Whom you know

This reflection was given at the daily Eucharist in the chapel of an Anglican convent.  The Scripture it references is 1 John 3:21-4:6.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

That saying might be true in all kinds of ways in human societies, but it’s also the same point being made in our reading from John’s first letter.

You see, already there were teachers getting Christianity mixed up with other ideas; saying that the gospel itself wasn’t enough, that what would really enlighten or save you was secret knowledge, imparted to initiates of the mysteries, about good vs. evil, and spiritual vs. material, and light vs. darkness, and so on.  And that this secret knowledge would bring you closer to God.

But what John emphasises, over against that sort of thinking, is that you don’t need secret esoteric knowledge; you just need to know God.  And that’s open to everyone, because any one of us can go to God in prayer, in our own hearts at any time.  “If our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God…”

Abiding is about relationship; it’s about personal connection with and intimate knowledge of God.  It’s not just intellectual assent to a statement, it’s about being bonded together, so that your identity is now bound up in God’s own identity.

We have everything we need for a flourishing Christian life, in our abiding in God.

And anyone who says that we don’t, that we need something more or something else, particular experience or status, is not from God (what John calls the antichrist, the one opposed to Christ; although he’s quick to point out that the antichrist has already been conquered, and therefore is not to be feared).

Believe that Christ truly came in the flesh for our salvation, love one another, and in this way you know God and abide in God, and God’s Spirit abides in you.  It is enough.  You are enough, because you abide in God.

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Happy families

This is a sermon for the first Sunday after Christmas.  The Scripture it references is Colossians 3:12-17.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That’s the opening line to Tolstoy’s great novel, Anna Karenina; but the week after Christmas is a time when I find many people reflecting on the many ways in which families may be unhappy.  Perhaps it’s not surprising; we expect a lot of our families; our physical and emotional safety, a source of our own identity, values, and a sense of our place in the world; ongoing support through the various phases of our life, and so forth.  And when you have many people all with different needs pulling the family in different directions… maybe it’s not surprising that there are many ways for families to be unhappy.

Of course, we talk about church as family too; especially for small (or family-sized) churches like ours.  And while the metaphor of church as family has strengths and limitations, it does tend to mean that we bring a lot of our family baggage into church life.

It’s a bit like when a couple get married, but come from very different families; and part of marriage preparation means that you have deep and meaningful discussions about everything from how often you mop the floor to how you handle money, to significant celebrations and how you mark them.

Except when you join a church, you don’t necessarily have the same deep and meaningful conversations, so it’s easy – and very common – to make the mistake of assuming that the patterns you learned in your own family are what should happen at church as well.  Whether it’s the person who’s absorbed the lesson that all disagreement is bad and we must avoid arguments at all cost, or the person who’s come from a very authoritarian family and thinks we should all work to a leadership model that says father knows best, or whatever it is… we all bring that stuff with us.

And even more than that, we tend to bring the roles we played in our own families.  The person who took on the role of being peacemaker at home will tend to be peacemaker at church; or the decision maker, or the contributor of ideas, or the one who makes sure everyone has fun and laughs.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, not at all.  But the reason I point it out is that sometimes, it helps if we’re conscious of it.  I know when I talk things over with my supervisor, he’ll often encourage me to reflect on what has shaped my own expectations and reactions and patterns of behaviour… and sometimes how I feel about something in the parish has nothing to do with this parish at all, but with some other context I’ve been in before; and often, because of the power our families have to shape us, those earlier contexts are familial.

But the reason I’m thinking about this now – apart from it having just been Christmas – is because of the reading we had today from Colossians.  In it, Paul describes the loving dynamics which should characterise a Christian community – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on – and which we so often learn (or fail to learn) in our families.

Paul often describes the church in familial terms, and in effect, he’s saying that the church should be for us what a family should be; a place of safety; a source of our identity, values, and orientation to the world; a place for mutual support.  But where church perhaps goes beyond family is that church also has a mission, a purpose, beyond meeting the needs of its members.  The church should be always reaching out beyond itself, proclaiming the good news, responding to the needs of others, and so on.

And here’s the thing; an unhappy church, a church which doesn’t have its internal relationships in a healthy and functional state, is not going to be effective in mission.  Part of the deal with family is, as the saying goes, that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family; the same is true of church.  By our common baptism we’re bound together whether we want to be or not, and we have to learn to get along and work together even with people we never would have chosen.

And this is also part of why Paul starts this section of his letter by reminding the Colossians that they are God’s chosen people; it’s God’s initiative which has brought each of them into the church family, and it’s not up to any human being to try to countermand God’s choice.  God chose each of us, and therefore nobody has the right to decide that any of us don’t belong or have a place, or don’t need bearing with when we hit a rough patch in life.

And not only are we chosen by God, but that choice sets us apart from the world (that’s really what the word “holy” is about; about being set apart), in order to accomplish God’s purposes.  That’s the importance of mission again.  So we are chosen, we’re set apart for a mission, and in order to be able to carry out that mission we must have our internal affairs in order; hence the need for compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and so on.  Each of those virtues could have a sermon of its own; but for now perhaps it’s enough to note that they are mostly other-centred.  Compassion is about our ability to recognise and respond to the sufferings of others.  Kindness is about our benevolence to others.  Meekness is about how we respond when we find others difficult.  Patience about our emotional steadiness when frustrated with others.  And so on.  We are to clothe ourselves with an all-encompassing loving attitude to others, one which in every situation seeks the good of others in ways which enable the church to function well.

Now this doesn’t mean tolerating bad behaviour.  Paul isn’t here telling you to tolerate – or forgive – ongoing mistreatment, and neither am I.  But it’s about how we choose to respond, so that we can put proper boundaries in place, end bad behaviour… and then forgive and move on, not letting old conflicts hamper us indefinitely.

It’s probably true – with apologies to Tolstoy – that all happy churches are alike, but each unhappy church is unhappy in its own way.  What Paul has given us this morning is a prescription for a happy church, and if we follow it, we may also find ourselves able to give thanks in whatever we do.

In the beginning, relationship.

This is a sermon for the morning service for the Birth of our Lord.  The Scripture it references is John 1:1-14.

In the beginning.  In the darkness, the nothingness, the timelessness before there was light or time or energy or matter… there was relationship.

John tells us about this relationship: there was the Word, and the Word was with (or slightly more accurately, if awkward in English, the Word was “towards”) God.  Later on John’s language will shift to describing Word and God as Son and Father, but already, he’s portraying an intimate relationship.  There is unity here (the Word “was” God), and yet also distinction.  In being “towards” God, the Word is oriented to God, sharing a sense of purpose, sharing what in human terms we might call attitudes and outlook, and… sharing love.  Before anything else existed there was love between Father and Son (and Spirit, although John doesn’t spell that out for us here; but don’t forget that the Spirit too is part of creation and recreation).

John taking us back to the beginning is meant to remind us of that other narrative of beginnings; what we read in Genesis, when God creates light and land and life; man and woman; and declares them to be good.  And John fleshes out what we already understand about our own creation.  We know from Genesis that we’re made in the image of God; now John tells us that God is relational.  That loving relationships are an intrinsic part of God’s own being.  In being created in God’s image, we, too, are created for relationship.  We have, to some extent, blurred that image.  Call it sin, call it lovelessness, call it brokenness; but humanity has clearly failed to fulfil our potential for relationships in which we thrive and adequately love one another.  In John’s gospel sin is always about rejecting life and relationships, and turning to darkness.

And after we’ve messed it up, pushing that God away, refusing to listen to God’s words or to be “towards” God in the way that the Son is… God still pursues relationship with us.  And that image of God in us is renewed as that God takes on our very human nature.  This is the Word of God resonating in the darkness of the world, entrapped in death and alienation, calling all that exists to new life and re-creation.

Paul described the incarnation this way:

“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Christ “emptied himself.”  Laid aside the power, the knowledge, the wisdom of being God, and entered into human life; was born helpless, dependent, frail, vulnerable.  Why?  Because God is relational.  God exists as a network of relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit; and the whole point of creation is to expand that network of relationship to include us, too.  And when we don’t get it, when we’re lost in the darkness, confused, blind to the purpose of our own existence… God will not give up on us, but will pursue us, staying faithful, committed and open to us, even when it’s costly.

Even when it means entering our own broken, lost and confused world; building connections across the divide between us, by accepting all of our limitations and burdens; taking on human flesh.  “Flesh” here is not just about having a body of bone and blood and tissue; it’s about the whole human life of Jesus; body, mind, identity.  Everything the Hebrew Scriptures told us about the Word of God – sparking creation, the origin of the Law and wisdom, the inspiration of the prophets – that’s the awesome, unfathomable Word that has entered the material world and human life; building those most intimate relationships of a child to its parents; of a brother to siblings; of human connection in shared life and touch and speech.

Speech is particularly important to us, of course.  We don’t have the privilege of knowing Jesus as an infant, a child, a young adult, of seeing him in person; holding his hand or hearing the resonance of his voice.  But his words have been remembered, handed on, written down so that his invitation to relationship remains open to us as well.

All through John’s gospel, Jesus – the very Word of God – invites us to hear, keep, remember, and even abide in his words.  Invites us into a relationship where we can be nurtured, refreshed and renewed.  Where we can come into intimate contact with the one who is the source of all life, and draw our own life and identity and strength from Him; life that ultimately isn’t limited even by death.

That’s the invitation to us as we come to the manger.  Not to a moment in the past, but to a relationship in the present; and into the future.  A relationship in which we wait for, receive and listen to God; in which we allow the depths of our being to resonate to the voice of our creator.  And then we respond; in loving and personal and intimate reply, but also in speaking to others, bearing witness to God’s love offered to us, and inviting others into that relationship for which they were created.  Not just in words, but also in actions; because it’s when the meaning of the words is made real in people’s experience – is incarnated, you could say – that the gulf is bridged and relationship is built.

This is why, centuries later, a bishop could tell his flock that “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”  If you can’t live out the meaning of Christ’s presence to us in how you respond to and treat the people around you, then that meaning will be lost on you in even the most sacred context.

This is how we come to know reconciliation, forgiveness and peace; how we come to be, like the Son, “towards” the Father in our fundamental identity, and thus to share in God’s purposes, attitudes, and outlook.  And it is outlook, or looking outwards, always seeking deeper and richer relationship, and doing whatever is necessary to make that possible.

No wonder our reading this morning finishes with glory, grace and truth.  Light, restored identity as the image of God, and restored relationships are what Christ came to offer us.  Let’s make sure we take up the offer.

Peace on earth

This is a sermon for the midnight service for the Birth of our Lord.  The Scripture it references is Luke 2:1-14.

It wasn’t a peaceful night.

Oh, it was probably pretty.  The lack of electric lights would have meant the sky – even before the angels turned up – would have offered a starscape of glory and depth that you and I seldom see.  And outside the small towns, the rolling hills and the fresh greenery of the rainy season would have had a certain charm, especially if you didn’t have to earn your living from them by the sweat of your brow.

But that’s not the same as peaceful.  This was occupied territory.  A foreign military held the power of life and death over every native inhabitant.  That foreign power had no compunction about disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods for its own purposes, which is why Mary and Joseph were far from home, in Bethlehem, in the first place.  Rome wanted to work out how much tax it could extract from this territory, so it ordered everybody to, in effect, line up and be counted, so it could work out how much it could manage to exploit them.

This census was not a peaceful affair; the residents of the area were so incensed and fearful about what it implied that there had been riots, violence, and the removal of Jewish leaders not adequately currying favour with Rome.

No doubt the shepherds had seen brutality; executions and the bodies left on display.  Knew that doing or saying the wrong thing could come with deadly consequences, for them or their families.  And knew that if they did, by some miracle, manage to lift themselves economically above a simple struggle for survival, their money would be forfeit to a government which culturally, linguistically, and religiously, viewed them as inferior, useful only as long as they were of some benefit to their rulers.

Grief, trauma, anxiety and exhaustion were far closer to being their lot, as they watched over their flocks, than peace.

But then the angels burst onto the scene.  Well, first one angel with a message; and then a whole multitude singing; glory to God and peace upon earth.

This is not a throw away line, a platitude which sounds good in a carol but doesn’t have much in the way of practical implications.  It’s more akin to a declaration of revolution.

Peace – God’s peace, the peace that was promised through Moses and Isaiah and so many others – was being announced in riotous celebration.

It helps us if we understand that peace, the way it’s meant here, isn’t just a word for “not being at war.”  This kind of peace is an all-encompassing vision; it’s the absence of violence, yes, but also the absence of oppression; it implies power structures which serve and protect the most vulnerable and needy, and provide for the good of all.  It’s about justice, and harmonious relationships in communities.  It’s about health and welfare and – because it’s the ancient near east, after all – large families and the success of crops and the thriving of livestock.  It’s about opportunity for everyone to flourish and experience all that is good in life.

This is not the peace that Rome brings, the peace that means everyone behaves because dissent is brutally crushed.  It’s on a whole other level; peace and wholeness and wellness for the whole person, the whole community, the whole land.

Of course, that peace hasn’t arrived in its fullness yet.  Christ was born into a brutal world which crucified him for offering a radical alternative.  And Christians have long since come to terms with the idea that this peace in all its fullness is for the end of time, when Christ will return and all of creation will be remade.

The mistake we’ve often made, though, is to give up on peace in the meantime.  We forget that, like the angels, our job is to announce that peace now.  To claim it both as a real possibility and as a vision which should shape our priorities; personal, communal, and social.

You see, humans are social creatures.  Our psychological make up means that we function in groups.  Those groups can have a culture of violence, hatred and oppression; and we will tend to get caught up in those things because of the way we socialise.  Or those groups can have a culture of peace, justice and openness to those who are outside the group (those who are “other”); and again, we will get caught up in those dynamics.

The church’s calling is to make sure that we are the latter kind of group.  That we build a culture of peace, justice, openness; that we create those dynamics in ways which affect positively everyone with whom we come in contact.

And that is our calling because that is the nature of Christ, the one we follow; the one we worship as very God in the flesh.

We can’t necessarily fix everything, and certainly not all at once.  But the important thing is that we actually do something; see the pursuit of peace as an integral part of our reason for existence as a church, and an indispensable part of our mission.  Pursuing peace can happen at a number of levels; personal, local, national or international.  They’re all valid, and all part of God’s all-encompassing vision of peace on earth.

The process of pursuing peace will not always feel good.  It will make us angry, as we pay closer attention to all that is wrong in the world.  It will hurt.  Grief and anger are normal and healthy responses to a broken world and broken people.  And being grieved or angry doesn’t disqualify us from being a people of peace.

The way forward is learning the art of constructive anger.  It’s emotional energy which pushes us to act, to force change, to make a difference.  To say that no child should die for lack of clean water; no community be devastated for the enrichment of individuals.  It’s closely twinned to a passionate sense of justice.

“Glory to God, and peace upon earth,” the angels sang.  We join them not just by singing the words but by being involved in making them a reality.  Their song is a call to roll up our sleeves, to get our hands dirty, to put our hearts and our selves on the line.  Christ is born; the oppressive forces are on notice; their day will end.  The very creator of the universe will set things to rights; we cannot, in the end, lose.  Violence and brutality will not have the last word.  Instead we press on toward the final reality John recorded in his book of Revelation:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

Peace on earth, indeed.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Side by side

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent.  The Scripture it references is Luke 1:39-45.

It’s been a week of high drama.  In kindergartens, schools and Sunday school groups all around the world, there has been passionate longing, terror, envy, open strife and many tears.  Why?

Well, you see, in every nativity play, there are plenty of shepherds (and sometimes sheep), angels with sparkly wings and tinsel halos, a few wise men and Joseph and perhaps an innkeeper… but there’s only one Mary.  And most every girl wants to be good enough, pretty enough, charismatic enough, to be Mary.  Being part of the sparkly angel chorus isn’t really the place for a young girl who just knows she’s meant for the starring role.

(Full disclosure: I was always an angel.  Take that whichever way you’re inclined to believe it)!

Of course, aspiring to be Mary, or like Mary, is not just a problem with nativity plays.  We know that through Christian history, in different ways, Mary has been held up to us as the perfect woman; completely asexual, completely devoted to family, and with a meek and compliant nature that meant God’s designs unfolded within and through her without her needing to actually take initiative or do anything other than say “Here I am.”

And if real women found that an impossible ideal to live up to, well, that’s only because we weren’t as impossibly perfect as Mary was.

I say that, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but meaning the criticism of how Mary has been pliantly fitted into various – usually male – constructions of perfect womanhood, with little regard for who she probably actually was, or even acknowledgement that most of her life story is unrecoverable to us now.

So there’s something very comforting to me about this morning’s gospel reading. Because here we have two very, very different women.  Oh, they’re both clearly presented to us as good women – earlier Elizabeth’s been described to us as righteous and blameless in her way of life – but in every other way they’re contrasts.

Elizabeth is old; Mary is young.  Elizabeth is “barren” after many years of trying for a child; Mary is a pregnant virgin.  Elizabeth can look back on a long life of unfulfilled longing; Mary can look forward to a life of uncertain potential.

And together – between them – these two very different women hold the keys to the future; to God’s future.  Jesus and John the Baptist – the two boys who will be born from them – will need each other.  They will grow and learn together.  Their ministries will overlap, and they will encourage one another for as long as they’re both alive.

I remember being pregnant.  It was terrifying.  On the one hand, you feel total responsibility for the welfare of a little person who is completely dependant on you for everything; and on the other hand, you have almost no control over the things which will shape that child’s life.  Once they’re born and the more they grow, the more concrete that lack of control is; and you have to let your child take their place in the world and their community and hope and pray that disaster won’t strike.

Elizabeth and Mary might have had reason to be a bit less anxious than most; after all, if God had plans for their miracle babies, then presumably God was going to make sure those plans were fulfilled.  But at this moment, all of that is in an unknown future.

These two women have a moment of shared joy and hope before it all begins.  What God’s asking of them at this moment is openness to what God might be about to do; to give themselves, their health, their energy, their intelligence and creativity, to shaping the lives and minds of two boys who would grow to change the world for the better.

But the thing that I find comforting about that, is that it’s the same challenge to both of them.  Mary doesn’t stand alone here as the archetype of perfect womanhood; she stands alongside Elizabeth, and shows us that if God has plans and a place for these two very different women, God might have plans and a place for us too; even when we’re not the same as our heroes (or heroines); even when we don’t feel we measure up to any particular ideal.

This passage shows us very clearly that God works in and through very diverse people; that you don’t have to fit a particular image or be in a particular stage of life (important to remember in this culture which so worships youth); but that provided you come with the right attitude – of openness and willingness to collaborate with God, and the rest of God’s people – you’ve got something to contribute.

And this is so important for parish life.  You see, a healthy church – and certainly a growing church – isn’t a game of superstars and spectators.  God doesn’t have some people who are specially gifted and holy – or even just active – who make it all happen while everyone else is sidelined.  Each of us has different gifts, different passions, different experiences, different personalities, and we need them all – not just mine, not just the key people with particular roles like wardens and parish council – but all of us, for this parish to be what it’s meant to be.

You see, some of you are much wiser than me.  Some have more faith.  Some are much better at recognising other people’s struggles and caring for them.  Some will be better at teaching and explaining things.  Some will be much more encouraging or generous.  And a theological degree and an ordination ceremony don’t change that.

And this is true, not because there’s something wrong with me, but because this is how the church works; we all have different strengths, and together, when we each play our part, the whole community is strengthened and built up.

Of course, not all of these gifts are going to be the ones which get lots of attention.  But even Paul said that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”  Indispensable.  It’s often the quiet contributions which go unseen and unrecognised a lot of the time which have the biggest impact on the life and the health of the church.

Of course, try telling that to the kids in the angelic chorus, dreaming of being stars!

But we need to have a bit more maturity than that.  Mary and Elizabeth stand side by side and support one another as they prepare for a challenging future.  Let’s rather take them as our model, and seek to hold in trust between us the hope, the courage and the joy of what God is up to in our lives together.

Recognising love

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

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

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

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

Philippians 1:9-11, NRSV:

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

My translation: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this work?  Maybe an example will help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love and holiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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