Sermon: Pentecost 17, 15 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 15th October 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

RESPONDING TO GOD’S INVITATION

 (Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106; Philippians 4; Matthew 22:1-14)

Holy Week is for us a time for meditation and reflection. The first Holy Week was a very different time for Jesus and his disciples. It was a time of increasing tension and conflict.

After his entry to Jerusalem followed by the crowds, Jesus had turned the traders and moneychangers out of the temple, and cursed that fig tree which had no fruit. He had refused to answer a question about his authority which had been asked by the local leaders, because they would not answer his question about what they thought of John the Baptist. And he was telling stories with a particularly uncomfortable bite to them.

In one story there were two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. One said he would not, but then changed his mind and did the work requested. The other said that he would do what his father wanted, but never actually did anything. Out of that story Jesus warned the Jewish leaders that tax-collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom of God ahead of them, because those outsiders had believed John’s message and actually repented. The leaders had made no response.

And then we heard last week that story of the tenants in the vineyard who refused to give due payment to the owner, and indeed treated violently those who came seeking the payment. Again Jesus gave a very severe warning to the Jewish leaders, that they would be tossed out of God’s vineyard and that others would take their place.

And in today’s reading we have another parable with a dark edge, a reminder that Jesus’ parables are not always nice simple stories with a lovely moral.

As we heard, this parable is about a king who plans a wedding feast for his son. According to custom, the initial invitations have gone out and people will have a reasonable sense of when they should be prepared to come.

When everything is ready, the king sends out his servants to let people know that it’s time to come to the feast. But the servants get fobbed off with excuses and arrogance words. Indeed, when he sends out a second group of servants, they are treated with violence and even murdered.

The feast is ready, and those invited are not willing to come, so the invitation now goes out to all and sundry in the streets – the good and the bad. These people are very willing to come, and so the banquet hall is filled with guests.

It’s actually a parallel story to the parable of the vineyard. In that story we could say that the rightful claims of God are rejected by those who owe him. This time it is the wonderful generous invitation of God that is refused by those who should know better. And no doubt many of Jesus’ listeners got the sense of what he was saying: the leaders and teachers were ignoring God’s call, but others less reputable, the outsiders, were hearing and taking up the call. They would receive God’s blessing, which Jesus saw being refused by the religious and the respectable.

Were any of Jesus’ listeners able to see that he was also pointing towards the message of the Gospel going not only to the actual people of Israel, the Jews, but to people of all races and backgrounds? That is ultimately where Jesus was heading with this story.

But that is not the end of the story. There is yet another part, a sting in the tail. For the king finds a man at the wedding feast who is not appropriately clothed, not wearing a wedding robe. He has nothing to say by way of reason or excuse. And he finds himself tossed out.

Now the experts have had a great time debating about this second part. The big question is this: if people have been invited in straight from the streets and lanes, they won’t have a chance to find or buy some wedding robes, even if they can afford to do so. Isn’t the king being completely unreasonable in expecting people to be wearing them?

Some people have suggested that the king had suitable clothes available to give everyone as they arrived, and this person had arrogantly refused to put them on. Others have all sorts of other theories.

I’m inclined to suggest that we lighten up on the details: after all, it’s just a story making a point. I don’t think that many people who receive a wedding invitation are likely to murder the messenger either! Jesus is just adding to the drama of the story!

What we need to see is the point Jesus is making! He is pointing out that people can miss out on God’s blessings by rejecting them or refusing them. That’s the first part. But people can assume they’ve qualified for the blessings, and still miss out. That is the point of the second part. You might think you’re in, and then discover that you are actually out. It’s a very serious warning.

Now Jesus doesn’t give a direct explanation here of what exactly he is getting at. He is clearly saying that people can take for granted that they have God’s salvation, and in fact miss out on it. They might even be religious people, respectable people, perhaps churchgoers. But why would they miss out? Why would they be tossed out, as the story depicts it? We have to look elsewhere in the scriptures to find some hints.

Perhaps a good start is to go back to that parable from last week. Jesus warns that the original tenants will be removed from the vineyard, and others will take their place. These other tenants are people who will give the owner the fruits that are due to him. And I suggested last week that we might see the fruits in terms of faithful service and obedient living. We could pick up that image of fruit and remind ourselves of what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We could describe it as “Christian character”, as we allow God the Holy Spirit to do his work in us. Indeed, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul actually tells his readers to “clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”.

Perhaps we can put it like this. The invitation of the Gospel is to “come as you are”. We don’t have to work or be really really good or really religious to earn an invitation to God’s kingdom. The invitation is to all and sundry: to all of us. But though we can come as we are: we must not stay as we are. If we want to become God’s people and receive the blessings of God’s people, we need to be willing to seek to live as God’s people.

We are saved as we respond to the Gospel in faith, but as James reminds us, “faith without works is dead”. If our faith is the real thing, it will make a difference to our lives.

If we have become God’s friends, God’s children, we need to live as God’s friends, God’s children. If pleasing God does not matter to us, how can we claim to be his people? Of course, as Christians we will trip ourselves up and make mistakes and do the wrong thing far too often. But if we are God’s people, we will seek to live as God’s people.

So there it is: this lovely and worrying story of Jesus. The invitation to God’s kingdom is freely offered to us all. In faith we have accepted his generous invitation. But we need to wear that robe. We need to allow the fruit of the Spirit to develop in us. We need to live the life of God’s children. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 17, 8 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 8th October 2017

Rev. Paul Weaver

WHAT DOES GOD WANT FROM US?

 (Exodus 20:1-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3; Matthew 21:33-46)

What does God want from us? The question arises for us as we reflect on the parable we just heard as our Gospel reading. Tenants in a vineyard who are expected to provide an appropriate return to the owner of the vineyard.

But they refuse to do so. In fact, they attack and even kill those who come to collect the fruits. And then finally they kill the owner’s son.

No doubt many of Jesus’ listeners worked out what he was talking about. After all, the vine or the vineyard was used a number of times in the Old Testament to depict Israel: the passages where this picture was used usually indicated that the crop was a failure. Jesus here was giving a picture of the Lord sending his servants the prophets to call his people to return to him the fruits that were due to him. And he was reminding his listeners not only how God’s people resisted the prophetic message, but how they violently attacked the prophets.

If someone got this far in understanding Jesus, I wonder what they thought Jesus was talking about when he referred to the beloved son, who himself would be attacked and killed?

So here is this story which indicates that God’s people owe him! God’s people are in debt to him! Doesn’t that mean us? If so, what is the fruit that we owe him?

Our first reading from Exodus 20 gives us some clues. Of course we are familiar with the Ten Commandments. Some of us can probably remember them being read Sunday by Sunday in the Holy Communion service from the old Book of Common Prayer. As someone has pointed out, the Ten Commandments are not the Ten Suggestions! They spell out the sort of life that God calls us to lead, the way God expects us to act and to live. And we know that they are rightly summed up in what we call the Two Great Commandments: to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we faithfully seek to obey the Ten Commandments, we are certainly well down the path of making a true and right response to God.

But it is important to see the purpose of the Commandments, and we understand this better if we remember when they were given.

God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, and brought them safely across the sea when they were pursued by the Egyptian army. He had brought them to Mount Sinai, providing them with food and water, protecting them from their enemies, and assuring them that they were indeed his covenant people, to whom he would be faithful and for whom he would continue to provide.

We need to remember that the Commandments were not given in Egypt, but at Sinai. They were not an exam to be passed before God would accept them or help them. They were not a set of demands to be fulfilled before they could become God’s people. The Commandments in fact spelt out how to live as God’s people. God was in effect saying: “You are my saved and beloved people. This is the sort of life I want you to live because you are my people.” God had shown his saving grace to the people of Israel: the commandments spelt out how he wanted them to live in response to his grace. The commandments made clear what God was seeking from his people: faithful obedience. This is a sense was the fruit that he was seeking.

But too often the people of Israel were not faithful to their Lord: they turned to pagan gods and idols, and they ignored his commands, treating people with injustice rather than godly love. And as we have seen, when God sent his prophets to call his people to repentance, they too often violently resisted their message.

However, they couldn’t claim ignorance of who God was or what he wanted. As Psalm 19 reminds us, everyone has access to some knowledge of God the creator. He is the maker of the universe, and the starry night and the fiery sun declare the glory of their mighty Creator. But wonderful as creation is, it doesn’t tell us all we need to know about the true God.

And so the Psalmist takes another step, for God is revealed not only through his creation. He is revealed more clearly in the scriptures. The Psalm speaks of the law of the Lord, the command of the Lord, the precepts of the Lord, the commandment of the Lord, the judgements of the Lord.

It seems to be all about how God wants us to act, God’s “rules”, but we need to remember that the word “torah”, the Law, is a bigger word. It refers to the five books of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, but more literally it means “instruction or teaching”. The commandments are linked to all that the scriptures tell us of God.

In this second section, the Psalmist acknowledges that God the Creator is in fact the Lord, who is in covenant with his people, who is faithful to his promises, and who provides and cares for his people. And he recognizes that the way to respond to the Lord is in obedience to his commandments, especially as they are spelt out in the books of Moses.

Whereas it is so human to resist rules and commandments, our Psalmist tells us that the way to joy and satisfaction is really the way of obedience, God’s commandments are for our good. They are more desirable than gold, sweeter than honey from the comb.

Yet we know that we as human beings do break God’s good commands. As Christians we need to remember that God is pleased and honoured when we consistently obey God’s laws: but we also need to recognize that it is actually good for us to seek to obey them.

Sometimes we might sin because of ignorance or because of our weakness. We might also commit presumptuous sins, doing what we know God doesn’t want us to do. And the Psalmist prays to be kept safe from these things. Not that God magically answers that prayer so that we don’t have to make any effort if we are to obey him: he still calls us to in a sense work with his Spirit in resisting temptation and sin in our lives.

The Psalm reminds us that God’s commands are for our good. And it reinforces God’s call to obedience. If you like, it calls us to bear that fruit of obedience that is due to God.

Now some people might ask: isn’t the Old Testament law out-of-date? It’s all very well to love God and love our neighbour! But what about circumcision? What about all those laws about food and special days and the like?

Our reading from Philippians brings a very uptight Paul reacting to people who are insisting that for a Gentile to become a Christian, he must be circumcised. Paul goes through a whole list of things that would make him an outstanding example of someone who could claim to be a “good Jew”: the right background, all the ceremonies, learning, moral behaviour, devotion. But then he says that he regards these things as rubbish. What really matters, he says, is “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”, he says. It is not our background that matters. It is not even our good behaviour in itself. It is our relationship with Christ that really matters.

Remember how I pointed out that the Commandments were not a series of rules that we had to obey in order to become God’s people. The Commandments spell out the sort of life God wants us to live because we are his people. It was true under the Old Covenant, and it is certainly true under the New Covenant.

Those tenants in the parable of Jesus were like people who claim to be God’s people, but then act in complete denial of their claim. They reject God’s claims on them. They refuse God’s calls to them. They demonstrate that they are not God’s people. And sadly so often, the Israelites – and in particular their leaders – acted like this.

Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we are God’s people. We haven’t earned that privilege: it is God’s generous gift to us. Through Christ we have God’s blessings right now, and we have the promise of his eternal blessings ready for us. But we still have a life on earth to live here and now. And God is right now calling us to live as his people.

We haven’t got there yet, any more than Paul had made it as he wrote to the Philippians. He knew he had the assurance of God’s eternal blessings. But right now he needed to press on in the Christian life. He needed to strain forward to what lies ahead. He needed to press on towards the goal.

Paul knew that his citizenship was in heaven. And through Christ we have the same assurance. But right now, we have a life to live as God’s beloved and forgiven people. There is the fruit of obedient loving service for us to offer as we live the life to which we have been called. We haven’t got there yet. We still fall short. But the call and the promise and the challenge are all there. Let’s keep following Christ. Let’s keep seeking to live as God’s people, as faithful followers of Jesus. Amen.                Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 16, 1 October 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 1st October 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

HUMILITY, GLORY AND UNITY

 (Exodus 17:1-7; Ps 78:1-4,11-16; Philippians 2; Matthew 21:23-32)

There was once a football competition with four teams. One team played as if they hardly knew each other, each member doing their own thing regardless of what the others were doing. Another team spent most of their time arguing with each other and refusing to co-operate. Another team was so impressed with their captain-coach that they left him to go out on the field by himself, and play as a one-man team. And then there was a team whose members worked together on their tactics, and worked as a team on the field. Guess which team won the competition!

Churches can be a bit like that too. Some can be full of individuals who have their own agenda, and don’t really care about the other members of the congregation. Others can be dominated by arguments and squabbles. Some churches seem to leave it to the minister to do everything. But there are others whose members see a better way to function as Christ’s church: the way to which Paul points in our reading from Philippians.

It seems that the church at Philippi had the problem of disunity. And when Paul seeks to address the problem, he doesn’t just tell them what they should be doing: he points them to Jesus.

Many experts think that Paul is quoting a popular hymn of the time in this chapter: you can see the words laid out as if it is poetry. It certainly presents some powerful teaching about Jesus, but the words are indeed poetic and the message is inspiring.

Paul tells us that Jesus “was in the form of God”: he was by nature God, with the greatness, the power, the glory of divinity. Jesus is indeed the second person of the Trinity. He is the very author of creation.

And yet he was willing to let go of that glory. He did not clutch his divine prerogatives to himself. In fact he let go of them, and “emptied himself”. He became a mere human being: one made to be dependent on God, one made to serve God. He did not pretend to be human, or simply disguise

himself as a human, as we hear in stories of some of the ancient gods. He became “truly human”, as we say in the Creed. The one who made us became one of us. The Lord of the universe became a servant.

Now when Paul wrote his letters, he wrote as a Christian who came from a Jewish background. The Old Testament scriptures were never far from his mind, especially as he considered how they pointed to the coming of Jesus. And I’m sure that as he wrote these words – or probably dictated them – he thought in particular of two passages from the Old Testament.

He would have gone back to the opening chapters of the scriptures, and the story of Adam, the first man. Adam was made in the image of God, reflecting something of the being of God. But he was not satisfied with the wonderful privileges of being human: tempted by the serpent, he grasped at the possibility of being “like God”, knowing good and evil in the way God knows them. He grasped at divinity, and as we all know, he was undone as a result.

And of course since his day, human beings have in our different ways sought to live independently of God: doing our will rather than his. We play at being God, trying to run our lives as if we were actually in charge. Jesus let go of privileges to which he was by nature entitled. Adam tried to grab hold of privileges to which he could never be entitled. Where Adam got it all wrong, Jesus got it all right.

But there is a second part of the Old Testament which Paul seems also to have had in mind. He was thinking of the section of Isaiah, from chapters 40 to 55, which we sometimes call the “Songs of the Suffering Servant”: about one who was called to serve God and his people by showing God’s light to the nations, and by suffering on behalf of God’s people.

Jesus was that servant: obedient, faithful, dying for the sins of the disobedient. God himself, in the person of Jesus, did it for us! His obedience took him all the way to the cross. For the rest of us, death is not an option: it comes to us all. For Jesus it was an act of obedience to his divine Father’s will, and it was an act of sacrificial love for the human race.

Jesus humbled himself to take on human existence. He humbled himself to serve others. He humbled himself to suffer for us. He humbled himself to die for us.

But it was not a grand death, an obviously heroic death, a death which had that hint of triumph about it. It was the death of a common unimportant criminal. It was a death of agony, a death of shame. A death in which he saw and heard people mocking him and making sarcastic comments and challenging him to save himself. The ironic and terrible thing is that he could indeed have saved himself, but he didn’t! Death was at the heart of his purpose. Jesus was obedient to death, even the death of the cross, for our sakes.

But of course, that is not the end of the story. Good Friday is followed by Easter Day. Christ’s death is followed by his resurrection. The apparent tragedy of Jesus’ crucifixion is followed by his triumph over the powers of death.

And Paul begins the second half of this hymn to Christ with a great big “therefore”. Our Rector the other day commented to me that when you see the word “therefore” in the Bible, it’s always important to ask what it is “there for”. “Therefore”, says Paul. The point is that the triumph he is about to describe is based on Christ’s humble service and obedience and sacrifice. Because Christ fulfilled his Father’s loving and wonderful purposes, “Therefore God also highly exalted him”.

Jesus, having done all that was required by his heavenly Father, has returned in triumph to his Father’s side. To him belongs the name that is above every other name. In Isaiah 45, every knee shall bow to the Lord. But now, Paul can say that “at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow”. For he is indeed “Lord”: Lord of humanity, Lord of the world, Lord over all Creation. And this is in fact to the glory of God the Father. It is not only humans who will acknowledge him as truly Lord: all of creation will acknowledge him.

In a sense, he is doubly Lord. He is Lord because of who he is by nature. But he is also Lord because of divine appointment: he has earned the title because of his extraordinary and uniquely humble service, not only of his Father, but indeed his service for all of us. He who is our Lord became our servant, suffering and dying for us.

Paul presents this extraordinary picture of Jesus not just to provide a important piece of doctrine. As so often in his letters, doctrine and life go together. Paul wants the Philippians – and us – not only to learn about Jesus, but to learn from Jesus.

As I said before, the Philippians apparently had a problem with disunity in their church life. They had their own agendas. They argued and competed with each other. They were unwilling to be servants of one another.

But Christians are called not only to be believers in Christ: we are called to be servants of Christ, and servants of one another – part of what it means to love one another. And this was something of a problem for the Philippians.

So Paul points them to a better way. At the beginning of the chapter, he pleads with them to give him the joy of knowing that they are united in genuine godly love. He says: “Be of the same mind, have the same love, be in full accord.” And he goes on to urge them to avoid acting on the  basis of ambition or conceit, and instead to live and act humbly.

They are to treat other people as if they matter more than themselves, and to put the interests of others ahead of their own. It’s a real challenge! And so he sets before us all the supreme example of Jesus, our humble Lord and Saviour. If Jesus was willing to sacrifice his rightful glory to become our servant and our Saviour, surely we must treat others with humility.

When churches have problems, you can be pretty sure that it is not an organizational matter. It always comes back to people. And so Paul calls his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Following Jesus has many challenges, including this challenging call to humble service. We have been forgiven, saved, through Jesus: but following Jesus still involves effort, commitment, sometimes going against our natural desires.

But with that challenge comes words of great encouragement: God is at work in us, enabling us to will, and to work for his good pleasure. Humility doesn’t come naturally to us. Humble service is not easy. It wasn’t easy for Jesus: and it is not easy for us. But Jesus has shown us perfectly how it works, and through the Holy Spirit God is at work in us.

Christ became our humble servant. In our personal life, our family life, in our church life, may his mind be our mind, his attitude be our attitude. May we put away those attitudes of self-importance and pride. May we be more concerned for the rights of others than our own rights. May we share in the triumph of Christ: the triumph of humble service.

Unity is based on love. To love is to serve. Christ has shown us the way. May we humbly and faithfully follow him along that path of humble service. Amen.                                                                           Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 15, 24 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 24th September 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

GRACE, NOT JUSTICE

 (Exodus 16:2-15; Ps 105:1-6,37-45; Philippians 1; Matthew 20:1-16)

“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” Words of Jesus that remind us that God’s ways are not necessarily our ways, God’s priorities are not always what we would expect. They sum up this strange story that Jesus told in our Gospel reading from Matthew 20.

At the end of the previous chapter, Peter had heard Jesus point out that rich people will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven. Wealth so often gets in the way of our response to God. In response to this, Peter reminded Jesus that he and the other disciples had left everything to follow the master. What would they get in return? Surely they would get a big reward!

And here we have this parable which I suspect a union leader wouldn’t know what to do with. A landowner hires workers for the harvest: as the day goes on, he realizes he needs more workers, and he keeps going back to the local marketplace, which is the local employment office. Even at 5pm, with only an hour to go before sunset, he goes back and finds some more workers. If they have been there all day, they can’t look very impressive to those who are looking for workers. And if they have been there all day, they are now expecting to go short for the next 24 hours.

But they are hired. And like the other workers hired later in the day, they will have to take whatever the boss gives them: at least it will be better than nothing!

The landowner and the first workers have agreed on a denarius for the day’s work: it is the standard amount for a labourer. Not regarded as a great wage, but seen as a fair wage: enough to pay the bills and keep food on the table, but not much more. If you earned a denarius a day you were OK: if you didn’t get a denarius, you would go short.

The end of the day comes, and it is time to distribute the pay. To everyone’s surprise, those who started at 5pm get paid first, and they get a full denarius for their one hour’s work. So do those who started at 3 and at 12 noon, and those who started mid-morning. They all go home delighted, not to mention relieved: they’re not going short, even though they weren’t able to get a full day’s work.

Finally the landowner gets to those who spent the whole day in the vineyard. It’s been a hot day and the work has been hard. If the others got a full denarius, what will they get for doing so much more? What they get is a denarius, the same as everyone else.

Surely they deserve more than those slackers! And so they complain about this injustice. The landowner reminds them that in fact he has done them no wrong: he has paid them exactly what they agreed. And it was a fair wage. The reason they are complaining is not that they went short: it is that the landowner chose to show generosity to others. He had the right to do that, as long as he did the right thing by them. The issue wasn’t injustice: it was actually envy. And you can’t really argue with that observation. But somehow, it doesn’t quite feel right, does it?

I am reminded of how Sarah and I sometimes handled things with our children. We had a nice piece of cake which we were happy to give to a couple of our children who happened to be around. It was a bonus which they weren’t expecting. But we all know what happens when there are two pieces of cake, but they are not the same size. “It’s not fair. She got the bigger piece!” Why complain? Both children were getting something good and unexpected. But that is what people are like. It’s not just that we don’t want to go short: we don’t want to be behind! When the girls were old enough, we would ask one to cut the cake, and the other could choose the piece she wanted. It ensured that great care was taken in cutting the cake as evenly as possible.

The great news in Jesus’ parable is that everyone got what they needed: no one went short. And that is the real point Jesus is making.

Jesus was trying to help Peter and the disciples – and us – understand that we don’t relate to God on the basis of strict justice as we see it. We can never put God in our debt.

Let’s face it: which of us can say that we are like those who worked hard for the Lord from dawn to the end of the day? Which of us could say that before God we had a 100% rating? Of course we don’t. We all fall short.

Some may have served God for a longer period of our life than others. Some may have worked harder. Some may have broken fewer commandments. But none of us can say that we have been perfect servants of God throughout our lives. If we’re honest, none of us get close.

So what’s the point of trying to work out which of us is more deserving of God’s rewards? It would be like using NAPLAN to put schools in some sort of competition with each other, instead of getting teachers to use it to find out how individual children are going, and where they need extra help! It misses the point! And there is no point in making comparisons with each other to decide who is more worthy of God’s love.

We all need God’s forgiveness. We all need God’s grace, just like those workers needed the landowner to be generous if they were to have adequate food on the table that night. And through Jesus and his death on the cross, that grace, that forgiveness comes to us.

There is a temptation to think that if God treats us justly, everything will be OK. But what we need from God is not justice, but grace. And grace is what he gives us through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And faith is the way we respond to God’s grace. We don’t deserve God’s grace. We don’t have to earn a place in God’s kingdom. It is his gift, to be received with a thankful heart. In faith, we open up to God’s love. In faith, we become his children.

And it is in in faith that we seek to live as God’s children, God’s friends. In my relationship with Sarah, I seek in love to live as a good husband to her. In faith, I seek to live as a follower of Jesus. I don’t have to earn some sort of points to keep that relationship: I’m not on trial. As a Christian, I simply seek to live the life of a follower of Jesus: imperfectly for sure, sometimes very imperfectly, but thankful that when I fall short, he still loves me. It’s still about grace.

God’s ways are not our ways. Often our perspective is very inadequate. God will never treat us less than justly. The great news is that he offers us not just justice, but grace: forgiveness, acceptance, welcome, and the gift of eternal life. Let us then live lives of thankfulness, knowing that God’s grace reaches out to us all through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Pentecost 14, 17 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 17thSeptember 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

ACCEPTING OUR DIFFERENCES

 (Ex 14:19-31; Ps 114; Romans 14:1-14; Matthew 18:31-35)

One of the special characteristics of our Parish is that we seek to welcome people from all church backgrounds. We don’t demand an absolutely uniform understanding of all aspects of the Christian faith. Of course we hold on to the essentials, such as those we express as we say the creed together. But we are not all the same, as I am reminded as I lead a service and see some people cross themselves and bow at particular points of the liturgy, and others who don’t do this. And of course you see the same thing up in the sanctuary: while there is a sharing together meaningfully in the liturgy and a togetherness in co-operation, there are individual differences in some of the details of what different people do. When I began to take part in the sanctuary, John Cornish was very definite that I should do what I was used to, and not feel that I should change my practices. We all seek to lead the services with meaning and dignity, but there is no regimented uniformity in absolutely everything.

As we come to our final passage in our readings from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we see something which some of us might not have expected Paul to say; especially if we think of Paul as pretty inflexible in his views.

The starting point is Paul’s reaction to differences of opinions on matters that some people regard as important. This has always been a significant issue in the history of the church. Many would say that the major separation of the Orthodox Churches from the Catholic Church in the middle ages was based on technicalities of doctrine and on issues of secondary importance. The Reformation commenced because leaders of the church refused to listen with care to those who were asking legitimate questions. And of course in more recent times there have been many disagreements with churches, and between churches, which have led to all forms of tension and division, and at times ungodly violence.

Tensions and potential division are perhaps to be expected when you are focussing on things that really matter to you, things that are important to people, matters of truth and of principle. And so the church has had many a conflict over doctrine and tradition, over organizational matters and rules for life.

The Christian church in Rome in Paul’s time had members from different backgrounds. Some were Jewish. In fact, the church may well have been founded by Jewish Christians who brought with them their knowledge of the Old Testament, and many of their Jewish traditions.

Other members of the church would have been Gentiles. They came to the faith without that Jewish background, without the same knowledge of the Old Testament, and without what some of them might have regarded as a lot of excess Jewish baggage.

Jewish Christians believed rightly that their Christian faith grew directly out of their Jewish faith, and the message of the Old Testament. Many of them would have seen no need to give up their traditions: circumcision, the Sabbath, rules about clean and unclean food, and so on. Indeed, they saw these things as very significant. Early in the life of the church, Jewish Christians had actually believed that Gentiles who turned to Christ should adopt the Jewish faith as part of their Christian commitment. Paul and even Peter made clear that to insist on this was to deny the Gospel. Jewish traditions were not to be demanded as an essential part of the Christian faith. Proselytes – Gentiles who had accepted the Jewish faith – may well have been particularly strong on this issue, having already made that change themselves before they became Christians.

Paul seems to have heard, or at least suspected, that this difference was an issue in the church at Rome. There were Jewish Christians and perhaps others who held onto traditional rules and restrictions. And there were others who would insist that they didn’t need to take those things on board. “We’ve been set free from these rules and regulations about food and drink and special days. None of these things will make us more acceptable to God. None of these things will get us any closer to heaven. We’ve got to get rid of these outdated rules. And you people who still practise them should grow up and get of these legalistic ideas.”

Yes, there was plenty of scope for tension in the church at Rome. Who was right – the “legalists” or the “libertarians”? In Chapters 14 and 15 of this letter, Paul sets out some important principles on the matter. And though the issues might not be the same for us, the way Paul tells the Romans to handle them is important for us to take on board ourselves.

Well, whose side is Paul on? Who is really right? At one level Paul agrees with those who see the Old Testament rules as no longer necessary. We are not required to eat kosher food. We don’t have to worry about whether a piece of meat comes from an animal offered in worship to a pagan god – an important issue to many Christians in those days.

The rules about food and special days in the Old Testament were significant in their time. But they have done their job, and we are not bound by them.

However, we also have to ask what rules we are talking about! Do we ditch the Ten Commandments? Do we toss out the moral demands of the prophets and of Jesus? Not at all! We don’t obey them in order to earn God’s acceptance: but we do seek to obey them because we are God’s beloved children, seeking to please our loving Father, and because we are forgiven followers of Jesus.

But rules about offering sacrifices and various ceremonies are no longer relevant, because Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for our sins. The sacrifice we offer in response is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and of faithful service to the One who has saved us.

And rules about special days are no longer relevant, because our faith is a seven-day-a week thing. Of course observance of Easter and Christmas and Saints’ days can be a very helpful thing: but it is not something that can be demanded as an essential part of the Christian faith. Special days are helpful, but they are not fundamental.

And yes, I do include Sundays in that. The observance of Sunday is helpful: as a weekly festival of the resurrection, and a day for us to gather regularly for worship as Christians. It is not so long ago that Sunday had to be a serious day and often a joyless day for many Christians, especially for children. It is great to make Sunday a special day. But I do not believe it can be demanded as an essential part of the faith. However I do urge you to keep coming week by week! As Christians, our faith is certainly personal, but we are also part of God’s family, God’s community, and of course we express that particularly as we gather regularly for worship.

And what about food and drink? We don’t of course get uptight about kosher food, and I don’t think that vegetarianism is seen as a major spiritual issue. And as far as drink is concerned, we know that the scriptures do not forbid alcohol, although they do warn against the abuse of alcohol. Some Christians feel that abstaining is what God wants them to do. These sorts of things are matters that individuals will make their personal decisions about.

Paul wants us to see that the central issues of our faith still matter, and we need to be faithful in these areas. But there are many areas where Christians will legitimately have different views.

We have freedom in Christ, but we have been set free to love one another and to love our neighbour. So Paul says that we are not to condemn or judge or look down on others, even when we believe they are mistaken.

And we need to be careful of forcing our views onto others. Of course we can explain what we believe, and why we believe it, and even why we think it is important. But if we do not persuade someone about a matter, we are still to love them and accept them. It is God who is the judge, not us. And sometimes, says Paul, in love we will accommodate people who do things differently, people who perhaps seem narrower or stricter than we think is necessary. We might in love choose to do what they feel comfortable with, rather than insisting on our own freedom.

The unity of the church does not mean that there must be uniformity in all things. We are to love and respect one another, even when we are aware of our differences.

As Paul says, none of us lives to ourself. We live to the Lord: let us then live as the Lord’s people, remembering how the Lord has loved us and accepted us in Christ, and humbly loving one another as Christ has loved us. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Pentecost 13, 10 September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 10th September 2017

 Rev. Paul Weaver

GOVERNMENT, LAW, LOVE AND THE CHRISTIAN

 (Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:10-20)

Michael Cassidy was a church leader in South Africa in the last decades of last century. In October 1985 he was granted an interview with President Botha. He hoped to see some openness to a change from the oppression and injustice of apartheid. The President began the interview by standing to read those opening verses of Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” The president’s message was clear: his government had the right to rule South Africa as it saw fit, and Christians should comply and not question their apartheid policy.

Was President Botha right or wrong? Of course he was using the scriptures in a distorted way for his own purposes: such a common thing for people to do. He had taken something true and important that Paul had written, and then drawn a false implication from it.

In this passage this morning, Paul reminds us that we live in the world, and we live in a society and community. And where people live this way, God’s purpose is that there be an appropriate form of structure and authority, a government, with law and direction and leadership. In a society, we need government and authority, so that we do not descend into chaos. We need someone to insist that we drive on a particular side of the road; that murder and robbery are crimes; that we must consider safety issues when building high-rise apartments or planning a public event. In our society we need governments to provide hospitals and roads and public transport and a whole range of essential services.

Paul tells us that government with its role of making laws and providing stability is a good thing, and it is a provision of God. And it has a God-given role of punishing evil and promoting what is good. That means that it must make laws, with punishments attached for those who violate them.

What about us as Christians? We are to obey the laws of our government: their power to make laws and to punish wrongdoers is a legitimate role under God.

Now that’s all very well. No government is perfect, and many governments are very far from perfect. Was President Botha right in claiming that under God he had the right to demand obedience to the laws of apartheid? And what about people like Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Idi Amin or Mugabe?

This is where we need to pay attention to what Paul was saying and what he was not saying. After all the Roman Emperor when Paul wrote was Nero. Admittedly Nero was not at his worst when Paul wrote his letter. But the Romans emperors were always something of a mixture. By military power they imposed a moderately stable peace on the Empire, and provided a moderately fair system of justice for many, and the opportunity for people to live and move about and trade. However, they could be brutal to any who challenged their power.

But Paul here is giving a general framework, not locking us into an unquestioning subservience to whoever might be in power. Paul himself called upon the Roman laws at times when he was treated contrary to Roman law. However, he was also treated unfairly at times by the system. And we might remember how the apostles, when they were told by the authorities in Jerusalem to stop preaching about Jesus, replied that they must obey God rather than humans. It actually links up very well with Jesus, when he told people to render to Caesar what was due to Caesar, and render to God what is due to God.

The claims of the state are important and valid, but they are not absolute. There may well be times when it is right to criticize or protest against the unjust laws of a government, and even perhaps to disobey those laws. We remember how the Old Testament prophets regularly found themselves castigating the rulers of Israel for their disobedience to the Lord and his ways. Churches under some oppressive regimes have continued to gather contrary to the government’s orders.

Civil disobedience has been used in Australia when the government has made laws that Christians and others have found unconscionable: this has been done, for instance, in response to what is seen as the appalling treatment of asylum seekers. Of course such actions should not be lightly decided on, but sometimes actions like this may be the right thing for Jesus’ followers to do.

God is a God of order. The establishment of human government is one expression of that order. We respond to it by obeying the laws that have been established. We mightn’t always agree with them, we mightn’t always like them. But as citizens of Australia who are also citizens of heaven, we are called by God to be law-abiding citizens. Any breaking of the law must be done with thought, with care and with prayer.

Similarly, says Paul, we are to pay our taxes: income tax, GST, roadway tolls, and so on! The government requires finance to do the job it has been given under God: providing structures and making laws and providing educational, military and health resources, and all we expect from them.

So as Christians we don’t resent paying taxes; nor do we seek questionable ways of avoiding them. We might feel that some charges are unfair. We might prefer the government to use our taxes differently. We might even feel that we have been expected to pay more than our fair share. But no system is absolutely fair, and in any case, fairness is generally in the eye of the beholder. We are to pay taxes to whom taxes are due, and honour to whom honour is due.

Once again, honouring our leaders does not mean agreeing with them or refusing to criticize them. In these cynical days, not to mention mass media which put on display all sorts of things which were once kept behind closed doors, it is sometimes hard to have a high opinion of our leaders. A Chaplain of the US Senate was once asked whether he prayed for the Senators. His reply was: “No, I look at the Senators and pray for the country.” We might be tempted to do that as we think of our parliamentarians.

The scriptures do charge us to pray for our leaders personally, and especially when we gather for worship. That is why this is part of the regular prayers at our services. It is part of the way we honour them as God calls us to do. But in fact questioning the government is also a way of honouring it, as God calls us to do. Where its actions are contrary to what we see as right and good, it is right and good to speak out and seek change. That is part of the privilege and even the responsibility that goes with living in a democratic society. And we should certainly be thankful that we do live in a democracy: it is far from perfect, but I don’t think there is a better alternative!

As Christians, Paul calls us to pay our debts, not only to the government, but wherever we have them: we are to be responsible in paying our bills and accounts, and never to take them lightly. But he points out that there is one way we will always be in debt. We owe not only our family and our fellow-Christian, but our neighbour, a debt of love. We will always have that debt – and of course in the life of God’s kingdom, love will still be at the heart of our relationships. And love is not just about how we feel: it is how we treat people and how we relate to them. We seek to do people good, not harm; thus love is the fulfilment of God’s law.

Here we are then: privileged to live in such a blessed country. Thankful for God’s blessings. But as citizens of heaven, let us remember that under God we also have responsibilities as citizens of this country. We begin by obeying the law and paying our taxes. We go on by our active concern for the life of our country and community, and indeed our active and prayerful contribution for the good of all.

But let us also seek to demonstrate in our lives and words the reality that there is another country: a kingdom without shadow, without crime and injustice, a perfect kingdom with a perfect and loving ruler. We live our lives today as good and dutiful citizens of Australia: but we know that our ultimate allegiance is to the ruler of all, Jesus Christ, the bringer of righteousness, peace and perfect love. Amen.

Paul Weaver

 

Sermon: Pentecost 13, 10 September 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Authority- Romans 13:1-10

-Authority is probably a topic that will stir up the convict spirit that still lurks deep within the Australian psyche.

-Add in the gold rush, the Eureka stockade and a rebellious heart will begin to beat hard merely at its mention.

-None of that is particularly helped by the last several years of federal governments,

-Where political parties have even overthrown their own leaders,

-And the general population has wanted to overthrow the lot.

-But we Australians are positively sycophantic,

-Compared to the average American’s attitude to government and authority.

-But as God’s people what should our attitude be to authority?

-Do we uncritically follow society, culture or our own personal biases?

-Do we unthinkingly embrace the spirit of a rebellious, fallen heart?

-Or is there a better understanding of authority,

-That sees its place as a positive and necessary part of human interaction?

 

-The Apostle Paul in ch13 of Romans moves his readers from a focus on the personal,

-To the corporate life.

-Beginning with a warning at the start of ch12,

-Paul exhorts his Christian readers not to conform to the pattern of this world,

-But be transformed by the renewing of their minds.

-This world wants to squeeze us into its mould,

-But we must resist that,

-And live lives that reflect our obedience to God and his purposes for this creation and us in it.

-We’re to live humbly in this world,

-Thinking of ourselves with sober judgement.

-In a narcissistic, egocentric world that is a great challenge.

-But we have God’s Holy Spirit within us,

-Guiding and directing us through his word,

-To lives that will confront the world with the reality and possibility of transformation.

-We’ve been given a hope in Christ that transcends the bleak and desperate world that confounds many others,

-Because we know that our God is still in control of this world.

 

-That would have been a great message for the believers of Paul’s day to receive.

-Although the persecutions that led to John’s writing of the book of Revelation hadn’t yet escalated,

-These were still times of rising threat to the Christians of Rome,

-So Paul’s words in ch13:1 may have been somewhat confronting;

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Romans 13: 1

-Even the mere mention of the word ‘submit’ or ‘be subject’ raises the hackles of our ferociously independent culture.

-But Paul raises a challenge to that thinking,

-Because he sees authority and government within a higher theological system.

 

-From monarchy to Marxism,

-There’s a very broad understanding of government and the rule and ordering of human society.

-But Paul doesn’t use political theory to explain how the follower of Jesus ought to face authority,

-But rather a theological one;

“There is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Romans 13:1

-All authority originates in God.

-This is just the working out of the doctrine of sovereignty,

-That God is in total control of this world,

-That everything that occurs in our world is under the divine rule of a loving and gracious God.

-And just so his readers understand how complete that rule is he continues;

“Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed,” Romans 13:2

 

-Because we’ve lived through times,

-Where we’ve seen the most horrific crimes against humanity committed by governing authorities,

-We struggle with a sense of enraged injustice,

-To believe that God could be behind even these authorities.

-But that is to focus on the extremities of the result of a fallen and broken world.

-Paul probably could have pointed to his own situation to decry a faulty authority,

-But he doesn’t, rather he says;

“Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval;for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:3-4

-The extreme abuses of authority we’re all too well aware of,

-Are aberrations of the created purpose of rule and authority.

-Every part of our world is tainted by the fall and corrupted by sin,

-But that was not how God created it.

-Notice that rulers hold no terror for those whose conduct is good.

-Conversely, those whose conduct is bad will come under its judgement.

-Governments are ordained by God for the good of society.

-Governments are to take care of their people by restraining evil and promoting good.

-Governments are to be an extension of God’s rule in this world,

-That’s why Paul says rulers are God’s servants,

-And he didn’t say it just once but three times,

-Rulers are God’s servants for our good,

-They’re God’s servants to bring judgement on wrongdoing,

-They’re God’s servant busy with the work of God.

 

-But we should never underestimate just how extensive that work of God is,

-Or how it may challenge our understanding of God’s sovereignty.

-If we jump back into the Old Testament we get a rather dramatic picture of one aspect of that work of God.

-The book of Habakkuk opens with a complaint by the prophet,

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgement comes forth perverted.” Habakkuk 1:2-4

-So violent, immoral and corrupt were the people of Israel during Habakkuk’s day,

-That he accuses God of not caring,

-Of wilfully ignoring the injustices and strife around him.

-If governing authority was to promote the public good,

-To bring evil doers to judgement,

-Then God has lost control.

-But God’s response to Habakkuk’s charge will shock him even more than the corruption around him;

“Look at the nations and watch— and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honour.” Habakkuk 1:5-7

 

-Habakkuk accused God of doing nothing,

-But God was planning to bring judgement upon all the sinfulness that Habakkuk was complaining of.

-But here’s the sting,

-God was going to send the Babylonians to bring that judgement.

-That would be like us complaining about the injustice and immorality of our nation,

-And God saying ‘I’m sending the North Koreans to sort it out!’

-Habakkuk is now doubly shocked,

-As bad as he thinks his own people are,

-They’re not as bad as the Babylonians.

-Can you see his confusion?

-He calls for God to bring judgement upon the sins of his people.

-But he thinks that will be done by the direct intervention of God,

-Maybe God would strike down the sinners,

-Like he did Korah and his compatriots in the wilderness.

-But instead he sends a more powerful,

-Even more ruthless authority,

-To swallow up the whole of Israel,

-The Babylonian empire.

-Just listen to these words of God to the prophet Ezekiel about this Babylonian invasion;

“I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for me, declares the Sovereign Lord.” Ezekiel 29:20

-God uses everything in his creation to fulfil his purposes,

-Even an even more violent and immoral nation to chasten his own people.

-Remember Paul’s words;

“They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Romans 13:4

 

-If that is confronting to you,

-If that rattles your understanding of the character of God,

-Then you would be in the exact same position as Habakkuk in his confusion.

-But listen to how Habakkuk concludes his book;

“In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations.13 You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot.14 With his own spear you pierced his head when his warriors stormed out to scatter us,” Habakkuk 3:12-14

-The nation that was sent to chasten Israel was itself brought down by God.

-Historically we know that the Babylonian empire was destroyed by the Persians,

-And in their turn by the Greeks,

-And the Greeks by the Romans.

-All of that was still in the future for Habakkuk.

-But what he concludes with may be the most famous verses,

-On dependence on the promises of a faithful and loving God;

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls,18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.19 God, the Lord, is my strength;” Habakkuk 3:17-19

 

-In so many ways we try to justify God,

-Or put our own finite understanding in judgement over the actions and purposes of God.

-We try through sophistry or denial to avoid what we conclude to be a moral failure of God.

-Like Habakkuk we question the principles of sending an evil nation to punish another,

-Yet fail to display the humility of Habakkuk and his trust in the character of God,

-His goodness, holiness and righteousness

-Rather than trust the purposes of God,

-We so often rebel against authority in all its forms,

-Thinking that our judgements are far more accurate than God’s.

-Even in our day to day interactions with authority,

-Whether it’s a federal or state government,

-A local council,

-Our boss at work or school leadership,

-We question their motives,

-Impugn their decisions,

-Doubt their integrity,

-Forgetting that God is fully in control and he works all things for his purposes,

-Through the structures that he has built into his creation.

 

-In that same humble spirit of Habakkuk Paul concludes his exhortation;

“Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.” Romans 13:7

-Remembering that when Jesus was asked a trick question about taxation his response was;

“Give (therefore) to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21

-But that was a tiny offering of obedience compared to the submission to authority that he made,

-As he was unjustly arrested,

-Violently tried,

-And brutally crucified so that we could be forgiven.

-Who’d have thought that from the brutality of Roman authority,

-Would come the conquering of death,

-The victory over sin,

-The defeat of the devil.

-As Jesus the Son of God submitted to the authority of the state set over him by his heavenly Father.

Sermon: Pentecost 13, 3September 2017, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 3rd September 2017

 Reverend Paul Weaver

LOVE BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER

 (Ex 3:1-15; Ps 105:1-6,23-26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28)

Five weeks ago this morning Sarah and I were at the Sunday morning service in the ancient abbey of Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  The liturgy and music were stimulating and involving. The sermon was given by a young leader of the youth program, and he was preaching on Romans 12:9-21, which I knew was our passage for this morning’s services. I of course listened with particular interest, to see what he would bring out of the passage, with its emphasis on practical love.

The question he got us to think about was this: whom do we exclude from the sort of love Paul is talking about? Whom wouldn’t we treat that way?

It’s not such an unfamiliar question: a young man asked Jesus the question in a different way when he asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbour?” Behind that question was the real question: “Who isn’t my neighbour? Who am I not required to love as myself?”

Today, we live in a world and a society where we are encouraged to draw boundaries. There are people whom we would accept, people to whom we might show love: and then there are people whom we easily exclude from that sort of love and consideration.

Our politicians want us to exclude many refugees and asylum seekers from that sort of love. Indeed, one of the sad things about the world today is the trend of suspicion and division that rejects and even demonizes people who are “not like us”, with the aim of supposedly protecting ourselves against them. We saw it in the Brexit campaign and the American election, and we see it in so much of the violence which seems to be increasing in our world today.

Although I have been out of Australia for five weeks, I get the impression that it has also been happening as the plebiscite gets closer. I gather that people speaking against same-sex marriage have sometimes been saying cruel and untrue things against gay people. I gather also that others have been making unfair accusations against those who believe that same-sex marriage should not be legalized.

To many people, the case for legalizing same-sex marriage seems fairly obvious. I suspect that much of the active opposition to it comes from Christians who have considered the issues carefully and have come to believe that same-sex marriage is contrary to principles taught in scripture, and also believe that legalizing it will lead to a range of results which will be harmful to society, as well as the Christian church. Of course, not all Christians have come to that conclusion.

I am not going to argue the case one way or another. You can find plenty of material on both sides, including some websites which have been indicated in our bulletin. I would however point out that whatever our views, and however strongly we hold them,we need to express them in a way which reflects the principles that Paul spells out in this passage. Such a personal and powerful issue needs to be handled with particular grace if it is not going to cause unnecessary hurt to many people – people on both sides of the debate. It is obvious that people can express opposition to same-sex marriage in a way which is very hurtful to gay people. It is also true that those who honestly and thoughtfully feel they must oppose it can be vilified and ridiculed for their expressions of concern. We need to remember that those with whom we disagree, however strongly, are still our neighbours.

In today’s passage, Paul spells out some of the practical aspects of what it means to live a truly Christian life. He writes about those personal qualities which are so important to a healthy Christian life: that zeal or commitment which sees our faith as something which must affect our whole life, and is far more than a bit of a hobby; that hope which guides us forward towards God’s call and God’s promises; that patience or perseverance which keeps us going when we might be tempted to take it easy or even to give up.

And he writes of that holiness which seeks to obey God and reflect his goodness and righteousness, even when current values are different from God’s ways; and that commitment to prayer which keeps us personally in touch with our heavenly Father.

But Paul’s message here is not just about our individual Christian lives: it is also about the life of Christ’s church and our contribution to it. Christ’s church is Christ’s family, and Paul calls us to treat each other as brothers and sisters, loving each other, supporting each other, caring for each other.

We are to show respect and honour to each other. We are to be hospitable to each other.

One side of that hospitality is the way we welcome people to St.Alban’s. Yes, we are often good at welcoming visitors and new people: but particularly at morning tea and other informal occasions, do we keep an eye out for the newcomer, making sure that they are included, and not just left on their own? Do people think of St.Alban’s as a congregation where people truly love one another? Do people think of St.Alban’s as a congregation which is welcoming to the visitor and the newcomer? Do we see someone on their own, and make the effort to include them?

And Paul also calls us to be generous to one another, not just financially but in giving of our time and our efforts, especially to Christians in difficult situations, and to projects which reach out to people in Christ’s name.

But Paul also calls us to reach out in love beyond the life of the church, to people who may or may not be like us, to people of other churches and others faiths, and of no faith. Like Jesus himself, we are to bless those who hurt us: we are to bless rather than curse them or lash out, or to nurse anger and resentment. We are to be willing to forgive.

And we are to be humble: not putting ourselves down, but acknowledging the humanity and the significance of those people we might be tempted to put down or to judge. We are to seek good relations with people, especially those with whom we disagree. So many of us easily reject people and their ideas and their arguments, without really trying to understand them at all. Of course we will not agree with all people on all things: truly seeking to understand others doesn’t get rid of all the differences, but it does give us a chance to truly consider different ideas, and to treat people fairly and with grace. And we might still disagree, but we will do it with respect, and even with love.

Politicians and the media thrive on divisions: we will thrive on love and understanding, humility and respect. And again, we are to be forgiving people: it is so natural to hold onto anger, but we need to seek God’s help to let love play its role when we are hurting and when other people are hurting. Forgiveness makes things better: the refusal to forgive, and especially the attempts to get back at someone who has hurt us, only make it worse.

In Romans 1-11, Paul has explained the Gospel message. Some of his doctrine is complex and challenging, but at its heart it is all about God’s grace: God’s willingness to forgive us when we deserve his judgement – his generosity to us who do not deserve it. From this chapter on, the focus is on how we live our lives as Christ’s followers. If God has treated us with grace, we must reflect that grace in the way we treat each other, and the way we treat all people.

At this time of division and potential hurt in our society, we must express our ideas with grace and humility. We must recognize the humanity of those with whom we disagree. We need to express our views with respect and courtesy. The person we might not naturally love is one of those we are called to love.

And in our own church we must keep seeking to show love to each other. Yes, there is much for which we can be thankful at St.Alban’s, but we still have a way to go, and things we need to work on, lessons to learn.

As Christians and as a church, we are still on a journey, we are certainly not there yet. We will still fall short. We will still make mistakes. We will sometimes need to apologize, and to see what we can learn. And we will sometimes need to forgive.

God graciously brings us to himself through the Gospel. Let us then keep seeking to grow in love and humility and understanding, reaching out with grace to one another and to our neighbours: whoever they may be, no matter how different they may be. As God has done for us, we are not to push people apart, but to play our part in bringing people together, in love. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: Pentecost 12, 27 August 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Aidans’s

St Aidan- Romans 12:1-8

-The apostle Paul opens ch12 of his letter to the Roman Christians with the exhortation;

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

-Both of our parish’s patron saints fulfilled this exhortation.

-St Alban literally and violently as he became the first English martyr,

-And St Aidan through a life of devotion, teaching and witness to our Lord Jesus Christ.

-Once again I’ve turned to the Venerable Bede and his Ecclesiastical History of the English people,

-With a little assistance from Professor Google!!!

 

-Not much is known of the early life of St Aidan,

-But he comes to prominence,

-Through the desire of the newly appointed king of Northumbria, Oswald,

-Who vowed to bring Christianity back to his people.

-Oswald called upon his connections within Iona’s monastic community to send missionaries for this task.

-The first was a bishop called Corman,

-Who Bede describes as a;

“man of more harsh disposition,312 who, after preaching for some time to the English and meeting with no success, not being gladly heard by the people, returned home, and in an assembly of the elders reported, that he had not been able to do any good by his teaching to the nation to whom he had been sent, because they were intractable men, and of a stubborn and barbarous disposition.” ChV,p146

-A council was called in the monastery to determine what was to be done.

-During those debates Aidan spoke up saying;

“Methinks, brother, that you were more severe to your unlearned hearers than you ought to have been, and did not at first, conformably to the Apostolic rule, give them the milk of more easy doctrine, till, being by degrees nourished with the Word of God, they should be capable of receiving that which is more perfect and of performing the higher precepts of God.” ChVp146

-In a classic case of ‘he who has the vision has the job’,

-Or maybe more accurately,

-‘Yeah, well if you can do better, why don’t you?’

-The council pondered Aidan’s words,

-And decided;

“He was worthy to be made a bishop, and that he was the man who ought to be sent to instruct the unbelieving and unlearned; since he was found to be endued preeminently with the grace of discretion, which is the mother of the virtues.” ChV,p146

-In 635 Aidan arrived in Northumbria and was given the island of Lindisfarne by the king.

 

-Unlike Corman,

-Aidan had a very different method of evangelism,

-Which basically involved getting out and mixing with the locals.

-Bede described it like this;

“He was wont to traverse both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity; to the end that, as he went, he might turn aside to any whomsoever he saw, whether rich or poor, and call upon them, if infidels, to receive the mystery of the faith, or, if they were believers, strengthen them in the faith, and stir them up by words and actions to giving of alms and the performance of good works.” ChV

-Aidan clearly took seriously the apostle Paul’s injunction;

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” Romans 10:14-15

-St Aidan had the beautiful feet bringing the good news of Jesus,

-That Isaiah looked forward to.

 

-There’s a misconception within our society that a saint is some form of spiritual superhero.

-It’s probably fuelled whenever the Roman Catholic Church sets in train the process of canonisation,

-With its requirement of the miraculous.

-But the word saint just means a holy one.

-And while even that might appear to back the superhero status,

-Holy means nothing more than set apart for a special purpose.

-So when Paul writes;

“To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.” Ephesians 1:1

-He’s referring to the Christians’ status,

-There’s nothing spectacular about them other than their faithfulness to Jesus,

-A faithfulness that every Christian is called to.

-Listen again to how Paul says we should respond to the mercy we’ve been extended by God;

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1

-That encapsulates the idea of setting something apart for a purpose,

-The purpose of worship, literally serving God.

 

-Each Sunday since Pentecost we’ve been hearing from Paul’s letter to the Romans.

-Over those 10 weeks we’ve heard how Paul has explained how we get right with God.

-Of course he started with why it is that we’re not right with God.

-Because of our sins,

-We’re estranged and alienated from God,

-We stand condemned and under the judgement of God.

-But then came the good news;

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans5:6

-And just so we get the point he repeats at the end of ch6;

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23

 

-Now that we have this life,

-How should we live?

-The starting point is by offering our whole being over to God.

-Paul has said that while we live in this world we’re going to struggle with our old nature.

-The old self will keep popping back up again.

-Do you find that to be true?

-You do what you know you shouldn’t do,

-And you don’t do what you know you should?

-But unlike the time before we called on the name of Jesus and were saved,

-When we just followed wherever the desires of our bodies and heart led us,

-Through Christ we have the Holy Spirit guiding and directing us,

-Pointing us away from sin,

-Strengthening us in the face of temptation,

-So that we can offer ourselves up to God.

 

-But Paul knows this is not some magical or mystical conversion.

-You actually have to work at it.

-Now let me stress this point,

-We’re put right with God, justified,

-Entirely by God’s freely given grace.

-There’s nothing we can do to save ourselves.

-But we’re sanctified,

-Being made holy or set apart for God,

-By our choices and actions.

-If you want to be the person God created you to be,

-You need to work at it.

-And listen to where Paul says that starts, v2;

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2

-It starts with your mind.

 

-If there ever was a message for 21st century Christians this is it.

-The world we live in wants to squeeze us into its mould,

-It wants the follower of Jesus to conform to its standards.

-Whatever the contemporary issue or debate,

-Our culture demands that everyone agree wholeheartedly with the precept that individualism trumps community,

-The rights of the individual are more important than the group,

-That damage is done if someone is denied unfettered personal autonomy.

-But rather than conform to the self-centred, materialistic, consumerist mind of the world,

-Our lives are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

-Why is that renewing important?

-So that we can discern what is good, acceptable and perfect,

-What Paul calls the will of God.

 

-One of the Seasonal Variations in the preface to the Eucharist in the Prayer Book,

-For celebrating saint’s days contains this line;

“And now we give you thanks because you have called us into the fellowship of ‘N’ and all your saints, and set before us the example of their witness and the fruit of their lives.” APBA p159

-Now listen to this summation of the character of St Aidan by Bede;

“Among other lessons in holy living, Aidan left the clergy a most salutary example of abstinence and continence; it was the highest commendation of his doctrine with all men, that he taught nothing that he did not practise in his life among his brethren; for he neither sought nor loved anything of this world,” ChV p145

-He sought nor loved anything of this world.

-He didn’t conform to the world.

-He lived a life transformed by the renewing of his mind,

-A mind transformed by reading and obeying God’s word,

-And teaching others to do the very same thing.

-In an age where even some followers of Jesus deny the authority of the Scriptures if it challenges their own autonomy,

-St Aidan sets before us a challenging example of witness and fruitfulness,

-To living the faith and passing it on to others.

-Here’s another assessment of Aidan from the Venerable Bede;

“His course of life was so different from the slothfulness of our times, that all those who bore him company, whether they were tonsured or laymen, had to study either reading the Scriptures, or learning psalms. This was the daily employment of himself and all that were with him,” chV p145

 

-The monks of Iona chose Aidan for his missionary task,

-Because of his character and the spiritual gifts that they discerned he had.

-Paul reminds his readers that we’re all endowed by God with different spiritual gifts.

-Just like the human body,

-The body of Christ is made up of different parts,

-But all of those parts work together for the purposes of God.

-Just listen to some of these gifts,

-And more importantly,

-How they’re to be used;

“We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” Romans 12:6-8

-Paul is saying that the real test of a spiritual gift is them being expressed as they ought in serving.

-These gifts can be seen,

-In the their unselfish use by the person endowed with them.

-Just look at those last three gifts to get a clear picture of what that will mean,

-Do you have the gift of giving?

-Then that’ll be seen in generosity.

-Do you have a gift of leading?

-Then that’ll be seen in diligent leadership.

-Do you have the gift of compassion?

-Then that will be expressed in cheerfulness.

-Don’t claim to have compassion for humanity if you whinge and moan about them!

 

-St Alban literally presented his body as a living sacrifice.

-And his faithful witness to Christ resulted in his death.

-St Aidan also presented his body as a living sacrifice,

-As he died to self,

-A challenging concept to our materialistic, individualistic culture that worships the self.

-As followers of Jesus we’re called to that same commitment,

-To break free from conformity to our world.

-God calls us not just to a change of heart,

-But a change of mind.

-Just as we’ve been given a new heart by Jesus’ death and resurrection,

-So through the power of the Holy Spirit,

-We are given a new and renewing mind.

-And as we follow God’s Word and Spirit we will be transformed to his glory.

Sermon: Pentecost 11, 20 August 2017, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Romans11:13-32

-I proposed last week that a person can hold a belief very sincerely,

-But be sincerely wrong.

-That was Paul’s summation of the condition of the Jews.

-They sincerely believed that if they kept the Law they would be right with God.

-Paul acknowledged how sincere,

-Even zealous they were for God,

-But because they thought that righteousness before God could be achieved by keeping the Law,

-They were sincerely wrong.

-It’s only through Jesus and faith in him and his righteousness that we’re declared right before God.

-Sincerity cannot save.

 

-I’m sure we can all agree that a person can be sincere and wrong.

-But what about being sincere and right?

-It’s easy to point to the pitfalls of being sincerely wrong,

-But what happens when you hold a position sincerely,

-And you are right in that sincerity?

-Just as our post-modern culture cannot bear someone challenging another persons beliefs,

-So that culture cannot bear claims of knowing a truth,

-And holding firmly and exclusively to it.

-That’s the point at which a tolerant culture becomes exceptionally intolerant.

 

-Throughout Romans,

-Paul has mounted an argument that the Jews had had great opportunities to know and follow God,

-But they repeatedly and consistently failed in their call as God’s people.

-Ch10 is an explication of that failure,

-Rather than trusting solely in the salvation offered to us through Jesus,

-They trusted in their own righteousness.

-This is the truth Paul will not budge on.

-He was sincerely right.

-So how does he approach this sincerity?

-Well if ch10 is a challenge to the sincerely wrong,

-Ch11 is a challenge to the sincerely right,

-And the demands of God’s grace.

 

-After what appears as a denunciation of the Jews failure to recognise Jesus,

-Ch11 opens with a question that might well have been on the readers mind;

“I ask, then, has God rejected his people?” Romans 11:1

-It’s a pity that those who have instigated pograms and prejudice against the Jews throughout history,

-Stopped reading at the end of Romans 10.

-Paul’s answer is an emphatic;

“By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.” Romans11:1-2

-Citing his own heritage Paul,

-Makes the point that Jews will continue to be saved because God has always kept a remnant for himself.

-If God had rejected Israel how is it that he,

-A Jew who had actively rejected Jesus and persecuted his church,

-Could have been saved by God and given the task of proclaiming the good news of Jesus?

-The book of Acts begins with stories of Jews becoming followers of Jesus.

-Before Jesus told his disciples to be witnesses to the ends of the earth,

-He preceded it by saying;

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria,” Acts 1:8

-That was an expanding circle of Jewish populations.

-Judea and Samaria encompassed what was the old Promised Land of Israel.

-Whatever the failings of the Jews,

-God has not finished with them yet.

-And indeed,

-The apostle Peter had to be convinced to move outside his own ethnic circle,

-By a very confronting vision and a visit to a gentile centurion.

 

-And here is the crux of Paul’s argument and what will go on to be a warning.

-He reminds his readers of a depressed Elijah who believes he’s the lone believer in God,

-To which God replied;

-‘I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’

-And Paul concludes from that;

“So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Romans 11:5-6

-Paul still clings to the firm and divine calling and election of God.

-Even though the Jews may be relying on their own righteousness,

-Paul acknowledges that in God’s grace there will come a turning to Jesus by the Jews.

 

-At the beginning of our reading this morning Paul gives us an insight into his hope for his own people and his missional strategy;

“Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry 14 in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them.”

-This sounds a rather odd strategy to us,

-‘I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous.’

-But to understand how Paul conjoins his ministry to the Gentiles and to the Jews,

-You need to go back to his conversion in Acts 9.

-Saul the Pharisee,

-As he was then,

-Had received orders to go and hunt down the followers of Jesus wherever he could find them.

-On the road to Damascus,

-Jesus appears to him and says;

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Acts 9:4

-Struck blind by this encounter,

-Jesus sends him to Damascus where he’ll be met by a Christian named Ananias.

-Jesus gives a reluctant and protesting Ananias the message;

“Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” Acts 9:15

-Paul is famously known as the apostle to the Gentiles,

-All of his letters are written to gentile churches,

-But did you hear to whom Jesus said he would proclaim his name?

-‘To the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.’

-Paul had a twofold ministry that we sometimes forget,

-As we read of all the run ins Paul has with the Jews in most of the towns he visits.

 

-Now lets return to that thought of being sincerely right.

-I said last week that unlike our post-modern individualistic times,

-In Paul’s day you could hold and espouse a belief or proposition different to another person,

-Without the supposition that you hated or devalued them as persons.

-Remember Paul’s desire for his people to be saved,

-Recall his anguish over their disbelief.

-Paul sincerely believes the Jews are wrong,

-He sincerely believes he’s right and has the commission of the Lord Jesus to back that belief.

-So how does he view his Jewish compatriots,

-Compatriots who you might remember caused him to be imprisoned,

-Conspired to assassinate him,

-Had him whipped on five occasions,

-And attempted a stoning,

-People who clearly hated him?

“So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means! But through their stumbling salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. 12 Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” Romans 11:11-12

 

-Paul can see the divine plan working out.

-Israel’s rejection of Jesus meant that the apostles were pushed out to preach to the Gentiles.

-Paul refers to Israel’s rejection as a stumbling,

-Not a plummeting off a cliff into an abyss of eternal destruction.

-Their stumbling was part of God’s plan to reach out to the whole world,

-Just as he promised to Abraham all those centuries before;

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing 3. . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Genesis 12:2-3

-Their stumbling meant the riches of the good news of Jesus went out to the whole world,

-Not just Israel.

-And here’s where Paul returns again to the grace and mercy of God in salvation;

“For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead!” Romans 11:15

 

-Life from the dead.

-What does that sound like to you?

-Resurrection!

-The dead coming to life.

-All through Romans Paul has been stressing that point that we’re all dead in our sins.

-The Gentiles are dead because they turned to idols not the Creator.

-The Jews are dead because they clung to their own righteousness not Christ’s.

-The Gentiles came to life when they confessed ‘Jesus is Lord’,

-And believed God raised him from the dead.

-Even though they were outsiders,

-They were grafted onto an olive branch whose rich roots were the patriarchs,

-Adoption to sonship,

-The divine glory,

-The covenants,

-The receiving of the law,

-The temple worship and the promises.

-All the blessings Israel partook of,

-And yet were cut off from because of their rejection of Jesus.

-But God will bring them back.

 

-Just as the wild branch of the Gentiles was grafted in,

-So the dislodged branch of Israel can be regrafted back.

-And that’s Paul’s firm belief.

-When the Jews see how the Gentiles have responded they too will turn back to God.

-We know that’s taken a long time so far,

-But Paul is confident in God’s grace,

-His promises to his people,

-And the display of believing Gentiles,

-That this will create a stirring in the hearts of the Jews to believe in Jesus.

 

-But Paul also has a warning for his Gentile readers,

-A warning we who are confident in our faith should also heed.

-Continuing the horticultural metaphor Paul cautions;

“They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” Romans 11:20-21

-The problem with grace is that it’s totally undeserved.

-It’s totally dependant upon the giver not the recipient.

-Paul quotes God’s word to Job, in v35, to drive that point home;

“Who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” Romans 11:35

-Who can make any claim against God,

-What can we give to God that would compel him to give something back to us?

-It’s like the clay questioning the potter.

-Paul is warning against the conceit that can so easily come when a person knows they are in the right.

-Grace so easily can turn to desert.

-The Jews did it with the Law,

-Resting on their own righteousness.

-And that stumble caused them to be cut off from God’s grace.

-If the Gentile Christians start believing they’re better than the Jews because God has been gracious to them,

-Then they face the same danger.

 

-Paul concludes his argument with the reminder of God’s gracious character;

“Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32 For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” Romans 11:30-32

-It is easy when you are sincerely right to look down on those who are sincerely wrong.

-But that’s our old sinful nature breaking through.

-We’re saved by Jesus’ righteousness not our own.

-Yet Jew or Gentile,

-Both, Paul warns, can take our eyes off Jesus and forget the grace we’ve been given.

-Our calling is not to judge others for their wrong beliefs,

-But to extend the grace we have received in Jesus with love to those in need of his mercy.