Sermon: 14th Sunday after Pentecost 30th August 2015, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping,30th August 2015

“THE SONG OF SONGS: BIBLICAL EROTICA?”

(Song of Songs 2:8-13; Psalm 45; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23)

There are a number of books in the Bible of which people have said: “What is that book doing in the Bible?” Jewish people have accused John’s Gospel of promoting anti-Semitism. Many people have said that the lurid images of the Book of Revelation have no rightful place in scripture. Virtually everything in the Letter of Jude is repeated in the Second Letter of Peter: surely we don’t need both of them! Martin Luther would have got rid of the Letter of James, which he thought missed the point of the Gospel: I think Luther might have missed the point of James! And there is far too much violence in the Old Testament: surely we could get rid of some of that nasty judgemental material. And do we really need the cynicism which seems to dominate the Book of Ecclesiastes? And then there’s the Book of Esther, which doesn’t even mention God: what is it doing in God’s book? Those questions should give you some ideas for interesting reading!

And then there’s the book which provided today’s Old Testament reading.

I hope that you listened carefully to this morning’s reading from the Song of Songs: the next time we are scheduled to hear a reading from the Song of Songs at our Sunday Eucharist is in three years, when this reading will turn up again!

Actually we might hear another short passage from the book if the Feast of Mary Magdalene turns up on a Sunday. I suspect that the choice of that passage has something to do with the tradition that Mary was a reformed prostitute: a tradition you won’t find in the Bible at all!

So here we have a passage from “the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s”, as the book begins. The Song of Songs is a way of saying that this is the greatest song, the most beautiful song.

But in what sense is it Solomon’s? Some people believe that it was written by Solomon, who had a reputation as a writer: it’s not impossible, but I don’t think it’s very likely. Some people think that it is about Solomon, and there are indications of this as we go through. Others think that it is written in honour of Solomon, in tribute to him, almost dedicated to him. Perhaps there is truth in both of these ideas.

But regardless of this, one has to admit that it is not the sort of book you would expect to find in the Holy Bible. For if you pick up a printed copy of this sermon, or look it up on the Parish website, you will find that the title I have given this sermon describes the Song of Songs as “Biblical Erotica”! And that is an oxymoron if I ever heard one!

Some experts see it as a drama. One might imagine that Solomon has seen a young girl and had her brought into his harem, thinking that she might be one of his favourite concubines. However, she is in love with a young shepherd boy, and has no interest in Solomon at all, and she hopes that he will give up on her and let her return to her beloved. And possibly at the end she does! Others simplify that story and see it as a series of dialogues between Solomon and his beloved.

That’s one possible approach to the book, but regardless of that, we must at least see it as a collection of love poetry. The language is often graphic and sensual, although I have to say that if I wanted to read love poetry to Sarah, I would be very selective in choosing a passage from the book: much of its romantic imagery would not really work in today’s world!

But the question remains: what is a book like this doing in the Bible? And I must say that only with difficulty was it included in the Jewish canon of scripture, not to mention kept in the church’s canon of scripture.

Many have believed that, taken as it stands, the book has no place in scripture. However, when the ancient leaders of Israel and of the church interpreted it allegorically, they found a spiritual message in the book. They decided that it really referred not to human love, but to God’s love for his people Israel, or Christ’s love for the church, and thus they came to the conclusion that it did have spiritual value.

Indeed this allegorical figurative understanding of the book is probably what got it accepted as scripture, both by Jews and by Christians. Surely a book in holy scripture could not be just about human sensual sexual love! Surely we are not to believe that romantic and even erotic love poetry has any place in scripture. And to make things worse: God is not even mentioned in the book!

But if we’re honest, this book is basically an exploration of human romantic sensual sexual love. The book expresses delight in it. Yes, some of the images expressed in the book would not work between lovers nowadays, but the point need not be lost.

Furthermore, Solomon with his harem of 1000 women presumably knew a good deal about sexual love: one wonders what he knew of devoted faithful love, even if the book pays tribute to him.

What then is the point of this book? In chapter 8, just before the last few verses of the book, we find a very powerful statement:

          “Set me as a seal on your heart,

          as a seal upon your arm:

          for love is strong as death,

          passion fierce as the grave.”

          “Many waters cannot quench love,

          neither can floods drown it.

          If one offered for love all the wealth of his house,

          it would be utterly scorned.”

Perhaps this is the climax of the book, the heart of its message. Genuine love is committed: that is the point of a seal. Genuine love is enduring: it is as strong as death, unquenchable. Genuine love is truly precious: there is no amount of earthly wealth that can take its place.

Sadly of course, sexual or sensual love is often not like that at all. Even romantic love too often is not like that. It is too often superficial or fleeting. And far too often it is self-centred, self-serving, rather than truly self-giving.

And therefore we might suggest that the book points beyond itself to a deeper kind of love, the love spoken of in the New Testament, the love which truly gives of itself for the good of the one who is loved, the love which does not use the other but serves the other, the love which does not simply remain while things are good but continues when things get tough. In fact, it is the love which in the traditional words of the Marriage Service is “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part”. And it is ultimately the love shown by Christ in giving his life for our sakes.

What then is this book doing in Holy Scripture? If we believe that in a real sense the Bible has been provided for us in the providence of God, why is it there? And what is its message?

I think it has a very important message and a very practical one. Human love, sensual love, sexual love, is a good and beautiful part of God’s creation, a gift of God to us who are made in his image.

It is part of the way he has made us, and our sexuality is not to be regarded as evil or even as some sort of second-best for those who find celibacy too hard. The church for many centuries of course did just that, thinking that to be truly holy you had to be celibate. Not at all, says this part of the scriptures, not to mention many other parts of the Old and New Testament.

Nor is it to say that the celibate person is less than complete in any sense, or that there is something wrong with us if we are not sexually active. In fact, what other parts of the scriptures do is to show how this beautiful gift is to be expressed in a way which pleases God, a way which is truly human, and which recognizes the limits God has placed on its expression for our good.

Sex like so many beautiful things can be cheapened and distorted and misused, and in our day and age, people so often miss its beauty and its point as a gift of God. At its heart is the way it expresses the uniqueness of the marriage relationship, and celebrates what faithful married love is meant to be. The central character of the Song of Songs was certainly not known for his marital fidelity, and perhaps the book acknowledges that there may be beauty in sexual love outside the marriage relationship. But scripture remains strong in its message that sexual love and marriage belong uniquely together.

But even though the Song of Songs provides scriptural testimony to the beauty of human love as a wonderful gift of God, it also points beyond itself. For God the giver of all good gifts is the ultimate source of all love: in fact, as John tells us, God is Love.

Beyond human love is the love of God for us all, and above all, the love of God in Christ Jesus. And beyond the reality of human marriage is the faithful eternal relationship between God and his people, the relationship between Christ and his bride the church.

So then, let us rejoice in human love, in whatever form it finds its way into our lives: whether it is through our marriage partner, our family, our friends, our church family, or wherever it finds us. But let us also receive the gracious faithful forgiving and welcoming love of God in Christ, and spread that love by loving one another, and by loving our neighbour as ourselves. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: 13th Sunday after Pentecost 23rd August 2015, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping,23rd August 2015, Reverend Paul Weaver

“GETTING THE POINT ABOUT JESUS”

(1 Kings 8; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69)

Over the past few weeks, our Gospel readings have taken us through the long sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. It begins with the feeding of the five thousand, and then moves into a complex discussion between Jesus and those who have come to see and hear him.

At the heart of this discussion is the repeated claim of Jesus: “I am the bread of life.” “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” This and other claims that Jesus made in this discussion or debate led many potential followers, and even some who already saw themselves as Jesus’ disciples, to give up on him. “This teaching is too difficult; who can accept it?” they asked. And off they went to their ordinary lives, safe from Jesus and his outrageous claims.

They had seen Jesus the miracle worker, the prophet of God, the man who challenged the religious authorities, the wonderful teacher, the man who loved ordinary people and not just the rich and powerful. Here was someone sent by God, a man of authority and power! And ideas and possibilities filled their minds. Could this really be the promised Messiah, the great leader and Saviour of Israel? And they started to work out their agenda for him. They wanted to squeeze him into their mould.

Surely Jesus could provide their material needs. He might raise an army and get rid of the Roman invaders. He could bring Israel a golden age of freedom and prosperity. He could give us all the things we want for ourselves! It all seemed so obvious.

But Jesus had different priorities. Yes, he had the power to satisfy people’s material needs, and he used it at times, but that was not his purpose. In fact, going along with the plans and agendas of the people would divert him from his real reason for coming. His real agenda was spiritual, not material; his purpose was not centred on the temporary here-and-now, but on eternal issues. And so he begins to challenge people’s assumptions about him. The bread that he had provided for the five thousand pointed to something – or someone – much greater: it pointed to Jesus himself, the bread from heaven, the giver of eternal life.

And this chapter of John really focuses on two themes: firstly, what Jesus means by saying that he is the Bread of Life; and secondly, how easily people miss the point of what Jesus is saying.

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus tells the people not to labour for the food that perishes. Rather they should labour for the food that endures to eternal life: the food that the Son of Man gives them.

They pick up the idea of labouring, of working – a familiar reality to these struggling people – but they miss the point that Jesus is making. Some realize that he is talking about something spiritual, and they ask Jesus: “What are the good works that God wants us to do?” They knew the Pharisees with their rules and the rabbis with their interpretations of the scriptures. They knew about the temple with its rituals and they had probably heard of John the Baptist and his calls to repentance. “What are your rules? What is your take on the commandments?” But they’ve missed the point.

Jesus comes back: “You want some work to do? Here is your work: believe in the One whom he has sent.” It’s not about how good you are, how many good works you do! The people realize that he is talking about himself, and they ask him for another sign to prove his claims, another miracle to keep them happy. Then they will believe in him. After all, Moses provided the manna every day for the people in the desert. Wasn’t there something more that Jesus could do to prove himself?

Jesus points out that it wasn’t Moses who provided the manna in the desert: it was God who provided it. And now God is providing heavenly bread, bread of much greater significance than the Israelites’ daily rations. “Give us this bread always”, the people ask.

And it is in response to this request that Jesus makes that astounding claim: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” He knows that they have not come to genuine faith, but assures them that he has God the Father’s authority, and that he will never turn away any who truly come to him in faith. He promises that on the last day – the climax of history and the day of judgement – he will raise up all who belong to him. They will indeed have eternal life.

This is heavy stuff. It is not just a claim to be a prophet or messenger of God. It is not just that he is a prince or ruler. He is claiming to have authority which surely only belongs to God.

But they know who he is! He is the son of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth; the son of Mary his wife. Of course, we know that the truth about Jesus is rather deeper than this! But to his hearers, Jesus is an ordinary man, making extraordinary claims about himself. How can he be the giver of eternal life?

And he goes on. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Once again, we know that Jesus is talking about his death on the cross, but to his listeners, this is getting stranger and stranger.

The people start arguing with each other. “How can this fellow give us his flesh to eat?” It sounds disgusting, not to mention contrary to the law. But Jesus comes back. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

And yet again, as we heard in today’s reading, people were offended by his teaching. If he wasn’t making blasphemous claims, he was awfully close! No wonder people were offended.

Jesus knows that even the twelve are struggling with his teaching. He assures them that they will one day see him ascend to his father’s kingdom, and his claims will be proved to be true. But not all of them will see this, for one of them, he knows, will become his betrayer.

As people turn away from him, he asks the twelve whether they want to give up too! And Peter, that mix of enthusiasm and faith and confusion, says those great words of faith and commitment: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we know that you are the Holy One of God.” He doesn’t get it all, and he will get tripped up like all of them, but he has more or less got the point.

There is always the danger of people doing what the multitude described in this chapter did. They get a bit of the message, but miss the point. For instance, they might see something of the importance of the temple whose dedication prayer in found in our first reading, or even of a church or cathedral; but they turn it into a box to fit God in, almost taking a superstitious attitude towards a piece of architecture, rather than seeing it as a reminder of God’s presence in all the world, and as a place where we gather to pray and worship the God who is everywhere.

Or they might hear Paul’s challenge to fight the good fight, battling against temptation and evil, and use it as a basis for justifying warfare between nations.

Or they might hear Jesus’ words and think that he was just talking about the Eucharist; that taking the bread and wine of Holy Communion was the only thing that mattered.

It does indeed matter, but we need always to remember that the elements point beyond themselves to the greater reality: for Jesus himself is the bread of life, and we spiritually eat the bread and drink the wine first of all by trusting in him as the Lord whom we serve and follow, and as the Saviour in whom we trust.

Of course, none of us gets it all right. That is why the response that Jesus seeks is faith, trust, dependence on him; not a demand for perfect doctrine or a perfect life, with our imperfect knowledge and our imperfect lives. He seeks simply faith, expressed in a desire to follow him day by day.

Jesus is the bread of life. Through him we receive God’s gift of eternal life. We remind ourselves of the cost of our salvation and the sacrificial love of Jesus every time we receive the bread and wine of the sacrament.

So this morning let us receive the elements with thankfulness. But let us look beyond what is visible, and let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus the bread of life, who died and rose to give us eternal life and hope. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: 13th Sunday after Pentecost 23rd August 2015, Revd Dr Philip Blake

The Reverend Dr Philip Blake

The Armour of God

Sermon at St Alban’s Epping 23/8/2015

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

This is arguably one of the most famous passages in the Bible. When I was at Sunday school in the 1960s, if we were looking at this passage we usually had a picture of a Roman soldier to colour in-something I did not enjoy much as it was not a special skill of mine and then we got to sing loudly Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus or Onward Christian Soldiers, two imperialist hymns of glorious political incorrectness which I still love.

But familiarity should not blind us to the great truth of this passage and its wise advice to us as Christians in the 21st century.

Importantly, the passage reminds us that we are actually in a battle. In the comfort and ease of our lives in Sydney with so many material blessings and an apparent level of security, health and well-being rarely known in human history, it is very easy for us to become complacent. We can cease to have the experience of being aliens and strangers on a journey and in doing so, think that we have arrived.

But we are engaged in a spiritual battle and we can see its manifestations in our own lives and families and in the broader realm of our society. I do not wish to be trite, but in my work I see some of the things that God has given us in our world being destroyed in this spiritual battle. I have the desperate sadness of families being pulled apart, of people who can only see the material and who are all too willing to sacrifice the well-being of other people and indeed themselves and their own souls to achieve some elusive dream of wealth, power or status. We see governments at times unable or unwilling to care for the people that God has given them and we see God is created order unwisely exploited with no thought for the future and with an unwillingness to share with the weak. These are symptoms of the spiritual battle which reveals our alienation from our Creator and are blind servitude to everything that he is not including dark spiritual forces.

Paul calls us to stand strong in that battle. Realistically, he knows that we cannot do so in our own power, but in the power of God and he calls us to put on the armour that God provides so that we can fight for him.

Each piece of this armour is essential. We need to understand as we colour in our picture that the absence of the belt of truth, or the breastplate of righteousness, the proper sandals on our feet, our shield or our sword will leave us ill-equipped to fight.

There is an understanding for us that the truth of God as revealed to us, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, enables us to recognise what is wrong and what is right. We sometimes mockingly talk about the phrase what would Jesus do but actually, as I reach my late 50s, I understand more and more, but to orient myself towards what is true right and valuable I need to have a clear understanding of what God stands for and Jesus helps me to know that realistically. I have the privilege each year of taking a Christian studies class through the Gospel of Mark. As I share the excitement of the truth of God revealed in the person of Jesus, I think I learn more than my students. It might be fair enough to see that is a reflection on my teaching, but I hope it is also a reflection on the way the Scriptures keep revealing new things to us. I think that the belt that holds everything together is therefore Jesus as we know him personally and deeply.

The breastplate of righteousness I find to be a very interesting concept. As I journey with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark I find his emphasis to be on doing right, rather than an emphasis on not doing wrong. His encounter, for instance, in the synagogue with the teachers of the law which we see when he heals the man with the shrivelled hand on the sabbath is a rejection of the mindset of a cautious and restrictive emphasis on not doing the wrong thing but rather an expansive dynamic of seeking to do good in all contexts. I think for Christians, we also need to seek out positive acts, engagements and relationships in which we can demonstrate righteousness. I think in this way we both guard against a small-minded and ungenerous faith but indeed we can go on the offensive to disempower those who would criticise and reject faith on the basis of the actions of Christians.

We also need to be able to go where God wants us to go. Our feet need to be fitted with the readiness of the Gospel of peace. The gospel of Jesus is not passive, nor is it static. It is dynamic, it is sending, it changes us and forces us out. It will send us sometimes to a different nation. We need to value and treasure our missionaries who have set aside lives with us to serve the gospel of peace. But the gospel of peace will also send us into places in our own lives. It sends us to our work place where we are called to do our work well as honouring the God who gave us work as our creation responsibility. It sends us into relationships with people who do not know Jesus, not necessarily so that the first thing we do is to hand them a tract but certainly so that in knowing us they have the opportunity to know Jesus. We are all fitted with the right sandals to take the battle into our world, into God’s world.

As we give expression to truth, righteousness and the gospel of peace, we are of course expressing our faith. Faith is a very hard concept to nail down. I know it is more than intellectual assent, although our minds must be involved. I know it is more than doing good, although doing good is the fruit of faith. In the end, it must be about the reality of a human being given over to God and in that sense we understand that the protection of shield of faith is not based upon the power of what we believe, but indeed upon the power of the person in whom we have placed our faith. This is, of course, the reason why it can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one as our passage expressed.

The helmet of salvation in our lives is of course the consequence of our trust in God and in what he has done for us in Jesus. Again, as we reflect upon this, it is the gift from God and not something we do for ourselves. As we enter upon the spiritual battle, as we stand firm for the Lord, we know that he holds us and protects us.

And finally, the sword of the spirit which is the word of God. We do not fight without a weapon and we do not engage without knowing his will. We know his word is a light unto our feet in a lamp unto our path. We know it is useful for teaching and correcting rebuking and training in righteousness. We know that man will not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The sword of the spirit enables us to explain to those in our lives why we fight the spiritual battle and indeed why we would like them to join us. It enables us to examine our lives, both to encourage us and to guide us to grow more like Jesus, day by day. To go back to my beloved Gospel of Mark Christian studies lessons I find each year it helps me to stand within earshot of the apostle Peter as he declares “you are the Messiah”, and to join him in that declaration.

We do not fight alone. We fight for our Captain Jesus and Paul reminds us to pray so that the Holy Spirit will aid us in the struggle. Paul, in chains and about to die still asks for the power to fight on fearlessly still wearing the armour of God.

Sermon: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost 23rd August 2015

Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Series B

St Albans, Epping

23rd August, 2015

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Recently I saw the film called “Going Clear”. It is about the Church of Scientology. The film revealed that the core beliefs of that Church are not revealed to members until they have been involved in that Church for well over a decade. All that time those core teachings are kept secret. The film included interviews with people who had gone through the experience of being with that church for many many years until they were finally given the information regarding the core beliefs. Yet their reaction to that knowledge was that it was ridiculous, the stupidest ideas they had ever read. And yet these were the core beliefs of the church of Scientology. These teachings are just too stupid for me to repeat this morning. It is not hard to find out what they are but frankly, why would you bother? Of course, all these people interviewed had left the church. They were no longer members.

I raise this because we have a similar situation in our gospel reading from John 6. The only difference is that Jesus didn’t hold back. He didn’t wait decades. He revealed the central elements of his teaching to the crowds and many people were outraged by it. Many of Jesus’ followers left him at this point. They could not accept this teaching. It was obvious that this teaching was central to all Jesus had to say. It was central to his understanding of his relationship with God and his relationship with people. But these disciples were so outraged by it, so offended by it, that they could no longer be disciples of Jesus.

This is relevant to us today because what we do every Sunday in the Eucharist is grounded upon this teaching from John 6. It is central to the life of this church and congregation. No other teaching of Jesus could be more important to us. So do we believe it or are we too, outraged by it?

Verse 56, Jesus clearly says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” This teaching was given to a community who regarded one of the most evil of sins to be the drinking of blood. It was hard for a Jew to imagine anything worse than that. Yet Jesus can say to these people that they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The language couldn’t be plainer.

In the early church this same language was used and used regularly, so much so, that many believed Christians engaged in cannibalism. The Romans sent out spies to observe what actually happened during a Christian Service and though the language was graphic they were surprised at how harmless these Christian gatherings were. They were expecting some political agenda, some plan of action, some plot they were about to hatch. What they found were people who declared what they would not do – it was a negative agenda, a people who promised not to steal, not to kill, not to lie to one another, not to be sexually unfaithful. But as well, they engaged in a ritual with bread and wine and spoke of body and blood and this clearly was of great significance.

Jesus puts the whole argument on an existential level. The living Father had sent Jesus and his life was derived from the Father. But probably Jesus meant more than that. He probably meant that all life ultimately comes from the living Father. And so those who feed on Christ will also have life. Then Jesus repeated his comparison with the manna that fell during the Exodus. This argument doesn’t have much impact on us, but it was almost as offensive as Jesus reference to drinking blood. For the Jews, there was no greater hero than Moses. There was nothing Moses couldn’t do. He could win battles, he could be a prophet of God. He could create a nation from a group of slaves. He could lead people for 40 years in the wilderness and still they survived. No one was more important to the Jews than Moses. Yet here over and over Jesus compared himself to Moses and was declaring that he was greater. “Your forefathers ate the manna in the wilderness,” and though it sustained them for a time, yet they still died. But if you eat Jesus bread you will live forever.

Sadly, it is hard for us today to grasp just how radical, just how revolutionary and just how offensive these words of Jesus were to the crowds. If we can gain just a little insight into that, then we can appreciate John’s comment at the end of this teaching. John points out that Jesus said these words in Capernaum in Galilee. He didn’t say this in Jerusalem. If he had, the crowds would have set upon him and torn him apart. But in Capernaum they just treated Jesus with disgust and many of his followers left him.

And notice Jesus’ response to them. He appealed to them because great things were to happen. The ascending of the Son of Man is a reference to the book of Daniel. That book is all about the rising and the falling of nations and the question of how to understand the politics of the day. The prophecy in Daniel explains that behind it all, behind the chaos, behind the suffering, behind the bloodshed there is a God who is slowly working his purposes out for the world with the elevation of a new leader, the Son of Man, who will rule all the world. It was a warning to the people of Jesus’ day. Jesus knew the future for Israel would be bleak. He knew the nation of Israel would be wiped out within 40 years. His appeal to them was to put their trust in the one who could give them life, eternal life in the midst of this destruction.

As well, we mustn’t be distracted by the word Spirit here. The word “Spirit” in the Bible is almost synonymous with the word “life’. This is why Jesus can say “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” But how do we access this life? The answer is very simple, Jesus called on them to believe his words and this was at a time when the resonse of the crowd was not to believe anything Jesus said. They demonstrated that unbelief by leaving him and giving up their discipleship.

In the end, the eating and the drinking, is as simple as believing that Jesus truly was the one God had sent into the world to bring new life. But the power of the believing, is that it can be compared to the eating and the drinking, the body and the blood of Jesus become a part of us and the consequence of that is life itself.

In one sense, this looked like a day that was ending badly until we come to the words of Peter. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked if they too would leave him. Peter answered, “Where would we go – you alone have the words of eternal life? We know you are the Holy One of God.” And there it is in a nutshell, the whole mission of Jesus, that people should understand who he is and the consequence of that believing is eternal life. It is not difficult is it.

From a human perspective this day was a disaster. The mission of Jesus looked in ruins. The crowds were hostile, many of Jesus’ followers had left him. Yet Peter hung on to those two truths – who Jesus was and what he had come to achieve.

Yet the day would eventually come when things were so bad even Peter abandoned Jesus, three times declaring he didn’t know him. And then Jesus himself was dead. It would be hard to imagine that the man who had attracted such large crowds, people who wanted to make him their king, should wind up with thieves and outcasts in a grotesque execution. Things couldn’t get any worse.

Yet we know that three days later it was a whole new world. The lesson here was that though the mission of Jesus didn’t go smoothly he still achieved all he came to do. And that is our great hope when our world comes crashing down upon us, when our career doesn’t go where it should, when our marriage goes through tough times, when our health is not good or when there is little hope of improvement. This is the world we live in and it was this same world that Jesus entered to do his great work, with all the suffering and the rejection and even death itself – experiencing everything it means to be human. And yet we can be drawn so close to him, that we are invited to eat his flesh and drink his blood – we are bound to him in the most intimate way possible and this heavenly food becomes for us the medicine for eternal life.

Sermon: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 9th August 2015

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

Readings:   2 Samuel 18; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35,41-51

“WORDS THAT BUILD UP”

Over recent weeks in our Old Testament readings we have been hearing the story of David, the great second king of Israel. And what a story it is! It begins with a young shepherd boy who uses his sling to slay the giant Goliath, and plays his harp to soothe the troubled king Saul, and successfully leads his army into battle. He becomes a great friend of Saul’s son Jonathan, who accepts that it will be David, not himself, who will succeed Saul as king. Saul becomes obsessed with David, convinced that David is out to destroy him, and David has to flee from one hiding place to another. Though Saul is determined to kill him, David refuses to take the opportunities he is given to kill the murderous king. Eventually David does become king. He sets up a new capital in Jerusalem, and seems to be a great success as king. He wants to build a temple to honour the Lord God, but is told that he is not to build a house for the Lord, but that the Lord will build a house for him, a great and lasting dynasty.

It seems to be all good, and David is a great hero and a great servant of God.

But then he sees Bathsheba bathing, and he wants her, and suddenly everything is turned upside down. David becomes not only an adulterer but a murderer. And his family relationships go pear-shaped. He fails as a father, spoiling one son and ignoring another, allowing tensions and intrigues to build up, raising major questions about who will succeed him as king, and whether the transition will be peaceful.

And then there is his son Absalom, who eventually gets sick of his father’s inconsistency, and mounts an armed rebellion against David. David is forced to flee, and Absalom humiliates his father by going into David’s wives and concubines in a very public way. Under his general Joab, forces loyal to King David respond to Absalom’s rebellion. David is racked with guilt: he has failed to be a good father to Absalom, and now Absalom might have to die if David is to reclaim the throne. “Do not harm Absalom if you capture him: bring him to me,” he tells the army and its leaders. But Joab will have none of this weak sentimentality, and contrary to David’s orders he kills Absalom.

The war against Absalom’s forces is won, but David is devastated by the death of his son: “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.”

You mightn’t be surprised to know that Joab is disgusted with David’s reaction. “So what if he was your son? He was your deadly enemy. Get over it. Get out and tell your soldiers what a great job they’ve done, and stop being such a wuss.”

Now of course Joab had a point. David must congratulate and thank his army for their great victory over the rebel forces. But David was also a father, and a troubled one at that. He was a man in grief and loss, compounded by his guilt and sense of failure that the whole thing had happened.

As I thought about David and his apparent emotional weakness, I was reminded of another public figure who has recently been told that he’s a wuss, and that he should “get over it”. I’m talking about Adam Goodes, the footballer. Over many years he has experienced a great deal of racial abuse on and off the field. Two years ago, he reacted to some particularly nasty abuse from a spectator: he went up to the person and made clear that her racist taunts were unacceptable.

It turned out that the abuser was a 13-year-old girl – something which Goodes would not have known when he reacted – and there was a very mixed reaction from the public and from commentators.

Some praised Goodes for drawing a necessary line in the sand and bringing out into the open the unacceptable nature of racial abuse. Others almost accused him of child abuse, his “cruelty” to a young girl – although he certainly tried to do what he could to reduce any personal impact on the girl and her family. And others said that he should not be making an issue of what people shout out to football players during games. Live with it! Get over it!

Since then, Adam Goodes has become a bigger target for booing and abuse on the field. Many people say that this is his own fault. If he hadn’t made an issue of it, people wouldn’t be singling him out. He would just get the normal amount of reaction from spectators that he’d get anyway.

Surely this demonstrates that there really is a problem of racial abuse here. Goodes publicly indicated that he was sick of the racial abuse that he received, and hurt by it, and it was also clear that this was the case with many other Aboriginal players. And yet people were singling him out in particular for abuse: whether it was specifically racist words, it was certainly not just the good-humoured banter that footballers might expect. As we know, he recently decided to take a break from football because he was finding it hard to handle the abuse he was receiving.

Is he a wuss? Should he just get over it?

Actually I think he is a very brave man. It is much easier, much safer, to sweep problems like racism under the carpet as so many are telling Goodes and his supporters to do. But of course, if anything is to change – as it must – someone has to get it into the open, and I would praise Goodes for being brave enough to do this. Clearly however it has taken a toll on him. I am pleased about him returning to the football field, but I am sad that it got to that point.

The problem is that Goodes is a human being, and he has feelings. Names and abuse do hurt. Many of you will remember that old schoolyard saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. It wasn’t true then, and it still isn’t true now. Many of us have experienced hurts in our lives, often based on cruel things people have said, and sometimes these hurts have been hard to handle. It is wise to handle these hurts in a purposeful way: for some people prayer will be helpful; for others, it might be talking them through with an understanding person, doing something constructive, or getting assistance if we need it.

Our feelings are part of the beautiful way we have been made in the image of God. They may express joy and excitement and love: but they also can express pain and hurt and loss. They are there, one side of who we are, and a stiff upper lip will often not be an adequate way of responding to personal hurt.

Of course, with our different personalities and our different stories, some of us will be much more open and obvious in the way we express our emotions, especially painful ones.

We need to find appropriate, helpful and safe ways of expressing powerful feelings, rather than leaving them undealt with. And we need to accept that we are all different, and that telling someone to “get over it” will seldom be a useful piece of advice to someone in pain! What hurts another person mightn’t be what hurts me!

Which leads us to those very practical words of Paul in our reading from Ephesians. He writes about speaking the truth to one another. We are all connected to each other: lies undermine our relationships.

He knows that things – and people – can make us angry: that’s fair enough. But don’t express that anger in a wrong way: if Goodes had punched the girl in the face, clearly that would have been a wrong way of expressing that anger. Be angry but do not sin. Deal appropriately with your anger, says Paul: don’t let it fester and lie there unresolved and unforgiven.

Paul says that the thief must give up stealing and get an honest job: not just in order to have what he needs to live on, but so that he can have something to give to those in need!

In particular, he says that we must not allow evil talk come out of our mouths: what we say is to build people up, not to tear them down.

There is the test! Do our words do good to people, or do them harm or cause them hurt? That deals quite simply with any attempted justification for racist talk, doesn’t it? We are to be imitators of God our heavenly Father: we are to live in love – love to our neighbour, and that can be anyone at all: the person we like, and the person we find difficult to love; the person who is like us, and the person who is from a different racial or economical or religious background. In Christ, we are all one, we are family. Our words should always seek to do good, not harm.

The story of David ends rather sadly: our mistakes have a habit of catching up with us, and of course we each have our own catalogue of mistakes and failings. But God continues to love us as he loved David, and he challenges us to speak in love and to act in love in all circumstances. Let us then “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.” Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver

Sermon: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 2nd August 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   2 Samuel 12-13; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

“WHAT KIND OF RECTOR?”

We have been praying for some months now for our Parish Nominators, and for the appointment of a new Rector. I guess most of us have been wondering how long we will have to wait, and who it will be, and what he will be like. Meanwhile we keep praying, and no doubt many of us are keeping our ears open for any news, or even hints of news.

A Rector is literally a ruler: the word implies power or authority. Once upon a time a rector directly received the people’s tithes, whereas that was not the case with a vicar. However, nowadays the diocese has its own rules to ensure that its appointed clergy are provided with an appropriate stipend to provide for their financial needs: the aim is that they can focus on their ministry, rather than have to run around trying to get enough money to live on.

Any person in a position of leadership has some form of power or authority. It may be some official appointment, or something much more informal where you have a recognized role: it might even just be your role as a parent, or your place in the family. But power has its dangers.

We have been hearing about King David, a great hero of the Bible, but a man who certainly had feet of clay like the rest of us. David had power, success, wealth, and no doubt popularity. He had a palace and a harem. And then he saw Bathsheba bathing. “I’m king. I can do what I want! I can have her. So what if she’s married? I’m king: I don’t owe anything to her husband.” We know it well as a sense of entitlement. And what did David do afterwards when Bathsheba reported that she was pregnant, and he realized that he might be found out? He had her husband killed! “I’m king: I can do it.” But he was still answerable to God. And it took Nathan the prophet’s message to get him to admit the evil he had done: Psalm 51 with its heavy words presents David’s expression of shame and repentance, and reminds us that we too are people in need of God’s forgiveness, which comes to us through Jesus, who is the bread of life. Sin and evil bring death, but reconciliation and eternal life come through Jesus Christ.

Of course, we are not unfamiliar with the idea of people in power having a sense of entitlement. Our politicians have recently been given something of a serve, particularly over travel allowances. “I’m an MP, I’m the Speaker: of course I can have this, of course I can do this! Of course the rules allow it – more or less!” And although Bronwyn Bishop has been getting most of the attention, it seems pretty clear that the attitude is not uncommon. No wonder both major parties keep very quiet when it is suggested that the rules on travel allowances should be tightened, or even clarified!

However, that same sense of entitlement – or a separation from moral realities – has also been evident with leaders of the church. Over the centuries, many Popes behaved in ways which had nothing to do with the moral standards taught in the scriptures. They used violence to achieve power or to strengthen their power, and, in the name of the Gospel, they used violence and torture supposedly to persuade people to join the church or to admit their heresy – whether or not it was heresy! Of course, the Protestants weren’t much better! And more recently we have seen clergy use their power to abuse children, or to manipulate parishioners into inappropriate sexual relations, and then somehow to justify their actions or to excuse such actions.

Parish clergy can also use their power to put people down, rather than to build them up, because of an inflated sense of their knowledge and wisdom. Too often I have heard of clergy who come into churches, convince themselves that major surgery is needed, and try to remake the church in their own image. They put little effort into knowing their people, listening to them, understanding them, and instead they ride roughshod over them. Anyone who disagrees with the Rector is clearly resisting the work of God, and the church is supposedly better off without them. So they are pushed out.

People are badly hurt, many leave, and often the church suffers. I am reminded of the famous words of an American officer during the Vietnam War, who explained: “We had to destroy the village to save it.” A church, no doubt with its own set of problems, goes down: sometimes a new church might replace it, but is the human cost worth it? And is this the way of Christ, who came to serve, not to be served?

Paul has some significant things to say about ministry in our reading from Ephesians. He describes what he sees as a life “worthy of our calling”: a life which involves humility, gentleness, patience, love, seeking peaceable relationships. These qualities ought to characterize our lives – they certainly did with Christ’s life – but they also are to be reflected in the life of the church.

In Ephesians, Paul says some wonderful things about the significance of the church. He makes it clear that to be a Christian believer, a follower of Christ, means that we are members of his family, members of his body the church. And while we express that membership as members of a particular church, we are also members of God’s universal church, and ultimately of the church as it will be in his kingdom. Church exists here and now, right here at St.Aidan’s, but what we are here is an expression of something much bigger, something wonderful, of which we are also part.

There are many churches: congregations, parishes and denominations. There are many church structures and traditions and styles, but all followers of Christ are ultimately part of the one church. With all our differences, we are still one family: those differences should enrich us, rather than be excuses for division. Of course at that level too we are to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”.

Paul writes here about God’s gifts to the church. When he does this in a famous passage in 1 Corinthians 12, he talks of things that people can do, enabled by the Spirit, and the ways they can contribute to the life of the church. But here in Ephesians 4, Paul thinks of people themselves as God’s gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

These people are used by the Spirit to enable people to hear and understand the message of Christ, and to come to grips with what it means and how it is to be lived out. Pastors and teachers in many ways have a similar role in the life of the church to our rectors and clergy today: they in particular communicate and explain God’s message, and they seek to guide and lead people along the path of the Christian life.

One word that is sometimes used to describe local church leaders or clergy is that they are “ministers”. Of course they are, but Paul sees one other aspect of their roles. They are to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”. In other words, we are all called to be ministers, serving in our different ways. And one of the things that our clergy are called to do is help and encourage us all to fulfil our ministries within the church and beyond. As we all play our part in the life of God’s church, the church will work more effectively and fulfil God’s purposes.

One of Fr John’s strengths was his trust in parishioners to fulfil their ministries: he gave people space to do things, and encouraged them to try things if they had an idea or a vision. And he was willing for people to be themselves, not demanding that they see things exactly the same way as him or do things exactly the same way. Another strength of Fr John was his recognition of the need to express that unity of the church in relationships between our various local churches, and his encouragement of ecumenical contacts and events. I must admit that part of my hope and prayer is that our new Rector will follow in his footsteps in these areas.

A Rector is there to lead, but not to dominate or to use people for his own purposes. He is a servant: a servant of Christ, a servant of Christ’s people. Our new Rector will not be perfect, but our prayer is that he will be the person of God’s choice. Keep praying for the nominators and the process. Keep praying for our Rector when he starts and long after.

But watch out: I hope he will value all that is good in our parish. But he will inevitably see things that will need to be examined and reviewed, and no doubt he will see things that may need to change. Let be ready to think and work together, and especially to see ourselves as ministers making our own contribution to the healthy life of our Parish. And let’s be ready to receive the challenges that will no doubt come as we go forward led by our new Rector, and to share and serve together as fellow-members of Christ’s family and fellow-servants of Christ. Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver