Greatness through the ages

This reflection was given during the Eucharist at a local retirement village and nursing home.  The Scripture it references is Mark 10:35-45.

The desire to become great… I wonder, is that a young person’s game?  James and John were probably young men when this conversation took place.  I picture them being full of machismo and with something to prove.

When I talk to people at the other end of life – people like yourselves, in nursing homes or retirement villages or in the care of relatives – I don’t see much of that youthful chest thumping left.  If anything, I tend to see a different sort of problem; the temptation to think that life has used up anything worthwhile in the elderly, and that you have nothing left to give which is of value.

It isn’t true, of course.  But in order to appreciate that, there are probably two shifts in thinking which need to take place.  One is to get past the value systems of the world, which worship youth and power and superficial beauty, and recognise that these are not the only places where we can see something of God.

And the other is to appreciate the ways in which you can still offer valuable service.  Obviously, for you, the heart of service is not going to be in physical strength or endurance.  But out of your life experience and your lived faith, you can offer wisdom and perspective which someone like me – despite being educated – simply cannot have.  As you look for and appreciate the gifts of others around you, you can offer hope and encouragement in a world where there isn’t enough of that to go around.  You can love unconditionally, with the peacefulness of someone who has passed through and survived life’s big conflicts.  And you can pray; for people, and with people, knowing that as you talk with the one who is Sovereign over everything that exists, you are connected to the greatest source of being and meaning and power that exists.

These are not, it is true, things which are going to necessarily receive accolades in the wider world.  But they are all parts of a way of life which is truly oriented to service, in the pattern that Christ showed us.

All I really want to say is, each of you still has so much to offer; please don’t let yourself be blinded to it and discouraged from making a difference in the way that only you can.

The Lord be with you.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit

This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday, given in the “church next door.”  There was a baptism immediately following the sermon.

It’s a very big thing to bring a child for baptism.  In a moment Bayden’s parents and godparents are going to be asked some serious questions, and we are all going to together reaffirm our common belief in the Christian faith.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, Bayden is just a baby, he doesn’t understand yet what we are doing, and he won’t remember it when he’s older.  Does what we’re doing and saying here really matter?  I’ve heard people make that kind of comment about baptism services before.  Perhaps similar thoughts have occurred to some of you.

But I think that kind of questioning comes from a place of not fully appreciating what’s at stake.  If all this were about was making Bayden a member of the Christian family, allowing him to be one of “us” instead of one of “them” – however you define us and them – then what we do and say wouldn’t matter.   We wouldn’t need the promises or affirmations,  just a quick dunk and you’re in.  Let’s all go eat.

But today is Trinity Sunday; it’s the day when the Church celebrates our experience of Who God is, and baptism is Bayden’s way in to relationship with that God.  What kind of God you have a relationship with is actually important, because it shapes how you understand your own identity and your place in the world.

So when we come to baptise Bayden in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, what are we saying about God?

Let me put that another way.  We talk about God as Trinity.  And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”

What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father?  Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God?  Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence?  Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?

I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.

And then, what is it to talk about God the Son?  The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Paul said, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.

There is, I think, something important consider here.  And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites.  Sometimes in the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine.  The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.

I have to tell you, that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash.  There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son.  Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption.  In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.

Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that?  Some of us will have experienced, or known others who have experienced, “charismatic” expressions of the Spirit in the life of believers.  That is all well and good and to the glory of God.  But even for those of us who haven’t, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is still there to be seen.  As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.

All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer.  It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully.  It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.

I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God.  I hope that as Bayden comes to baptism today, he and his family can experience something of that exhilaration.  Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst.  Who wouldn’t be exhilarated?  Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?

There’s one more thing to say about this experience of God, and that is that it’s not just about individuals.

The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us as a community; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.  Our life together should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

That is my answer to the question “So what?”  That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today.  And this is the understanding of God into which Bayden is being baptised this morning.

So I invite Bayden’s parents and godparents to bring him forward for baptism into relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

 

Hallowed in truth

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is John 17:11-19

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus asked the Father to sanctify his disciples in the truth.

It’s an abstract concept, maybe not easy to grasp; what does it mean to be sanctified in the truth?

It probably really only makes sense in the light of everything that has come before it, in this gospel.  Jesus has already by this point told us that he is the giver of living water, the bread of life, the light of the world.  He has presented a complex, multi-faceted identity.  But I think that he’s done that so that if one image doesn’t particularly speak to where you are, another one might.  Hunger and thirst for life, the yearning for truth you can trust, for goodness and beauty, feeling trapped in cages of our own making or even darkness; he has an image of himself for each of those needs.

And along with those images comes the invitation to abide with Jesus; to find in him a fundamental orientation to life, a rock on which to stand, a foundation on which to build.

I don’t have to tell you about this, really.  Most of you have known it as truth for longer than I’ve been alive, and I’m just a baby in the faith compared to your wisdom and experience.

But this is the key to effective discipleship, isn’t it?  To rest in Jesus and be at home with him.  To allow ourselves to open more and more, little by little, to the voice which offers us healing for our particular wounds and weaknesses (and we all have them).

This is the power of the words of God; to transform us, to shape our intentions, to centre us on what really matters.  As one translation put it, to hallow us.

I rather like the idea of being hallowed; as if, over time, the Spirit will patiently be at work until I go from dimness to a warming glow as I go through life.

May God hallow us all in his truth.

The homilies: An homilie on the right use of the church or temple of God, and of the reverence due unto the same

One of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church states that: The second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.

It is not, to my knowledge, still the custom anywhere in the Anglican communion to read these homilies during services of public worship.  But recently I was asked how influential they are, and I had to reply that although lip service is paid to the idea that they contain a “godly and wholesome doctrine,” most Anglicans would be hard pressed to tell you what that doctrine actually was.

So, as much for my own education as for your amusement, I decided to work my way through the homilies and comment briefly on them here.  In each case, I’ll be looking for the main point of the homily and asking, does it contain a godly and wholesome doctrine, necessary for these times?  And if it does, how might I present that doctrine in my own preaching today?

So, first up: An homilie on the right use of the church or temple of God, and of the reverence due unto the same.

The bumper sticker version of this homily would be: Go to church.  And pay attention while you’re there.  And fundamentally, it’s pretty hard to argue with that.  The homily argues that the church, as the place of common and public prayer, is the place for the people of God to gather, to hear God’s holy word, to call upon his holy name, to give him thanks for his innumerable and unspeakable benefits bestowed upon us, and duly and truly to celebrate his holy sacraments, and that this is our “most bounden duty.”

So far so good.  The way that the supporting arguments are presented is perhaps, a little bit dated; today we would likely not argue that our having seasonable weather is dependent on our church-going, but I would be more likely to set our church-going within a wider horizon of hope and of equipping us to participate in the mission of God.  (But then, I don’t minister within a national, Established church, either, and that would change how one sees the relationship between God, the Church, and the state…)

And where the homily presents the role of the laity in their church going as relatively passive (stressing their role as quiet and reverent hearers of Scripture and the public prayers as said by the minister), I would be more likely to present the church as the arena in which we all have a role to play and a contribution to bring, and to encourage people not to leave the community the poorer without their presence.

There is, I think some use of Scripture which today we would find questionable; we would not likely draw an equivalence between the ancient Jewish temple and contemporary Christian church buildings, as if they were identical in purpose and function; and I think we would be more likely to understand “Church” first as the body of the believers, and only as the institution or building or worship service in a secondary sense.  The distinction isn’t always clear in the homily, and more work could be done on teasing that out, in contemporary preaching.

But those are, perhaps, questions of culture as much as anything else.  The fundamental point remains; worshipping together is good.

A side note: one element of the homily which surprised me was its open praise of the Jews, even to the point of saying that the Jews were far superior to the Christians, in their diligence at worship; while criticising the Christians for their slackness and contempt of the importance of worship.  No doubt this was making a powerful rhetorical point to its original hearers, but I thought it was quite refreshing as an example of the opposite of anti-Semitism enshrined in “godly and wholesome doctrine”!