Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18. Philippians 3.17-4.1. Luke 13.31-35
It hardly seems possible that today marks the first anniversary of my first Sunday service at St Faith’s. I don’t know about you, but for me the time has simply whooshed by.
We have achieved a great deal together in the last year. We've agreed a Mission Development Plan which has set a clear path for our future. We've considerably improved our physical surroundings, both here in church and over at The Pallant Centre. We’ve built strong relationships our partners and users of our halls and facilities, and welcomed new partners in the form of the Redeemed Church of God, and the Solent Male Voice Choir.
More than that, through the efforts of so many people, we have consistently kept St Faith’s open to the public – offering a Sanctuary to all. We've depended our spirituality and our engagement with God through the Following Jesus Course – which is now reaching its climax. We've started a new service – Café Church, which has brought new people into thoughtful engagement with God. Together with partners in other churches, we've put on the amazing Havant Passion Play and formed a Homelessness Trust for the town. We've brought people together for concerts and social events, art classes and dances, “brews and blues”. We've improved our communication with the world ‘out-there’ through the magic of social media and some better signage.
And we've done many more positive, creative things together – which time prevents me from expanding upon.
In the face of such a list of achievements, it is tempting to give ourselves a nice big pat on the back. And, why not? In many ways, we have followed St Paul’s advice to the Philippians, from our second reading of this morning. We have ‘stood firm in the Lord’, and followed the paths of community and communion laid out for us by Jesus. We have kept our minds on heavenly things, and rejected the temptation to live as enemies of Christ – whose god ‘is the belly’ and whose ‘glory is in their shame’. Paul refers to those who glory in their wickedness; like those celebrities and bankers we so often see boasting of their wealth, their toys, their champagne lifestyles.
Paul offers us a clear choice, a right road and a wrong road. We can be citizens of Earth – obsessed by food and all the pleasures that earth has to offer. But that road has only one destination – the lonely, self-absorbed hell of a society in love only with itself.
Or we can choose to be citizens of heaven, from where we expect our Saviour to come. That Saviour tells us that salvation is to be found through a life bound up with his. He calls us to lives poured out in sacrifice, always mindful of others, loving God and our neighbours as ourselves.
Much of what we have done together in the last year speaks of that kind of living. By improving our Church, and especially our community buildings, we demonstrate that kind of living in a very practical way. We show our love for God in the way we present this building – this symbol of his presence in the community. We show our love for our neighbour by providing warm, dry, comfortable spaces in which our neighbours can gather, deepen friendships, and seek counsel.
So, some pride in our achievements so far is justified. But we must never lose sight of whose mission this is.
Let me take you back to the first of this morning’s readings. In it, we heard how God established his covenant with Abram. Hopefully you picked up the story – God did a rather strange thing! He commanded that Abram should divide a number of animals in two – and arrange them on either side of a path. Then, God caused a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch to pass between the pieces…and the covenant was sealed.
What on earth was all that about?!
Scholars tell us that God was using a practice that would have been common in Abram’s day – some 4,000 years ago. The idea was that, in a time before writing, paper and scribes, two people who were making an agreement would perform just such a ceremony to seal it. Animals would be sliced in two – thereby spilling previous blood, the life-force of all living beings. The two parties to the agreement would then walk together between the carcasses, as a way of saying ‘this is what will happen to us, if either of us breaks this agreement’.
Notice, however, that God changes the nature of this agreement. He doesn't walk through the carcasses with Abram. No – he sends a flaming torch and smoking fire-pot through the carcasses. God uses the basic practice of covenant-sealing that Abram would have recognised. But he subtly changes it. This is not an agreement between equals. This is a covenant that God himself is establishing – and Abram has no say in the matter. His task is only to hear and obey.
For what it’s worth, this is same for all God’s covenants. His covenants with Adam, with Noah, with Abram and with Moses – all of them are essentially clear statements of what God will do, and what he requires of his followers in return.
God’s new Covenant – or new testament - is much the same, established by Jesus in his own blood, over the three days he speaks about in this morning’s Gospel. Jesus doesn’t negotiate a deal with his disciples – like a certain Prime Minister has been doing in Brussels this week! This is the act of a sovereign God who declares, “This is what I will do. This is my mission. I will redeem the World, by my blood, not yours. What I ask of you is that you ‘do this in remembrance of me’”. In other words, “all I ask of you is that you remember me, and all that I have taught you. Trust that I am the Lord; I am in control. This is my mission that you are engaged with. “
So, as we look back with some pride over our first year together, we are taught by today’s readings that it is God who leads us. Not the Rector, not the PCC…not even the Churchwardens! Together, we listen for God’s voice, and we follow the Covenant he has established with us. Our task is continued obedience to task of loving God and loving our neighbours. To the best of our ability, we press on with those vital tasks that he has set us, engaging with God’s mission, empowered by God’s spirit and listening to God’s voice. Amen.