It's been far too long since I have inflicted a sermon on you, and this blog is looking sadly neglected. Here's a sermon from a few weeks back! I may well post a few more in the coming days.
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. 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 insistence 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
34 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 Mission Community
Many of you will have heard me say that apart from the appeal of these five 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 Mission Community. 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 Five Alive Mission Community which 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.