Luke 3 : 15-17, 21-22 - 8th September 2019
We have spent some time over the last few months trying to work out exactly what it means to “be church”, thinking about the things that we do and the things that we are called to be as part of the body of Christ. I have to say that it has been very heartening for me, to come in here as curate and see that there are so many people engaged with the calling that we have. But firstly i would like to talk about the building. Of course, this church building is a special place, at the geographical heart of the community. Whenever I come here there are resonances of what has gone before, all those fellow pilgrims that have travelled through here before, all that history but without the people this would just be a pretty building. It is what happens in here that makes it a truly sacred space, it is the human interaction with the building that makes this place truly special.
Because as beautiful as this church is, and I doubt anybody would doubt that it is indeed wonderful, it is not its beauty that brings us here. The fabulous stained glass windows, although they are a help, are not the focus of our devotions. Where our focus is, is usually the altar. Every week we come here and the Eucharist is celebrated there before being distributed. That is the place at the intersection between God and us, where something mysterious and glorious occurs.
The other place is no less important and yet we walk past it most weeks - I certainly know that I am guilty of that. It probably doesn’t get thought of all that much but it is easily just as important as the altar because that is where our journey commences, the place where we are first brought into the Body of Christ, where the mystery, the adventure begins. The font where we are baptised.
I occasionally get into conversations where the person that I am talking to tells me that they were baptised. When I hear that my heart sinks a little because the fact is is that we weren’t baptised, we are baptised. It is something that we carry with us, it changes us, we are not the same person after we have experienced it. We join the countless millions of people who have gone before us, and it leads us right back to Christ .
Jesus’s baptism marked the beginning of his ministry here on earth. Up until that time, he had not performed any miracles, but with God's stamp of approval and with the spirit of God upon him, Jesus began to do just that, perform great miracles. From this new beginning, many people began to understand that Jesus was truly the Son of God and they began to follow him. It all started with a baptism.
I understand that these are big footsteps to follow, there are none bigger but in our own little way we are called to copy that with our baptism. All of who are baptised are given a new beginning, a chance to be all that we can be because of that fundamental shift when we are baptised. Rowan Williams said that, “As baptised people we are in the business of building bridges”, and this is what we are all called to do. Building bridges between our neighbours, whether that is in the town that we live, within our country or around the world, as a member of the family of Christ we are called to build community, to think of others and to do what we can to bring a little glimpse of heaven down here in the here and now. I am sure that most us would agree that we could all do with a little more of that in our lives and in the world around us.
So I would urge you, whenever you come into church, as well as looking right to see the altars, we should also be looking left, seeing the font, remembering to ourselves that the journey that God calls us to may have started before we realised it did and that we are to do what we can to build bridges, just as our saviour and so many others did before us.
Mark Nelson, Assistant Curate
Trinity 10: Jeremiah 1, 4-10, Hebrews 12, 18 -end & Luke 13, 10-17
‘Therefore since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.’ Strong words from the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews and yet words which we do well to take as an article of faith, for let’s be honest we live in a flaky, unjust and at times a downright cruel world.
As we look at and consider the world around us it can seem too cruel to bear. The very real pain, suffering and injustice of the world can leave us feeling both angry and impotent. The good news is that men and women throughout the generations have felt this self-same sense of hopelessness and futility. The prophet Jeremiah, one of my heroes, certainly felt this way at the beginning of his ministry: ‘I am only a boy’ he says to God, which could taken as the equivalent of saying ‘why me, why do you want me to be the one who says to the powers that be, enough is enough?’ The answer God gives is simply this: ‘why not you, and if not you who?’ God is saying the same thing to his people today: ‘if not us, then who?’ We the people of God need to develop the courage to speak out against all forms of exclusion, prejudice, hatred and tyranny: ‘if not us, then who?’
One of the Five Marks of Mission is to challenge the unjust, by which we might mean excluding structures of society. We are called on to be agents of freedom and liberation. We are Christ’s arms of love in a sometimes cruel world, but we are more than this, for like Jeremiah, like John the Baptist, and like Jesus, who let us not forget, was a social prophet, we are to called on to be the divine voice; God’s echo chamber. We are called onto be a people of healing, but also a people who dare speak truth to power, and the two go hand in glove. Christians are not meant to be passive; we are not meant to be religious stoics. The here and now is the place where we exercise our faith, through the works of our hands, and with voices raised loud, for as Meatloaf sang ‘heaven can wait.’
This combination of healing and prophecy is played out in today’s Gospel reading. The story starts with Jesus seeing a disabled woman and he calls out to her. Moved by compassion his instinct is to include her; he beckons her over, touches her, heals her, and gives her back her dignity. For eighteen years she has been excluded and now she is to be included. Yes, there is a very real physical healing, but there is also a social and relational healing. Our job is to effect social and relational healing, to free people from the power and domination structures that leave them as bystanders at best; excluded and vilified at worst. That is what real healing both looks and feels like. But that is not all that Jesus does for he also enters into a terse conversation with the synagogue leader.
The synagogue leader is an interesting character. He is a kind of work’s supervisor; a clip-board king. He hasn’t much real authority, still less status in the world of Jewish religion, but he is determined to protect his own turf and to protect the minutiae of the law. His obsession with the minutiae of the law is, however, at the cost of his humanity. He would prefer to ‘shame’ others than to see healing, liberation and inclusion. He is a walking and talking religious tragedy. He knows all the rules but none of the virtues. In his conversation with this Captain Mainwaring type figure what Jesus does is to relocate shame. The synagogue leader wants the disabled woman to be the focus of shame, but Jesus takes away any shame that she might be feeling and places it on the synagogue leader and his ilk. And, that’s what prophets do: they relocate shame. They name and relocate cruelty and injustice.
Over the course of September and October we are going to be considering Anglicanism’s Five Marks of Mission. We are doing so for one simple reason: so that we become an ever increasing Christ-like church, for Jesus is the ‘perfector and pioneer of our faith.’ Being Christ-like means acting as Jesus does in the account we have heard today. It means acting with compassion, as agents of healing, reconciliation and justice whilst at the same time daring to speak truth to power, so that shame can be properly located. This is the journey we are, hopefully, about to embark on. It will be an interesting and challenging journey, one for which we might, like Jeremiah, feel ill-equipped, but let’s do so in the full and certain knowledge that God is ‘our consuming fire,’ and that however uncertain we may feel, through the very exercise of our faith we are both ‘receiving’ and proclaiming a ‘kingdom which cannot be shaken.’ Amen.
Trinity 8: Faith - Isaiah 1, 1 & 10-20, Hebrews 11, 1-3 & 8-16 & Luke 12, 32-40
As a parish priest people often say funny things to you, such as ‘I wish I had faith,’ or ‘I am not religious but...’. I always find this the most interesting statement. In fact I think that in many ways mission and evangelism is about speaking into, and hopefully erasing, the ‘but.’
Of course some people will always want to rubbish or ridicule faith but, and here is my but, one of the reasons they are able to do so is because they haven’t seen the consequences or outworking of faith enabling them to conflate faith, as an active and dynamic virtue, with mere cognitive belief. Belief is, for sure, an element of faith, but faith, real transformative faith, cannot and should not be reduced to straightforward belief. In terms of mission and evangelism dynamic, active, transformative faith is the answer to the wishes and the buts that so many people express to me.
So what does such faith look like and how does it differ from straightforward belief? Before I start to answer this I think that I would want to say something very important by stressing once again that faith, if it is to be convincing, if it is to answer the wishes and the buts, must be observable; it must look like something. If it isn’t observable, in some ways visible, it – faith – is hardly likely to be convincing. In many ways this is the entire point of the gospel reading; if our faith is to be judged as credible it must be an alert and active faith.
The gospel also makes something else abundantly clear: faith is an antidote to selfishness and individualism. If our faith is to be credible and transformative the one thing it must always do is to point away from us and towards God and neighbour. As Christians, especially rationally minded Western Christians, we need to make sure that our belief in Jesus captures not only our heads but our hearts and hands too; for this is the essence of an active, missional, evangelistic and transformative faith. Faith is in many ways belief made real in both feeling and doing.
So what should we feel? Again the Gospel reading gives the answer: trust and lack of fear, where trust is firmly grounded in the surety that Jesus is truly the Messiah. It is this level of trust, or surety, that allows us to move beyond the paralysis of fear and into action.
It is this trust, the trust that we are a part of a much larger picture, that allows us to move from self=centeredness and individualism, and a belief that we can be saved through the acquisition of things, into fellowship and communion. We need to develop such radical trust as the basis for an active faith, and the way we do this is through prayer, for it is through prayer that we become open to the transformative presence of God, for faith isn’t really about belief but about relationship. In some ways this shouldn’t be too hard to grasp, for many, perhaps most of us, will know that it is through relationships, loving relationships, that we are changed for the better and as we are changed for the better the nature of our desires changes and what we begin to crave is a new ‘homeland,’ ‘a better country, that is a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11 14 & 16): ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’
Faith is belief acting on desire. But I would want to go further and say that faith, I think, is belief acting on desire and leading to transformative and empirically observable action. This is Isaiah’s point: for Isaiah the fruit of an active faith is holiness, where holiness means that we ‘learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow,’ (Isaiah 1, 17).
Doing all of this looks like a tall order! But the good news is this: we are not called on to do it alone, instead we do it together as the Holy Communion of God’s people; we do it grounded in prayer and empowered by the Holy Spirit, for whereas belief is individual faith is corporate, or communal.
What I have sought to do today is to make explicit the link between faith, mission and evangelism. I have tried to show how faith transcends belief and suggested that faith is belief, acting on desire, made manifest and credible through transformative action.
Over the next few weeks and months we are going to consider, in some depth, various aspects of mission and evangelism, but as we do can I ask you to commit to deepening and enriching your own faith so that we can help fashion a new ‘homeland,’ and a ‘better country; that is a heavenly one,’ so that we can start to answer those wishes and erase those buts that I referred to at the beginning of this homily? Amen.
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