Sunday, January 22, 2012

What Price Unity?

Titus 2.1-11

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a good week for us to be meeting together.  Although we are all Anglicans here - as far as I know - we are Anglicans from various and different traditions.  A little later we will participate in Benediction, during which some of us will believe with all our hearts that we are somehow even more in the presence of Christ than we are at other times.  Others of us will be slightly bemused, and see the ceremony of Benediction only as a metaphorical guide to prayer.  Under this one roof, to my certain knowledge, are gathering tonight people whose Christian faith is best described as Catholic.  Others, have evangelical backgrounds, but might now describe themselves as 'central'.  Others have an interest in Orthodoxy - myself included.  Some like their music positively ancient...I know one choir member at least who considers anything newer than Mozart to be dangerously modern.  Others take real joy in singing the latest anthems of living composers, or even the odd upbeat, rock 'n' roll chorus!

This, for me, is the heart of what it means to be Anglican.  We belong to a church which systematically and deliberately attempts to be a communion in which people of different opinion, styles and preferences can nevertheless gather under one roof...all declaring a common belief in Jesus Christ.  We don't always get that right - and clearly there are huge tensions between us over issues like sexuality and the consecration of women bishops.  (Isn't it interesting that the primary issues which divide us are usually about sex?)

For many years, the Churches Together movement has been a beacon of hope to those who lament the divisions in the church around the world.  But, unfortunately, after 30 or more years, the flame of the Churches Together movement is beginning to wane.  Those who have spent half a lifetime or more desperately praying for the visible Unity of Christ's Church have, in many places, begun to wonder whether God is deaf to their prayers...or perhaps whether God has a different plan altogether in mind.  There remains, of course, a hard core of ecumenicalists who work hard to bring churches together in common worship and action - and I take my hat off to them for their diligence and commitment.  There are some great examples of projects out there in which churches of all hues combine their resources, time, and people for the common task of building the Kingdom.  Perhaps the best local example is the Churches Homeless Action Group, which this year raised nearly £14,000 from the churches of the city at Christmas.  The college at which most of our priests are trained by this Diocese - STETS in Salisbury - is a course which brings Anglicans together with Methodists and URC trainees, to learn from each other's experiences.

But, these wonderful pieces of work remain the exception rather than the rule.  The church remains divided, across the world, because we seem unable to give each other the benefit of the doubt over a wide range of doctrinal and ecclesiological issues.  Should the church be ruled from Rome?  Women bishops?  Gay Bishops? Gay people?  Where does our authority spring from - the Bible, or Tradition, or Reason, or Experience, or a combination of any two or more of those four. Styles of liturgy, the place of Mary, praying to the Saints, whether or not to follow a lectionary, or simply preach on what the Spirit suggests.  Hymns or choruses?  Organs or guitars?  Robes or everyday clothes?  The real meaning of the Eucharist...a simple memorial, or a transubstantiated real presence of Jesus, whose flesh we really eat as spiritual food.

And that's just for starters.  I could go on for a very long time.  And I imagine that for the world outside these doors...those who have not chosen to worship with us tonight, the very real temptation must be to proclaim, with Shakespeare, 'a plague on all your houses!'

Into this maelstrom of confusion comes tonight's reading from Paul's Letter to Titus.  It's a very short letter - only three chapters long, covering just a couple of pages...and it often gets overlooked.  But on this Sunday during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it has the capacity to speak volumes.

In the letter, Paul writes to Titus, whom he has appointed as the Bishop of the Island of Crete.  It is clear from Paul's text that he is very concerned about divisions which have already begun to erupt in the early Cretan church.  Paul describes the 'many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers' who, Paul says, 'must be silenced since they are upsetting whole families'. (Tit.1.10-11).  He goes on to describe them as those who 'profess God, but then deny him by their actions.  They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for any good work' (Ti.1.16)

What is Paul's remedy for this problem...this problem of rebellious factions?  His advice to Titus is essentially two fold:

First, as we heard in our reading, Paul encourages the Cretans to live Godly lives.  Men are to be 'temperate, serious, prudent, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance' (Ti. 2.2).  Paul then goes on, in the context of his time, to give others lists of good behaviour for women, (young and old), young men and even slaves.  Much of those lists might make us wince a little today....although I quite like the idea of young women having to be submissive to their husbands! (Ironic Joke!!).  But the underlying point which Paul makes is clear:  being a Christian means living in a way which becomes 'an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour' (Ti 2.10).  Our lives should be those which look like polished jewels - ornaments - on the crown of faith.  Put another way, as the Apostle James wrote in his letter, "Faith without works is dead" (Ja.2.26)

A Christian will be judged - by God and other people - not by what they say or profess, but by the kind of lives they lead.  Remember Paul's words to Titus...there are those who 'profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions'. (Ti.1.16)

Paul's second point to Titus is the most important of all, in the context of a discussion about Christian Unity. He says this, in chapter 3 of the letter:  "Avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless." (Ti.3.9)  Paul goes on, even more forcefully..."have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned". (Ti 3.11)

Wow.  Those are strong words.  "Have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions.  They are perverted and sinful."

These then should be our watchwords when dealing with any other Christian.  True Christians are judged by the kinds of lives they lead.  Paul encourages his readers to be those who are 'obedient, ready for every good work, speaking evil of no-one, avoiding quarrelling, being gentle and showing courtesy to everyone." (Ti.3.2).

That's why we are here tonight.  Even though some of us might have personal theological qualms about, for example, the ceremony of Benediction, out of gentleness and courtesy, we will kneel in contemplation before the Host when it is displayed, open to what God may show us through the practices of others.  

That is why we are Anglicans:  because out of a desire not to speak evil of anyone, and to avoid quarrelling, we will continue to worship side by side with people with whom we might profoundly disagree, for example, over whether or not a Priest or a Bishop can be a woman.

That is, ultimately, according to Paul, what defines us as Christians.  We are willing to lay aside quarrel and dissent, finding ways to respect and accommodate each other - so that we can focus on the heart of our calling - to be 'ornaments to the doctrine of God our Saviour' (Ti 2.10).

May we discover what it means to put our love for God, and our love for neighbour, above and before any doctrinal dissent.  May we, by our lives, be ornaments for God...those whose attractive, loving, gentle lives of service draw others into a living faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour.

If we could all do that, I believe that the issue of Christian Unity would quite simply take care of itself.


Water into Wine

John 2.1-11

So, there's this old priest, who over the years has become a bit of an alcoholic, right?  It's an occupational hazard, given all the wine we are supposed to finish up after communion!  Well, this old priest had to go on a long journey, and he couldn't face the prospect without a little tipple now and then along the road.  So, as he was driving along, he kept taking little nips from a bottle of gin on the passenger seat.  Unfortunately, after a few hours, his driving started to deteriorate - and he began swerving from side to side down the road, until he was pulled over by a policeman.  The priest wound down his window...

"What's the massher Occifer?"
"Father, I believe you are drunk at the wheel"
"Imposhible" said the priest.  Then the policeman pointed to the bottle on the passenger seat.
"What's in that bottle, Father?" he asked.
"Itsh water, Occifer.  Just water"
"Let me have a look" said the policeman, and the priest reluctantly passed him the bottle.  The policeman sniffed, and exclaimed,
"That's not water, Father, it's alcohol!" at which the Priest crossed himself, looked up to heaven and said,
"Jesush, you've done it again!"

I must ask you to forgive me.  Alcoholism is no joke.  As the members of Alcoholics Anonymous who meet here every Friday night will tell you, its a viscous disease, which has the capacity to take away everything of real value from ones life.  In that context, the story of Jesus turning water into wine - towards the end of a wedding feast - can be a little problematic!  After all, by the time that the wine already provided by the Host had run out, it's a fairly good bet that most of the guests would already have been very nicely oiled.  What on earth was Jesus doing making even more wine?  Was Jesus into drunkenness?  Or was Jesus perhaps pre-figuring the advice of St Paul so beloved by churchgoers who enjoy a visit to the pub at Sunday lunchtime..."thirst after righteousness"!?

This is where we have to be careful.  Frankly, we are on dangerous ground when we attempt to take many (if not most) biblical stories literally.  I have even heard stories of preachers who, convinced that every story must be taken literally, insisting that Jesus must have turned the water into grape-juice...just so that they can continue to hold on to the story as a literal fact.

Instead, as intelligent readers of Scripture, we are invited to go seek to understand the meaning behind the story.  It particularly helps if we remember who wrote this story.  John clearly had a remarkable imagination...just a quick delve into the imagery of Revelation will tell you that.  But even more so, we need to remember John's purpose in writing his Gospel.  More than any of the other three Gospels, John goes to great length to tell us what Jesus' life and death means...what the core message is really all about.  To read the Gospel of John is to enter a world of symbols and rich, deep meaning.

Interestingly, none of the other Gospel writers bothered to record the miracle at Cana.  They were much more interested in healings and exorcisms.  But something in John's imagination resonated with Cana.  He saw, in Cana, a sign that pointed to the very purpose for which Christ had come into the world.  The wedding guests saw water turned into the best wine.  John saw a man who, in this first sign, revealed the very purposes of God.

It's perhaps worth remembering that only John records Jesus as saying, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10.10)  This is what the miracle at Cana is all about.  Water, the basic necessity of life, is changed into wine--the symbol not just of life, but of abundant, joyous, and extravagant life.

Think about it.  Water is good. There is nothing wrong with water.  There is nothing which needed fixing in the water.  Why then should Jesus need to change it into wine?  The message of Cana is that Jesus doesn't only transform the bad into the good (like when he heals the sick or casts out a demon).  The message of Cana is that Jesus has the capacity to make the good even better!  That is one of most persistent themes of John's gospel.  Jesus hasn't only come to give life, but to give life 'abundantly'.

This, then, is the promise for those whose lives are already pretty good.  The transformation at Cana is the promise for those who are already heading in the right direction--those who have a basic trust in God, those who look out for their neighbour, who do what they can, when they can, to be good Samaritans. This is the message for those whose life is already like good, fresh water - nourishing, and life-sustaining.

There's a message here:  "enjoy the water...but taste the wine!" God doesn't call us to only live lives of duty and right as they are.  Yes, we should live by the commandments - but there’s more to following Jesus than simple obedience.  Remember what he said?  “I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”  Not just life, but abundant life...joyous lived in celebration and exuberance.

This doesn’t mean that God promises us each a Rolls Royce.  Neither does it mean that we will never experience pain and suffering.  But, it does mean that the good clean water of our lives can be transformed into the best wine through the love of God.  Then even the worst circumstances that life can offer can have a richness and depth that they never had before.  If we will only drink of the new wine of the Kingdom, Love can transform us, and bring meaning and richness to every human moment.

As we begin to taste the new wine of the Kingdom, we begin to look for God's capacity to transform and elevate even the most apparently awful of circumstances.  Sometimes, for example, I sit with sick and elderly people who despair of the fact that they now need others to do things for them.  Understandably, they mourn the loss of their independence, and resent the fact that they can do nothing on their own.  But then, I ask them,

"Tell me.  You have spent your entire life caring for others...your children, your friends in the church, your neighbours.  How did that feel?"  Invariably, the sick or housebound person will tell me, in so many words, that their service to others made them feel needed, wanted, and that they had a role in life.

"So," I tell them, in so many words, "isn't it time that you gave the gift of your incapacity to others?  Isn't it time that you let others feel needed and wanted - by caring for you?"

That's just a tiny example - but I think its a real example of how, if we will let it, Love has a way of pouring new wine even into difficult and tragic situations. Love has a way of helping us find new meaning, richer meaning, better, deeper taste.  The trick is to taste the wine.

Sometimes, we get fixed on a particular idea in life, don't we?  We make up our minds that we want a certain thing...a certain job perhaps, or a certain possession.  And when we don't get that job, or possess that thing, we can become listless, dry, even depressed - believing that our life will only be complete when we have achieved our goal.  But a Christian's joy is not found in achieving anything.  A Christian's joy is not found in the winning of a job, or the possession of any one thing.  A Christian finds their joy by learning that God is at work in every circumstance of life...changing water into wine.  Christians find their joy by declaring that 'Our God Reigns' whatever befalls us.  Christians find their joy in the exuberant celebration of each moment of life - trusting that God is present now, that Love is at work now.

What do people see when they look at our lives here at St Mark's?  Do they see that we have access to living water?  I hope so...and I pray that those who are thirsty will be drawn to the water of life by observing us.  But there are many who simply don’t feel thirsty.  I watch them walk past our doors every day.  They are living decent, even happy lives.  They are perfectly content.  So, what about the extra dimension?  Do our lives look like those of the servants of a God who turns water into the best wine?  Is the way we practice our faith something that turns water into wine or does it look more like turning wine into water?

I wonder...what would our lives look like...what would our church look like, if we let Jesus turn our water into wine?  Amen.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Called to service

John 1.43-end

A few years ago, someone bought me a copy of  Grumpy Old Christmas, which suited me down to the ground.    One evening, Clare was sitting alone in one room of our house, when Emily and I heard what we thought was crying coming from Clare's room.  We were both rather worried, so we looked around the door, and there was Clare, sitting on her bed, with tears of laughter rolling down her cheeks.  She waved my copy of 'Grumpy Old Christmas' in the air, and said "It's you!  It's you!"

Let me read you a paragraph from the book, by Stuart Prebble, just to see if you agree with Clare. In fact, I won't even read from the's some of the blurb about the book from the dust-cover:

So...'tis the season to be jolly is it?  Well, not in the household of the Grumpy Old Man it isn't.  In the case of the Grumpy Old Man, 'tis the season to have to put up with even deeper layers of vexation than usual!  Everything about Christmas gets up our snitches.  Everything.  From the breakfast telly presenters who tell us it's now just 120 shopping days to go, to the annual festive strike by airport baggage handlers.  From parents videoing their precocious brats at the atrocious school nativity play where your kid is playing the part of the donkey's rear end, to the woman next door who drops in to show your wife the gigantic diamond ring her idiot of a husband has bought her.  From the 150th opportunity to see 'the Wizard of Oz' on the Tele, to the Xmas turkey which tastes like blotting paper soaked in a puddle.  And how on earth are we really supposed to look happy when someone buys us a Tie with a picture of flipping Santa on it?!  Eh?

Now if I'm honest, I suppose I have to admit it.  I know it will surprise all of you, immensely, but yes, I am a bit of a Grumpy.  There's something about life which brings out the cynic in me.  So I know exactly where Nathaniel was coming from, in today's reading, when he responded to Philip's news about the Messiah having been discovered in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.  "Huh", said Nathaniel.  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?".  Nazareth was just a humble little back-water...nowhere important, nowhere posh.  It was full of hard working people, many of whom - probably like Joseph the Carpenter - were working to build the near-by Roman city of Sephoris.  The residents of Nazareth were employed in Sephoris in much the same way as the residents of Portsmouth were historically employed in the dock-yard.

I guess that some of us would have pretty much the same reaction if we were told that the Saviour of the World had been discovered in North End.  "North End?!" we might exclaim.  "Can anything good come out of North End".

When Jesus met Nathaniel, he recognised a true and upright man...despite his cynicism about Nazareth.  Nathaniel was clearly someone who was open to new possibilities, however, cynical he appeared.  He was willing to go with Phillip to meet this Jesus of Nazareth...and Jesus saw something in him.  As he approached, Jesus said of him "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit".  Jesus saw great potential in Nathaniel.  Rising into massive poetry, Jesus said that Nathaniel "will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man".  Jesus uses an Old Testament image - the image of 'Jacob's Ladder' to say that Nathaniel will be part of God's great plan to touch earth with the power of heaven.  The picture of ‘angels ascending and descending’ is meant to help us see that God is active and alive in God’s world.

We are those who, by the grace of God, have glimpsed the possibility that there is more to life than the simple hum-drum.  We are those who chose to say 'no' to the encroaching darkness of so much human life.  We are those who declare that we believe God has other plans. There are angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.   That's why we are here, isn't it?  Week by week, day by day, we pray the words that Jesus taught us "thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven", and in doing so we declare our belief that God is reaching out to touch this dying earth with his living love.  We are those who have learned to see the world with God's eyes...not just a place of terror, war, famine and plague...but a place full of possibility for life, health, peace and justice.  We are those who long for the kingdom to be established on earth as it is in heaven.

We are the people who have an answer to the big question...why am I here? Why are we here?  To be the people through whom God brings about the transformation of the world.  It has sometimes been said that Jesus rose into heaven for one reason:  so that no-one could doubt that he calls us to do God's work on earth. Jesus has no other hands than your hands, no other feet than your feet.  If words of comfort to the sick and dying are to be spoken, then they are spoken through you.  If words of hope to the lost and the lonely are to be said, than it is through your lips that God wants to say them. That's why we talk about being the 'Body of Christ' - we, you and I, are God's hands, feet and loving hands to a dying world.

Jesus called Nathaniel to a new way of living - a way of living which turned away from cynical disengagement with the world - "Can anything good come out of Nazareth" - to a new way of living with his eyes wide open to the activity of God.  Jesus calls you, and me, to that same vision.

You see, in answer to the question ‘can anything good come out of North End, let me tell you…it jolly well does!  Everyday I see good happening in North End.  Every day I see people like you, deciding to rise above the dull monotony of so much human existence, and refusing to give in to cynicism.  I see people like you giving money to help those who are in need.  I see people like you deciding not to give in to the urge to lay in bed on Sundays, but choosing instead to come and be part of the community which meets under this roof.  I see people like you giving their time to serving in the community cafe, or to visiting the sick, or spending time with the lonely, or singing in the choir (bringing beauty into this otherwise empty space) or cleaning and maintaining this building for the benefit of everyone who uses it.

But perhaps you are already working full-time, and perhaps trying to bring up a family too.  That doesn't mean that you don't have a calling from God.  Bringing up a family is a calling from God.  Working as a productive member of society is a calling from God.  Perhaps you are being called to be the one person in your workplace who holds on to the vision that God wants to touch earth with heaven.  Perhaps you are the one teacher – or child - in the school, or the one worker in the factory, to whom everyone else turns when times are tough, because you offer them loving understanding.  Perhaps all you are able to do is give some of the money you earn so that others have the resources to help the homeless, the beaten, the downtrodden by life.

Last year, our Bishop launched what he calls our 'Ministry for Mission' strategy.  It’s summarised in the cards in your pews today.  Here are three simple propositions from our Bishop:

"FACT:  All baptised Christians have gifts and we all have a calling.  All ministry is collaborative, for lay and ordained."  That's another way of saying that any church which thinks that its Vicar is the only worker is a church on the way to closing!  All of us are called to co-operate with God in bringing heaven to earth.

Second, "THINK:  What are your gifts?  What does God want you to do with them?

Third:  "ACT:  Collaborative ministry starts with you and me.  How will you take part in God's mission?

This is your invitation - the same invitation which Jesus gave to invitation to use God's gifts together to see His kingdom grow!  Yes…even in North End!  Amen.