Monday, 25 November 2013

Will you come and follow me?

Christ the King is a title and concept that sits uncomfortably in a society that prizes democracy and autonomy. In fact there are precious few absolute monarchs left in the world, a state that is probably seen as entirely desirable by the vast majority of people who instinctively know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Our own constitutional monarchy is a curious half way house where the trappings of power and authority are there for all to see but that power is more theoretical than real. The real power lies with parliament. In fact many might say that real power and authority lies not even with our own parliament, but with Brussels and still others with the banks and unelected massive corporations who wield enormous power in all countries and impinge on everybody’s lives.
So while the title may be anachronistic the sense of it is still clear. It is a question of who or what do you accept as having a final authority and influence in your life? Who or what do you defer to and allow to modify your actions?
And even as I pose the question I am aware that I have used two words that have been steadily eroded during recent history. Authority and deference are two very unfashionable concepts nowadays.
Perhaps “influence” is the most neutral and acceptable word nowadays. Who influences your life? That may be the best way of asking the question that the gospel writers would have framed as “Who is your king”.
What is interesting to me is that Jesus himself never claims to be a king. That is a title thrust upon him. Jesus only ever spoke of the “Kingdom of God” a divine reality he referred to as “Father” and urged us to do the same.
Whose authority did Jesus follow? It was God the Father’s. “Yet not my will but your will” prayed Jesus in the garden of gethsemene.
So Jesus in his actions, as transparent to the will of God, is the reason we follow him, because he is a revealer of the will of God, a man transparent to the character and will of God, so therefore commands authority. It is a devolved authority that mirrors the will and authority of the Father so this is why we can say that “Christ is King” because he is in step with the Spirit of the Father.
It is in following the Spirit of God that we come into communion with Christ and can therefore also call ourselves sons and daughters of God. When we too follow the Father’s will, a will revealed in the life of Jesus.
But why should we follow his will at all, in this age where all authority is suspect? Well if it were simply the case of following the dictats of a cruel and angry despot like the kings of old it would simply be a case of duty with the constant threat of sanctions if we step out of line. But Jesus revealed a different way of relating to God – not as a distant and wrathful king but a close familial relationship as between a Father or mother and their children. Straight away the relationship is changed. It is not cold duty, however benign a king he may be but a relationship born of love. And love really does change everything. If God is our Father and Jesus is our brother and friend, then their influence in our lives is one of mutuality and gratitude and forgiveness and love.

Yes Christ is king in terms of moral authority, but he is also our teacher, our guide, our inspiration, our brother and friend on a journey that leads into the heart of God.  

Monday, 18 November 2013

Move yourself lazybones!

In his second letter to the Philippians Paul is using his own conduct as an example to the young congregation.
He notes that he works hard and pays for himself even though he is entitled to expect some material or financial support. He is determined not to be a drain on the congregation.
Everything Paul says and does and indeed writes is done to build up the Christian community.
Here in 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13 Paul is concerned with “idleness”, being carried by the other members of the group. Paul has an image of the Christian group as an organic unity. Don’t forget it is he that coined the phrase “the body of Christ” to describe the group. We are made up of different parts and strengths and abilities but we will only be a dynamic body when all the different parts pull their weight so to speak.
And idleness can be not just of the body but also of mind and Spirit.   
This brings to mind a humorous description of many churches as being like a football match.
20,000 people badly in need of some exercise watching 22 people badly in need of a rest running around.
Now while that is quite funny, you can’t stretch the analogy too far it makes the point that in the church typically the more people who are actively involved makes any group, not just churches far more dynamic.
On “All Saints Sunday” I talked about every one of us being a witness for the faith. Every one of us, in our relationships and our work and play has the opportunity to be an open and unashamed voice for this church – our community of faith right here in Gainford/Winston.
And initially that is all that is required. Each of us has a reason or reasons to be here this morning, and that reason or reasons is the one that we can all talk about to others with complete confidence. It might be an intuition, or a feeling of community, a sense of duty perhaps. It might be intricate and well thought through and involve notions like communion with God and devotion to certain gospel truths. It may be about love, forgiveness, a sense of a shared journey with all its struggles to a destination we call “God”
Whatever they are, they are our reasons. They might not collude exactly with what the church says is the official reasons you are here (whatever they are) but they are your truth.
A great man called Harry Williams who was a monk at Mirfield, where I trained said “Truth, only has the power of truth when it becomes true for you”.
If someone were to ask you why you come to church, or if we more bravely initiated the conversation and tried to tell someone the reasons we attend church on Sunday unsolicited it is really no good trying to find out what you are “supposed” to say. Say what it actually means to you. What church means to you will change over time. It is after all a journey of faith. What God and Jesus and Spirit mean to you will ebb and flow and change over time. You should never be ashamed of your own truth. That is what is true for you and therefore the only thing that has the power to affect and change you.
In this community I try to affect change in perception by sermons, weekly emails, and the way I  conduct myself. I try to do so with the utmost integrity and honesty. I try to persuade people to a specific view of God and the faith. All we can do is sow seeds. That is all any of us can do.
You never know if a seed is going to take root and prosper or not – I do believe Jesus told a parable about that somewhere!! But the point is, if the seed is not sown in the first place there is obviously no chance at all that anything will ever grow and flourish.
I wouldn’t worry too much if any attempt to talk about faith is a bit faltering. Harder than that is not to get too upset and flustered if what you say is rubbished or ridiculed. That just shows a complete lack of respect for you and your perception of truth. We do need a bit of courage and backbone to withstand brickbats as well. In my experience, that soon subsides to be replaced with a grudging respect for your position anyway.
However many people are in church today that is how many evangelists we have in this church. That is the number of witnesses, that is the same number of pilgrims we have all trying in our own way to follow the way of God as revealed in the life of Jesus.

Together we are strong and can withstand anything. 

Monday, 11 November 2013

We will remember them.

“We will remember them.”
Well, we certainly remember them in the sense that we read their names out every year at this service – but every name was a life, a story, with a host of real characters, and personalities.
Which is why I was so heartened when I learned of a local couple who have made it their mission to find out as much about all those names written on our war memorial as humanly possible and to visit every grave of all those servicemen wherever they may be.
Of the 25 service men from WWI, 13 have been researched and visited, 8 have been researched and yet to visit, 4 are left still to find.
Eventually when finished all this research will be gathered and collated as a permanent record and will be kept in this church. I spoke to them briefly to garner a few snippets of information for today’s service.
However much or little we can find out about all of them, these are not just names they are lives. Some we only know a little about.......
There was Harold Dean Tenneck who lived in that little cottage next to the church wall who left his house in uniform with his pack, walked to Gainford station to go to Darlington in 1916 and never came back.
Frederick Heron, who won the military medal for gallantry, William Humblestone who was killed on the very first day of the battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916.
Some we know quite a lot more about like George Edward Gent, who worked for North East Railways and lived in 8, Tees view. His dad had a plumbers shop there. He was a second lieutenant in the Royal Field artillery and he died on the 14th September 1917 struck by a shell which rendered him unconscious and he died within a few minutes. The two signallers who went to his aid under heavy fire and recovered his body both received the military medal. He is buried in a war cemetery in France near Armentiers but he is also mentioned on the black headstone next to the war memorial. Look for him as we leave this morning.
The enormity of loss can only be fully appreciated once the names have faces. They had lives, mums and dads, wives, children, brothers and sisters.
The brutality and waste of war comes home to us more fully when the lists and statistics become human beings.
But not only brutality and waste, but also heroism, service, self-sacrifice, comradeship. Even in the darkest nights there are flickers of light.
We can argue until the cows come home about the morality of war, about its causes and justifications, but what has happened can’t be undone. Today we are called simply to remember the sacrifice of millions, in this very particular context that is Gainford. To remember specifically those local men who would have been our neighbours if we had been living then. In fact if we had been living then, it might well have been us. Our name might have been on that war memorial.
Let us do them the honour of remembering them in a manner that is fitting and we would have wanted if we had been in their place – if it had been our names carved into that stone.
It is in remembering that we become more committed to not repeating the mistakes of the past. I am sure that sometimes war is unavoidable for many complex reasons, but must be avoided if it possibly can be. Surely the names, the lives recorded on that memorial should act as a constant reminder of the reality of war and its consequences and guard us against a gung ho attitude to war. As St. Paul wrote, “If it is anything to do with you, live at peace with everybody”.
I will end with a prayer by Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury.  Archbishop Runcie earned a commission in the Scots guards during World War II, serving as a Tank commander and earning the Military cross for two feats of bravery in March 1945: he rescued one of his men from a crippled tank under heavy enemy fire, and the next day took his own tank into an exceptionally exposed position in order to knock out three anti-tank guns. As a result, he is unique among modern Archbishops of Canterbury in having killed fellow human beings. In May 1945, he was among the first British troops to enter Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He knew war and death and he wrote this prayer;

Eternal Father, source of life and light,
whose love extends to all people, all creatures, all things,
grant us that reverence for life
which becomes those who believe in you,
lest we despise it, degrade it,
or come callously to destroy it.
Rather let us save it, serve it, and sanctify it,
after the example of your son,
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Monday, 4 November 2013

For all the saints

Paul starts his letter to the Ephesians like this;
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. To the Saints, the faithful in Ephesus in Christ Jesus”
The worshipping community in Ephesus were all termed Saints for a very good reason. The word saint is a translation of a Greek word which means a witness.(Greek stem – Martyr)
To be a saint is to be a witness to the Christian way, so all Christians were witnesses, all are saints.
Contrast that earlier meaning with what the church did with it. Through historical reasons due to terrible persecution in the early years, the term started to be used more exclusively for those Christians who were killed for their faith. Eventually the original meaning was sidelined and the term was used exclusively for those Christians who were dead, and then only those who were reckoned to be special enough to be definitely “in heaven” as determined by Rome.
So historically the term has progressively narrowed from including all Christians who were alive and worshipping and witnessing in the manner of their life – then restricted to those who had died and subsequently then those who had died who were definitely in heaven.
But if you want to be faithful to the Bible and understand what St. Paul was saying then his letters are addressed to “all the saints” – that is US! We are the witnesses to the Christian revelation.
Paul then goes on in that piece we heard today from Ephesians to describe in soaring language the special gift we have been entrusted with – the gift of salvation made known (revealed) to us and the universal scope of the church (that would be us – his witnesses – his saints) who are Christ’s body. Cue Teresa of Avila again....He has no hands, or feet or eyes in this world except ours.  We are a body that consciously recognises God’s universal presence, as Paul puts it “the fullness of him who fills all in all”
To be a witness for Christ, who revealed the way of God is an enormous responsibility. That may explain the gradual narrowing down of the meaning of the word “saint”. People don’t like responsibility. Far better to abdicate our responsibility to be a witness ourselves and to transfer that responsibility to others, a small band of “super Christians” who can be a Christian for us, or perhaps instead of us.
It is understandable. Because when you read things like Luke’s beatitudes we heard in our gospel reading today, living up to what Jesus would like from us is bound to make any of us shrink from our responsibility.
Luke’s beatitudes are far less well known than Matthew’s sermon on the mount. In fact in Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain to preach the sermon so is known as “the sermon on the plain” and it is much shorter than Matthew’s beatitudes.
Luke has four blessings that reflect his concern for the poor and marginalised. Blessed are the poor, those who are hungry, those who weep and those who are hated for being Christians.
They are balanced by four woes, those who are rich, those who are full, those who are laughing, and all who are spoken well of.
That last one is particularly interesting. Popularity is not the be all and end all for a church. To have a prophetic ministry the church will upset people.
Then Luke writes some instructions that make most of us recoil a bit and want to abdicate our responsibilities, because it is just so hard.
Love our enemies, do good to those that hate us, bless those that curse us, pray for those that abuse you, offer your other cheek to someone who hits you, give away even more than was asked from you, give to everyone that asks. My God, it is little wonder that we shrink from it and look for someone else to do those things instead of us.
But there is some solace here. Alone we haven’t got much of a chance. But you might remember that last week I also stressed the communitarian nature of both the people of Israel and the new Israel – the church.
Alone we haven’t a chance. Together well at least we will stand or fall together. And when we fall we can console each other that we are still forgiven and accepted. Of course we are all individuals, but part of a much greater whole. We need the support and encouragement of our church community, we need to act as a church community to even begin to follow such high and noble ideals. You might look as those instructions in Luke and want to run a mile. But we all do. We need to stick together in these things and get strength from each other’s practical, moral and spiritual support. We have a much better chance of walking that difficult path together than we do alone. And we are not alone.

We believe in the communion of saints don’t we? That is the word “saints” still retaining its original unadulterated meaning. We are surrounded by saints both alive and dead – a cloud of witnesses. Death cannot separate us from our loved ones because everything is held together in Christ who is all in all as Paul says. So in our prayers today we will pray for the living and for the dead and know that in Spirit we are all connected in God.