Times of refreshing

This is a sermon for the third Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is Acts 3:12-20.

When I was first an Anglican – first going to church, in fact – I started off in a parish where the charismatic movement had had a big impact.  They loved the book of Acts there; all that speaking in tongues, and miraculous signs; that sense of the Holy Spirit being really present and active and doing stuff in our lives, our community and our world.  The days when someone could preach a sermon and five thousand people would be baptised in response.  And the idea that we, too, could be part of it all; we could be caught up in the next big wave of revival.

It was heady stuff.  And if it was – like all traditions – occasionally out of balance in its particular obsessions, it definitely had strengths as well.

I was thinking about that, this week, as I prepared to preach on this morning’s reading from Acts.  You see, there’s that phrase that Peter uses, “times of refreshing,” to describe what it’s like when our lives know the presence of the Lord.  Those charismatics knew about “times of refreshing;” they talked about them, sang about them, and thought that was what we should be aiming for in the Christian life; that moment when the Holy Spirit flowed through you, healing, shaping and preparing you for what God was about to do next.  So the phrase jumped out at me off the page.

But it left me wondering, for those of us who are not charismatic, and who don’t really understand that movement… do we experience the same thing, but just use different language for it?  Or are there some things we just don’t quite experience in the same way at all?

Or to put that another way, how do we translate the charismatic experience, to make sense of it for people who aren’t part of that?

Let’s start here.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t play favourites, and isn’t living and active only in the charismatic movement.  The more spectacular charismatic gifts – like speaking in tongues, or prophecy, or deliverance ministry – aren’t the hallmarks of being really, truly and properly Christian.  (That might sound obvious, but sometimes, it needs to be said).

It seems to me that if the Holy Spirit sets off fireworks in charismatic gatherings, in other settings His work is more like a soft glow; gentle, consistent, warm.  Much less exciting, maybe; but also more tending to work gradually over a long time, rather than going for instantaneous personal breakthroughs.  More catholic folks tend to look for the inward grace of the Holy Spirit to be at work in them over time as they worship, receive the sacraments, and seek God in their hearts; often looking for God in quiet and retreat rather than large and noisy gatherings.

But in both settings we see the change in people over time.  We see the fruit of the Spirit becoming more apparent, as people become more loving, more joyful, more gentle, and so on.  Same Spirit at work, same outcome, just a very different experience as we get there.  Take that as a sign of God’s graciousness in working with each of us in the way that’s right for us personally, if you like.

If there’s a big difference between the two traditions, I think it’s actually this; the charismatics are very individualistic.  You might be in a crowd, but when the Holy Spirit’s at work, you might as well be alone in that crowd, because it’s all about what the Spirit is doing in that one individual believer. But a more catholic tradition, especially one that looks to communion as a high point of God’s presence and work in us, is much more communal.  Just as one person can’t – not even a priest – celebrate communion on his or her own, our tradition has more of a sense of the Holy Spirit being at work in us as a community, and through each other and our relationships with one another, just as much as what’s going on in the secret places of a single person’s heart.

And this is the bit that tends to get overlooked in the more individualistic traditions; the verbs in the reading today aren’t singular in form, they’re plural.  We can’t tell the difference in English, but we might gloss what Peter’s saying as “all of you repent… and all of you turn to God.”  Not each one of you individually, but all of us as a community, need to be engaged in this process if we’re to really know what it is to have “times of refreshing.”

It’s a time of enormous change in the parish, some of it chosen, and some of it thrust upon us unwillingly.  We’ve lost people we care about, to death and because they’ve moved away.  We don’t yet know who God might send to join us.  Old patterns of parish life and ministry are ending and new ones are struggling to emerge.  I suspect for some of us it feels anything but refreshing, but rather threatening, or at least anxiety-inducing.

But the promise is that if we keep turning to Christ, repenting of our follies and sins; if we keep our focus where it belongs, there will be times of refreshing.  We may not be able to predict what that refreshing will look like or feel like, or what form it will take, but God is always at work, making things new, drawing people into communities of believers.  Maybe not five thousand at a time, the way they did after this sermon of Peter’s; but steadily nonetheless.

I know this is the bit that often seems less than obvious.  Are people out there really interested in being part of this kind of church?  Even if we do everything right, is anyone going to want to come?

But this, actually, is the part of my story that gives me hope when I think about that question.  I wasn’t raised going to church.  I wasn’t baptised until I was twenty-two.  But I came into the church because I knew that I wanted more of God, somehow, than I could experience on my own; and I found what I wanted in the church.  I’ve known other young people with similar stories; coming to church, wanting something “more,” not even sure what, maybe, but determined to look for it.  Those people are out there, wanting more; a vague, undefined more, perhaps, and they may have no idea where to look for it; but we – the church, the community in which God is at work – are what they need, even if they don’t know it yet.  We don’t have to create that desire in them, we just have to respond to it.

Our times of refreshing come when we turn to Christ and seek to make Him the focus of all that we do, together as a parish.  For other people, their times of refreshing will come as they discover Christian community and the Spirit that’s at work in and through the Church.  But what we can be confident about is that those times of refreshing will come, and the charismatics had one thing very right; we ought to be preparing for those times before they get here.  We do that by repenting, turning to God and getting our spiritual house in order; by expecting God to be at work, and looking to cooperate with that work.  And remembering that this is not an individualistic thing, but something we need to be on about together.

I’m not even going to say that I have all the answers as to what that should be like, because it’s something we need to discover by doing it; but I am going to say that it’s something we need to take seriously, as we expect and hope that God will be active in our midst.

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Meaning

This is a sermon for the second Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is 1 John 1:1-2:2, and it was written for a baptism.

Light and dark, life and death, good and evil… the last couple of weeks, in different ways, have given us a lot of reason to focus on those themes.  And this morning, we’re looking at the same themes again, but from a slightly different angle.

Partly because it’s Samuel’s baptism day, and in the rejection of selfishness, injustice, and evil, and turning to God, we come again to some of the fundamental things in the Christian life.  But also because of our readings; in the letter from John, he wrote, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”

There’s more than one aspect to light; more than one thing that’s meant by saying that “God is light.”  By that we can mean that God is truth; that God is essential to life; that God is dynamic; and so on.  But the aspect I’d like to pick up on this morning is the idea that in light there is meaning, as opposed to the darkness of meaninglessness.

If God is light, and light is a mediator of meaning, there are some things which flow from that.  One of them is the value of every human person – including Samuel – because we each have a place in the meaningful creation of an intentional creator.  As one ancient poet put it, that each person is “a jar full of delight,” suggesting that God delights in us, and that we’re invited to delight in each other.

Another is that every person has something valuable to bring, a part to play, in human society; because each one of us is created uniquely as we are and is irreplaceable in the network of relationships that make up community.

Another is that faith – or religion, if you prefer – is supposed to operate on a different level than a set of rules.  Becoming a Christian isn’t about committing to be “good,” as if goodness meant no sex or chocolate or freedom; it’s about committing to a system of meaning; a system of meaning in which we discover and cherish and nurture the goodness God has given to all aspects of the created universe in which we find ourselves.

Some ethical boundaries will arise from that, of course; but not because religion is a controlling force in our lives, but because boundaries are a healthy part of knowing who we are, and what we’re about.

And this parish’s long connection with various social justice causes is part of being committed to Christianity as a system of meaning; because it says that the vision of human flourishing being open to every person which is at the heart of the quest for social justice, is also at the heart of God’s system of meaning for human life.  They’re two different ways of relating to the same truth.

Having a system of meaning involves a sense of identity, of knowing who we are, and to whom we belong.  Of course on one level we can talk about family – and when you’re as young as Samuel, that’s pretty much your whole framework of meaning – but as we grow, it includes friends, work, leisure, a sense of what one’s life is about.  But there’s a level of meaning deeper than the daily routine of work and leisure, or even the personal connections of family and friendship; without denying the value of family, friendship, work and so on.

But that deeper level of meaning has to do with being children of God; with all that flows from that, as I’ve already touched on, giving meaning and significance to all the other, more mundane aspects of our lives.

This identity as a child of God can give us a self-confidence that’s not broken by adverse circumstances in life.  How can we hate or despise what we know God created to be good, our very selves?  It’s not about image or external success, but about something that remains even when we’ve messed up or failed or been the victim of external forces.  Who we are created to be can never be taken from us.

And it can give us a sense of purpose; a sense of the direction of our lives as contributing to the overall good of the world around us.

God is light, in whom there is no darkness at all.  God doesn’t do anything meaningless or make anything worthless, but everything God creates is good, and has value and purpose, including each of us.  That’s part of what we say yes to, in baptism.  It’s part of what we say yes to, as we gather week to week to worship together and be community to one another.  And it’s part of what we ought to say yes to, as we live our lives out in the world, the rest of the week.  That’s what it means to live as a disciple of Christ.

So with all of that in mind, I encourage you each to reflect on your baptism, and what it means in your life, as we continue to celebrate the season of the resurrection.

Resurrection

This is a sermon for Easter day.  The Scripture it references is John 20:1-18.

Mary Magdalene stood, weeping, outside the tomb. This was the second time she had stood outside the tomb that morning; the first time, she had run straight from the empty tomb to fetch Peter and the other disciple. But as the men ran to investigate the empty tomb, Mary also made her way back – and I wonder why?

We don’t really know much about Mary’s back story. Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing in Scripture to say that she was a prostitute. A couple of brief comments say that Jesus had cast demons out of her. I wonder whether, on that morning, standing in the garden in the dark before sunrise, she felt the cold fingers of fear that now that Jesus was gone, the demons might return?

I wonder if Jesus’ death was not just the loss of a teacher, a healer, a leader, a companion… but whether Mary wept because without Jesus, her past might overtake her again, plunging her back into whatever mental chaos and trauma she had known?

For Mary, it had been in her initial encounter with Jesus – which isn’t described for us anywhere, but just referred to – that Jesus had evicted the demons, and recovered the identity of the woman underneath. A woman with a name, a woman whom Jesus embraced and valued, a woman who thus discovered herself as a whole person. For Mary, the empty tomb must have loomed large as a dark threat, leaving her emotionally naked in her vulnerability and need.

Why does it matter – you might well ask – why the Magdalene wept? It matters because she’s not the only one to weep.  Like Mary, each of us comes with a back story. Those stories are rich and complex and diverse, and not one-size-fits-all, so I’m not going to generalize about their meaning. But each of those stories has its times of light and shade. There were the seasons in which we were hopeful and energized and it seemed that God had blessed us such that the world was our oyster, in which we could reasonably expect to find pearls. And there were seasons in which we were despondent and the world seemed more like a bed of quicksand in which we were trapped, and the heavens were shut.

We bring all of this history with us to the drama of Easter. If Friday was a time for remembering our guilts, our shames and our doubts, perhaps the door of the empty tomb is the time for remembering our frailties, our vulnerabilities, our fears of failure and of worthlessness.

But this is all a bit morbid for Easter morning, isn’t it? Well, it would be, if I stopped there. But it didn’t stop there for Mary, and it doesn’t for us. The risen Jesus called Mary by name, allowing her to see that the empty tomb was not just a tomb; not a grave for all her hopes and hard-won sense of self; but it was also the place in which Christ had risen. The darkness which threatened to close again around Mary was not a lasting darkness, not the falling of the curtain, but would give way to the dawning of the new day, the day of resurrection, the day in which Mary would discover that there was so much more than she had yet understood in what she had been given.

And by God’s grace, it is similar for us. When we stand in our own moments of darkness, wander through the memories of fear and the shadows of worthlessness, we too can encounter the risen Lord who calls each of us by name.   Who takes the seeds of hope which we have treasured and gives them the light to burst into something new, something more than we knew them to be.

Being willing to accept this, to take this part of the Easter story on board as part of our story, our identity, is – says Rowan Williams – an indispensable part of our relationship with God. He puts it thus: “Like a growing thing beneath the earth, we protest at the darkness and push blindly up in search of light, truth, home – the place, the relation where we are not lost, where we can live from deep roots in assurance. Mary goes blindly back to the tomb, and finds her self, her home, her name… Mary is not dead because Jesus is not dead… and her continuing life will have to do with the daily refusal to accept that loss and oppression can simply be lived with or shrugged off. Growth is in the passionate constancy of returning to what seems a grave… to the dim recollection of a possibility of love, in the hope of hearing one’s name spoken out of the emptiness… If we answer that call, and find our story given back to us, our name and our memory, that story turns the corner into life and promise, and, most importantly, “calling” in the fuller sense. We are given a task to do, given a gift to give. Mary is bidden not to touch or hold or cling to the recovered Lord, but to go to her brothers and tell them that she has seen the Lord.”*

The word of hope is given to be passed on, from Mary to the apostles, from the Ten to Thomas, from Peter to the community, from that community to the whole world. Here is what our encounter with the risen Jesus, fresh from the tomb, calls us to; to be bearers of hope. To bring light into darkness; to release the bonds of oppression into genuine freedom. To seek out the seeds of hope and value and worth in places where people are trapped and lost, and nurture those seeds into bearing fruit.

This is a calling, my brothers and sisters, at which the church has often failed. You know this all too well; I don’t need to tell you. But here we are, in the light of a new morning, the morning of the resurrection, with a chance to begin again. To hear our names and know ourselves as we should be. Let’s not miss the moment.

New beginnings

This is a sermon for the dawn vigil on Easter day, largely reflecting on the rite of renewal of baptismal promises.

“This holy night makes all things new, our hearts restored to holiness, washed clean of every stain of sin and bathed in heaven’s light.”  That’s what was just sung as part of the exsultet, the joyful and victorious proclamation of the resurrection.

It’s because we remember that – that intimate link between Jesus’ resurrection and our own being washed clean and bathed in God’s perfect light – that Easter is a time for renewing our baptismal promises, which we will come to in a moment.

You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, we were all baptised; we are part of the community of faith, and we are reminded of that as we gather week by week.  Do we really need to go through the process of saying these things again?

But I think that while need might be too strong a word, we can benefit from it.  It is very easy for our focus to drift in the Christian life; to treat church – at least subconsciously – as the place where we come to get our otherwise unmet needs met, or even just the place where we come to leave behind the stresses and strains of the rest of life.

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.

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.

Paul put it this way when he wrote to the Colossians: “so if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”  If you have been raised with Christ; this isn’t just an event in the past, which happened to someone else; it’s an intimate part of the life story of each one of us.  Seek the things which are above, where Christ is.

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 we recommit ourselves to this morning.  We seek the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in our lives; that God might be at work in our hearts from today, helping us to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how we might be of service to others.

These are not small things.  They don’t happen by default.  They need to be approached intentionally, carefully.  Of course, good people of all faith positions and none will seek to be good and moral people, but this is about more than that.  It’s about seeking 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 “not here” 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 (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, 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.

What is truth?

This is a sermon for Good Friday, reflecting on the passion of Jesus Christ, according to John.

What is truth?

Pilate’s question, as he interrogated Jesus.  What to make of the man in front of him?  What to make of the infuriating rabble outside?  What to make of being the Roman official in this sun-crazed backwater of the empire?  I’m sure he wished all of those questions would go away and leave him in peace, without having to try to grasp the truth.

We have our own wrestling matches with truth, too, don’t we?  We live in a society which tells us that truth is relative, that there is nothing which is objectively true, only subjective constructions which belong each to the individual mind.  That when we seek after something greater than ourselves as arbiter of truth, we are deluded.

Perhaps that’s the sort of thinking that allowed Pilate to wash his hands of the whole affair.

But when we look at the cross, with Jesus hanging on it bloody and beaten, we are confronted with two truths which, if we let them, can shape us profoundly.

The first is the truth of human sin.

We don’t like to talk about sin very much; it’s gone out of fashion, even in the pulpit.  But the fact of the matter is that we are each of us born into a world of broken relationships, of marred human dignity, of bound potential.  We each of us grow into that world, shaped by it, and by our own efforts we cannot entirely overcome it, although stories of human courage and strength abound.  In our struggle for survival we propagate that brokenness, that fallenness; and our best efforts fall short.

If we look that truth squarely in the face at no other time, surely we can look at it on this day.  See our potential for inhumanity summed up for us in this act of brutality in defence of power.  Ask ourselves the hard questions about where our own sin plays out.

But there’s another truth on display for us; the truth of divine love.

This is the length God will go to for us.  This is how much we are not alone; how much we are not abandoned; how much God has not given up on us.  God is able to absorb every bit of our capacity for evil and still have reserves left over to offer us a new beginning.

God is able not just to look our sin squarely in the face, but to bear it in the flesh; in the very human stuff of bones and muscles and nerve endings, and to still hold out the possibility that there might be more to us than this.  That we might be worth enduring all of this for.

Two truths; human sin, yes, but also divine love, demonstrated by the God who didn’t hold back from the extremity of death for our sake.

The God who created us, will go to absolutely any lengths to untangle us from the mess we’ve made of it all and create, with us, a new beginning.

John’s gospel uses the word “glory” for the crucifixion.  It wasn’t glorious at the time.  But in what it accomplished, in what it holds out for us today and until the end of time, there is great glory.

Two truths.  Human sin and divine love, both shown in the glory of the cross.

Come, let us worship him.

Darkness

This is a sermon for Maundy Thursday.  It is not a direct commentary on Scripture, but references the themes in John 13.

There are different kinds of darkness.

There’s the darkness of nothingness into which light came, when creation burst into existence.

There’s the darkness of blindness; when the light exists but we can’t see it.

There’s the darkness of confusion and incomprehension.

There’s the darkness of evil, of hatred, of violation and desecration.

There’s the darkness of death.

There’s the darkness of grief.

There’s the darkness of despair.

And there’s the darkness that is the absence of God, who is somehow, in Godself, Light beyond all our understanding.

Today and tomorrow, through words and symbols and liturgy, we will encounter something of all of these kinds of darkness, and we well might find ourselves in touch with our own inner darkness, as well; the places in our psyche which we seldom subject to scrutiny, but in which lurk some of our deepest fears and hurts and shames.

This is not necessarily bad, but it can feel threatening, and we can be afraid of being overwhelmed by our own emotions or reactions.

The liturgies of these days give us, if you like, a container for those emotions and reactions; and are designed to give us a safe space to have these encounters.  We bracket the descent into darkness with moments of light; on this side of events, with supportive community and caring human touch, expressed in communion and foot washing; and on the other side of the grave, with the bursting new light and sound and joy of the resurrection, at the Easter vigil.

We visit the darkness not to linger in it, but to invite the light of God to penetrate it ever more deeply.  John’s gospel tells us that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.  It does not overcome – conquer – us, either; because we belong to the light.

Just as it did in the very first moment of creation, new light, new experiences of God in love and joy and so forth, can literally re-create us; transforming our darknesses into something far more wholesome and making us radiant in our very selves.

That’s part of the point of worship, actually.

Worship in general – and the services for today through to Sunday in particular – prod the limits of our comfort zones, making us aware of darkness and also summoning the light to overcome every instance of darkness.  In this community and its dynamics of love, we all, as disciples, are drawn into the life of heaven; into that realm of light, truth, love, and beauty which is the dwelling-place God.

All we have to do is be open in participating, and see what God will do; what light God will bring to each of us.

Witnesses

This is a reflection for Wednesday of Holy Week.  The Scripture it references is Hebrews 12:1-3.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, says the anonymous author of the letter to the Hebrews.  And then because they go on to talk about running the race of faith, the image we can often get is as if we’re in a stadium, and all the saints who went before us are in the stands, watching our progress and – we dare to hope – cheering us on.

Except if we think about it like that, we’re missing something.  This reading comes at the end of a great list of people of faith; and the point about them being witnesses is not that they’re watching and witnessing what we’re doing, but that they were witnesses to God’s faithfulness.  That they lived their lives in ways which testified that what God said about God, and us, and the relationship between us, was true and could be relied on.

And their example in doing that, is supposed to inspire us to do the same; to really grasp what God offers us and then express that through our lives.

This week is part of our chance to do that.  Over Thursday, Friday and then Sunday, we get to participate in remembering the key moments in Jesus’ life, and embedding them more deeply and fully into our own lives.

That’s not just a trite saying; I remember talking once to a psychologist who told me that she saw more new patients just after Easter than any other time of the year; because going through everything that happened to Jesus would stir things up in people, and they would decide that it was time to start making positive changes in their own lives as a result.

I’m not necessarily aiming for our own reactions to be quite so dramatic.  But these services do matter; they do offer us a unique experience for worship and connection with God.  And so – if we’re hoping to join the great cloud of witnesses – I encourage you to make the most of them.