Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martyrs

This reflection was given during the Eucharist at a local retirement village and nursing home.  The Scripture it references is Acts 15:1-21.

Today’s reading puts before us Luke’s account of one of the very important decisions of the early church; where it was agreed that the Jewish law was not binding on the gentile Christians.

While that’s a very important decision and there are lots of things one might say about it, the aspect I want to draw out today is the part played by different people in arriving in that decision.  Paul, Barnabas, Peter and James are all recorded as having had things to say, and as agreeing to the decision as it was eventually made.

The story doesn’t end there, of course, and in his letter to the Galatians Paul complains that Peter has not always acted in accordance with this decision.  And it’s interesting too that in today’s passage Peter claims to be the apostle to the gentiles, and in his letters, Paul thinks that Peter ought to be a leader of the Jewish Christians and leave the gentiles to Paul.  Clearly their relationship was complex.

And yet today the church has set aside as a memorial of both of them, together; Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles and Martyrs.  Even though they disagreed, and obviously fairly bitterly at times, the church has set them side by side as examples for us of how to live the faith; and ultimately, how to die for it.

And the conclusion I draw from that, is that disagreement amongst Christians is not a disaster.  It is not necessarily a sign that one is more faithful to God than the other.  Rather, the rich variety of the people of God might be God’s gift to us, as we each contribute to the kingdom of God in our own ways.

This gives me the freedom to pursue my own path with integrity, without necessarily needing to condemn others as wrong.

So what do we do with that?  We celebrate diversity in the Christian life.  We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others.  We work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past.  That’s how we can remember and honour Saints Peter and Paul, two very different men who each nonetheless contributed indispensably to the foundations of the church.

Slaves to one another

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

Paul wrote: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

There’s a challenging instruction.  Shall we set up a bit of an auction block in the narthex after the service?  How much do you think I would fetch on the open market?

Is that a confronting question?  If it is, maybe it’s because we’ve become so used to the language of the New Testament that we’ve forgotten how confronting some of its phrases would have been to their original hearers.  Become slaves… become property… lose all standing in society, as well as any protection against exploitation.  Have your will bound by law to that of another person, so that you become powerless in your own life.

What is Paul really telling the churches in Galatia?

Slavery is a metaphor, here, of course.  Paul doesn’t mean that the Galatian Christians – or we – should become literal slaves.  But it means that looking at slavery as Paul understood it can tell us something about how Paul thought Christians ought to relate to one another.  It doesn’t tell us everything, but it is worth pausing to see what it does say.

I think the main point here is one of mutual service.  (And actually, to his original hearers, the idea that it was mutual would probably have been more shocking than the idea of slavery!)  That Paul is saying that our time, energy, and talents ought to be used not only or even mainly for our own ends, but for the good of one another.  I have to say that this is not something which I see as a particular weakness in this congregation.  The spirit of mutual care and love is real and expressed in so much of what you do.

But as I reflect on where the blocks to our giving ourselves to this demand more fully lie – and I fully include myself in this – it seems to me that it is often our families which compete for our attention.  In a society where very few people are part of a church alongside their spouse, children, siblings or other more distant relatives, instead of church being a natural widening of that circle of family, it’s become something that competes with it instead.  Shall I spend time with my daughter or visit a fellow-parishioner who is sick?

This isn’t something that has a simple solution, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we abandon our families.  But I do wonder whether, as our social patterns change, we need to revisit our assumptions about how church communities work, and how we shape our patterns of worship and community and family life?  Something worth thinking about together, at least.

The other aspect of the service of a slave is that it is non-judgmental, or perhaps I should say, unconditional.  The slave doesn’t serve only when he likes his master, or agrees with a course of action.  We aren’t bound to one another just in sunny times when it’s easy to get along.  But in Christ, we owe one another of our best even when we’d rather walk away.

So where do we go with this?  I think we need to look at the idea of our obligation to one another here alongside the idea – which Paul expresses in other places in his letters – that each of us is given gifts for the service of the church community.  It’s because God has given each of us something unique to contribute, so that the whole church can effectively share his love with the world, that we have an obligation not to leave that unexpressed.

As an aside, this is why I’m passionate about ministry not as something just left to professionals, but which belongs in a very real way to all of us as a community.  Because not only can I not do all the work myself, but because each of you will have something that you can bring which I can’t.  Some of us have more visible roles, but they’re not really more significant than any others.  And working together we can be far more than if we have a performer-and-audience model of ministry.  Paul asked in his first letter to the Corinthians, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?  If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” But as it is, God has put all of us together with different strengths so that together we can be a well-functioning body.

I wonder if you’ve ever asked yourself what your unique gift for the church might be?  The New Testament mentions a huge variety of things which might be considered spiritual gifts; from administration to discernment, encouragement, giving, wisdom… and that’s just a small sample.  Which of them might belong to you?  And how might you use that here, in this community?

If you’re not sure, the best way to figure it out is to give a few different things a go and see what fits.  Maybe, if you’re not sure that you have any particular gift, or you’re not sure what it is, it’s time to try something new?

Now, none of this is meant to be a drudge, or a burden or a chore.  That’s why Paul wrote that it is through love that we become slaves to one another.  When you’re passionate about something, you want to give it your all.  When you really care about someone, your heart will break at their need.  We’re not being asked to fake it, but to let God help us find that depth of love within ourselves.

But to come back to the metaphor of slavery… I wonder what would happen if each of us set ourselves the challenge of finding, say, one thing to do each week, no matter how small, which in some way expressed God’s love for someone else in this parish?  If you keep a journal, and you took on a challenge like that, what you would find is that a sequence of very small acts of love, over time, added up to a significant pattern of making a difference.

Through love become slaves to one another.  I leave it with you to think about.

 

 

 

Christ triumphant

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 8:26-39.

Feeling comfortable with that gospel reading?  Even more than other categories of Jesus’ miracles, stories of exorcisms can leave us feeling uneasy; what was really going on?  What are demons, and how do they come to interact with human beings?  And to what extent is this kind of encounter with them unique to Jesus, and how much should we consider them relevant to our own context?

Although the story in the gospel can shape our thinking on this, it’s probably fair to say that we are not going to understand these things in the way that the earliest Christians did.  A quick trip to a mental health ward will tell you that, because you will – I speak from experience – meet people there convinced of demonic involvement in their lives, who have very thick medical files documenting the physical nature of their illness.  We can’t turn back the clock on our thinking and see demons in a simple or naïve way.

But I also remember that when I was in college, one of our lecturers once talked to us about the things he wished people had told him when he was in college.  And one of his comments was that he wished college had prepared him for the first time he would be called on to be involved in deliverance ministry.  When I talk to older and more senior clergy, many of them have stories of encounters with things which are not easily reduced to or explained away in scientific terms.  This strand of Christian experience can’t be dismissed with the simple idea that “we know better now.”

The ancient world understood the spiritual powers – angels, demons and the like – as non-material, invisible, heavenly entities with specific characteristics or qualities.  These are all the good creations of a good God, but some of them have “fallen,” becoming more or less evil in intent, and may even be set on the destruction of humanity.

And this reminds us that the question of exorcism is really tied in to the bigger idea of what the charismatics call “spiritual warfare.”  The idea that while God is at work in the world, bringing about God’s purposes, and will ultimately triumph, there is also evil at work in the world, in various ways (not just or perhaps even primarily through possession but also perhaps involved in the oppressive forces in the world, in spiritual deception, and so on).  You can go to quite unhealthy places with that, and I’m not going to encourage you to start checking under the bed for demons.

But I’d say that it’s a concept, again, that we probably can’t dismiss out of hand as having no use in explaining how we experience the world.  Some scholars have suggested that it is better, in our own context, rather than thinking of quasi-magical beings, to understand demons and the like as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power working for evil.  In that way, we can also understand what is sometimes called “Satan” as the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity; and I’d suggest that’s not a bad starting point.

So what can we usefully say about this encounter between Jesus and demons?  It is a dramatic presentation of a personal confrontation between God and evil, as it was understood in the culture of the day.  You see, exorcism actually wasn’t unusual in Jesus’ day; or for many centuries before and after it.  But in general, an exorcist used to call upon a higher power – usually his god or an angel or the like – to subdue the demon.  What was unique in Jesus’ exorcisms is that he doesn’t need to do that; he is the higher power, present to and standing to confront evil in his own being.  And the demon recognized it too; the demon had cried out to him as “Son of the Most High God”!

And something else I think it’s helpful for us to recognize here is Jesus’ compassion for the man in front of him.  The gospel describes his wretchedness; naked, living among the tombs, bound with chains and so on; but Jesus met him and loved him enough to want to remedy the cause of this wretchedness.

And if we take that concept and entertain it for a while, we can see that for a Christian, what is important is to be in some way present to Jesus, if we hope to find whatever evil we do confront overcome.  Whether that is through prayer, through the ministry of the Christian community, through being filled with the Holy Spirit, or in whatever way God may be present to us, it is through the presence and work of God that whatever is evil – whether we understand that in personal terms, as a demon, or in other terms – is transformed as we are brought closer to God, and God’s love for us is able to change us.

You see, we live in an in-between time.  If we want to use the imagery of battle, then the healings and exorcisms which Jesus did and which we have recorded in the gospels, are an open assault on evil, and an indication that the kingdom of God is winning.

Ultimately, Jesus, through his death on the cross and his resurrection, has brought about the final triumph of God over every form and manifestation of evil.  And yet that is still being worked out, and is not yet complete.  So we wait, and in the meantime, we still experience evil; but we do it in the full knowledge of the reality of God’s ultimate triumph.  That’s where our focus needs to be.  Because while we need to recognize evil in the world, we also need to be able to be part of God’s work in overcoming that evil, whether that is in individual people, or in institutions or social systems or cultures.  So we need to be a church of people who are confident of God’s victory in Christ, of God’s protection and his power, as we make that known outside these walls.

Paul put it this way:  “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Christ has fought and won the decisive victory over whatever may be that is evil.  Christ is triumphant and we, in union with Christ, share that triumph even while we wait for the final victory parade.

And that’s why gospel stories like this matter.  Because as we read them, they bolster that confidence, they help us to take shelter under that protection, and they help us to recognize the power of God when we see it at work in the world today.

 

Right relationships

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Galatians 2:15-21.  

I wonder if, as you listened to our reading from Galatians this morning, you felt that it was completely clear and you understood exactly what Paul was trying to say?

I often find Paul’s meaning difficult to follow, especially when he rambles on about abstract ideas, and I suspect I’m not alone; because this passage and others like it have been key in some of the biggest arguments Christian groups have had over the last six hundred years or so.

What is justification?  What does it mean to be justified?  Does it really change us, or is it more a change of God’s attitude towards us?  Can we make it happen, or is that entirely up to God?  Can we lose our justification?  And what difference does it all make anyway?

These were some of the big questions driving the Reformation, but for all the many different ways that people have approached these questions, I wonder whether you have a sense of confident understanding of them?

I don’t have time, in one sermon, to deal thoroughly with the whole topic.  What I’m really interested in exploring, this morning, is the question of whether being justified changes us.  But in order to get to that, I probably need to take a step back first and look at the question, what is justification?

It’s unfortunate for us that the tradition of translation here favours a legal understanding.  It has the same Latin root as justice, and that often leads us towards understanding what Paul is talking about here as if he meant it in a legal sense.

But while we might be able to use a legal analogy to understand aspects of his argument, I don’t think he was fundamentally expressing a legalistic idea.  The Greek word he uses has a different and broader base of meaning, and I think the best translation of it, where we might usually see “justify,” is actually something more like, “bring into right relationship.”

Well, if we’re talking about relationships, we’re immediately taking a different sort of approach than if we’re talking about law, aren’t we?

Let me re-read the passage for you, using that kind of idea instead of law-related language, and see if it strikes you differently:

“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is brought into right relationship not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be brought into right relationship by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be brought into right relationship by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be brought into right relationship in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not nullify the grace of God; for if right relationship comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

So how – you might ask – does this bringing-into-right-relationship work?  God, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, holds out to us the offer of a right relationship; one in which all of the things which previously stood between us and God have been overcome by God, and we have complete freedom to respond in love.  And we, as we are able to recognise that, and respond, live in a way which makes that relationship a living reality.

And what are the consequences of being brought into this right relationship?  I’d suggest that these are the main things to think about.

  • We have peace with God (and, by extension, with each other). This is the profound theological truth behind the greeting of the peace in our worship.
  • Our sins are forgiven. Whatever our lack of love of God and of neighbour has led us to do, that is set aside as our relationships have a new beginning.
  • Any religious or spiritual punishment or penalty is set aside for us. This is where the legal aspect of this idea is useful; it is as if any guilty verdict against us, and its consequences, is removed.
  • We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is with the Spirit present and dwelling within us that our relationship with God is sustained and nourished.
  • We are able to order our lives to reflect our right relationship with God, so that it impacts on every aspect of how we live, and particularly our relationships with others.
  • And we have assurance that our right relationship with God has consequences beyond this life, and for eternity. We need not fear death or what comes after it but be confident the God who holds us in love in this life, will hold us in love in whatever comes after.

These are not small things!  A right relationship with God will impact us in profound ways.  You will all have heard that “You are what you eat;” but I’d suggest that it’s just as true that “You are your relationships.”  And a relationship with the one who created and sustained everything in existence is bound to make a big difference to how we experience life.

This is, incidentally, why for so many Christians going to confession is an important part of their life of faith.  I know that it isn’t a big feature of how people approach things in this parish, but I think it’s worth remembering that Anglicans still have confession – as an option, nobody is obliged to take it up – and that it is intended to be a useful tool in helping us recognise and respond to the offer of a right relationship which God always holds out to us.  It’s not that I expect everyone to want to use that tool, but I think it’s important that you know that it exists and it’s available to you.

There’s just one more point I want to make while we’re thinking together about this.  And that is that Christians, especially in the West, have tended to think about these issues of right relationship with God in a very individualistic way, where it’s all about me and God in our own little bubble, and the rest of the church is just a group of people all of whom are also each in their own little bubble with God, and those bubbles are barely adjoining, let alone interacting in any way.

But I’d suggest to you that – as I said before – being in right relationship with God is always complicated by the fact that it draws us into a community of all of those in that right relationship, and we are in relationship with one another as well.  An emphasis on relationships – with God and with others – as the key thing in Christian life might well be the most profoundly counter-cultural idea we have, in a world where individualism is very much the public doctrine of the day.

So where does that leave us?  Justification – being brought into right relationship with God – does change us, profoundly.  Its impacts should be felt in every part of our lives.  If we have any doubt about that right relationship being open to us, we have the Scriptures, we have prayer, and we have the community of believers in which to seek to reconnect to that most basic truth of our faith.  And our right relationship with God draws us into a community of believers, a network of wider relationships, which may be our greatest strength in contrast to a world of disconnected individuals.

That doesn’t begin to exhaust everything that could be said about all of this, but I hope it is enough to give you some useful ideas on which to reflect.

With all your heart

This reflection was given during the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is Mark 12:28-34.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart.”

Our gospel this afternoon puts that before us as the most fundamental part of the Christian life – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

But what does it mean to love the Lord your God with all your heart?

I suspect that for many people, they take this to mean that our whole heart must be full and overflowing with warm fuzzy feelings about God.  That we should come to God overwhelmed with joy, and perfectly at peace with ourselves and our situation in life.  And that anything other than this, then, is a falling short of the gold standard of loving God with all your heart.

But it is not really very human to be in that kind of emotional state very often, or with very much consistency.  Bodily creatures that we are, our emotions are influenced by everything from whether we’ve had enough sleep to whether we’re grieving the loss of a dearly loved person; and the command to love God doesn’t make that emotional variation disappear.  I put it to you that a saint is not an emotional broken record of happiness.

What I’d suggest to you, though, is that something else might be a more human way to love the Lord with all your heart.  And that is that when you are exhausted, grieving, angry, jealous, or whatever other emotion it is that you’re experiencing… that you bring it to God in love.  God is big enough to hear all of our sorrows and hold us through them.  God is resilient enough to take in anything we will entrust to Him.  God is loving enough to have compassion on anything which we will open to Him.

Maybe loving God with all your heart means letting a loving God hear your anger, trusting that when the anger has passed – as it always does – God will still be there.  Maybe it means letting a loving God see our vulnerability and brokenness, trusting that even when we feel pathetic, God will not despise us.  Maybe it doesn’t mean trying to present a perfect emotional state, but to present whatever emotional state we’re in, completely, with the unselfconsciousness and simplicity of a baby clinging to her mother.

And – Paul says later in one of his letters – the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts in Christ Jesus.  We love God with our whole hearts, and in turn He protects what we entrust to Him.

There is a challenge to us, in this.  But I hope it is a challenge in which you may be deeply blessed.