Fourth Sunday of Trinity: Colossians 1, 1-14 & Luke 10, 25-37
It’s good to back here in Winslow. As some of you may know, last weekend I was away at General Synod. Some of you have asked ‘what is General Synod like?’ Well, I suppose the best answer I can give is that is like a five day rolling PCC meeting! Last Sunday I worshipped alongside many members of General Synod at York Minster. The Archbishop of Canterbury preached and he preached for an awfully long time. I promise to be much shorter as I am aware that the cricket world cup final is about to start; as I say, its good to be back in Winslow, back in my spiritual home.
The reading we have heard from Paul’s letter to the Colossians starts with the phrase ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God’ and then moves on to say ‘grace to you and peace from God our Father.’ These, of course, are akin to the opening words of the liturgy and are suggestive of the fact that right at the core of our Christian life must be both an acceptance of grace and a sense of peace, where peace means the willingness and ability to live as people committed to the whole of human flourishing and good and godly relationships between all people. We are to live as people of peace, cultivating that sense of peace through our prayer life which leads to what Paul describes as ‘the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom.’
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is often, and rightly, considered as an exemplar of the Christian virtue of charity, but I think that I would want to argue that the Samaritan is only able to act as he does because he understands, and has appropriated for himself, grace – the idea that all goodness is essentially a gift, or divine gift, and peace, the imperative to live a life characterised by good and godly relationships between all people.
The tragedy in the parable is that the Priest and Levite are more concerned with protocol than peace and that they are therefore incapable of enacting the greatest of all virtues - charity, or love. With all their religious and legal training they are unable to answer the most basic of all questions: ‘who is my neighbour?’ I have no doubt that they would both claim to be people who feel that they ‘love the Lord their God, with all their heart, soul, mind and strength,’ but have failed to realise that the way that this is worked out in the here and now is through the way that they relate to their neighbour, and especially their neighbour in distress.
Both the Priest and the Levite fail they apostolic test (of being sent of ‘going in peace to love and serve the Lord) because they have little or no understanding that their role is to raise up the bruised, hurting, brutalised and victimised. This lack of recognition, as the parable reminds us, is to have eternal consequences; the story begins after all with the question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
The Parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us that living in grace and peace must necessarily lead to an active spirituality. From grace and peace must flow, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, ‘all good works.’
Two more thoughts: first, the only reward we might legitimately expect from a life lived underpinned by grace, secured through peace and animated by charity, or love of neighbour, is eternal life. The fate of the Good Samaritan is to remain unnamed in this life. The story is therefore a calling to humility, a story that at the end of the day it is how God regards us that counts; true, eternal, esteem can only come from God. The eternal crown is the one worth wearing, all other crowns are mere trinkets. Secondly, the story talks to our aspiration to be an hospitable community. The injured man is taken by the Good Samaritan to a place of refuge. The church must always be a place of refuge, a hospital for the injured, excluded, rejected and distressed. How we welcome and esteem those who nobody else cares about – those who are brought to us by modern day Good Samaritans, is the only true test of our hospitality.
Can I ask that you take away with you the pew sheet and reflect this week on our readings allowing the virtues of grace and peace to embed themselves in your heart so that ‘all good works,’ may (again the words of the Book of Common Prayer) ‘proceed’ through a radical commitment to humility, inclusivity, charity and hospitality; for grace, peace, humility, inclusivity, charity and hospitality really are the very stuff of eternal life; yours and mine.
I hope I was sufficiently concise!
I know that over the last few weeks, Andrew has been talking to you about what it means to be “church”. Last Sunday, which was my first, he specifically explored the notion of what it means to be a church that is, “holy catholic and apostolic”. Something that we stand up and say every Sunday. So I am going to start off my time with you by doing something that is guaranteed to strike fear into the very heart of any self respecting Anglican. I am going to ask you a question, and please do feel free to shout out the answer. It is a question that on the surface appears blindingly obvious, but I’ll confess that it isn’t something that I knew the answer until relatively recently and the question is simply, ‘What does the word apostle mean?’
That’s right, it relates to someone being sent out. Of course we know a little bit about the 12 apostles, the book called the Acts of the Apostles is full of their exploits. But today’s gospel tells us that there were more than just the 12, many more. This gospel passage has Christ sending out either 70 or 72 depending on which translation you use, he described to them some of the difficulties that lay ahead as they travelled around, spreading their revolutionary message and he does the same to us.
The church that we are part of calls itself Apostolic, every week we all stand together and say so. This then means that we too are apostles, all of us, and THAT is something that I appreciate is daunting. We have many churches, roads, even some towns and cities are named after apostles. And yet these people that we now revere as Saints were every bit as flawed and flaky as we are now. In the last week alone we have celebrated the feasts of St Peter, St Paul and St Thomas, all of whom were human, making mistakes and messing things up, doubting, overly ambitious, insecure even with the very best of intentions. We too have all those failings, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to do what we can to serve Christ. The gospel tells us about many being sent out to spread the message of God’s love and what these people did and the message that they spread changed the course of human history. Bearing witness to God coming down among us and giving of himself so that we could be saved, if we are now the apostles then we too can change the world.
However, if you are anything at all like me then it must be said that this all sounds like a bit much, after all we all have lives to live, we have loved ones, friends, relationships that require time and energy. Jesus asked people to drop what they were doing and follow him, I’m not sure that I can just go and leave everything to do that. But there is much that we can still do.
Pope John Paul I, when he was Bishop of Venice, wrote humorous letters to several of his heroes, some were fictional whilst others were historical and in a letter that he wrote to the author Mark Twain he discussed the different kinds of Bishop that were in the church. He wrote that they, “vary just as much as books. Some are like eagles, soaring high above us, bearing important messages; others are nightingales, who sing God’s praises in a marvellous way; and yet others are poor chickens, who simply squawk on the lowest branch of the tree, trying to express the odd thought on some great subject.” Now of course, what Pope John Paul wrote about Bishops also relates to the rest of God’s people. There are very few among us who, in their lifetimes, will find themselves to be eagles. Not many of us that aren’t in the choir will be ever be seen by others as nightingales, singing God’s praises in the most sublime way. So I think that it is fair that most of us will find ourselves firmly in the chicken category, and that is alright, that really is nothing to be ashamed of.
We are called to be apostles not because of who we wish we were, but because of who we actually are, in all the messiness of our lives, in the quiet hopelessness of who we are. We are not called to be apostles somewhere else but in the situation that we find ourselves in now. It is such a beautiful, joyous thing that Christ is calling us to do, to spread a little of his love back out into the world. It may be some of the smallest things that we do to serve God’s Kingdom but just like a stone that has been thrown into a pool of water, the ripples could well astonish us by how far they can go.
Peter and Paul
This has been, and still is, a big week for the church in this benefice, for today we receive Mark, our deacon and curate with joy. We hope that your ministry here will be truly blessed; that you will be a blessing to us, so welcome.
The church likes to ordain her ministers at Petertide, the time of the year when we remember and celebrate both Peter, the flaky ‘rock’ on which Jesus decided to build his church, and Paul, the man had who hitherto one been of the chief persecutors of the Church. What an odd couple to choose, and yet God did choose them. He chose them to build and give shape to that phenomena which we declare our belief in each and every week: ‘the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ Our job, yours, mine, Mark’s, is to make the notion of the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ real, contemporary, missional and evangelistic; the alternative is to leave it stuck in the creed as a nice, quaint and poetic form of words; liturgically and poetically beautiful, but practically useless.
The church ordains people – men and women alike – to ensure that the whole church takes on the true character of the ‘one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.’ Of course the ordained are expected to exhibit a commitment towards holiness, catholicity and apostolic behaviour but that doesn’t mean that it’s all down to the clergy! Growing the church in number and holiness must always be a shared and communal responsibility; the ordained minister’s vocation is, in part, to make sure that that the church becomes the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ for only then can the church be truly missional and evangelistic.
But, what on earth does it mean to be authentically Catholic and Apostolic, or even Holy Catholic and Apostolic? Well, first and foremost I think it means to make sure that you spend a little time each day in prayer and reading the bible, for there can be no growth in holiness separate from these two core activities. Prayer and scripture are two of our three basic nutrients, the other being the sacrament. If you read the Acts of the Apostles you will discover that the early church was devoted to prayer, the reading of scripture, the breaking and sharing of bread and the drinking of wine. In large part replicating the early apostolic church in its characteristic behaviours is our sole or only route to will holiness. In Christianity there really is nothing new under the sun!
I do however need to be honest with you. If you do take seriously the notion of daily prayer and bible reading it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will suddenly feel different, or that each and every time of prayer will lead you to a mountain top moment. Sometimes our prayers can feel arid, dull, uninspired. My suspicion is that when they feel just like this, then God, paradoxically, really is at work! Our job, if we are committed to growth in holiness, and to becoming more apostolic (for you can’t disaggregate the two), is in the words of St. Peter simply this: to ‘endure.’ It is through endurance that Christian character is formed. It is through endurance and ‘keeping the faith’ that we get to ‘finish the race.’ Growth in holiness – the sort of holiness characterised by Peter and Paul – is a matter of discipline, but the end result will be well worth it as St. Paul reminds us. Can I encourage each and every one of you to endure and to be disciplined in your prayer life?
My prayer for you, me, us, is that as we commit to growing in holiness we will also become increasingly committed to catholicity. Now let’s be clear, I haven’t lost the plot. I don’t want you all to leave the Church of England and become Roman Catholics, for as the Roman Catholic spiritual writer Richard Rohr has written ‘second century Christians were calling themselves Catholics or Universals’ way before the word Roman was added. To be truly catholic, in this sense, implies a commitment to hospitality and inclusivity, to becoming the sort of people who build longer tables, extended altars, and not higher walls. To be truly Catholic and Apostolic means sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to all who have ears to hear and hearts to receive: full stop, irrespective, without any terms or conditions, just like Peter did, and just like Paul did, as they bought the gospel to Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free alike.
To be ‘Holy Catholic and Apostolic’ means to respect the God given ‘Dignity of (human) Difference,’ (Jonathan Sachs) whilst, at the same time, believing with all our hearts that the Jesus story is the universal story; it’s not a story to be owned, domesticated, and hoarded but a story to be cherished and lavishly, indiscriminately, shared, and that’s why at the end of every service the deacon invites us all, ordained and lay alike, to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord,’ in the world, and for the sake of the world, in ‘the name of Christ,’ Amen.
2 Tim , 6-8, 17, 18. 1 Peter 2, 19-end, Matt 16, 13-19.
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