Potters Bar Churches Together Sept 29 2013 (Jeremiah 32:1-15)

For those of us who belong to the historic denominations in the lands that made up “Christendom” it is tempting to believe that the Church is declining and that Christianity is in retreat. Our churches are smaller than they used to be, in some cases very much smaller, and are less central to the lives of our communities and of our nations. Marriage, and especially marriage in a church, is now an optional extra to the formation of partnerships and the raising of children. Less than 20% of children are now baptised, compared to more than 70% 60 years ago.


Where the churches had an assured and accepted place in the fabric of society we are now marginal and peripheral, regarded with suspicion and even disdain. The hostile and dismissive language of the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchen finds wide resonance and among many rejection of belief in God is common sense. For centuries the Church was powerful and impossible to challenge. It controlled education, was essential to the government of the land. It dominated the world of ideas and of art. Christianity was simply what one believed, going to church was what one did.


All that is gone.


For anyone for whom success is the measure of truth and power and influence the measure of success then the Church and Christianity are in serious trouble. It must seem as if there is something seriously wrong with what we teach, what we preach and what we do if we have been consigned to the margins in this way when we held the centre for so long.


To begin to understand what has happened and how we should respond we should, as Christians, begin by turning to the story of God’s people as it is told in the Bible. Are there instances there where our predecessors have similarly seen a collapse of their position, a loss of power, of their place in the world? How did they react? What do our Scriptures say we should think and feel, what we should do, when faced with failure, defeat and exile?


It has often been said, I think rightly, that the single most important and decisive event in the creation of the Old Testament as a collection of writings is the final destruction of the Kingdom of David by the Babylonians in 586 BC.


David’s line had ruled in Jerusalem and the priests of the nation had sacrificed in Solomon’s temple for hundreds of years. The kingdom and the priesthood were said to have been established directly by God and to have a special place in God’s plan for creation. David’s descendants were anointed by God to rule and the priests to maintain and protect the place of God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. The books that record this remain Scripture for us.


Finally, though, the king was overthrown and replaced by a governor appointed from Babylon. The Temple was destroyed, the Holy of Holies desecrated, the Ark of the Covenant and other objects from it removed to who knows where and handled who knows how or by whom.


What a shock, what a blow, to those who believed themselves to be those chosen by God to be his people. To represent him and to be the custodians of his very dwelling place. What a shock to see all that swept aside by the armies of Nebuchedrezzar of Babylon.


This is a disaster on a scale unimaginably greater than a collapse in baptisms and church attendance or the inability to make one’s voice heard on matters of legislation. This is a matter of it being made impossible to worship in the way one has been taught to worship and of seeing institutions one believes directly set up by God himself and vital to his purposes on earth utterly destroyed.


Into this situation Jeremiah the prophet spoke words of warning and words of consolation, he spoke of the acceptance of judgement and also of faith in promises made. The story we have heard of Jeremiah’s purchase of land is part of his attempt to make the people of Israel see what is happening to them in the light of God’s plan for them and to inspire them to perseverance in faith through all their troubles.


As the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem, as the city of God, Zion itself, approached its fall, Jeremiah urged not heroic resistance, not confidence that God would save the city, but rather submission and surrender to Nebuchedrezzar, whom he described as the servant of God, bringing God’s judgement to God’s own people. That is why he is in prison as our passage begins. Zedekiah, King of Judah, has been pursuing a policy of rebellion and defiance against Babylon and has been claiming God’s blessing. All along Jeremiah the prophet has been denouncing this policy and denying that it accords with God’s will. He has been urging the inhabitants of the besieged city to throw themselves on the mercy of their enemies.


Now however he adds a new dimension to his proclamation. He buys his ancestral land and in so doing says that beyond the destruction of the nation that God is working through Nebuchedrezzar is rebirth. He says that God has not abandoned his people, he is simply forcing a change of direction on them. On the other side of defeat, overthrow and exile there is new life, a renewed mission from God.


Jeremiah’s message to Israel is a twofold one. First he say to them: your special place in God’s plans does not guarantee victory at all times, it does not mean that you will always succeed and prosper. Sometimes you will be visited with defeat and failure. When this happens you are to accept it and seek God’s purpose in it. You can raise your voice in anger or in sadness but you are not to conclude that God has abandoned you, nor are you to turn away from your tasks of worship and witness, or from the attempt to live as God has ordained.


Secondly he says: whatever problems and setbacks are encountered God’s promises remain in place. His people have their duties and they also have their promised possessions and privileges. For the ancient people of Israel that was deeply connected with possession of the land. The action of purchase that Jeremiah undertook was close to the very heart of the covenant with God.


The promises we have in the new covenant in Christ’s blood have been transformed from that. We are promised eternal life in a world made new. This promise is not the possession of a nation but is open to all. We receive it on behalf of all the nations and we proclaim it to all the nations. Nonetheless the confidence and faithfulness that Jeremiah both urged and demonstrated are not different from the way we should respond to the problems of the Church.


God’s promises in the new covenant do not depend on the strength and success of the Church, far less of any individual denomination or local church. They depend only on God’s trustworthiness. What more can we need?


Good Friday (John 19:16b-30)

It is finished”. Jesus hangs on the cross. He gives his spirit up to God. Now it is Friday. Christ is dead. We are left, like the women at the foot of the cross, to mourn. Good Friday is a day to mourn, a day to remember, a day to weep. A day when those who love Jesus turn to one another, like Mary and the disiple Jesus loved and pledge to take care of one another.

Good Friday is a day to recall that while Christ is with us always he is also absent. That while we remember him faithfully we are also like those first followers were on that first Friday.

How many of us expect to see the risen and ascended Christ walk our streets? How many of us expect to hear and see him in life? For how many of us is the return in glory a real and vivid expectation?

We adapt to the life we know, as the disciples thought they would have to do. We accept that the world is full of sickness, pain and death. We learn to live with injustice, starvation and war.

This world is not the new creation we are promised, any more than Jesus hanging broken on the cross is the messiah his followers were looking for.

Like them we look at a broken and bleeding world and we look to one another to make it bearable. We come into the Church as Mary went into the disciple’s house, looking for sanctuary and comfort.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Jesus himself commanded it from the cross.

It isn’t enough, though. He had promised them that he would return to them, and he did. He has promised us that he will return to us, and he will. This is Friday and we should mourn but even on Friday, even through the long Good Friday that is our lives without the physical presence of our saviour and without the recreation of all things, we have to remember and believe the promise of Easter, the promise that all, in the end, will be well.

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.”