Saturday, January 23, 2016

Salt and Light: The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2016

Salt and Light
What a great week we’ve had, haven’t we?    I’m personally very sorry that the crazy life I call my ministry prevented me from getting to all the different services we’ve held during the week.  But those I did manage were an enjoyable plunge into a new aspect of what it means for us to be Churches Together.

It bothers some people that we have all these different styles of churches, and all our different theological ideas.  For some people, the word unity expresses their desire for an ever closer union of all Christians, with one standard theology, and perhaps even just one way of worshipping.  But that, I think, is to miss the point.  As some of you heard me say yesterday, at the Redeemed Christian Church of God, I believe that all our different approaches to God are themselves a pointer to the sheer depth, height, breadth and width of God himself – or indeed herself!

We should not be surprised if our churches reflect the infinite depths of an infinite God.  I have no doubt that God is present in high church, Catholic liturgies, with smells, bells and plainsong chants.  But I also have no doubt that he is in high octane charismatic or Pentecostal worship, or the modest decency of a reformed-style hymn sandwich.  God makes us in God’s own image – and God is infinite.  Therefore, an infinite variety of worship should not surprise us in the least.

Neither should it surprise us that each church has a subtly different call to mission in Havant.  Think, for a moment, about light bulbs.  Think what an infinite variety of lights there are in the world.  All light, ultimately, comes from our Sun – collected, stored, converted and then shone from a thousand thousand different light fittings.  There are neon lights, and LCD lights.  There are energy-saving bulbs and tungsten lamps.  There are twinkly Christmas lights, and super-trooper search lights.  Each one is but a dim reflection of the Sun from which all light comes in the first place.  But each one has its place.  Each, while reflecting the Sun, contributes to the overall amount of light in the world.
Churches are like that too.  Some have a passion for preaching, some for songs.  Some feel called to a mission to the homeless, or a ministry of healing.  Some feel led to develop programmes like the Havant Passion Play, bringing people together.  Others feel led to keep on offering the heritage they have received to a new generation.  Some serve their neighbours through providing community space that brings people together.  Others serve their neighbours through providing food for the hungry and sleeping bags for the homeless.

We are each a reflection of the Son – the Son, that is, of God who has given us all life.  Like a thousand lightbulbs, we shine Christ’s light in all its infinite depth out into the community we serve.

We have just heard that collection of sayings called ‘the Beatitudes’ – at least in Matthew’s version of them.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, and so on.  These were radical words, powerful words.  Words that could change a world, and turn it on its head.   For many centuries, these were considered dangerous words by the leaders of the churches who valued their personal wealth and status too highly.  For centuries, these words were rarely if ever read by a clergy who didn’t want people to use them as an excuse to uproot clerical power.  They were rediscovered, rather, when people like Luther, and John Wycliffe, started to promote individual reading of the Scriptures for all Christians.  Light was shone on the Scriptures by men like them – light which enabled all people to realise that wealth and prestige were not the natural order of things for the followers of Christ.  Rather, God showed us, in Christ, that his priority for was for the poor, for the downtrodden, for those who mourn, for the meek, and for the hungry.

These then are words which should inspire us all, in the whole Borough of Havant, to continue pressing onwards towards the prize – the goal of a world in which there is good news for the poor, in which the blind will see and the lame will dance.  These are words which inspire us to keep on scattering salt into the world around us…flavouring the world with God, giving its people the taste of God.

How shall we do this?   What programmes shall we develop together?  What should we actually do about it?

Well, I would encourage us first and foremost to acknowledge and celebrate what we’ve already noticed – that God is at work among us, in all our different ways, and through all our differences.  This is God’s mission, and it is God’s kingdom.  As Jesus said to Peter, “I will build my Church” – meaning that it is also God’s church.  Let none of us make the mistake of thinking that by our own cleverness could we ever come up with a better way of advancing the kingdom than God himself is already doing.

Our task is alertness.  Our task is to prayerfully and diligently keep on listening to God as God directs his mission among us and through us.  In St Paul’s words, ‘let us not cease meeting together, as some have done’ – but let us rather keep on being together, learning together, loving together – that is, loving each other, God, and the world around us.

Then, we shall be lights to the world.  Then, we shall be salt that gives the world the flavour of God.  Then, we shall continually advance the work of God.  Amen.

Epiphany 3 - Revelations continue

Epiphany 3:  Nehemiah 8, 1 Corinthians 12.12&ff, Luke 4.14-21

This is still the season of Epiphany.  An Epiphany is a moment of revelation.  It is either used to describe the moment when Jesus was revealed to the whole world, through the visiting Wise Men. Or it is sometimes used to describe a moment of revelation in the human mind.  St Paul, for example, is said to have had an epiphany on the road to Damascus.  When Archimedes stepped out of his bath shouting ‘Eureka!’, he is said to have had an epiphany of science…when he realised that the volume of displaced water in his bath was equal to the volume of his body.

For the people of Israel, the reading of the Law by Ezra was another ‘epiphany’.  The Law had been neglected for generations.  It had not been heard or properly understood for perhaps 100 years. But now, as Ezra read them God’s laws for living, they had a collective revelation – and corporate understanding that they needed to start living in an entirely new way.  This was an epiphany that resulted in great weeping and wailing, as the people truly realised how far from God’s standards they had slipped.

St Paul, who wrote our second reading, was very good at epiphanies!  His big one was, of course, on the Damascus road – when he came to the stunning realisation that the Jesus he had been persecuted was in fact the Christ.  But his writing tells us that mini-epiphanies continued for him, as he continued to search the Scriptures for understanding.  By the light of the Scriptures, he developed whole new understandings – which then flowed out of him through his writings.  In today’s reading, we are witnesses to a revelation he has received about the interconnectedness of Christians.  “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

Until now, in common with most people of his time, St Paul had no doubt perceived human society as distinctly stratified.  There was the Emperor, then the Governors , then the military, then the free men, and then the slaves.  In the religious world too there were layers and stratas – high priests, and junior priests, scribes and Pharisees.   Men could enter certain parts of the temple where women were not allowed.  Strata upon strata, layer upon layer.  Privilege and status were at the heart of the way that society arranged itself.

But Paul’s epiphany on this topic was that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.  For Christ binds all together, in equality, as one body.  Oh, sure, there are different aspects of that body – different people have different skills, different abilities.  A foot is not the same as a hand – they have fundamentally different purposes.  So it is with the followers of Jesus.  We each have different abilities, different gifts – but we are all called together, to contribute our distinctiveness to the health of the whole body.  An organist is not the same as a treasurer.  A church warden is not the same as a priest.  Further still, in this week of prayer for Christian Unity we are asked to reflect on other pairings.  A liberal is not an evangelical.  A catholic is not a methodist.  An Anglican is not an Orthodox worshipper.   But they each contribute to the life of the whole body.   Each one is essential, and precious.

And then, finally, in our Gospel reading, Jesus continues to unfold his own identity and purpose to the world – he continues his epiphany.  He is first revealed to the wise men, while still a baby.  Then through his baptism his status as God’s son is confirmed.  Then through the changing of water into wine, his overflowing love for the world is revealed.  And now, today, Jesus’ self-revelation to the world continues.  He picks up a scroll of the law, and he reads out what we might today call his ‘mission statement’.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”

Here, Jesus draws from the ancient Scriptures – just as Ezra did, and just as Paul will frequently do after him - to reveal the heart of God for his children.   The very heart of Jesus self-declared mission – the mission of the body of Christ – is to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind.

Of course, Christians have argued for centuries about how literally we are supposed to take these words.  Is Jesus speaking spiritually – about good news for the spiritually poor and the spiritually blind?  Or is he declaring God’s economic priority for the literally poor, and healing for the literally blind?

The truth is, of course, that both meanings are equally valid.  The body of Christ is called in all its fullness, with all its talents and abilities, to reach out to both the spiritually and the literally poor.  There are enough of us, with our different talents and abilities, to do both.  It doesn't have to be either/or.  It can be both/and - within the generosity of God.

May you discover anew, this year, the joy of belonging to the body of Christ.  May you know the fulfilment of adding your distinctive gifts to the whole.  May you see the Kingdom of God advancing, and the Scriptures of the Lord being fulfilled in your lifetime.   May we all joyfully proclaim that this is the year of the Lord’s favour.


Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Baptism of Christ

Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

There’s a lovely cartoon image doing the rounds on the ecclesiastical social network at the moment.  It is a picture of Jesus, as a toddler, standing on the surface of his bath.  Not in his bath, you understand – but standing on the surface of the water, as only Jesus can.  In the background of the picture is Mary, his Mother, with a cross look on her face, and a speech bubble with the word ‘In!’

Some people would find that picture offensive.  It suggests that Jesus was being ‘naughty’ – but I think there’s a deeper message at play.  We know very little about Jesus’ childhood.  We only have one story, from a chapter earlier in St Luke, of the boy Jesus at the Temple. 

But with the eyes of our imagination, we can infer some things.  We know, for example, that he was capable of testing the limits of his parent’s authority – exactly what happened in the Temple.  We know also that while Jesus was wholly God, he was also wholly human.  Like all human beings, he needed to learn and grow – to fulfil all his potential.  No doubt, as for all humans, that learning process required some testing of the boundaries.

St Luke records that ‘Jesus was around 30 years old when he began his work’ (Luke 3.23).  So we can infer that he took around 30 years to grow, to mature, to read and understand the Scriptures – 30 years to plan and then execute the Work which he was sent to do.  And his Baptism was the point at which that ministry began.  It was his ‘coming-out’ party; his ‘prom’ (as American children might say).  This was the moment when he chose to reveal himself to the world, by the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove, and with God’s words ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’.

Jesus’ baptism then was a turning point in his life, as it is for us.  It was the moment when he put away childish things (as St Paul was later to say).  It was the moment when he embraced the future that God had planned for him. 

For us, baptism has a similar tone.  By it, we are born again, filled with the Spirit of God.  We are given, like Jesus, a new start, a turning point.  God puts away the darker sides of our human nature, and encourages us into the light of his presence.  We are marked with the cross, the sign of Christ, as a signal that we are His for ever.  Our parents and our God-parents lift us in prayer, and place us in God’s hands.  It’s a momentous moment for every human being.

There are, as you will know, many arguments about when Baptism should take place.  Indeed, there are large numbers of Christians, especially Baptists, who believe that baptism can only be given to an adult, when they make their confession of faith.  But in the worldwide Catholic and Orthodox churches, we have always believed that Baptism should happen as soon as practically possible.  That’s because we draw an important distinction about what is happening, spiritually, at the moment of Baptism…   

We believe that baptism is a sacrament – that is ‘an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality’.  Baptism is God’s gift to us, whoever we are, whatever age we are, whatever we have done, or whatever we might yet do.  It relies entirely on God’s action, not ours.  It is God who causes us to be born again.  It is God who fills us with his Spirit.  It is God who ignites his light of love in our hearts.  It is God, through Christ, who washes away our sins in the water of baptism.  There is nothing we can do to deserve this.  We cannot make God act – he acts because he chooses to, out of grace and mercy.

Believers in adult-only baptism, though, believe that Baptism is requires the faith of the person being baptised to be real.  In other words, they believe that God needs something – namely our repentance and our declaration of faith, in order to act. 

This is a subtle distinction, I know.  And I hope that your eyes aren’t glazing over!  But ultimately, it comes down to different ways in which God is perceived.  Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches teach that God is utterly sovereign, over all.  God acts to save us because he is God, and because his mercy and grace, literally poured out in baptism, are unstoppable forces.  We baptise all who ask for it because Jesus commanded us to do it.  It’s a simple as that. 

Believers in adult baptism, on the other hand, hold that there are pre-conditions to God’s activity – and that he would (and indeed does) withhold his Holy Spirit, until certain conditions are met – the conditions that the person being baptised has to have repented and confessed…they have to have ‘done something’ to earn God’s favour.

Frankly, I don’t know who is right about this.  And I guess that none of us will ever know until Jesus comes again – and we can ask him!  What I hold onto, in the meantime, is that we are all called by God, whoever we are, to walk in the Light of his Love.  We are given, every day, the fresh start that is symbolised by our Baptism.  We can choose, every day, to put away childish things, and to begin the work that he has given us to do.  Just as Jesus did.


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Epiphany 2016

Matthew 2: 1-12

I suppose that many of us will have been on journeys over the last couple of weeks. Some of us have braved wind and rain to visit family and friends in far-flung corners of the British Isles. But I bet none of us had journeys which were as arduous as those of the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  They would have crossed blazing deserts, and freezing mountain passes.  They would have had to wash in streams, and eat food gathered or trapped along the way.  Their journey was remarkable.

We don't know much about the Wise Men. The Bible calls them 'Magi', from which we get our word 'magician' - but that's not the full meaning of the word. The Magi were, as far as we can tell, learned men from another culture. They studied the stars, and no doubt studied the ancient texts of many religions too. They put that knowledge together came to the startling conclusion that a new King of the Jews was being born.

Actually, they were wrong.  Jesus never was the King of Jews in any earthly sense...despite the ironic poster that Pontius Pilate had nailed over his Cross.  In fact, according to John's Gospel, when Pilate asked him point blank whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied "My Kingdom is not of this world".  No, the Magi were wrong.  The stars were not predicting the birth of the King of the Jews.

Another accident of the Magi was in their timing. According to Matthew’s account, they actually arrived something like two years late. (Matthew notes that Herod enquired of the wise men when they had seen the Star appear, and based on that information he slaughters all the boys in Bethlehem who are under two years old.  It’s notable that Matthew also describes the wise men visiting Mary and the child in the house where they were staying, not in a stable.)

So, the Magi were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the timing of the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth.  Wise men?  Perhaps not.
So, to those who say that our future can be read in the stars, there is a warning here. The stars do not foretell our future, any more than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers too.

And yet...and yet...

The Magi embarked on a journey of faith. They thought they knew where that journey would lead. They assumed it would lead them to a royal palace in Jerusalem.  But God has a way of using the journeys we plan for ourselves, and turning them into something much different, much more profound. Instead of a new prince in a royal cot, the Magi's journey led them, mysteriously, to an unremarkable house in a rural back-water...and to a baby who had been born in a food trough.

And it was when they got there, that the Magi could truly be described as wise men. Recognising Jesus for who he was, much more than an earthly King of the Jews, they knelt in homage to him. When they met him, Jesus was nothing like they expected. But they had the wisdom to recognise him, and to worship him. They had the wisdom to let their pre-conceptions of palaces and earthly royalty slip away; and let the new reality of Jesus take their place.

You see, wise men and women are open to what the Journey will bring. Wise men and women embrace the possibilities for change and growth which arise whenever we put our journey in the hands of God.

I wonder what our journey this year will be like - our journey with God both as individuals, and as a church.  If we are able to listen to his voice, in the middle of peace and prosperity, as well as chaos and darkness, we will find him speaking into our situation.  There is always something to be learned, always some new spiritual growth to take place even...perhaps the darkest times.

I imagine the Wise Men had some dark times along their road.  But through it all, God was with them...guiding them, prompting them in new that at the end of their journey, they could encounter the God-child himself.

So, my encouragement to you this Epiphany is to be open to the journey.  Make a new year’s resolution, right here, right now, that you will be more alert, more open to what God is doing in your life as a person, and in our life as a church.    Make a pact with God that you will listen to him more, searching the scriptures more, worshipping more, giving more, and receiving more.

If God can lead a bunch of mystics across deserts and mountains to encounter the living Lord Jesus, then he can do the same for us.

But we have to be ready to go.