Saturday, 19 May 2007

Sermon for Sunday after Ascension

Year C Easter 7, Sunday after Ascension, 2007

A Time of Promise

Ascension day, which was on Thursday just gone is an important time in the Church’s year. It’s one of those feasts which members of the Church often overlook., but I believe it to be a valuable time when we remember the reason behind who we are asChristians.

Now many people have problems with the very idea of the Ascension – in our sophisticated technological world we wonder about the mechanics of it. We now know that the world is not flat with heaven ‘up there’ as our early Church brothers and sisters believed. Images of our Lord rising into the clouds to be received into the bosom of the Father no longer have that ring to them as when we simply believed there was hell, earth and heaven in three tiers all stacked upon each other. The picture of the feet sticking out of the ceiling, like the sculpture in the chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham, are rather comical instead of awe inspiring. But I believe that the mechanics are unimportant – what we do know is that somehow Christ was taken to be with the Father in bodily form, and that those who saw it could only describe it as Jesus rising to where they believed God lived – upwards.

What is most important, though, is that Christ in his resurrection body was bodily taken to be with his father and that now and for all eternity he lives in some way with that body, and therefore understands all of our bodily needs, desires, joys, difficulties and everything that it means to be human . I preached more fully on this on Ascension day, so I won’t preach it again – but I believe that the Ascension did happen, and that it should bring us right back to who we are as Christians.

For the Ascension is a reminder of God’s promises to us in Christ – the promise that Christ will be with us till the end of the age, the promise of his Holy Spirit to comfort and inspire, the promise that one day we will see his glory, the promise of a Kingdom to come when “all will be well and all manner of things shall be well” as Mother Julian of Norwich, a mediaeval mystic once wrote…

It’s also a time of commission, when the Church is given the task of spreading the Gospel to all the world, and a time of waiting, waiting for power from on high, a time of worship – when we catch a glimpse of who Jesus really is and of his glory. It’s a teaser, a taste of the true power and glory of Jesus given to sustain us in our task of evangelism and in our worship of the one true God, Father of all, his son our Saviour and the Holy Spirit who lives in and through every Christian.

But now we live in a time of promise – as recorded in our Gospel reading, taken from St John’s record of the last prayers of Jesus before his arrest and trial. Jesus prays

“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

One day we will see Christ in all his glory – but for now we worship one whose glory we only catch glimpses of – glimpses from scripture, glimpses in the worship that binds us together in faith, glimpses in our own prayers and in the faith that guides our own lives. But Ascension reminds that we wait for the fulfilment of the promise that sometime Jesus will return in all of his glory and that the world will be changed when his kingdom comes and his will is done throughout all creation.

But for now we have a task, a charge given to us by our Lord before he ascended to heaven – we are called to be his body remaining here on earth until he comes again, we are called to be one and to draw all people to Christ. In this our passage from John’s Gospel, we are told:

Jesus looked up to heaven and prayed: ‘Holy Father,20 I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’

That is what we are here for – that is the rĂ´le of the Church in today’s world – to be one, as the father and Christ are one, in order that all may be attracted to our community of faith. To be honest, if we are not a living community of faith – then there is no point in the Church’s continued existence.

Don’t get me wrong, I value the incredible work done in all of our parishes to maintain and beautify our wonderful historic buildings, I am ever grateful to the energy and commitment that so many put into the care of all that we have. In enjoy coming to cared for and much loved Churches – but to be honest, we must remember that our primary aim is to follow the command of our master and Lord, who said that we are to be his body here on earth, with him as the head.

The Church is not a social club, or a society for the preservation of ancient buildings. Our services on Sunday do not exist for our own comfort and convenience, but for the worship of almighty God. We should not come here every Sunday hoping to find something just to lull us into a sense of security and well being but something which stirs us to adore and to serve a living God, a God of power and might, a God of love and justice, a God of truth and life.

The Ascension reminds us that God is far beyond our mortal comprehension – and in many ways perhaps it is good that we cannot picture what actually happened as those first Apostles stood looking up to heaven. It is a reminder that God is bigger than our human wishes, our self interest, our human structures and traditions. We are shown the glory of God in the amazing events of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Ascension which draws him back into the life and worship of eternity. We should stand awe-struck at what God is and what God can do and has done for us in Christ Jesus. We should, as the disciples did in the account of the ascension in Luke’s Gospel and in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, bow down and worship God – willing to serve him with our whole hearts and our whole lives.

But we stray so far from this. As a Church we slip in to our own concerns about service times, the words we us, whether we sing hymns or not – rather than taking seriously our Saviour’s command to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

It should be a challenge we take seriously every day of our lives, it should be something that informs all that we are as Christians – are we taking the command of Christ seriously enough to allow it to inconvenience us? Are we willing to lay down our lives for the sake of the Gospel as Christ has demanded we do? In our reading from Acts we are told that Paul and his companions, in chains for the Gospel, praised God in prison. How many of us would even be able to stand up for all that we claim to believe if it meant going to prison?

I’m not sure I would – though I pray that God might give me strength if it were the case. But we are not called upon to do all of this on our own, the promise of the Ascension is the Christ does not leave us to do this alone – he will be with us, and he will clothe us with power from on high. But that’s another story, the story of Pentecost – and that’s a story for next week...

Monday, 14 May 2007

Sermon for Easter 6 Year C

Year C Easter 6 (2007) RCL Principal

Going further

Today’s readings are interesting, and I am afraid that I have no funny story or witty introduction to begin with this week because, really, the readings speak for themselves. Our Gospel reading contains words of Jesus from John’s Gospel – the section of John’s Gospel known as the ‘farewell discourse’ where Jesus – before his crucifixion, offers encouragement and comfort to his disciples as he tells them that the Holy Spirit will come and be with them, and that he gives his own peace to them as a gift to keep them steadfast through what is to come.

For those of you intrigued as to why we are having this reading in the weeks following Holy Week and Easter, it is because in our Lectionary which runs over three years the Gospel of John is spread throughout the festival times of the year, such as the Easter Season, and therefore these words don’t necessarily fit with the Church year in a simple, chronological way, though we could argue that as we lead up to Pentecost, being reminded of the promise of God’s Holy Spirit is very appropriate.

Our other reading is part of our trek through Acts that always happens in the weeks after Easter, and that reading must always displace any other Old or New Testament lessons we have alongside our Gospel reading. And though it seems a relative straightforward reading there is, as is so often the case in Scripture, more than perhaps first meets the eye, and some encouragement or admonishment for each of us in this short, simple reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles.

First of all we have a Paul following the prompting of a vision to go to Macedonia. Being Paul, he was eager to follow what he saw as God’s leading, and, we are told immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convince that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

Paul responds to God’s prompting immediately, there is no hanging about – and we are even given the intricacies of the route he follows in order to show the effort he makes in response to this divine call, sailing from Toras, to Samothrace, Neapolis and Philippi. Then ‘supposing there might be a place of prayer, near the river they encounter a woman called Lydia from Thyratira who was already, we are informed, a worshipper of God – but the Lord opened her heart to the message of Paul and she and her household were baptised. Then she ‘prevails upon’ Paul and his companion to stay at her home.

So what have we to learn from this? Plenty!

First of all we have Paul’s response, it wasn’t that he needed a vision to go and proclaim the Gospel, but that he was open to God’s prompting as to where to proclaim the Gospel. The Gospel was there, the good news of Christ, and Paul was already proclaiming in word and deed the truth of Jesus. He didn’t need to be nudged into action, but directed as to where God wished him to be.

Likewise in our life as Church we shouldn’t really be focussing on what we do – we are called to follow Christ, and to encourage others to do so. We are called to live lives of love and faithfulness, and to encourage others to do so. We are called to proclaim the truth of Christ, and to encourage others etc etc etc. The fact is that Christ is our foundation, and is our message, and is our hope. We are called to think about how we make that message a reality, rather than what that message is. How to bring hope, life, love, grace and forgiveness to a world which struggles with the very idea of those words. Not to debate the whys and wherefores, but to seek God’s vision of how put this into action.

Then we have the example of Lydia. A successful woman, a trader in purple cloth – this may not seem like much at first sight, but actually it was both a lucrative and responsible position. Purple was a very difficult colour to make, and the dyes which created purple cloth were hard to get hold of, hence it was the colour of royalty and of the emperor. It made Lydia a woman of status and substance.

And yet she does not rely on her own success, but is open to God and willing to listen to the message of the Gospel. Already a worshipper of God, we are told, her heart is opened by the Lord and she is baptised there and then.

The acknowledgement of and repentance from sin that is part of baptism, the submission to Christ which baptism represents doesn’t cause Lydia to baulk or state her own success, on the contrary the impression we have is that she eagerly embraced baptism, along with her whole household.

Also the very fact that she was a worshipper of God did not cause her to say ‘well this is the way I do things and I don’t need a new way of seeing God’ but she was open to Paul’s message and responded with enthusiasm and humility in being baptised. For many of us, especially those of us who have been Christians or part of the Church for some time, we do rather get settled in our ways. For Lydia, the idea of ‘going back to scratch’, as it were, didn’t cause her to retreat into her own way of doing things, but she was open to the prompting of the Spirit and willing to open herself to God’s way of doing things.

Now I know that by saying that many people will be concerned that this is an attempt to leave the Book of Common Prayer behind, or to bring in guitars and drumkits for all of our services, or to stop singing old fashioned hymns or whatever. I am not making a statement about our liturgy, or about our music, but about our attitudes to what God is doing. In some Churches learning to do things under the prompting of the Spirit does mean a change in services. In others it means a revitalisation of worship in traditional form and a rediscovery of the deep heritage we have in the Church.

I believe that God is more concerned about our faithfulness than the prayer books which we use, and I believe that the enthusiasm of Lydia is an example of how we should be, that the openness of heart, inspired by the Spirit of God, which comes from this simple, short passage is a shining example of what happens when we don’t always begin our thinking with ‘that is how we’ve always done it’ or ‘we’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work’. There is freshness, and an excitement about Lydia’s encounter with God which should inspire us to think again about how our own Church fellowship considers our calling to be Christ’s body in this village, and how as Christians we are called to serve this community.

Which leads on to the final point which I believe comes from this story. Lydia’s response was one of hospitality. After hearing the message and responding to the message of the good news, Lydia invites Paul to stay. More than that, our final line in the reading says ‘she prevailed’ upon the apostle.

Now much as I appreciate hospitality shown to me, and I do receive plenty, I think this little comment at then end of the passage is a reminder that we are called to be hospitable communities. Our Churches do have a reputation for the warmth of our welcome, I hear that as I go around our villages. I honestly don’t think anyone could accuse us of being unfriendly. But again we consider how we can extend the hospitality of Christ – which isn’t necessarily about inviting folk to stay, but offering compassion, warmth, love and support to our communities. Thinking of innovative ways in which to engage with our villages, and of ways in which we can encourage the folk of our villages to engage with one another, is part of our calling as Parish Churches.

So, a short, and seemingly simple passage becomes an encouragement, an admonishment, and a hope. And all of this comes back to the prompting of the Spirit of God, that Spirit promised by Christ in our Gospel reading today. It is his voice we are called to listen to, it is his voice that reassures, leads, guides and inspires, it is his voice that opens our hearts, and opens scripture to our hearts. May we be attentive and open to that voice. Amen.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Last night's talk

Salvation and sanctification

Following on from a conversation I had during our series of Lent talks I want to try and dig a little deeper into the issues of salvation and sanctification which both Paul Gildersleve and Mike Booker touched on when we talked about the Creed over a number of weeks. I think there is some confusion about what these terms mean and just what it means to be saved...

In some traditions of the Church being saved is ‘it’ – that’s the purpose of what we do, that’s the purpose of being Christian. The focus of the work of the Church is to draw people in that they may be saved!

Of course, that is what we all want to see, that people are drawn in to the new life of Christ, that the know freedom from sin and that the death and new life of Christ are theirs as they are opened up to the Spirit of God in the new life which faith in Christ offers. I am not trying to distract from that. We are called to spread the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, and to invite others into the fullness of life which he offers.

But it doesn’t stop there.
In answer to the question ‘what must I do to be saved?’ we can say ‘nothing, actually, it’s been done for us!’ and we don’t seek to live in a certain way or to do good works in order that we may earn our salvation.

The work of salvation is a one time event, on the cross Jesus wrought for us salvation, by taking on the sin of the world he defeated the power of sin and death and by rising to new life proclaimed that the love of God and the power of God cannot be defeated. As Paul wonderfully put it in his talk a few weeks back ‘job done’. Through that wonderful sacrifice we are assured of life that goes beyond death, of life eternal in God’s presence.

So our primary aim as God’s people in the body of Christ is to declare that and to share that, and to offer that to all those who do not know Christ.

But if that were it, then all we would be is a group of people occupying ourselves until either we die or Jesus comes again, singing a few songs and listening to a few sermons and generally passing time by telling others about Jesus.

And if it stopped there then we would be perfect, we would be holy and that would be it. Which is so obviously manifestly not the case! No matter how much I may admire my brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter how high an opinion I may have of my fellow Christians, there is not one I could honestly say is perfect!

And the early Church struggled with this too. Their primary aim was to share the salvation Christ brought, and they expected Jesus to come again any moment, and it was only when they realised that Jesus might take a bit longer to come back than they thought that they got down to thinking about what it really meant to follow Jesus.

We see St Paul struggling with this in his letters, and throughout the New Testament we have encouragement, admonishment and challenge to live lives which reflect God’s values and way of doing things.
1 Thessalonians 2:11-12
11For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
St Paul recognized the need to grow in faith, not just to consider ourselves saved and leave it there. He sought to balance the great promise of grace which is on offer, and the fact that when we confess our sins they are covered by Christ, with the need to actually live in such a way that reflects the way of Christ. It wasn’t always easy, in the letter to the Roman’s chapter 6 Paul has to censure those who thought that the forgiveness on offer from Christ meant that a Christian could pretty much behave as they liked:
1What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
He goes on to explain that the salvation Jesus procured is through death to all that we were and a new life that mirrors the resurrection of Christ. He reflects that those who have died are free from the power of sin, and we are those who have died with Christ and been raised to new life in him.
11In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. 14For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
These are such familiar passages but do we allow them to sink in, to really make us think about what it means in our journey with Jesus?

Our status as the saved does not make us superior to others. It does not give us an easier life – anyone who has been a Christian longer than five minutes knows that. There’s a song we used to sing when I went to a church in London called ‘Jesus, we celebrate your victory’. Good tune, fun song – but one Sunday the Vicar stood up and said ‘we’re not going to sing this song any more because it’s complete rubbish’! One of the lines in the song says ‘and in your presence our troubles disappear’ and a moment’s thought makes us realise that this is not true! Our problems do not disappear when we are with Christ, we may gain perspective on them, we may be comforted, we may find strength to deal with them, but it is a nonsense to think that our faith shields us from the pain and difficulty of the world, and that Christians are immune to the struggles of this life, even in the bliss that worship can bring.

We as followers of Jesus are always in a state of tension between two things. We are in a time of ‘the now and the not yet.’ We are saved, but we have not yet been made perfect. Our sins are covered by Christ, but sin still influences us and draws us away from perfection. We are freed from eternal death, but we are not free from the aging and death that are part of this world. We are being made whole, but are still beset by sickness and injury.
In the same way Jesus brought in the kingdom of God, through his proclamation in Matthew 12
28But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

Yet at the same time Jesus pointed out that there was more to come, the kingdom wasn’t fully here. Indeed we are taught to pray ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done’ in the prayer that Jesus gave us.

So it is with us, we are called as it says in Leviticus, frequently I discovered whilst doing a kind of ‘Bible Google’ through the ‘bible gateway‘be holy as God is holy’
(for the reference fiends among you three of the verses which repeat this phrase are:
Leviticus 11:44
I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.
Leviticus 11:45 I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.
Leviticus 19:2 "Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: 'Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.)
But our holiness is not a given, our calling is to follow Jesus, to take up our cross with the struggles and sacrifice that vivid image implies, and to walk with Christ where he leads us. This is our sanctification, our growth in holiness. On the deepest level it comes through the work and the power of God’s Holy Spirit within us, teaching us, guiding us, leading us – but also it comes as we are open to allowing God to change us. I often reel off this list of the things we need to do, but I think it bears repeating. In order to grow in faith and to work with God in being made holy, in being sanctified, we must:
read our bibles
worship – not just on our own but in the body of Christ, by committing ourselves to one another in our Church fellowships
we must consider our giving and lifestyles, what we do with all that God gives us, money, time, talents, the lot!

Being a Christian should make a difference to our lives, not just in the assurance of sins forgiven and life forever in God’s presence but in the everyday way in which we live. this lifestyle of faithfulness and the journey towards wholeness and holiness in Christ will draw others into wanting to know Jesus and commit themselves to him, but it will also mean we are becoming the people God has called us to be, those who are more like Christ, changed from the glory to glory.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

This Week's sermon

Easter 5 (2007) Year C RCL Principal
Letting the outside in and the inside out…

Early one morning a young man received a telephone call, rather unusually God was at the other end of the line. Hello there, said God, I’m coming to see you today.

Rather excited this young man set about clearing up his flat, tidying up, dusting, hoovering etc etc After a couple of hours of this the flat looked fantastic – and he sat down to wait.

The doorbell rang and, extremely excited, the young man ran to the door – to find one of his friends in tears, they had just split up with their boyfriend and wanted to chat. Very apologetically they young man said he was expecting an important visit and unfortunately couldn’t help. The friend left.

A couple of hours later the young man was feeling peckish, so he made himself a sandwich – and after eating it jumped as the bell rang again – he sprinted to the door, only to find a homeless person there asking for some food or drink. I’m sorry said the young man, I’m expecting someone any minute now – I can’t help and he closed the door.

Some time later, it became evening, and fed up of waiting the young man made himself some supper and sat down in front of the TV, the doorbell rang again and he opened it to find, a Christian Aid collector asking for the envelope which had been dropped off a few days before – sorry said the young man, I don’t know where it is and I’ve not got time to look for it now as I’m expecting someone important soon. The collector went on their way.

Eventually the young man nodded off on the sofa, to be awoken late in the evening by the telephone ringing he picked it up and heard ‘hello, God here’. The young man couldn’t contain himself and shouted – “you said you were coming to see me today and I’ve waited in for you – where have you been?”

‘What do you mean says God – I’ve been to see you three times today and each time you’ve turned me away.”

It’s not a true story, of course – but a sketch I used in Church when I was younger – trying to get the message across that sometimes we need to think carefully about where God is and what God is trying to tell us. And it ties in well with our readings for this week – or at least I think it does!

Sometimes we in the Church think too small – we put God in a box, or try and contain God within the four walls of our Church buildings – we decide what is and isn’t of God and from God and we seek to trap God in our own perceptions and ideas.

Take the Book of Common Prayer, which we use in so many of our services (and are using regularly in Graveley now on the second Sunday of each month). We use the prayer book because of the dignity and beauty of its language, because it can aid our worship and add to our understanding of God. It is document of great profundity and depth. But if we were to say that it was the only language we could use to talk about God, and if we were to become ‘prayer book fundamentalists’ then we would be seeking to contain the very idea of God and make claims about the Prayer book that would be unsustainable – claims about the words we may and may not use about God, claims about what God is like, claims about how the world should be.

Our liturgy, like our faith, must be dynamic and must move and grow as our understanding of God moves and grows and as our culture and our world change so must our faith and the language we use to express our faith.

In our reading from Acts for today Peter admits that his narrow ideas of faith were in danger of cutting him off from the will of God. His insistance that the Good News of Jesus Christ was for the Jews, and only for those who were willing to accept the Jewish way of life, could have stopped the Church reaching out to all people. Those who declared that God was only for the circumcised – i.e. only for those who took on Jewish faith first – were guilty of wanting God to work on their own terms, of wanting God to be as they had always known him and of wanting faith to remain as they had always practiced it. It was through that vision of unclean foods being declared clean that Peter’s eyes of faith were opened to a vision which included all people – even the gentiles. Our reading from Acts records Peter’s words:
“I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, "John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?'”

Perhaps when we are tempted to claim that God is only present in a certain kind of service, a certain kind of practice, a certain way of seeing and doing things then we should ask ourselves ‘who am I that I could hinder God?’

In the same way that our young man at the beginning missed the point, that God visits us in ways we might not expect or want, there is a very real danger that we might miss the point – and indeed miss the work of God – by demanding that only x or y is the way to be Church and that there is only one way of being the body of Christ.

In fact the very thing that should be our priority, the very thing that will draw us beyond ourselves is given to us in our reading from the Gospel of St John that we heard just now. Jesus says
4 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.'
It is love that will open our eyes of faith. A willingness to love beyond our own boundaries, an openness to love God and our neighbour, and the willingness to see God in others, even those beyond where we might expect to see God!!!

And this love must begin in our Churches in order that it might be nurtured and grow and spread to our communities. I am often asked by concerned members of our Churches – how can we make our congregations grow? Well the way we will attract people to our churches is through love, and through dedication to God and to one another. This will draw people to want to know about our faith, and the one who is the source of all life and love – God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And we have ample opportunity to put our love into action in these Parishes – I see every day the commitment of Christians in our villages to the life of the community, to their families, to their friends and neighbours, to the life of our Churches. We also have a great place in which to put this love into practice – our team ministry.

Many of you will have heard me say that apart from the appeal of these six villages and the life of the Churches in them, the most attractive part of this position, from the point of view of a priest applying to serve these Parishes, was the formation of the Papworth Team. Beyond the obvious benefits of support and increased resources which come from working together – we have a very real opportunity to put the command of Jesus into action by loving one another as Christians in this Team Ministry. The Ministry exists not to take away from the life of individual parishes but to support them and offer the possibility of working together to show the love of God to our villages.

And so we have been given a very real opportunity to learn to love one another and to work together – but none of this will happen if we are not open, as St Peter was, to the vision of God, to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We will not grow, we will not flourish if we do not love, we will not survive as the Church if we are not prepared to think big, to listen to God and to be willing to see God wherever, whenever and in whoever God chooses to appear