Law and Sign

This is a sermon for the first Sunday of Advent, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Romans 13:9-14.  This week, we were also completing the National Church Life Survey, and as a result, the sermon is shorter than usual.  

Paul wrote: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

This is familiar stuff.  But it did strike me as an interesting choice for the first Sunday in Advent.  Advent is a time when we look forward, think about the ultimate future: the end of the world as we know it, if you like, but only because it will be replaced by something unimaginably better.  And what have Paul’s ramblings about law got to do with that?

We tend to think of the law – even religious law – as a bunch of rules which tell us what to do (and what not to do) but which can’t actually change our attitudes.  But I think that that’s really underestimating how the law functions in the spiritual life of those who follow it.

Law was given to Israel not just as a bunch of rules, but as a sign; it was to be a constant reminder of the relationship with God which was above and beyond the rules.  Circumcision, Sabbath, and the regulations for temple worship are all described as “signs” for the people which remind them of the deeper reality of God’s covenant with them.

The law was also the way by which people could participate in that relationship.  It gave them a way in to claiming that covenant of God for themselves, for making it real in the fabric of their own lives.  It was an instrument – or a cluster of instruments – which kept Jewish faith alive during all the historical circumstances which could have seen it ended.

And the law was meant to be a foretaste; the prophets in particular pointed out to Israel that what they had now was not the whole reality but that an even better future was coming; but for now, the law gave them a little taste of what that future – with its radical justice, peace, and joy – would be like.

And all of these things functions of the law – being a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the fullness of relationship with God – have their parallels in Christian experience as well.   Paul wrote that “love is the fulfilling of the law,” and in the love we have for God, for God’s world, and for one another, the church should now be sign, instrument and foretaste of the fullness of relationship with God, to which all of creation looks forward with longing.

Our presence should be a constant reminder to the world around us of the relationship with God that is made possible for all.  The communal life of the church should be a way for people to be drawn into and participate in that relationship.  And in doing so they should find that what we have now is just the beginning of better things yet to be fulfilled.

So perhaps Paul’s comments on law are not so out of place for a time when we’re focussing on the future.  If the ultimate future is the complete revelation of God, and the completion of God’s work, this reading points us towards how we ought to orient ourselves towards that.

This is only the first Sunday of Advent.  We have between now and Christmas, a time to focus particularly on what we’re pointing to.  It should be our aim to be sure that in every aspect of our life together, we are pointing to Christ.

What kind of king?

This is a sermon for the feast of Christ the King, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Colossians 1:11-20.

I don’t know how much of the internet commentary on the American election any of you have been watching, but amidst the many moments that have made me very glad to be Australian, there have been some real moments of humour.

One satirical piece I saw was purporting to be a letter from the Queen to American citizens, graciously offering to put them out of their misery, and allow them to become her subjects again.  The twist in the tail of it, for me, is that while a monarchy might not represent much democracy or freedom, it is at least assumed to be relatively benign and mostly harmless.

In the same sort of way, it’s sometimes tempting, I suspect, to think about titles like “Lord” and “King” for Christ and think that they represent something of the same thing; a relationship with Christ in which he is assumed to be distant, relatively benign and mostly harmless.  That they might have meant something heavier to people centuries ago, when everyone knew what it was to live in feudal obedience to Lords and Kings, but that today, when Kingship has no real impact on day-to-day life in a place like Melbourne, it’s become a bit irrelevant, and that using this kind of language almost plays into the stereotype of religion as a hangover from medieval times.

It might surprise you, then (as it surprised me) to find out that a feast day for “Christ the King” began as recently as 1925; why begin such an observance at a time when Kings generally were in decline?

In 1925, in Italy, fascism was on the rise.  Democracy had just been abolished.  The question posed to all Catholics – because Christ the King was originally a Catholic observance, which Anglicans and others adopted later – but the question posed by this new feast was sharp and clear: where do you stand?  With fascism or with Christ?

That’s a question which doesn’t date.  Political movements come and go, but on all sorts of questions, each of us would do well to consider from time to time where we stand.  We gather together to support one another as we live out our commitment to stand with Christ, and we have a chance to think about that a little more deeply this morning.

What can we say about this Christ whom we call King?

I think we get some good insight into that from the reading we heard today from the letter to the Colossians.  They were a community of people who had chosen – over against their culture – to stand with Christ, and Paul and Timothy wrote to them to encourage them and deepen their understanding of what that meant.

So this passage emphasizes for us that Christ is our creator.  All things have been created through him and for him; including us.  Christ’s work on the cross is not out of keeping with what has gone before; but even as He originally made us, through the cross He continues His work in us, bringing it to fulfillment.  His work on the cross brings all of creation a step closer to its ultimate perfection.

There is no doubt in this passage that Christ is God Himself.  All the fullness of God dwells in Him.  That, combined with the fact that Christ created the world, gives us another important understanding: Christ is supreme over all the world today.  There is nothing in existence which is more powerful than He is.  There is no other ruler which can withstand Him.  There is nothing, ultimately, which can get in the way of His purpose.  On the cross it seemed that Christ was weak and abused unto death, and yet He rose, and He has the triumph over all hatred, fear and evil.

Just for a moment, consider those dominions and powers mentioned in the letter, which Christ is above.  Paul and Timothy haven’t spelled it out in great detail, but it seems that these refer both to spiritual realities and to human ones.  These are things which – like everything else – are created in and for Christ and whose true purpose is to serve Him; when that purpose gets bent out of shape, that’s when they become agents of evil. Evil isn’t a popular word, but it’s one that we need to take seriously as part of the landscape of our faith.  It’s a mistake to think of this in over-spiritualised terms; Scripture talks about Satan, but most of us meet him not in visions but in the very concrete realities of human oppression, injustice and hurt.

Even the church, which is described here as the body of Christ, can participate in that evil when we forget that our purpose is in and for Christ.  Over against that very solemn warning, though, we need to be encouraged that although these kinds of powers have some limited authority now, it is the work of God in the cross which gives our existence its ultimate shape and end.

As this reading talks about the Church as the body of Christ, it tells us that ultimately, we belong to Him, and not to anyone else.  We have our origins in Him, and also take our identity and our unity from Him.  We aren’t always good at unity, but wherever we are reconciled and at peace with one another, that is a true expression of what it means to be Christ’s body.

What then?  What does it really mean to stand with Christ, to have him as our King?

We actually started our reading this morning in an odd place; although it begins by saying “may you be made strong,” and so forth, it’s a continuation of a thought from earlier in the letter, where they say that “we have not ceased praying for you,” and in fact the first part of our reading is their description of their prayer for the Colossian Christians.

Here’s an insight, then, about what it means to stand with Christ; to pray for one another, not as a one off, but as a way of life.

Paul and Timothy prayed for the Colossian Christians to have strength, and they saw that strength as coming from the glory and power of God.  Glory has two important aspects to it; the sense of light and beauty, and also the sense of praise and honour.  It reminds all of us today that praising God, also, is part of what it means to stand with Christ.  Notice also the emphasis Paul and Timothy place on giving thanks; that goes together with praise.  This is one of the reasons why it is helpful for us to meet together to worship God; on our own it is difficult to maintain the habits of praise and thanksgiving to God, but together we help and encourage one another to do so.

Paul and Timothy talk about our being made fit to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.  There is a sharp distinction here; in their minds we can be under the power of darkness, or in the light of Christ.  This is another way of considering where we stand; there’s no option here of a twilight in between place.  The good thing about this for us, is that God has enabled us to share in the light; it’s not up to us working on our own, but allowing God to work in us.   It is God who gives us the freedom and the power to live in the light.

To stand with Christ, then, also means allowing God to work in us, so that we can experience His light.

We commit to standing with Christ in His Kingdom, being assured that all other kingdoms, all other allegiances, all other loyalties will pass away; ultimately no other power will stand in the presence of the power of God.  Choosing to stand with Christ means allowing ourselves to be part of God’s kingdom, and to share in the sure promise of eternal life.

Paul and Timothy write that the Colossians “have been transferred” into Christ’s kingdom, to belong to God and to live in fellowship with all the reconciled people of God.  Today we are reminded of our own transfer in just the same way.  We have been given some important insights into what standing in that kingdom means: continuing prayers of praise and thanksgiving, prayer for and unity with one another, allowing God to work in us, and trusting in God for eternity.  Today, on the feast of Christ the King, I hope we can hold on to all of these as blessings in our life together.

The Year of Change

When I was in college, I remember having a guest lecturer once who was famous for having been dean of a Cathedral during a time when its interior furnishings were completely changed and the worship life of the place renewed, with the result of transformed encounters with the people of the local community.  This dean, then, had come to talk to us about the question of leading a faith community through a time of change (and when, I ask you, is a faith community not in a time of change?)

Anyway.  One piece of advice that he gave us was that in order to help people become willing to engage with the challenge of change, you had to spend at least a year telling those people at every opportunity that the gospel is all about change.  That the gospel should change us, change our relationships, change our churches and our world, and that we should not be satisfied with the status quo when we know how far it falls short of God’s will for our world.  But it took a year, he said, for that message to begin to sink in and be internalised into people’s understanding of how things are.

Well.  I came to the two parishes where I am currently ministering just a little over a year ago, at a time for them of very great, and in some ways very unwelcome change.  I remembered this advice from college, and set myself a challenge; that for a year, I would try to preach, at every opportunity, about change.  That I would scour the readings set in the lectionary and ask myself, “What does this have to tell us about God’s heart for change?” and use that as a reference point in my preaching.

It’s been a very interesting exercise.  I was concerned, when I started, that it would be boring; that after a week or two I would find myself repeating the same basic points over and over again.  In fact it has been positively eye-opening, for me as much as for those listening to me.  And I have explored in depth some texts that otherwise I might have glossed over without paying much attention.

Because I don’t preach every week, and on some occasions my “change agenda” had to be interrupted for other important themes, over the year I preached 30 sermons which came out of this concern to build a theology and spirituality of change.  In reviewing those sermons I see 13 on the gospels, 6 on the epistles, 4 on the psalms, and 7 on the prophets.  Now, partly that’s a function of what the lectionary has given us this year, but I found the prophetic texts particularly interesting.  (Maybe in hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised; who has more of a heart for change than a prophet?)

I’ve never done something like this before; usually my approach has been to look at the readings week by week and focus on whatever seemed right at the time.  But I certainly found a longer-term focus enriching and challenging for me.  I’m not sure how the congregations found it; whether they quite realised what I was doing, and whether they found it helpful.  I will admit, though, that by now I feel ready to leave this theme behind (change will always be a challenge to a church community, but hopefully by now we are a little better equipped to reflect on that challenge).

(And I wonder how you, the readers of my blog, found it, too?  Did you recognise the theme or see some consistency in topics addressed?  Did you find it helpful?  All comments welcome!)

So what next?  I am wondering whether to choose another focus for another long stretch or go back to my previous pattern.  I found the experience this time valuable enough to ponder whether it’s worth experimenting with further.  But then, what’s the next priority, I wonder?

A culture of encounter

This is a sermon for the twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Luke 21:5-19.

I know that one of the small groups has been doing some work over the last little while on “sharing Jesus without fear,” and although I haven’t been able to go, I’m glad that they’re looking at such an important topic.

In a way, I think this morning’s gospel reading tells us something important about sharing Jesus, too; but it might need a little bit of unpacking to see the implications.

Jesus tells his disciples that when they have an opportunity to testify, (because of being persecuted), they should make up their minds not to prepare their defence in advance, because they will be given the words and the wisdom at the time.  And that’s all well and good, at one level, but one might wonder – especially if, like me, you’re a little bit prone to anxiety and you like to be prepared – why you can’t be given the words and the wisdom in advance, when you’re carefully and prayerfully preparing.

After all, we expect it to work that way for sermons, don’t we?

But the thing I learned at college, when I was being taught to preach, is that good sermon preparation doesn’t start when you sit down surrounded by all the best books, determined to craft the best possible explanation of the text.

Good sermon preparation starts at people’s hospital beds, over cups of tea in the kitchen, in the ordinary things of parish life; and it starts with listening.  It starts with really hearing where people are struggling, what people are feeling and thinking.  And it’s only after you’ve listened carefully to all of that, that you come to the books, ready to make connections between the text and the things that you’ve heard from people’s hearts.  That – or so I was taught – is where a good sermon draws its power from; from the hopes and faith and fears of the people listening to it; the people who have already been listened to and heard and who are now being spoken to with genuine love and care.

That’s the ideal, anyway.  I leave it to you to judge whether or not I often get near it.

But the reason I tell you about that is because it seems to me that sharing Jesus in other situations is a bit the same.  You can sit down and write the best, truest, clearest explanation of the hope that is offered to us in Jesus, but if you share it in a way that totally fails to connect with real people, it’s a pretty pointless effort (and hence we get “Bible bashing”!)

On the other hand, if you can really listen to people, hear their needs and longings and know them for who they really are, then you can respond by presenting the gospel in ways which really connect with those realities.  You can answer need with promise, longing with hope and identity with meaning and purpose; you can present each person with a tailor-made explanation which fits them perfectly.

And I suspect that that’s why the disciples are told not to prepare their words in advance.  Not because the Holy Spirit couldn’t help them prepare an absolutely knock-out argument, but because it would be something totally impersonal, and lacking in any connection to the people who would eventually hear it.  Think how many of the sermons in Acts are given before rulers and judges, and how they weren’t just a defence for the person being accused, but also were an appeal to the ruler or judge to take on board what they were hearing for themselves.  But you can only make that kind of appeal effectively if you’re willing to take seriously the person sitting in front of you, for who they are.

The point of this, for us, I think, is that it shows us how important it is to be people who really listen.  We can’t expect to create opportunities to share our faith in genuinely life-changing ways, if we’re not building relationships in which the other person is really known and valued for who they are.

Listen first.  Then speak.  (Maybe think in between, too).

I think this is one of the things which has made Pope Francis someone so admired.  People talk about his compassion, but it’s more than that; he’s gone out of his way to put himself in situations where he can really listen to, and connect with, people who wouldn’t normally get to speak to a Pope.  And then the things that he’s heard have shaped the way that he speaks and writes, so that the genuine hurts and needs of real, ordinary people are actually being taken into account.

What fascinates me about this is that it’s driving some more “traditional” Catholic people quite nuts.  They think the job of the Pope is to speak first, to articulate official Catholic positions, and to require all the faithful to adhere to them.  Francis’ approach of listening first, and then trying to lead the church in ways which actually open the doors of faith and hope wider, so that more people can walk through them, is to them something of an abandonment of what the church should stand for.

But Francis talks about creating a “culture of encounter.”  A church culture in which our encounter of people who are not part of our church community allows us to relate to them, in ways which allow them to encounter something of God.

And it starts with us listening.

As I think about it some more, this shouldn’t seem counter-intuitive or surprising.  After all, God does this with us, too.  I know it’s certainly been my experience that God meets me where I am in life.  He didn’t tell me, for example, when I was twenty-one and deciding to be baptised, that oh, by the way, eventually this would mean ordination (which is just as well, because I wasn’t ready to think about that!)  No; God knew where I was at and gave me just enough to take the next step.  Over and over again in the Psalms we read about God listening to us; our cries, our prayers, our requests; and responding to us at our point of need.  Not overwhelming us with teachings we’re not ready for or demands we can’t meet, but in his love and mercy measuring his goodness to us by what we can handle.

Of course God knows us perfectly and doesn’t have to get to know us in the way that we need to get to know one another, but the basic principle holds of tailoring what is being given to the person who is receiving it.

So from this gospel passage we can take more than just assurance that the Spirit will help us to find the words to say (although that is there too).  I think we find encouragement not to take on the task of sharing our faith as if it were an abstract thing, but to create a genuine culture of encounter, in which we take other people seriously, and getting to know them and their situation as the starting point for any meaningful exchange.

So that’s my encouragement to you, as we seek to build one another up in Christ.  Listen.  Really listen.  And then trust that God will be at work in what comes after that.