Monday, April 23, 2012

Rector's Address 2012 - The Peace which Passes All Understanding

This is my address to the three churches of the North End Portsmouth Team Ministry, gathered for a Parish Mass prior to our Annual Parochial Church Meeting on 22nd April 2012.  It is part-sermon....part 'Rector's Annual Address'.

Texts:  Luke 24.36b-48; Philippians 4.4-7

Jesus stood among his Disciples, locked in the Upper Room, and said "Peace be with you".

Which reminds me (!) of the story of the Vicar who had just preached a rather long and boring sermon.  He couldn't understand why people were just filing past him at the door without saying anything about his talk at all.  Finally, one man came forward who could always be relied on to give an opinion.  "Vicar" he said, "Your sermon this morning reminded me of the Peace and the Love of God".  The Vicar was delighted, and asked why that was.  "Well", said the man, "your sermon reminded me of the peace of God because it 'passed all understanding'....and it reminded me of the Love of God because it went on forever!"

At the end of most of our services, the Celebrant uses the words "May the Peace of God, which passes all Understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the love of God....etc".  But what does this mean?  What is the Peace that Passes All Understanding?  Can we understand it at all?

There are various suggestions around - especially if you put the phrase into Google!  If type the question 'what is the peace that passes all understanding' into the interweb, you'll get answers like:
- the feeling you get when all the kids have finally gone to bed
- the blissful moment when your neighbour's party finishes at 2am
- the effect of large amounts of drugs!

The phrase itself comes from Paul's letter to the Philippians, chapter 4.  There, Paul encourages the Christians of Philippi to rely on God, and to rejoice in God. That, he tells them, is the key to the peace of God which passes all understanding. Here's what he says to them:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, with passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil.4.4-7)

Here, then, is the Bible's prescription for discovering the kind of Peace which Jesus prayed for his Disciples.  Like a good sermon, it is a three-stage process:

1)  Rejoice.  Paul rams this idea home.  "Rejoice in the Lord always...again I will say it, rejoice!"  That's a tough idea to get our heads around, isn't it?  How do you rejoice in the Lord when there is so much wrong with the world?  Or when sickness has struck down one of our friends?  Or when lead has been stolen from the church roof again!

But this one of the great ironies of the Christian faith.  Faith gives us a way of seeing the world differently.  Faith helps us to expect God to be present in the most dire of circumstances.  When Jesus hung on the cross, in the most desperate moment of his life, when even God seemed to have forsaken him, Jesus managed to find ways of reaching out with love.  He forgave the thief on the cross, and promised paradise to him.  He showed concern for his mother, and prayed for all his persecutors.  'Rejoicing in the Lord always' is about seeing the world as pregnant with possibilities for God's activity...however terrible things may get.

So that's the first way to find peace...learn to rejoice in the Lord always.  Even in the most dire of circumstances, look for, and expect, God to be at work.  We are called to be alert to God's activity, and God's presence.  Rejoice in the Lord, always!

2)  The second stage of finding this peace beyond all understanding is a simple phrase...."Let your gentleness be known to everyone." (Phil.4.5).  In a short while, we are going to commission a new team of Pastoral Visitors. These are people who have been trained, by Fr Tony and Reader Jeff, to represent the church to the wider community - especially to those who are sick and housebound, those who can't be part of the large gathering of the body of Christ.  These folks are willing to 'let their gentleness be known to everyone'...they are willing to be public about their faith, public about the call of God on their lives.  To use the phrase of Jesus from our Gospel reading, they are willing to be his witnesses.

Of course, there are many others in our parish whose gentleness is known to everyone - who are willing to be witnesses.  There are so many ways of serving God, through parish life...and there are far too many people doing it for me to be able to go through the list individually.  But, take comfort, and be righteously proud, of what your faith has led you to do for Jesus in this parish.  Do you sing in a choir or a music group?  Do you sit on a committee, or manage finances?  Do you wield a screwdriver or a broom, or a tea-pot or frying pan for others?  Do you welcome people, or beautify our worship with flowers and serving?  All of these tasks, and so many more, are public declarations of the love you bear for Jesus, and of the gentleness he has instilled in your soul.

Through these acts of love, we let our gentleness...inspired by known to everyone.  We witness to what Jesus is doing in our lives.

So - the stages on the way to finding the Peace of God are...

1)  Rejoicing in the Lord always - worshipping God in our services and in our lives.
2)  Letting your gentleness be known - witnessing to others about what God is doing in our lives.
3)  and thirdly, and finally, according to Paul...we are encouraged "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (Phil.4.6)

This thought is of course most powerfully expressed by Jesus himself, when he says, in Matthew 6.27 "Who of you, by worrying can add a single hour to his life?"

The peace which passes all understanding is gained by those who rejoice in the Lord, who are witnesses for the Lord, are prepared to trust the Lord who holds their future in his hands.

But trusting God completely, for the whole future, is no easy task.  On Good Friday, all seemed lost.  Jesus was dying a degrading death, his entire mission seemed to be at an end.  But God knew what God was doing.  And as Jesus burst forth from the tomb, God's purposes became clear.

What does this attitude of trust mean for us as a parish?  I believe that we are a parish which is learning to trust God, and not to worry too much about the future.  We are learning to trust that God knows what God is doing...and not to work ourselves into a lather about what might, or might not, happen day by day. Of course, that doesn't mean that we should stop thinking, nor stop finding ways to creatively be witnesses for Christ in this community.

Looking back over the last year, we've done some fantastic things together as a parish – much of which has arisen spontaneously, out of an increasing sense that we are simply and joyfully celebrating life together.   This is precisely what I mean about rejoicing in the Lord always.  Whether it’s through our worship, or our 60s night, barn-dances or fund-raising fayres, concerts or quizzes, shared meals or shared work-days, quiet days or the Cluster fund day….there is a level of joyfully “entering into the moment” in this parish…which is beginning to feel more and more holy, to me.

It's been wonderful to welcome Fr Tony and Fr Charles into our Team – they have both brought their own unique personalities and gifts into the mix, alongside our three ordinands, Linda and Mother Margaret, and our Readers, Jeff and Doris.    It's been exciting to extend and strengthen our relationships with other churches in this area - reminding us that we are part of a much larger family of Christians than just our parish.  Incidentally, I would like to just thank everyone who has stepped up to fill in the gaps left by my becoming an Area Dean and the IDWAL link with Ghana.

What else?  We have maintained our commitment to the wider community through the way we have maintained our buildings, and vitally through the Community Cafe...although I would comment that more involvement from congregation members in building maintenance and CafĂ©-running would be most welcome.  We now have more non-churchgoers working in the Cafe than we do actual church members – and maintenance of all our buildings is carried out by only a very small group of volunteers.

What else?  We have constantly improved our church buildings - a new disabled toilet at St Francis, central heating in the Cafe at St Mark's, along with new external lighting;  a new sound system for St Nicholas, along with the completion of the outside play area and new cladding for the halls.  We have received - and contributed to - a substantial report on the future of our buildings, which will help us to focus our future work.

What else?  We have seen a whole gang of folks go through confirmation classes, and another group become fully fledged pastoral visitors - as we shall recognise formally in a moment.

Fundraising this year has gone hand in hand with social activities...and for me, that's the best kind of fundraising.  The day we worry about raising funds, but forget to have fun and fellowship together while we are doing it would be a sad day indeed!

Worship, this year, has settled into a bit of a traditional pattern, across all three churches - and we've had some wonderful services. It would be fair to say, however, that our current mix of ministers is a fairly traditional blend.  We also know that by and large, our congregations are happier with traditional styles of worship.  However, I want to caution myself, as well as the rest of the parish, that we need to remember that one size does not fit all.  We need to remain open to experimenting with new and different styles of worship, in order to offer the chance of life-changing encounters with God to as many people as possible.

There have, of course, been some sadnesses this year.  Especially we mourn the passing of much loved congregation members - especially Belle Hunt and Gwen Jones...both of whom were, for many of us, more like family members than mere church goers.  But, we remember Paul's advice not to worry about them, and we trust that God holds all those we have lost in the warmth of his embrace.

In summary, then, I think we have reason to be optimistic about our common life together - satisfied, though not complacent.  We do know something of what it means to Rejoice in the Lord Always.  We do have some wonderful examples of Christian Witness - of letting our gentleness be known to everyone. We are learning not to worry too much about unimportant things, or things we cannot change...but to embrace God's activity in our lives every day, and to say ‘yes’ to those opportunities which arise for fellowship and fun, spontaneity and laughter.

My hope and prayer is that as we continue to do these things, and to live this way, we will continue to know, together, more and more of what it means to live in the Peace of God, which passes all human understanding.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Easter Sunday - What Do You Believe?

Easter Sunday:  What do you believe?

Easter means many different things to many different people.  A sign of new life.  The defeat of darkness.  The Spring Equinox, with all the promise of new life - chicks and eggs.  Or, perhaps, the single most important event of all history!

What do you believe?

Let's first review the claims made about Jesus, which we demonstrated just now in the signing of the new Pascal Candle. He is the Alpha and Omega. The Beginning and the End. He is the one who has the power to make all things new...and who promises a new heaven and a new earth. C.S. Lewis spent some time in his book, Mere Christianity, thinking about what it meant for Jesus to come and live as a human being. He wrote: “The Eternal being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug.”

Jesus, having emptied himself of his divinity, came to live among us as a human being.  It’s worth remembering that. Sometimes, when we struggle to live like Jesus, it’s tempting for us to think “Well, it was easy for Jesus – he was God!”.  But that is not the message of the Gospels.  Jesus emptied himself of all Godly power.  He became fully human, to show us what a truly full, human, life looks like.  As a human being, he lived and he loved, and he gave up all that he had for others.  He taught us what God was like, and offered us the chance to choose God’s way of living.

But if it wasn’t for Easter...these remarkable actions on the part of God would quite probably have gone unknown, and un-remarked by the rest of humanity. Jesus wasn’t the first man to die in a horribly painful way...and he wasn’t the last. His disciples knew that, and the historical records of the time - the Gospels - tell us that after his death they thought that the whole thing was over. They hid in an upper room - terrified.

But the fact is that Jesus shrugged off death!  Taking back the Divinity he had laid aside as a human, he rose from the tomb!  And what a dramatic impact that had!   It transformed the lives of Jesus’ friends, and from there it transformed lives throughout the whole world.

It is sometimes said that it doesn’t really matter whether or not we believe in the Resurrection. Some people have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the was just that his presence with the disciples seemed to live on with them, after his death. Some people suggest that Jesus was only alive in the sense that any dead person is alive to our memories. But I don’t think that interpretation matches the facts.

First of all, people don’t give up their own lives for a memory. We know that many - if not all - of the disciples were persecuted, hated, tried and martyred for their assertion...their absolute certainty...that Jesus had got up from the grave. They could not deny what they had seen with their own matter how much they were threatened and beaten. Now in these days we know that people will give their lives for religious dogma - for what they’ve been brainwashed with by the mad mullahs of Al Quaida.  But the sacrifice of the Disciples was something quite different. For them to have denied that they had seen Jesus rise from the dead, would have been like us having to deny that grass is green.

Secondly, if Jesus had not risen from the dead, why didn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities simply produce his body to disprove it? That would have quickly stopped the resurrection rumour in its tracks. But there was no body to produce.

As you know, probably, I’m a pretty liberal Christian.  I’m happy to allow a great deal of latitude in the interpretation of all sorts of theology!  But on this one issue, I am steadfast to the faith we have inherited, in the precise formula that we have inherited it.  Jesus calls us to follow him, not only because he died for us...not because we feel grateful to him (although of course we should). The message of Easter is that Jesus calls us to follow him because he lives!

As one of us, Jesus not only died, but was raised from the dead and now lives with the Father. And he says that he wants to share his joy and his life with us. Jesus isn’t looking for our sympathy; he’s inviting us to get involved. He’s looking for us to join his followers in proclaiming that there is another way than the way of war and violence and hate, of greed and consumerism and poverty. And he’s inviting us, ultimately, to come home to the love of our heavenly Father. That’s why he give us life, and to call us home. Not to illicit our pity.

So it does matter what we believe. If we believe that Jesus only lived in his disciples’ memories...then he died there too - when they died. And our faith is based on nothing more than a vague wishfulness - a unproveable hypothesis that maybe God exists, and maybe we have somewhere to go after we die.

If, on the other hand - as all the evidence suggests - he really rose from the dead, still lives today, and calls us to life and to heaven...then that is worth something. That is a truth worth hanging on to. That is a fact worth telling our neighbours about. That is something worth celebrating.

Alleluiah...Christ is Risen!