Dare we imagine?

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.”  The main service of the day included a baptism.  The Scripture it references is John 11:1-45.

Recently I was talking to the father of a young boy; seven years old or so.  The father was a bit worried because his son had taken an action figure of the Star Wars character, Qui-Gon Jinn, and was calling the figure Jesus and using it to act out various scenarios.  The problem was that Qui-Gon Jesus came complete with light sabre and was, in these imaginative scenarios, acting in a most un-Jesus-like way.  What to make of this?  The dad worried.  Should I stop my son’s play, tell him this is wrong, is it maybe even a sort of blasphemy to have “Jesus” cut down his enemies like a Jedi?

I was (I hope) able to reassure the father that this is very normal.  Children of that age haven’t yet learned to categorise fact and fiction in an adult way; all of the ideas they encounter get mixed up together and engaged imaginatively, and that’s how young children learn and grow.  It’s normal to play with ideas – even about sacred things – as young children, and we do, mostly, eventually grow out of it.

In fact, I have a suspicion that often we train ourselves out of it a little bit too thoroughly.  We need imagination in the life of faith; not that I want to imagine myself striding, robed and light sabre wielding, through all opposition, (satisfying though that might sometimes be); but that if we are to have hope, we have to be able to imagine that things can be different than they are now.  If we are to believe that God is up to something; at work in our lives, in our community, in our wider world, we have to be able to imagine what change might be needed, and how things might be, after that change.

In our gospel reading today we see Martha and Mary struggle with this need for imagination.  Lazarus is dead.  It’s been four days and the reality of that has started to sink in.  Jesus arrives and first Martha, and then Mary also goes to meet him, and each says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  They each have enough sense of who Jesus is at this point to know that things could have been different, but now that Lazarus is dead, their hopes for a resurrection are postponed to the last day.

Jesus’ response is key here; “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says.  I am here, now, present, and you don’t yet see how much that changes the range of things which are possible.  I am the resurrection and the life; and that means that Lazarus can rise today, that life can return to one whose body already stinks.  Throw out the normal rules, ladies, because where Jesus is, they don’t apply.

I wonder how often, in our lives, we do the equivalent of saying to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, things could have been so much better…” instead of looking around with the eyes of imagination, and seeing how things could still be so much better?

In a few minutes, Oscar’s parents are going to bring him for baptism.  And for them, too, this is an act of a hope-filled imagination.  They have seen that with God, with Jesus, there is potential open to Oscar which is absent if God is not acknowledged.  None of us can know, when a child comes for baptism, what God will do in the life of that child, how he or she will grow, what he or she will become or accomplish.  But we can claim the presence of God in that child’s life, knowing that that presence of God broadens the horizons of life, of spirituality, of hope for that child.

In baptism we claim that the one who raised Lazarus, the one who told Mary and Martha and the assembled mourners that all the usual rules don’t apply to him, will be present and active in Oscar’s life as he grows.  That God will help him to develop a character which expresses love and joy and peace.  That God will work through Oscar to bless those around him, in the uniqueness of Oscar’s particular gifts and strengths.   We claim that for each of us who has gone through the waters of baptism.

In baptism we claim that broadened horizon of hope even beyond this life, trusting that somehow even in eternity we will continue to be in the presence of God.

These are big claims.  It’s quite possible that some of you are listening to me, but thinking that they are not, in fact, very credible claims.  And I can certainly understand why you would think that.

But this brings me back to thinking about the other little boy I started talking about, the one with the action figurine with the light sabre.  Maybe he doesn’t know Jesus’ character so well yet, but he’s got one thing right; it’s a mistake to try to put limitations on what Jesus can and can’t do.  The innocence of a childlike imagination is helping him to avoid the very grown-up traps of preconceived ideas or rigid thinking.

Jesus once said that unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  It seems to me that one aspect of this is the ability to let go of our own perceptions of what is possible; to suspend disbelief, and to let our imaginations play.

So we come to the font, to baptise Oscar and to remember each our own baptism, and my question to you is, dare we imagine?

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Wash me throughly

This is a sermon for Ash Wednesday, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Psalm 51:2.

Here we are at the start of Lent.  A time to seek God’s mercy; a time when we set aside our noise and bustle to hear the still small voice of the Spirit; a time, not to put too fine a point on it, when we pay attention to the reality of sin, and invite God to do something about it.

As I was thinking about how to do that, I’ve been drawn to the verse from the psalm, which asks God to “wash me thoroughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.”

And I wonder whether the imagery is really all that helpful to us.  Because the way the psalmist puts it, it sounds as if sin is a substance, a dirt which clings to us and can be washed away, leaving us bright and clean.  But I’m not so sure that’s right.

Here’s what I mean.  I don’t think sin is so much a thing in its own right, as an absence of something; an absence of love.  St. Paul described sin as “lawlessness;” and we know that the law can be summed up in two commands; love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.

Julian of Norwich, in her visions, was assured of much the same thing; sin is not a “thing,” a substance, but a quality we experience when grace is not yet complete.

So all of this made me think that I really prefer the old-fashioned English of this verse of the psalm, which, instead of “wash me thoroughly,” asks God to “wash me throughly.”

What’s the difference?  Instead of being washed thoroughly, so that all evil might be removed, I imagine being washed through with God’s grace; with the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love into my heart until it overflows through every part of my being, leaving none of me untouched or still darkened.  Ebbing into all wounds and brokennesses of my humanity and healing them; flooding into all my pride and humbling it; pouring into my unrealised potential and enlivening it.

It’s why, next to this verse in the “thoughtful spot,”* for Lent, I have a picture of Jesus’ baptism; a man immersed in water, and the Spirit hovering over him in light; it seemed to me to capture so very well what it might mean to be washed throughly, and points us back to our own baptism as the place where this process of being loved into wholeness begins.

But of course the process continues from there: and this Lent we have a time to focus on it.  So here is the challenge of Lent, as it presents itself to me this year: what can I do in that process?  How can I put myself in the best possible situation to be washed through by God’s love?

And this is where the traditional disciplines of Lent might be useful; whether it’s time for prayer or meditation, whether it’s fasting, whether it’s seeking the help and wise counsel of others, or indeed coming to confession; all of those things are tools available to you, and I encourage you to consider how best you might use them.  And there are several study group options too; and if you haven’t looked at the leaflet setting them out, I do recommend having a look and seeing whether any of them might speak to where you’re at.

But none of these things are the point; they are means to an end, and that end is to know God’s love for us more fully, and to respond to God in love, more fully.  And to be so filled with those loves that the no-thing, the lovelessness, of sin has no space left to claim in us.

As you came in this evening, I had some music playing, which was a song written by Hildegard of Bingen, the 11th century abbess.  In it, she recalls how at the beginning of time all creatures grew and blossomed before their creator; but now, she says, she and her “little ones” – by which I gather she means the nuns under her care – are tired and failing; a mockery of what they were supposed to be.  But, she says, she knows that the work of God is not complete until our bodies are in fullness of health and arrayed in jewels; so she brings her wounds to the father so that he may stretch out his hand to them, and she implores all of us to do likewise.

It’s a complex poem and my summary doesn’t really do it justice, but that image of bringing our wounds, our vulnerabilities, to the outstretched hand of our loving father, to be restored to health and garbed in dignity, is one worth holding onto; and I encourage you to enter into Lent in that spirit.

 

*The “thoughtful spot” is a shelf in the narthex of the church, which houses a rotating display of quotes, pictures, and other prompts to reflection.

Hildegard’s Procession from ‘Ordo virtutum’ may be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lyqUOYdxYJM

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Naming and dominion

This is a sermon for the commemoration of the naming and circumcision of Jesus, given in the “church next door.”  The Scriptures it references are Psalm 8 and Luke 2:15-21.

Today we heard the story of Jesus’ being named and circumcised in our gospel reading.  I wonder if you noticed, though, the way that Luke put it?  “He was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

In ancient near eastern cultures, and thus in Scripture, names and their meanings are important.  Who gets to name someone or something is about authority or power of some sort over the thing or person named.  The point of Jesus being named by the angel is that no human being exercises that kind of authority or power over Jesus’ life and ministry, but only God himself (with the angel as a mouthpiece).

So I was interested to see that, in some ways, today’s Psalm explores some of the same sorts of ideas, but from a different direction.  The Psalmist is marvelling at the heavens, the moon and stars, the awesomeness of all creation (“the work of God’s fingers”), and in light of the vastness and intricacy and wonder of it all, asks why God cares about us?  Aren’t we pretty insignificant in the scheme of things?

And yet God, the psalmist notes, has crowned us with glory and honour, and given us dominion over the works of his hands; sheep, oxen, beasts of the field, birds of the air, fish of the sea, and whatever unnamed creatures lurk in the deeps.  This points us back to the beginning of Genesis, and the story of Adam naming all the animals; just as the angel announcing Jesus’ name sets Jesus apart as being under the authority of God, the earth and its inhabitants have, in some sense, been delegated to us to govern in accordance with God’s purposes for it all.

So for Christians hearing these two passages this morning, we are being pointed in both cases back to the question of what God’s purposes are.  What are God’s purposes which Jesus came to fulfil?  And what are God’s purposes which God’s people have always been called to participate in,  as we exercise dominion over the earth?

In the Scriptures, we’re given a picture of a God who creates, not just the material world and its inhabitants, but also a human society of community and justice.  This purpose – the creation of a society of community and justice – underlies the whole unfolding story of the covenant with Israel, which in turn opens out to the salvation of the whole world.  This means that when we consider what God has delegated to us, it’s not just about stewarding the material fabric of life but also justice and righteousness; and if righteousness is a word we often don’t really understand, I’d suggest that for the purposes of this discussion we could also just as well say “human flourishing.”

In the mind of any Jew steeped in God’s law, as the psalmist would have been, the “goodness” of the created world is mirrored in the “goodness” of right relationships and behaviour.  The two belong together as part of the seamless whole of God’s creation, and the enjoyment of what we might call “the good life” materially cannot be separated from the worship of God who gave it to us and the ethical treatment of the other human beings who inhabit it alongside us.

What this suggests is that enjoyment of the good things of the world is not ethically neutral, but is bound up with matters to do with relationships with God and our fellow creatures.  If the story of the garden of Eden (before the fall) gives us a picture of innocent enjoyment, it’s because in the garden there is harmony between the man and the woman, between them and the other creatures, and between them and God.  And the harmony is not merely an absence of conflict or competition, but an actual interdependence, a being there for the other.  The humans care for the garden (in a loving partnership of equals), so that it can be productive; the plants bring forth fruit; and God walks amongst them all at the time of the evening breeze.

But we are not in the garden, and the relationship between the moral life and the good things of creation is not so straightforward for us.  Where our dominion was given to us so that we could regulate the security of every family and individual in the human community, living wisely and productively in our environment, when we look around at our reality we see that what we have wrought is, in the big picture, very different.

We live in a world where about one in ten people don’t have enough to eat.  Where about one in eight children don’t receive life-saving vaccinations.  Where about one in twenty people live in a war zone.  Where about one in seven people are not educated enough to be literate.  Where we have exploited our lands, waters and air beyond their tolerance limit, destroying habitats, poisoning what was once teeming with life, and playing havoc with the climate on which so much relies.

Why do I remind you of all that?  Because this morning, as we ponder our dominion over creation, and as we ponder Christ’s dominion over us (after all, it is his name we bear from our baptism), we need to confront the fact that we have not lived in accordance with God’s purposes, at all.  We need to confront the fact that social justice, peace-making, reconciliation, and the safeguarding of creation are not new and trendy ideas, which we can choose to take or leave as we prefer.  They are obligations on us in the Christian life; they are, in fact, part of our very purpose for being here.

What are human beings that God is mindful of us, mortals that God cares for us?  We are supposed to be partners in God’s purposes.  We are supposed to exercise our power for the good of the planet and of human community.  And I put it to you that we in the church do not ask ourselves often enough, as a community, how we are going to do that; today, this week, this month, this year?

As we remember Jesus being given the name God Himself had chosen; as we remember being given the name of Christ, each in our own baptism; as we remember the power we have each been given as the children of Adam, heirs of his dominion over the earth; I put it to you that we need to take these matters to heart, as a core part of our identity and purpose here, if we are to be all that this community is purposed by God to be.

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.

 

 

Easter Baptism

This is a sermon for Easter day, given in the “church next door.”  There was a baptism at this service, and the sermon is really an extended reflection on the baptismal liturgy.

It’s a very big thing to bring a child for baptism.  In a moment Zalen’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, Zalen is just a baby, he doesn’t understand yet what we are doing, and he won’t remember it when he’s older.  Is it worth doing this in a way which makes it seem exclusive or difficult?  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 Zalen a member of the Christian “club,” allowing him to be one of “us” instead of one of “them” – however you define us and them – then the only generous and hospitable thing to do would be to make baptism as easy as possible.  No promises, no affirmations, just a quick dunk and you’re in.  Let’s all go eat.

But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.

Zalen is coming this morning to be made a member of the church, a part of the body of Christ.  Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us.  Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.

When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase.  We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.

We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good.  And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.

That’s what Zalen’s parents and godparents are seeking for him in bringing him to be baptised today.  They are seeking the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in Zalen’s life; that God might be at work in his heart from today, helping him to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how he might be of service to others.

These are not small things in the development of a child.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good parents of all faith positions and none will seek to raise good, moral children, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking for Zalen a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.

And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves.  In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.

(And I don’t mean that just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning, but a broader sense of active participation).

This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification.  To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.

These are big things.  Sometimes they are hard things.  Sometimes they are costly.  But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.

And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith.  Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of.  They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity.  And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words.  Not just a feel good moment of celebrating a new life (although there is something of that).  But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.

This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, and as we celebrate a baptism, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope.  And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.

The voice of the Lord

This is a sermon for the baptism of our Lord, given in the  “church up the road.”  The Scriptures it references are Luke 3:15-22 and Psalm 29:5.

I wonder, have you ever felt that you heard the voice of God?

Today’s readings give us echoes of what that voice has been like for other people.  In the gospel, we heard of the “voice from heaven” telling Jesus that his father was truly pleased with him.  That’s something we all might well yearn to hear.

But the psalm hints at a different sort of experience, when it tells us that the voice of the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.  And while it’s uncomfortable to think about being broken by the voice of the God who’s supposed to love us, it’s also true that many people of faith have found that in being confronted with their own weakness, their own foolishness, dare I say their own sin, they have had an experience of a kind of brokenness.  Not one from which it is impossible to heal or grow – indeed I think that’s the point – but brokenness nonetheless.

Either way – whether in affirmation or correction – both of these kinds of encounters with the voice of God have something to do with the question of who we are.  Who we are as individuals, and who we are in relationship with our creator.  And this is where it is helpful for us to reflect on the experience of baptism.

Because it is baptism above all which marks us, which gives us Christian identity, and which admits us to the fullness of Christian life and worship.  In this day and age, where we encourage people to come to church and hope that the experience will allow them to encounter Christ, we forget that in the persecuted early church the practice was completely different.  A person did not join the Christian community in worship, was not present for communion, did not even hear the gospel read, until after being baptized; baptism was the watershed encounter with God which made all of the rest possible.  Long periods of formal preparation – up to several years – were the norm, and high ethical standards were expected of those preparing for baptism.  For example, soldiers in the Roman army were expected to resign and leave their way of life before being considered ready to be Christian.

We’ve come a long way since then, and perhaps we are more confident of God’s grace and more humble about our own potential for perfection.  But a look backwards at the early practice of the church can remind us that baptism is not a feel-good event, but a crisis moment which shapes everything that follows.

With this in mind, I’d like to draw your attention to the attached Eastern Orthodox icon of the baptism of Jesus.  Most of it will be a familiar scene; there’s John the Baptist on the on the left, crowds on the right.  Above Jesus’ head we see the Spirit of God descending like a dove.  But what I particularly want to draw to your attention is the little figure in the river by Jesus’ feet.  In the water, holding a trident, is a representation of the Greek pagan river god.  What’s he doing there, in a Christian icon?

This image of the Pagan god is often used to show that Jesus is descending into chaos, into death, disorder and a place not regulated by God.  But then he ascends into life in the Spirit.  In the meeting place of chaos and the Spirit, there is the beginning of a new life, identified as the life of God’s beloved child.

This is as true for us as it was for Jesus.  Living out our baptism means being confronted with the chaos, the ugliness, the sin in our lives, and facing that honestly.  It means welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit into that mess, and celebrating that presence in our brokenness as the beginning of new life, and the new identity to which God calls us.

The chaos of our lives isn’t resolved by a distant and detached God, one who is too holy and fearful to have anything to do with the darkest corners of our heart.  St. Augustine put it as crudely as to say that Christ was born between feces and urine; but we forget that, and try to hold Christ at a distance from the grotty bits of our lives.  We let our sense of shame at our mess override any ability we might have had to yield to him.

If baptism has anything to do with our identity as Christians, then, it tells us that the baptized person is aware of chaos, of the impossibility of being perfect by sheer good will and hard thinking.  It means that I must not pretend that my inner life is tidier than it is, or be afraid of confronting sin and chaos. We live amongst the mess of this life, out of which God calls us and forms us.  We live on the cusp, as it were; able to look in joy at what God has done, and in hope to face honestly the forces of darkness, looking for what God will do.

To live out our baptism, then, is daily self-examination and conversion, daily turning into the darkness which we have not yet understood, away from the comforting emotional patterns that we can devise for ourselves and use to keep ourselves safe; the social structures which justify our individualism, our selfishness, and our complicity in injustice.  This vision of what baptism means is not warm and fuzzy; it doesn’t cuddle up to our culture or make us feel good.  Rather, it calls our habitual ways of life into radical question.

Another part of what it means to live out our baptism is that although baptism gives me identity, it isn’t the sort of identity which sets me apart from others.  As well as my own inner darkness, I may expect my baptismal calling to take me into the neighbourhood of other kinds of chaos. The chaos of other people’s lives, the chaos of suffering, the chaos of doubt, the chaos of a real world in which people are ground down and oppressed and denied by others who don’t understand what it is to face their darkness.

Baptism means that my identity is the identity of the Christ who was not afraid to identify with any and every human circumstance and share absolute solidarity with our fellow human beings.  We are called not to be apart from the struggles of the world, but to be involved.

So if we want to take our baptism as foundational to our identity – and I hope that we do – we need both aspects of the voice of God.  The part which affirms and praises us when we do well, and the part which has the power and clarity to cut through and break down everything in us which stands in the way of who God would have us be.

I wonder, if we were to truly stop and listen to God today, which aspect of the voice we would most need to hear?

Let us pray:

Lord, take my heart and break it: break it not in the way I would like, but in the way you know to be best.  And because it is you who break it, I will not be afraid, for in your hands all is safe, and I am safe.
Lord, take my heart and give to it your joy, not in the ways I like, but in the ways you know are best, that your joy may be fulfilled in me.  So, dear Lord, I am ready to be your beloved child.

Amen.

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Where do you stand?

This is a sermon for the feast of Christ the King, in the “church up the road.”  The Scripture it references is Revelation 1:4b-8.

It’s sometimes tempting, I suspect, to think about titles like “Lord” and “King” for Christ and think that they are a bit old fashioned or medieval; that they might have meant something to people centuries ago when everyone knew what it was to live in feudal obedience to Lords and Kings, but that today, when Her Majesty has no real impact on my day-to-day life in a place like Melbourne, it’s become a bit irrelevant, and that using this kind of language really plays into the stereotype of religion as a hangover from less enlightened 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 on the way out?

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 has to wrestle from time to time with where we stand.

We gather together to support one another as we live out our baptismal commitment to stand with Christ.   But what does that mean, in practical terms?

I think we get some good insight into that from the reading we heard today from the Revelation to John.  John addressed his account of the revelation to “the seven churches that are in Asia;” to communities of people who had chosen – over against the Roman empire – to stand with Christ, and he 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.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, and 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, freeing us and bringing all of creation a step closer to its ultimate perfection.  To stand with Christ, then, also means allowing God to work in us, so that we can experience that salvation in the most profound way.

More, there is no doubt in this passage that Christ is God Himself.  All the fullness of God dwells in Him.  Christ is supreme over all the world, the rule of the kings of the earth.  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 Christ allowed himself to be weak and abused, even to die; but He rose, and He has the triumph over all hatred, fear and evil.

Notice that the reading says that “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.”  John doesn’t go into great detail, but it seems that these “tribes” 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. 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 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.  Which is why even the judgement motifs in this passage are really a way of emphasizing John’s main point, which is salvation and hope.

And this reading talks about the Church as a kingdom and priests serving God; 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, our purpose, 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 stand with Christ.

It takes some unpacking, I think, that John here calls us “priests.”  It’s not a word he uses much for Christians, and to make sense of what it might mean for us we need to look elsewhere in Scripture.  Peter, in his first letter, instructs his readers: “Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

This tells us that being priests serving God – standing with Christ, the high priest – is not an individual matter.  It is together, corporately, that we are built into a spiritual house, and offer our prayers and praises as a sacrifice acceptable to God.

And it reminds all of us today that praising God, also, is part of what it means to stand with Christ.  John does that by punctuating his message with phrases like “to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever.  Amen.”  Glory has two important aspects to it; the sense of light and beauty, and also the sense of praise and honour.  We do that by making sure that whatever else is in our worship, we always have some element of praise and giving thanks.  And that overflows – or it should – in our lives so that praising God is an attitude which we cultivate throughout the week.

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 under God’s loving reign, and to share in the sure promise of eternal life.  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.  Amen.