Friday, 23 June 2017

At the right time - God's call and our response

4th Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 18.vi.17

(Exodus 19.2-8a; Romans 5.1-8; Matthew 9.35-10.23)

The Gospel reading we’ve just heard is a sermon in itself - on how to live out our Christian discipleship and how to go about sharing what we believe. Perhaps it’s all too much to take in. But there’s one sentence in our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans which should leap out and tell us the point of it all. If the Gospel passage tells us how to live as Christ’s disciples, it’s the passage from Romans that tells us why. And this is it (chapter 5, verse 6):

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

Can we take that in? The Gospel is not about what we must do if we are to be worthy of Jesus. The Gospel is about what God does for us even though we are not worthy. The whole of Paul’s great letter to the Romans deals with the question of how we - frail, sinful, sinning, wayward creatures - are put right in our relationship with God. At the beginning of the passage we’ve read this morning, Paul has reached the point where he has made his case that the Christian is “justified by faith.” In other words, to know God’s love you don’t need to earn it. You can simply believe it that God loves you. I think we have to be careful that we don’t make the “faith” or “believing” bit a condition of the deal. Salvation is not a reward because we have decided to believe… as though it’s a quality that we’ve worked hard to possess for ourselves. Rather, we can believe because we are saved by God’s merciful action. It’s God who has taken the first step, as St. Paul tells us now:

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

We would go on through life without direction, weak and foundering, if it weren’t for the fact that God has put his Son into our human picture. He has taken the initiative. He has found us to be hopeless cases. But he loves us to the extent that Christ gives his life for us on the Cross.

This is the heart of the Gospel. God’s unconditional love for the people of this world; the readiness of Jesus to die for us. For St. Paul it raises the question, “who would you die for?” If I asked you individually, I think the answer I’d get most frequently would be, “for my child / for my children.” I guess Paul didn’t have children. So he’s thinking a bit more remotely: “perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Perhaps… You’d want the sacrifice to be worth it. You might think of the firefighters in the terrible fire last week in London - or police officers, paramedics and nurses who run towards danger in the midst of a terrorist attack. Is it worth it, we ask? But the remarkable thing that St. Paul notices is that Jesus dies for us even though we might think we are not worth it:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (5.8)

Can we take that in? Can we make our response to that love which God shows us? There’s the love to be seen. We only have to let it into our lives, and that’s “believing” / being “justified by faith” / “finding peace with God.” The sad thing is the state of the world we live in, which distracts us from what is truly important.
Ours is a society where we seem badly to have lost sight of what is truly important. Where many people don’t seem even to expect to find meaning. Where selfishness is the first principle on which they act. And we might wonder, how can God love a world like this?

That question perhaps provides a way into today’s long Gospel reading:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (9.36)

If we think life is bad now, how different was it in the time of Jesus? But he has “compassion” for these poor hopeless people, not just misguided but without any sense of direction. And so we can dare to hope that he feels for us also. It will come down to that one verse in which St. Paul sums up the ground of our faith:

…while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

And this is not something merely to be believed. Jesus issues a call to action, and it’s here in today’s Gospel reading. He needs “labourers for the harvest” - people who will join him in bringing hope into this hopeless, heartless world. And his first step is to summon twelve disciples. This is not just an event in history. We’re told the names of these twelve disciples: Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Thomas and Matthew, James and Thaddaeus, Simon and Judas Iscariot. It’s been said that if you were drawing up a shortlist of people to head up the management of a new venture, these disciples would be a pretty useless bunch and the only one who would probably get through the recruitment process would be Judas Iscariot. But Jesus doesn’t work through management procedures. He calls people… real people. The recording of their names shows they are people just like us. Try putting your name alongside theirs, and ask: how can I live out my discipleship? how can I make a difference where I am? In Baptism we use the names by which people will be known. The point is that they are known to God. We are known to God, and he calls us to join in his work.

Jesus needs people - he needs us. And then he tells us how to go about doing his work:

7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9 Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff…

Doing God’s work will take faith and courage on our part. And it will take self-denial and restraint. It’s not for people who want material rewards. If we’re serious about wanting our world to be a better place, perhaps first we have to recognise that we can’t necessarily have everything we want. No payment by results for the first disciples, no unnecessary baggage, and they needn’t worry about having a full wardrobe. What does that say to us in a world of energy crises and global warming, where we see the need to cut down on carbon emissions so long as we can still have that cheap flight for our holidays, fuel for our cars and the central heating on full? What are the possessions we really need as opposed to those we simply accumulate? I realise that one of the most worry-free times in my life was the gap year I spent living in Jerusalem with only the luggage I could carry onto the plane - and now I live in a big house and wonder where to store things!

There’s a final point in today’s Gospel. God’s love is given freely. It’s there in the compassion of Jesus and in the giving of his life on the Cross. You can reach out and take it. But it also will require courage, endurance and the readiness for self-sacrifice. “The one who endures to the end will be saved.” ((10.22). But along the way there will be fallings-out, betrayals, persecution. That is the world we live in - in all its harshness. But even so - in that world - we can hear Christ’s call. Today’s Bible passages made me think of Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest who took the place of another man who had been sentenced to die in a Nazi concentration camp. St Paul writes: “rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Maximilian Kolbe was there when ten men were condemned to death because one other prisoner from their camp had disappeared. One of the men cried out about his fears for his wife and children, and Kolbe took his place in a bunker where they were denied food and drink for over two weeks until he was killed by an injection of carbolic acid. He didn’t need to give his life. It was not his life that had been required, but he gave it.


And in this act of giving we can see a reflection of Christ’s love, which we can never earn but only receive - that love which then we seek to live.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Wednesday's Concert - tickets on the door!


The immensity of God - speech and silence

Trinity Sunday – Eucharist – 11.vi.2017

(Isaiah 40.12-17; 2 Corinthians 13.11-13; Matthew 28.16-20)

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, 
What are mortals, that you should be mindful of them?
mere human beings, that you should seek them out?

These are words from today’s Psalm - Psalm 8. Words about the majesty of God, the enormity of his Creation. But I’m afraid that even as I read them I couldn’t get out of my mind a song that has been taken up by the Messy Church movement:

My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do.
My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do.

The mountains are his, the rivers are his,
the stars are his handiwork, too.
My God is so great, so strong and so mighty,
there's nothing my God cannot do!

I think it’s what is known as an ear-worm, something you hear and then can’t stop hearing. That’s the point: the greatness of God and “nothing my God cannot do.”

But the Psalmist sees a problem with that. If the heavens and all that goes with them are so great - and now we know that the universe is far greater in its extent than anyone could have known at that time - then why should God be bothered about us, such a small part of Creation and so petty in all our concerns? We are mortal creatures, why should he be mindful of us? Mere human beings, so why should he seek us out?

Isaiah sees that to be an issue as well:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?...

Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales…
All the nations are as nothing before him;
they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

But that’s the remarkable thing. God is so great. We might be such a minuscule part of the sum of things that we don’t count for anything. But the whole point of what Isaiah writes is that in fact we do. The mystery of God is that he is so great, yet still he puts us at the centre of his concern. The nature of God might be beyond our understanding, but it’s our limited, mortal humanity which is of the utmost concern for God. As perfect as he is in himself, needing nothing outside himself to sustain himself - nevertheless he reaches out to us, poor human beings. That’s because of who he is, his very nature - and at its simplest that is to say that “God is love…”

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with all of you.

These are the words with which St. Paul concludes his Second Letter to the Christians at Corinth. They’re the words with which we so commonly end our prayers: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, evermore.” The love of God is at the centre of our faith and our prayer. But it doesn’t end there. It’s made known only through the grace of Jesus Christ - the way in which and the person in whom God reaches out to the world. It’s made real by his continuing presence with us by his Holy Spirit.

How can you know God? How can you express the reality of God? Rather unexpectedly, I recently found myself having that discussion at a wedding reception - with a philosopher. He was researching in metaphysics and epistemology and before long we were into talking about Wittgenstein. The one thing I can remember from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings is his proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Or - if you can’t put it into words then you should keep quiet. For many people, this has been taken to exclude any religious frame of reference or talk about God. And Wittgenstein’s first proposition is, “The world is everything that is the case.” But he himself came to be a critic of his own writings. And all along he had been saying simply that talk about God was not something for the realm of philosophy. It didn’t mean it could be excluded as a matter of ultimate concern. He’d said as well that philosophy could not explore ethics - but it didn’t mean that we can live without them, and his own life showed the importance of ethical action from the courage he had shown as a soldier to his giving up his professorship during the Second World War to work as a hospital porter and then a lab assistant at the RVI.

About those things of which we cannot speak we should keep silent… That might be the philosopher’s point. And I think Christians need to value silence more. When we come to meet God we need to do so in stillness, able to recognise the mystery of God. God is not a “thing” to be talked about. God is before all things, greater than all things: God is Being itself, and only in him do we have any being ourselves. So much talk about God is inadequate. Talk about God when it gets wrapped up with churchiness or personal agendas can be just superficial or glib.

But we do need to move from silence into speaking of God, because God speaks to us. In himself God is imponderable, beyond understanding, but he reveals himself to us - and a record of how he does that is found in the Bible. It uses human words, so they are always going to be inadequate. But they tell us something of God by showing how he has called a people to be his own and revealed his love for us in Jesus - and that he doesn’t leave it there two thousand years ago but continues to be our guide and strength through the presence of his Holy Spirit. That’s what’s there in the final words of Jesus recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…

Jesus himself speaks of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s the way his disciples have known God. One God with one will and one purpose. He could exist simply for himself, but such is his love that he reaches out and beyond for love of the world he has made. You can discuss how God can be one God and at the same time three Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and people have. Theology, talk about God is a vital thing. But remember always that talk can get you only so far - we need to be prepared to admit what we can’t put into words, ready to encounter the mystery of God in silence.

To know God is to affirm that God is love. St. John sums up what it is to be a Christian in one sentence: “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.”

Can we live knowing the truth of that statement? A simple faith is going to be demanding - and that’s true as we try to make sense of the world… as we try to make sense of God. What we need to do is to try and make sense of both together. We make sense of them when we know that God is love - and reveals that love in so many ways. We make sense of our faith when we respond in love to the God who first reaches out to us, and when we put love into action for the people around us.

David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham, used to sum up Christian belief by saying, “God is as he is in Jesus, and so there is hope.” When God seems unknowable and distant, it’s Jesus who reveals who God is. And in our on-going relationship with God it’s Jesus who is the point of reference - it’s because of Jesus that we understand the work of the Holy Spirit. So, be open to encounter with God. God can’t be limited by human definition - the Spirit blows where he wills - but we can judge that encounter by reference to Jesus, and then we will begin to know something of God.

The danger on Trinity Sunday is that we get bogged down in all the talk about how God can be Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three Persons, yet one God,… and the end result is to leave us with a doctrine rather than a God who is alive and active. None of us can ever fully understand God, still less explain how he works. But we see him at work. What we do reveals God to others.  We may have far to go in working out the implications of that faith, but the promise is that God will travel with us. Do we want God as our companion on life’s journey? If we ask ourselves this question perhaps it will help us understand more about our relationship with God - and our calling.



Thursday, 1 June 2017

God’s Spirit of Peace - and a troubled world

There’s so much I could try to write about this month. In terms of the Church’s Calendar we celebrate the great Feasts of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday - not that it’s easy to get either of them right. Early in the month there’s a General Election - you might well feel you’ve already heard enough about that! And as we go to press we’re all too aware of the atrocity of the suicide bomber’s attack which took so many lives and maimed others at the concert in the Manchester Arena. Words fail us when we try to give expression to our feelings, with children as young as eight amongst the victims and others bereaved of the parents who were waiting to collect them from the concert.

It’s not surprising, given the shock felt at the Manchester bombing, that less attention has been given in the media to an Islamist attack on a bus in Egypt carrying Coptic Christian pilgrims - in the same week with at least 28 killed by gunfire. The Coptic community also suffered grievously just before Easter with bombs detonated on Palm Sunday at their Cathedral in Alexandria and at another church north of Cairo. Over 70 people died that day. It’s a reminder that many Christians pay a real cost in seeking to celebrate their faith. The atrocities we suffer in our own country bring home to us the state of fear in which so many millions live every day around the world.

What is impressive is how so many hold to their faith despite the discrimination, intimidation and outright attacks which they endure because of it. The association of Islamist extremism and violence causes many westerners to doubt the value of any religion. The example of persecuted Christians tells us something else - that their faith is in God and God is love. That’s what we seek to celebrate at Pentecost and in understanding God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s God who has loved us into being, God’s Son who shares our humanity and shows us what it truly is, God’s Spirit who moves among us to lead us into all truth. God is love - and entirely love, so there is no room for hatred. It’s hard to take that in - but that is our calling, and one to be lived in faith.

Martin Jackson