Friday, March 31, 2017

Third Sunday before Lent

In a recent sermon I mentioned that this is the 500th anniversary this year of the European Reformation.  On October 31, 1517 a monk in Germany by the name of Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the local church calling for an academic debate on them.  At least, that is how the story came to be told.

What is clear is that Luther’s challenge to the system of indulgences went ‘viral’.  Luther challenged the idea that the Pope had the authority or ability to release people from ‘purgatory’ so buying bits of paper in order to get friends and relatives released early was a complete waste of time and money.  Ultimately, the Reformation wasn’t about abstract theological ideas:  it was about authority. 

But behind the challenge to authority there were theological ideas and in the coming years, Luther was to spell them out.  These ideas, at least as far as Luther was concerned, were anything but abstract.  They came from intense personal experience.

Luther had been destined to become a lawyer.  This was what his father had planned for him.  (Some things don’t change!)  Then one day, on a journey, he was caught in a storm and feared for his life.  He promised St Anne that if she were to save him, he would become a monk.  He did live and he honoured his promise. 

Being a monk, however, did not make him happy.  He took the whole business seriously – some including his confessor – felt too seriously.  He wanted to please God, but never felt good enough or that he could do enough to please God.  When he came across the phrase the ‘righteousness of God’, it only served to remind him of how unrighteous he was. 

Then while preparing lectures on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, he came to see that the righteousness of God wasn’t about condemning sinners, but offering them the opportunity to be forgiven for their sins, freely, without having to do anything except have faith and trust in Christ. 

No need then for pilgrimages, confessions, religious acts and devotions, good works, penances and all the other things that were part of medieval religion.  The discovery changed his life and was to change Europe and the world. 

The doctrine of ‘justification by faith and not works’ was to become central to Protestantism.  This the Protestants believed was the message of the New Testament and the Bible.  ‘God forgave our sins in Jesus’ name’ - as we shall sing later in the service.  It is an amazing message and it has brought freedom and liberation to many.  It is celebrated in many of the hymns we sing, for example, ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me…’

Nowadays there is no argument over it.  What was once a source of division between Catholics and Protestants is so no longer.  If you were to put a Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican in a room and get them to discuss justification by faith, there would be little disagreement between them.  Indeed, I would argue that a radical version of justification by faith is the present message of all the churches.

What we preach is that Jesus is an inclusive, welcoming, forgiving, and accepting Saviour.  It doesn’t matter who you are, where you have come from, or what you have done, Jesus loves and welcomes and accepts you.  In some versions of the message, we drop the whole ‘Saviour forgiving sins’ bit.  Jesus is not the sort of person to condemn us for what we have done: after all, who is to say what is right or wrong?

Now I don’t want to spoil the party, and I like the idea that I don’t have to worry about what I have done as much as anyone.  Clearly, as Luther discovered, the New Testament does tell us that God forgives us our sins and that it is all about his grace made available to us through faith (we will talk more about this when we study Ephesians).

Luther discovered justification by faith while studying Romans.  The problem, however, is that while Romans undoubtedly teaches justification by faith, it also teaches judgment by works.  In Romans, God is a God who gets angry with sin and while he forgives those who turn to him by faith in Christ, he punishes those who fail to live as he requires.

Take, for example, this passage from chapter 2:

‘For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.’ (Romans 2:6-11)

It is perhaps not surprising that these verses, and others like them in Romans, cause huge problems for those seeking to write commentaries on the letter.  We know that human works do not count.  The trouble is that there are many passages in both Romans and the rest of the New Testament where it seems that they do. 

All of which brings us to this morning’s passage from 1 Corinthians 3.

You will remember that the Corinthians were dividing into the ancient equivalent of fan clubs around various Christian leaders.  In dealing with the problem, St Paul diplomatically avoids talking about St Peter and instead discusses himself and Apollos who is part of his circle.  He discusses their respective roles in ministering to the Corinthians.

St Paul says that he planted, that is he established the Church, while Apollos watered, that is help it to grow.  Each St Paul says will one day find their work judged and will be rewarded accordingly.  St Paul says that he has applied this teaching about our work being judged to himself and Apollos, but it is true for all of us.  As St Paul is to write subsequently to the Corinthians:

‘For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’ (2 Corinthians 5:10)

This is a message we prefer to ignore or to see as a minor part of the New Testament.  However, the idea that we will all be judged according to our works, that is, to how we have lived our lives is central, not peripheral, to our Lord’s teaching while he was on earth. 

It is a theme of many of his parables.  Yes, of course, we love the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the story who of the Father who reaches out to his lost son and accepts him back and forgives him despite everything he has done.  We take heart from the story of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go off in search of the one that is lost.

But what of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats where the Son of Man separates people into sheep and goats?  Each are judged on how they have lived with the sheep who represent the righteous inheriting eternal life, but the goats who represent those who have failed to live as our Lord expects being sent to eternal punishment.

How, in other words, are we to hold together justification by faith and judgement by works?

Obviously, we can’t decide this issue this morning.  What we can say is that we must hold them together.  While it is tempting to favour one at the expense of the other to do so is not to be true to the Word of God.  And while it’s easy to see why we prefer one to the other, that doesn’t make it right.

One of my favourite TV programmes is the BBC programme, Dr Who.  I particularly like the present incarnation of the Doctor who is played by the actor Peter Cipaldi.  He is the oldest actor to play Dr Who and as grey hair.  You may be able to guess why such a representation might appeal to me!

One of the most famous quotes of the Doctor is:

‘We are all stories in the end.  Just make it a good one’.

All good stories have their ups and downs, high and low points, happy times and sad.  ‘Justification by faith’ reassures us that when we make a mess of things, when we fail and screw up, that God will forgive us and that his approval and love of us is not based on our works.  We won’t in other words be judged on the individual chapters, we will, however, be judged and that ought to encourage us to take seriously how we live and what our priorities in life are.

What will be our story?

One of my favourite prayers comes from an Anglican funeral service:

Lord, give us grace to use aright
the time that is left to us here on earth. 
Lead us to repent of our sins,
the evil we have done and the good we have not done;
and strengthen us to follow the steps of your Son,
in the way that leads to the fullness of eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Fourth Sunday before Lent

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

One of the most difficult tasks in studying the New Testament is dating it.  We know broadly speaking when the events it describes took place, but precision eludes us.  One of the few precise dates, however, relates to the Church that St Paul wrote to in this morning’s second reading: the Church at Corinth. 

St Paul had come to Corinth to escape attempts on his life.  He, Silvanus, and Timothy, following what they believed to be the leading of the Holy Spirit, had travelled from Syria to Europe.  There they had preached the Gospel in a number of places, including Philippi and Thessalonica to which St Paul would subsequently write letters.  In both places, they encountered not only resistance, but even violent opposition.  This violence was focused primarily on the person of St Paul himself.  One of the interesting features of St Luke’s account of St Paul’s mission is how St Paul is the one that everyone seems to hate.  For example, St Paul was able to leave Timothy and Silvanus in Macedonia while he himself had to flee for his life first to Athens and then to Corinth. 

At Corinth, however, things took a turn for the better.  For the first time in Luke’s account of St Paul’s missionary journeys, St Paul is able to stay in one place.  We are told that he was in Corinth for about 18 months. 

This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t opposition:  just that it wasn’t as violent or intense as that he had encountered in Thessalonica or would encounter in Ephesus.  Such opposition as there was came to a head when one Gallio became the pro-Consul.  And this brings us back to dates.  We know that Gallio became the pro-Consul in AD 51. 

His appointment gave the Jews in Corinth an opportunity to attack St Paul.  They complained about St Paul formally to the pro-Consul.  Gallio, however, dismissed their complaint as having no basis in Roman Law.  Gallio seems to have thought it just an internal dispute amongst Jews concerning the intricacies of the Jewish religion.  This meant that the Church could continue largely unhindered.  It also meant that the Church could enjoy for the time being the same privileges as was granted under Roman Law to other Jewish groups.

Good news!  Well, yes and no.  Clearly the Church at Corinth grew and prospered.  As I have said previously, it seems to have been so successful that is attracted the stars of the first century Church.  St Paul describes the Church as lacking no spiritual gift, and he is clearly proud (if that’s the right word) of all he had been able to achieve in Corinth. 

The downside of this, however, seems to have been that success went to the Corinthians’ heads.  They were flattered by the attention they received from the celebrities of the early Church so much so that they divided into fan clubs based on the preacher they liked the most.  They were only too aware of their gifts and achievements. 

They were able to take this approach to the Christian life precisely because they didn’t have to face the sort of opposition that Churches such as Thessalonica had to face.  St Paul writes contrasting how he and his co-workers were treated compared to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use these words exactly, but it is clear that he thought they had it easy.

From what St Paul writes, the picture we get of the Church at Corinth is of a Church that is growing numerically, that is successful and strong spiritually, and has no problems when it comes to money.  It is in every way the model of a Church that seems to be getting it right.  And this success was due in no small measure to St Paul’s extended ministry there.  Nowadays, a book would be written or a course devised to teach other churches how to emulate the Corinthians’ success.  St Paul had every right to be proud of what he had achieved. 

Except that is not how St Paul himself saw it.  St Paul is scathing in what he has to say about the Corinthians’ attitude and outlook.  Firstly, be couldn’t care less about their numerical success.  Numbers in and of themselves simply do not matter.  If they are wrong, it just means that more are wrong.  Secondly, he deplores the Corinthians sense of their own worth and achievement.  The Corinthians were outwardly successful and they knew it and were proud of it.  And this pride in their achievement lead them into many difficulties.  It was the root cause of their divisions and behind most of the problems they faced.  It lead them into immoral behavior and theological error. 

So in 1 Corinthians, St Paul is having to do two things.  He is having to tackle the specific problems in the Christian community at Corinth:  problems to do with division, sexual immorality, social involvement, spiritual gifts, and theological beliefs.  But he is also trying to tackle the underlying causes of these problems.  And this he believes is to do with a wrong view of the Christian faith. 

The Corinthians were into success and achievement.  St Paul believed the Gospel was about loss and failure.  He writes that when he was with the Corinthians he had determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  This was certainly not a formula for success.  St Paul himself tells us that the Jews thought such an idea impossible: a stumbling-block.  How could the Christ, the Messiah, suffer such an ignominious death?  By definition, the Messiah should be an all-conquering hero, not a humiliated, defeated victim.  And the Greeks just thought the idea stupid: foolishness.  Crucifixion was the ultimate scandal; a death that was too shameful to even speak of. 

Our Lord’s death was on the Cross, but all his life was modelled on it.  And it was what he demanded of his followers.  They were to take up their cross daily.  The life of a disciple was to be one of service and sacrifice.  Jesus’ last act before his betrayal and crucifixion was to wash his disciples’ feet.  An act, he said, that was to be an example to them of how they should live as his followers. 

This is an extremely difficult message.  More than ever, we live in a success based society.  We are judged by our attainments, by our exam passes, our degrees, our job status, the brands we can afford, where we live, how well we are doing in life.  This inevitably affects how we evaluate our success or failure as a Church. 

I regularly attend a meeting of representatives of a number of churches during which we share how things are going in our respective churches.  The stories tell of success: new buildings, increased attendance at services, sound finances.

In other words, the exact same criteria is being used to judge how the church is doing as would be used to judge the success or failure of a company.  It is not that there is anything wrong necessarily with all these things, it is just that I rather suspect that if things weren’t so good, we wouldn’t get to hear about them.  The pressure to tell a success story is simply too great.

When I first started preaching, I used to go to various Methodist churches in the area where I lived.  These were small numerically, elderly, and struggling to survive.  The good thing about this, however, is that I was never under any illusion about what ministry was about.  Yes, you do get your superstars, but most ministers will never be one.  Sadly, that can lead to a feeling of failure and defeat. 

I realize that there is also another danger here.  In rejecting the world’s standards for evaluating success, we can use the Gospel of Christ crucified to justify our lack of effectiveness.  St Paul certainly criticized the Corinthians for their arrogance and self-satisfaction.  He stressed that the Lord we serve was a failure by human standards.  But he also praised those churches that were successful by divine standards: that is these churches who preached Christ crucified and which lived sacrificial lives of service. 

In other words, what matters, as far as God is concerned, is not whether we are a success or failure by human standards, but whether we are faithful.  And being faithful is solely about whether we model ourselves on the one who was humiliated and crucified.  This is not easy and at times it can be painful, but it is what we are all called to as Christians.

May God grant that we may know only Christ and him crucified and seek to follow him daily in our lives.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

On October 31, 1517 in a relatively obscure town in Germany a monk who lectured in the university ‘nailed’ 95 theses in Latin to the Church door inviting people to debate them with him.  At least this is how the story became to be told.  Scholars are not sure whether he nailed them, posted them, or just had them printed.  However, the monk issued them, they were to have seismic consequences.

The monk was Martin Luther.  The theses were in many ways innocuous.  The cause of them was a Papal Fundraising Scheme.  The Pope wanted to build a magnificent Cathedral in Rome.  To pay for it, he issued indulgences which were sold throughout Europe.  These indulgences granted the purchaser the power to get a loved one out of purgatory. They were very popular. 

Luther, however, was opposed to them and his theses challenged their sale.  Implicit in his opposition was a challenge to the authority of the Pope.  His protest went viral as one would say today.  And it was not long before the argument became about much more than ‘indulgences’.  Western Christianity which had been united around the authority of the Pope disintegrated and the Church became extremely fragmented.  Many more joined the protest and it spread to other countries.  The word protestant came into being.  However, while the Protestants could agree on what they were against, they found it much harder to agree on what they were for.  And rather than there being one protestant church, many different churches came into existence sometimes hating each other as much as they hated the church of Rome. 

In England things were even more complicated.  Initially the King, Henry VIII, opposed the protestant movement earning himself the title of Defender of the Faith, that is, the Roman Catholic version of the faith.  However, Henry then decided he wanted a divorce and the Pope for political rather than religious reasons refused.  Thus setting in motion the English reformation and the creation of the Church of England. 

I realize that this is a very general and simple summary of what by any account was anything but simple. But I think it is accurate enough.  What is beyond dispute is that as a result of the Protestant reformation division between Christians became the norm and the different groups formed their own denominations:  Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Baptist.  Having got a taste for division there was to be no stopping Christians and since the reformation many other denominations have come into existence. 

If you walk down Waterloo Road you see church after church all belonging to different denominations and mostly not talking to each other in any meaningful way. 

What began as a movement calling for the reform of the Church ended up dividing it.  Some regretted this, but saw it as necessary, many did not and even seemed to relish it.  You still hear people arguing that truth must always come before unity. 

I dwell on this today for 3 reasons: firstly, this year is the 500th anniversary of the reformation.  Many events are being organized to commemorate it.  We are even being invited to celebrate it.  We are going to hear a lot more about the reformation in the weeks ahead. 

Secondly, we are in the middle of the week of prayer for Christian unity.  Each year at this time Christians all over the world are invited to join together to pray for the unity of the Church.  Of course, having prayed for it, we then spend the rest of the year doing absolutely nothing about it.  I don’t think I am being unfair to say that many Christians would be horrified if it started to happen. 

Thirdly, our second reading this morning is a passage from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he tackles division in a church be founded. 

St. Paul had spent 18 months in Corinth doing what is known as his second missionary journey.  Many were converted and the church was lively and successful.  They attracted some of the celebrities of the early church people like Apollos and Peter as well as others not so familiar to us today. 

The Corinthians seem to have been very pleased with themselves and started discussing which of the various Christian leaders they preferred.  Some argued for Paul, others for Peter, others for Apollos and they were beginning to form into groups depending which they preferred.  Paul was horrified not because some preferred other leaders to himself, but that they were prepared to divide the church. ‘Is Christ divided?’  he asked.  ‘Did Paul die for you?’  he goes on to tell them that they are the church, the body of Christ.  They’re God’s temple.  And says, ‘St Paul, anyone who destroys God’s temple God will destroy.’

So what would Paul have said about the reformation?  Some argue that Paul was prepared to cause division for the sake of the truth.  They point to Galatians and how Paul reacted to people he believed to be preaching a false Gospel. He even openly and publicly challenged Peter when he believed Peter to be in the wrong.

Of course, they argue, Paul would have supported Luther and others like him who stood as he did for the truth of the Gospel.

Personally, I am not so sure, or rather I think he would have agreed with many of the things the reformers said whether he would have been prepared to welcome the division of the Church I am not so sure.

The reality is we just do not know.  What we do know is that Paul thought the church should be united and do what it could to avoid diversity.  So when writing to Rome and knowing that there were different groups within the church each taking a different position on a variety of issues.  He tells them to accept one another and to live with the differences.  Unity, in other words, does not mean uniformity.  We can have diversity without diversity and division. 

The reality is that many of our divisions are not over key doctrines of the Christian faith, but over matters where it is of little real consequence.  This is especially true within individual churches.  Frankly, I hold out very little hope of the church reuniting.  When it comes to the different denominations my own approach is to be denomination lite.  I do not think that the Anglican Church is the one true church.  I don’t think we have got it right on every issue – not by a long way.  I do think that there are many good even outstanding Christians within other denominations so rather than working to keep my denomination apart from other denominations, I try where and when I can to work with Christians of other denominations without letting our denominational background get in the way. 

While we may not be in a position to bring about denominational unity, we certainly are in a position to affect unity within our churches.  I think we do a good job at Christ Church.  While we have our differences and disagreements, we don’t let them drive us apart as, sadly, often does happen in churches. 

There is, however, no room for complacency.  As I have said people sometimes say that the truth of the Gospel must come before unity.   But unity is part of the Gospel;  As we will see in our studies in Ephesians, St Paul sees unity as the central message of the Gospel;  Unity in the first place between us and God, but as Paul explains, peace and unity between God’s people.  He writes how the death of Christ has made possible unity between two groups who were deeply divided:  Jesus and Gentile.  So a very simple challenge to us this morning:  to maintain our unity in the bond of peace.  

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Epiphany

Ephesians 3:1-12

Epiphany strictly speaking is on January 6, that is, last Thursday.  It marks both the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of a new liturgical season in its own right.  The Gospel reading today is the well-known story of the visit of the Magi.  They bring three gifts, but as to how many of them there were, we are simply not told.  The reason that this Gospel reading is chosen is because Epiphany celebrates the revelation or manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.  The Magi represent the Gentiles.

Of course to us this is no big deal.  We just assume that Christ was born to be the Saviour of the world, but for many in the early days of the Church.  It was not nearly so straightforward.  After all, the very word ‘Christ’ that we now use as a name was originally a title meaning Messiah.  And the Messiah was to be the Messiah of the Jews fulfilling God’s promises to his chosen people. 

At first in the Church, there was resistance to even telling Gentiles about Jesus.  But as a result of a direct and unmistakable intervention by God himself through the Apostle Peter this resistance was decisively overcome.

The next question was to be the basis on which Gentiles could become members of the Church once they had accepted and believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  For many in the Church this was obvious: the Gentiles had to keep God’s Law as God himself had revealed it.  This Law was clear that men had to be circumcised and all men, women, and children had to obey the commandments of God.

It wasn’t, however obvious to one person: the person we now know as the Apostle Paul.  St Paul adopted not only a controversial position, he was himself a controversial person.  Very briefly: St Paul had been the leader of violent opposition to the Church.  He was a zealous and committed Jew who was fanatically opposed to the Church.  Quite why he was so opposed to the Church is not as easy a question to answer as is sometimes thought!  (This is something we will have cause to consider at the Lenten Studies!)

This committed Jew was dramatically converted on the Damascus Road and called by God to be an Apostle to the Gentiles.  Not only that, St Paul developed what was to be a highly controversial understanding of what is meant for Gentiles to become part of the people of God.

We need to be very careful here.  St Paul is often presented today as someone who reinvented Christianity. Someone who took the simple teachings of Jesus and made them altogether something different.  This, of course, is assumed to have been a bad thing.

The reality is, that as St Paul himself acknowledges, most of his understanding of key Christian teachings he got from those who were ‘in Christ before him’.  These concern such things as the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  His present Lordship.  His future return.  And the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Where he differed from those who were ‘in Christ before him’ was over the place of the Gentiles in the Church and the purposes of God. 

Ironically, those who dislike St Paul nowadays don’t even think to disagree with him on this one area where he really did come up with something new.

All of which brings us to Ephesians and this morning’s reading, Ephesians 3:1-12.  Please consider what follows as something of a ‘taster’ for the Lent Studies.

Ephesians is one of the more general of St Paul’s letters.  It doesn’t have a co-sender, and it contains very little by personal references.  Only one other person is mentioned, Tychicus, who is to deliver the letter.  Actually, we do not even know that the letter was written actually written to the Ephesians, that is, to the Church in Ephesus.  The words ‘in Ephesus’ in Ephesians 1:1 are missing from some of the best manuscripts of the New Testament.  This has led many commentators to suggest that the letter we now know as the letter to the Ephesians was originally written as a circular letter to several Churches in the general region of Ephesus. 

Well we will talk more about this in Lent!

Suffice it 1to say that in the letter we now know as Ephesians, St Paul takes a big picture view of the Gospel.  He writes of how we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world.  What is especially significant, however, but perhaps not surprising, is that St Paul spends a great deal of time writing about the nature of the Church and of Gentiles place in it.

In Chapter 3, he writes how his present imprisonment is for the Gentiles.  By this he means it is his preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles that has landed him in prison.  He writes of how a mystery has been made known to him by revelation.  A mystery that was not made known previously.  What is this amazing mystery?  Verse 6:
‘that is, the Gentiles has become fellow–heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.’

But fellow-heirs with whom?  Members of which same body?  Sharers with whom in the promise?  The answer of course is the Jews and the people of God.  This doesn’t seem so mysterious to us, does it?

It is this good news that was given to St Paul to bring to the Gentiles.  But he then says something that really is amazing.  As amazing today as it was then.  Verse 10:
‘so that through the Church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.’

It is this that I now want us to dwell upon for the rest of the sermon this morning.

The phrase through the Church is inevitably a problem for us today as we can only hear and understand the word, ‘church’, in the light of 2,000 years of Christians history and, therefore, we miss what St Paul is saying 

For us the word ‘church’ inevitably means in the first place the building.  So the question: ‘are you going to Church today?’  means are you going to the building on Waterloo Road or wherever?  Secondly, the word ‘church’ conjures up the organization: synods, committees, bishops, priests, and so on.  Thirdly, it suggests the different denominations: the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, etc.  When we hear the word ‘church’ then we hear a mixture of all three with the first, the building, predominating.

All of which is highly ironic as when those to whom St Paul was writing heard this word they would have not heard any of these three meanings.  What is more they couldn’t hear any of these three meanings.  It was simply impossible for them to do so.

Firstly, for many years, Christians simply did not own any buildings.  Not only did they not have the financial resources to do so, as they were often a persecuted group, owning property was not an option. 

This is very difficult for us to understand as the church building has taken on an existence of its own.  Not only do we see the building as the place where the Church meets, the building has become the Church.  Even to the extent that we are sometimes more concerned about the building than we are the people who meet in it!

The first Christians, however, met in the houses of those rich enough to afford one, or in small groups in apartment buildings, or in the open air, wherever, in fact, they could gather in reasonable safety.

Secondly, again, for many years organization was relatively basic.  There was some structure within the different Christian groups, but not much between them.  The idea, for example, of forming Mission Committees would have been something they would never have thought of.  Mission, after all, was something you did!

Thirdly, although there were arguments and disagreements - and we see them happening from the very beginning - the assumption was that Christians should be united not divided.  The idea of Christians being divided into different groups, separate to one another, would, again, have been unimaginable.  It was 1,000 years before there was a formal split in the Church and that was between the Church in the West and the Church in the East.  It was another 500 years before the Church split in the west.

This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of that split, and it is a subject we will have cause to return to.  ‘Celebrations’ have been in the planning for many years.  I, for one, will not be celebrating.  I see the Anglican Church, the denomination to which I belong, for example, as a necessary evil.  I do not see the continued institutionalized division in the body of Christ as something to be proud of.

No, when St Paul wrote the word ‘church’, he was referring to small groups of people scattered throughout the Roman Empire meeting when they could, where they could, to share their faith, eat a meal together, and support one another.  And yet St Paul says it is through these few powerless and numerically small and socially weak groups that God had decided to make his wisdom known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.  This might have seemed ridiculous were it not for the fact that these Christians, though few in numbers, believed that Christ had triumphed over all powers and authorities and now ruled over all. 

That they believed this is itself amazing.  Roman imperial power was everywhere to be seen.  At times, it was turned directly against the Christians and they suffered the most terrible persecution, but still they continued to believe that the real power lay not with Rome, but with the Lord who they believed was with them whenever and wherever they gathered in his name.

In many parts of our world the Church is in decline and morale is low.  This is especially true in the developed world.  The Church of England, for example, continues to experience a serious falling in numbers. 

It is common in this situation for people in the Church to look back to the days when the Church appeared to be more powerful and successful, to a time when it had more influence in and on society.  Of course, that power was often a delusion: a false power.  The power we are called to exercise, however, is altogether different. 

We are to make known the wisdom of God in its rich variety to the ‘rulers and authorities’ NOT, notice, on earth, but in the heavenly places.  How on earth - you may ask – are we to do that?

First of all, by ridding ourselves of any aspiration to earthly political power.  By seeing that real power is spiritual and resides with our Lord, who, says St Paul, has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3).  God, says St Paul, has raised Christ and seated him in these heavenly places where he rules over all things for the sake of the Church, which St Paul then goes on to define as Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:20-23).

Secondly, by ridding ourselves of all the false notions of what the Church is and by rediscovering that it is we, you and I gathered here this morning, who are the Church, the body of Christ.  It is you and I made of flesh and blood who are God’s building, his house, and not any made of brick and mortar however special they may be.

And then, thirdly, by proclaiming the Gospel of Christ: telling people what God has done in Christ and how forgiveness and new life are to be found in him.  In doing this we make it possible for people to escape all the false powers that hold them captive and to become instead members of the body of Christ.

It is when we do this that we fulfil God’s plan for us as his people and it is then that we make known his wisdom.  A wisdom always opposed to the wisdom of this world and its rulers.

‘Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.’ (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Christmas Night 2017

Well we have at last reached Christmas! We have been counting down the weeks during Advent by lighting the Advent candles – and later, during this Service, we will light the last one! Some of us for the past few days have been counting down the days using the ‘Great O Antiphons’. All over the world tonight, Christians are celebrating the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord. Whatever we may say about Easter being theologically the most important day in the Christian calendar, there can be little doubt that Christmas is the one that is the most celebrated and loved.

It comes as a surprise then to discover that it wasn’t this way in the Church for many years. St Paul, for example, never discusses the birth of our Lord except to say that he was ‘born of a woman’, and the first Gospel we have, St Mark, launches into our Lord’s ministry without any mention of his birth or childhood.

In the 2nd century, Christians even mocked the pagans for celebrating the birthdays of prominent figures. What mattered to them was the significance, not of Jesus’ birth, but of his death. This is easily illustrated by observing how much of each Gospel is devoted to the last week of our Lord’s life compared to the years leading up to it. This does not for a moment mean that we should not today be celebrating our Lord’s birth, but it is a warning not to celebrate it in an emotional and sentimental way: enjoying the story, but failing to see its meaning and its significance for each one of us personally.

Originally, the Gospels circulated separately from each other. And not only the Gospels, but the stories of Jesus themselves. We know that the stories of Jesus were passed on not simply, or even primarily, in written form, but, in a culture with low rates of literacy, they were passed on in oral form, that is, by word of mouth. Very few of these stories concern our Lord’s birth; many concern his death and the events leading up to it.

It is clear from even the briefest of readings of the Gospels that St John’s Gospel is different from the other three. Matthew, Mark, and Luke have much in common and are referred to as the synoptic (=viewed together) Gospels. St John assumes that his readers will already be familiar with many of these stories about Jesus and that they may have read at least St Mark’s Gospel. His purpose in writing is not to tell or retell the stories, but to get behind them and explain the significance of the one who the stories are about and of the one who himself told many of the stories in the Gospels. And in explaining Jesus’ significance, St John wants to show us the significance of Jesus for each one of us personally.

The reading tonight, known as the Prologue, is the introduction to the Gospel. It sets the scene for what is to follow by telling us in advance what the plot is and introducing us to the Gospel’s central character. St John wants to leave us in absolutely no doubt as to who Jesus is. This is to be a theme of his Gospel. Whereas the other Gospels focus on what Jesus did, on his works, St John focuses on the person of Jesus, who he is.

This is the Gospel that has the ‘Great I am’ sayings. It is this person that our reading introduces us to, but St John manages to do it without at first mentioning his name. He tells us the name of John the Baptist who came to witness to Jesus, but he doesn’t use the name ‘Jesus’ until verse17.

The purpose of the Prologue is to introduce us to the Word, it is only once we have been introduced to the Word that we are told who the Word is. We are told that the Word was in the beginning with God and that all the things came into being through him. In this Word was life and light. John the Baptist bore witness to this Light, the True Light. And then, we are told, something amazing: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

If you were reading John for the first time the obvious question at this point is, Who is he? What is his name? It is only now that St John reveals it: his name is Jesus. It is as if he is saying to his readers that this man they may have heard stories about, the one known as Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, the Eternal Word of God through whom everything – everything – that exists came into being.

This Eternal Word came into the world that he himself hand been instrumental in creating!

But what sort of world was it? It was a world dominated by Roman power and by one man in particular: Caesar Augustus. Augustus used to like to boast of his achievements. One he was particularly proud of was the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome. Rome, he boasted, had given the world peace. But this was simply propaganda. The so-called peace was one imposed by Roman might and power. A peace in which rebellion was ruthlessly crushed and oppression was the order of the day. This oppression found expression in tax. Rome taxed its subject peoples to maintain its power and finance its empire. Tax was not popular then as it is not popular now. But then in those days those taxed saw very little benefit from paying their taxes. In AD6 the people of Sepphoris, a major city in Galilee just 5 miles from Nazareth, revolted against paying taxes. The Romans burnt the city to the ground after crushing the revolt.

It was Roman tax policy that was to be responsible for Jesus being born in Bethlehem. As is well-known, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that ‘all the world’ should be registered for taxation purposes. All had to go to their own town to be registered. This meant Joseph having to go with his pregnant wife, Mary, from Nazareth to his home town of Bethlehem.

Caesar had displayed his power by moving people around at his whim and fancy. Or, at least, that is what he thought he was doing. In fact, he was simply a puppet fulfilling God’s purposes. The Christ had to be born in Bethlehem. The Son of David had to be born in Royal David’s City. Caesar was carrying out not the plan of Rome, but the plan of God.

2016 has been quite a year. It is already being described by commentators as a year in which the world has changed. They point to Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US. It has been a year of mass migration, of the increasing military involvement of Russia in world affairs, and 2017 looks like it will continue where 2016 is leaving off. There will be important elections in France and Germany. And, of course, here at home in Hong Kong, we will have the election of a new Chief Executive.

It is all too easy for us as Christians to get caught up in all of this and focus on the various events and their significance: to see power as residing in the various leaders of our world: in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing with the modern day Caesars.

This is reflected in many of the Churches’ Christmas messages. These talk of the role of the Church in the various events taking place or about to take place in our world. Those giving them seek to explain how the Church should react and what role it should play.

Undoubtedly, the events taking place in our world are important and Christians undoubtedly have a role to play in them - although it may be a different role to the one we are being urged to play. (More about that another time.)

We are wrong, however, if we focus on those who, like Caesar, pretend to have the power and fail to see behind their power. When our Lord was being questioned by Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem, Pilate said to Jesus: ‘Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him: ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…’ (John 19:10-11)

This means, Trump, has no power; Putin has no power, and the new Chief Executive, whoever he or she maybe, has no power unless it is given them from above. One saint said that while still an infant at his mother’s breast, Jesus was upholding the universe with the word of his power. The danger is that by focusing on world leaders and the events of our world, we can end up thinking and giving the impression that it is with the rulers of this world that real power resides and what should concern us most are the various political, economic, and social events taking place at the present time.

In fact, there is more power here tonight in this Church than in all the parliaments or legislatives of our world. It is a power that concerns each one of us and affects us far more than all the decisions of world leaders whoever they maybe.

St John writes about the Word, who we know to be Jesus that ‘he came to his own and his own people did not accept him.’ This is the story of Jesus’ rejection by his people Israel. However, John continues: ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.’

We think we have come here tonight to celebrate the birth of Christ, but it turns out that God has brought us here, not only to celebrate his son’s birth, but to ask us questions about our own birth: do we want to be born tonight, born that is, not of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God?

God is giving us the chance to make tonight not simply about the birth of his son some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, but about our birth now in 2016 in Hong Kong.

God does not allow us to be spectators at the Nativity. We have a decision to make. Will we be amongst those who did not receive him? Or will we receive him, that is, will we believe in his name and commit ourselves to him? If we do then tonight will become a celebration of our nativity as well as that of our Lord’s.

So tonight, on this most Holy Night, we all have a decision to make, a decision of far more consequence than we will make in any election. Will we receive him? Will we believe in his name? Will we become a child of God?

Tonight he gives us that power. The only question is now whether we will use it.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Carol Service 2017

It’s no secret that I love Christmas: all of it.  The tree, the mistletoe (especially the mistletoe), the presents, the crackers, the Poinsettias – I’m not mad on the mince pies, but I would be sad if you didn’t like them, and hope you will stay for some and a cup of mulled wine after the service.

I think most of you like Christmas too, so it may come as something of a surprise to you to learn that there have been those in the past who haven’t liked Christmas.  The Puritans, for example, tried to have it banned.

In my previous parish, in the north-east of Scotland, where the Presbyterian Church had been very influential in the past, many could remember when Christmas wasn’t really celebrated that much, the main celebration was Hogmanay (that is, New Year).  My Church Warden recalled how when she first moved to the parish the plumber who was doing work for her turned up on Christmas Day.

Today, I am happy to say that while there are those who disapprove of Christmas, or, at least aspects of it, most people love it.  Christmas is ubiquitous: it’s everywhere.  In London, it seems to start in August.  Winnie and I normally see it beginning to be promoted just as we are leaving after our Summer trip to the UK.  In Hong Kong, it starts a bit later: it seems to really get under way after Halloween – for obvious commercial reasons!

At the Vicarage, the Christmas season normally begins in the first week of December with the delivery of our Christmas tree!  Yes, everyone loves Christmas, but even someone who loves Christmas as much as I do has to admit that some of the customs and practices surrounding Christmas seem just a little bit removed from the birth of Christ. 

Christmas Trees had been around in northern Europe for quite some time, but they really took off in the UK when Prince Albert put one up in 1841 at Windsor Castle.  It’s hard now to imagine Christmas without one.

Mince Pies were first introduced to Europe by the Crusaders, who had experienced middle eastern flavours while in the Holy Land.  Originally containing meat, they were made from 13 ingredients representing Christ and the twelve apostles.  They were also oval shaped to symbolize the manger.

Poinsettias came from Mexico in the 16th century as did the turkey.  Eating turkey at Christmas is one of those strange customs.  We all eat it even if we don’t particularly like it.  Heston Blumenthal, as you might expect, has all sorts of complicated procedures for making it taste good.  There is, however, a very funny video on youtube in which an older cook, Mary Risley, gives her own advice on cooking turkey.  She says: ‘just put the ******* turkey in the oven!’

Christingles are a more recent custom originating in Moravia in the nineteenth century.  They were made popular by John Pensom, a Children’s Society fundraiser, in 1968.  He used to sign himself John Pensom DGO.  It turns out DGO stood for Damned Good Organiser.  He certainly succeeded in making the Christingle popular, and we will have our own Christingle Service here at Christ Church on Christmas Eve.

Not everyone understands it though.  On a parents’ forum in the UK, Mumsnet, one Mum, whose daughter had come home with the Christingle saying it was to celebrate Christmas, asked, ‘What on earth has an orange with a candle and four cocktail sticks to do with Christmas?’

Come to our Christmas Eve Service if you too are puzzled!  All will be revealed.

Well, I could go on.  But these and many other traditions have passed their way into our celebration of Christmas and of our Lord’s birth.  They may at times seem strange, but, ultimately, they are harmless.  After all, Christmas is meant to be a Birthday Party and strange things happen at parties!

So big is Christmas today that it comes as something of a shock to discover that the Church for a couple of hundreds of years or so didn’t seem to take it too seriously.  The first real mention of it we get is in Rome in the mid-4th century.  The big thing for the Early Church was Easter.

Imagine, for one moment, that you only had St Mark’s Gospel.  (And remember that originally the Gospels circulated independently of one another.)  You would know nothing of the Nativity of our Lord.  And the Gospels were written after St Paul’s letters.  St Paul in his letters makes no mention of the circumstances of our Lord’s birth except to say, in Galatians, that he was born of a woman, which is hardly news.  It’s the same with St John’s Gospel.  St John is more concerned with our Lord’s divine origin than he is with the details of his human origin.

It is only St Matthew and St Luke who tell us, in relatively few words, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and despite having these concise and to the point accounts, we still manage to get the details wrong:

For example:

In none of our readings this evening are we told that Jesus was born in a stable.

We don’t know how many wise men there were or even if they were wise.  The word is ‘magi: a sort of first century cross between an astronomer and astrologer.

We do know that they came to the ‘house’ where the holy family were staying, but as Herod had all the boys under 2 killed, Jesus probably wasn’t lying in the manger when they arrived.

We are told that angels appeared to the shepherds, but they don’t sing.

Oh, and before I spoil it all: there is no mention of a donkey little or otherwise.

I genuinely don’t say any of this to spoil Christmas, and I am happy to go along with all of the above in the spirit in which they are offered.  I only say it to make the point that what we want is a ‘particular version’ of Christmas.

This is nothing new and has always been the case.  Many of our traditions, as I have suggested, come from Victorian England.  The Victorians knew what they wanted at Christmas and, indeed, throughout the year for that matter: children who kept quiet. (The Victorians didn’t always get it wrong!)

Take, for example, the popular carol, ‘Away in a Manger’.  It contains the words:

‘the cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.’

Really?

Or what about these words from Once in Royal David’s City, the carol with which we began tonight’s service?

‘And through all his wondrous childhood
he would honour and obey,
love and watch the lowly maiden,
in whose gentle arms he lay:
Christian children all must be
mild, obedient, good as he.’

That’s verse 3.  Verse 4 continues:

‘For He is our childhood’s pattern…’

It is less about Jesus and more about what the Victorians wanted out of their own children!

Classic FM in the UK at the moment is conducting, as it does each year, a poll to find the most popular carol.  For the past two years, it has been Silent Night.  It is the perfect carol:  romantic, emotional, and devoid of any content.  It is also just plain wrong:

‘Silent night, holy night,
all is calm, all is bright,
round yon virgin mother and child …’

I don’t want to get all feminist on you, but could I just ask the mothers here: how was your experience of childbirth?  Silent, calm, and bright?  And far from being silent, calm, and bright, Bethlehem would have been crowded and noisy because of the census with frayed nerves and bad tempers.

Enough already!  You may have seen in the media this week that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is ‘post-truth’.  Post-truth means something is not true, but we want to believe in it anyway.  Many of us are having a ‘post-truth’ Christmas.  Deep down we know that so much that we do at Christmas is not true and not part of the first Nativity, but we would like to think that it is. 

The real truth, however, is that the truth is better.  St John may not tell us about the details of Jesus’ birth, but does tell us what it means: ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’. God, in other words, became one of us.  Really truly one of us.  This means that:

Mary would have felt the shame of getting pregnant

Joseph would have been disturbed, disapproving, and embarrassed

Mary would have screamed in pain when she gave birth to Jesus

Jesus would have cried

and he would have needed the first equivalent of having his nappy/diaper changing

It was noisy, dirty, tiring, and challenging.  It was happy and sad at the same time.  Just like life is today.

Jesus was given two names by the angel: ‘Jesus’, which means the Lord saves and ‘Emmanuel’, which means God is with us.  The reason why Christmas is so special is that Jesus does save us, but he saves us because he is God with us, but even more than that he is God as one of us.  There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a post-truth version of Christmas as long as you don’t mistake it for the true Christmas.  The true Christmas is about the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us; it is about the light shining in the darkness.

But it doesn’t end there.  We haven’t celebrated Christmas unless we personally – you and I – have responded to the message of Christmas.  St John writes of Jesus that to all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.

This Christmas are we just spectators at the Nativity or are we also participants?

One of the most post-truth carols is, ‘In the bleak mid-winter …’

One of the best carols is, ‘In the bleak mid-winter …’

Christina Rossetti got it.  It doesn’t matter so much how you celebrate Christmas, it matters how you respond to Christmas:

What can I give Him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man,
I would do my part;
yet what I can, I give Him –

give my heart.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Advent 3 Year A

Advent 3 Year A

If asked who John the Baptist was most Christians would answer that he was the one who came to prepare the way for Jesus.  And while this, undoubtedly, is true, we often say it in a somewhat dismissive way, as if he only had a minor role, and fail to see how important John the Baptist was in preparing the way for the coming of our Lord.  The lectionary, however, gives more days to John the Baptist than any other person apart from Jesus himself except, that is, for one other person: the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Outside the Gospels, the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, pays more attention to John than he does to Jesus.  Indeed, as Paul discovered John’s influence extended way beyond Israel so that when he went to Ephesus, 20 years or so after the crucifixion, he found disciples of John there.  This, in other words, was someone who had influence in his own right.

Turning to the Gospels themselves, we sometimes miss how significant the Gospel writers see John as being.  Mark begins his Gospel:  ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’ and then straightaway goes on to talk of John.  Luke describes John’s birth before Jesus’ and, again, begins his account of Jesus’ ministry with John’s ministry and his baptism of Jesus.  Matthew does likewise.

John in his Gospel gives us yet more information.  He tells us that Jesus’ first disciples were disciples of John the Baptist.  Luke suggests that John and Jesus were related and in John’s Gospel the ministry of Jesus initially overlaps with John’s suggesting that Jesus’ own ministry very much grew out of that of John’s.

This morning, however, we read that John has been put in prison.  His ministry is coming to an end.  This is the start of Jesus’ independent ministry.  Knowing that he is about to die, John wants to get one thing sorted out.  His ministry has been to prepare people for the ‘ONE who is to come’.  The Gospels all agree that he had thought Jesus was this ONE.  Now, however, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus ‘are you the ONE who is to come?’  This is not a question you ask if you are sure; it suggests doubts in John’s mind.  It is this doubt that he needs to sort out before his death.  Had he perhaps got it wrong about Jesus?  You can understand why he may have thought this. 

John’s ministry had been one of challenge and warning.  Even his way of life and style of dress challenged people.  His message was uncompromising: people needed to get ready for the coming judgement of God.  Already the axe was being laid to the tree.  The wheat would be separated from the chaff.  People needed to repent and have their sins forgiven, or they would find themselves on the wrong side of the judgement. 

Jesus at first sight seemed to take a different line.  Jesus himself talks about this difference later in the chapter (see Matthew 11.  His first miracle is to create wine for a party.  His own lifestyle is one of eating and drinking so that he gains the reputation of a drunkard and glutton, someone who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  This is in stark contrast to John’s lifestyle and while Jesus takes judgement seriously, he emphasizes the present experience of forgiveness.

John, then, begins to doubt whether Jesus is the ONE for whom he was sent to prepare the way, he asks: ‘are you the ONE who is to come or do we seek for another?’

Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer.  He points to what is happening in his ministry: how the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.  The significance of this is not simply that these are amazing things to be happening, but that these were the things that the prophets said would happen when the Messiah came. 

Jesus concludes his answer with the words:  ‘And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

The implication being, of course, that John might at least be tempted to take offence at Jesus and his ministry. After all, many did!

But what does all this have to say to us this morning?  Well, first of all, it says to me that it’s OK to have doubts and questions.  Many Christians are frightened to admit to problems with their faith.  Firstly, because they fear being looked down upon by other Christians.  Secondly, because they worry that it may mean that they are not really a Christian. 

There are two equal problems with doubt.  The first is not admitting to it.  The second is not doing anything about it.  Most of us are reluctant to admit to doubt and, therefore, are not in any position to do anything about it.  There are, however, those Christians who are only too happy to admit to doubt, but rather than do anything about it, see being in a permanent state of doubt as rather cool.  It does fit with the spirit of the age somewhat:  an age in which where certainty is often equated with bigotry. 

So let’s be clear: doubting, asking questions is good and normal.  But our doubts and questions should lead us to want to find answers and a resolution of our doubts.  John faced his doubts and asked Jesus directly:  are you the ONE who is come or do we seek for another?

Jesus encouraged people to discover the truth for themselves.  He promised:

‘Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.’ (Matthew 7:7-8)

Secondly, Jesus says: ‘Blessed is the one who takes no offence at me.’  Jesus offends people: he was in danger of offending John, he certainly offended the Pharisees and the religious authorities and offended them so much that they had him crucified.  He offended Paul so much that Paul dedicated himself to destroying the movement Jesus’ death had given rise to.  Paul was himself to go on to offend both Jew and Greek with the message of the Gospel.  Jesus offends people. 

I have to say that the message we often preach is not likely to offend anyone.  Now I am not suggesting for one moment that we go out of our way to offend people – quite the reverse.  But all too often we have domesticated the Gospel, tamed it, and robbed it of its power and cutting edge.  In our preaching, Jesus doesn’t offend anyone because what is there in our presentation of him that is in anyway challenging.

John and Jesus and Jesus both called on people to repent.  This can be an offensive message because if you tell people that they have to be change the way they are living by implication you are telling them that they are not alright ‘just as they are’.  You are implying that not all behavior is acceptable and that life is not about people’s own personal choices.  And that offends.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this.  Jesus said:

‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’ (Matthew 10:34)

Jesus was the ONE who was to come, but maybe we would have preferred another!  One not so challenging and demanding!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Return for the Blog

It is a long time since I posted here so I have no idea if anyone will bother to read anything I post!  I have for the past few years been concentrating on my Church's Facebook Group, which is closed Group.  I have, however, recently been posting transcripts of the sermons I preach.

I think posting them here as well would be a good way to get the Blog up and running again.

At Christ Church Kowloon Tong, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary.  I don't preach every Sunday, but I will post the sermons of the Sunday I do preach.  I started editing my sermons to produce a transcript starting with Advent Sunday last year.  This was the first Sunday in Year A of the Lectionary.  It will take a little time to catch up as I don't want to post them all in one go.

Here then is the first sermon!

Advent Sunday Year A

Advent is easily my favourite time of the year.  Christmas is just around the corner.  The shops are already full of Christmas fayre.  The shopping malls are all decorated for Christmas.  And Christmas music greets you whether you are shopping in the supermarket or eating in a restaurant.

In Church, we have made the change to purple.  The Advent wreath is being lit, and the poinsettias have arrived!  The Christmas tree, however, is still some days off, but the children are getting ready for their Nativity Presentation and the choir are rehearsing for our Carol Service.

This, then, is Advent – a time of counting down to and preparing for Christmas.  Except it isn’t: at least not directly.  It comes as a bit of a shock to people to be reminded that Advent is only indirectly about Christmas.  Advent, traditionally, is a time for preparing not to celebrate Christ’s coming at Bethlehem, but his coming on the clouds as he returns to this earth not as the baby in the manger, but as the Son of Man in glory to judge the world. 

During Advent, the Church traditionally thinks about the four last things:  death, judgement, heaven and hell.  The Church tends to focus nowadays on Jesus’ teaching on love and forgiveness.  Our dominant image of him is of one who came to seek and to save the lost.  One who welcomes sinners and eats with them.  One who is inclusive and who reaches out to those at the margins of society.  During his life on earth, Jesus preached the good news of the Kingdom of God.  This was good news especially for those whose life was full of bad news:  the poor, the oppressed, the sick, and the possessed. 

It is right that we too continue to preach this message of love and forgiveness.  But in Jesus’ own teaching, there were always two sides to the coin.  Jesus preached that in his ministry the kingdom of God had already come and was present in him.  He also, however, taught his followers to pray for the kingdom to come on earth as it is heaven.  There was in other words a future dimension to this kingdom.  New Testament scholars talk about these two aspects of Jesus’ teaching as the ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ of the kingdom.  The present and the future.  Understandably, we focus on the already.  What we experience in the here and now, and it is right that we describe the present benefits of following Christ, but we shouldn’t neglect the ‘not yet’, that is, what is still to come.  And Advent is a good time to correct the balance.

It is important that we do for Jesus himself spent a great deal of time talking about what the future coming of the kingdom would be like.  He does so in this morning’s Gospel, and he makes clear that it will be a time of judgement.  A time when one will be taken and another will be left.  When the sheep will be separated from the goats.  When evil and evildoers will be punished.  When wrongs shall be put right.  And when the righteous will be welcomed into the kingdom promised by the Father.

A great deal of Jesus’ teaching focuses on these issues.  Yes, Jesus does offer love and forgiveness, but he warns of judgement and punishment as well.  The Church used to try to hold these two sides of Jesus’ teaching together.  At times in its history, it must be admitted, it tended to stress judgement rather than love and forgiveness.  You may have seen some medieval art which depicts the souls of the damned being shovelled into the fires of hell.  It really is graphic stuff.  If you don’t believe me do an image search for: ‘doom paintings’

There is, however, no such danger today!

Many Churches have deliberately and consciously abandoned all belief in judgement, heaven and hell.  Death, obviously, is something they can’t deny!  Such ideas simply do not fit with their understanding of who God is and what he is like.  Other Churches have just quietly dropped all talk of such things refusing to even think about them.

The result is that we now have Christianity Lite, that is, Christianity without all the nasty bits. 

The trouble is that the message of love and forgiveness doesn’t seem quite so amazing now.  After all, if there is no judgement, no potential consequences for sin, evil, and wrongdoing, then why do we even need forgiveness?  Why should we care how we live?  If Mother Teresa and Hitler are both equally destined for heaven, then doesn’t that undermine the message of the Gospel, which assumes there is sin and evil?

The early Church believed passionately in the return of Christ and wanted to tell people the good news while there was still time.  St Paul clearly believed in the possibility of Christ’s return at any time and sought to win people for Christ ‘to save them’ from the coming judgement or, to use his words, ‘the wrath of God’.  He also urged believers, as he does in the reading this morning, to make sure they were ready for the return of Christ. 

Well, the years passed, and Christ did not return, and the Church placed less emphasis on the second coming of our Lord.  It didn’t abandon belief in it, though, as the Creed we will say together in a few minutes reminds us, and nor should we.  Nor did the Church abandon its conviction that we would all one day be called upon to give an account of our lives to God.

While it is true that we do not know when the final judgement will come - Jesus taught that even he didn’t know that, only the Father knew - it is also true that we don’t know when our own private judgement will come.  Jesus told the story of a rich man who was rather pleased with himself and all that he owned, but God said to him: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (Luke 12:20)  The truth is that none of us know when our life will be demanded of us.  The need to be prepared, to be ready is as important today as it was when Jesus was on earth. 

Advent gives us a chance to take stock, to prepare; to get ready.  In doing so, we prepare ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birth in the best way possible.

‘Now is the moment to wake from sleep.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.’

Have a good Advent.