I preached this morning at our 8am Morning Prayer from part of Philippians – through which we are currently working as a sermon series. It is a message that makes particular reference to our circumstances as a parish in vacancy as well as in Lent, looking forward to fresh interviews for a new vicar at the end of the month. But I hope that it has something to say to anyone who reads it.
A few weeks ago I was preaching about our “outward value”, and asking people to think about what it would look like if we took off the body armour of our pre- and misconceptions about people, and reached into our community with the same love that Jesus had.
Someone in the 10am congregation came up to me afterwards and talked about the image of a lighthouse. She was suggesting I seem to remember, that if we did make ourselves more open and available to people in our community, then we would be becoming like a lighthouse in the community, a beacon of hope.
Being part of a church that is a lighthouse in the community is a lovely image, and it’s one that immediately sprang to mind earlier this week, when I read this passage from Phillippians. Here St. Paul is asking us to “shine like lights in the world, clinging on to the word of life” as Tom Wright puts it.
When we write things, or say things, we know what we’re trying to say, but often don’t know all the consequences that our words will have. I suspect that as Paul wrote to the Phillippians, a letter where the “you’s” and “I’s” measure a partnership that Paul had started with the founding of the church there, he would never have expected us to be still reading his words, in a different language, 2000ish years later.
But God has been at work in St. Paul’s words through countless generations, because their message is timeless; they never stop being useful and relevant to those that read them. In that sense Paul’s are ‘words of life’ to which we can cling.
But of course St Paul was not referring to his own words, nor expecting anyone to cling to them. He was asking the Phillippians to cling to Jesus, as the living Word, the one who had brought salvation to the world, who had brought about the fulfilment of God’s promises for his people. As he strived to preach the gospel from his place of house arrest, Paul was simply asking his friends to share in that work in their own place, and to build on those things that provided a rock solid guarantee that what they did, would be pleasing to God.
One of those things was obedience, not just to him as the person who had told them about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; but more importantly, obedience to God. Nor were they to be obedient to God in a way that suggested they were scared of God. That was not the “fear and trembling” that Paul was suggesting. Rather, he was asking for a total seriousness of purpose, a clear focus on the task in hand, and an understanding that since Paul was no longer with them, they were now responsible for their own spiritual welfare.
Without a vicar, we (a bit like the Phillippians) have had to be responsible for our own spiritual welfare. Even though we’ve had some folk who’ve kept a weather eye on us, our ability to get ourselves out the messes of the past, has been down to our own corporate commitment to our relationship with God. It has been our prayerfulness, our willingness to work at our relationships so that they reflect better Jesus’ example, our combined efforts to make changes in our life as a church, that are the visible testimony to our own recent experience of God’s love and direction in our lives. This is what has started to bring us into a better place with God, and with each other.
But, even though we’ve made great progress, the work is not complete. When St. Paul received a gift from the Phillippians he was reminded not just of their love for him, but of their ongoing work for the Lord in partnership with him. He had no idea whether he would return to them again, but whatever happened he didn’t want them to think that their work was done – he wanted it to continue better than ever.
Just because we’re interviewing again for a vicar this month, doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels, being assured that we’ve done well to get this far through the vacancy. Neither will our need to work out how we share the gospel, and develop practical ways of reaching into our community, come to an end when, sooner or later, a new vicar is appointed and arrives. It will simply mean we have a strong, new partner in our work, with whom we will share the responsibility for doing things.
The work of salvation which we have accepted as of paramount importance in our lives, but which others still need to learn about, has never been more important. Our purpose as Christians has never been to earn salvation but to share it with others, that they too may receive Jesus in their lives. To do that, we have to hold that tension between being part of the community around us, and being recognisable as a source of light that is different from that community.
That’s why St Paul is asking the Phillipians to shine like stars in a sky that is otherwise darkened by the difficulties of the world – both the daily practical distresses, and the terrifying images we’ve seen this weekend of natural forces.
And that’s why I like the image of a lighthouse. For starters, they’re usually built in tough and rocky places; exposed to all the natural elements in the world around them, and built to be tough enough to withstand them. Christians have been building their lives exposed to the world for centuries now, and they’ve been tough enough to withstand many batterings. It’s our turn now.
The important thing about the lighthouse is that its light doesn’t seek to attract people to itself, but to safety in something else, like a harbour, somewhere where some protection is offered from the harsh things of the world. All our hard work at re-building our partnership as a church in sharing the gospel, will be in vain if we don’t shine the light we create away from ourselves and towards Jesus.
And that, I believe, is what this Lent we will be doing on the 10th April as we ‘Lift High the Cross’ on the village green. By placing the crucifixion story at the centre of the community in a very visible way and alongside other Christians in the area, we will be shining a light that points not to ourselves but to Jesus, and to the sacrifice he made so that everyone can come into the harbour that is faith in God.
That after all is what salvation is about – it was the total pouring out of the person of Christ, through death, to a point where he not only was raised to life through the power of his Father God, but by doing so brought new life to all who accept and believe in who he was and what he did. The most powerful way to do let people experience that, is for them to see it for themselves.
But just one event isn’t enough. If people are going to take the cross really seriously this Lent, and afterwards, they need to see and hear the difference it makes in our lives – we each need to shine in our own little bits of the world, our street, our school,the hops we use, our workplace, our family. It might take a kind word, a little extra time, a card through a door, and invitation to watch the crucifixion story, or our own personal story of what Jesus did for us. That is what it means to act in order to fulfill God’s purpose; to show that he works in us.
As we start this Lent, whether we’ve given something up, or started something new, let us also allow God work in each of us so that we shine just a little bit brighter to point people towards Jesus.