Sunday, 22 January 2017

To Live Together in Unity

Sermon preached at Castle Hill URC, 22 January 2017. Texts: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23.

We are in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when churches around the world work and pray together to heal divisions between them. We live in a divided world, which shows no signs of getting better despite victorious politicians calling for unity. So today seems a good occasion to look at the letter to the Corinthians and the calling of the disciples to think about division and unity.

It’s almost too easy to list church divisions. We can start with the big ones. I come from a city and a region, the west of Scotland, where church division has long been a problem. When I grew up in the 70s, divisions between Catholics and Protestants were very real indeed – the schools were segregated, the Orangemen marched in large numbers through the streets of Glasgow, and woe betide you if you showed any signs of supporting the wrong football team in the wrong part of the city. We didn’t have bombings and shootings as in Northern Ireland, but it was nasty and edgy. Some of that was tribal, but much of it was based on real church divisions. The Church of Scotland, the national denomination, has split and reunited many times over the centuries. In my town, there were three Churches of Scotland, and many people could remember which bit of the divided history each had come; down the road we had a United Free Church which was the residue of people who didn’t join in the past reunifications and in other parts of Scotland there are still more disunited Free Presbyterian groups. The Iona Community, a staunchly ecumenical body which was founded in Glasgow, had a working group to bring about intercommunion between Protestants and Catholics by the year 2000, something that was only partially achieved.

Going bigger still, this is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a wonderful event of religious freedom in so many ways, which liberated people from corrupt church leaders and enabled them to think in new ways – and yet one which caused massive disruption and wars across Europe for decades. And for almost a thousand years, the churches of the West and the East of Europe have been divided following the events of the Great Schism – and it’s worth saying that the word schism is precisely the Greek word St Paul used in the passage we heard, which is translated as division.

Local churches and whole denominations are split over a range of issues, from theological divides between liberals and evangelicals, to preferred styles of worship such as hymns on organs versus praise songs with worship bands, to social issues such as the welcoming of gay people and the celebration of their relationships in marriage. Paul wrote that some in Corinth said ‘I follow Paul’; others, ‘I follow Apollos’; others, ‘I follow Cephas’, which is to say Peter; others, ‘I follow Christ.’ In the same way, some today say ‘I follow Luther’, some ‘I follow the Pope’, others ‘I follow Calvin’, others even ‘I follow Philip Doddridge’. Same divisions, different times.

Or they split based on nationality and ethnicity. Martin Luther King said more than 50 years ago that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning”. It’s not much better in the US today, and in this country we see a fair amount of ethnic division in worship – in this town there are plenty of traditional white churches with scarcely a black or Asian face, while in other places there are burgeoning churches which are mostly black, or mostly from a particular national background.

Big divisions, big consequences. Nor are they only divisions that occur between big groups – they play out on a day-to-day basis between individuals. The American pastor and writer John Ortberg tells a story, which exists in various other versions I’m sure, but as he writes it goes as follows:
A man was walking along San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge when he saw a woman standing by herself, obviously feeling lonely. He ran up to tell her God loved her. A tear came to her eye. Then he asked her, "Are you a Christian, Jew, Hindu, what?"
"I'm a Christian," she said.
He said, "Me too! Small world. Protestant or Catholic?"
"Protestant."
"Me too! What denomination?"
"Baptist."
"Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
"Northern Baptist."
He said, "Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
"Northern Conservative Baptist."
"That's amazing! Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?"
"Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist."
"Remarkable! Me too! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?"
She said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region."
"A miracle," he said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
She said, "Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
He shouted, "Die, heretic" and pushed her over the rail.
I hope nobody here would push someone off the rail of a bridge for their beliefs, but we all act in ways that are quite like it. Because as you might be now be saying, if you know the Corinthians passage well or were listening carefully, Paul isn’t just talking about big divisions. He’s also talking about the small disagreements within churches which fester over time. Ten years ago, Jackie didn’t consult Brian over the repainting of the social room; or twenty years ago, Bill had a spat with Jane about the new hymn books – and they’re still in the same church, and they’re still grumbling behind each other’s backs, and it’s still not healed. There are divisions like this in every church, even here at Castle Hill. Sometimes it leads to big splits and new congregations being set up which never come together, as happened when a group split from here in 1772 in a disagreement over money and leadership, set up a church across the road at King St that eventually moved to Abington Avenue and still exists today. Sometimes it sits within the same congregation and just leads to ongoing hurt and disagreement. But in either case – it’s corrosive. It breaks down church unity.

Let me say plainly: there are divisions in this church, as in all others. I’m not addressing those directly, nor am I implying that particular groups are right or wrong. Please don’t take anything I say this morning as directed at any one person or group in particular. And I’m not in the slightest suggesting that this congregation is worse than others in that regard. It’s something that happens everywhere. But in all places, we are called by St Paul to be ‘united in the same mind and the same purpose’.

So what is the nature of that unity? The first thing to say is that it’s not uniformity. It’s not everyone being the same. That idea of unity not being uniformity has long been a key part of the world ecumenical movement. Nor is about everyone pulling together behind a single cause or a single leader. We see that call in political life, from Theresa May over the Brexit vote, from Donald Trump following his inauguration, or to move across the political spectrum from Jeremy Corbyn after his re-election as Labour leader. Each would like to silence dissent, to encourage conformity. They are wrong – there is always a place for dissent and nonconformity within unity. Without dissent, without diversity, it is a false unity, and can’t last. The same is true in churches, whether it was the silencing of liberation theologians by the Vatican in the 1980s, or the expulsion by the Evangelical Alliance of churches such as Oasis Trust who support same-sex marriage, or the struggles of women to be accepted for ordination in so many denominations in the past.

What we can see instead is unity of purpose, of churches coming together to accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, to accept that they were baptised into one baptism, have one Lord and Saviour in Jesus, and one God as father and creator. In the midst of the religious wars of the early 17th century, a Lutheran theologian in Germany, Rupertus Meldenius wrote a phrase which later became widely used: “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity”. We proclaim the faith of Christ crucified, and we follow his teaching, but there are many ways in which there is room for disagreement and for diversity. In the same Germany of today, the churches are beginning to accept one another, not as rivals and not as one being subordinate to another, but as sisters and brothers in Christ. To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany will be having celebrations and services this year, which they are calling a Christusfest – a celebration of Christ. As Pope Francis wrote a few years ago, “if hearts are shattered in thousands of pieces, it is not easy to create authentic peace in society”. He also says that “unity brought by the Spirit can harmonize every diversity. It overcomes every conflict by creating a new and promising synthesis”.

Which brings me to our gospel reading, on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the calling of the disciples. The words “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” are the first words of public teaching we hear from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. They’re the same as John the Baptist’s message, but we see Jesus putting them into action. He goes throughout Galilee preaching, but also healing people of every kind of disease – which given the 1st century understanding of illness I guess today we would include counselling and pastoral care in the work he did, just as much as physical healing. Jesus came to give hope to the afflicted.

Notice that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”. One of the great themes of the New Testament is that the divide between God and his people has become less and that the kingdom of heaven is not a separate place but something we can experience here and now. God has come to earth in human flesh, to witness their oppression and to give hope and help to those who are suffering in myriad ways.

The gospel writer spends a while dwelling on the significance of Galilee, both in its geography and the words that Isaiah wrote about it. To summarise: Galilee was on the edge. It was the edge of the Roman world, the edge of the Jewish world. A bit of a backwater. And that was where Jesus chose to launch his ministry – not in Jerusalem, not in Rome, not even in Corinth, but in Galilee. It’s as if he came to the UK and decided to start with Slough, or Bolton. And he launched it with the most ordinary of people – fishermen, plain working folk, not anyone very special.

But he came to a place in need of care. People in Galilee were made poor by the weight of Roman taxes, were kept down by the weight of Roman rule, were left feeling bereft as if God has deserted them. This is why healing mattered – poor people get sick very easily, and it wasn’t a time of affordable healthcare. Jesus came to take that burden, and to show a different way. The Scottish Biblical scholar Leith Fisher wrote that Jesus came to show the reality of the Kingdom of heaven, that “God is real, active, present, though hidden in the day-to-day life of the world. God is not remote, indifferent, uncaring, inactive, God is here and God is now.” 

James Tissot, The Calling of
Saint Peter and Saint Andrew,
via Wikimedia Commons
Jesus came not to offer us heaven after we die, but to offer us heaven here on earth, and to offer us a chance to build heaven here.

And Jesus calls these fishermen, two sets of brothers, to be part of that care, to help him to show the nearness of God, to help bring about this new kingdom. He said they were going to stick with what they knew, the process of fishing, but with a new kind of catch – for people instead of fish. Simon and Andrew and James and John were being drawn into Jesus’ care and interest for people, into his mission to the people of Galilee. But he asked them to follow him, to learn from his teaching and example. A couple of verses after the end of this reading, we see them called disciples for the first time – that is to say, learners, students, apprentices to this new master. They would draw on their past experience, to make use of their existing skills as fishermen – but in a new way and with a new care for God’s people. We care for people in whatever ways we can, and wherever we are able to do so, but we are called by Jesus to care for people. This church shows care to people in so many ways here in Spring Boroughs – through contact centre, the brigades, mums & tots, work with the homeless and many other ways. Today is Homelessness Sunday, and we’ll pray for that in the intercessions later.

As we know it was Peter and the others who went on to found a church to carry on Jesus’ work after his death. To quote Leith Fisher again, “The church only exists to be an instrument, a source of mediation, a conduit, between the great realities of God, and the rule and presence of God, and his world. So often we make the church an end in itself, and we end up thinking in ways which are fundamentally and small-mindedly selfish.”

And that’s why the divisions in the church are so unhelpful. We exist as a body of Christ, to carry on his witness, of teaching and action. If we are divided, we are weak, squabbling with each other instead of looking outwards. If we are united, we can respect each other’s diversity and look outwards in different ways and in different places. We can prophetically proclaim to those who would seek to create false unity and even to wrap it in the name of God that we will only find unity when we care for others and celebrate diversity. And in that way we can serve the kingdom, we can serve others in the world, we can proclaim the gospel, we can show people everywhere that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

May God give us the strength that this be so. Amen.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

There's no such thing as the perfect church

Book review – Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans (Nelson Books, 2015)

Rachel Held Evans is an American Christian blogger, author and speaker. She is a member of the generation often known as the millennials – those who came of age around the millennium and in the decade or so afterwards. Definitions vary, but roughly speaking this group is currently aged 20-35; Evans is 35 so at the upper end of the generation. Her book begins with the question of why people of her generation are leaving church in such large numbers. She is clear that any solution is not to be found through glitz or marketing, as her generation has spent its life being marketing towards and so “can smell b.s. from a mile away”. Rather, she argues, “millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity – we’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity”.

However, the book is not principally a how-to guide for churches that want to attract younger people, important as that is. Instead, this is a book that is part spiritual autobiography, part meditation on the nature of faith, part discussion on what it means to be church. It is perfect reading for anyone who struggles, or has struggled, with what it means to be church in the 21st century. It’s definitely not just for millennials - I’m at least a decade older than that generation and my copy is full of underlined passages which resonated for me.

Evans’ book is punctuated by accounts of her church journey: she grew up in a large independent evangelical church, which she loved as a community but ultimately left (along with her husband) because of its intolerance towards women in leadership, towards gay people, and its unwillingness to accept any but a single doctrinal position. She then was involved in founding a church plant which failed, spent long periods where she couldn’t face attending church at all, and tried various other denominations, before settling in the Episcopal Church – although as she says early in the book, “I didn’t want to put my church story in print because, the truth is, I still don’t know the ending – I am in the adolescence of my faith”. The title of the book only partly refers to her search for a church community – it also refers to her search for the resurrection of Sunday morning, “about all the strange ways God brings dead things back to life again”.

The book is structured around the seven traditional (Catholic) sacraments – baptism, where the church tells us we are beloved; confession, where we’re told we are broken; holy orders, where we are commissioned (all of us, not just clergy); communion, where we are fed; confirmation, where we are welcomed; anointing of the sick, where we are made holy; and marriage, where we are united with another. This structure is said to be a literary device, but clearly also reflects the author’s attraction to liturgical worship and her present affiliation to the Episcopal Church. Each section takes one of these sacraments, opening and closing with biblical mediations on key words and concepts relating to that sacrament. So for baptism, we have water & rivers; for confession, ash & dust; for holy orders, hands & feet; for communion, bread & wine; for confirmation, breath & wind; for anointing of the sick, oil & perfume; for marriage, crowns & kingdom.

The importance of these sacraments is stressed throughout the book, but so is the sacramental nature of all life. Evans talks near the end of the book about the difference between the church and the kingdom of God, saying that “the purpose of the church, and of the sacraments, is to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, to point it in its direction … we make something sacramental when we make it like the kingdom”. These sacramental acts, these kingdom glimpses, can be seen in the ordinary things of life – food, relationships, friendship, forgiveness – and they can be seen in churches of all kinds when they are places “where the last are first and the first are last and those who hunger and thirst are fed”.

These kingdom glimpses bring us the hope of resurrection, whatever the darkness of our lives or the difficulties of our church experiences. When Evans writes of baptism, she observes that “baptism declares that God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life … we are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love”. Time and again, she writes, Sunday morning (and especially Easter morning), “sneaks up on us – like dawn, like resurrection, like the sun that rises a ribbon at a time; we expect a trumpet and a triumphal entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things”.

Throughout the book she writes about the nature of church, about the fallibility but the necessity of human communities. Being a follower of Jesus is not something we can do alone, but need one another to help with. It’s a flawed institution – if the church is the body of Christ, she writes, we have to tell the truth about it, “acknowledging the scars, staring down the ugly bits, marvelling at its resiliency, and believing that this flawed and magnificent body is enough, for now, to carry us through the world and into the arms of Christ”. She has often felt, she says, that if only she could find the right church or denomination, then all would be well – but “right’s got nothing to do with it; waiting around for right will leave you waiting around forever”.
Image: Nathan Bingham, The Perfect Church
Church life – in all churches – can be frustrating at times. And the right church for one person may be wrong, even toxic, for another. Finding that place may be an instant click for one, a lifetime search for another. But ultimately the church as a whole is the best thing we have to enable and nurture us to serve others and to serve Christ. Rachel Held Evans presents a rich and powerful account of church life as it moves forward into the future. I recommend her book highly.

(Review originally written for Abington Avenue URC church magazine)

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Commitment, manifestation and mission: a sermon on the baptism of Jesus

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 8th January 2017. Main texts: Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9.

As a family we’ve been a number of times to a set of gardens in Devon by the name of Escot, complete with family-friendly animals and play equipment. One of their attractions is a birds of prey display – hawks, owls and the like. They care for and handle their birds well, but at one point in the display they’ve trained the hawks to fly out from the keeper and then swoop in low, just above the visitors’ heads, before coming back to the keeper. A few years ago we were there and they had a young bird doing this, and it came in very close to the top of my wife Becky’s head, almost touching her. None of us have seen birds of prey quite the same way since.

I tell this story not just as an easy introduction, but because it comes close to part of Jesus’ experience at his baptism. Given the long history of doves as a symbol of peace and of the spirit of God, it’s easy to think of their flight as something soft and calm. But their landing is not [see Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A]. Doves aren’t birds of prey, but they swoop down and land with a bump, rather like birds of prey. So the dove of the Spirit would have landed on Jesus’ head quite hard.
The experience of being baptised, of being named publically as God’s son, of becoming committed to a mission that would inevitably put him up against the state and would ultimately lead to his death, was not a comfortable one for Jesus. He was marked. He was chosen, and he had little choice in the matter. His calling landed on him with a bump.
Image: The Baptism of Christ, Andrea del Verrocchio
Two days ago was the festival of Epiphany, and in many ways this is a story about epiphany. The day is often associated with wise men and gifts, but the word simply means manifestation – of God being made known. The heavens are opened, which is a poetic way of saying that the gap between the earthly realm and the divine realm was reduced to nothing. God was experienced in that place on that river-bank. As the Biblical commentator Karoline Lewis puts it, “Epiphanies are not subtle. We can look for God in all kinds of people and places, but sometimes God comes crashing through the clouds and stops you dead in your tracks.”

This doesn’t mean we can’t experience God in other ways. When we pray, when we sing in worship, when we live out the gospel through serving others, when we see the works of God in nature, or in music, or through the love of others – these are all ways of experiencing God, among many others. But a sudden breaking-through of the gap between earth and heaven, a sudden and complete experience of God – that comes as more of a surprise.

This kind of epiphany, this experience of God’s complete love and presence, is an act of grace. It seeks us out, and is freely given to us. But we can make ourselves ready and available for it. That’s the nature of grace – it’s a two-way process, something offered that has to be accepted willingly.

And we see Jesus willingly going to his baptism here, freely taking up the offer of God’s grace, and freely taking on the mission which followed from it. One of the great questions that people have asked about Jesus’ baptism was why it was necessary. John baptised for repentance, for people to confess their wrong-doing and be transformed through the water into a new life. But Jesus was without sin, the eternal word of the Father made into a human being. And he chose to go into a muddy pool by the Jordan river to accept repentance and washing-away of sins from a radical preacher living on the edge of society. As some commentators have observed, it was something that the early church found really scandalous, almost embarrassing. Why did Jesus do it?

By the sounds of things, John the Baptist asked a similar question to Jesus. He was a bit scandalized at having the one he’d been preaching about coming to him to be baptised. But Jesus gives him a strong response. The language of the standard Bible translations here isn’t very helpful – the NIV says “it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness” which sounds like something from a legal contract or a memo by a particularly dull civil servant. The Message translation that I read at the start of the children’s talk is a lot livelier but not hugely more insightful: “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism”. The Greek word we have here as ‘righteousness’ appears a lot in the gospels, and it usually means ‘doing the right thing’, but specifically the right thing in God’s eyes. It’s about fulfilling God’s will.

So Jesus is saying: I need to be baptised, because it fulfils God’s will. It has long been the belief of the church that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human at once, though that is a sufficiently perplexing statement that trying to explain it rationally does your head in. How can someone be 100% of two things at once? Nonetheless that is what Jesus was. As one who was fully divine, he didn’t need baptism, but as one who was fully human, he needed to go through all the same things that we ordinary humans need to do.

Being baptised was a sign of Jesus’ commitment to humanity, just as much as was his birth and his death. It was also a very public way to make a commitment to his mission. There was no going back. The wonderful words that he heard, about being God’s son & beloved, were deeply affirming to Jesus. But here in the gospel of Matthew they are also a quotation, and they recur twice more in the gospel.

The words of God come from the passage we heard in Isaiah – “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight”. They are the first of the four servant songs, written to the people of Israel to show their vocation as a people who exist to serve others, although they are read by Christians as referring to Jesus. Isaiah gives an amazing mission to the servant described here – to bring forth justice, to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to release prisoners from darkness.

That is the mission of Jesus – to bring justice to a world that sorely needs it, but in ways that they wouldn’t expect. Not through domination, but through service. Not through power, but through weakness. Not through violence, but through love. Matthew quotes a longer passage from Isaiah 42 when discussing the many people Jesus had cured, and the conflict which arose from it because it was seen as inappropriate by the religious establishment. And again we hear Isaiah in Matthew’s account of the scene on the mountaintop known as the Transfiguration, when Jesus shone like the sun and was joined by Moses and Elijah; then too the voice of God said “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. These words from Isaiah echo throughout the gospel of Matthew, just as Jesus’ mission echoes through the gospel of Matthew.

Indeed, the gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus calling his disciples in turn to make disciples of all nations, to baptise them just as Jesus had been baptised, and to teach them to obey all of Jesus’ commandments. In other words, to take on the mission of being God’s beloved one, sent as a servant to bring forth justice and to be a light to a nations. And that call is passed down from one follower to another, so that we too are called to take on Jesus’ mission, to be ourselves a light to the nations and to be bringers of justice.

We might each of us bring light and justice in different ways – some of us through our work, some through our service to others, some in campaigning, some in charities, some in our families, some in the way we treat others around us. But the gospel is clear. If we are followers of Jesus, we are bringers of justice and light in everyday life.

Because there is one more thing to be said about epiphany. It’s something we can practice, and it’s something that breaks through in ordinary life. When people are baptised, whether as babies or adults, there’s nothing special about the water. It’s just the ordinary stuff from the tap. But it’s made sacred by it being the channel through which we are accepted by God. In the same way, when we celebrate communion, there’s nothing special about the bread and the wine (or grape juice). They are ordinary things made special by the way we encounter God through them.

As the American author Debie Thomas writes, “Epiphany is deep water — you can't stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge.” We need to work at finding God, at hearing his voice, at encountering the divine presence. It reminds me of Peter walking on water. The bravest thing he did was not the walking, but leaving the boat and trusting Jesus that he would be ok.

Peter needed faith that if he let go, he would be ok. We all need faith that if we let go of our excuses, our world-weariness, our reluctance, then we will be ok, that we will then encounter God.

Because we have a mission, to follow Jesus in bringing forth justice and being a light to the nations. We can be reassured that we too are the beloved ones of God, given new life through his grace, but we need to be willing to accept that grace, to step forward in faith, and to follow Jesus in committing ourselves to God just as he did. Then truly we will fulfil the meaning of his and our baptisms.

Amen.