Recognising love

This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it references is Philippians 1:1-11.

Last week, we looked at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, and his prayer that those young Christians would grow in love and holiness; and I suggested that “love and holiness” might not be a bad focus for this Advent season.

This morning, we’ve had a reading from another letter of Paul’s, this time to the Philippians; and it also has in it a prayer that they would grow in love; and this prayer has some distinctive features that I thought might be interesting to examine.

But first I’m going to do something I don’t do that often, and that is to say that our usual translation (for blog readers: the NRSV) of this passage actually lets us down quite a bit here; and I’m going to put up on the overhead my best attempt at a slightly more precise translation.  The English isn’t quite as smooth, but there are some differences that are quite important and which I’ll comment on as we go.

Philippians 1:9-11, NRSV:

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

My translation: 

And this I am praying, that your love still overflows more and more in recognition and with every kind of perception with understanding, with your putting to the test the better things, in order that you may have integrity and be without fault on the day of Christ, having been filled with the fruits of righteousness through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

First let’s notice that although we get Paul’s absolutely typical emphasis on the primacy of love here – his prayer is “that your love still overflows more and more” – love is not, for Paul, here a question of feelings, and it’s certainly not something which is separate from or opposed to our rational faculties.  Rather our love overflows “in recognition and with every kind of perception with understanding,” and with “putting to the test the better things.”  Scientists might say that Paul is describing something of the scientific process; noticing phenomena, gathering data, and conducting experiments!   This is a sort of love which is highly cognitively engaged.

And it’s not the sort of abstract or academic engagement which buries itself in books.  It’s a hands-on engagement; the word I’ve translated as “perception with understanding” has to do with what your senses tell you; what you see, and hear, and smell of life; and then what you make of that.  It’s the cognitive engagement of the laboratory rather than the library.

The interesting thing here is that Paul doesn’t specify what we’re meant to be observing and perceiving and recognising.  Apart from a rather vague reference to testing “the better things,” he seems to assume that his readers and hearers will know what he meant.

But my hunch is that he’s talking about observing and perceiving and recognising God at work in the world.  If we love God, we will watch out for the signs of God’s presence at work; we will recognise them when we see them; we will know the worth of the results in people’s lives.

Love here isn’t overflowing in knowledge in the sense of being able to recite facts, but is able to recognise the presence of its beloved.  To know God in that deeply intimate, personal sense.

You know how when you’re infatuated with someone, you mentally track their every movement, and you listen for the first sound of their approach, and you tingle with anticipation of your time together?  That.  That’s the sort of love of God Paul is praying that the Philippians might have.

And that’s lovely, of course.  But it’s not just an end in itself.

Paul’s prayer goes on: “in order that you may have integrity and be without fault on the day of Jesus Christ.”  We love God, we love God so much that our senses and faculties are always alive to God’s presence and God’s actions, and that is how we will  grow in integrity.

The NRSV translation there used the word “pure,” rather than “have integrity,” but the underlying Greek word here is about being sincere, without hidden motives or pretence.  It’s about our actions matching our innermost motivations and beliefs.  What you see is what you get.

So Paul’s train of thought is that if we love God, and we’re able to pay attention and perceive and recognise God as God is at work in and around us, that will help us get our own motivations and actions in line.

How does this work?  Maybe an example will help.

There’s a famous study which was done at Princeton University in 1970. In it, seminary students were told to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then sent to the other side of the campus to give the talk. One group of students was told to hurry, they were running late; and the other group was told that they had more than enough time. On the way, they each encountered an actor slumped in an alley apparently in need of help.

What was interesting about this study was that the students who were told to hurry did not stop to help the apparent victim; the students who were told they had plenty of time, did stop and help. All of them were seminary students, devout, committed Christians; but being in a hurry to be somewhere else crowded out their ability to love their neighbour.

Now there are all sorts of fascinating things to reflect on in that set of results, but in terms of Paul’s prayer, the students who were in a hurry, had allowed their anxiety about being late, and perhaps making a bad impression (or whatever the social penalty for being late was going to be); had allowed their anxiety to block out their recognition and perception and understanding of what God might be up to, at that moment.

Where is God when someone is slumped in an alley, needing help?  Do I perceive God’s presence, do I act in accordance with my love of God, and thus my love of God’s child, helpless in front of me?

Or do I just not see, not recognise what is in front of me, and walk past, in the process compromising my integrity and incurring fault?

Now the last bit of the prayer is a tricky thing, but Paul finishes with the thought that we may reach the day of Christ “having been filled with the fruits of righteousness.”  Notice that this is passive; we don’t make the fruit, the end result, happen; but rather we are filled, it is something which is done in us by God.  So we love God, we’re aware of God, that awareness corrects our attitudes and actions… and over time that fills ourselves and our lives with everything good which comes from vibrant relationship with God.

This three-verse prayer is not a throwaway line from Paul; it’s an incredibly rich, complex, layered vision of Christian spirituality and discipleship.  It’s worth spending some time really getting to the depths of how Paul sees us growing and maturing towards that last day.

And it all starts with love; that your love (of God) overflows more and more.

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Love and holiness

This is a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it references is 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13.

Advent is – it seems to me – kind of the season the world forgot.  The supermarkets have worked out that even in Lent, they can sell something – the cold section often has big signs up encouraging “fish for Lent,” – but not so much Advent.  After fathers’ day, or perhaps after Halloween, it’s all about Christmas; and food and drink and carols and decorations and presents and parties and all of that have been a big topic of advertising and conversation and serious planning for some time now.  And don’t get me started on school activities!

So where does that leave Advent?  Squeezed in, if we’re lucky, with a chocolate calendar amidst the glitz and parties.  But the whole point of Advent, as a season, is to help us prepare.  It’s to help us arrive at Christmas, not harried and already all celebrated out, but in a good state to get the most out of a special time.  Originally, it was a time of preparation for Christmas baptisms, and the whole community would fast and pray with and for the people to be baptised.

So, thinking about preparation, and what would help us be able to celebrate a truly joyful and peaceful Christmas (despite the bustle), I noticed Paul’s twofold prayer here in our reading from 1 Thessalonians.  He prays that the Lord may “make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all,” and that he may “strengthen your hearts in holiness.”  Increasing in love and being strengthened in holiness; how do they sound as possible goals for our Advent season this year?

Notice that when Paul prays for this community to increase in love, it’s “for one another and for all;” the community is supposed to look beyond itself to the whole church and to all people as God’s cherished creation.  Of course they’re supposed to love one another; but that it’s not that kind of group dynamics that loves its own group and hates everyone outside it.  Instead it says that this group is a subset of a bigger group, the group of people loved by God (everyone), and that we have a role to play in that bigger group.

It probably helps to remember that the Thessalonian church was in a really different place, socially, than we are.  Paul had done a three-week preaching tour in the synagogue in Thessalonica, and then been moved on by the authorities responding to claims that he was a trouble maker.  This letter is his attempt to keep in contact with the people there who had responded to his preaching of the gospel; a very young church, just learning what it is to be Christian and how to live that life.  And learning those lessons in an environment where they weren’t welcome in the synagogue and didn’t really relate easily to the Pagan life of the city any more either.  Love for all would have meant having to ask what it meant to love the synagogue community who had rejected them, and what it meant to love the Pagan community who despised them.  Love for all was how this community would resist the temptation to allow harassment from outsiders to turn them into an introverted, withdrawn group.   It wasn’t always a feel-good thing, it demanded a significant level of personal discipline.  This prayer of Paul’s is directed to God, but to the Thessalonians (and us) listening in, it’s a call to actively take responsibility for these aspects of our own maturity.

Holiness is a bit of an elusive concept; what does holiness look like, sound like, in action?  Sometimes at home my daughter likes to dress up in a surplice and mimic me with my hands in the air saying “Alleluia!”  But that’s more like an expression of piety than holiness (remembering that we can do all the outward observances without being at all holy).  But for Paul holiness basically meant “doing what God wants you to do.”

A bit further on in the letter Paul goes on to spell out what being strengthened in holiness might suggest.  He puts forward a three-fold model of holiness; to keep yourself from sexual immorality, to keep your body under control, and not to wrong or exploit another person.

Those ideas can sound to us as if they’re very much about rules to be kept; but for Paul they exist within the matrix of a fundamental relationship with God and with one another.  It’s about that relationship shaping our whole way of life, and perhaps shaping it away from the conventional values of our culture.

But while it would be a mistake to see Paul as being obsessed with micro-managing our sex lives, he touches on sex here as a key issue because it is such a litmus test for our character.  Are we people of integrity; do we live up to our commitments?  Do we have robust personal boundaries?  Do we know our own weaknesses, and seek to prevent them from governing us?  Are we unselfish, generous, loving and patient within our marriages?

It’s not a comfortable thing to talk about, but we know that many Christians struggle in this area.  Research shows about two-thirds of self-identified Christian men, and a smaller proportion of self-identified Christian women, admit to using pornography once a month or more often.  And while there might be all sorts of areas of ethical discomfort with that, I’d point you to the question of the conditions in which that material is made, and its degradation of the people involved, and have to ask, does taking advantage of that – creating a market for it – demonstrate the love for all Paul here exhorts us to?

I don’t think I need to labour the point more than that.  Self-control is, Paul wrote elsewhere, a fruit of the Spirit; and so our personal holiness and our relationship with God are inextricably related.  A call to love and holiness is a call to deeper relationship with God.

So let’s make that our focus this Advent.  Four weeks – a bit less, actually –  to make a point of working to deepen our relationship with God, to grow in love for one another and for all, and to be strengthened in self-control and holiness, so that we can arrive at Christmas more open to the blessings it might bring.

Seasons of preparation

In my tradition, we’re about to start the season of Advent.  It’s a time of preparation; a time when we look forward to, and prepare ourselves for, what is to come.

No matter our tradition, it can be good to intentionally set aside time to focus inward, to build strength and resilience, to prepare ourselves for new challenges.

There are four key themes to Advent which might be worth focussing on in any season of preparation:

Hope:  Hope is an exercise in optimistic imagination.  Not imagination as in fantasising, but imagination as in being open and creative about what might be possible, about what can be done, what relationships can be built, what can change.  Hope is even better when it’s shared with others who are excited about the same possibilities and visions for the future.

Peace:  Peace is the bridge between us and those with whom we differ.  It looks at others across divisions and conflicts, and holds on in loyalty to the idea that the other person or group is worth persevering for.  That beyond the divisions and conflicts lie real people with worth and value, and that our future is better with us in collaboration than in bitter and destructive habits of behaviour.

Joy:  Joy is a fountain of refreshment.  It looks beyond discouragement and sorrow and sees the charm and the goodness of life in all its rich diversity.  It celebrates whatever is true and just and excellent.  It takes delight in human flourishing, wherever and however it might be found.

Love:  Love is what binds us to one another in healthy relationships which serve us all.  It is patient, kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  Willing to sacrifice getting its own way in order to serve the good of the other.

Would it help you to make more room in your life for hope, peace, joy and love, at this time?

The quality of power

This is a sermon for the feast of Christ the King. The Scripture it references is Revelation 1:4-8.

“Unto us a boy is born,
king of all creation…”

Is it too soon for Christmas carols?  The choir I belong to is now deep into rehearsing them!

But this Christmas carol got the point of today’s reading from Revelation so perfectly; its last verse brings it to a close with “Omega and Alpha he!  Let the organ thunder, while the choir with peals of glee now rends the air asunder.”

Christ is king over everything; Christ is the sum and fulness of all that exists, and secure in his reign we find love and freedom and joy.  It’s the introductory statement to the book of Revelation, and it sums up the whole message so neatly.

It helps us to understand the impact of this message, if we remember some things about the environment this book was written in.  Domitian was the Emperor of Rome.  Every citizen and subject of the empire was required to worship him as Dominus et Deus; Lord and God.  Rome was called the Eternal Empire and he was dubbed the Everlasting King.

Any of that sound familiar?  Aren’t these some of the ways we refer to Jesus; as Lord and God, as Everlasting King of an eternal kingdom?

We forget, sometimes, that these titles were applied to Jesus precisely in order to deny that they belonged to anybody else.

You see, despite Revelation being written to churches under persecution, the persecution itself wasn’t their biggest threat.  The biggest threat was complacency; that they’d go along to get along, and not think that they’d lost anything significant by doing that.  That they’d adopt the oppressive and exploitative values of the culture they lived in, rather than remembering that those are not God’s values.

Because of that danger, Revelation over and over again calls us to look – really look beneath the surface – at what is going on.  Look!  Christ is coming.  Look!  The door to heaven is open.  Look!  At the centre of everything that exists, source and governor of all power that flows through the cosmos, there is a throne, and our God is on that throne.  That throne is the source of all grace and peace and joy.  Don’t buy into a corrupt world, but look at what is really going on at a deeper level.

And this has practical implications for our actual lives.  John reminds the people hearing his words that God is the one who “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom” and priests.

When did Caesar ever do any of that for anyone?  Did Caesar love the people under his rule?  Or free them from the wreckage of their broken relationships, or invite them to participate in his reign?

Or did he seek to oppress, control and exploit them?

We might not live under Caesar, but we have our own oppressive, controlling and exploitative realities with which to contend.  We’re reminded here that Christ’s reign offers us the exact opposite of all of those things.

The verb tenses in that statement of what God has done for us are interesting, too.  God freed us from our sins, made us to be a kingdom and priests… those are past tense.  Those things are done; they are established; they are fixed; they are not provisional or partial or conditional.  God has done them, and nobody can undo them.

Only one verb is in the present tense there; God loves us.  No doubt it’s true that God has loved us in the past, in creation, in the incarnation, in the crucifixion; but this love continues to be lavished on us.  It’s established and fixed but it’s not over; it’s a continuing feature of our lives, available and present to us every day.

This is not a throwaway line.  God deserves our worship and praise because the One who holds all the power in creation loves us, and uses that power for our good.

And God freed us from our sins.

This is, I suspect, slightly counter-intuitive language for us now.  We tend, when we think about sin, to think about it something that we do; that I hurt or wound someone else in some way, and that that action has a quality which we call “sin.”  In that conception, it’s hard to see how sin is something which we need to be freed from, except perhaps, if it means avoiding habitual patterns of bad behaviour.

But there’s a different way to think about sin that might be more helpful.

Imagine, for a moment, that all the relationships you have are like a net.  There’s a strand from you to each of your parents and your children (if you have them) and other relatives, a strand for each friendship, a strand for each colleague and one for your doctor and one for your butcher and so on; whomever you interact with enough to have any kind of relationship.  Some strands might be thicker or longer or stronger than others, but your life is all held together in that net of relationships.  Never mind “You are what you eat;” I’d say it’s more accurate to say that “You are the sum of all your relationships.”

And now imagine that every time we treat one another badly, those strands get tangled.  Each lie or instance of gossip or aggressive criticism takes those strands and twists and knots them up.  Instead of becoming a net which supports and holds us safe, it becomes a place which injures and entraps us.

This is kind of a helpful way to think of how sin even from before we were born can impact us so badly; because we’re born into a net of relationships which is already twisted and knotted, and we can’t escape it by our own abilities. That’s what’s called original sin, and it affects us before we’re even old enough to recognise it.

Anyway.  So if you think about being kind of all tangled up in all those twisted strands – maybe a bit like being bundled up by a spider – that’s not a bad image for what sin does to us, because it’s our relationships that make us who we are; and sin is what makes those relationships damaging and confining instead of nurturing and empowering.  So then we can see how sin might be something we need to be freed from.  God comes and untangles the knots and cuts through the threads twisted so tight that they’re strangling, and restores the net back into the shape it should have; the shape that allows for a well-functioning community and personal safety.

And it’s done!  We’re still in the process of unwinding the tangles, but God has made it possible.  And because God has done it, God deserves our worship and praise.  Nobody else – no earthly power – could make that possible.

Revelation’s vision is of Christ as a King, not just over this particular place and this moment in time, but over all of time and space, everything that exists, that ever was or ever will be.  Christ has the power to rearrange our reality, releasing us from everything that binds us, loving us back into the wholeness of what we were originally created to be, and calling us forward to participate with him in the work of setting the cosmos to rights.

And we’re being asked today to remember that, to hold onto it, not to accept any substitutions or inferior imitations, not to be impressed with displays of power that are used for ungodly ends, but to remember not just that Christ reigns, but the quality of his reign.

That’s what we’re committed to, as a people set apart, a kingdom and priests, all of us together.  To live under that reign, to commit our lives to being an expression of the quality of Christ’s reign.  To work for healing and wholeness in our relationships, and to extend our net of relationships to reach those who don’t yet know that reign; that love and freedom.

It’s all well and good for choir and organ to thunder in praise – and I enjoy that as much as anyone – but as we come to celebrate Christ as king it demands the commitment of our whole selves.  So let’s not offer Him less than our all.

Consider Christ

This is a sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scripture it references is Hebrews 9:19-28.

I wonder what you do to build your own resilience?  Is it something you do consciously and deliberately, or is it fairly instinctive (like, in my case, reaching for the chocolate)?

There are, of course, as many different ways of building resilience as there are individual people, but one which is very commonly used now is imaginative visualisation.  So there are no end of resources out there helping people to imagine, say, a peaceful place, a place of complete safety, to calm anxiety; or warmth to ease pain; or a comforting touch to allow you to have compassion for yourself.   These are incredibly powerful techniques, and widely used across various caring and healing professions.

But what brought them to mind for me today is the way the author of Hebrews is doing a very similar thing.  He (or she, perhaps, since we don’t know who wrote Hebrews; but he for convenience) is using words to describe something none of his readers or listeners have ever seen, inviting them to explore and interpret that reality in relation to their own lives.

What I mean is this; the part of Hebrews we read this morning compares the system of sacrifice in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, with which the people who received this letter would have been familiar, with what Christ has accomplished in heaven; which these people would, of course, not have seen; but can imagine as the author builds a picture out of elements familiar to them.

So the author here compares Christ’s ascension to heaven to a priest going into the sanctuary of the temple; and says that Christ has accomplished everything the priests accomplished, only more perfectly, more fully, more completely, and more powerfully, than any merely human priest ever could.

The overcoming of sin?  Christ did it.  All enemies defeated?  Christ did it.  Emptying death of its power and terror?  Christ did it.  Destroying the powers of destruction?  Christ did it.  Human beings made holy and acceptable to God, able to enter into intimate and loving relationship with God?  Christ did it.  Allowing us to experience freedom, confidence, flourishing and hope?  Christ did it.  Christ has done what is needed, to stand in the place which makes all these things possible for us.

This is the image the author of Hebrews wants us to come back to: Christ eternally in heaven, in the very presence of the depths of God’s being, on our behalf.  Whenever we’re anxious or overwhelmed or feel defeated or worthless, this is what we’re supposed to hold onto as the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”  Christ is in heaven, and his presence there is sovereign and effective in our circumstances here and now.  Holding onto that, reminding ourselves of that, helps us keep all our struggles and concerns in the perspective of eternity.

Part of the interesting thing about the images here is that it seems the author has kind of mashed up different events to do with the Exodus and the giving of the law, and says that what Jesus has done expresses the ultimate meaning of all those things.  Because there’s no time in the Old Testament where Moses is described doing exactly what is described here; but there are lots of references to Moses and blood and hyssop and sprinkling, which each separately contribute something to our understanding of how God was present to and active in the ancient Israelite community.

From Moses escaping Pharoah’s edict to kill all the baby boys, to the river Nile being turned to blood, to the calves sacrificed for sin, to the goats sacrificed for protection from death at Passover, to the waters of the Red Sea parting, to the scarlet wool and hyssop that the law required for cleansing a leper… all of this incredibly rich imagery from Exodus and the law drives home one point: God is absolutely in control of the forces of life and death.

(As an aside, there are worse things you can do than to read over Exodus again, looking for how it connects with the gospel).

But the image of the tent – the primitive sanctuary – is central. To put it in really blunt terms, for ancient Israel, God was in the tent.  That was the place where people could know God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s glory.  And the author here says that that tent was not the real deal!  God was present there, but it was only like a shadow or a copy of being in God’s utter presence in heaven.  That’s where Jesus has gone.  Not to the pale imitation but to the place where God is utterly God, unveiled by anything created or human.

And it’s from that place that grace and mercy then flow to us.

So it’s one natural consequence of this that we don’t need the pale imitation any more, because anything it might have pointed to or accomplished is fulfilled in Christ.  But I don’t think the point is just to tell people they don’t need to go through the motions any more.  Deeper than that, the point is to give people a clear vision of how everything they could ever possibly need from God is freely available to them now.  Even the law, which governed all the sanctuary rituals (as well as so many other details of everyday life) wasn’t needed in the same way now that Christ had fulfilled the purposes for which it was given.

This is why, later in the letter, the author says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  None of the people to whom he is writing have seen Jesus enthroned in heaven.  But they live by the assurance that that event is real, and that the consequences of that event have meaning for their lives.  In fact, that event is the source of eternal life for them!

“Consider Christ,” the author writes, “so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”  Remember who Christ is, and where Christ is, and on whose behalf Christ acts, as a way of resourcing yourself for life in a disheartened world.

The author of Hebrews has deliberately given his readers and hearers a mental picture of Christ in heaven, intended to deepen their resilience as they faced persecution and difficulty.  It’s well worth us taking that same reality, with all of its consequences, on board for our own lives, in our own difficulties, moments of hopelessness and grief.  There’s a great deal there to offer us strength.

Spoilers

This is a sermon for All Saints’ Day. The Scripture it references is Revelation 21:1-6a.  (Apologies that this is posted a week late, it’s been… rather busy with one thing and another here!)

I may not know what the future holds, but I do know – and trust – the One who holds the future.

This holds true on a number of levels; the future as in what will happen to me in my life; the future as in what I will experience after death, and the future as in what the ultimate end of everything will be like.  I may not be able to anticipate any of my experiences in that, but I can know that I am safe with the God who will hold all of those circumstances under his sovereignty.

But, sometimes, God gives us spoilers.  And God did just that in our reading from Revelation this morning.

Now I know that Revelation is, for most people, a confusing jumble; a series of visions without a good plot line, mixed in with a vague idea that this is supposed to have something to do with the end of the world.  And – if we’re honest – it often doesn’t make a lot of sense, and we tend not to read it very much by choice.

So I really need to start by saying that it is completely okay if you’ve never felt that Revelation made much sense.  There is a very good reason for that; Revelation, unlike most of the Bible, is written in a genre which is pretty much a dead art form.  But the key to making sense of it is in the name – “apocalyptic.”  That’s a word which English has borrowed from Greek, and it literally means “unveiling,” or “uncovering.”

The idea behind this kind of writing is that the physical world around us – what we can see, hear, touch and so on – is not the whole truth about reality.  In particular, by this bit of Revelation – when we’re getting very close to the end of the book – John is sharing with us his vision of the ultimate future; the reality towards which everything we know now is progressing.

And it’s important, because this vision of the ultimate future is shared with us, to give us hope.  It’s shared with us to encourage us to live now in accordance with the vision of how things will ultimately be.  It’s shared with us so that we will press on towards bringing a foretaste of that future into the here and now.  We don’t just get spoilers, we’re meant to let them shape our lives and decisions so that through us, everyone else also gets a glimpse

So what do we see?

New creation.  The end of all that currently exists is not the end; not a descent into darkness, silence, and absolute zero.  It’s a new beginning!  A new heavens, a new earth, and a new city.  This is a vision of reality as we know it reimagined; remade to be whole and perfect and without any flaw or blemish.

The people who first received the book of Revelation were all city dwellers.  And they weren’t powerful or privileged within those cities; they were excluded, illegal, persecuted.  The power and wealth and culture of those cities was all brought to bear to oppress them.  The city they might once have looked to, to be something different – Jerusalem, God’s holy city – lay in ruins; temple and palaces and all that it was, torn to rubble.  But in this text, those earliest Christians – and we – are   promised a different kind of city.  A city of inclusiveness.  A city of human flourishing.  A city where power is only ever used to uplift and uphold each person, never to advance one person at another person’s expense.

And this city comes down out of heaven.  This is important.  The city of the future is not our doing; not something we will build of our good intentions (in fact, Scripture is full of stories where we tried to build perfection of our good intentions, and none of those stories ended well…).  But this new city is God’s creation.  It is beyond us to conceive or build; it comes to us as a gift of God’s grace.

It’s worth noting that some things are absent from this new, perfect creation.

There’s no sea, for example.  This isn’t literally about large bodies of salty water, because Revelation’s not that kind of book.  Rather, as with other places in Scripture, the sea represents the forces of chaos and destruction.  The fact that the new creation has no sea means that it is safe; there is nothing threatening to suck the land back under the water, drowning us in overwhelming waves.  There’s nothing here to threaten or harm or destroy.

There are also no tears, death, mourning, crying or pain.  I don’t know, to be honest, that I can really imagine what that will be like.  These are so much a part of what it means to be human as we know it, that to have a new creation where nothing will make you cry, nothing will make you hurt, nothing will rob us of life… it’s life, but as they say, not as we know it.  Life radically re-imagined in its very depths.

So those are things which are not there, in the new city.  But then, there are things which are there.  More important than anything else, God is there!  “The home of God is among mortals, and he will dwell with them.”  This is the ultimate fulfilment of the promise made to us over and over again in Scripture; God will make his home among us.  Later in this chapter John tells us that he sees no temple in this city, and that’s because the whole city is itself the temple; the whole city is the place where God dwells among God’s people.  The saints no longer gather before God, but God totally encompasses every aspect of their existence.  In every moment they are engulfed in God’s splendour and holiness and healing and love.

And who else is there?  The peoples of God.  Not people; not only one group or tribe or ethnicity.  But peoples.  This is a very cosmopolitan city, where people different races and cultures and languages all dwell with God and with one another.  Becoming a citizen of this city doesn’t eradicate our diversity; rather the citizens of this city are a riotous celebration of everything good in humanity.

There’s a lot more packed into this and the next chapter of Revelation, and I do encourage you to read over it for yourselves.

But for now, let me just reiterate that this isn’t some sort of fantasy of John’s.  This is the glimpse God gives John of what is to come.  God’s spoiler, if you like, on eternity.  “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.”  God holds this future in trust for us.  God holds this future out to us to inspire us to hope and courage.  God lifts the curtain to show us what’s in store for all the saints, and to invite us into that unimaginable new, recreated, perfect creation.

We know and trust God as the one who holds the future; so let us take hold of the future he offers us, and let it seep into our present in ways which create hope and joy through our lives.

Investing in relationships: Part III

This is the third in a three-sermon series on stewardship.  The Scripture it refers to is Luke 10:38-42.

I love this morning’s gospel reading.  If ever I need an excuse for neglecting the housework, there it is!  There is something better than housework, and Mary is commended for choosing it.

This domestic disagreement over the division of labour might not, at first blush, seem to have much to with stewardship, which has been our theme for the last couple of weeks; but you might remember that I’ve been talking about stewardship as investing in relationships.  On the first week I talked about our relationships with God, last week I talked about our relationships with each other, and this last week of the series I want to talk about our relationships beyond our parish community; which I’m going to refer to as mission.  Of course we have relationships beyond our parish which are not about mission; relationships with the wider Anglican church and other churches, but today what I’m interested in is our relationships with the people of our community.

We tend to think of “mission” as something we do, generally by sending specially prepared and educated people somewhere else, or sending money to those specially trained people, so that they can convert the people there to our belief and way of life.

But while that’s a kind of expression of mission which got very popular with colonialism and global empires, it’s not what the Church has historically meant by mission at all.  Mission was an activity understood to belong fundamentally to the Trinity; the Father sent the Son, the Father and the Son sent the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit were present and active in the world in order to achieve God’s purposes for the flourishing of creation; and that was mission.  In this deeper view, mission is God’s mission; it is God’s self-revelation as the One who loves the world, God’s ongoing involvement in and with the world.  It is about God’s intrinsic nature, God’s activity flowing out of that nature, and that is something in which the church is invited to participate.  Our God is a God-for-people; the church responds by attempting to be a church-for-people where it finds itself.

Mission is God’s “yes” to the world; in the sense that the work of the Church is to express the reign of God in justice, peace and human wholeness. To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love towards God’s people, since God is a fountain of sending love.

That’s why we exist as a Church; that’s what we’re here for.

So, go back for a moment to Mary and Martha and the housework.  Mary, kneeling at Jesus’ feet, knew what she was here for, what was most important.  But Martha?  Martha was distracted by her many tasks. 

It is so easy for that to happen.  Especially for community groups like small churches.  We get caught up in routines of meetings and reports and rosters and all the rest of it; all the little things that keep everything working smoothly… our many tasks.  And it’s so easy, when we’re distracted by our many tasks, to take our eyes off the ball of what we’re supposed to be doing… which is engaging with our community and context in ways which express the mission of God.

Some of you will be familiar with the 5 marks of mission, which are a statement on mission agreed on by Anglicans at an international level.  They are an attempt to capture what kinds of activities and aims would go to making up this sort of idea of mission, and they are as follows:

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.
  3. To respond to human need by loving service.
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

These areas are our equivalent of being Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet; they’re what we’re supposed to be focussed on, and what we’re not supposed to get distracted from.

There’s a lot there, of course, and each needs a lot of unpacking to explore what it might look like in practice; so let me just make some brief remarks on each one.

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.

In one sense, we proclaim the good news just by existing as the Church.  We point beyond ourselves to our reason for being, in response to our loving God.

(Or to put it another way, I remember one former dean of Melbourne saying that the church exists “to keep the rumour of God alive.”  That people look at us, our buildings, our services, our statements and actions, and are forced to confront at least the possibility that there might be a God).

So one question for us here might be, how do we engage better in public discourse where the good news is so badly needed?

  1. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers.

In some ways, I want to amend this one to remove the word “new” and just say, to teach, baptise and nurture believers.  When do any of us stop needing to learn or be nurtured?  I know I haven’t yet!

But this is the point which encourages us to reflect seriously on our study groups and other ways in which we teach and learn; our worship services, quiet days, pastoral care, and other aspects of how we nurture one another.  We might think about intentionally expanding our library and making it more easily available to the public.

On Wednesday night this week I went to a session of the Justice Conference, organised by Tear and other Christian organisations; and the main speaker on that night was focussed on hospitality as radical expression of the reign of God.  How do we enlarge our tables and gather more people around them, to feed them not only with food but with human relationships?  These are important challenges for us.

  1. To respond to human need by loving service.

We’ve done some really good things in this vein this year; packing birthing kits, raising money for local disadvantaged families and for Orange Sky Laundry; as well as our ongoing quiet support of local emergency relief organisations.

More and more I’m aware of high levels of social isolation and loneliness in our local area; our ministry to seniors might well be a good way to begin to do something about that, but perhaps we might also look at what the local council or others are doing, and how we might be involved.

We might also look at the work being done at a diocesan level on the prevention of violence against women; or ask ourselves how the work now being done on disability inclusion might be picked up and worked through in this parish.

  1. To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

95 bells for 95 children detained on Nauru; it’s cost us very little, but it’s turned out to be a very effective way to raise awareness of the plight of refugee children, locally and, indeed, nationally.

How else might we be able to challenge our blindness to our own privilege, and begin to provide space for the voices of more oppressed and marginalised groups in our community life?  I don’t pretend to have all the answers but again, I put it before you as a question.

  1. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Here’s where some contact and cooperation with local environmental groups fits within our mission.  It’s also where we might take thought for our energy use, our choice of cleaning chemicals, our use of paper, and so on.  When I had some involvement with the Student Christian Movement, they had a policy that all shared meals were vegetarian, because of the high environmental impact of farming animals for meat.  I wonder what it would be like if we chose to deliberately shift the balance of our shared meals in that direction?

There are, as you can see, options under all of these headings limited only by our creativity, and I spoke a little bit about them this morning really just to prompt some thinking and reflection rather than to present a fully-formed template for mission.

What I do want to stress is that amongst the many tasks of parish life which distract us, mission is what we’re supposed to be about, and the Marks of Mission are a good aid to reflecting on what really matters.  After all, wouldn’t we rather invest in what’s really going to make a difference in our world, rather than stressing about things which, ultimately, are not the point?

Rather than being worried and distracted by many things, let’s make sure that as we plan our life together, we choose the better part.