Monday, 22 December 2014

Greetings favoured one - The Lord is with you.

The annunciation, the scene where the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary to announce that she is to bear a son is surely one of the best know iconic scenes in the New Testament – or so you’d have thought.
I remember being on a bus in Israel – I’d been a Christian for about a year I suppose and was part of a group leader’s recce to the Holy Land, so the bus was full of clerics.
One of them turned to me and said how excited he was to be going to Nazareth to see the place where the annunciation took place. And I said “What’s that?”
He said “You’re joking” but it was almost immediately apparent that I wasn’t joking and this stunned high churchman just slumped back into his seat.
To be fair, my church was more concerned with discipleship, charismatic renewal and the book of Acts and we certainly never mentioned Mary unless we absolutely had to, like on Christmas day but I suppose  that is a testimony to the fact that you can be a Christian and yet have a vastly different  cultural hinterland to another Christian.
As you know I stepped out of my churchmanship comfort zone and trained at a monastery to specifically gain an insight into catholic form and belief and there I was plunged into a very different scenario where Mary was not only mentioned an awful lot, but “venerated” and the “Hail Mary” was said every day. But more than that some of the more extreme Anglo-catholic students worshipped her and gave her a title of co-redemptrix – a term which means that not only Jesus redeemed the world but Mary does too.
I remember all too well being at a service to celebrate a Marian feast where I was almost physically sick at the sight of all this Marian devotion. If I’d had more of a backbone I’d have walked out of the service I experienced such dis-ease with this anti-Christ display.
So I have experienced both ends of the spectrum with regards to Mary. I think a healthy and theologically correct and true representation of Mary which is in accordance with the Biblical evidence is this;
Mary is two things to me. First, in the annunciation she is the recipient of pure Grace and secondly in her very being she is a symbol of Christian discipleship. I’ll explain both.
In the gospel story the overriding theme is one of God’s sovereign action. God chose Mary. Mary had to say yer but the fact is God chose Mary. Why did he choose Mary and not someone else. Was it because she was better or more pure than anyone else – no. That is the point.
“Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you”
Mary did not deserve to be the mother of God’s son any more than any other woman. Luke describes her simply as  a young girl who was engaged to be married. Luke says more about Joseph than he does Mary. Even in the case of John the baptist’s parents, Luke says they were righteous and blamesless, and they kept God’s commandments and they prayed to God (1:6-7,13), but not a word about the virtues of Mary.
Essentially this is not a story of virtue rewarded but of God’s sovereign Grace. God chooses who God chooses. So the annunciation is primarily about Grace – unmerited love.
But it is in the response of Mary that I say she is a symbol of Christian discipleship.
Mary simply says “Yes, let it be to me according to your word”
There is no quenching of the Spirit here even though saying yes could plunge her into disgrace in the eyes of her community.
Mary did not fully understand what was going on but she treasured them and pondered on what their meaning might be in her heart, but even though she did not fully understand or know where this might lead her she said yes anyway.
This is the first step in Christian discipleship. Saying yes to God and giving Him sovereignty in your life.
And after saying yes to God and allowing the Holy Spirit into her life over a period of time, nine months to be exact she eventually gave birth to Jesus physically.
When we say yes to God after a period of time, a gestation period that may take perhaps a lifetime, we are called to metaphorically give birth to Jesus in and through our life by being Christ for others.

Mary is a powerful icon, an icon of Grace received and fearlessly acted upon. She allowed herself to be used as a vessel of God’s action in the world with is the vocation of every Christian. 

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Two ways to live.

In common with the other epistles in Advent Paul is here concerned with the demand for faithful living. It is apparent that there are two ways to live. One according to the ways of the world and one according to the gospel
In Paul’s first ever letter that he wrote he is unequivocal in his instructions.
Here the demands are direct, no ifs and no buts. The assumption is that the things Paul says will be a state of affairs that suffuses our entire lives and is not reserved for Sunday mornings.
“Rejoice always” he says. Rejoice about what? Rejoice that God has made himself known to us and revealed his love and forgiveness and through Christ wants us in a personal relationship with him – for ever, which is eternal life. In John 17 Jesus says  “Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” So If you know and accept Christ you have the eternal life of the Father.  Our lives have meaning and purpose and we are instruments of God in the world. That is special and is something to rejoice about is it not?
This is the light that John the Baptist was testifying to in the gospel reading.
Paul then says “Pray without ceasing”. Well we can’t spend every minute of every day on our knees in a church so what can he mean by that? This points to an existence that is permanently oriented towards God, our life becomes a prayer, an existence that sees and recognises the presence of God in every situation of our lives. If prayer is an ongoing relationship, an ongoing conversation with God then prayer is not simply us talking it is us listening and trying to discern God in the everyday things of our life. .
The next instruction is "Give thanks in all circumstances". This is probably the most problematic one of all especially if you are pain, or faced with unemployment, or bereavement or any other terrible circumstance. There, I would suggest that even while you will not feel able to give thanks for those particular sets of circumstances, you may still be able to give thanks for other aspects of your life or for the knowledge of God's saving love for you even in the midst of your pain. 
And as someone who has been down to the depths of anguish, as many of you have been also, in hindsight we can acknowledge that out of the darkness light eventually did shine. You can come through these things a changed person with a depth of insight that you couldn’t have acquired any other way. That is not to say that God engineered these situations, but He can use them regardless.
“Do not quench the Spirit” and “do not despise the words of prophets” are related in my mind. The Spirit can be quenched so remaining open and listening as well as talking in our prayers for the prompting of the Spirit is vital. We should also listen to those people who say they have interpreted the word of God or been given special insight. Listen but don’t just blindly accept what they say. Test what they say in the arena of your personal circumstances, in the light of scripture and in discussions with other Christians. We need to be wise and discerning.  As Jesus said elsewhere we need to be as innocent as doves and as wise as serpents

Then right at the end in Verses 23 and 24 Paul asks that God may "sanctify us". "Holiness" is a scary word for many of us, as I wrote during the week and it conjures up images of monks and nuns or extremely strict versions of Christianity. Whilst Holiness does actually infer "separation" in the context of what Paul has already said it describes this new orientation of our life taking root and growing and tells us not to be yoked to materialism and the powers and addictions of this world. There are two ways to live, one in darkness and one in the light.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Comfort my people

With the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day.
This is a poetic way of saying that God lies outside of time – a difficult enough concept at the best of times. God is also the Alpha and the Omega – both the beginning and the end of existence and the beginning and the end of time.
We come from God and will return to God. The Christian Advent hope is that one day there will be a reckoning when there will be no more tears and no more pain and all the good will be rewarded and all the evil dealt with.
In Peter’s second letter he asks the question, as this is going to happen one day in our future what sort of person are you going to be in the meantime?
He writes “While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace without spot or blemish.
The first order question for anyone who purports to be a Christian is then to ask ourselves that question – are we at peace with God?
If not, he says strive to be at peace with God without spot or blemish.
I looked up the word and found these two definitions of the verb “to strive”;
“To make great efforts to achieve or gain something” and
“to struggle or fight vigourously”
Both of these descriptions attest to the fact that discipleship – becoming a following of Christ and therefore trying to follow in his way is not easy and doesn’t come without great effort.
The struggle against our self interest over and above what might be God’s interests, the struggle to build Christian virtues into our lives, defined by the Catholic church as prudence, justice, restraint, courage, faith, hope and charity is a struggle and needs diligent attention.
We try and fail often. It is then good to remember that we are not Saints (in the common understanding of the word) but forgiven sinners.
We strive and fail and repent, we strive and fail and repent on a continual cycle and it is a good job that God is forgiving of all those who truly repent. Peter says that God doesn’t want anyone to perish and wants all to come to repentance but within that there is an implicit warning there to those who just presume on God’s forgiveness without true contrition and take liberties with his love, cheapening and demeaning the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
He knows we all fail. Remember the woman caught in adultery. Jesus famously said “He who is without sin, let them cast the first stone. Yes we all fall short we know that. But the woman wasn’t allowed to just walk away. Jesus said to her was “Go and sin no more”. Just continuing in her lifestyle was not an option that Jesus left open to her.
The question posed by Peter to all of us today is “How hard are you trying to follow Jesus in the way?”   Are we striving, coasting or going backwards?
We aren’t on our own you know. God sent us a helper to strengthen us on our journey.
In Mark’s gospel account of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord, he records John saying this;
“I have baptised you with water, but he – Jesus - will baptise you with the Holy Spirit”.
To baptise means to immerse so we are to be immersed in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is referred to as the “Comforter” amongst other things which means literally to strengthen us.
The Holy Spirit gives us strength to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and get back on the road when we get tired and jaded or just fall over, or more often metaphorically knocked off the road by some person or circumstance.
There are many different ways in which the Trinity can be approached but one of them is how it directly meets human need and I recently read this in a book written by Nicky Gumbel and the author of the Alpha course;
We need a point of reference. Who we are and where we came from and where we are going. That is God the Father.
Secondly we need a role model who shows us how a life in all its fullness can be lived. This is Jesus Christ.
Thirdly we need a facilitator, a strengthener, to help us to get there. This is the Holy Spirit.
All three are essential and a depleted understanding of the Holy Spirit leads to a depleted understanding of the Christian faith.
It is the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God.
It is by the Holy Spirit that Jesus becomes present in our heart.
It is the Holy Spirit I invoke at the Eucharist to transform bread and wine and ourselves into objects that can be used by God to enrich and feed us.

It is the Holy Spirit that will enliven us, strengthen us and help us to strive for that peace that transcends all understanding.   

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent is a season of expectant excitement and hope.
A church that obviously lived in that Spirit of expectancy and hope was the church in Corinth to which St. Paul addresses his letter. What was the cause of this vibrancy and how may we learn from it? 
First of all Paul addresses his letter to the Corinthians “My brothers and sisters” and assures them of the Fathers’ Grace and peace, leaving them in no doubt that whatever differences they have they are family – children of God and adopted  brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.
In the same way we gather around the banquet table of God as his valued and wanted guests all members of the same family.
The faith of the Corinthian church had seen their lives enriched but this didn’t happen by accident - it only happened because the testimony of Christ had been strengthened in them. They hadn’t slackened off, their zeal had not abated. They were a vibrant noisy church with plenty of conflict – but as a Bishop in Canterbury once said when called in to settle differences in a large charismatic church there – I’d rather have problems caused by growth rather than problems caused by decline.
For the Corinthian church the good news of their salvation has been received, read about, studied, debated, prayed about – they worshipped noisily and fervently - and as a result the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit have grown in them, building them up into a strong vibrant church.
Here then today’s church has a template for its own growth in depth and evangelical zeal.
Paul reminds them that the Father himself called them all personally.
If we feel jaded and at times our faith flags we need to remind ourselves that it is God the Father himself who has called you personally, by name, to be here.
He calls us all by name and you, whoever you are, are wanted and needed right here and right now in this place.
We wouldn’t be the same church if any single person were missing. No-one is surplus to requirements. To be called by God is a privilege and a great responsibility.
God wants us here. He wants us to grow into a faithful enriched community that can enrich the lives of others.
If we don’t feel up to it, he will strengthen us. Because If the light goes out in our eyes we can’t give light and hope to others so we need to pray for strength and we need to nurture and support each other. After Alex died that happened to me. The light dimmed – but God is faithful and my own faith is now renewed.
God is faithful and will answer our prayers. As a community we can grow, we can change and we can reach others and allow them too to flourish. We need that confidence in ourselves that is born out of a confidence in God.
Advent is above all a season of anticipation and hope. Hope for the healing of the whole world but in the immediate future hope invested in the power of God to work and empower, enliven our communities with His Spirit.
In particular – this community – our community.
We are to be a community of hope and belief – belief in the transforming Spirit of God. The same Spirit that indwelt Jesus, the same Spirit that we hope will transform the world is the same Spirit that will guide and strengthen and enrich us here.
This I believe is Advent hope. The Spirit breaking through into our lives, church, community and nation.

God is here so what is left for us to do is to commit our lives, and respond to the gracious God who is always calling us, always bidding us to draw near to him. Advent is an ideal opportunity to hope not just for the eventual transformation of the whole world, it is the time to hope and pray for the strengthening, the transformation and the enrichment  of ourselves and our church.