Monday, 30 April 2007

Sermon for Easter 4 Year C

Easter 4 (2007) Year C RCL Principal
Feeling sheepish

In the songs that we sing in Sunday club and in our all-age services we sing a lot about animals, and a lot about what kind of Animals we’d like to be. There’s lots to do with ‘strong as a lion’ or ‘graceful as a bird’. There’s the great chorus ‘If I were a butterfly’ which contains the wonderful line ‘if I were a fuzzy-wuzzy bear, I’d thank you Lord for my Fuzzy-wuzzy hair’.

Anyway, the natural world has often inspired Christians to write hymns or poems that use images of animals to describe our human characteristics. But no-one, as far as I know, has ever written a song called ‘if I were a fluffy sheep’. Sheep are not the most inspiring of creatures, in lots of ways, for most people, but they remain an enduring image in the Bible, and are particularly used to talk about the believer, the one who seeks to follow God, as a sheep follows a shepherd.

The shepherds I know, and we have a few in our Congregations, are very fond of their sheep, they know them each individually and they care about them. It is a revelation to me that sheep have personalities and are all individuals, but my experience with dogs was the same, my two dogs are very individual and have their own characteristics and ways of doing things – so it really shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that sheep are the same, each one different.

This should be one of the reassuring things about our reading for today. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, which is how he describes himself, then he knows us all individually. Christianity is a Faith within which all called to be themselves, as Christians we are not all called to be the same, to look and act and think identically. We are called to be one body, but within that body we all have our part (no pun intended). God loves who we are, and we believe that he wants us to be ourselves, not some abstract idea of a super-Christian, part of a herd of identical believers. Each one of us has our own gifts, our own purpose, our own personality which is a gift from God.

Indeed, as strong part of the Christian journey is about finding out who we are and what gifts we have. This is something that is tied up with God calling us all to be active in our Christian lives. We are not the passive recipients of faith, we are, the Bible says, to work together using the gifts God has given us in order that we may bring in God’s kingdom.

Another thing about the shepherds I know is that they are very pragmatic about caring for sheep and are willing to do jobs which are unpleasant – worming, de-lousing, trimming feet, even putting sheep down – for the sake of the whole flock and to continue their livelihood.

In the same way the Good Shepherd is the one to whom we can turn when life is difficult. There is nothing that we need be afraid to share in our prayers. Christ, the Good Shepherd, knows all that we are going through, and there is no need for embarrassment, shame or fear when we come to him in prayer. God is all in all and is with us in all that we do, if we are weighed down with troubles and doubts, then God will help us carry the load and will walk with us, even through the valley of death.

The image of the Good Shepherd is not just about the surface image that many of us have about sheep. The image of sheep, all the same, needing leadership and clear guidance. Like so many of the images and symbols of scripture there is much more to this potent image than that.

God respects and loves who we are, he knows our strengths and our weaknesses, he allows us to make our own choices, our own mistakes. One of the marks of a shepherd is that they often leave sheep alone for much of the time, allowing them to live their own lives, to get on with things themselves – yet if there is difficulty, disease or disaster the shepherd is there, protecting, guiding, helping.

Though we believe that God is always with us, he does not manipulate or forces us to live lives by his own pattern, he allows us to get on with our lives and will guide and help us if we are open to him. In our Gospel reading for today we have the wonderful saying ‘I know my own and my own know me’. We are known and loved by God, it is our task, our highest calling, to know God and to get to know God more and more.

In our busy world, so full of distractions, it can be difficult to know what is right and what is wrong, to know what is from God and what is the influence of society, or the trends or passing fads of contemporary thought. The only way to know God is in our lives of prayer, in our study of Scripture and in learning about our Christian Faith in our Churches and with other Christians – it is only in this way that we can know God and know God’s care and guidance for each one of us.

So, as with so many situations in the Christian life, we are given both comfort and a challenge. The comfort of being known and loved by God, and the challenge of growing in our knowledge and love of God.

The passage we heard about the Good Shepherd should challenge us. Jesus pulls no punches when he demands our allegiance – we are to give ourselves wholly to him. We are like sheep, we need to give ourselves over to the care of the shepherd and allow him to guide us where we need to go – or it won’t be long before we wander off and become lost – God is gracious and will rescue us, but that’s another story.

In order that we might be kept safe we have a choice to make, will we listen? Will we take heed? Or are we so concerned with what I want, with the way I want to go, that no cajoling from the shepherd is going to make us do what we should.

What are we going to do?

This willingness to obey must be at the very centre of our Christian life. Are we willing to lay aside our own self-will and embrace the rĂ´le of a follower of Christ, a servant of God?

So we are faced with a challenge, with a demand. But we are also offered in today’s readings the other side of the Christian life – the touch of grace and God’s gentleness. Psalm 23, that wonderful well-known Psalm reminds us that the Lord is a shepherd to us, that when we do listen to him he leads us to pleasant places, he accompanies us through the worst parts of life and death, that he will bring us to a place of rejoicing and celebration. This is a reminder that obedience to God pays dividends, that we don’t indulge in this servanthood that Christ calls us to for the sake of suffering, but that through it we grow to be those who God can use, in whom the Holy Spirit can work and live and grow. We become those who in being drawn closer to God enjoy all the rewards of the life on offer from God.

And God will work in us, if we will open ourselves to him and listen to his voice. The message is clear, in order to bring about that kind of miracle we need faith, we need to pray and we need to be listening to our good shepherd.

We are encouraged in our Bible readings for today to make a choice. We are encouraged to choose Christ and to choose life.

Whatever we do, we must choose life.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Sermon for Easter 3 Year C

Easter 3 (2007) Year C RCL Principal

‘Do you love me’

There are two ways in which we could interpret Jesus’ question to Peter from our Gospel this morning ‘Do you love me more than these?’

Firstly Jesus might be asking Peter, as many translations seem to suggest. ‘Peter, do you love me more than the others here do?’ Perhaps asking him if he is able to bear the responsibility placed on him when Jesus said ‘You will be called Peter (which means ‘rock’) and on this rock I will build my Church’.

Secondly Jesus might be asking ‘do you love me more than these other things in your life’ – following on from the fishing (which had been Simon Peter’s livelihood before following Jesus) and in which much of his life would have been invested. In this way Jesus might well be asking ‘do you love me more than security, peace, a safe living, home, perhaps even family and friends – do you love me more than any of these things?’

Both translations are valid. The Greek word is not terribly clear. And I think, in the way that scripture often does, there is a point to this. I think it is a question that is meant to mean both things. Is your love for me greater than anything else? Does your love for me strive to be greater than anyone else’s love for me, and greater than your love for any thing else in the world?’

Now if you remember to the sermon I preached on this reading three years ago (and I would be amazed if you did, I had to look it up myself) then you would remember that I used the phrase ‘firmly but gracefully’ to describe this passage where Jesus asks Peter three times about his alliegance. Firmly because it is a challenge, ‘do you love me’, gracefully because it was, as many call it, the re-instatement of Peter after failing Christ by denying him when challenged as to whether Peter knew Jesus after Jesus had been arrested. These three questions give Peter the opportunity to, as it were, ‘make up’ for the denials he had previously made.

But it was a hard challenge to face, and we are told that by the third time of asking Peter was quite upset. Now bearing in mind what had happened at Jesus’ arrest and betrayal I can’t see much justification for the fact that ‘Peter felt hurt’ as it says in our translation. It can only be that there was something more going on in this questioning than what we read from reading the passage, Peter was being challenged by Jesus on a deeper level than the questions we see recorded here.

And to me, it is a reminder that challenge is a very real part of our Christian life. It is a challenge to live up to the standards which our faith demands, living lives which show Jesus’ way of doing things, bringing (as St Paul says in the letter to the Romans) ‘every thought captive to Christ. It is a challenge facing up to the ridicule, persecution, misunderstanding, scepticism and sometimes just plain apathy of others towards our faith.

But more than anything it is a challenge when we stand before Christ and hear the question for ourselves.

Do you love me more than these?

Do you love Christ more than anything else? Could you say that you love Christ more than anyone else here in this fellowship today? Is this what our faith, our church attendance, our part in the life of this Christian community is all about? Do we love Jesus?

It’s a good question to ask at this time in the parish year when our annual meeting follows this service, when we again consider the ways in which we seek to reach out in Christ’s name to our community, when we again consider our part in the life of this Church.

It is a challenge – and one which applies equally as much to me as to anyone else listening here. Is my love for Christ limited by my love of anything else? I think for most of us, the honest answer will be yes. We find ourselves distracted by the world we live in, the lives we lead, the things, and indeed the people, we consider precious and valuable.

But, like Peter, our calling is to love Christ more than these.

Now if I had a few hours I would go into detail about an excellent book written by the Theologian Miroslav Volf called ‘Free of Charge’ which explains why participating in God’s way of loving, giving and forgiving makes it possible for us to love one another in a way which far outstrips any love we can give, and that God’s love gives us the appropriate tools with which to grapple with the world and things in it that draw our attention.

But I won’t do that, I recommend the book to anyone who wants to get to grips with this issue, but want to re-iterate that Jesus calling us to love him more than anything else, and to love him above all others, is not a recipe for detaching ourselves from others, or for neglect of family and friends, but on the contrary enhances and transforms those relationships.

But there is plenty to learn about this encounter with Peter which can challenge and encourage us.

Firstly, the most important thing to note is that, obvious as it may seem, this is an encounter with the risen Jesus. Peter’s life, one which had been very recently filled with fear, and had involved him going back, at least to a certain degree, to the life he had before becoming a disciple, is transformed as he meets Jesus again. This is our challenge too, to meet Jesus – to be open to his life, his influence, his transformation in our own lives.

We encounter Christ in our prayer lives; which needs to be worked at, in reading scripture; which needs to be a daily discipline, in worship; which should be a regular feature of our lives, and in so many unexpected places in our lives. But in order to encounter the risen Jesus we need to be open to him and allow him in to our lives.

Secondly from this encounter we see forgiveness. Jesus brings Peter on from the guilt and pain of his denials to a new relationship with him, a relationship with responsibility, new life, and a new level of commitment and grace filled living.

Which leads onto my third point, that it didn’t end with Jesus forgiving Peter. Again it may seem an obvious point, but in response to Peter’s statement that he did love Jesus he is given a task to do – feed my sheep.

It is like that in our own Christian lives. It doesn’t all grind to a halt when we say we are Christians – our responsibility, and indeed God’s work in us – doesn’t start and finish with a commitment to Christ and with our forgiveness.

The purpose of Jesus’ reinstatement of Peter was to draw him onwards to where God wanted him to be. It was not just to make him feel better or to make him feel a part of the ‘Jesus club’ where membership has its privileges!

It’s the same in our wider Christian lives – we find ourselves caught between assurance of our salvation, and the absolute nature of what Jesus has done for us in dying on the cross an rising to new life, and the need to grow in that faith, to be drawn towards holiness, which is known as ‘sanctification’. So Paul can write to the Phillipians ‘continue to work out your own salvation, with fear and trembling.’ (Phil 2.12) – it is not that we haven’t been saved, but that our salvation leads us on to something, as our lives are changed, as the hymn says, from glory to glory – glory in the salvation wrought for us, to glory in lives filled with Christ.

So when Jesus asks if we love him, we can be encouraged because if we respond ‘yes’ he will begin to lead us to the places where he knows we should be, doing the things he knows we should be doing, and growing in the faith which he provides and the fullness of life which comes only through Him.

May our Church be a place where we can say ‘we love you lord, do with us as you will’ Amen.