Sermon: Jesus Christ is enough – Galatians 1:11-end

Been a while since I preached, but tonight at our Evening Service of Holy Communion with Prayer for Healing, I’ve had the chance to get to grips with Paul’s earliest letter, the one he sent to the Galatians. 

There is a lot of talk in our news these days about the power of the regulator. Whether it is the press, the energy companies, education, or – dare I say it – the church !, regulation is seen as a means of offering control or enforcing responsibility, or of speaking on behalf of those who regard themselves as damaged, disenfranchised or dismissed, or not, as the case may be.

In our reading from Galatians this evening, St. Paul is speaking into a situation where the regulatory authorities, known as the Judaisers, have muddied the waters of the Galatians’ freedom found by faith in Christ. These Judaisers have come and played on people’s doubts and fears, suggesting that the gentile Galatians can’t possibly be proper Christians unless they are circumcised like the Jews to whom Jesus came first; circumcised like Christ himself would have been. They are trying to apply the regulations of the old Hebrew Law being applied in this new community, new context, new covenant. Why? So that the Judaisers can avoid the pressure they’re getting from other Jews who see them spending rather a lot of time with Gentiles (Gal 6:12). The regulators were suggesting others fudge the issue of their faith in an act of self-preservation.

Regulators achieving nothing but confusion, and fudging the real truth of a situation? Regulator’s making life difficult for others in an effort to get the authorities off their back? Now who’d have thought it! 😉

These regulators, the Judaisers, are making it up. Forming man-made rules for a new situation. Granted, they’re from old, divinely-ordained rules, but they’ve not thought about whether these are still appropriate, relevant to the new situation, and, importantly, in line with the revelation of Jesus Christ.

St. Paul however, is on their case, and on the case of the Galatians too, and woe betide those who catch his attention by deviating from the priority of living by the Spirit (Gal 5:16)! 

He knows he’s told them before, but he’s darn well going to tell them again, and given that it’s written down in large, friendly letters (Gal 6:11), to be read, shared, and re-read among the community, they’re not going to be allowed to forget it. ‘It’ being Paul’s autobiography.

Paul was not brought to faith by men. (Or women for that matter if I want to avoid being accused of sexism.) Unlike the Centurion to whom Peter was sent to explain the faith, or the Ethiopian Eunuch whom Philip baptised after a conversation on a chariot, Paul got it direct. He simply, and most spectacularly, encountered the risen Christ. A bit like Peter and Philip, but much more instantaneous and dramatic and without their three years wandering around Judea as Jesus’ disciples.

We know the story, so let’s not spend time on the road to Damascus, because in this account Paul doesn’t either. Neither does he mention the three days he spent blind and starving before he was healed by Ananias and the scales fell from his eyes (Acts 9:17). What he sees as important for the Galatians, and what is important that we consider for ourselves today, is how much he listened to other Christians.

Paul didn’t. He didn’t consult or listen to anyone (Gal 1:16). We’re not told by Luke in Acts, or here in Galatians, of any detailed explanation being given by Ananias of who Jesus Christ was, and what he had done through his death and resurrection for this warrant-wielding, chain-jangling persecutor. There was no baptism prep – Ananias simply baptised him. No Alpha course, no catechises, no ordination training. 😉 Saul has encountered Christ, and that is enough. As Paul, a changed man, he simply preaches in Damascus a bit, gets himself into trouble (Acts 9:19-25), escapes and goes away for three years, during which he falls almost completely off the radar.

The raging fanatic of a Jew that was Saul, complicit in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1), goes away after meeting the risen Christ, listens to and talks with none of the key leaders of the Christian faith, skips off to Arabia, to spend three years doing… doing what exactly? Probably to grapple directly with God over all the different questions he now had about how all the different things he’d grown up learning and knowing as a devout and high-flying Jew were changed by his encounter with Jesus. It’s not like the region around Mount Sinai known as Arabia, hadn’t been used for a similar purpose once or twice before!

And that is his key point in this passage. Jesus Christ was enough. He didn’t need to be persuaded of who Jesus was – he knew all that. We know that this isn’t that long after the resurrection, given his presence at Stephen’s stoning, and Saul’d been persecuting the Christians because he knew exactly who Jesus had said he was, and feared the consequences! Now, he knew first-hand, that far from being a rabble rousing circus act, Jesus really was the Son of God (Gal 1:15-16), there was nothing to question. Neither did he need to have his preaching skills judged by the leaders of the church at this stage; his theological studies and his skills of oration were not in question!

No, what we sense here is important, is that he went to spend time with God. The scales had fallen from his eyes, he no longer needed to be confined by the chains of the old covenant in which he was well-versed, but instead he needed to explore for himself the freedom he talks about later in Galatians, the freedom of faith in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5). He had something that he would later write about to the Corinthians, ‘the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2Cor 4:6).

So when Paul is writing to the Galatians saying “don’t listen to the regulators”, he’s saying it because he had no intention of letting the Galatians be hood-winked by the very laws that he himself had broken free of. The Galatians connection with God needed to come direct, without interference. The regulations of circumcision weren’t appropriate or applicable to these Gentile converts to the Christian faith.

The same goes for us to. Jesus Christ is enough. Faith in Christ gives freedom to live life as God would have us do, directly responsible to him – testing the appropriateness of our actions and callings in the light of the Gospel of Christ, yes, but not testing or regulating the Gospel itself, received by faith. If Christ is recognisable in the Gospel we preach, then God, not man, is praised. The glory goes to God (Gal 1:24). If we put regulations round that Gospel, try and contain it within a set of tick-box criteria that say it’s only authentic if we live it out a certain way, worship in a certain fashion, say certain prayers, wear or otherwise a certain set of clothes, then we’re regulating the Gospel we’ve received.

Yes, we’ve all received a Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus that is not of human origin. It’s a gospel that we have to grapple with daily, whether we encounter it as something shockingly fresh on our road through life, meet it in the healing hands of another believer, or the preaching and witness of a sick man as was the case for the Galatians (Gal 4:12-14). How we receive the Gospel, and the encounters we have with the Holy Spirit as we continually respond to it, is likely to impact heavily on our calling, our Gospel life.

Paul encountered God’s grace in a very direct way, so that’s how he delivers the message of that grace – his letter’s are hardly examples of tact and diplomacy! 🙂 It might not come over very gently, but what Paul desired was that the focus of the Galatians be brought back to Christ, that they be healed of the distractions that the Judaisers are causing. As far as we’re aware, Paul didn’t notify the Jewish authorities that he’d had a change of faith, though I’m sure in due course it became rather noticeable! He didn’t go and check out what he should say and do with other Christian leaders so that they could guide and regulate him. When he returned from Arabia to share the Gospel of Christ, he did so through preaching and debate that was appropriate to Gentile communities spiritually hungry to find truth among the plethora of known and unknown god’s in the Greek and Roman world.

As I’ve been studying recently how and why we celebrate Holy Communion, I’ve revisited the story of Sara Miles, the foody and atheist journalist, who wandered into a particular church one day on a whim and ‘ate Jesus’ as she terms it, in bread and wine. Her encounter with Jesus was that direct, involved no initial explanation of the Gospel, no permission to share in the Eucharistic meal, no baptism. Her call about which she writes in ‘Take This Bread’, turns out to revolve round feeding people who are desperately hungry physically and spiritually; feeding them with sacks of basic food-stuffs off the altar table, and breaking bread in a radically inclusive and sacramental community, all so that others can encounter Jesus without little things like man-made regulations getting in the way.

It’s a tough call deciding to what extent we need to live with and by the regulations we encounter. Few would deny the need for child-protection legislation and the regulations that attend it, but what about in other aspects of our lives? At a corporate level, there are plenty of regulations in the Anglican Church, but is there a sense in which some of them can hinder us from proclaiming the Gospel in some places or at some times? Or are people praising God because of what they see St. Peter’s Church doing in extending the Kingdom of God? We have a Diocesan Bishop who is calling us to be pioneering in the way we connect with our communities, who is encouraging parishes to think “outside the box” as they join in with what God wants to do. Is the gaze of this church firmly fixed on Jesus Christ, or is there perhaps a box which says ‘St. Peter’s only does things this way’ that needs chucking in the skip, so that there’s no danger of fudging and confusing the opportunities that are presented by the Holy Spirit!?

As we consider the Gospel we have received – our own encounters with Jesus, which we will renew this evening in bread and wine and prayer – how is that going to be shared? Will we allow it to be regulated by the way we, or others, think it ‘should’ be done, or will we respond with the freedom of knowing the Holy Spirit will guide us? How much will we keep our Gospel linked to the encounters with Christ that we’ve had as individuals, and how to bridge the gap between that Gospel and the needs of the spiritually hungry? Are we really living like Jesus Christ is enough?

 

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Time, Miles and Community Pulse – anticipating Self-Supporting Ministry

Much time and many miles will soon be spent passing this spot on the A30.
Much time and many miles will soon be spent passing this spot on the A30.

There are eleven miles between home, and the boundary of the parish in which I will serve as a self-supporting curate. The expense of this travel will, I am led to believe, be met by my Diocese. Once at the parish boundary, my expenses will be met by the parish. In terms of time, it’s a minimum of 20 minutes drive between home and church, but that’s with almost no traffic on a Sunday morning. On a weekday to make Morning Prayer at 9am I anticipate needing to leave home about 8.15am. If there’s an accident on the M3 and the traffic’s all backed up on the A30 between here and Basingstoke, it could take me hours!

I think family life can cope though main meals may need even more flexibility than at present, and I will not be be nipping home between parish duties to pop the washing on, and moves are afoot to provide me with a ‘bolt-hole’ in the parish between ‘duties’, because losing too much useful time to travel was one of my greatest concerns about accepting this curacy as a self-supporting minster, and there is no parish office. I’m led to believe there’ll also be a mobile phone that will make me contactable whilst ‘on the hoof’, but which I can importantly also switch off on my day off etc.

There’s also an issue I think, about how as a minister who doesn’t live in the community she seeks to serve, I will be able to get to know it, to understand what makes it tick, and pick up on the little nuances of life that alert you to signs of trouble, both practical and spiritual. Hospitality is important to me, and it’ll be well nigh impossible in it’s traditional sense, and my ‘bolt-hole’ should I believe stay sacrosanct. I guess there’s the church kitchen, but no comfy chair to offer. Not living in the parish may have certain advantages: I shouldn’t get parishioners randomly knocking on my door (and as I was told today by a wise clergy friend, that’s not what a curate’s there for), but in some ways that’s also a disadvantage; will I miss hearing the pulse of the community and parish? I intend to use what few local shops there are, especially the butcher and bakehouse, but will that be enough?

So, whilst I think we’re putting in place sensible mechanisms to enable ministering outside of the parish I live in, I’m worried that there may be problems engaging with the community. What have I missed? Are there other issues of this nature that I can pray and plan round?

If you have any thoughts, I’d appreciate the wisdom of others who engage in self-supporting (non-stipendary) ministry at a reasonable distance from the community they serve, or have seen SSM at work in their own community.

Spending my 100% for Jesus

Slowly the gate is beginning to open, and I can see the view.
Slowly the gate is beginning to open, and I can see the view.

Earlier today I posted about my worries that perhaps I was putting my family before my calling.

Thank you everyone for helping me to work through something that’s been bothering me for some while. A good slap with a sensible stick, or several wet fish, never did a girl any harm at all.

To start with talking through your responses with Graham, we think we’ve worked out where this hang up stems from. We both spent a particularly formative period in our lives being told again and again that Jesus demands our 100% and nothing less will do. Whilst that is true, I think that now we’d all say that only part of that 100% is in the sphere of church life and ministry/leadership, and that witnessing to giving some of that 100% being in the sphere of family, creative, sporting or other aspects of our lives is important too. We’re also back in the issues I’ve encountered before with obedience – too much obedience, too little independent thinking, not the other way around.

I was pretty sure my concern was badly misplaced, but it’s actually talking/blogging about it that has shone the light into some of the cracks in the formational process; both my long term formation as a Christian mentioned above, but also the process of selection and ordination training that I’ve been engaged in more recently. I say that because though by the end we’ll have had discussions about all sorts of difficult theology and situations that we’ll face (I’m on a module described as ‘Interdisciplinary Approaches to Suffering’ at the moment), we’ve as yet (with six months to go in my case) not really grappled with some of these issues that, as I see it, relate to how our calling is going to work out as individuals. Part of this is I admit part of the work of a spiritual director, who in my case will I’m quite sure have read this when I see him next week, but there are wider more universal issues too. From what you say about how we understand the commitment we offer in various forms of ministry, the differences between SSM and stipend ministry, and separately priesthood exercised at what is horribly phrased as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ forms. Perhaps I’m hitting this too early and it comes in IME, or perhaps it should have been thought through more clearly during selection when I took ‘best advice’, but I suspect more likely it’s down to what we each work out for ourselves as we grow and develop as ministers, and as our circumstances and freedoms to exercise our priestly ministry changes over time.

There is also an element I hope, of me crawling out from under a stone here. Knowing where I will be serving my curacy has sparked some hope after what has been a very low few months going round in circles in some theology books. I’m asking questions of myself, and you, again. There’s another post already lined up for next week which I guess starts to look at some of those boundary issues that Pam and others have pointed out, as I start to look forward once again to the joy of vocational ministry (stipend and otherwise) that Glorious Things and others have reminded me of.

 

Putting the son before serving the Son

From the 'Forest Stations' by William Fairbank, photographed at Lincoln Cathedral April 2007
From the ‘Forest Stations’ by William Fairbank, photographed at Lincoln Cathedral April 2007

When explaining to people some of the circumstances surrounding my forthcoming curacy, I have been beset by a sense of guilt, a fear that people will question my commitment to my calling, every time I explain why it’s panning out as it is:

  • I will be serving as a Self Supporting Minister (SSM, same as non-stipendury, it means I won’t get paid, just receive my expenses). I’m a freebie basically!
  • This means I don’t have to work full time, and have provisionally agreed to be in the parish 2.5 days a week, plus Sunday’s, to give time for the requirements of training and further study. There are logistical consequences to this for family and parish, which will be the subject of my next post, and there will be a nominated day-off, I just don’t know what it will be yet. That’s an issue to be discussed and resolved elsewhen.
  • I will be doing what is known as ‘primary’ Initial Ministerial Education (IME) such that at some point during my curacy I can test whether my calling really is permanently as an ‘assistant priest’ (which normally means you remain SSM) or whether I am in fact called to some form of ‘incumbency’, i.e. will I always help another priest run a parish, or might I one day be a ‘proper’ vicar?
  • Over and above my uncertainty as to which of these contexts my calling ultimately lies in, part of the reason for being comfortable with my selection as an ‘assistant priest’ candidate for ordination was so that we didn’t disrupt our son’s education at a critical point; being a candidate for  stipend ministry from the start would have made us deployable, and we would have had to move house as well as church. We weren’t prepared to allow that to happen when our son is in the middle of his A-levels! Had he been younger or older, the situation would have been different, but parenting has for us always been partly about giving kids stability at critical stages in their lives, and this is one of them.

And there’s the nub of the guilt trip. There are some Christian’s in churches I’ve attended over the years who I think would question my commitment to my calling to the priesthood because as a family we aren’t prepared to move our son in the middle of this critical period of his life. I’m currently preparing to lead some worship based on Philippians 2:1-13, and whilst I would say I am considering the interests of others (the lad’s education and therefore his future), I’m not sure I’m quite living up to the Christ-like attitude of taking a servant nature to the point of sacrifice.

Whilst NO-ONE HAS criticised our decision to restrict my willingness or ability to serve God at his bidding wherever we’re called, this still leaves me with this nagging sense that people are firstly surprised, and secondly don’t always quite approve.

Looking deep within myself, I don’t think God has a problem with us putting family first in this way at this time (he gifted me a loving family before he called me to ordination); if he did I think I’d have found that this journey had stopped long before now.

So I wonder if it’s actually me that has the problem? Is there a sense in which I fear that by putting limits on what God can do in my life, I’ve closed off a little bit of me/us as a no-go area to him for the moment (in a way I didn’t in earlier parts of my ministerial journey), and that this might have impacted on my connection with him? The latter is something I’ve been battling through these formational months, and now on top of it, I wish I could leave the sense of guilt behind. Perhaps it’s invisible scars of the past, I don’t know.

I wonder if others have experienced times when they feel they’ve put necessary limits on what they’ll give over to God, and it’s had spiritual consequences? Or, should I stop worrying and know that God has blessed me with both a family and a calling that help to promote and celebrate the importance of family life?

In the mean-time what I do know is that I feel very positive about the future, and there is a strong feeling of joy welling up within me, as I anticipate being able to engage once again in serving a parish as a minister, and later as a priest.

Announcement: Title Post (Curacy)

The East end of St. Mary's which serves the parish of Old Basing and Lychpit
The East end of St. Mary’s which serves the parish of Old Basing and Lychpit

I am delighted that all being well, I will be serving my title (doing my curacy) at St. Mary’s Church in Old Basing and Lychpit with Fr. Alec Battey as my training incumbent.

The family and I have spent a few Sundays before Christmas, hopefully incognito, with the good folk of St. Mary’s, including on the occasion of their Christmas Tree festival when most of these photographs were taken.

The Chancel, St. Mary's, Old Basing and Lychpit
The Chancel, St. Mary’s, Old Basing and Lychpit

The church and community will no doubt hold many surprises for me, but there are several delights and challenges which I am already looking forward to:

  • the worship is more sacramental than I’ve experienced regularly (excepting my lovely placements over the years first at All Saint’s, Basingstoke and much more recently at Mill End and Heronsgate with West Hyde, Rickmansworth) and my prayer is that this will help me grow into the priest God is calling me to be;
  • there is a strong choral tradition – after 20+ years of helping lead worship in various styles in charismatic evangelical churches, cantoring at Sung Eucharist will be a whole new set of skills to grow into, so I hope their choir director is feeling brave having me dropped into their midst;
  • there is a strong sense of the detail of the liturgical year that I’ve really appreciated at college and look forward to becoming much more familiar with at St. Mary’s;
  • there is a strong creative streak in the community. I’m anticipating that this will be a fertile ground for exploring the relationship that can grow between creative skills and the development and celebration of our faith;
  • there is a churchyard conservation group that has stimulated a huge range of wildlife around the church, as well as Old Basing seeming to be laced with open spaces, footpaths and waterways that mean I’ll have ample opportunity to constantly praise God for the wonders of his creation – and that’s before starting to delve deeply into the amazing history of the place;
  • there are schools and other opportunities to work with the younger generations, plus a huge range of local clubs and societies to engage with, something that I’m enthusiastic to do where possible, despite living nearly half an hour away;
  • and there’s a great Bakehouse, a butcher specialising in local meat, we’ve already tried, alongside other local stores and hostelries we’re yet to try including The Crown already recommended to us by the Churchwardens!
The Bolton Chapel, St. Mary's, Old Basing and Lychpit
The Bolton Chapel, St. Mary’s, Old Basing and Lychpit

It’s now just a little less than 6 months till my curacy commences with my ordination as Deacon, which I’ve been advised will be at 10am on Sunday 29th June at Winchester Cathedral. Whilst not a little worried about what lies between now and then, namely much reading, many essays and an interview with the Bishop, I am also excited to actually know the fertile ground in which, God willing, the next four years of my ministry will take place.

As I continue to with my studies, and prepare for ordination, I appreciate the support and prayers of my friends and loved ones, those I already know, and those I am yet to meet.