Sermon: The First Sunday in Lent (B) – 22nd February 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am and 10am

Readings:   Genesis 9:8-17;  Psalm 25:1-10;  1 Peter 3:18-22;  Mark 1:9-15

the Spirit … drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.[1]

Temptation. Ever a key Lenten theme. And every Lent I’m driven crazy by memories from my Presbyterian Sunday School days of that hoary old hymn, ‘Yield not to temptation’. “Yield not!” it exhorted us, “for yielding is sin!” We were to shun evil companions, bad language and taking the Lord’s name in vain, and “look ever to Jesus, who would carry us through”. We Sunday School kids were pretty ignorant of the passions, dark or otherwise, of which we sang but, as we grew, we picked up scraps of knowledge about temptation, most of it vaguely about ‘not doing things’, and all of it wrapped in dark fear-of-God language about sin.

As a grown-up, I became an Anglican and discovered Lent, and two new things: guilt and the troublesome thought that it was not a question of ‘when am I tempted’ but ‘when am I not’!

If I gave up alcohol it was too easy to claim dedicated ‘fast-free’ feast days—which, by the way, include Sunday! OR there’d be a crisis and I’d rationalise some excuse for comfort. As an ex-smoker I’m very good at rationalisations. The greatest success I’ve achieved was giving up smoking twenty-five years ago last Tuesday–at 1123pm–and I’m extremely proud of that success. So—‘damned if I did and damned if I didn’t’. Guilt over yielding to temptation and guilt over successfully resisting it. I began to hope my failure at Lenten discipline didn’t mean I was worse than anyone else but that I was just the same as everyone else. So I rationalised … wasn’t it just that human nature is faulty and self-serving as well as well-intentioned and capable of great good? Such easy comfort. I could slide into ill discipline, avoid the challenge of resisting temptation and call Lenten fasting merely a medieval hangover. Relieved, I could espouse Oscar Wilde’s appealing cynicism: the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.[2]

But as I learned more about faith and personal responsibility, I realised all that was a cop-out. Temptation, Lent, and fasting had to be explored. I soon learned that early Christians might have fasted for forty hours between Good Friday and Easter but forty days of self-denial and prayer were unknown until very much later. So how had Lent, a word not in the Bible, and its forty days of fasting, come about?

Very early Christians had lived in white-hot expectation of the parousia, the second coming of Jesus. Who didn’t come as they expected. So they waited … and waited. And as they waited, they wove stories of what would be when he did return. They hung up crosses and painted murals and devised many ways of expressing their hopes and dreams, of saying who they thought God was. Eventually, expectation of an early second coming faded and they devoted themselves to all they had created to comfort themselves as they waited. These comforts eventually threatened to matter more than God; being safe and secure to matter more than being holy; being nice and respectable to matter more than standing up for the powerless whom Jesus had championed.

But God will not be forgotten forever. The word of God through the prophets whispered across the centuries. What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves[3] O my people, what have I done to you?[4] Be appalled, O heavens, at this … for my people have … forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.[5] For those who heard the challenge in these words, comforts created in the perceived absence of God were as ashes. And they lamented with their forebears: ‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?’[6]

They thought about the ancient Exodus Hebrews wandering in the wilderness for forty years, suffering for their faithlessness.[7] They thought about faithful Moses prostrate on the stony ground of Mount Sinai for forty days and God delivering the law and the commandments detailing the people’s obligations if they were to be God’s people[8]. They thought about Elijah running away from the task faithfulness demanded, enduring forty days in the wilderness before huddling in that cave where God found him and asked what he thought he was doing.[9] And they thought about Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and his visions of being lured from God by the seductiveness of greed, glory and power. These stories pierced them for they recognised their own desires, covetousness and faithlessness. And remembered that God was more than the comfort of their crosses and liturgies, their books and their songs. They were confronted by the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’.

From such understandings Lent evolved. Its origin an old English word meaning ‘spring’. Lent would be forty days without the comforts people could devise, but forty daysdepending only on the grace of God. Forty days to face the challenge of God-in-the-wilderness in their souls, becoming empty and making room for something new. This is the tradition we have inherited. What do we do about it? Like our ancestors we have comforts: alcohol, tobacco, habits, sports, sex. These too can become worthless things and cracked cisterns. Lack of discipline, the most seductive temptation of all, can distort them. Then they don’t lead to God. They don’t create a ‘God Space’ within us, a‘holy of holies’. Just emptiness. We try to fill that emptiness with our comforts but it will remain empty of God’s grace until we face the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’ and that ancient question: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?

It’s a difficult challenge. It’s about human weaknesses. Greed … the attraction of acquiring stuff, wallowing in materialistic consumption our get-something-for-nothing world loves so much. Insecurity … the desire for glory, to be noticed. “Look at me!” children cry but we grown-ups are not meant to crave admiration. And the most insidious temptation? Power. The most desirable ‘thing’ and it is so quickly misused. Not just by brute force but the kind of underhand manipulation that says sweetly, “if you really loved me, you’d do what I want”.

Greed, glory and power. Jesus rejected them all for he would neither challenge the power and authority of God nor distrust the God of hope.[10] For Jesus the temptations were to stop praying, to stop caring, and to stop hoping. It is no different for us. When worship is boring and dry, when we disagree with something the church does, when the world’s ridicule of faith seems like personal rejection, the temptation is to give it all away. But Lent is about praying when there doesn’t seem any point and keeping the First Commandment and loving God even if we don’t feel like it. When the world’s suffering is overwhelming, the temptation is to ignore it, call it someone else’s problem, turn away and have another glass of wine. But Lent is about caring –keeping the second commandment and loving our neighbours as ourselves. When life seems an unresolvable mess, the temptation is to despair and lose hope. But Lent’s about hoping — in the promise of the resurrection.

Lent begins with that hope. It will end with reassurance that that hope is real. Between now and Easter morning we must face the fact of our human preference for greed, for glory, and for power, a weakness which feeds our capacity for terrible cruelty. We must face the memory of a dreadful deed for which that cruelty was responsible: the crucifixion of Jesus — and the scene of his last temptation. “If you are the Son of God,” the people jeered, “come down from the cross”.[11]

To that temptation he said no. But that ‘no’, like all his other ‘nos’, translates into a resounding ‘yes’ to God. Jesus accepted the challenge of ‘God-in-the-wilderness’,

faced hidden temptations and made way for God in the ‘Holy of Holies’, in his soul. We are to do the same. For us ‘yield not to temptation’ means remembering to keep praying, to keep caring, to keep hoping, and to keep believing in the promise that on the other side of Calvary is the mystery of the risen Christ. Then the answer to our ancestors’ question — “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? — will be to offer God, with Jesus, a resounding yes’.

 

 The Reverend Elaine Farmer

 

[1] Mark 1:12-13

[2] Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan

[3] Jeremiah 2:5

[4] Micah 6:3

[5] Jeremiah 2:12-13

[6] Micah 6:6

[7] Numbers 14:33

[8] Deuteronomy 9:9

[9] l Kings 19:13

[10] See Milton’s ‘Paradise Regained’

[11] Matthew 27:42

Sermon: The First Sunday in Lent (B) – 22nd February 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am

Readings:   Genesis 9:8-17;  Psalm 25:1-10;  1 Peter 3:18-22;  Mark 1:9-15

The Old Testament readings for the Sundays in Lent focus on the theme of covenant: the series of covenants God makes with people, and the ways covenants are tested, strained and renewed.

This concluding note to the Flood story tells of the very first covenant, the covenant God made with Noah and his descendants, that is, all humanity, and all land-dwelling creatures.

In this passage God covenants never again to destroy the earth with a flood; and, as a sign and reminder of this covenant, God offers to put the rainbow in the clouds.

The passage tells one part of this covenant story. Covenants always have two parts: there are specific things each party to the covenant must do, in order to make real the relationship the covenant sets forth. In this case, it is God’s part in the covenant not to destroy the earth with a flood; humans, however, must have their part to play as well in order to make the covenant complete. The human side of the covenant is detailed in the verses immediately preceding the reading.

After Noah and his family and the animals leave the ark, Noah builds an altar and makes a thank-offering for surviving the Flood; God then speaks to Noah and sets some basic conditions for life in the renewed earth. The regular cycles of days and seasons will not be interrupted, God promises, and within that stabilized environment Noah’s descendants are blessed to “be fruitful and multiply” and to inhabit the whole earth. The commandment is so important it’s repeated twice, in verses 1 and 7, as both the opening and closing of God’s description of the significance of life in the new earth. In the wake of the Flood, it takes on an meaning as something restorative, something intended to correct the corruption of the antedeluvian humanity.

Together, the two sides of the covenant map out a new dimension of redemptive action for the world: God will from now on deal with sin and corruption, not by destroying it but by transforming it. While humans from now on are called to be agents of such redemptive transformation, co-creating with God the fruits of righteous works even out of the wreckage of corrupted experience. The covenant between God and Noah thus sets the stage for all other covenants of creative transformation for right-relationship and mutual well-being that are to come.

 The passage from 1 Peter serves as a kind of bridge between the Genesis and Mark readings, in that it makes an explicit link between the story of the Flood and the theology of baptism. The covenantal relationship of co-creative transformation that emerges from the Flood is now taken up and extended in the covenant of new life in Christ that is marked and sealed in baptism. The saving power of baptism lies in its role as “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” an active connection to God that brings an intensive and intimate knowledge of God’s aims and intentions for our actions.

Jesus’ passage through the death of the flesh and the “spirits in prison” in the netherworld to resurrection and life in the spirit and heaven is presented here as the model of which Noah’s passage through the destruction of the Flood to the new, life-giving covenant of creative transformation is the original. Both point to the experience of redemptive co-creative relationship with God that is open to the believer in the name of Christ.

 Noah’s Flood and Jesus’ Baptism are roughly in parallel. Noah enters the waters in the ark, spends a time adrift and emerges with a new covenant of transformation. Jesus enters into John’s baptism, spends time in the wilderness and emerges with a new proclamation of the reign of God.

Typically the story of Jesus in the wilderness is used on the First Sunday in Lent to introduce the Lenten fast. But Mark, unlike Matthew and Luke, does not actually say anything about Jesus fasting during the forty days he spends in the wild. Instead, Mark comments that “angels waited on him”. This is a clear echo of the story in 1 Kings 19, in which Elijah is served by an angel who twice brings him bread, and that bread sustains Elijah for forty days and forty nights. The Elijah story itself is an echo of the “bread of angels” in Psalm 78, which sustains the entire Israelite population in its forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.

The suggestion here is not so much that Jesus fasted as that he committed himself entirely to God’s care, like Elijah and the Israelites and Noah before him, God sustained him in some not wholly understandable and yet undeniably factual way.

Similarly, during his forty days Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Noah was also “with the wild beasts” while the ark was adrift, and by a special providence of God the wild ones did not threaten or attack Noah or his family or attack each other during that entire time.

We are encouraged to consider it a special providence of God that Jesus was safe “with the wild beasts” in his wilderness as well. Mark shows Jesus relying on the provision of God for his sustenance and safety, rather than anxiously attempting to serve himself in these needs; and, given that Mark never specifies how Satan tempts Jesus, as Matthew and Luke do, we may take it that such deep trust in God is in fact what overcomes the Enemy’s testing.

The personal experience of relying on God’s provision for him is what confirms for Jesus the divine words at his Baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”, and what gives Jesus the personal authenticity and authority to call people to “repent” and “believe”the good news that the reign of God is at hand. Jesus’ figurative re-enactment of the Noah story puts him in a position to announce the covenant of redemptive action God made with Noah, extending it now even further with his own proclamation of God’s reign for new life.

New life that comes when we repent and believe the good news of acceptance of God’s love for all.[1]

 

[1] This sermon based upon one by Paul S Namcarrow found at [1]http://processandfaith.org/category/kind-content/resources/lectionary-commentary

 

The Reverend John Cornish

Sermon: Last Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 15th February 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am, 10am and 6pm

Readings:       Exodus 24:12-18;  Psalm 2;  2 Peter 1:16-21;  Matthew 17:1-9

I have never had a dramatic conversion experience or an occasion when God spoke to me in an unmistakable manner – like Isaiah’s call in the temple, or Moses’ experience at the burning bush. As a young person, in a more evangelical parish than this, people were always having conversion experiences and demanding to know of others and me “When did you become a Christian” as if to say that there had to be a date and time that I could state as the time I met God.

While I do acknowledge that God does reveal God’s self to many people in very dramatic ways, I for one have not experienced such. God being revealed to me has been a process over the years since my birth. Some revelations are more pronounced than others but no blazing light or booming voice. No mountain top visions of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, just simple movements more in keeping with the concept of the still small voice or as modern translations translate the Hebrew “the sound of sheer silence!”

The American Lutheran writer Marcus Borg who now worships as an Anglican in his book CONVICTIONS – a manifesto for progressive Christians (SPCK, 2014), speaks of a number of what we would call transfiguration experiences which he has experienced during his life. He refers to a personal journey ‘through the doubts and uncertainties’ of his teenage years, before having ‘a series’ of ‘dramatic and unexpected mystical experiences’ which then underpinned his mature sense of faith. The book vividly describes those mystical experiences, which were often marked by a shimmering light suffusing his surrounding environment. Very helpful and exciting for him but not part of my experience.

The Uniting Church minister, Dorothy McRae-McMahon, once told me that when she was the Minister of the Pitt Street Uniting Church, she visited St James King Street for an ecumenical liturgy and as the chalice was lifted up by the then Rector at the end of the consecration prayer, that there appeared a glowing aura around the chalice and in a wonderful manner God spoke to her.

You know that I am always asking for contributions for the Parish Magazine. The task is always ongoing. Articles for the Magazine can be anything about life as everyday life is holy. Last week I asked a person at St Aidan’s if she would write something and I received the response that I have heard many times before. “My life is boring. What would I have to write about that others would find interesting?” I said to her that all our lives are boring to a certain degree but each of our stories and accounts of our encounters with the divine are all different and special whether they be mountain top experiences or mundane day to day life.

Celtic Christianity speaks of “thin places”, spots where the divine and human touch each other in life-transforming ways. However, every place and time reflects God’s presence and purpose in partnership with human creativity and freedom. Every place can be a thin place; every encounter a theophany, or revelation of God, in which God calls us to arise, shine and act, for our light has come.

There is no dualism of God and the world, sacred and secular. No division. Rather, the whole earth is full of God’s glory for those with eyes to see. Life-transforming power is ours when we awaken to what is God’s gift of possibilities and the divine energy actively present to help us make real these possibilities within each moment of our life.

We don’t need to worry about the ways and the means of ascension or transfiguration, nor do we need to worry about the factual account. Such concerns are “modern” questions, grounded in one-dimensional, closed-system thinking of both fundamentalists and rationalists. What are at work here are God’s deeper mysteries; the deeper meaning and reality of events in a multi-dimensional universe. In a universe with forty billion galaxies, each of which may have a billion or more solar systems like our own, there is no need to be humble in our imagination. We can “think big” and know that divine presence, power, and possibility is “more than we can ask or imagine”.

Some moments, however, may more fully reflect God’s intention in the dynamic call and response between God and humanity. However, even here in these life-defining experiences, human response is still needed. Even when we are “moved by the Holy Spirit”, those who are moved experience the Spirit from their own unique vantage point. Still, all places and encounters can reveal something life-transfiguring about God and us.

Transfiguration captures the spirit of Epiphany. The season of Epiphany begins with a world transforming star, guiding the magi from the East, and concludes with glory abounding on a mountaintop. The mood of Epiphany, perhaps more than Christmas, is a time of wonder and glory, radiating from a humble dwelling to encompass the whole earth.

During Epiphany we have been immersed in Jesus’ message. This message focussed on the commonwealth of God that through God’s work was beginning to appear, and on the radical character of the life it was calling into being. We have seen that his message both continued the prophetic tradition of Israel and how it transformed it. We are called to understand we must spread the news that Jesus announced and show how he enacted the fulfilment of that tradition. It was about him that the prophets spoke. He was God’s King: The descendant of David. He inaugurated the Kingdom of God for all humanity. It is still in the process of completion but Jesus is the King now and forever.

The transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is always more than meets the eye. As God’s beloved child, he radiates the light of creation. But, transfiguration challenges us to remember that we can see more than meets the eye. We can receive divine vision, opening us to the holiness of others, all creation, and ourselves.

Whether or not we have an overpowering experience of God or the experience of “the sound of utter silence” we are called us to personal, vocational, congregational and global transfiguration. It all begins with our understanding of God and God’s nature. We are the children of quantum energy. We glimpse wonder in images from the Hubble telescope. Let us see with new eyes and embrace a larger vision; let us go beyond the ecstasy deprivation that leads to consumerism and war making.

Enlivened by divine light shining in every soul and every soul, we can aspire to live by the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven
and every common bush
afire with God;
And only he who sees,
takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it
and pluck blackberries.”

On one hand the gospel writers affirmed that we are all children of God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that peacemakers would be called “children of God”. To declare Jesus to be God’s son would not necessarily separate Jesus from others who serve God faithfully. Clearly those who heard God speak understood the words involved to be more significant than that.  Jesus is God’s “beloved son” in whom God is well pleased. God’s declaration certainly singles Jesus out as bearing the title in a unique way.  Jesus is not just one among many “sons” of God. Jesus is uniquely beloved, uniquely pleasing to God.

On the other hand, we cannot read back into the words he attributes to God the supernatural ideas of later generations of Christians. Like Moses and Elijah, he is clearly a human being. Like them he is a truly extraordinary human being with an extraordinary message and mission. For most Jews, equality with Moses was virtually unthinkable. Yet, here, in the midst of a vision of Moses, Elijah and Jesus, God singles out for recognition Jesus.

This singling out of Jesus from among all the spiritual giants of Jewish history as the one to whom we should especially listen continues to be appropriate for us today so that we can apprehend God. The story of the Transfiguration is a wonderful example of each moment being influenced by the past, (the presence of Moses and Elijah), and the influenced by God, (“This is my Son, the beloved; listen to him.”)  At each moment Jesus was able to unify the past, with what was heard and understood, to be God’s invitation.

The creative energy Jesus gained allows him to become even more integrated with God’s vision of possibilities for the world. By following the encouragement of God, even when it meant his own death, Jesus gives us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God on earth. Is this an example of creative transformation at work?

Mystifying disputes have too often blocked listening to Jesus’ words over the years, the Gospels reveal Jesus. The church would be renewed if believers once again really listened to him.

In a moment we will sing hymn that speaks beautifully of God’s transfiguring presence in all of creation, “Be still for the presence of the Lord”. It is printed in the Bulletin.

“Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here.

Come bow before Him now with reverence and fear.

In Him no sin is found, we stand on holy ground;

Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here.

 

Be still, for the glory of the Lord is shining all around;

He burns with holy fire, with splendour He is crowned.

How awesome is the sight, our radiant King of light!

Be still, for the glory of the Lord is shining all around.

 

Be still, for the power of the Lord is moving in this place;

He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister His grace.

No work too hard for Him, in faith receive from Him;

Be still, for the power of the Lord is moving in this place.”[1]

 

May your thin place and my thin place somehow today reveal to us a little bit more of the God who is love, loves us and is beyond names and shapes.

 

[1] This sermon composed using material found at

http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2014-03-02/last-sunday-after-epiphanytransfiguration written by John B. Cobb, Jr. and,

http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yeara/2011-03-06/last-sunday-after-epiphanytransfiguration-sunday http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2009-02-22/transfiguration-sunday-last-sunday-after-epiphany written by Bruce G. Epperly and

http://processandfaith.org/resources/lectionary-commentary/yearb/2003-03-02/last-sunday-after-epiphany written by Keith McPaul

 

The Reverend John Cornish

Sermon: 5th Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 8th February 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am and 10am

Readings: 1 Isaiah 40:21-31;  Psalm 147;  1 Corinthians 9:16-23;  Mark 1:29-39

Dwight l. Moody was a great American evangelist of the 19th Century. He was once criticized by a lady for his methods of evangelism, as he called people to respond to the Gospel of Christ. Moody replied to her criticism: “I agree with you. I don’t like the way I do it either. Tell me, how do you do it?” The woman replied: “I don’t do it.” Moody responded: “Then I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it!”

Evangelism is a word which many people shy away from. Many of us churchgoers feel uncomfortable about evangelism, as of course do many non-churchgoers.

Why is this? We remember aggressive doorknockers wanting to lecture us on religion. Or mass meetings with long addresses and emotional pressure. Or those American preachers who turned out to be the most dreadful hypocrites. Or more locally, the Sydney preachers who seem to say that if you don’t believe exactly what I believe, you’re going to hell! As if people can be frightened into the kingdom of heaven!

Well, I have to say that if that is what evangelism is all about, I’m not too enthusiastic either. In reality, evangelism can take many forms: it might be in large meetings or personal conversation; it can be confrontational or low-key; it can be embarrassing or very natural; it can be done helpfully or very unhelpfully.

What then is evangelism? It is simply communicating the Gospel message: telling people about God’s love and the call of Jesus to trust and follow him. And in our reading this morning from 1 Corinthians 9, Paul makes clear how important he regards the task and the opportunity of evangelism and Christian witness.

Now we might say: “That’s fine for Paul. He was an apostle. I’m just an ordinary Christian: I’m no evangelist.” But as Paul sees it, there is no choice. “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel”, he says.

And although we may not have the unique call of Paul to be an Apostle and witness to the Gospel, we too are called to bear witness to the love of Jesus. We might not do it the way Paul did, but we are called to bear witness in the way that is appropriate for us.

A few decades ago, people would be rather confused if someone said “I am a Christian.” “Aren’t we all Christians?” they might reply. “You’re just more enthusiastic in your religious practice.”

Have you noticed that this is no longer the case? People can nowadays be distinguished as Christians in a way which was not the case in earlier generations. So people like Kevin Rudd and Scott Morrison, and other parliamentarians became known as Christians: sadly many of us looked at them and wished that they weren’t known as Christians, because their various shortcomings didn’t seem to bring honour to Jesus and the message of Jesus. But people today do seem to recognize that living in Australia and living as a Westerner doesn’t make you a Christian.

Paul certainly made himself known as a Christian and as a messenger of the Gospel of Jesus. He was enthusiastic about the message, keen to make it known.

As a preacher, he had the right to receive practical and financial support from Christians, and especially those who were converted through his ministry. But he put that right aside, and preached and taught at no charge, earning his keep through his work as a tentmaker. He didn’t have to, but he let go of his rights so that people would not misunderstand his motives and so that he would not put pressure on his new converts.

And although we don’t have the special call that Paul received, we are all called to let our light shine so that others will see our good works and give glory to God. And how will they do that? Above all by putting their faith in Jesus and becoming members of his family, the church.

In a world where religion is no longer a private thing, we are all called to bear witness to Jesus. The life we lead, the values we display, the words we speak, the love we show, will bear witness to Jesus: people will either be drawn towards him or away from him as they respond to what they see in us, once they know us to be Christians.

And there will be times when we are able to speak directly about our understanding of the faith, or perhaps to invite people along to church or church events, or to encourage people to go along to a church that is convenient for them.

Paul saw that the Gospel of Jesus breaks down barriers. Of course Jesus was happy to mix with all kinds of people, particularly those who would be on the edge of respectable society. He certainly sought to break down barriers.

When Paul was seeking to point Jewish people to Jesus, he acted in a way which raised as few barriers as possible. As a Jew, he knew their laws and traditions. He knew he was not bound by them, but he also knew that making an issue of being different from other Jews would only raise barriers. And so he fitted in with their customs in every way he could.

On the other hand, when he was dealing with non-Jews, and those who knew nothing of the Old Testament and its laws, he acted quite differently. Not that he acted dishonestly or immorally to fit in with the ways of some Gentiles: he knew what God seeks from those who were followers of Jesus. He still sought always to please God. But he had worked out his principles, and was not going to put up unnecessary barriers between himself and those whom he was seeking to lead to Christ.

Paul says that he became “all things to all people”: he sought to relate to them as far as possible on their terms. He was not going to let unnecessary barriers get in the way of the message of Jesus. Not that he compromised on principles. But he sought to identify with people where they were at, so that he might relate to them and communicate to them with understanding and love. Effective witness seeks to break down barriers. It is concerned with people, not with human rules and standards.

Sometimes in my role as a hospital chaplain I am contacted by enthusiastic people who see the hospital as a wonderful place to go round evangelizing people. They want to get the message of Jesus out, and to get speedy decisions. But they are not interested in people, and they are certainly not interested in listening to patients and understanding them.

I steer these people in another direction. That is not what hospital ministry is about, and indeed it would be an abuse of people and an abuse of the Gospel. Yes, I certainly get opportunities to speak about God’s love to patients who do not see themselves as Christians. But I do it because they want to explore these issues, and are happy for me to share with them. I never have the right to force my faith upon others: least of all in a situation where they cannot easily escape!

Witness is simply about being Christian in a humble but open way. We might have the opportunity to say something which will get people asking questions, and will open up a conversation. But it is not for us to lecture or harass or attack or put people down. Love is still the way. I remember reading the saying of a great saint: “Always bear witness to Jesus: sometimes do it using words!”

Christianity is seen as a distinct faith in today’s society. It is often attacked – sadly often because Christians often deserve to be criticized. But the Gospel of Jesus still tells us of the love of God, of the Son of God, of the forgiveness of God, of the welcome of God, of the hope and purpose God gives us through Christ. The Gospel is still good news.

And as we are called to bear witness and to break down barriers to the Gospel, so our church needs to do the same thing.

We know that the size of our congregations has been dwindling, and that there are many questions about the future of our parish: perhaps not next year, but certainly in the decades ahead. If we are to effectively bear witness to the Gospel and to welcome people to the family of Jesus, we will need to be prepared to ask questions about what we do here.

I imagine most of us love the way we conduct our worship: indeed it will often be the key reason why we belong to the parish. We love our traditions. But we will need to re-examine what we do. Does what we do draw people in or push them away? Are there things we can do to help people feel more welcome and more valued? Paul let go of his rights if he felt they might get in the way, and we will need to be prepared to take the risk of asking uncomfortable questions, even holding lightly to things we value, because we see the need to reach out, especially to the younger community.

Maybe we will conclude that great changes are not necessary, that our traditions help our mission rather than hinder it. Maybe the decision will be that we need to offer something in addition to what we do now. Maybe we will conclude that we do need to make significant changes, and that will be uncomfortable for us who love what we have now. The important thing is that we are concerned to reach out to others with the love of Christ, even if it involves change or discomfort.

It really does matter that we see ourselves as witnesses to the love of God in Christ. We are not members of a closed club, but a community of believers who are serious about bearing witness to the love of God in Christ to all people. Amen.

 

The Reverend Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: 4th Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 1st February 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20;  Psalm 111; 1  Corinthians 8;  Mark 1:21-28

Human rights are constantly being debated. Particularly as Australian citizens, we believe we have certain rights, certain just expectations from our society and even our government.

Many people would say that the execution of drug smugglers is a cruel and inhuman punishment, which is an infringement of human rights. Many would say that Moslem women do not have the right to go around in public with their faces covered, while others say that they do have that right. I would certainly say that the rights of asylum seekers are being trampled on by Australian policies. And I would also question the claim that people have the right to bear arms without restriction, as many Americans insist, and of course the American Constitution seems to indicate.

The problem is that we live in a world which is not neat and tidy. Many rights we take for granted could also be described as freedoms. Australians have a right to freedom of speech. But is there also a right not to be insulted or lied about? As George Brandis appears to think, do I have the right be a bigot? And if I do, are there any limits to my right to express that bigotry? And I might also ask: who has the right to determine whether what I say is bigotry anyway?

In the real world, our rights and freedoms are not absolute and unlimited. They interlink with the rights and freedoms of others, and the well-being of society. We live in what I regard as a free society: but that freedom in all sorts of ways has its limits. I not only have freedoms and rights, but I also have obligations and responsibilities and appropriate restrictions on what I do and what I say. We are not totally independent people.

One aspect of being made in the image of God is that we are individuals in relationship. We are made to know and love and serve God, and to live in relationship with others, whom we are called to love. And any good relationship involves restrictions and limits on our freedoms, so that we do good and not harm to the other person.

In the church of Corinth, as we heard in our second reading, the question being debated was: “Is it OK for Christians to eat meat offered to idols?” I don’t remember any tense debates at Synod on this particular subject, and I doubt whether many of us have had sleepless nights try to work that one out! Perhaps in some parts of the world, it is an issue which causes concern even today. But in Corinth in Paul’s time it was a real issue which the apostle felt the need to write about in his letter.

In Corinth, much of the meat available in the markets had been sold by the priests of the local pagan temples. Worshippers would offer a beast at the temple as a sacrifice to the god or gods of the temple. Some of it would be burned in honour of the god, some would be eaten at the temple, and the rest would be given to the priests, who sold any meat they didn’t want. It would be difficult and probably expensive to go to the market and buy meat which definitely had not been sacrificed to an idol.

The issue for Christians was: was it wrong to eat meat which had been offered to a false god? Was it spiritually dangerous: for instance, could an evil spirit from the false god get into you? And if I was invited to someone’s feast, would it be wrong to eat the meat being served? Would I have to ask whether it had been offered in pagan worship? Or were Christians required to cut themselves off from social contact or even business gatherings where food might be offered?

In the church of Corinth, there was disagreement on this issue. There were those who said that an idol is nothing. It has no value or significance or power. It can do you no good, but it is also powerless to harm you. So even if something has been offered to an idol, it has no power and brings no threat to the person who eats it. So of course there is no problem at all about eating meat offered to idols.

But there were other members of the church who were very uneasy about all this. Didn’t eating meat that had been offered to idols involve you in some way in pagan worship? And wasn’t idol-worship linked with demons and evil spirits? Mightn’t they have power to harm those who ate?

The first group said that the others were fuddy-duddies, still in spiritual kindergarten, hung up on rules and regulations and unnecessary fears. The second group said that the others were risking spiritual harm and compromising their faith. Who was right?

In responding to this dispute, Paul says that both sides have a point. The eaters are right in saying that there is only one God, and that idols are empty and powerless. And they are right in saying that what we choose to eat is a practical decision, and that what we eat does not in itself affect our relationship with God. These people have worked it out. They’ve got the knowledge and understanding.

But knowledge is not everything. Even sound doctrine is not everything. In fact, says Paul, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. Sadly the church has been slow to take that in.

Doctrinal arguments have turned what should be a community of love into an institution of violence and hatred. We think of the evils of the inquisition, or the war and hatred that accompanied the Reformation and beyond. And we think of the judgementalism and arrogance of those who even today are sure they’ve got the message right, and exclude those who understand things differently. And don’t forget that liberals as well as conservatives can have that failing. Of course, the Pharisees had that problem: it was easier to reject the message of Jesus and condemn him than to consider what he was saying and whether it might be true.

So Paul tells those who feel free on this matter, those who are sure they have got it worked out, that correct doctrine is not the only issue. Love matters.

 His point is this. I might feel perfectly free to eat whatever I choose. But the real question is: how do I act in love? Is my attitude going to help or harm my brothers and sisters in Christ? Will my action be of help to my fellow-Christians, or will it upset and confuse them?

Paul says: “Doctrinally I have no problem with eating anything at all. But if I believe I might cause spiritual confusion or harm to someone who hasn’t reached my understanding, I will abstain. It is more important to seek their welfare that to insist on my freedom, my rights.”

The question is always: how do I act in love? It is not simply: what am I permitted to do?

Paul makes clear that love does not insist on its own rights. In love, we may decide to do things that we would not otherwise do for the sake of others. We may decide to miss out on things we don’t believe are wrong for the sake of others. Our question is not longer “what do the rules permit?”, but “what will benefit the other person?”.

When I was an earnest Youth Fellowship member, there were big debates about whether a good Christian could drink or smoke or wear makeup or go to dances or see adult movies or wear short dresses. I made the sacrifice and never wore short dresses! Some weren’t even sure about going to see movies at all, or watching television. I know that members of different churches came to different answers and different rules on many of these issues. Of course they are all matters of judgement, not absolutes.

For most of us, these burning issues have been resolved – in most cases in terms of freedom rather than strict rules.

But for instance as we know, members of the Salvation Army and many other Christians have chosen to totally abstain from alcohol, largely on the basis of Paul’s principle. For them, drinking might confuse people, or even lead someone to drink, who might end up going down a destructive path.

We may or may not come to that particular decision. But we need to remember that many Christians have decided to abstain from alcohol, not because they are wowsers or legalists, but because they believe that it is a loving thing to do, and may save others from harm. What is important is not that we make full use of our rights and freedoms, but that we seek to act in love.

We are all free to follow Jesus as we believe he leads us. Yes, truth does matter, and we need to humbly hold fast to the central truths of the Gospel. But ultimately love matters. In the decisions we make and the paths we take, let us not simply seek our own agenda and insist on our own rights, but in love, seek the good of others. Amen.

 

The Reverend Paul Weaver