I believe… we are the church Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 16:13-20

20170629_150226cAs a nation we’ve just concluded the annual event that is the season of exam results, with the GCSE results being issued last Thursday.  The exams this year have been touted as the hardest for a while, with new curricula in Maths and English. Students preparing for these exams would have had to learn a lot of things by rote to get just the lowest or foundation grades, like tediously doing all the steps in a maths calculation to ensure that even if the final answer is incorrect some marks might be scraped for the “workings”.

But the higher grades would only have been accessible to those who went above and beyond such basics, and learnt to apply these fundamentals to new situations; to be creative, to think outside the box.   It’s all very well learning by rote a bunch of physics equations, but it requires a bit more thinking to use these to calculate the gravitational potential energy of one of my pears, to its kinetic energy as it falls out of the tree!

Such equations have been thought and puzzled over for centuries. Many people look at them, learn them, regurgitate them for the exam and afterwards forget them as being of no understandable use for their future lives.  A few folk take these equations and use them to build satellites to land on asteroids, photograph planets, predict an eclipse and ensure that we can talk to Uncle Bob in New Zealand.

And this is where our readings come in.  In our Gospel this morning, Jesus asked the disciples who other people think he is; and based on what they know through listening to the people that have been gathering around Jesus, and have learnt from scripture in the past, they offer a variety of answers. The local rabbis would have been proud – their scripture classes had born fruit!

But then Jesus asks a more difficult, challenging question, “who do you say that I am?” You can almost hear the shuffled feet, the hesitant scribbling, and then rubbing out, of a pencilled, potential answers; and the despairing cries of ‘we weren’t expecting that question’ and ‘you haven’t taught us that!’

Simon, class swot that he tries to be, offers an answer. It is an answer based partially on what he’s been taught by, and witnessed of, Jesus. It is an answer that shows he is applying what he’s learnt, both from the rabbinic teaching of his community AND his current experiences, to the question. It is an intuitive answer, inspired by the Spirit of God working in and through him: “you are the Messiah, [he says to Jesus], the son of the living God.” Simon has thought for himself, and come up with an answer.

Simon isn’t always right, as we will discover next week. But this time he is, and the fact that he has come up with the answer in the way that he has, is as important as the answer itself. In fact the two are linked: unless there was a living God, Simon could not have been inspired to give the answer he did! Unless he had personally encountered and lived with Jesus, seeing the Messiah’s miracles and teaching for himself, he could not have applied that to the Jewish teaching provided by his upbringing and culture, and given the answer he did.

How we identify Jesus should be based on our personal encounters with God, even though it is informed by our continual reading and re-reading of scripture and by reasoned dialogue with others. Who we say Jesus is, should be grounded in a conversation with God whereby we adjust what we think we know as we experience more and more of him. Our church, our ministers, our Sunday or school teachers and others will have their opinions, but in the end we have to decide for ourselves in conversation with God, what it is in the person of Jesus that inspires us to love him. And then we have to tell him that we do.

God has created, and knows each of us as individuals. He is the potter and we are the clay (Isaiah 64:8). We are the work of his hands, (Jeremiah 1:4-5). He expects us to be able to respond to him in a way that is individual to us, and not simply repeat by rote a stock answer, creed or prayer. We have to step out from those around us, and if necessary look like we want to be the class swot, and say ‘This is what I believe…’ and be prepared for that answer to be temporary, provisional and developed further as we learn more.

Because when we stand up as someone who knows themselves to be loved by God, and declare our faith in Jesus as the living God, the chances are that it’s at that point that the importance of the individual stops, and the importance of community starts. Just as Simon discovered.

Simon. Simon Peter. Peter, the name meaning rock on which the Church was built. We know that, we’ve been taught that. Yet in a play on words hidden in the Hebrew, the word rock is also related to the church – it’s to do with the fact that ‘rock’ and ‘church’ are written in the feminine form. The community of Christians we know as church is also meant to be rock-like, to stand firm for the principles of love, grace, forgiveness and justice that Jesus taught, both spiritually and visibly, in heaven and on earth. It is,… we are… the body of Christ, made up of the many parts and callings outlined in the passage we heard in Romans.

We should be a body that exemplifies the individuality of our grace-filled relationship with Jesus. But we are called to serve, teach, comfort, encourage, give, prophesy, to each other, and to the world, all with single-minded, God-focused, energetic, cheerfulness,… together. Collaboratively and corporately, linked by the joints and tendons of our shared faith and willingness to make sacrifices, Christ-like sacrifices.

The era when we couldn’t tell anyone of our faith in Jesus is long gone. The reason for that was down to the timing of Jesus mission and the politics of the time. It should have stopped at the resurrection, and it certainly stopped at Pentecost. We have a personal and living faith, in a living God, Jesus Christ the Messiah, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit gifts us to be the church, the body of Christ.

So the questions this morning, and in the months to come as you pray, study and work with a new vicar, are tough, challenging ones:

To what extent is St. Mary’s as a church, trying to pass an exam at a foundation level, based on facts you’ve been taught in the past, the standard principles and calculations of how things have always been done?

And, to what extent is St. Mary’s living as a church of grace-filled, individually called and inspired Christians ready to use it’s Spirit-filled intuition, cheerfully and energetically to proclaim our faith in Jesus, to teach and inspire people who’ve not encountered Jesus, to serve the community, to comfort those in pain and grief, and to prophesy hope, forgiveness and resurrection, together as the body of Christ?

I’m going to ask you to do something different now. We are going to say the creed, to proclaim our faith in Jesus, the Messiah, the son of the living God. We are going to do that together as the church, the body of Christ, the sum of many parts. But we are, for the majority of it, going to say “I” and “my” rather than “we” and “our”. So each paragraph will start I, until we get to the line “we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church”. In doing so I hope it will encourage each of us in our own individual encounters with and faith in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and remind us that we are called to be one holy catholic and apostolic church, living out our faith together, in the name of Jesus the living God, and for the sake of the life of the world to come.

Please stand:

I believe, in one God,
The Father, the Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
The only Son of God,
Eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
Begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father;
Through him all things were made.
For me, and for my salvation he came down from heaven,
Was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
And was made man.

For my sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The Lord, the giver of life,
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
Who has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in and are, one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
And the life of the world to come.
Amen.

 

I’m very grateful to my husband Graham (currently raising funds for The Big Issue Foundation by running a slightly surreal online festival called ‘Not Greenbelt 2017’ #notgb2017 on Twitter) for both the exceptional re-writing of the first three paragraphs of my sermon to make them educationally accurate, and for supplying the entertaining image used to illustrate it!

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Being like the Elijah of the Canaanites

My deployment in Eversley continues – lovely to have a settled period of ministry, much as I enjoyed the peripatetic ministry of recent months. Today is 10th Sunday after Trinity and I felt the readings from Matthew 15:21-28 and Romans 11:1-2a and 29-32 present us with a challenge:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:..
(Merchant of Venice Act 4 Sc 1)

Merchant of Venice Act IV
The title page to Merchant of Venice Act IV from an ancient folio of Shakespeare in possession – one of those old books that smell wonderful!

One of the set texts I studied at school was the Merchant of Venice, from which that famous quotation is taken. It was the first thing I thought of when I looked at our Gospel for this morning, because both suggest that to act with mercy offers both a blessing to the person receiving the mercy, AND to the one offering that mercy.

In the reading from Matthew 15, in which our encounter with Jesus might well leave us initially uncomfortable, there is a sense in which Jesus himself is blessed by the act of mercy which he, perhaps grudgingly, gives the Canaanite woman and her daughter. As we consider why that is, we can also think of ways in which the acts of mercy, generosity and goodwill that we offer, can bless us – not as a motivator, but in understanding ourselves as contributors to the ‘now and not yet’ of the Kingdom of God today.

I rather admire the Canaanite woman; she knows much more about her relationship with Jesus than immediately seems to spring to his mind, or our understanding, and she is both succinct in explaining her request, and pithy in her response to his apparent rudeness.

The disciples take Jesus’ silent response to the woman’s initial plea as their cue to try and move her on. Jesus affirm this in his comment; “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24, NRSV). His silence, and his apparently racially motivated dismissal of her, jar painfully with the loving, healing God we usually encounter in such circumstances. Yet there may have been good reason for it.

Jesus knew that his relationship with God was signified through his birth as a Jew, a member of the people of Israel, the covenant people, the nation with whom God had developed a special relationship. It was a relationship that had brought the people of Israel considerable hardship and turmoil, and had brought God continual heartache and pain, as they repeatedly lost their faith in him and the long-term plan that would reveal his love for all nations, through them. Jesus was desperate that in the months before his death, the people of Israel should be his priority, for it was in his death that their role in that revelation would find fulfilment. He was silent perhaps largely because in this moment, he didn’t feel quite ready for the bigger picture, his ultimate gift to the world, to be revealed.

The Canaanite woman is not however willing to accept this reasoning, or the rudeness associated with it. She is more than capable of giving as good as she gets, since she is perfectly well aware of who he is. After all in her initial words she had signalled that she understood him to be both her Lord, as in her social superior as a man and as a rabbi, and as the Son of David, the long awaited Messiah of the Israelites. The fact was that her people’s blood ran through Jesus’ veins! If we think back to the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 we are reminded that it includes three women of Jesus’ ancestry; three Canaanite women; Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. By referring to Jesus as Son of David, she is reminding him of their shared ancestors – he is her Messiah, as well as the Jewish Messiah!

That’s the position of strength from which she comes back at Jesus after he calls her a dog! It is what enables her to return Jesus’ rude remarks without rancour and with considerable wit – wish that we could all do that! The woman’s cultural context differs from Jesus’ and she uses it to her advantage; Canaanites allowed their pets to be fed while the children ate. Israel may, quite rightly, be the children which are Jesus’ first priority, but that does not negate her determined plea for help, for herself, and for her troubled daughter. She is quite happy to seek the scraps of God’s mercy, until the time is right for the abundance of Easter blessing to be poured upon the whole world at Pentecost. In this way the Canaanite woman brings into that moment the future nature of God’s Kingdom.

This is part of something that Paul is seeking to explain more fully in our reading from Romans this morning. As a faithful Jew, and passionate follower of Christ, he is reminding us that even at it’s most unfaithful, God graciously always found a remnant of faith in Israel, even if it was the voice of one lone prophet. And, he is only too aware that God does not give his gifts of love for us out of admiration for our achievements – for we are all capable of following false gods, and becoming distracted from the purposes in which God is directing us, just like the people of Israel!

But the remnant, the faithful few, are always important; their voice is the means by which whole nations can return to the rightful relationship with God that is his gift in Jesus. Elijah pleaded with God by reminding him both the failings of Israel and God’s own responsibilities to save his people Israel. The Canaanite woman reminds Jesus that whilst he struggles to get that same nation to recognise and understand their long-awaited Messiah, the fulfilment of his mission on earth will come only when the whole world recognises him as the merciful God she knows he is called to be. She is, if you like, the Elijah of the Canaanites.

It is this level of understanding and faith that seems to impress Jesus, and in an effortless and understated healing, he instantaneously grants her prayer. “Let it be done for you as you wish.” It is in the woman’s clarity of understanding and will that he sees her faith, and it is that which leads to her daughter’s healing. That is the blessing that she came to take.

But in it, as he that gives, Jesus is also blessed, for in the mercy he gives, he finds the fulfilment of his ministry clearly recognised; in mercy, he is revealed as the Messiah of both Jew and Gentile. The woman’s faith brings with it a glimpse, as of a rising sun through clouds, of the Easter promise that brings about God’s new covenant with the whole world, the revelation that the Kingdom of God is not restricted to some distant future, but is incarnate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

So what of us. What does this story tell us of our role in the Kingdom of God?

I hope we don’t identify too closely with the disciples, assuming we know what Jesus is thinking and his motivation, and sending people away before they’ve had a chance to approach him with their own story, and their own understanding of who he is. Our task is to draw people to him, whatever their nationality, need or narrative so that they can seek his mercy face to face, and be blessed.

The person we need to identify with most closely, is the Canaanite woman, to know ourselves to have a special place in God’s Kingdom, and thereby have a voice in seeking his mercy for ourselves, and for those who are without a voice, like the woman’s daughter. It may be we can do this in something as simple as the persistence of our prayers for those who need to know God’s healing touch. But the chances are we are called to a more personal and practical call on God’s mercy where we are both the one who calls for it, and offers it in Jesus name. We already work through the Foodbank for those who need the mercy of emergency food provision, but there may be more to it than that. What mercies are required to change the root causes of their hunger, be it marital or mental breakdown, unemployment, debt or lifestyle? Equally there are people who feel themselves to be treated like stray dogs because of the circumstances of their lives, perhaps on the streets, or in hostels, or in refugee camps; where is the mercy with which we seek God’s action in their lives?

There are many mercies, and many healings, for which we may need to work, and all of them should point back at who Jesus is. In seeking and providing God’s mercy for others, we enable the future to break in on the present, the now and not yet of the Kingdom to be fulfilled in Jesus life with us. As we receive, for ourselves and for others, it is Jesus who is blessed because he is revealed for who he is, the merciful Messiah of us all.

 

 

It’s Jesus’ job to walk on water – Matthew 14:22-33

Don't try walking on this water! Looking from Hartland Quay to Lundy Island (a recent holiday snap.)
Don’t try walking on this water! Looking from Hartland Quay to Lundy Island (a recent holiday snap.)

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus takes possibly the shortest retreat or holiday on record. If we assume he dismisses the now well-fed five thousand and his chastened disciples sometime before the speedy fall of a mediterranean dusk, and walks out on a turbulent sea to find their boat at dawn, it was approximately 12 hours. Enough time to shake off the clammer of the crowd, to feed his inner introvert, to rest his body and mind, to talk quietly with his Father. After all, the writing was on the wall, he was going to be ministering to massive crowds for the foreseeable future, people demanding he pour out his healing presence and his wisdom, whilst the authorities find an excuse to silence him permanently.

For anyone feeling overwhelmed by people’s expectations of them, the demands of work or family, or anticipating a long period of either or both, cutting yourself off for a few hours, or days, without means of getting back to family, friends or colleagues is not just a good thing, it is a vital necessity. It rejuvenates and energises and sometimes expands our future capabilities, or perhaps more often, makes us more realistic about what those capabilities are. But I’ve talked about that before!

What about the disciples in this story? The disciples have been pushed off in a boat onto choppy seas, to fend for themselves – something they are far more capable of coping with, especially given the number of fishermen on board, than they are the sight of Jesus walking towards them through the dawn light. Their fear and superstitions take over. Dawn light can play tricks on the eyes and they had perhaps been awake for a considerable part of the night maintaining the boats progress or at least stability, in a head-wind. We shouldn’t be surprised at the exclamations of horror at the ghostly apparition walking toward them.

Peter did not have twelve hours of retreat, rest and restorative prayer behind him when he impulsively got out of the boat to see if he could emulate his teacher. As a fisherman and natural leader, in the boat with his colleagues he’d probably been playing to his strengths, using his God-given well-honed skills to keep them all afloat. But many fishermen are not confident swimmers, and the ability to walk on water is not a known attribute of any human, so when the reality of the situation he’s just walked into, or onto, really kicks in, no amount of divine guidance and support from his Master can over-ride an overwhelming sinking feeling. Peter had only got out of the boat having checked that Jesus would be there for him, though he was after-all just a little bit of a show off, the first to try and show he’d understood what Jesus was trying to tell them!

When Jesus accuses Peter of having little faith, there could in fact be a couple of teaching points. Many of us know the most obvious; Peter had only stepped out of the boat with Jesus’ encouragement. He and we need to realise that when we metaphorically do this, we need to keep our focus very firmly fixed on Jesus, if we dare to go it alone when a storm surrounds us. But it may be that he’s only supporting us in this so that we don’t drown, and are therefore both still alive and better equipped in the future to focus on what it is we are actually called to attempt and achieve in our lives.

Sometimes, we have to admit we were wrong to attempt something that was outside our skill set, grasp firmly on Jesus’ forgiving hand, watch our pride sink, and with him, get back in the boat. Jesus will always be there for us in these moments, making sure we aren’t lost to the wind and waves, but as we return to the boat, dripping and repenting our rash actions, the important thing is that we are aware of God’s presence now on board, just as he always intended it should be. Our God-given skills, combined with his presence in the one that has been sent to us, Jesus Christ our Lord, is what makes for a much calmer journey to the place where his ministry must take centre-stage, not our desire to copy him. Faith may involve seeing the boat for what it is; a shared experience with the opportunity to work collaboratively, waiting for the person God has sent to join the team and lead us into calmer waters.

It is Jesus’ job to walk on water, not ours. Jesus is the Son of God, divinely equipped to feed, to heal, to calm troubled waters, to rescue us when we get ourselves into deep water. We aren’t. We, like Peter have been called to be faithful disciples using our God-given skills, and when equipped by the presence of God through the Holy Spirit (as Peter would be with the rest of the disciples at Pentecost) to undertake difficult tasks, take risks and put ourselves in the way of tricky situations, so that the grace, love and forgiveness offered in and through Jesus, can be brought to people’s attention.

Our job as Jesus’ disciples, is to reach out and place our hand firmly in Jesus’ grasp. In doing so, not only will we have the safety and security of his presence with us, both individually and as a fellowship of Christians, but we will then also discover where he needs us to go, which shore we are called to land on, so that both his divinity and his humanity can be proclaimed in his love for all those who aren’t currently in the boat with us.