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 Lent 1 – Year A. 2014. Following Jesus into the Desert

Sermon for Lent 1
Matthew 4:1-11

‘Unless one is tempted, he cannot know himself’ Augustine

Many years ago, I went to a church conference in North Wales. There a speaker, a man named John Smith – one doesn’t have to have a memorable name to be remembered 🙂 – said something which I think was utterly profound and when we hear it sets us better free to follow Christ in the world. He said ‘Becoming disillusioned is a good thing. For you can only be disillusioned if formerly you were suffering from an illusion!’ As many of the spiritual greats have noted, one cannot begin to make progress in the church unless one becomes thoroughly disillusioned with it, laying aside your fantasies of how it should be. Of course some in pride go off to find a better church, one more suited to them, but to be more truthful about this, they go seek one more suited to their own self delusions. Charles Spurgeon was once accosted by a member of his congregation saying ‘Mr Spurgeon I am leaving your church to find a perfect one. Madam, he replied there is no such thing. However, should you happen upon it, do not join it for you would only spoil it. Oh how I love straight talking 🙂 Others who have chosen the path of humility, who recognise that the church is not perfect because they are not perfect, stick with it and work with the reality they have been shown, rather than the dream they have woken up from.

I don’t know how many here would be familiar with The Matrix trilogy of films. The story briefly is of a dystopic future in which machines have taken over. Human beings are being used a batteries to power their world, and vast fields of these ‘humans’ are connected to The Matrix. They live a life of illusion, fed by computers directly into their nervous system – a largely comfortable world, not disimilar to the world which we know. The hero figure, Neo, is rescued from the Matrix by a small group of freedom fighters, but his life out of the Matrix is far from pleasant – the only food they have is a chemical protein soup – their lives are lived in semi darkness, all the time on the run from the machines. But at least it is Real. Of course not everyone of the rebels is ‘happy’ with this existence, however Real it is and one decides he wants to return to the Matrix, for which he will need to betray his friends to the machines. He is seen in a restaurant – eating the juiciest steak, and drinking the finest wine with one of the machines agents. He says,’I know that this steak is not real, I know that the incredible flavour and texture are merely bits of data being fed into my mind by a computer, but you know what? I don’t care anymore’

Our churches and indeed ourselves are suffering from many illusions – Lent if we observe it well helps us to strip these away, but of course that is far from comfortable. It may be a good thing to be disillusioned, but thank you we’d rather not be. I don’t really care for Reality, it’s far too uncomfortable, it asks too many questions of Me, and I’d rather ask questions of Reality.

Lent takes us to that place, if we will allow, where we are faced with our own tendency to prefer the comforts of life over the Reality of Life in Christ – of Life with God. And so it is hardly surprising that in a world of ever increasing comfort that Lent is not exactly the most fashionable of seasons in the church’s year. Jesus can go out into the desert for fasting and prayer, we’ll make do with some pleasant non too challenging devotional reading.

For Lent is about our becoming disillusioned – and we can only begin to understand this if we have like Jesus taken considerable time for fasting, or given many hours to prayer. Both of these practices create that Wilderness where we confront Reality, where our illusory comforts are stripped away, where we face that we are with the traitor, saying, ‘I know that none of this is real . . . but really I don’t care’

And I’d like to think particularly about Fasting for a few moments. Fasting of all the disciplines is about stripping away the illusions. At least in prayer you can sit in a warm room, you can light a candle, you can put on pleasant music – few practise prayer which is a conscious stripping of comfort, that goes on hour after hour. But fasting deliberately takes comfort away – the comfort of food.

My family know this all too well. My wife’s maternal Grandfather was notoriously grumpy if dinner was more than a few minutes late. Not that he was one of those meticulous types who wanted a regimental life – far from it. But something happened to him physiologically that meant his mood altered and dramatically. His name was Fred Jee and so in the family it is called Jee Syndrome. My brother in law also has it, as does one of my children 🙂 Well that is what fasting does. it reveals who we are when our comofrts are taken away. As one of my mentors pithily puts it ‘you might think you are on the whole a good person, but if they cut off the water supply you’d be killing your neighbour within three days.’ The lack of food and other comforts affects all aspects of our being. It strips away our illusions about what lovely people we are, and most importantly of all, it strips away our sense of God. It takes us to a place where we realise that our perception of God is far more to do with how we are feeling, than God’s reality. That is not to say that God is not there, God is always present, but we see that our perception of God is more often than not a function of our own psychology and physiology, which when fasting kicks in, don’t function. The comfort blanket is ripped away. We are awakened to Reality

So Jesus, as he goes out into the desert does not go out to have an lovely extended quiet time with God – quite the opposite – ‘he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil’. Now there are two knotty problems for us here – firstly what is the Spirit doing leading Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil? Put briefly it is this, that Jesus is fully human – that temptation is part of his lot. If he suffers not temptation, then how can he help us who are daily tempted?? [There is also a striking parallel with the story of Job]
Secondly there is the source of this temptation – ‘to be tempted by the devil’. Part of the illusion that has been cast over our minds has been the continuing attempts to deny the existence of the devil, to such a point that the Church of England is now wondering whether to remove him from their baptism liturgy – oh, and by the way, before we recoil in horror, do not forget that we in the Anglican Church in NZ did this years ago . . . It seems to me that the two chief temptations the devil tries are Firstly, to tempt us to deny his existence – that works easily for most. But where it doesn’t, we are tempted to inflate his significance far above that which it is. All he is is a fallen angel of God who in some mysterious sense still has a part to play in God’s ordering of the world – no more, no less. Of course those who fall prey to the second temptation and are always going on about the devil, do the devils work in that they help him persuade the majority group how wise they are in Not believing in his existence.

And Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, after which he was ‘an hungered’ as the King James BIble has it. Tired, Weak, emotionally and physically utterly drained. Unable to summon up of himself any ‘sense of God’, like Job utterly afflicted . . . the tempter comes. And the three temptations teach us much if we have ears to hear.

Firstly The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” We were created to find our satisfaction in God alone. Our lives provide us with multiple alternatives, but they are never enough. As I said a few weeks back for me it has long been books, ‘just one more book . . .’, as if I might find what I am looking for there, for others any number of things. Some live for controversy in the church, some feed on conflict, others on the endless deluge of media we live in – indeed we have become an age unlike any other in our capacity for creating distractions, vacations, consumer products, and of course endless variations on the oldest of them all, Food! For most people in history food was ‘what you could get’, no it is ‘whatever you want!’, all presented to us in endless cookery books and programmes. Gluttony as properly understood is not over eating, it is making food your life. The most sparing of consumers who satisfies themselves and their waistlines with the tiniest nibbles of ‘only the very best food’, is as much a glutton as the person who feasts alone on a family size tub from KFC.

But Jesus reply is startling. There he is – at the end of all his resources, but Satan’s testing only reveals one thing – underneath everything else, the human is created to be hungry for God. The lack of fasting in our culture only reveals how easily we are bought off . . . there is no hunger for God himself. The things of God, yes, God’s provision, rain in due season and the rest – for of course all good things come from him, but not for God himself. If we do not occasionally fast, if we do not lay aside these ‘God appetite’ suppressants, we do not even recognise who is tempting us. There are many things to be consumed by

Secondly Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Of Course the one who hungers truly for God himself, so Loves God that he does not require God to prove himself. he knows and is content to know that God does not exist for his sake – quite the opposite – Jesus knows and understands that He Lives for God. Again so much in our contemporary world and indeed our contemporary church screams the opposite. We call out to God, why aren’t you doing things for us? We doubt God because he doesn’t serve us and our endless appetites for comfort. Again we under our illusions do not begin to comprehend what is going on.

Again Jesus does not name Satan – it is almost as if at this point he does not recognise who is behind all of this. He is purely the righteous man of God. And neither do we, but by and large we fall so readily for the first two temptations that we never get anywhere near the third . . . Jesus forces Satan to show his hand. Here is someone who is devoted to God, who hungers for God above and beyond everything, who Live to serve God ‘though he slay me’ (to use the words of Job). Satan is forced to do that which he hates. Jesus forces him into revealing himself as ‘the ruler of the world’ Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Live my way, and you can have that which you really desire. We are slaves to our desires – and so is Jesus, except his desire is for God and he now sees and names his adversary – and in so doing reveals his authority over him Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

The constant refrain of Satan is ‘If you are the Son of God . . .’ – Is Jesus’ sense of Who he is, his identity just an illusion? . . . This perhaps is why we do not take Lent all that seriously – if at root it calls into question our sense of who we are . . . ‘Children of God’ what we call ourselves. Why would we want to call that into question?? Better surely to get on with our lives and hope it is true?? After all, my life is quite good, I’d rather not rock the boat . . .

Jesus of course was not the only one to go out into the desert, years later others followed, realising that the city had become a place of illusion. Seeking after God and thus rejecting all the comforts which they knew would distract them from Him. Abandoning distractions they saw deep into the reality of things. They were much sought out by those who wanted to live more truly as Children of God – ‘A disciple came to Abba Poemen and asked, ‘When Jesus said ‘he who is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of judgement’ – what did he mean by “without a cause”’ The Father replied to him ‘If your brother angers you by his arrogance, and you are angry with him, you are angry without a cause, and if he gouges your eye out and cuts off your right hand, and you are angry with him, you are angry without a cause. but if he cuts you off from God, you have every right to be angry with him”

Those who are revealed through testing to be children of God are those who pray ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Who see not the assault on themselves , but pray for mercy for the one who wounds them’

Such a saying destroys all our comfortable illusions about ourselves, our church and our Christian Life. It leaves us disillusioned, and that is the best way to start Lent. For only if we are so disillusioned might we set out together as a church determined to seek out the Life Of God. May God plant in us such holy disillusionment this Lent. May we have the courage to follow Jesus, to discover who we really are, and by God’s grace grow up into the fullness of him who fills everything in every way

Amen

Lent – 40 day ‘Retreat’ – Day 4 – Naming Pride

 

‘those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted’

 

Yesterday we thought of how Pride keeps us from confessing our sins, one to another, how we are lured into keeping them ‘just between God and ourselves’

Lent leads us into much fuller discernment of Reality, not least of that which is going on, or rather who is truly our Father. Jesus’ time in the desert was not a ‘time alone with God’. As we hear in the Gospel for Sunday, Jesus is driven into the wilderness ‘to be tempted of the devil’, and tomorrow’s sermon will unpack this further. For now let us just note that we live in an age which we have become perhaps more blind than ever to ‘the devil and all his ways‘, to the point where some churches are considering whether to remove references to ‘the devil’ from their baptism rite. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy

What was the sin of the devil that led to his fall from heaven? Pride! When the disciples come rushing to Jesus declaring ‘even the demons submit to us in your name!’ His rebuke is the gravest of warnings, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven!’

Satan is also the Father of lies, the one who turns our head away from the Life giving word.

‘confess your sins one to another that you may be healed’

The evil one leads us a tragic dance, away from the Word to our own rationalisation. ‘I do not need to do this, I can keep this between God and myself’

Pride traps us through deceit. But we think we are free, we feel comfortable in its company, it keeps us ‘safe’, indeed in the echo of our closed heart we may even call him our father . . .

Pride has a name

Through the Bible in a Year – June 15

The scheme for May – June can be found here

1 Ch 21-22; Rev 21; Psalm 58-59

Again we come upon a conundrum in the Scriptural account which we cannot simply ignore

In the Samuel account of the David story = we are told the LORD incited David to number the people. The Chronicler puts it at the door of the Satan.

There are several issues at point here. Firstly there is the question of what the author is trying to do. The Chronicler is writing in all likelihood much later than the author of Samuel. As we have seen there is a desire not to besmirch the royal name, by not mentioning David’s theft of Bathsheba. Certainly in a sense the Chronicler could be seen to be doing the same with regard to the name of God. Satan, along with all the angelic beings is in some accounts thought to emerge later in the tradition of Israel. His role as we know is veiled to some regards – certainly the opening chapters of Job suggest so. He is seen in some account as a free agent, in others a servant of the purposes of God. In a sense these two are not wholly irreconcilable.

But, and secondly, such texts do not allow us to have a simplistic approach to Scripture. ‘The Bible says . . .’ is always a line to be taken with fear and trembling – and here is one clear expression of why – for ‘The Bible says two things which to our ears sound irreconcilable’. Of course, we are also reminded that the Heart of the message of Scripture is that which we seek to hear. It is why it is Always good to read Scripture in company – none of us have our own personal hotline to the thoughts of the God whose ways and thoughts are not ours. We need to learn to hear the Word – and we do that in a community of disciples, committed above all to following Jesus, The Word made flesh.

 

Through the Bible in a year – January 9

The Scheme for January and February can be found here

Genesis 20-21; John 7:25-52; Psalm 13-14

As we read on in the story of Abraham, a theme continues – that of Abraham’s inability because of fear to live in truthfulness. Once more he pretends Sarah is not his wife – once more there are hash consequences for others

We are encouraged to ponder how our lives are so interconnected that these small hidings, deceits, fracture a much broader reality. Once more we see how Words can create and destroy world’s  – bring forth Life as the life giving promise of the LORD is revealed in the birth of  Isaac – or how deceit closes off life, as the people of Gerar suffer for Abraham’s deceit.

The face of the father of lies is not well hid, and his narrative of death constantly struggles for ascendency, finding a home in our fears, the antithesis of faith.

Abraham may well have asked “How Long oh Lord? Will you forget me forever?” But what is at stake here is not the LORD’s faithfulness but that of his people. Abraham has been stood beneath the stars and shown the future – he is called to live in the grandeur of that vision, rather than with a constant eye to preserving his own life.

The centre of God’s revelation in the age to come is the Temple – and from the Temple of his body, life giving streams of water will flow to those who thirst. Yet as for Abraham, the question for us also is ‘who will believe?’ Who will trust in the one whose Word is Life – who listens yet for the whisper of the snake?