Brookmans Park 27 Jan 2013 (1 Cor 12:12-31 – Members of the body of Christ)

What does it mean, ultimately, when one calls oneself a Christian?

Nothing less than that is the question Paul is trying to answer in the passage we have heard this morning from his first letter to the church in Corinth. He wrote to them because they were having problems and had asked him to help. Their church was in trouble and they thought he was the man to fix it. In responding one of the things he tried to get them to understand was that each and every one of them was important, in the church and in the eyes of God. None of them should see any of the others as unimportant or useless, as lacking what was needed.

Hear again some of what he had to say: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

I hope you can hear two very important messages in this short extract: we who belong to the Church are part of the body of Christ; within that body each of us has his or her unique and essential part to play.

What it means to say, as Paul often does, that the Church is the body of Christ is something about which those who study these things argue long and hard. Personally I find it easy to feel and hard to think through with any clarity. Look around you for a moment at those sitting here today. As you do so think about Jesus the man. Think about his body. His human body, born a baby and grown to manhood. What does it mean to say that we, the Church, are his body?

Well, it must mean we are so closely joined to him that we are part of him and he contains us. He is more than us but not completely separate from us. We form an aspect of what he, now, is. Also it must mean that we are essential to what he, now is. A person isn’t the same thing as their body but neither can they step away from it. If we are the body of Christ then he directs us, he uses us and at the same time he IS us and we ARE him, or at least some of him. Reading what the Bible has said to us I don’t see how it can not mean this.

Jesus, remember, is both human being and God. This idea, that the Church is Christ’s body, seems to say that in some way the Church, that is to say US. has the responsibility, and the privilege, of being, at least in part, the human part of that. That’s us, you and me, we have been caught up, remade, born again, if you like, as part of what Jesus was and is. And that seems like a big thing to me.

When we come together like this, to pray, to sing, to hear and to proclaim God’s Word, we are more than just people doing the things people do, although we are that. We are also the meeting point, the coming together, of God with God’s world, with God’s creation. Like Jesus, as Jesus, as the body of Christ, we are at the border between earth and heaven.

When we take care of one another and of our neighbours, when we give those who need them lifts in our cars, when we provide the chance for those isolated and lonely to spend time with other people, when we open our doors to the children of our community and let them play together and let those who care for them meet and talk, when we visit the sick, when we make telephone calls or give advice or do all the other things I know this congregation does, when we do any of this we carry on Jesus’ mission of loving and healing.

When we meet together, as we do on Monday mornings, to talk and discuss, to try to understand what God’s will for us, what God’s word to us, are, then we continue his ministry of teaching.

All of this is what it is like to be the body of Christ and it is through this that I think we can feel what Paul means.

His second message, that all of us have our part to play, that these parts are different, that we shouldn’t imagine some of them to be better or important than others, is no less important.

At different times and in different places I know many of you have served in the Church and in the community in a wide variety of ways. Some of us have been able to do more or less, some of us are fitted to some kinds of ministry, some to others, and some may think they have never done anything important, Paul says we should put all that aside.

God called every single one of us, individually and by name, to be part of the body of Christ. The body is incomplete without anyone of us. We share equally and completely in the honour, as he puts it, of being included in the body, in the Church.

I will close with another extract from today’s reading:

God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Thanks be to God

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St Giles South Mimms 20 Jan 2013 (Exchange for week of prayer for Christian Unity, 1 Cor 12:1-11)

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

The text from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians seems a good place to start in this week of prayer for Christian unity. It is not unreasonable to see the affirmation “Jesus is Lord” as the heart of our common faith, the one thing that distinguishes Christians from non-Christians and so marking the boundaries of the unity we pray for this week. What Paul seems to imply here that this affirmation is really all we need. Those who can make it can do so only by the Spirit and we should not question further the authenticity of their claim to be in Christ.

I’m attracted by this very plain and simple approach. In the context of this letter it makes a further statement. It says that those in Christ, shown by their making of the statement “Jesus is Lord” are so by the power of the Spirit. We don’t come to Jesus through some merit or achievement of our own, our very approach to him is possible only by the work of the Spirit.

He says this to deflate the claims to superiority of those who have some special gift of the Spirit. Paul lists some of these: wisdom; knowledge; faith; healing; miraculous powers; prophecy; speaking in tongues; and the interpretation of such speech. Note that “faith” is one of these gifts, as is wisdom, as is knowledge. Each of these is held to be the work of the same Spirit and each is given as the Spirit determines.

The passage we have heard forms part of a longer argument for the unity of the Church, a unity in which each brings the special gifts they have been given and these gifts are put to work for the good of the whole. This argument reaches its climax in the familiar statement: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Paul has surveyed the various gifts the Spirit grants, has said they have to be seen as gifts given by the Spirit to serve the whole and now puts love at the centre. He points forward, beyond the present when our vision is partial “as in a glass darkly” towards a future time when it is clear, “when we shall see face to face”. Our partial and limited gifts, however great they may see to us now, will, at that time, seem like nothing. Then, as we encounter God directly, love will be all.

So how does this argument of Paul’s help us to pray for unity in today’s divided Church? One thing it might suggest is that in thinking about our divisions we can sometimes stop and ask ourselves what the gifts of the Spirit are to those with whom we disagree. Rather than imagining that the unity of the Church is something we can achieve now by persuading everybody to believe and to act in the same way we might see it as something at once already present in our common dependency on the Spirit and yet only fully achievable when we see face to face.

The contemporary Church has many divisions and fault lines. We still live with denominational separations that go back to the period of the Reformation. The Church of England separated from Rome in 1534. My denomination, the United Reformed Church inherits the traditions of English Congregationalism, which came together outside the Church of England in the 1650s. The Baptists are even older and the Methodists somewhat less so. Now, though, each of these traditions is divided along lines that cross their boundaries. Evangelicals within each denomination may have more in common with one another and with the growing numbers of independent churches than with other members of their denomination while, for example, some Anglo-Catholics have come to feel more at home in the Church of Rome. Meanwhile the fastest growing parts of the Church are those closest to the traditions of Pentecostalism which has its origins at the beginning of the twentieth century,

This process of division, and the collapse of the hope for unification expressed in the merger of the Congregationalists and Presbyterians in England to form the URC in 1972 might lead one who cared about unity to despair. The Church finds ever new ways to divide itself and the impulse to repair its divisions seems ever weaker.

I think, though, that Paul’s words give us another way to see, another way to pray. Our divisions are, perhaps, a way of the Spirit’s giving. Each of our denominations, each of our traditions, each of our Church parties, hold, I suspect, a special gift. These gifts, as long as we see darkly, are hard to hold together. The spontaneity, excitement and fervour of new, young, charismatic churches, where people are gripped by signs of the Spirit like speaking in tongues and ecstatic dancing, is hard to reconcile with the careful preservation of tradition and respect for the past and for its forms of Eastern Orthodoxy. The intellectual probing and historical analysis characteristic of parts of the liberal tradition can be hard to combine with the spiritual fervour and direct appeal typical of evangelical Christianity.

These gifts all have their value, the Church would be weakened by the loss of any of them, but they are not easy to hold together. Maybe the first stage in praying for unity is to pray to hear clearly what God’s special gift to us might be and how we are to use it and the second a recognition that the other side of this is our lack of some gifts made available to others. Then we can ask that those different from us can be strengthened in their work and that ours and theirs might be added together in love.

To quote from a little later in 1 Corinthians:

“Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

 

Baptism in the Spirit – Potters Bar 13 Jan 2013 (Luke 3:15-22 and Acts 8:14-17)

He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire.

The word “baptise” means bathe, wash or immerse. Jesus, John says,won’t just perform a ritual cleansing with water, he will immerse you in the Spirit, he will bathe you in God’s own being, he will wash you with the very essence of the life of God.

We retain the ritual washing with water in our baptism but this saying of John’s, and the story about the Samaritan converts in Acts, remind us that it is a symbol. The reality that stands behind it is the presence in and around us of the Holy Spirit, of God; because in the Trinitarian Christian understanding the Spirit isn’t just sent from God, it is God. When we are baptised with the Spirit we are immersed in God.

This immersion sounds dramatic and there are Christians who believe the gifts of the Spirit are visible and demonstrable. Speaking in tongues is sometimes seen as proof of the second baptism with the spirit and some Christians appeal to the Spirit for the healing of ailments and point to miraculous cures as signs of the Spirit’s work.

I’d like us to think about this in another way, though. Let’s look around us at the life of our church and seek to discern where and how we can find God in it. What, for you, would be a sign that we have received the Spirit?

The first thing is the bonds of care, friendship and love that this church contains and enables. People here look after one another, tend to one another’s hurts, sustain one another in trouble, celebrate with one another in happiness. This, for me, is a sign of the Spirit.

Secondly there is the prayer life we share. In our Sunday worship, at our monthly prayer meeting, and in many other places and occasions we join together to speak to God in prayer.

Third we seek together to understand and explore who God is and what God wants from and for us. We gather around God’s word and we share our insights, our doubts, our struggles and our inspirations. We encourage and guide one another, we walk together along God’s way.

And fourth there are all the ways we seek to serve our community and the wider world, our nursery and toddler group, the charity lunches, our other donations to good causes, all the various contributions we make as a congregation and as individuals.

None of these things are dramatic or extraordinary, that can look like ordinary people doing ordinary things, and so they are. But they are also and at the same time the reception of the Spirit, the breathing on us of God’s new life.

When we are received into the Church by the sacrament of baptism, the baptism of water, we begin our Christian journey, but it is not complete. Our growth into a mature life of faith takes time but above all it requires a patient acceptance of God’s sustaining love in the Holy Spirit. God is not distant. God does not stand outside and above our lives. God is human, in Jesus, and is able to come and be with us, to hold our hands and to lead us, in the Spirit.

Coming to God does not involve leaving ourselves and our lives behind, does not mean turning our backs on the everyday realities of human being. Rather it means immersing these things in the Spirit, or rather allowing them to be immersed.

The baptism in the Holy Spirit, the bathing, washing, soaking, of our lives in God, involves a renewal and restoration of them to the state they were created in. God made all things good and when the Spirit washes them they are made good again.

This isn’t as easy and straightforward as it sounds. We all know the realities of suffering, death, and sin. The world remains full of hurt and pain. Those we love get sick and die and we face our own mortality. But at the same time, if we allow the Spirit to work in us we get glimpses of joy and peace, we see in our lives signs of the bliss to come when God restores all that is lost and brings us home to him.

This second baptism, this spiritual immersion, isn’t a simple plunge in, like the first leap into the sea at the beginning of the day at the beach. God’s time and ours are different and this bathing might seem to us like it’s taking too long. We open our hearts to God and yet doubt and misery persist. Have faith, my friends, be patient, the Spirit IS here, we are being baptised into its new life.

Watch closely for its signs, listen carefully for its sounds, feel its work in you. These signs will be subtle but if you pay attention they will be there. They will include a feeling of well-being, a sense of love,in yourself and in others, calm acceptance of God’s personal concern for you, being drawn towards what you know to be good and of being drawn away from what you know to be bad. When you can sense any of these things they will be signs of the presence with you of the Spirit, they will be part of your baptism in it.

Pay attention!

In Jesus’ name, amen.

Brookmans Park 6 Jan 2013 (Matthew 2:1-12)

I’ve been thinking a lot about gift-giving and what it means this Christmas and today brings this theme to its conclusion and climax.The magi come to Jesus to worship him and they bring him gifts. The story and the gifts themselves focus on Jesus being a royal baby, born the king of the Jews and so naturally enough my mind turned to what we might give a royal baby today. After all we are now expecting a baby born to be king or queen of our nation.

Some of the suggestions I came across included a diamond encrusted dummy (costing a little over £10,000) and a romper suit that measures the baby’s temperature, heart rate and movement, transmitting the readings to his or her parents mobile telephones.

Given their approach to wedding presents it’s more likely that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will ask for donations to nominated charities, although I have seen pictures of him looking delighted when given a homemade baby sleepsuit in the weeks immediately prior to the announcement of the Duchess’ pregnancy.

The giving of gifts to royalty is a strange business.despite their expressed preference the last royal wedding was marked by the giving of some rather odd gifts including a herd of cows, a jar of Vegemite, a papier mache cassowary and some mosquito traps. At least some of these may be assumed, I think, to be intended to attract notice to the giver or to the object given rather than to delight or serve the recipients.

What, then, are we to make of the gifts given by our travellers from the East to the baby Jesus? There is a tradition of seeing them as representing the identities of Christ, as king (gold), priest (frankincense) and sacrifice (myrrh, associated with preparation of the dead for burial). But this seems a strange sort of gift-giving, doesn’t it? Do we expect, when given presents, that they should remind us of who we are and what we do?

I actually received one such this Christmas, a light with a not attached urging me to shed the light of the gospel on Brookmans Park and Potters Bar and while I was pleased with this I would have been disappointed if all my gifts were of this symbolic nature.

The wise men came with gifts to Jesus, as king of the Jews. But they say they come to worship him. Their gifts are offerings to God. The giving of offerings to God was a crucial part of the religion of Israel, we’re more used to hearing this word translated as sacrifice but offerings is just as possible as a translation of the words in the Bible. Every week as part of our worship we make offerings and they are dedicated to God. So why do we think God requires any such thing of us?

This takes us back, I think, to William and Kate and their wedding. I’m sure most of us will have approved of their request that anyone wanting to give them a present should make a donation to one of 23 nominated charities, mostly small and little known. The charities benefited to the tune of over £1 million from this request. The people who gave this money could have given it without reference to the wedding, but they did in fact do so as a mark of their affection for the royal couple.
Similarly when we give gifts to God, whether of money, of time, of worship or of our hearts we do so not because we think God needs these things, nor even because we believe that God will be made happier or more complete by them. We know that God doesn’t need anything from us. We give our gifts because we feel the need to express our love, our devotion, in this way. The gifts we give to God we give for ourselves, not for God.

We should understand the gifts the magi brought as expressing the hope that brought them to Bethlehem, but also as reminding us of how difficult the way of Christ was and is. They brought their precious gifts and departed from the story. Neither they or the things they brought appear again. We don’t know what happened next to them and we don’t know what was done with the gold, the frankincense or the myrrh.

They did what they could and gave what they could. So do we.

We come, we have come, to be with Jesus out of our lives, as they came from their lives to be briefly with him. We bring and we give whatever expresses for us the importance of Jesus, as they did. We go from his side back to our lives, as they did.

Like them our part in Jesus’ story is fleeting, our gifts are unrecorded and their fate unknown. We are even more obscure than the nameless magi. But while God doesn’t need what we bring we need to give it. While God doesn’t depend on us we depend on our love of God to give us the kind of hope that brought the magi. What we have (including our very selves) only achieves its true value insofar as we give to it Jesus and receive it back from him, reminding us of its origin as gift to us from its one true owner, its creator, our Lord, our God.