Sunday, 11 May 2008

A Sermon for Pentecost

Year A Pentecost (2008) RCL Principal
Jesus Loves the Church

I recently found myself in a conversation with a minister who is Chaplain to an Anglican Church in Paris. There were lots of good things that came out of that conversation, but quite early on in the process he came out with something that really made me think. He said ‘I love Church, Church is why I get up in the morning.’

It’s not a sentence I hear very much. Not even for those of us whose life and ministry is lived around the Church…
Actually perhaps for those of us who are involved in the Church to a greater degree we are more likely to criticise and complain – to be honest – because we have invested so much in the life of our Churches.

I promise you, you never want to spend any great length of time in a room full of Clergy. Except our own Team Clergy, of course, who seem to have the gift of laughter and support to an unnatural degree…

But back to this who idea of loving the Church. What does it mean?

Well, for some people it is a love of the building and the history of these wonderful treasures which are the Parish Churches of England. And I don’t mean that with any sense of irony. I believe that the physical plant, the buildings, the bricks and mortar, or stone, or whatever, are a gift – they are visible signs of devotion to God throughout our land, they are places of prayer, they are sacred spaces, they say to the communities around us that faith endures. These buildings offer us great mission opportunities, they offer us potential for hospitality, they offer the chance for people to be rooted in the community through the good and bad times of life. I can see why people love these buildings.

But it’s not enough.

Some people love the traditions of worship, both ancient and modern, that are a part of the life of the Church. For many ‘Church’ is what you do on a Sunday, usually with a bit of music, a bit of Bible, a bit of a sermon (and/or a snooze depending on how good the preacher is), a bit of prayer, and with luck a bit of coffee at the end and nice biscuits – or even cake (hooray!).

And there’s lots to love – we have hundreds of years of heritage in our prayer books, with the services that we use now in Common Worship stretching back with a 2000 year heritage. Our Sunday worship can lift us to the heights of heaven and – at its best – can draw us to the throne of God where worship is offered eternally to the great ‘I AM’. The beauty of words and music, the depth of the liturgy, the opportunity for stillness and silence, the sense of being in God’s presence and of encountering our living and active God can inspire a great amount of devotion and affection in us.

But it’s not enough!

And others would point to the fellowship of the Church, to the feeling of family and togetherness that is a part of the life of our Parish Churches. I am constantly bowled over by the sense of welcome and care in our Churches, and believe our genuine openness and hospitality is a manifestation of God’s grace in our congregations and beyond.

In fellowship we can find a sense of identity, of being loved and forgiven, of sharing and healing and compassion and love.

And together we find strength, supporting one another and encouraging one another to grow and to act to change the world as Jesus calls us to. Together we can speak out against injustice, against those things which harm or destroy. We can change the world, together.

But it’s not enough…

Loving our building, no matter how wonderful it is. Loving the services on Sunday, no matter how uplifting and enjoyable they are. Loving the fellowship, no matter how welcoming, embracing and inspiring it is. None of this is enough to live and die for.

Yet that’s what Jesus did.

Jesus lived and died for the Church. He is Lord of the Church. The Church, the Bible tells us, is his bride, that is how much Christ loves the Church. We are told in St Paul’s letter to the Corinithians that we are the body, we are Christ to this world, and Jesus is our living head.

Now, that’s the reason I get up in the morning.

But what does this mean? Well our reading from Acts for today stops short of giving us the whole Chapter. If we were to carry on we would hear in verse 41 of Chapter 2 that three thousand were added to the Church after that amazing experience – but if we read through from the next verse, verse 42 to the end of the Chapter we would hear this
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
What set the first Church apart at birth was not just the wonderful experience of Pentecost – of the great signs and wonders of that outpouring of the Spirit – but the everyday lives they led. These were people dedicated to lives of prayer, of worship, of sharing together. They were generous hearted, and open in a faith which was part of their homes, their work, their whole lives.

There was no part of their lives that they didn’t allow the Spirit to touch or to change. In many ways after the show of Pentecost, they settled down to lives of everyday devotion. There is that ongoing touch of the Spirit that changes everything they are a part of.

It is that touch of the Spirit that makes the Church the body of Christ, that binds us together like sinews and tendons and muscles and bone and flesh bind us each together. It’s that absolute devotion to God and to one another that should be the hallmark of Christ’s body, of our Church.

And it is that which is our calling today, and in our time that same Spirit is still on offer, we all have the Spirit in us, but we have to ask if we are really allowing God to work in us. Perhaps even more challenging is asking whether we are I excited about being a part of the body of Christ in this place. It’s a question I have to ask of myself every day – I so often try to carry on in my own strength and then realise that it is only with God that any of this is possible.

This Pentecost we have the opportunity, as we do every day, of allowing God to work in us and to allow God’s Spirit to strengthen us, to embolden us, to free us from the fear that can come when we think about how people might react to our Christian faith. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to the Church in order that we might be built up together and that together we might change the world.

I believe that if we can trust in the Spirit, if we can be bold in our proclamation of Jesus Christ, if we are true to our calling as Christians to make Jesus known then we too can change the world. Rather than our concerns about our building, or services, or even the sense of fellowship that we share, if we were absolutely committed, in partnership with God through His Holy Spirt, then perhaps when the history books are written about the Church of this generation then it may say about us - And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Pray God it might be so. Come Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

This Month's editorial

Newsletter article for May:

There are lots of funny (both in the amusing and peculiar sense) ideas of what or who the Holy Spirit – or Holy Ghost in older versions of our Bibles and Services – is. Some I have spoken to actually seem to think that God seems to hang about wearing a bedsheet and floats over services and some people think that the Holy Spirit is a religious version of ‘Santa’s little helper’ who zips around the place helping people do good things.

But when the Bible talks about the Holy Spirit it means God. We talk about God as ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ not as three different Gods all trying to share a small house in heaven, but because it’s the only way our limited human words can describe someone who is bigger than our minds can ever grasp. When the writers of the Bible talked about the Holy Spirit they thought in terms of God being active in people’s lives and the only word they could think to use was ‘spirit’ – suggesting someone who you couldn’t see, but was still there.

At this time of the Church’s year, the season we call Pentecost, we remember that God is still active in people’s lives, and that when we are open to God he will actually make a difference in our lives. On the first day of the Church we read, in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, that God inspired people to speak in different languages and to share the excitement of the new life which Jesus offers – this was such an amazing experience for all concerned that three thousand people joined the Church on that one day. The writers described it as the Spirit of God being ‘poured out’ – that God was at work even though he couldn’t be seen.

Today we still believe that God is active in our lives, and on May 11th we will celebrate in our Churches the festival of Pentecost, to remind us that God’s Spirit, God Himself, is with us in all that we do, in everything we say, in every part of our lives. Jesus described the Spirit as a comforter, a companion, and said that God would inspire those who follow Him to be those that worship and live ‘in Spirit and in truth’. But in order for God to make a difference in our lives we have to be open to him, to listen to and follow the teachings of Jesus, and to be willing to change. I believe, and I have seen in my own life and in the lives of others, that God can do great things, may you know the touch of God’s Spirit this Pentecost time and always.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Ascension Day Sermon

Ascension Day 2008 Year A RCL

Acts 1.1-11
Luke 24.44-53

Goodbye, God bless

Ascension day seems a funny day to celebrate. A strange time to have a feast (which of course our Communion is here this evening)! Because, if you think about it, it’s a celebration of something quite difficult.

Have you ever had that feeling of saying goodbye to someone that hurt so much it made you ache? Sixteen years ago Jo and I, who had had an on-off relationship for a few years, found ourselves living in London and York, and at the end of a weekend together we would have that awful goodbye as one of us got onto a train to leave our respective cities. It was probably this ache, this loathing of separation that meant that she came out with the best proposal ever – oh well, we might as well go for it then.

I’m sure for all of us we can understand that pain, perhaps in a smaller or greater degree. Saying goodbye to someone we care about, letting go of them and trusting for both their well-being and the well-being of your relationship with them can be difficult.

It should, to a certain extent, have been the same for the disciples, having had the pain and despair of losing Jesus which was replaced by the joy of the resurrection and the days they got to spend with Jesus afterwards, they were again losing him. Ok, so this time there wasn’t the agony of seeing him suffer, nor was there the same kind of fear that they had experienced before their encounters with Christ – the fear of being caught, the fear of dying, perhaps even the fear that it might all have been a waste of time. But at the same time, Jesus was leaving, and they had no idea when he was to return. There was the promise of his return, but though they hoped for its immanence they had no date, no time, and no firm promise that it would even be in their lifetimes.

So this feast is a strange celebration. We celebrate the loss of Jesus from the Earth – the end of his earthly bodily ministry.

BUT – if we read the Gospel for this evening again we don’t actually get the feeling that the disciples were particularly glum! In fact the reading we had from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 24 ends with these verses (V 51-53) “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple blessing God.”

Not the actions of those who were filled with despair – so either Luke was an early example of a spin doctor – pretending all was well when it wasn’t – or there was something else happening to the disciples – or Apostles as they are now rightly called, being those sent out by Jesus.

What happened? Well the promise of Jesus return obviously did offer some hope and comfort, and they knew – it had been proved to them – that Jesus was a man of his word. He’d said he was to be raised from the dead, and he was – obviously a fella you could trust.

But more than that they were now people of purpose. People who knew their calling, who knew what they were to do, who knew that God had a task for them – and would equip them to fulfil it.

Before being taken to be with God (however that was accomplished – and I don’t really think it is worth spending time arguing about the world being round and surrounded by space and wondering where Jesus went etc etc – life’s too short to worry about some things… ) Anyway, before Jesus went to be with God he charged the Apostles with being witnesses to the ends of the earth. Those are the exact words from Luke’s account in the book of Acts. Witnesses – those who had seen and who were to proclaim the good news that Jesus himself had proclaimed, those who were to live and act as Jesus had, those who were to be Christ-like in the world.

And not only that – this sense of purpose came with another promise – one we read about at length in John’s Gospel – the promise of ‘power from on high’ – the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, the comforter, the advocate, the helper. The Spirit was to be poured out in a new way, a way that would give authority and power to their message and that would equip them for all they were to do. It was this power that would sustain them through all they faced, it was this power that would assure them of the reality of the presence of God, it was this power that would make it possible for them to go to all places and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And they held to that promise, and after some gentle prompting by a couple of (euphemistically named) ‘men in white robes’ (Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven…?) they returned to Jerusalem to await the fulfilment of this promise.

That is why they weren’t torn by this parting – Jesus was leaving, but he was staying, the Spirit would bring that sense of Christ into every moment – just as he had said it would. And so they waited.

Perhaps, if they were anything like me, the waiting was the hardest part. Perhaps not – after all, they were in the temple continually blessing God. They allowed this promise to sink into their hearts, and they waited. And we know the end of their waiting, we will celebrate it in just ten days on the day of Pentecost. The Spirit was poured out, not just given but lavishly shared with signs and wonders, making everything the Apostles and the early Church was to accomplish possible.

Yet today – how many Christians are filled with that joy? How many of us find ourselves continually blessing God? We are those who know the promise, who in our baptism and our Christian life have the gift of God’s Spirit every day. We have the same potential to change the world, to live in the joy and wonder that was promised by Jesus so long ago.

Yet we are so often the ones who seem to mourn Jesus loss. We are the ones who seem to feel separated and distant from him… It’s true it has been many years, and Jesus hasn’t returned, it’s true that the history of the Church has not always been illustrious or uplifting – but it is equally true today as it always has been – Jesus has not left us alone. If we are open to the life of God, open to his Spirit, then we too can know the fullness of what Jesus promised, and we can have the assurance that one day we will see God face to face.

But it means we have to trust, to rely on faith, to be willing to do what God would have us do. It means, sometimes, waiting on God and listening for the voice of God. It means being willing to move, perhaps to change, and to take risks of faith.

All of this, though, can lead us to a greater joy, an enlarged faith, a sure and certain hope, and a life filled with the love and grace of our powerful, loving, intimate and awesome God. This is the reason we celebrate on this strange day – and I hope every day in our Christian lives.