Exam subject: LOVE  Pass/Fail? John 15.9-17 and Acts 10.44-end

 

20180506_112148cBack at St. Barnabas this week, with the sun streaming in through the window, and God’s presence very much present, quietly at work among those who need to feel his touch. One or two commented afterwards they wanted to ‘listen again’ so the link is here. For those who prefer to read things back, here’s the text of my sermon:

It’s May now, and there’s a sense in which we may be feeling that we’ve left Easter far behind us. The world has moved on from chocolate eggs and fluffy chicks. Many children and young people have entered the season of revision and exams, or in our case, the delights of dissertation writing, due consideration of future employment and the need for a place to live. We might encourage, suggest and hopefully even have modelled how to do these things well, and we can tell them how they might approach what they’re facing, but each has to understand and apply for themselves the skills and knowledge they’ve been taught by us or others. Whether we are parents, friends, teachers, or even if we feel like by-standers, the only examination we have to pass is whether we are willing to continue to love them, unconditionally, whatever fruit their efforts produce in the way of results, careers and jobs.

Yet, as Christians, the context of that unconditional love is very much still set within the Easter Season, especially as we prepare to remember Jesus’ Ascension to his Father, and the work his disciples were commissioned for through the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. When Jesus was using the allegory of the vine, with himself as the rootstock of God’s love, he very clearly had his own journey to Jerusalem and the Cross in mind. He too had taught his followers by word and example all he could about the love of God for all people, and that was propelling him toward the Cross so that he, not they, took most difficult examination of them all.

That is why there is a real sense of urgency in our Gospel this morning: just like any parent or teacher who finds themselves repeating the same instructions and encouragements time (and time, and time), again. Jesus didn’t have much more time left before that final exam in which to get the message across: “Love one another”; as God has loved you in my existence, for goodness sake go out and “love one another”; to find the real joy that is the fruit of what I am about to do, he says, take down all the barriers that exist between yourselves, your Father God, and each other, and “love one another”. That, is why he calls them friends.

Peter, bless him, is only just putting the message into practice when we reach the point of our Epistle this morning. Peter has been called to the home of Cornelius, by a vision that tore down the barriers that had been created between the so-called ‘clean and the unclean’, Jew and Gentile, one group of humans and another. There he proclaims the revelation of God’s story, God’s love, revealed in Jesus in the preceding weeks; Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and all. Before this reading, Peter’s account of all that has apparently been brief, and notably Cornelius has not even had the chance to respond with words of faith and belief in the forgiveness Jesus offers, before the Holy Spirit steps in again, enabling him to praise God for what he has done in Jesus. That outpouring of the Spirit was as much for Peter’s benefit as for Cornelius and his family, confirming for Peter that these uncircumcised people were regarded by God as fit vessels for his love, his presence and his voice.

Looked at together these two readings emphasise the unconditional love that Peter, and we as his fellow disciples, are called to put into action as a response to God’s love in Jesus, dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit. They also underline that to make that love visible, to enable the joy of that love to infect the whole world, the barriers that exist between those who serve and those who lead, and between one social or faith grouping and another, must come down. Nothing must stand in the way of the waters of baptism being poured out.

We might like to think that the concept of servants and masters is dead and buried in the western world, and yet we have probably heard whispers of the woes of those trafficked into servitude and then illegally hidden, or abandoned to the iniquities of our immigration system. Elections too, however local, also highlight the muddy waters of who serves who in a democracy: we who elect people to serve our local interests have a habit of receiving commands or consequences from higher up the food-chain of politics that are not apparently motivated by the love and equality that might have been the ideals with which politicians were voted into their positions.

We’re probably not so blinkered as to think that there are no barriers between the social and faith groupings of both our country and the world, even within a single faith or between its denominations or sects. Yet, does the love we have for others make us hungry enough to be open to seeing and acting upon a vision of a different world, where at the very least the testimony of God’s love can be seen and heard, so that his Holy Spirit can be given space to work? In the light of today’s readings, we might like to consider whether we might be culturally or theologically prone to excluding others from the love of God, the waters of baptism, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the call to shared ministry in Jesus’ name.

Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Church in London spoke at a conference of Anglican clergy in Oxford Diocese – I wasn’t there but friends were, and YouTube has its uses! Among the important truths he shared about Christians in the Middle East was the fact that they present a reconciling picture. Talking of the fear that Christianity will disappear in some places (but not in his view completely from the region), he said that “in places where Christians do disappear there will be greater disruption and conflict because the Christians are a buffer, and reconcilers, and they present a loving example” of how to live at peace with their neighbours. That is a huge challenge to those of us who live in safer political climates. If we turn what he said into a question, how much do we live as a buffer to disruption and conflict, as reconcilers and at peace with our neighbours?

What lies at the heart of Jesus’ command to abide, dwell, and be rooted in his love, is the desire that we unconditionally love one another. The complete joy of which we are invited to partake, comes from sharing in God’s mission of love. Jesus kept his Father’s commandment to love all the way through his self-sacrifice on the Cross to the Resurrection. If the forgiveness and pruning of our sinful desires that we experience because of his actions means anything to us at all (as we probably considered last week with the first part of this image of the vine), we also have to accept that the Cross and Resurrection are proof of God’s love for all of humanity. Indeed we cannot experience the fullness of our own humanity and God’s authority in our lives, unless we do so in relationship with others, all others, not just people who we might deem as being ‘like us’.

There is in effect an examination that as Christians we all have to pass, and it is an examination of the quality of our love. Each of us has to understand and apply for ourselves the skills and knowledge we’ve been taught by our Father God, and his Son our teacher Jesus, and provide living examples of our willingness to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in applying it in the most difficult, and/or unexpected of circumstances. Words are not enough, for “the sound of our faith has more power if it is heard through works of righteousness” (Maximus the Confessor, quoted by Archbishop Angaelos) and those works must be works of love.

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t get thrown out the party! Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14

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My husband spotted that the words of the memorial plaque he tends to sit by at church echo the words of Phil 4:1-9 and the themes of this sermon.

It could be quite fun to be able to say that I know what it feels like to be thrown out of a party, but sadly I don’t.

At college in the 80s I’d make all the effort, put my make-up on to the sound of Bonnie Tyler, don the leather skirt, and try and join in the parties. But the leathers were olive green not black, the music was rarely ‘Holding Out for a Hero’, and by mid evening I’d be sat in the corner, stone cold sober, being hailed as everyone’s sister, and no-one’s girlfriend. Drugs weren’t even an option – those friends who did them, quite consciously wouldn’t even offer me any and told me so. I’d frequently leave early, or be the one who made sure the drunks got home safe, or else I’d pick up the pieces when they didn’t. Probably because of all this, I never did get thrown out of a party; instead I left uni without an overdraft, with friends that have lasted a lifetime, and with the man of my dreams who was, and is, my hero. But even as a ‘goody two-shoes’, I may yet get thrown out of the party God’s holding, if I’ve not changed my clothes.

Now I’m pretty hopeful that there’s rock music in the Kingdom of Heaven, as well as Allegri’s Miserere, but it’s interesting to consider this morning, based on our scriptures, why we might be in danger of being the biggest party-poopers at God’s mega-gig, and actually be the one’s thrown out because we’re not wearing the right gear.

Let’s get one thing straight, what we wear to God’s party is down to us. The old idea that the King in Jesus’ parable gave the guests he’d had dragged off the street a new suit of wedding clothes, is a myth. Scripture doesn’t tell us that, and whilst it might have seemed a nice idea to St. Augustine that the wealthy of Jesus’ era were that generous, apparently the idea doesn’t hold up against the historic record.

This is a parable, and parables aren’t factual, straightforward or easy to understand. Neither do they have straight-forward linear timelines, which is how come the food doesn’t go off whilst the King is waging war on those favoured few who got his initial invitations, ignored them and murdered the messengers. So it’s OK if we’re the ones dragged off the street as he widens the field of his generosity, we’ve got plenty of time to put on our glad-rags once we’ve realised where we’re going.

The thing is, have we realised? Have we sussed the significance of the party? Have we spotted that Jesus is the bridegroom who won’t meet his bride, the church, until after he’s joined the murdered messengers via the cross? We are after all guests on the bride’s side… so what are we going to wear?

Surely, it’s our “Sunday best”? If the bride’s the church, and we’re the people who make up the church, then putting on the trousers with a bit of give in them so we can kneel, the sensible flat shoes that mean my feet don’t ache after two or three services, and the warm jumper that can be slipped off if the heating is working, all seems like the best get-up.

But that’s hardly party-wear. We’re not meant to be in our “Sunday best” but in our wedding robes, an outfit suitable for Jesus’ wedding. It would be nice to think they’re the ones we don’t wear very often, the back of the wardrobe suits and ties, the dresses we can spend a fortune on just to squeeze into once. But no, it’s not them either.

If we’re not wearing the robes of purity, truth and justice that St. Paul talks about the Philippians community needing for their survival, then whether we like it or not, we’re going to be the party-poopers that get thrown out of God’s banquet, whether we reckon ourselves among the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’ whom he brought in off the street in the first place.

We can only wear purity if we know what it is to be forgiven, and have sought God’s strength to change our ways accordingly. I don’t think purity is a pristine white – that’s simply what’s left when all the colour of our lives has been taken out. What God wants to see is our natural God-given selves revealed in all their glory. So, we have to look what lies beneath our well-worn oft-repeated stories to make us look good, the short-cuts to generosity offered through charity donations, or dare I say it, the lengthy prayers that show we’ve read the news. They may make us feel good about ourselves, but purity means we guard our hearts against the pride that can accompany our ‘good works’, all without showing off through our grumbles about how much hard work it all is.

We can only wear truth, if we search for it and then tell it. Finding the truth is hard enough; but the search for truth is what inspires people to actually go to the problem areas of the world and see what it’s like on the bombed out streets of Aleppo, or in a home where the nearest disease ridden water supply is an hour’s walk away. Unless we’re wearing their shoes to the party, we’re in the wrong footwear. The truth says people need the foodbank because of financial difficulties, and the source of those could be legalistic government penny-pinching, family breakdown, or it could be that some people spend too much on unimportant things. Telling those truths isn’t guaranteed to help us build easy relationships, or changing the facts, so we have to learn to tell the truth with gentleness, patience and self-control, and keep telling it until someone other than God listens, and helps us change things for him.

Which is why we can only wear justice if we know both sides of the story. Justice doesn’t dress in a crisp black and white suit, it’s more of a dirty brown, mixed from myriad colours of ancient history, vested interests, inadequate learning, societal breakdown, and conflict. If we don’t understand, or choose to ignore these, we’ll never wear anything more than a black dustbin liner, tied with white plastic.

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During the next hymn, as we ask God “not to let us go”, there will be the chance to make an act of commitment not to let go to what it is God is calling us to change in our lives.  We can chose to take a shirt of purity, or truth or justice to act as a stimulus to our private prayers this week, as we remind ourselves what it is we’re called to be wearing to God’s eternal banquet.

Some of us might know ourselves to have been the bad people that God invited to his party. Through faith and sheer hard work we have changed our lives and that of others, and so put on the clothes God is delighted to see us in. But complacency is dangerous, clothes can become too tight, uncomfortable, and be taken off.

Others of us will reckon ourselves the good folk that God has drawn from the streets, and it’s tempting to think we don’t need to change. But that means we’re most likely to be the ones thrown out this party of righteousness, because we’ve not bothered to look for the Christ-like clothes of purity, truth and justice.

If we’re going to be excellent and worthy of Jesus’ praise, to party and rejoice in the Lord, then we’re the ones that have to check what we’re wearing.

By whose authority are we living? Matthew 21:23-27

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Pipe-cleaner man reminding us that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. One of the prayer stations at ‘Gratitude’ the first service at which this sermon was preached on Sunday. (‘Man’ and photo by my husband Graham!)

So this week provided the chance to talk about baptism at a baptism… sometimes I just love the lectionary! And I didn’t fall off the plinth the font is on either…

In our Bible reading this morning, it’s Holy Week. It’s a day or so after Jesus’ triumphal if confusing entry into Jerusalem as the Messiah, the Jewish king. He does so on a do nkey, to shouts of ‘Hosanna to the son of David’, or we might say, ‘son of David, save us’. But he’s not there to conquer the rule of the Roman oppressors of the Jewish people, he’s there to show who’s authority he’s acting under.

For this reason, Jesus is spending time in the most holy place in the Jewish faith, the Temple in Jerusalem, and he’s been doing things that remind people just how holy that place was meant to be, a place where God’s presence was at it’s most tangible, if it was allowed to be. So he’d thrown out the people selling things for financial gain because that wasn’t the sort of justice and freedom to receive God’s forgiveness that God wanted, and he’d been healing people, giving them a better life. Now, a group of leaders of the Jewish people who don’t like this behaviour, are trying to get Jesus to say something that puts him in trouble, so they can arrest him, and effectively silence him. It’s all a question of authority: who has the right to change the traditions that the faith leaders have built, or allowed to be built, around their worship of God? Who has the authority to heal people, God or someone else? Who holds authority over our lives?

Let’s think about the idea of authority for a minute? Some of us will remember the game ‘Simon says’ where a leader tells the children to hop, skip, jump, or any other directions and the children will DO what “Simon says”, but otherwise they should NOT do the command.

[Play: “Rev’d Rachel says…” (remember to say some WITHOUT the ‘Rev’d Rachel says’) hop, kneel, clap, jump, turn all the way round, stick your right arm up, hug someone near you.]

Explain to the children that Simon/Rev’d Rachel is the one who has the authority in this game.

Jesus knew that as God’s Son, his authority came from God, but he also knew that was exactly the answer that would get him arrested, because the leaders of the Jews thought they were the only ones who had God’s authority to teach people, to judge people or tell them off, to help people or make things better for them. Jesus also wanted people, including the Jewish leaders, to work out for themselves by what he was doing, where his authority came from… good psychology that, people learn at a deeper, more life-changing level, if they work things out for themselves, rather than simply believing or doing what they are told!

So, Jesus gives the Jewish leaders a riddle, a riddle about another man they have recently had arrested and killed. John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, the other man who we hear about being born as part of the Christmas story, and the person who God had helped to preach and baptise among the Jews in the months leading up the start of Jesus’ ministry, [what was called a prophet]. John was someone whom the Jews, or at least some Jews, had understood to speak God’s truth, and had told of a special person who was coming after him who was the Son of God (Matthew 3:1-3) and would act with the authority of God himself (Matthew 3:11-12 and John 1:19-28).

Jesus asks the Jewish leaders something that could have a straightforward answer; “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Was John the Baptist a prophet sent by God, or was the baptism he offered, just something he made up, and therefore of human origin.

Baptism. We’ve got baptisms today. We know it as something that happens often at a font, where water is sprinkled on someone’s head. In some circumstances it can happen in a giant bath, pool or even a river, which is where John the Baptist did his baptisms, in the River Jordon (Matthew 3:13-17).

When John was baptising people, he was asking them to turn away from their sins, i.e. the things they do that are not what God wants, and do the ones he does want them to do; to accept God’s authority in their lives. The symbolism of water was about being washed clean, made new, renewed to live the life God wanted to give them. [If I put this very muddy ‘person’ in this bowl of water, they will come out as clean and new as the day they were made.]

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was himself baptised by John in this way, not because he had done things that God didn’t want him to do, but to show his humanity and his divinity, to show by whose authority he would work. He was just as human as you and me except he was God’s Son and therefore perfect; he had never done wrong. When John baptised Jesus he had been anointed with the Holy Spirit to do the work of the Messiah, declared to be God’s beloved Son.

Jesus was pushing the Jewish leaders to decide and say out loud that they understood what John had been doing, and that he, Jesus therefore had the right to behave in the Temple as the Messiah, the only one with authority greater than the Jewish leaders to change their traditions, and with those traditions their understanding of God.

The leaders were incredibly worried by what the crowds who’d followed John, some of whom now followed Jesus, would say: denying John was a prophet from God would make them very unpopular; admitting he was would meant the lost their own authority in the eyes of the Jewish people. That question,  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” only turned into a riddle because of people’s fear and selfishness, in other words their unwillingness to believe that God was doing a new thing through Jesus, a new thing for the whole world (John 1:15-18).

Baptism, or if we’ve been baptised as a child Confirmation or the Renewal of Baptismal Vows, is a sign that we know the answer to Jesus’ question: the baptism that John brought as God’s prophet, was from heaven, it was from God. Through being baptised, and having our children baptised, we are saying we understand that Jesus was the Son of God, and that we accept God’s authority in our lives. We’re not playing ‘Simon Says…’ or even ‘Rev’d Rachel says…’ but ‘God says…’ For this very reason, when I stand at the font and baptise it may be ‘Rev’d Rachel’ saying the words, but I do it in the name of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit, the means by which we can all recognise ourselves as children of God.

So when you think about baptism, your own, or someone elses, remember that it’s about giving up your own authority, and if necessary your use and misuse of that authority, and accepting that God is the one whose authority we live under as baptised Christians. Jesus is the supreme example of how we should use that authority, to offer God’s forgiveness so others can live renewed lives, to work for healing where people and relationships are broken, and to seek justice where authority is being abused.

 

Valuing those that come last – Matthew 20:1-17 and Philippians 1:21-end

With the licensing of our new Priest-in-charge things were a bit busy last week and I didn’t quite get to post the sermon. It was a challenge to the parish, that we responded to this week in our Baptism service. (I think I need some more interesting illustrations too… text only I’m afraid.)

What is it that we value most in life?

Is it our health, our wealth, or our family? Perhaps it’s our sight, our hearing, our home or the countryside? The freedom to travel? Our ability to continue a much loved hobby?

What about Jesus? What value do we place on our relationship with him?…

What value has he placed on his relationship with us?…

In today’s Gospel reading, our collective alter ego as disciple, Peter, has got in a grumpy mood. Peter has listened to Jesus encouraging a rich young man to give up everything he owns to follow him, only to watch the same man walk dejectedly away. In doing so, Peter has realised that he and his fellow disciples have done just what was asked of the rich young man, given up everything to follow Jesus. So, he asks Jesus what value has been placed on their obedience, their service, their sacrifice? Effectively he’s asking, what’s in it for them?

The first part of the answer is that in eternity, the disciples will get to sit incredibly close to God’s presence, places of significance. The second part of the answer is that so will everyone else – including those who in human terms are the last to hear, receive and respond to God’s call on their lives. The Gospel this morning is that second part of the answer: the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

When the third group of labourers are brought in from the market place in the last hour of the day, there is no mention of money. For some reason no-one had wanted them. But the importance and urgency of this landlord’s work is such that they are needed, and valued, for what they can offer. Self-esteem is so important to those who feel their skills are un-appreciated, and the anticipated bonus of a small proportion of the day-rate of pay which may just have paid for a meal, would have been an added encouragement to their hour’s hard labour on an empty stomach. To unexpectedly receive the full day-rate for that single hour’s labour, gives them the additional dignity of early payment, and a wage equal to that of those who had sweated through larger parts of the day.

Jesus was teaching the disciples not to be concerned about what human society said about them giving up their material security to place at the centre of their lives someone who operated at odd’s with their traditional faith leaders. Through God’s grace they would receive an appropriate reward, but it would require them to be equally generous in their view of those others who would start to follow Jesus much later in time than they. The value they must place on their relationship with Jesus must be such that it really doesn’t matter who joins their fellowship, or when. What matters is that those others are valued identically by God, because of the economy of his amazing grace. The divine economy of love and grace which doesn’t relate well to our human economies!

Paul is talking about this divine economy in the passage this morning from Philippians. For Paul it is the fruitfulness of his labour, and the fact that it is for Christ, that keeps him from preferring an early journey through death to God’s eternal presence, to his present state, harassed and imprisoned by the Roman authorities. Being valued by Christ so much that he continues to have a role in working for the extension of the Kingdom of Heaven, is in part what keeps Paul alive. Paul, the persecutor of the earliest Christians, now apostle to the Gentiles, was after all he who met Jesus much later than the other disciples; well after the Resurrection of Christ on the road to Damascus! In the economy of God’s grace Paul has already received the remuneration, not for his labour, but unasked for, a revelation of love and forgiveness.

God values each of us so highly that we are all offered the same wage; God’s love and grace paid for in full by Christ through his death and resurrection. His is really the labour, not ours. If in faith and repentance, we in turn value that so highly as to make it of first importance in our lives, then we will respond to that loving relationship with God by reflecting in our lives the values that Jesus set in his Gospel; we will put the last first, and the first last.

As with many things with our faith, it is the putting it into practice that comes hardest, and the point where we are most likely to identify with those who have slaved through the heat of the day, and forget that we ourselves are among those who have come late to work the vineyard. Like me, you may have grown up in the Christian faith, or you may be someone for who has loved Jesus for decades because of your own Damascus road experience. If so, it can be easy to forget that those who are yet to understand themselves in receipt of the grace we’ve encountered, are now God’s priority, and therefore should be ours as well.

It might not feel like it, but we are still serving our one hour’s hard labour in vineyard at the end of the day. We can’t therefore act like those who feel cheated of an extra wage, and demand more. God’s love and grace can’t be more than what he gave on the cross. Instead, we must look at where God’s priorities now lay, and welcome in those being valued by him at this moment. And just as those who come to faith in the last weeks and hours of their life are loved and cherished by God as much as us, so too are those who are younger, those just born, their families and friends, those whom we are asked by God to welcome into the field of fellowship with him.

I’m going to give this as a specific example, because this situation is going to happen next Sunday when we have a baptism service. Those children and their families who come for baptism, may be like those who had stood hungry and unvalued in the market-place of this morning’s parable. Our role, our labour for this hour, is to value them as much as Jesus does, because otherwise they won’t be able to hear his voice calling them to join the workforce, to understand their own value to him, and understand that he has already died and risen for them.

As with all our children and young people whom Jesus told us not to hinder when they turn to him, we need to put these families first. For example, let us make sure that as many of us as possible are here to give them a really warm welcome. Let us give them the best seats in the house, and not hide them behind a pillar as I understand may have happened sometimes before. We can encourage them to give the service their full attention by doing likewise, remembering the significance of being the community of faith that lives and gathers around them. Likewise, let us make sure that we give them our attention first after the service, and not prioritise the new vicar – he could be around for years to come; they may not be if we don’t show them what God’s lived-out grace looks like.

As we go forward to receive the bread and wine at Holy Communion this morning, we can do so remembering what it is like to be the ones brought forward to receive an unexpected payment. In the body and blood of Christ, we receive afresh the un-dreamt-of riches of his Kingdom, and once again know ourselves to be forgiven, loved and valued by God, just as we are. God is utterly and endlessly generous, it is what defines him, and we give thanks for that in our worship of him. So we shouldn’t be too surprised if he is equally generous to the people that come along behind us, and that he expects us to be likewise.

 

What is the culture of this church? Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

20170917_121811I wonder what sort of yogurt you like?

Do you prefer the thin, natural yogurt, that’s dribbly and perhaps a little sharp and acidic in it’s taste?

Or perhaps, the thick, very set Greek or Turkish style yogurt, which almost has a crust to it, that you have to cut through to get to the spoonfuls of jelly-like goodness below?

Or you may be a thick spooning yogurty sort of person, whether that be of the milky kind, or the coconut based, lactose free variety that I discovered recently?

Or is your yogurt of preference, not just thick, but also creamy and full of fruity goodness, giving the tastebuds a treat, as well as possibly the waist-line?!

Now, if you’re not a yogurt eater, or perhaps even you may be a yogurt hater, I beg your indulgence this morning, and ask you to stick with me on this analogy! Think of it as a little bit of culture on a Sunday morning ;-/

Because that’s what I’m asking us to consider: what is the culture of St. Mary’s as a church? Are we a bit thin, sharp and acidic… or growing towards a thick, fruity goodness that will add to the church’s waistline, in the quality of our faith and discipleship as well as in our numbers?

In our Epistle from this morning, we are reaching to the core of the second half of Paul’s message to the Christian community in Rome. He is emphasising that the love that believers must show towards each other should be a response to the love they have received from God, about which he has talked at length in the first half of Romans. For example, “Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8-10). The exhortations of Romans 14:1-12 however, suggest that in this community, love is thin because faults are thick.

The passage addresses a conflict in the body of Christ about ceremonial practices that are peripheral to the gospel. Some — whom Paul calls the “weak” — believe that, according to Jewish tradition, certain foods are to be avoided and certain days are holy. Others — normally called the “strong” by way of contrast — believe that all foods and all days are equally fitting for believers to enjoy.

Paul is not addressing the issue of righteousness by works of the law or suggesting that the weak are somehow seeking a “works-righteousness.” Rather, he sees the choice about practice as of a matter of conscience and an expression of faith (Romans 14:5-6). Paul largely directs his words to the “strong” because the issue with which he is concerned is the absence of love and unity in the body of Christ. While the practices regarding food and days are peripheral to the gospel, the way believers in the community treat one another is central to it. In other words, what people were eating and drinking and why, was totally immaterial; what was, and is, important is the love that people have for God, and whether they show it in the way that they treat each other. That isn’t lived out if people in a community are constantly judging one another… something Paul thinks is so important that he mentions it 5 times, across 4 verses, in this one short passage.

In our Gospel this morning, Jesus’ theme of unlimited forgiveness isn’t so dissimilar: The unforgiving servant is effectively a chief finance officer, with control over the movement of vast wealth. The astronomical “debt” or “loan” he owes may represent the income he is responsible for producing from those lower on the pyramid of patronage. In the old Mediterranean economy, the goal was to pass a steady, acceptable flow of wealth further up the pyramid, while retaining as much as one could get away with for oneself, to be used to grease one’s own way further up the pyramid. When the king forgives this persons enormous “loan,” his obligation to the king is not so much wiped clear, but actually intensified.

The mercy, generosity, and forgiveness that God offers out of love for us his people, could and should be endless, but in reality it only stretches as far as we are willing to show that same mercy, generosity and forgiveness to others, as this power-filled finance manager discovers when he tries to pull rank on those who have in effect, greased his way to the top. His failure to carry on the forgiveness the king granted him not only halts the spread of the financial amnesty or jubilee he was given in its tracks, it also mocks and dishonours the king himself. Through his actions, this unforgiving servant binds himself not to the king’s mercy, but to the old system of wealth extraction and violence. He thus binds the king in turn to deal with him once again within the confines of this system. God’s forgiveness is shown to have necessary limits, and they are the ones we set through our own words and actions.

So where do these scriptures this morning leave us with regard to our own personal response to the grace and forgiveness that God has shown us, and in terms of our corporate life as Christians, and therefore our culture as a church?

In Romans 5:2 Paul writes that, “through [Jesus] we have obtained access to [God’s] grace, in which we stand.” We therefore need to remember that it is on the basis of Jesus’s death and resurrection, that God welcomes all believers as those who were weak and sinful (Romans 5:6-10). From this perspective, if we re-read Romans 14:1-12, none of us are strong. The point is that as believers, we are the weak-made-strong who stand in God’s grace now, and who will be made to stand confidently at the final judgement because of God’s gift of redemption in Christ. Since this is the case, who are we to sit in judgement over one another? Who are we that we dare not to forgive others, as we ourselves have been forgiven? We must aim not to be thick with faults, and therefore thin in love, but thin in faults and fault-finding, and therefore thick with love, for God and for each other.

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We don’t want to be have a weak, watery, acidic church! (Photo snuck by Graham, without my knowledge.. he took the one above, as requested!!)

As a church, and as individuals, it is not our place to judge, either privately or publicly, the choices that others make about what suits and feeds them, or their family, in a spiritual sense. Neither is it healthy to hold on to un-forgiveness, particularly within the Christian community, incredibly tough though that can sometimes be; it’s not healthy for us as individuals, and it is certainly not healthy for us as a church, because it stops God fulfilling the grace and forgiveness that is his character. Some of us may be in a pastoral position to gently and privately ask questions and challenge decisions or actions, but if as a community we openly pick holes in each other, tending to hold grumps and grudges, we create a culture of weak, watery-ness that makes us acidic to people’s taste, probably unattractive to outsiders, and generally thin on love. Not a helpful, rich or healthy culture.

Our desire as a community should be that we are a culture that is thick and creamy, attractively full of fruit, because we exhibit the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) as well as forgiveness and a non-judgemental generosity. If we consciously seek to make ourselves, well-filled in these fruit, we’ll naturally become stronger as a Christian community, richer in flavour to those who we pray will come and taste the love of God among us, and so add to this church’s waistline of faith and discipleship.

 

I’m finding the commentaries on Working Preacher really inspirational at present (for which thanks to them), and will freely admit that a couple of significant chunks of this sermon are from here, and here. The metaphor and the focus of my sermon was however all my own work!

Going the ‘long way round’ – Matthew 16:21-28

Going the long way roundMuch at St. Mary’s Eversley is now focused on preparing ourselves for the arrival of the new Priest-in-Charge of Eversley and Darby Green, and the work that will be done with him in the months and years to come, following Jesus, and proclaiming his love for the world. So yes, sermons have a particular bias in that direction over the last couple of weeks:

If we’re going on a journey, perhaps a walking journey, what do we need to have with us? Boots, wet weather gear, bag, food, water…. But how do we know where we’re going? We need a map, compass, or perhaps satnav or some sort of gps system. We need to know where we’re going, and how we’re going to get there, before we start; then we need to have a plan of the route, know what the obstacles are going to be – is there anything we are going to have to go round? And we also need to know the destination we’re aiming at.

I suspect that almost all of us have had cause recently to look at a map, of one form or another. I’m getting used to having a car with built in sat nav, and it amazes me the route variations that it offers, some of which are wildly different to what seems obvious, to me at least. Sometime taking the sat nav’s suggestions seriously can be a good thing, sometimes er… not so good. Trust me, if you can, whatever your sat nav says, avoid the centre of Exeter when heading to the edge of Dartmoor!

Some of us who have been to the West Country over the summer, have had to take a decision: do we drive past Stonehenge very, very slowly, with the queues of other holiday traffic, or get up at crack of dawn in the hope of avoiding the jams, or seek an alternative route, that is much further and apparently a longer way round, but is less stressful, and may get us to our destination much faster?

If we heard or read the Gospel last week, or remember our scriptures well, we know that a few days before our reading this morning, Simon Peter had effectively worked out the destination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He’d sussed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the ultimate ruler that the Jews had been looking forward to for generations, the one who would liberate them.

So when, very soon after, he hears Jesus talking not of an authoritative assault on Roman rule in Jerusalem, but that Jesus expects their own Jewish leaders to torture and kill him, Simon Peter the ever impulsive, tells Jesus that he’s talking dangerous, defeatist, nonsense.

But of course, Jesus isn’t talking nonsense. Simon Peter and the other disciples may not be able to see it, but Jesus understands the map that his Father God has given him, and he doesn’t get to the destination, to fulfilling the role of Messiah by being on the aggressors’ side of a conflict. He has to take a different route.

The journey that Jesus has to take involves… a sarcastically offered purple cloth, a crown of thorns, a heavy cross – the cross that he won’t just have to carry, but he will be nailed to!

The divinely ordained route to Jesus being fully revealed as the Messiah, involves being on the receiving end of mis-understandings, injustice, and pain; it involves being tortured, and being killed, and only then, at the resurrection, will the destination be reached. Jesus is going the long way round; he has to, he doesn’t have a choice.

If we’re faced with something daunting, scary, something that at least part of us doesn’t really want to do but we know we can’t avoid, we are all prone to getting a little short with people who ‘don’t get it’. Jesus it seems was no different, and in a very real way, what Simon Peter was suggesting was the devil’s way out; if Jesus didn’t go to the cross, there wouldn’t be the light that breaks through darkness, the good that overcomes evil, God’s forgiveness of our sins, the resurrection to eternal life, and two millennia of us being able to witness to our risen Lord.

At the heart of the message in our Gospel this morning is not just what Jesus would have to do as the Son of God on earth, but what we are called to do as a result, and Jesus is quite blunt about what it is. We are also called to carry the cross to follow him… we also have to go the long way round, to get to the place where God is revealed to the whole world in the person of Jesus.

Like Simon Peter, we have a human tendency to want to go the quick way, to bowl into situations where we feel we know the ‘right’ thing that should happen, or even the way we’ve ‘always’ done things. Then we expect people to recognise us as Christians, to listen to the message we share, and to automatically recognise Jesus in us and so come and join in with what we’re doing. But life isn’t like that, and this morning is a very good reminder that we have to work out the divine route to showing God’s love for the world, and to remember that it probably requires a lot more tact, patience, hard work and sacrifice than we feel is either necessary, or ideal.

In the other passage for today, from Romans 9:9-21, St. Paul makes this equally clear. We might get to rejoice in the hope that comes from Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but we are also called to be patient, to persevere. When Paul tells us to ‘bless those who persecute us’ and ‘not to be haughty’ it’s pretty obvious that we will need to be humble and forgiving of people who don’t understand that sometimes we need to go the long way round to achieving God’s aims. As Jesus found with Simon Peter, sometimes it will be other followers of Jesus that may be the ones we feel aren’t understanding the route of humility and sacrifice he has prescribed.

As a church, we’re gearing up to start exploring the next bit of the map, and to discern the route, the divinely ordained route, to making Jesus’ Messiahship better known in our local communities. The map and compass, or the sat nav, that must inspire us, are scripture and lots of prayer, inspired by the Holy Spirit. It will require the building of new relationships, changes to some, and perhaps even the hard work of repentance and forgiveness for the healing of others. The one thing I think I can guarantee, is that it will require going the long way round various obstacles in the way, obstacles that we wish weren’t there. It will take longer than we think, or want it to. Like Simon Peter we are more than likely to get some things right, and then make sweeping assumptions and get things wrong.

We will all be required to make sacrifices of some sort or another, perhaps giving up treasured ways of doing things, or picking up burdens of care and commitment to new projects or particular people. These are the sacrifices due to Jesus, tokens or small offerings in gratitude for his greater love and sacrifice for us. The destination we know; it is the return of Jesus in glory.

Let’s load ourselves up, map, compass, gps… patience, forgiveness, prayer and humility…. cloth, crown, nails, cross and all… and follow Jesus route to glory, the long way round.

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.

 

Doing the right thing – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-end Romans 7:15-25

Printer issues!
Printer issues! (Right on cue as I post the sermon on the blog, the laptop can’t see the printer – and Graham’s at the cricket!!)

Doing the right thing doesn’t involve un-necessary guilt.

I have a constant and irritating problem, and it involves a computer. Well, to be precise my laptop and our printer. Quite regularly the former will not talk to the latter, in fact frequently my laptop can’t even see the printer. Over the months we’ve had the current equipment configuration, Graham has patiently shown me a whole raft of things that may be the source of the trouble, because it’s never quite the same thing twice. But I’ve a poor memory for tech stuff, and you can bet your bottom dollar that when he’s frantic to meet a marking or report deadline, it will be the moment I simply can’t make them talk to each other whatever I try, with a deadline of my own to meet. I feel guilty interrupting him to get him to fix it, he gets grumpy solving the latest glitch, and I feel more guilty still. Then some time later, problem solved and deadlines met, he gets guilty that he got grumpy. We both feel that we can’t seem to do anything right.

It can be the same with the ordering of church life. Those who have been called to and accepted positions of ministry and authority from those around them can, if they are not careful, live with a constant sense of guilt that they are able neither to fulfil the preferences and desires of every person in every pew, nor bring immediately to fruition every sensible and spirit-filled practice that prayer and prophesy lay on their hearts. We get grumpy, and we feel even more guilty. We think there is no good in us, and we can’t seem to do anything right.

Likewise, when we first hear and read this mornings scriptures, it would be very easy to be left with the feeling that we can’t do anything right.

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he’s dwelling on the fact that however much he, or historically the people of Israel, are aware through the Law (the Ten Commandments) that guides how they should live and what the right things to do are, they fail. The Law has in fact been there to show them just how wrong they are, time, and time and time again. From the Old Testament we know that each time Israel has been rescued by God, from starvation, slavery, and exile, it’s not long before they’ve forgotten the faithfulness of God, and they’ve wandered off to place their faith in idols and other gods, only to call on the name of the Lord once again when things turn sour and difficult. We are rightly challenged that we’re pretty good at doing the same thing, and surprised that St. Paul sees himself as being as guilty as any other Jew of his time, or any other man or woman of our time.

In fact, there’s almost a sense of relief for us, in the slightly tortured, guilt ridden words of St. Paul; relief that we’re not the only ones who may spend quiet hours wandering in our heads around the inside of our lives, our motives, our lack of faith, our inability to give enough of ourselves to others, or do the right thing. He may have been externalising his own thought processes to talk to fellow Jews living in Rome, but he couldn’t have highlighted his own failings and humanity better; or ours.

Our Gospel from Matthew this morning also seems to start by suggesting we can’t do anything right. In a conversation that has come out of John the Baptist enquiring from prison as to whether Jesus really was the Messiah, we find Jesus pointing out that their combined ministries have shown the Jews of their time to once again be a fickle generation. Both have been refused a hearing because they are uncomfortable to listen to, and failed to conform to the stereotypes of the current zeitgeist. Nothing changes. People still have a strong tendency of making a song and dance about their own populist agenda, refusing to consider an alternative focus or reason for their endeavours, and forgetting the love and faithfulness of God. We just can’t do anything right.

Or can we? Are we in fact making our things just way too difficult for ourselves, dwelling on our repeated failings, living with a misplaced guilt that suggests that we’re not achieving the right things, and the fact that we have sinned and constantly fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and all he has called us to be?

It is all very well admitting defeat when we can’t fix the computer, being honest about our failure to be always patient or loving towards our family and our neighbours, or knowing we’ve simply run out of our own ability to give because of our own health issues, but if we forget that under the new covenant we don’t encounter God in a list of rules and regulations but in the grace that revealed his love for us through Jesus Christ our Lord, we’re making our burdens heavier than they need be.

Living with a constant sense of guilt is not a cross that we are called to bear. Yes, we recognise that following the example of Christ can lead us through a narrow gate to a hard road (Matthew 7:14), and that we must take up the cross of whatever ministry we are called to fulfil in Jesus name, because not to makes us unworthy to call ourselves Christians (Matthew 10:38). But that road and cross should not include a load of un-necessary guilt.

Jesus, the gentle, prayerful priest in the second part of our Gospel this morning (Matthew 11:25-30), reminds us that we are called to learn from him, to be his disciples, not just in the things that we focus on doing in his name, but through knowing ourselves loved by God through having Jesus present with us on the journey.

The invitation to discipleship is about more than learning or knowledge, computers or even the ordering of church life; it is the adoption of a way of life that is expressed in terms of doing and being something in relation to Jesus. Jesus grounds the invitation in his own relationship with his Father (Matthew 11:27). The proper ordering of our relationship to Father and Son (we know the one through the other) can be deemed “light” and “easy” because an improper relationship to them surely makes for a much harder and more restless life! We ask ourselves what is our relationship with Jesus showing us, and if we forget the ongoing love, grace and forgiveness of the cross and resurrection, we’re missing something vital.

We do not rest in the presence of an absent master, but in Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23). Doing the right thing requires us to remember why it is we gather around the table as the body of Christ, each individual, each called, each receiving the body and blood of Christ not simply in bread and wine, but in the sense of knowing ourselves to be chosen, forgiven and loved as God’s own children. That is what makes our burdens light, and lets us rest. Knowing ourselves, and those around us, as loved and forgiven, all made in God’s image and called as individuals but yet part of this corporate body, can dispel the load of un-necessary guilt. Yes, we are then called to practice that which we know ourselves to have received in Jesus, and that is what makes the road a hard one. Of course we will at times fail to meet his ideals and ours, but Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all, for all people and for all our fallings-short. The right thing to do is to remember that we can always and continually return, lay our failings and our guilt at the foot of his cross, repent, receive and turn with a lighter load, to serve him afresh.

“Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:25)

 

Christ the King – In Him, can we? Colossians 1:11-20 Luke 23:33-43

What I think is a male Duke of Burgandy butterfly... a close view of the photograph suggests  stubby legs at the front! (Noar Hill, near Selborne, late May 2016)
What I think is a male Duke of Burgandy butterfly… a close view of the photograph suggests stubby legs at the front! (Noar Hill, near Selborne, late May 2016)

This morning as part of my placement in the North Hampshire Downs I was in All Saints, Odiham marking the end of the liturgical year with the Feast of Christ the King. My reflections start with the super-moon and a very small butterfly!

Epistle: Colossians 1:11-20  Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

I suspect few of us will have seen the full-extent of the super-moon on Monday, though on Sunday as I returned from a late afternoon service in Greywell I was blessed with a wonderful view of the apparently huge rising of the ‘nearly’ super-moon, in the glowing colour of autumn’s glory. But as there was no-where suitable to pull-off and capture the phenomenon in a photograph, it has to stay purely as a memory.

There was something so fascinating about this phenomenon of the moon being 30-thousand miles closer to the earth than usual, that images of it filled our news bulletins, our papers and our social media. Something we usually feel very far removed from, suddenly appeared closer (due to angles and orbits) and we were drawn into the detail of the moon, especially the craters and their impact ray systems. From a greater distance we normally just accept these by projecting onto them features with which we are more familiar: a man, or a rabbit, depending on our cultural context and physical viewpoint. Instead the different materials of which the moon is made were highlighted, emphasising for those of us that aren’t scientists that the moon is a far more complex thing than perhaps we realised. We understand more of the universe when we are able to see the detail of what we are looking at.

I originally come from the New Forest and have been fortunate to be surrounded by wildlife most of my life, learning to understand the differences in coat colour, markings, size and other physical attributes of some native animals and birds. But it took the discovery and accessibility of digital photography to bring to the fore the detail and significance in an insects eye, antennae, wing-case or legs. Did you know for example that some of the small, rare and beautiful Duke of Burgundy butterflies have only four apparent legs, the vestigial remains of the front two marking out such individuals as males?! It’s important to those studying the viability of butterfly populations to know whether individuals are male or female. We understand more of the world around us when we are able to see the detail of what we are looking at.

On this final feast of the Christian year, known as the feast of Christ the King, we are given the opportunity to understand in more detail the significance of our Servant King by drawing close-up to the cross on which he died.

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion the accepted view of Jesus’ pretentions to the role of a Messiah who brings salvation, inspire mockery and derision with the thrice repeated challenge to save himself. The Jewish leaders, the Roman soldiers and one of the criminals with whom he is being crucified see Jesus as-if only from a distance, and even then, perhaps only as what they want to see: not a man or a rabbit on the moon, or an insect with the usual legs but another defeated and humiliated trouble-maker put out of the way.

Yet the second criminal takes a much closer view. Recognising his own death as justified by the law of that time because of his own wrongdoing, his vision of the innocent next to him is enhanced, and he sees clearly in his character, words and actions, the truth of who Jesus is, and the power of which his crucifixion speaks. For the irony of the mockers demand that Jesus should “save himself” to prove he is “the Messiah, the chosen one”, is that in his crucifixion lies the means by which this King achieves his royal power and offers salvation not to himself, but to all humankind. As in so many other examples from his earthly ministry, it is an outcast from society who is capable of a unique insight into who Jesus is, the Servant King.

The early Christian Hebrew poem that we now read in English prose in Colossians, draws this image of Christ as Servant King still closer, like a telescope on a distant moon or perhaps the macro lens on the minute detail of a passing insect. Here is visible even more detail, highlighting the supremacy and sacrifice of Jesus, giving us a greater understanding of the nature of the God we too are called to serve.

Jesus, it highlights, is the first-born of all creation. In him all things hold together. It is easy to forget when looking in awe at a super-moon or the beauty of a butterfly, that actually they are, because Jesus. Jesus Christ wasn’t simply the person for whom the whole creation was made, it was his idea, his workmanship in the first place, designed for humans to enjoy and care for. He who flung stars into space, created us to rule with justice what he had brought into being (Psalm 8).

But, we’re told, he is also the first-born from the dead. Why? Because the evil and pain that came into that creation through humans wrongdoing, their inability to care appropriately for it and for each other, could only be healed by the very one who created it, the living God. Christ the agent of creation is also the agent of reconciliation, forgiveness and hope, which is why Christ the King, the head of the church, the fullness of God, is a crucified Christ, the Servant King.

As WE look in detail at these close-up images of God made man, refusing to save himself because of you and me, and the world we live in, we should also see something else: Jesus is the blueprint for the genuine humanness which is the gold-standard of what we are called to be as humans. The cross isn’t just about the perfection of love, grace, forgiveness, humility and sacrifice which Jesus made, it is a summons to find and exhibit that love, grace, forgiveness, humility and sacrifice in our own personal humanity.

Unlike the images we have of a super-moon, a butterfly or any other aspect of the world and life around us, whether purely in our memory or on a camera or computer chip, this close-up, detailed image of Christ, the Servant King, can only be retained in our memories, and, importantly, shared with others, IF we willingly admit our own wrong-doings, strive constantly to understand who Jesus is by being up-close to him in all things, and bring that image alive in our own lives.

JESUS withstood the mockery of those who really should have understood and recognised him, and rose with humility above the derision of those whose last laugh was at the expense of an innocent. In him, can we?

JESUS recognised in the words an outcast criminal condemned for crimes he really had committed, a hope and faith in God that deserved a place with him in paradise. In him, can we?

JESUS, first-born of all creation, brought the world into being as a place of beauty, in which the abundance of life was to be enjoyed, celebrated and cared for. In him, can we?

JESUS, first-born of the dead, brought healing and forgiveness to a broken world and to broken people. In him, can we?

In the image of Jesus we show to others in our own lives, can we welcome people into this kingdom of Christ, our King?

Luke 7:36-8:3 Serving and being served #HMQ90

2016-06-12 13.01.14
The Nave and unusual sanctuary of St. Mary’s Church Eversley.

On the occasion of national celebrations for Her Majesty’s 90th Birthday, I found my self covering a service of Holy Communion in a parish a mere five minutes from my home, rather than the usual 25 minute drive to Old Basing. It’s been a while since I was in St. Mary’s Eversley, but as they work through a vacancy this is the first of a couple of services I’m for them. Due to the celebrations of The Queen’s birthday the service also included the treat of listening to the choir sing Zadok the Priest!

 

I wonder how many times in her long reign Her Majesty The Queen has felt like she is dining at a Pharisee’s house? Perhaps we best not answer that question.

Pharisees got such a poor reputation from the Bible that they became an adjective in our dictionary, a synonym for hypocrisy and dissembling. But, at least at first view, Simon the host in our Gospel passage seems on better terms with Jesus than some of his legalistically minded brethren.

Simon is willing to invite Jesus into his home; pity he forgets to make Jesus welcome too.

When you look at footage of Her Majesty’s 265+ foreign visits, I wonder if like me, you are struck both by the number of symbols of welcome which she encounters: in Tuvalu she was borne shoulder high into the sea in a boat carried by warriors; in Northern Ireland she received a model of the infamous Game of Thrones throne; she received a wooden plaque from athletes in Sierra Leone ; a silver box of soil from World War 1 battle grounds whilst at Wellington Barracks; and in a New Forest clearing in 1979, she was presented with a small posy of garden flowers by a 10 year old girl, who had to curtsey whilst wearing a trouser suit!

I wonder if she’s ever had her feet ceremonially washed?

Many of us will know that common courtesy and tradition in first century Israel-Palestine, should have meant that whatever Simon’s view of Jesus’ status, as a guest entering from the dusty street, Jesus should have been made welcome by having his feet washed. As social faux-pas go, it was quite a big omission. Perhaps it’s a sign of Simon’s confusion about Jesus: is he a prophet or a problem; a servant of God or a seditious dissenter?

An intruder enters and with emotional excess, makes up for Simon’s slight.

The Queen knows a little of intruders too: when in 1982 a gentleman entered her Buckingham Palace bedroom, she said afterwards to those who praised her calm reactions: “you seem to forget that I spend most of my time conversing with complete strangers.”

So did Jesus. His Kingdom-building ministry meant he was constantly on the road, meeting strangers, most of whom were as confused as Simon the Pharisee about Jesus’ role in the world. Unlike the woman with the alabaster jar: she knew exactly what Jesus’ role was; he was her King.

We don’t know what the Palace intruder said to his Queen, just as we hear nothing except weeping from the woman pouring her wealth over Jesus feet. But unlike the Palace intruder, she is a disciple, someone who welcomes Jesus and recognises him as the Messiah; it’s just she doesn’t need words to say so.

In scripture we hear Simon’s concern for the impropriety of the situation overwhelm any understanding of his own mistake – he’s much more worried about her past mistakes than his current ones. He cannot see beyond these to the service and powerful symbolic action that she is making towards Jesus. Simon seeks to score points, rather than understand the depth and dynamics of love and forgiveness, faith and servant-hood.

They are hidden from Simon, deep in that alabaster jar, those tears, that hair, and in Jesus’ unflinching understanding of the woman at his feet: who here is serving, who is being served; who here is King, and who given a Royal inheritance?

Anointing with Oil of Chrism is a sign of Royal status. It was the most private bit of the Queen’s coronation, the part that wasn’t televised. During the singing of Zadok the Priest, the symbols of her status were removed, and in a simple white dress, the oil of Chrism “was poured onto her hands, her chest and her head, to show she was being set apart to serve and love her people in all her actions, with all her heart and with all her mind” (‘The Servant Queen and the King she serves’). To Her Majesty this was the most important part of her coronation, the point which most strongly symbolised the sacrificial qualities of the loving service in which she would devote the rest of her life to the peoples of this country and Commonwealth. Through that service she has sought to tell forth the praises of her Lord Jesus Christ, in the words of her Christmas messages and in the way she relates to people. She may have had Prince Philip at her side all these years to support her, but it is her Christian faith that has been at the “inspiration” and “anchor” of her service.

The woman with the alabaster jar was serving and anointing Jesus because she recognised him as her Lord and King. Something had happened that meant she had seen in him the undiluted love of God and so she placed her faith totally in him. But whilst it was her that was anointing him, at the end of this encounter it is Jesus who serves her with an anointing not of oil, but of public words of forgiveness with which to step forth into the freedom of a new life.

In baptism the stories of love, forgiveness and freedom come alive in the symbolism of water, the stories of creation, of Exodus, of new life. It is the point where we are to invited to metaphorically rise from our knees and start our journey through life taking with us the peace of Christ. As part of this, in some Christian traditions, the oil of Chrism is used as part of baptism services, underlining the fact that through baptism we are made Christ’s Royal people, anointed to serve others, as Christ has served us.

In a world where we are encouraged constantly by the media, by politicians, by economists to make judgements about others, the truthfulness or otherwise of their statements, the validity of one person’s rights over another’s, it is easy perhaps to forget that we are called by Jesus simply to serve one another.

If we are baptised, or wish to be baptised, then to fitly live out our baptism we must make sure we do not live like Pharisees. To show that we have received that anointing for service, we are called not to simply invite the stranger in, but to make them welcome. We are called not to judge the style or degree of another’s sin, but to forgive it. We are called not to hide our faith, but to proclaim it in abundance, by word and action. We are called to live lives as Christ’s Royal people, such that we make others feel not hopeless and downtrodden, but like royalty themselves.

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From behind the altar, the sanctuary design makes for a rather unusual view of the congregation, especially since there’s a who extra aisle and the choir right of picture!

As we celebrate Her Majesty The Queen’s birthday and her life-long commitment to Jesus, let us live as a true witness to the faith we share with her, “inspired [as she herself has said] by Jesus’ simple but powerful teaching: love God and love thy neighbour as thyself – in other words, treat others as you would like them to treat you.”

 

St. Mary’s Eversley, it was a joy to worship with you; thank you for the warm welcome. I look forward to an early morning BCP with you in a few weeks time.