Sermon for Ordinary 20 – Year B – Irrelevant Church

Sermon for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Irrelevant Church

‘Make every effort to enter in at the narrow gate,
for many I tell you will try to enter and will not be able to’

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned at the end of the sermon the Church in Syria – which is undergoing the most horrendous persecution imaginable. To many of us no doubt, inculcated as we are in a secularised understanding of our faith, this may well seem to us to be little more than just another example of what is called ‘Religion’ gone bad – but is it? Or is there something far more consequential happening? For as I briefly set out last time, the Church in Syria is no ordinary Church – it’s not just another church.

The Scriptures tell us that St Paul, following his conversion set out to preach the gospel in Damascus which of course is in modern day Syria, and the Church which sprang from that teaching remains there to this day. Some of the oldest Christian writings, the New Testament aside come from that Church, most notably the letters of St Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, whom the Tradition teaches was himself a disciple of our own St John the Evangelist. These letters were written around the turn of the first century. Liturgically it has hardly changed for nearly two thousand years, and its language ‘Syriac Aramaic’ is thought to be the language which Jesus himself spoke.

The idea that there is nothing more troubling in the mass martyrdom which is being inflicted on this church than the World describes as Religion gone bad is, I suggest a failure to grasp the significance of the attempted anihilation of the One Church which can truly trace its ancestry directly back to the Traditions of the Apostles. Because they have barely changed

Compare and contrast the church in much of the West – by the Way there are Syrian Orthodox in Dunedin – here Churches left right and centre are driven along by the waves of history – changing form and shape to match the current culture. Seeking to be ‘Relevant’. Over just the last 20 years or so we have seen a whole raft of ‘new forms of church’ or new movements of church – one after the other after the other – seeker sensitive church, messy church, emergent church, liquid church, purpose driven church – and I’m sure folk could come up with other multiple variants – all established on an erroneous proposition, that is we come up with a ‘culturally relevant’ form of worship – people will flock in and become disciples of Jesus . . . but actually they don’t.

Which when you think about it isn’t all that surprising, firstly because it starts from a false premise, that Worship is all about the worshipper and not The One whom we Worship. Worship which is moulded to the worshipper cannot fail to be idolatrous – what is revealed is not the Living God, but the reflection of the worshipper.

I remember in one of my churches a middle aged lady used to go on at length about needing worship music which would ‘get the young people in, the sort of music which young people enjoy today’. Well that is problematic 🙂 For ‘Young people’ are not a coherent group – I know some young people who enjoy Bach, others who like Garage music – a growing number it seems, although I may be wrong who have little or no interest in music at all. Whilst it is not difficult to stereotype the attitude of consumer churches in terms of the French Revolutionary who saw the mob pass the sidewalk table at which he was drinking his coffee and said ‘They are my people! I must follow them!’ in reality the situation is even more absurd than suggested by that example. One who seeks to follow culture, be it musical or otherwise, is going to find not one, but a plethora of mobs going in 101 different directions – and consequentially following the one that most mirrors their own prejudices. Church in our own image.

I remember another young man in the village where I was Priest telling me not long after I’d arrived – ‘The Church needs to get with it’ To which the only logical response is ‘With which ‘It’ should the Church get?’

The Antiochene Orthodox Church should give we Western Consumer Christians pause for thought. They have lasted 2000 years without seeking to ‘get with it’ – in modern terms wwe might call them anachronistic, for they are utterly irrelevant – yet it is they who are the focus of yet another wave of terrible persecution, one which unlike any previous may possibly lead to their extinction. Apparently the only way their light could be extinguished through murder, sometimes crucifixion – bearing eloquent witness to their Lord, for whose sake they have lost all things.

Which brings us to our Lord Jesus HImself – who shows what is to our eyes a remarkable disinterest about accommodating himself to his hearers, rather unflinchingly calling his hearers to shape their lives to his.

Over and over and over again in the gospels, we hear Jesus speaking words which seem almost to be designed to drive people away. He says that he speaks in parables so that people ‘may not understand’!! He goes on ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all you have’ – the sort of saying which left St Ignatius, even as he made his away across the East towards his martyrdom in Rome questioning whether even he, who had sat at the feet of St John was truly a disciple of Jesus. How nonchalantly the modern Christian assumes that he or she is a follower of Jesus . . .

Or again the encounter of Jesus and that young enthusiastic man – ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He says he has kept all the commandments – he’s kept his nose clean and led what to his surrounding society looks like a ‘good life’ – but Jesus tells him, if you truly want to be healed, sell your possessions and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven, and then follow me . . . and he went away sorrowful for he had many possessions. And Jesus turning to those who were following him told them ‘truly I tell you – it is harder for a Rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven, than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle’. The one thing Jesus didn’t do was run after him and try and change his teaching to adapt itself to the young man. Actually his teaching was perfectly adapted to him – he gave him the Truth – for He is the Truth.

Or Jesus response to the question ‘Lord will only a few be saved’ responds saying – ‘Make every effort to enter in at the narrow door, for many will try to enter and will not be able’ – how alien these words sound to our understanding of Jesus – it perhaps is not going to far to say that we imagine saying, ‘broad and easy is the way that leads to life and many their are that find it – for after all, all that is required is that we are true to our own version of the truth – but hard and narrow is the way that leads to destruction, because after all, most people are good . . .’ We find the words of Jesus an embarrassment and give people almost the directly opposite message. We think the words of Paul about fighting against powers and principalities odd – hey Paul! Dont be ridiculous mate – what’s all this about the quenching the flaming arrows of the evil one?? That’s SO medieval . . . and in smug contentment at our modern way of looking at things we stroll away, and from somewhere we hear muffled laughter . . .

We remember that this gospel reading comes at the end of a long sequence leading on from the feeding of the 5000. In the wilderness . . . Jesus begins by challenging those who have flocked after him ‘you’re only here because I filled your bellies . . .’ Someone, laughing sidles up to him and whispers in his ear . . . “Hey – just keep giving them bread – look at the crowd you’ve got – don’t get all spiritual on them. 5000 – a church of 5000!!! think of that!!! Go on – turn these stones into bread . . .” Who we might well ask is this peddler of Relevance??? “Do something to draw the crowds!! Bring them in Then you can stick them with the hard sell, when you’ve got them gathered – put on some spectacular show – jump off the Temple even!!! Or . . . look Jesus – you really need to get with it – and I’ll see they turn up for you Sunday after Sunday . . . just follow the techniques, get yourself a decent strategic plan, it will all come right, just do what I tell you, here by my book, here’s the strategy!!” – Or to translate and unmask the god of this age, “just bow down and worship me . . .”

But Jesus is not listening to Satan, Jesus caps of his unpalatable [sic] teaching with these words – Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. Jesus seems curiously unconcerned with trying to put the message in terms that are easy to take on board – Rather he confronts us with the Truth and once more we see Jesus as the Church Growth Failure he is, with his stubborn refusal to ‘get with it’, to be ‘Relevant’ When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And Jesus’ pastoral response?? You think This is difficult to accept??? This is just the beginning!! Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. This message you reject – my words are Spirit and Life . . . But among you there are some who do not believe.” 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.” 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

From 5000 to  . . . 12 . . . nice work Jesus . . . but he hasn’t finished. “Do you also wish to go away?”  For he knows that amongst the few who are left is one who will betray him, one who will deny him. Peter at least speaks the Truth we all need to hear and know deep within our hearts – “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. None will be saved without at first recognising this Truth, That Jesus body is Real Food, That Jesus Words are Words of LIfe – however much they seem pointing in exactly the opposite direction – for the way to Life is through our dying to ourselves, The way to life is through the Cross of Jesus and our taking our own up in self denial – try and sell that as an idea for a new church . . . So much if not all of this contemporary frenzy with ‘new forms of church’ has one root and it is a Rotten root. The root of ‘we must do something to survive . . .’ But the way to Life is only found in and through the Cross of Jesus – through our dying to ideas about relevance or 101 other deceitful messages whispered in our panicking ears . . .

Through the Cross comes Life. As Jesus looks at the 12 he knows that one will betray him, one will deny him, and nine who will forsake him. At the Cross, the only disciple is John . . . At the Cross Jesus says to Mary his Mother about John, behold your son – and to John, behold your mother. It is the disciples who goes to the Cross, who becomes the seed and pillar of the Church, the body of Jesus Christ.

The Way of Jesus has nothing to tantalise our consumer sated appetites. It has no USP – like its Saviour there is nothing in her that we should desire her – the Church that bears his name has no business chasing after the herd of cats that are our modern consumer preferences.

The Syrian Orthodox Church does nothing to draw the crowds, it never has – yes it does send out missionaries – and today there are from that first church 4 million believers world wide, even here in Dunedin!, but it has done nothing to adapt itself to the world around – rather by patiently and at times such as this, under fierce persecution, worshipped God in Jesus Christ through the Word and the Sacrament, Words of Life and the Bread of eternal Life. It has not turned to left or right, but rather enduring, to the end, faithful perhaps to The Very End.

May God in his infinite love and mercy grant that we too may be drawn in truth to Jesus Christ – and may we not be found wanting when he comes

Sermon for Sunday August 24th- Church as Chosen People – Responsibility and Gift

Sermon for Sunday August 24, 2014.

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A

 

Isaiah 51:1-6

Psalm 138

Romans 12:1-8

Matthew 16:13-20

 

‘Church as a Chosen People – Responsibility and Gift’

 

 

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Eph 2:8-10

 

The poor bloody infantry

This year as we are well aware marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of what we have come to know as the First World War. This has been commemorated in a rash of events and of course television programmes. One, called ‘Our World War’ has been put out by the BBC and I happened to catch the first episode the other day. Entitled ‘The First Day’, it was a dramatised reconstruction of The Battle of Mons, the first in which British troops were engaged. In keeping with much of what followed, it revealed the chaos and terror of Total War, as British troops hopelessly ill equipped and poorly informed about the forces arrayed against them were overwhelmed in a day. The focus of the action was a battle to hold a key bridge across the Canal which lay to the North of the city – in the end coming down to the actions of a Private Sidney Godley manning the only machine gun for several hours against huge odds.

Eventually the British forces were forced to withdraw, and Godley covered their backs, left alone to face almost certain death – he was critically wounded, but survived and saw out the war in a prison camp, being awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the action.

 

Heroic?

Of course one way in such acts are described is as ‘heroic’, but it was then and remains all but impossible to find a veteran of war who would accept the description. They were faced with little or no choice – as the war ground on, increasingly conscripts – fighting for their lives. To sustain the myth of war, the myth of the hero must be upheld, but of course it is sham, as attested by the continuing history of the abandonment of these heroes to homelessness, and lack of care when they return home. A form of collective shame placed on those asked to pay the highest price. Its hard not to think of them as scapegoats.

 

Now seeing the title for this sermon, you may be shifting a little uneasily. The myth of war and the myth of religion, at times finding themselves too close for comfort for those who are called to follow in the footsteps of The Prince of Peace, the one who calls us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and do good to those who hate us. But if we step back from the myth of War and its mythical heroes, to the reality, we find some significant parallels which we would do well not to ignore.

 

Of course it would be Very easy to say that the western church is like those poor soldiers at Mons ‘hopelessly ill equipped and poorly informed about the forces arrayed against them’ thus we are being overwhelmed in the historical equivalent of a day, and that is undoubtedly true in some respects. But another time

 

Chosen and not for ourselves

As the ‘poor bloody infantry’ had little choice but to fight. So it is with the people of God. They didn’t ask for this. As they complained in the wilderness, they didn’t ask to be rescued from Egypt, they didn’t ask to be put to the service of this strange God, they didn’t ask to be those who would be light to the world. But they were. And here we rub up against the difficulty of this language of Chosenness, not that it is wrong, but in terms of what it means. For Being the Chosen people of God is much more akin to the Reality of a conscript thrown into the front line of a battle which he did not desire, than of that of the myth of the happy volunteer living with dreams of a Glorious inheritance and Noble Victory.

The idea of ‘a Chosen people’ is a difficult one for us to accept, and thus it is so very far from how we perceive ourselves, in no small part because within the history of the church it has been most unhelpfully been tied to that curious and only faintly biblical concept of ‘going to heaven when you die’ , or being the unique objects of God’s love. To say the least if we consider what it means to be a chosen people in these terms, then it is little surprise that we wish to do away with the idea. God’s Love is not limited, and indeed for the first of God’s people, the Jews, the idea of a life beyond this one was at best hazy.

 

The Chosen One

As always, when we try and understand anything of what it means to be The Church we must look to Jesus, the Author and perfecter of our faith. To understand ‘Chosen People’ we must look to ‘The CHosen One’ When God inhabits human flesh to walk amongst His people – in his very being he is a stark reminder of this. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head – he is dependent on the hospitality of an often hostile world. Being The Chosen People does not get you a table at the finest restaurants or a room at the swankiest hotels – not even something as comfortable as the lair of a fox. The Chosen One, The Son steps into the world in humility – and in truth, the weight of the world is laid on Him. So it is not at all apparent to the human eye, trained in the world’s myths of greatness, that this itinerant preacher with his motley crew of disciples is indeed The Annointed One, The One chosen since the foundation of the world. So caught up in the myths of chosenness, His own do not recognise him in his poverty.

 

‘You are the Christ!’

But one of this motley band does. Peter in response to the question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ responds – ‘You are the Messiah! The Son of the living God’ And Jesus replies ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ It is a Beatification, a Blessing to recognise Jesus for who he is, it is Gift. Of course there are many who in truth fail to see who he is – whilst making much of Jesus’ poverty and humility, in truth they’re still expecting God in a more splendid garb – perhaps as a fine politician who will really put the world to rights through the exercise of intelligence and power, making the world a better place. The pattern we always try to revert to. The idea of a crucified God ultimately too much of a contrast for us, as of course it threatens to be for Peter himself. But let us let Peter be for the minute, Jesus hasn’t finished with him yet.

 

 

Revelation and Responsibility

Jesus accepts this recognition – and then Reminds Peter that it was a gift from HIs Father, not anything to do with his own perception. Reminds him as it were of His Chosenness, and promptly makes the most breathtaking statement. You have been Chosen to see me for who I am – to see through the lack of worldly glory . . He renames Peter, the Rock for this confession of Jesus will be the rock on which the Church is established – The Church Of Jesus Christ – on this rock ‘I will build my church’ the One who has revealed himself as the true interpreter of the law – ‘you have heard it said, but I say to you . . .’

Jesus, The Chosen One, never shies from his responsibilities, from his identity – he takes the Law of God and acts as its true interpreter – breathtaking. And he declares that this new community is HIS church, and on the confession of himself as God’s Chosen one, the Son of the living God, he will build His church against which the gates of hell themselves will not prevail . . . but then gives then says to Peter these unbelievable words – I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

 

True and false humility

 

And at once we look at the church and say ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jesus! How can you put that responsibility in our hands??’ We are nothing!! I’ll come back to the keys in just a moment. But to look at this responsibility from another angle we might take Jesus’ words ‘You are the light of the world’ Recently I’ve been working on adapting a service of Night Prayer that we might all use. I’m working from an existing adaptation of the NZPB service, which includes the words ‘we are to be the light of the world’ – Well the problem with that wording, however ever so ever so ‘umble it is, is that it is in contradiction with the words of Jesus, who says to his ‘Church’ – you Are the light of the world – let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. Again we look at ourselves and say ‘Don’t be ridiculous!!’ YOU do the whole light of the world thing, Jesus, we’ll tell people about you – well if we’re trying hard anyway . . . We undo the connection between Christ and his church – we evade our responsibility. Or to put it in terms of Private Sid Godley at the Nimy bridge, we abandon our post, the place we have been put, the place what is more that we were told the gates of Hell would not prevail against . . . to be called is to put our hand to the plough of inhabiting that calling – of Being in Him, the Light of the World, of binding and loosing, in heaven and on Earth

 

However strange it might seem to us that Jesus gives into our hands such responsibility in His name, it is I suggest far less strange than the notion that this first century wandering Jewish Preacher should in fact be the Son of the Living God, no? This truth cannot be found out for ourselves – it must be revealed to us by God the Father. We are never Christians because we worked it out for ourselves, nor can we live as Christ’ people except in that same dependence upon him. And that is the Core of it – that we can only live out this responsibility as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices – saying we have no life apart from Christ.

 

Responsibility . . . and Gift.

Here we have perhaps to abandon the parallel with those conscripts – for our war is not against flesh and blood. Indeed it cannot be for we are poorly equipped for that – rather it is against the powers and principalities of this dark age – not the human aggressor, but that which fires him or her, and our weapons?

Prophecy – the gift of seeing things as they are – ministry – teaching – exhortation – generosity – diligence – cheerfulness – St Paul – ‘think of yourselves in accordance with the measure of faith God has Given to you – these gifts which ‘differ according to the grace given to us. These GIfts are just that – they are not of us, but of God – most fully the life of God made present in us by the Holy Spirit. And above all forgiveness – Love which covers a multitude of sins. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound, whatever you lose will be loosed – whomsoever sins you forgive are forgiven – whomsoever sins you retain are retained – the keys of the Kingdom of heaven – which we enter through forgiveness of sins and which we offer to those around us.

 

Responsibilities we never sought, Gifts we were given . . . underlying it all though the sheer wonder of the gospel of Jesus Christ that has Peter say ‘to whom else shall we go!’ As St Paul puts it, we are captivated, compelled by the love of Jesus Christ, revealed in costly obedience to Him. We rejoice in our calling, not because of anything to do with us, but the Glory of the one who calls us. We remain joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. because of the one who in Love has called and chosen us. Insofar as anything rests with us, insofar as anything springs from us, it arises out of a deep love for Jesus Christ, for whose sake we have left everything.

 

Paul expresses it thus I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Having in 11 chapters of the letter to the Romans, set forth the wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – Paul encourages us to a glad sacrifice of our lives, not for national myths; not as so many are tempted to do within the church to perpetuate the World’s own story about itself; but as a cheerful and reasonable offering to the one who has given us His all, The Christ, The Son of the Living God.

 

As he puts it in the second chapter of the letter to the church in Ephesus It is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Responsibility – and Gift

Sermon for Ordinary 7 – (Epiphany 7) – Sunday February 23rd.

Sermon for Sunday 23rd February, 2014
Second before Lent, Year A (Ordinary Time 7)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Psalm 119:33-40
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Matthew 5:38-48

‘Do you not know who you are?’

Many of us, I am sure spend little or no time reading the book of Leviticus. Being in the Old Testament some of us have been led to believe that it is somewhat primitive, a heresy the church has had to combat ever since its earliest days. But listen again to these words we have just heard. As you listen hold in mind also the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which we have also heard announced to us.

You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ – Jesus introduces no new teaching when he declares this – He is reminding his own people of their roots, of their identity. We cannot understand who we are as Christians without a profound understanding of where we have come from – our Roots,  of Who we are. It is not possible to live as Children of God in the World without great confidence about that identity.

And knowing deeply who we are helps us better to grasp what seems to be the impossible teaching of Jesus. We listen to the words of the Gospel – ‘Do not resist an evil doer’ – ‘turn the other cheek’ – ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ – and almost always, almost without fail we qualify them. We hear the words of Jesus and either, as so many do, we dismiss them as a hopelessly unrealistic counsel of perfection, that doesn’t address our lives. Or hang grimly onto them in a horribly legalistic sense, but to fully comprehend, to grasp in the deepest sense the meaning of Jesus teaching, we need to know who we are.

And when I say ‘Who We are?’ I want again to emphasise that First We are the Body of Christ, and Only Secondly, individually members of it. That our Primary identity is as the people of God – again, if we do not understand this, then these texts become oppressive to us and they are not meant to be, indeed they are words of Liberation of an unimaginable order. For this is Always the truth of the words of Jesus.

But first I’d like to turn to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians where he is profoundly concerned with this question of identity, realizing that in truth everything springs from this. When he says ‘Do you not know . . .’ he is asking ‘Do you not know who you are?’ And Paul’s concern is for the Church, and how the church is built up as a body. This of course is a concern for us – building on the foundation which has been laid, how do we in our generation continue to build the church.

Paul has laid the foundation – he has made known the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Gospel. This is a matter of literally fundamental importance. The foundation is Jesus Christ. There are churches which say ‘we stand on the Bible’; or ‘we are a church of social action’; or ‘we are a spirit led church’. All of these good things, but secondary – they are not the foundation – the only foundation for a church can be Jesus Christ, crucified and Risen. We must even be careful when we say, we are a church founded ‘on the gospel’, for even in Paul’s time, there were many ‘gospels’ doing the rounds – not particularly written ones, but messages. Even the Roman Emperor proclaimed the Gospel of his reign. So saying ‘we are a Gospel church, a Good News Church’ is problematic as it then requires someone to ask ‘what is your Gospel?’ For The Foundation is no mere message, it IS Jesus Christ, Crucified, Risen and Ascended, who sits at the right hand of God and in whom all things hold together. He is the foundation of our Life – HE is the Vine – we are the branches. Apart from Him, apart from this foundation we are not a church. And in large part that is why we come together each Sunday – to hear His words, to share with him in the Feast of the Kingdom – his very life in bread and wine.

So then – knowing that foundation we go a LONG way to knowing who we are. As we build, our reference is always to our foundations – is our work True to the Crucified and Risen Lord of Creation? Like a master builder we build in such a way as Always in reference to our foundations. If we do not, well the building will eventually collapse. Imagine if you will the leaning tower of Pisa – the building is not out of line from its foundation – it cannot stand except it is externally propped up – and indeed it may well be the case that through Christendom the church has survived in large part because it was propped up. But Society has no interest in the church now, and here and there churches fall as societies ‘support’ withers. As we look together at our common life through Lent, continually we will be asking about our foundations in Christ, and this I pray will be the focus of our ongoing work and life together.

Well of course Paul knows that not all builders are careful – some understanding the nature of the work they are involved in build with gold and silver and precious stones. They spend themselves in building in such a way that the testing of Fire will reveal its true worth – but others take little care – they cast around for whatever comes to hand – wood, straw, hay – ‘Aw, she’ll be right!’ they say . . . ‘The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”’

Why this care? Why? Paul answers this saying ‘Do you not know who you are?’ We build carelessly when we lose sight of who we are – we might say the more we lose sight of our foundations, the more the building is likely to be out of line. Paul reminds the Corinthians of something which he is concerned they may have forgotten. Do not forget, Paul is addressing folk he has spent time sharing the Good News of Jesus with, he has taught them. What he says is meant as a reminder of his teaching. ‘Do you not know that you are God’s Temple . . . and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s Temple is Holy and you are that temple.’ Even a few minutes quiet meditation upon this teaches us that carelessness in building the church is a truly terrible thing.

At the opening of the Great Thanksgiving we declare, The Lord is here, GOd’s Spirit is with us’. I recently saw someone suggest that this was terribly presumptuous – that it was safer to say ‘The Lord be with you, The Lord bless you’ But that is only ‘safe’ in the manner of the man who hid his talent out of fear of his master!! In the end it is utterly unsafe – we Must stand in the confidence of what God has done and is doing amongst us and at once in boldness and Holy Fear, declare ‘The Lord Is Here, His Spirit is with us’

Well there are of course those who dismiss all this – those who think themselves wise in this age – in Paul’s day as well as ours, but this is not the time to concern ourselves with them, indeed too often in the church we expend ourselves on such tilting at windmills.

To conclude, let us return to the words of Jesus – who is our foundation. More specifically, how do the words of Paul, reminding the Corinthian church of who they are, help US to inhabit the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, neither dismissing them as hopelessly out of touch with the realities of our lives, nor allowing them to become heavy burdens, which at first sight Jesus’ words ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ Is not this after all the Ultimate counsel of perfection???

First those verses about turning the other cheek, about not resisting an evildoer, about giving more than just your coat, about walking the second mile. Our response to this usually falls into one of three categories. Firstly we speak in the abstract ‘Well, if I gave to everyone who asked me I’d have nothing!!’ To which the only answer is – ‘I suspect you have never tried to follow this counsel . . .’ Seriously, just for a moment consider, are you constantly harangued by the needy? Are they bashing your doors down? We respond in the abstract, and indeed reveal our own lack of generosity – Oh yes, we say, We are generous, on our own terms. And for some of us this is how we see God – a reflection of our own paltry generosity, who grudgingly gives himself to us, who demands lots of things in return, who will only give you presents if you are good . . . The second response would be . . . but people are rogues and can’t be trusted . . . and of course We can??? Sometimes to hear folk talk I think we would rather let 9 genuinely hungry starve so to avoid the mistake of feeding that one who can feed himself . . . How Unlike Jesus who cleanses ten lepers even though only one shows gratitude, who feeds thousands without running a check over their deservingness, How unlike God who would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah if only there were ten, or rather One righteous family within its walls. For the sake of such a few Good he would show mercy to thousands . . . and Jesus forces the point home, ‘do not resist an evildoer!!’ Even if you know them to be of bad character, see to their needs, Love them, pray for them, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous . . .

‘Ah!’ we say, trying to play a trump card over Jesus’ words ‘but this can become an abusers charter’ . . . and of course there are many who live in such abusive relationships . . . but I want to suggest that to participate in the Life of Christ, to live fully into who we are requires a daring act of renewed imagination, for in regards to abuse, and the effects of living in obedience to the words of Jesus we only ever think of these things as they relate to us as individuals. We need to change our very way of thinking about ourselves, we need a fuller and richer understanding of who we are.

What might it mean for us, understanding that we are the holy Temple of God, the we are the very dwelling place of God’s Spirit, that we are children of the one who loves and indeeds dies for his enemies, indeed who has loved and died for us whilst we ourselves were yet his enemies . . . what might it mean for us together to share with one another in living out these commands of Jesus? What might it mean for us together to understand that ‘all things are ours, either the world or life or death or the present or the future – everything belongs to us, that we belong to Christ, that Christ belongs to God and nothing can pluck us from the hand of our Father in heaven.
What might it mean for us as a people to be literally captivated by this understanding of ourselves, set free from our fear of others – set free to love as God in Christ loves us – set free to be his children in truth and Light.

As together over the coming months we explore our shared life, may God in his infinite Goodness and mercy draw us ever more deeply into the apprehension of who we are in Christ – The Home of God, and the Children of God.

Amen

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ – Year A – 2014

baptism-of-christ-1483

Sermon for The Baptism of Christ – Sunday January 12th, 2014 – Year A

Isa 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

The Baptism of Christ, and The Church

And so the ‘House of Pain’ is all but gone. Carisbrook Stadium reduced to rubble, with a bright new shiny stadium in its place. But it isn’t the same . . . Although I never watched a game of rugby at Carisbrook, I knew something similar. Whilst still at school I managed to obtain tickets for the Calcutta Cup match at the Old Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh, before it too went the way of the bulldozers. Stood on open terracing amongst thousands and thousands of others, prey to the elements – Edinburgh’s weather is often a match for its namesake, Dunedin – it was my first powerful experience of being part of something which was much bigger than myself. We shouted ourselves hoarse, as what were to me in those days legendary names in British rugby put on a grand show.

To stay with the rugby reminiscences for a moment, and indeed who wouldn’t at the memory of that great Liverpool winger Mike Sleman putting the Scots defence metaphorically to the sword, I was fortunate to have been there that day – Tickets were like Gold Dust and The Scottish Nationalists were on patrol, trying to eject from the ground English supporters with a Union flag. Fortunately for me, my school was affiliated to the Rugby Football Union and I’d ‘borrowed’ my  church’s St George’s flag especially for the occasion (being head choir boy had its perks 🙂 ). [Of course at this stage I was not as powerfully aware of my Scottish heritage as I am today! :-)]

Those  themes of ‘Identity’ and ‘being part of something much bigger than ourselves’ find their true home in our baptisms. However in our times, the way in which they do has changed to the point where their true meaning is in effect denied. With regard to Identity, it’s meaning has become the opposite of that which Classical Christianity taught, and as a result there is little or no sense of our baptism being about being caught up into something much larger than ourselves. And like at Murrayfield on that Saturday in 1980, Entry has become a contentious matter. Particularly as for so many, blinded by the modern World, Baptism is no longer seen as Costly Privilege, Costly Grace, but as yet one more choice.

Child of the modern world as I am, I remember for many years wastefully wrestling with the issue of Adult vs Infant Baptism, not least at theological college where some of our classes were shared with Baptists and one or two of my fellow Ordination candidates revealed themselves to be more Baptist than Anglican in their thinking! If for the sake of this sermon I pretend that modern ways of thinking are helpful [Let the reader understand!!] I might say ‘There are of course arguments to be made both ways, but there are two powerful arguments which support the baptism of infants, arguments which are of particular import in this culture.’

Firstly that we believe it to be true that the Grace of God s far bigger than anything we can imagine and is far more important than Our decision or indeed the faith we bring as individuals to Baptism. It is Not Our Choice which is Sovereign, it is the Merciful Grace of God. And a young child cannot be anything other than a Recipient – this is not a matter of their own ‘responsible Self determination’. Indeed it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Right to Choose for ourselves whether or not we are baptised is in itself willfully sinful. For God in his Mercy Welcomes us to a feast of Life and we stand there and wonder whether or not we shall Deign to oblige Him with our presence . . .

Our forerunners in faith, the faithful Root of the Jewish people from which Jesus sprung forth, did Not choose to be God’s people. They were Chosen, and that wonderful passage from Ephesians we heard last week said the same of us – that we were chosen before the foundation of the world.

But this is so very hard for us to swallow in our contemporary culture where that perverse caricature of the human, the Self determining and Self actualising Individual, who in his or her pride surveys the choices before them . . . note this is the way we’re pretty much all brought up . . . and decides out of THEIR grace to become a follower of Christ.

So, to follow secondly, that Baptism is Not Primarily about You! Or to put it more inclusively, Baptism is Not primarily about Us and Our Salvation – and the theologically alert amongst us will not doubt be wondering if I haven’t fallen right into the trap of suggesting that it is. For today, the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany is the Feast of the Baptism of Christ! And here I am speaking about our baptisms . . . and I will come back to that, but it is not primary, indeed in the light of the Baptism of Christ it would seem utterly self aggrandising to think it is even secondary.

We consider the Baptism of Christ, because THAT is the only lens though which we can begin to consider what it means for us to be a baptised people . . .  not the meaning of your or my baptism, no, what it means to be a baptised people . . . for I suggest that to spend time at all considering, and indeed agonising over our own individual baptisms is to attempt to undo what God has done in Jesus – to Undo Salvation, to break apart. To try and justify ourselves!

Jesus first public appearance in all four gospels – slightly nuanced in John, is at his baptism. And Matthews account contains the discussion between Jesus and his cousin at the Jordan

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

John has come preaching a Baptism of Repentance towards God – and many were being baptised Confessing their sins and being baptised. However there is something John cannot yet see in Baptism – for he has not seen the Cross – he has not known the Resurrection. The true meaning of Baptism is Only revealed in the Baptism of Jesus, the Crucified and Risen one, the One who Is the Truth. Apart from Jesus we cannot know the Truth. The True significance of Baptism is revealed in the Baptism of Jesus. And that is the self offering of faithful Israel to God, the revealing of the Servant of the Lord. Necessary to fulfil all righteousness.

And that self offering is Answered! In the Baptism of Jesus there is a dual move – down into the waters of Baptism as self offering to God, and God the Father’s response, the annointing of the Holy Spirit, God’s self offering to Man.

So too the Cross and Resurrection, down into the waters of death, and raised to new life.

And that is necessary for Us – for in our baptism we are included in Christ’s work upon the Cross – we die and are raised to new life – His Life. We die, We are Raised – We are included in HIs Baptism. The Baptism of Jesus is the Baptism of faithful Israel both those who have gone before and those who will follow . . . Follow Me says the annointed one – come after Me. Jesus Is faithful Israel, and We are His Body also. And this is why this isn’t about you! Or I 🙂 It is about Christ, and it is about Us.

When we are baptised we are included in Christ’s baptism – indeed at a Baptism in the Orthodox Church the priest prays “That the Lord our God will send down the blessing of the Jordan and sanctify these waters . . .” That the waters of the Baptism of every new Christian Are at once the waters of the Jordan – for there is only One Baptism. When we think of second baptisms we tend to think of rebaptism – not our own!!!

So We are included in Christ’s Baptism, HIs Righteousness, His Life His Death, His Resurrection. And so we are made One with the children of God. This is Our identity. As we cannot understand our Baptism Apart from that of Christ, so also we cannot understand it apart from the other members of the church. We become through baptism as St Paul says, ‘Members one of another’ – to be a child of God can only be understood in terms of our paricipation in the life of the body of Christ. That our Identity, who we now are is known only in our shared life in Christ. That who I am, and who you are is now a secondary characteristic as our primary identity as members together of Christ. Just a moments reflection reveals how radically we have reversed this and indeed how our sense of self is assaulted at the thought that this might possibly be true, but it is.

Our shared life is primary, and that our ‘individual’ life of faith is derivative of this. Put another way, one might say “ I am a Christian by virtue of being baptised into the Body of Christ. Here I think that the parallels with God’s ancient people the Jews are significant. Identity was GIft, and resided in being part of the whole. So one might say I am Jewish because I am part of the Chosen people. And we might say, I am Christian because I am made part of the Church through Baptism. To use Paul’s analogy of the body – you may be a part of the body, a finger or a knee, but that means nothing apart from the body.

This it must be said is the complete opposite to what in effect our Individualistic culture has taught us about what it means to be a Christian, in which belonging to the body is secondary to our identities as Christian. And it is for the Church a fatal error. In a sense because in our arguments over baptism and in many other ways we have tried to be gatekeepers for the grace of God, we have sidelined the significance of the Church – the centrality of the body of Christ, and thus unwittingly have displaced Christ, who we are foolish to believe we can comprehend in isolation from the church, from the centre of our faith, replacing him with a weak reflection of ourselves, as many critics of Christians see only too clearly.

This is very hard for us to accept because of the hyper individualism of the age, with is the air we breathe and of which we have only the merest grasp of how it has infected our Lives. It is also why in many regards the future of the church looks uncertain humanly speaking for more than ever it is composed of ‘Individuals’, that is who understand their own life and faith as primary and ‘membership’ of the church and its life and worship as in a sense subservient to it.

So we might ask whether Church ‘serves my needs’. We may look for a church to my liking – thus we remain at the centre. ‘Is my participation in the body of Christ helpful to my personal faith?’ is not only a modern question which our forebears of the Classical era would not have understood, it is also a blasphemous question for it denies that we are joined one to another In Christ. In truth it is the question of one who is outside of Christ.
As we consider further our life together here at St John’s, and that is on my mind and heart my every waking moment – it is this aspect which is the most challenging, for it is this that the World would have us deny under the guise of ‘faith’: that it is in our Life together that Christ is known; in shared worship that we are most truthfully ourselves; in praying together that we truly pray – for then the body of Christ prays, for then the body worships – that our Common life is our Christian life and that wherever we are, we are in our essence and by virtue of our baptism part of the body.

As I said, being part of the rugby crowd was this experience of being part of something much bigger than myself. An Experience in which I was present, but at the same time lost. I was a necessary part of it – but it was only because we were joined together that I experienced what I did. My ‘I’ was only known in the context of the greater whole. I could not have known that ‘something greater than me of which I was part’ in isolation. In a sense this is precisely how church Is. It is just that we are trained  from the moment of our birth in the modern world to seeing things so much on our own terms we miss this. We are too ready I think to be as it were standing apart – judging the body of which through baptism we are an integral part.

Of course the other big debate about baptism was about the method – immersion or sprinkling – well again I don’t offer a conclusive answer – but we DO need to be immersed in our common life, and an occasional sprinkle does not do justice to who we are and our inclusion in something far greater than ourselves – that in Christ, as part of His body we are part of something Far bigger than ourselves. Indeed we become participants in God’s Salvation of the World in and through Christ. We were taught that Baptism was all about us – it’s not, it is about Something far far greater, in which our lived find their true meaning and purpose, caught up as members together of Christ in the Life of Christ, to the Glory of God the Father.

Amen

Through the Bible in a Year – May 26th

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Sa 21-23; 1 Pet 2-3; Psalm 35

For many, especially those who have been brought up in a largely Protestant way of understanding, the Central truth of the corporate nature of faith is often all but absent. Church if it has any significance at all is a largely technical institution, there for us to help us in our individual walk. Peter would not recognise such a faith or such a church.

In English, the plural of ‘you’ is ‘you’, and we are well trained not to expect the plural. The controlling myths of our culture which distort our lives in so many ways perhaps do more damage in this area than in any other. Read verses 1-10 of 1 Peter 2 – listening to Peter addressing the church. How do We let Ourselves be built into a spiritual house?

This is Vital truth. If we do not see Christ in our brothers and sisters, we are kidding ourselves when we say that we know him. Christ is Our Life – He makes himself known to us as we are together. The Risen Christ comes and stands amongst his dsiciples, most especially in the breaking of Bread.

Through the Bible in a Year – May 15

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ch 7-8; Heb 3-4; Psalm 20-21

As we saw yesterday, the Letter to the Hebrews is shrouded in mystery. It also is one which more than any other is full of warnings against falling away, a common theme throughout as we shall see, as we find in today’s reading.

But more than that, perhaps more than any other letter it emphasises the importance of relationships within the church in terms of strengthening faith.

When we consider how being part of the church is significant to our faith often we may think of this in terms of the support we receive when we pass through difficulties which are the common lot of all people. But here in the letter to the Hebrews we discover something far more significant – that of mutual ‘exhortation’ to stand firm in faith. Yes we mature in faith as we grow older, or at least we should, but the essence of that faith remains the same. All too often ‘maturing in faith’ becomes a means by which we in effect ‘turn away from the living God’. In the midst of looking after one another’s wounds common to all, we may well let this slip. As we shall see, the Hebrews clearly were under tremendous persecution for their faith, something we in the Western church know little if anything of.

In the absence of such difficulties we suffer for our faith, the common difficulties of life are intensely magnified. Did not the Hebrews also go through these things as well? Yet their concern is for ‘holding our first confidence firm to the end’.

When we face troubles in this world, common to us all, it is all too easy to lose sight of that which unites us to our brothers and sisters in Christ. In our culture, the Individual reigns supreme, and for many in the church, faith has disastrously become a matter of private belief. the Epistle to the Hebrews is strong meat for such a culture of accommodation in the church.