the resurrection of Jesus ‘early on the first day of the week’, for it concerns mot the resurrection f an individual, but that of a whole people . . . what is the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the King of God’s people the Jews, if it is not the Resurrection of the whole people?

They lie in the dust of death, through ‘ignorance and unbelief’ – choosing ‘life on their own terms’ they have not listened to the voice of the one who addresses them from heaven, that Life, and so they are dead. Dead in trespasses and sin.

‘But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive – together with Christ’

The disciples Wait – because they know they are dead in trespasses and sin. Dry bones do not live of their own accord – they must Wait!

There is a clue to this in what we have come to call Jesus’ restoration of Peter. Actually it is better to call it Jesus confronting Peter with his sin. Why is Peter distressed because jesus asked him the third times ‘do you love me?’ because Jesus is confronting him with his sin. Peter wants to forget, wants to think that it never happened, that he really can do it on his own, if only he is given a second chance. Jesus reveals to him that he cannot. It is the Word of Jesus to Peter – so he has nothing but the command of Jesus to rest on now, to Wait till Life comes ‘from above’, till he is norm again. That Life is the source of the tongues of flame, of the proclamation of the mighty acts of God, and of Peter’s boldness in preaching, in answering the question ‘what does this mean?’ because he himself has known what it is to be raised from the Dead. He has been there, and the Lord has lifted him up

This is the meaning of these things – the disciple community, knowing themselves to have no hope apart from Christ, knowing themselves to be dead in trespasses and sin, began the journey of obedience, Waiting for the promise of the Father, and God made them alive – together with Christ. Easter and Pentecost are one. Jesus the Obedient one is raised to life in triumph, so to his people – those who show themselves to be his people by Waiting on him

Here is the dilemma we face. A problem created by the Church year – which is a gift, but can be a hindrance. For if we are not careful, we will just move on, in part we will listen to the voice which sees the Apostles clothes in power and subtly suggests, ‘move along, nothing to see here. this is nothing to do with you . . .’

But if we are the people of God, then it is EVERYTHING to do with us.

Maybe it is precisely because this Day of Pentecost is such a day marked by terror, amazement and bewilderment,  demolishing our impoverished way of understanding, that we move so swiftly on . . .

May we be a people who WAIT. Wait like Lazarus for that voice that calls us from beyond ourselves and our the live we have made for ourselves, that calls us out of the illusion we have come to call ‘The Real World’, which is never more than our vain imaginings . . May we be a people who Know that apart from that Word we can do nothing. May we like Peter Know our condition and wait for the voice until it summons us forth until it Raises us.

The Voice of Jesus to Lazarus is also the voice of Jesus to all those called by His name in this day. A Loud Voice crying out to us from beyond the grave, the sleep of death which is the life we have made for ourselves, summoning us to something beyond our understanding, a world where Christ is all and is in all.

Amen

Faith, in the World of machines

Unless chaos breaks into our existence, it is all but impossible to conceive of the degree of control we assume we have over our lives. So many dimensions of our Modern existence – dominated as it is by machines – give us the illusory sense of all but total control, to the point where those one or two things which we seem unable to control, often in the arena of personal relationships, assume a dimension which consumes our waking hours, and troubles our dreams.

For the myth we live with is that our lives are what we make of them. Not only do we assume we have the capacity to choose and to choose well, it is possible to have ‘the life we’ve always dreamed of’, and indeed that nothing or no one ought stand in our way as we strive towards the realisation of Our Dream.

We are lulled into this first by our extraordinary monetary wealth. ( From time to time I ponder the difference between my own extraordinarily wealthy existence and that even of my parents, a mere 50 years ago. Of how my father who had for the times a reasonably paid job, wondered about whether he ought to spend a few pennies on the evening newspaper. Of our first car that was so broken that it nearly brought my own life to a premature end – I could go on) Money comes with the false promise of control. After all we use it to buy things without let or hindrance. It gives us a large degree of mastery which we may well internalise as a sense of control over our very existence. I get what I pay for. And then again we work and live with machines which by and large do what we ask them to do – we have even developed this to the level of machines which we verbally command; ‘Alexa . . .!’.

And then we have the machines – which are dependable to an extraordinary degree, witnessed by the stories of their infrequent failures. Aeroplanes fly millions and millions of miles without falling from the sky, ‘the blue screen of death’ is now a very rare visitor to our on demand, on screen our existence.

Of course few of us have everything we truly want. Relationships break up, people get very ill – perhaps we ourselves, our bodies age, friends die unexpectedly, and so we howl ‘It isn’t meant to be like this!! and demand our own version of the cosmic ‘Alexa’ comes to our rescue to put our lives back on the tracks we have decided to follow. Of course this cosmic servant may only be our ideological opponents, but someone or something ‘should get this sorted’

Any sense of not being in control is to a large degree foreign to us, so regal have we become in so much of our existence, surrounding ourselves with uncosciously selected friends who tell us how right we are to want what we want, and to rail when we do not have it. ‘Leaves on the line’ of our lives MUST be cleared – ‘how could we allow such things to happen in the C21′ – the world of machines’

This world is a world in which faith is all but erased. Back in the C18 folk used to talk of ‘the god of the gaps’ – and in those days there was rampant TB, life expectancy was about half of what it is today, death in childbirth was a tragic commonplace, there was no ‘safety net’. Now the gaps are comparatively speaking microscopically small. We live in the bubble of life on our own terms, and God has all but departed the scene except as a theological problem when life does not deliver on time and in accordance with the agreed Terms and Conditions. And Gratitude?

 

The Idea that things aren’t meant to work out in the way our small imaginations had supposed, is offensive to us ‘This must never happen to you!’, precisely because, conditioned by existence in the world of wealth and machines, we assume that we are in charge of our own destiny. And it is quite possible that the LORD says to us ‘so be it’, and we are given over to our desires in a world stripped of Grace, not recognising that we are not our own . . .

I was drawn to think this through the realisation that I live with this illusion myself. That it is at times all but impossible to hear the voice which says, ‘one thing you lack . . . let go of that which around which you have shaped your own life story, and follow me’. ‘Follow me into places and circumstances you cannot even dream of for they do not dwell in your own unenlightened imagination ‘lit’ only by the feeble flame of your own fires, the things you tell yourself you know’

But our sense of control, our terror of not being in control nails us to an ever narrowing mountain ledge over what seems to us to be a chasm of bottomless darkness, terrified of losing our grip, as our hands tire and weaken . . .

Jesus offers us a Life that is Alien to us. It is a Life that is not our own. It is a Life that we can scarce imagine. We are terrified of it, for our lives are too small in its Majestic Scope, and our eyes are unaccustomed to its Light. It is a Life of which we are not the Author, and over which we have no control, for their is no compulsion in Love . . .

Waiting – Trees of Righteousness. Easter 7 (Ascension)

Sermon for Ascension Sunday (Easter 7) 2018
Psalm 1
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

‘Good things Come . . .’

“Jesus ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father”] Acts 4:4

Just this week I learned that those who control global investments of money use data downloaded from Spotify, the music streaming service to predict with uncanny precision what will happen in the money, markets. The question ‘are people going to buy things or not?’ can be answered with great accuracy, by looking at their choice of music.
When you add to this Facebook’s apparently true claim to know its users better than they know themselves, and thus their ability to control the behaviours of its users, and experiment they themselves carried out, it is worth asking the question which occupies philosophers in these days, ‘is there really anything such as free will?’ If human beings are so predictable using powerful computer algorithms, is it not the case that we are all just caught up in a machine in which we are highly manipulable and dependable cogs. It is frankly a terrifying thought, yet the Modern World is founded on such a set of assumptions, not least that the human is no more than a biological machine. And the problem with machines is that they are without Hope in any meaningful sense. What will be is what is encoded and laid down . . . where does our help come from? Where might anything New break in to change this story?

The Church is meant to be that place. God in Christ has broken into our world to reveal a Newness of which we would never have conceived. The Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the Dead, betokens this Life of God breaking into our existence as something beyond our way of understanding, and today as we look back not only to Easter and the Ascension of Jesus into the heavens, but look forward to Pentecost is time for not only considering the Nature of this Life, as we have been doing, but also how this Life is so transmitted in the world that we might be set free from the machine life we seem inexorably to be drawn into.

What is it that might be a lifeline, bringing in Life from outside of the machine? Or is it purely a closed system? Of course it is hard to answer that if we only use the language of the machine, of closed systems and our way of speaking about the World is so Modern as to offer few clues, but perhaps our Psalm, written from the non-machine age might speak to us of how Life comes to us from outside the machine, Life which may yet preserve Life in the World and call forth a Newness to a ‘tired and weary world’ And again we are in the world of trees 🙂

Blessed is the man
who does not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
So the Psalm speaks of one who is Rooted in something – namely the Life of God – mediated through His Word, written and of course Lived in Christ Jesus

We might say as St Augustine suggests, their restless hearts have found their Rest in God
And they are Still, at Rest –

They are like trees
planted by streams of water,

Trees as we have been considering these past weeks are like ikons – they speak to us if we will hear, and in this case it is their fixedness which is drawn to attention – for unlike the wicked man, who is ‘like chaff that the wind drives away.’ – The Righteous man is ‘planted’ – fixed – rooted in streams of life giving water and thus

‘yields his fruit – – – in due season’

A tree, I suspect is not anxious about the future. It knows that planted by good streams, its fruit will come. It is Content – we might say, it is ‘at rest’. It is most unmachine like, not least because it doesn’t appear to be doing anything, rather it is Still. Perhaps this is why the Machine world is so at war with ‘the living world’?

It is that stillness, that restedness, that rootedness which makes all the difference. Human existence is impossible if everything is permanently on the move, as in a machine, perpetual change is literally, Radically disorienting. For something to be radically disoriented – it has to be ‘taken up by the roots’, it is rootless. Radical means just this – of the root. (It is a word which has come to mean the exact opposite of its root meaning.
To be radical nowadays is to be disconnected from time and space, from tradition, from human shared existence, it is to be isolated and cut off but we cannot live like this. Modern people with their disdain for what has gone before are cut off at the roots, they are radical in the modern sense, not the true sense.)

In the same way that trees and plants, rooted in the ground stabilise the soil and allow growth, and when they are uprooted the very soil of existence washes away – so too human society falls to pieces without those who are fixed place. If there is no-one stable, then everything is reduced to chaos. The Righteous, the Rooted ones, ‘preserve the city in peace’

We find this in the simplest ways. Children growing up without the stability of family life more often than not end up living lives of chaos. The Stability of the Mother and the Father, the Home is good soil in which the child may grow and acquire Virtue, Character, and all those things which we seem to have forgotten are important. These things are the necessary stability around which magical things may happen, the fixed points.

Today we remember the Ascension of Jesus, on the Sunday between His Ascension and Pentecost, and Jesus commands his disciples ‘not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father”. So we are in a period of waiting, but at the least, it has to be said that a society whose default state is rapid perpetual movement is not very productive of those whom might wait with a degree of contentment, at the worst, it destroys our capacity for waiting – for waiting on God.

I saw this on a committee I sat on some years ago now. every half an hour a bell rang and for two minutes we were to ‘wait’ on God. But my experience of it was that it was like being in a Formula 1 pit lane, a drive through penalty, or a tyre change. When the bell rang again, we were off! Conversation carried on as if everyone present had been fixed on that thing they were about to say, hadn’t the bell interrupted us. It wasn’t waiting, it was merely pausing. For Waiting itself has also changed its meaning, to Pausing. ‘Wait for the lights to change’ In other words, the emphasis on Go, not Wait. For wait is to attend upon to pay attention to. It is a way of existence, to be a Waiter . . . And to be a Waiter is to purely be attentive on the One whom you serve. Stood, Watching. As John Milton puts it ‘they also serve, who only stand and wait’ – yet the machine world has little time for such Wisdom, not least because it is the servant of time, driven on and on,

But We are in a period of waiting, and we have been here before. The Easter season is bookended by two seasons of waiting. One is short, one longer, but the first sets the tone for the second. The first is the time between 3pm God Friday, and early on the first day of the week – Holy Saturday if you will. This Waiting reveals the true character of waiting as Christians, waiting on God. The waiting day is the Sabbath. It is a day as it were out of time. A Day to Rest. To Be righteous, to be like that tree . . . but under the old dispensation it was of course ‘just one day in the week’, it pointed towards something which was yet to come, and even in those days many chafed at The Sabbath, at having to stop. The bell rang, the sun went down, and everything had to stop . . . yet the prophets denounced those ‘who could not wait for the Sabbath to be over’ the ‘wicked’ who wanted to ‘get on with things’ buying and selling etc. etc. The Sabbath got in the way. So too the women are up and ready at daybreak to come to the tomb. They’ve paused as it were, but not waiting, having not believed the word that Jesus had spoken that on the thirst day he would be raised. Having not believed, they hadn’t waited

Easter Morning reveals the true nature of Waiting as opposed to Pausing. Waiting is not Pausing. Waiting is Watching and praying, Waiting ‘on the LORD’, to See what He will do. So Holy Saturday reveals what it is to Wait on God . . . For the Resurrection of Jesus is something which comes to pass entirely from God. It is Life come from God. But as such it sets the pattern for this second season of Waiting, and Waiting on the Lord in general
So Jesus having spent forty days, appearing to and being with his disciples, before he is taken form their sight commands them to Wait. “[Jesus] ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father” Waiting now has a different character from before. Not least in that it is no longer tied to The Sabbath. It isn’t ‘a day off the stuff that really matters’ any longer and should not be confused with it. Rather it is a new way of being in the World, in the New Creation which God in Christ has revealed, it is the way of The Waiter, the Servant who is also the friend. Ten days as it happens, but that is of no consequence. The command is to Wait, for as The LORD has done a new thing in Raising Christ from the Dead, now the disciples know that, their life being in Him, they Wait on Him and for Him.

John tells the story rather differently. He has the incident of the disciples gone back to their fishing. Without Jesus, although he had been raised, and without Him they fish all night and catch nothing, with him, they catch fish, one of every kind. Waiting for the Presence of the Spirit of Christ is revealed as fundamental. ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing’ Abide in me as I abide in you – rest in me, live in me, Wait on me, attend to me . . . and you will bear much fruit, in due season.

So the disciples Wait, in Jerusalem, ‘for the promise of the Father’ – ten whole days. We might ask, why didn’t they rush out into the market place and tell everyone as soon as Jesus had been taken from their sight? Simply because they knew that their Life was at his command, they waited on Him, they’d learned to wait, Holy Saturday when they’d had no choice taught them what happened when you waited. Now they waited joyfully in obedience, for they knew that Good things came from the father of Lights, when they waited on him.

Joyfully, prayerfully waiting . . .

I wonder if this attitude marks the Modern Church? I wonder if it marks us? Joyful, prayerful. Confident that ‘in due season’ our waiting will bear fruit. Or are we captive to the machine?

What could the disciples have done to bring about ‘The Resurrection’? Set up a working group perhaps?
What could they have done to speed the outpouring of The Holy Spirit? Establish a project!

What could they do to bring Life, to add a single day to their allotted span? There must be a way to fix the biological machine . . .

What in truth could they do to effect any of these things? Nothing

Except Wait – meditate on God’s word, delight in it. Enjoy his fellowship at table as he fed them with bread and wine. Love one another from the heart. Lay down their lives for one another, in confidence and trust. In Hope founded on the Resurrection of Christ – the deep Living Water from which we live and love. And in so doing be those trees planted by streams, whose roots spread and bind and hold things together until the day of the Lord’s appearing, for which we wait in the Hope to which we were called, through the ‘immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’

To wait is to be people of a Hope born of the Resurrection. People in tune with Being itself, knowing who they are, and from where their life comes. Living beings in the age of machines. Unpredictable for this life comes not from any source which the Modern world Knows

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give to us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we wait upon him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which all those who wait on him are called . . . and who knows how much life may be thus preserved

Amen

Easter 6 – Becoming Compost – A Society of Friends

Sermon for 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B, 2018

1 John 5:1-6
John 15: 9-17

‘Becoming Compost – A Society of Friends’
[On Disappearing]

Looking at the title of today’s sermon, you may well be asking “are we to hear more on the virtues of Burial as opposed to Cremation . . . or then again “perhaps we shall be thinking about The Quakers or ‘Society of Friends’ as they are otherwise known”?

Well the answer is neither – although the allusion to the Quakers is interesting given their commitment to Pacifism, for the words of Jesus which I wish us to listen to this morning are often found in public places, carved in stone. I am of course referring to their use on War memorials.

Jesus said ‘Greater Love hath no man than this, than that a man lay down his life for his friends’ – although the fact that these are the words of Jesus are not in my experience also engraved on the memorials . . . yet perhaps there is a significant connection? Perhaps, rather like Pontius Pilate declaring ‘Behold The Man!’ those who carved those words did not realise fully how significant they were??

Jesus said ‘Greater Love hath no man than this, than that a man lay down his life for his friends’

No one here I expect knows anything about Fred and Sid Jee. Fred and Sid were brothers who lived and worked in the South West of England in the early part of the C20. In 1915 (we think), they signed up and were put into the Somerset Yeomanry, with whom they served throughout the rest of the First World War. Many years later Fred would say that they only survived because they looked out for one another – frequently hauling the other out of the quicksand of the Hole of Hell that was Western Europe. We know Fred and Sid’s story, because Fred was Sarah’s maternal grandfather.

They were rural men of the South West. Up in the North of England though the story was very different. There the working classes from whom the infantry and the rest were drawn, lived and worked in far greater density, in the northern towns and cities of England. It was not uncommon in the early days of the war for hundreds to go off together to sign up, from their place of work – The dark Satanic mills – but for all that places of deep shared existence. It was as if the hardships of life presented the opportunity for deeper forms of living together. Having worked 5 and a half days, they’d leave for the pub and then the local football ground. Shared life, together and so when it came to joining up, it was not at all unusual for them to do so together, and they were formed into the so called ‘Pals’ Regiments. The Leeds Pals, the Bradford Pals, Accrington Pals, Salford Pals . . . these names continue to haunt for as they lived and worked together, they also died together in their hundreds of thousands. The records of the Somme alone make for the hardest of reading with sometimes as many as 90 out of every hundred men, seriously wounded or killed in the space of a few days. Pals. Friends, Living together and dying together

Although the war memorials would say, for God, King and Country, that wasn’t the experience of these men once the realities of war hit home. They looked after one another, they fought and died for the sake of each other. As is often mentioned, there was a loss of the sense of the self for the sake of the whole – a sense which is continued to this day wherever people are sent into war . . . the difference being now that such people often do not come from any form of shared ‘life together’ beforehand.

The Pals – this Society of friends had already experienced Life as a shared enterprise. Even in the soul destroying factories, there was a sense of mutual shared life, and responsibility. When you used the word ‘We’, you knew who you were talking about . . . At a deep level, you experienced life as a place where you relied on and needed others. Pushed to its deepest, Fred and Sid also Knew that they needed one another, because that was what they experienced. It was the form of Knowledge of which I spoke last week – participatory Knowledge, growing up as brothers. They hadn’t been taught it as an abstract principle – it was Real.

Wind forward to the present . . . Needing one another is not something that we so experience, certainly outside of extremis situations. Modern Life suggests to us that we are individuals, that the very goal of life is not to have to rely on others. Think of how often elderly folk say ‘I don’t want to be a burden’, of how the poor find it hard to ask for help, indeed that they do need to ask for help is understood as a failing on their part – not as a symptom of a deeper malaise

From time to time we may come across people whom we say ‘have a need to be needed’. This we say is a psychological flaw. “It is a pathology, this ‘need to be needed’”. But is it? Or is it rather that we are created to live in mutual dependency and now that life is so very easy for so many, and Independence is the goal, this need to be needed is, if you will, the loose wires left over from lives of mutual interdepence. For Why might people have a ‘need to be needed’ if it were not that each of us in truth need other people. That to be human is, to use the words of St Paul, to ‘bear one another’s burdens’

The ‘need to be needed’ is what is left over when we live with the experience of not needing anyone else. Like a hanging nail – It is pathologised and we try and ‘heal’ people of this psychological throwback to ‘something in their past’. Trying to ‘heal’ people of a need to be needed is no more nor less than making them even less human that the modern world has already done, trying through psychotherapy to ‘fix’ something in their past, not recognising that it is the past of us all, and that we have perhaps abandoned that which made us most human, Shared Existence and Life.
It is of course like all Modern Stories, a story told by those who ‘have got it all together’ and tell others that they are unwell. It is a story told by those who have forgotten what it is to need others because the fortune of life has educated them in being Self Made – and we think that this is Normal, Well, Whole. Whereas it is a life that like an acorn which does not go into the soil, becomes hard and cracked and rots. Life alone.
Jesus said, ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single seed’ The Greek is simpler – ‘unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone’, or ‘it lives alone’, and so too, as we now realise, it dies alone, or of aloneness. Loneliness – all that is left when we no longer need one another – now kills us in our millions . . .

But the Gospel is of Life! Discovered in laying down our lives so that our lives are shared with one another, for it is in that Life Together that the Holy Spirit dwells

We see this shared life in the accounts of the early church, and again today in the account of the household of Cornelius. An account which flies in the face of the understanding of Christian Life, which after all is meant to be the Life of Jesus and therefore The Human Life, being something which we can know apart from others. Rather it is a life that is amongst the people of God. So although the account begins with telling us that Cornelius himself was ‘a god fearer’, who regularly prayed and gave alms, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard!
Peter doesn’t then wade in to test the truth of the faith of each individual present. No, he baptises the whole lot! (It is only in a world where we have lost sight of life as shared existence as more than simply something we know about, only in a world in which we Experience life first as individuals, that we might erroneously think ‘you have to come to your own personal faith’) Interestingly it is not unusual to hear of modern missionaries going to ‘convert the heathen’ and being faced off by a tribal chief who says, ‘no! You baptise all of us or none of us’ (see ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ Donovan) We ‘who have got it together’ have come to view our lives as independent. We’ve lost sight of our mutual dependence, we might say of Life itself. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Church withers and dies in such a context where we are taught to be individuals, and flourishes in contexts where people have to depend on the help of others, given and received – for the Life of the Church Must be shared, or it dies. Can you have a Church of individuals??

This is perhaps the greatest challenge that the Church faces, that of Shared Existence. Needing one another in an age when that is seen as a pathology, as weakness, as a failing of education or more.

I said that those mills were soul destroying. The Age of the machine has done much to destroy our humanity and with it, the Creation which depends of our loving service. Not least it has done this by reducing Churches to a collection of functions, and our Needs to anything apart from the very life of God shared amongst us.
‘We need a treasurer’, ‘we need someone to run the fair’, ‘we need a Vicar’, ‘we need someone to do the flowers and pray the prayers and operate the projector’ . . . but these needs are wants, not Needs – what we Need is each other. We need Life together. For it only in our shared existence and life insofar as it exists that Christ is manifested. ‘By this shall all men know that you are my disciples . . .’ ‘by your fine worship?’ ‘by your website?’ ‘by your well ordered accounts?’ [ and here as I write the sermon I have to fight with the temptation to say ‘of course we need all these things as well . . .!! Because we don’t . . .] Any Church can exist without any of these and fully manifest the Life of God. You can have them all and run like . . . well run like a machine, and be aliens to the Life that is from above. How is the Life of God revealed amongst us? In that we love one another as Christ has loved us, in that we lay down our lives to discover the Life that is from above. But this is so very very hard for us who have been trained by The World in so many subtle ways to be Individuals. It goes against the way that we are taught by the World. It goes against the driving force of wider society. It goes against the wider life of the Church which has become so institutionalised that it cannot obey Jesus without a law, a rule, a standing order or motion.

The only way to know it, to begin to lay down your life is, dare I say it in a mechanised world, to ‘waste time’, to drop our personal agendas, to give up on the story of ‘our life’. Yet what else can we do? If the Life that we share comes from the bread and wine, the Life of Christ given to us. Every Sunday. If he pours out his Life for us – how can we not let go of ‘our own (individual) lives’ and set out to discover life with one another in him

Or, to put it another way to become compost. To fall into the ground and die. Thus we truly become a Society of Friends.

We come back to the Cross. We planted our acorns . . . let us lay down our lives for one another. For this in truth is what it is to love one another. Let us learn to need one another, to learn to depend on one another, in real ways – it is of course very very hard. It is the way of the Cross. Which is the Way of Life.

Amen