Monday, September 04, 2006

Sunday reflections

Yes I know its Monday, but having not posted a sermon in a few weeks I thought I would put up my sermons for the last two Sundays - quite a chunk to get through if you are inclined to read them, not necessarily my best but reflecting something of where i am coming from at the moment. So here they are...

Sunday 27th August
Year B Proper 16 (2006) RCL Principal

1 Kings 8. [1, 6, 10-11] 22-30, 41-43
Psalm 84
Ephesians 6.10-20
John 6.56-69

Tough Christianity
I’m not usually a reader of the Times, but some time ago there was an article sent to ministers in the Diocese of Ely which was written by Matthew Parrish in which he rejects all things Christian, and then goes on to lament the fact that the Church doesn’t stand for anything any more.

Parrish particularly drew attention to the matter of the consecration of homosexual bishops – and as a gay man himself he said that he rejected religious faith because it could only be founded upon revelation and that in the Bible the revelation was quite clear, God hates homosexuals.

In some ways we could say he is quite right – that is how it is possible to read the Bible – by taking two verses out of the levitical law of Judaism and two verses from St Paul’s writings which state clearly and unequivocally that God is very much against homosexuality. Others would argue that to do that without considering the context or implications, the whys and the wherefores of what was being written is to do an injustice to the nature of both the Bible and the way that the Holy Spirit works now and in the world through the ages.

Many of us who are Christian leaders are accused of selling the Church short by not taking a stand on various issues. The Church is often accused of being weak or wishy-washy because we are not telling people exactly what they should do and how they should live. We are told that in order to pack the Churches we should be proclaiming this that and the other and people would flock to our strong lead.

I disagree. Or at least I don’t fully agree with this!

I am convinced that there is a confusion at large about what Christianity is. The Christian faith is not just a list of moral do’s and don’ts. It does not consist of rules and regulations which once adhered to somehow add up to an eternal truth…

There is much more to it than that. Christian Faith is much, much more demanding.

We are not given rules, we are given standards. We are not given straightforward answers, we are given more questions. We are not given a solid mass of truth to unravel, or a system, or a theology in which everything fits together – we are given a relationship with our God in Christ which is dynamic and challenging and growing and moving – as all relationships should be… Christianity is about faith.

Let’s look at today’s readings and what they might have to add to this idea.

In our Epistle for this morning from the letter to Ephesians we are given principals from the writer as to how we should behave. Within the letter there is a mixture of direct advice (don’t get drunk) and more general ideas – be careful how you live, be filled with the Spirit. Today’s passage is a perfect example of something that is filled with content, but says nothing specific – we are told to be strong in the Spirit, to stand against evil, to wear the armour of God (which is a sermon in itself, but not for today). However, the author majors on the principals rather than the specifics. We are called, as we metaphorically strap on the armour of God, to be righteous, to fasten the belt of truth, to shield ourselves with faith, to be ready to proclaim a Gospel of peace, to wear salvation like a helmet and to trust in the Word of God as like a sword, slicing through deceit, but there are no specifics as to what this means – it is through accepting the work of God in us and finding out through faith exactly what that means. And throughout the letters we ascribe to St Paul there are lots and lots of principals and lots of advice, and some seemingly quite strict rules.

(I say ascribe to St Paul because most Biblical scholars are certain that Ephesians is probably not the work of Paul the Pharisee, but of a disciple or admirer of Paul. There are lots of reasons for this opinion, but not enough time to go into them now – I did a talk on St Paul recently as part of our Lenten series and I’m very happy to run off copies of my notes if you want. I am not trying to short-change you, but I just want to mention this in order to give a fuller picture of the way that Scripture is and has been put together. )

Anyway. There are lots of letters in the New Testament which offer some quite specific advice – but we must remember that these are speaking to certain people in certain times. We cannot separate the content from the context, and to do so is to do an injustice to the author and to the work of the Spirit in our scriptures. On the whole, though, much of what we take for today comes from the principles of faith given through Scripture, as we apply the truth of Scripture and the life of the Spirit within us to the world around us today.

This is what I mean about faith being more demanding than simply setting up moral regulations from a simple interpretation of Scripture. Unless we study the Greek then we don’t necessarily know exactly what the author’s have said, unless we know about first century Hebrew, Roman and Greek culture then we don’t have a complete picture of where the writer is coming from and what their influences are. I am not claiming to have any of these skills in abundance, but I am aware of how anything I take from Scripture is influenced by my experience and understanding of the world, and (God willing) by the Holy Spirit bringing the truth our from within the pages of the Bible.

Please don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that there are no moral and ethical standards in the Bible and that we are free to do as we please. St Paul himself had to correct that impression in a number of his letters – especially in his writings to the Corinthians when he needs to say ‘shall we sin more that grace may abound – certainly not!’.

In fact the standards of Christian faith are high – we are called to be unimpeachable in our love for one another, in our commitment to our faith and to one another, in being faithful in our intimate relationships, in being loving, in service, in feeding the hungry and fighting for justice, we are called to forgive, to pray without ceasing, to be worthy of the calling we have in Christ. The difficulty for us is working out how we live to such high standards in a world which seems to be constantly changing, and to discern what God’s standards are rather than being a simplistic human morality.

It’s not easy, and it will take the whole of my life to do, and beyond I’m sure – but I trust in a God who reveals himself to me through intellect, through worship, through Scripture, through the Spirit, through other Christians and through His Grace in unexpected places. It is demanding, and it should be demanding, just as Scripture makes demands of us, and doesn’t always say what we would like it to say, and should challenge us in our Christian lives day by day because of this.

Which brings me to our Gospel reading for the day. This verse which continues from the living bread theme which we have been covering in the past couple of weeks I find disturbing and challenging. In using such graphic language Jesus is seeking to put across the importance of our intimate relationship with him – as summed up in the service of Holy Communion.

In talking about sharing his broken body and drinking his blood Jesus is using quite horrific language to stress the difference in our relationship to him over and above our relationship with any other. We are to be a part of him and he is to be a part of us. He will sustain us as our everyday food sustains us, he must become everything to us.

This is the highest demand of our Christian faith, and it is an uncompromising demand. Christ must become everything to us – and all of our standards, all our lifestyle must spring from this.

This is why being a Christian is not just about rules and regulations, but about a relationship – a relationship with a God who meets us in Christ and who calls us to be one body with Christ as the head. To be those who learn to depend on him completely and who, because of this, will be made more like Christ.

May God give us all the grace to be worthy of this calling and fill us with his Spirit that we may know this truth and live in this love. Amen.

Sunday 3rd September
Year B Proper 17 (2006)
Demanding Faith
I may have told you this one before, it was a favourite story of the Bishop of Kensington who ordained me priest, but it is worth saying again.

David was a little boy who was bright, easygoing and did well at school – except for maths, and no matter how hard his parents tried or how much his school sought to help him he couldn’t get the hang of maths. So his parents, after much soul searching, took David out of his primary school and put him into a Catholic school with a reputation for maths teaching. This did entail a lot of soul searching because the family were Jewish.

David continued to do well in every subject, and settled in quickly to his new school and suddenly even his mathematics improves. He goes from failing to being one of the top in the class at maths. It is a mystery to his parents until they take David to parent’s evening and ask the teacher what the secret is. ‘I have no idea’ says the teacher ‘why don’t we ask David’. David looks up and says ‘well, when I came to this school and I looked at the wall and I saw a man nailed to a plus sign I knew they took maths very seriously here.’

Well, even if I have told you before I think it’s worth telling again – if only to make us think of two things, firstly that there is a huge dearth of understanding generally when it comes to Christian faith and secondly that perhaps we don’t think about how serious our Christian faith really is. Not with regards to maths, obviously, but with regards to our own Christian living.

Of course, misunderstanding the meaning of faith isn’t a new phenomenon. Even in the time of our Gospel reading for this Sunday the Pharisees and scribes who gathered around Jesus are shown to be more concerned with ritual observance than true faith. Jesus speaks strongly, and angrily, against those whose faith is an ‘external event’ – worried about rites and proper observances, about how faith looks, rather than the state of their own hearts and their own relationship with God. Quoting Isaiah the prophet Jesus rails against the religious authorities saying ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ Jesus tells them they ‘abandon the commandments of God and hold to human tradition’. Harsh words indeed.

In our Epistle for today we hear the same kind of concern expressed by James, the brother of Jesus, who we believe was the author of this document. James says in Chapter 1 verse 22 ‘be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves’.

We are called to take our faith very seriously indeed. James goes on to say ‘If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless’. For the brother of Jesus ‘Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the father is this; to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.’

Christian faith must make a difference. Following Jesus is not about our choice of Church or denominational allegiance, it is not concerned with our outward appearance, but with the deepest part of us. What Jesus and James are concerned with is a faith that is real, that starts from the heart, from a relationship with God the Father and with Jesus the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit, and radiates outward. Without that relationship then we are not pure from the inside out, and we too can be those capable of those sins which Jesus tells the crowd come from the darkness of the heart – fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

It’s not a terribly encouraging list, and for those who like to think of Christian faith as a woolly and undemanding endeavour it is a stark reminder of the demands that a living relationship with Jesus Christ makes upon us. Just last week we were reminded of the struggle it can be to fight evil as St Paul talked of the ‘Armour of God’, Jesus and James go even further saying that the struggle begins within – something that St Paul acknowledges elsewhere in his writings as well.
Now please don’t think that Jesus was just talking to the Pharisees. It’s easy to vilify them as a bunch of hypocrites, but on the whole our record of pharisaic writings is that they were very much like Jesus himself when it came to talking of the need to live lives worthy of God’s reign. Jesus probably reserves his harshest criticism for them because they are so close to his own way of seeing the world and need to take their understanding a step further and get to grips with the reality of faith, not just acting out a religious belief but knowing the God behind what they do.

And that perhaps is what we can take away from this, Jesus doesn’t condemn all tradition or ritual or religious observance. He is angry, though, when human ways of doing thing take the place of God. Jesus is scathing, though, when religiousity (for want of a better word) is a substitute for true faith in God. When we become more concerned with the outward appearances of our faith than the truth of our relationship with God. I find myself attached with some affection to the traditions and rites of our own Anglican Church but realise that all the observance in the world, all the prayers and readings and services I can fit into my life, are not a substitute for that relationship I am called to have with Jesus Christ.

In many ways this carries on the theme from last week’s readings, when Jesus reminded us that our lives needed to be bound up with his, that we must be sustained by Jesus in the same way that we are sustained by the food that we eat, for he is the living bread.

And again we gather here to share in communion, again we offer ourselves into God’s hands, and ask for his help, for his grace, for his strength. And we offer ourselves, our souls and bodies to be ‘a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee’. That sacrifice means letting go of bitterness and anger and envy and all of those things which defile and replacing them with a heart that seeks purity and to do, as I will say in our post communion prayer for this service. ‘all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in’.

These works in themselves do not bring us salvation, they do not assure us of a place in heaven, they are meant to be the result of a change of heart, the result of the Holy Spirit working in us, the result of lives turned around by God in his grace.

Our faith is not one where works are the means of earning God’s love and grace, but one where God’s love and grace are meant to overflow from us, and such good works are signs that we cannot contain the life of God within us- as Jesus says when he talks of himself as living water ‘whoever believes in me, as Scripture says, will have streams of living water flowing from him.’

And so we are called to take our faith seriously, to understand that it makes demands on us – and to respond to the offering of Grace that makes it possible for us to live lives that our changed, lives that go on to make a difference in other lives, lives that overflow with grace and goodness.

May we be those who are doers of the word and not just hearers. Amen.

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