Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Conversion of St Paul Ardingly College 25 January 2017

How do you get to know God?

Some get to know him in a blinding flash, others find gradual illumination and many stay in the dark.

My own illumination has been through gradual flashes. Ardinian, or rather Giggleswickian, served by confirmation classes at my old school. The Chaplain counted a lot as Fr David counts for many of you.

It came also through a doctorate in Chemistry researching carbon polymers. As I opened up new realms of knowledge through neutron scattering, I had a sense Someone had seen these things before. 

Science works through humility so that hypotheses that get disproved are good news bringing advance. My old research field is a bit strange to me nowadays. I was fascinated though to read in last month's Scientific American of carbon-breathing batteries that use Aluminium to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere whilst making electricity. 

How do you get to know God?

We scientists pursue truth but many of us have a sense truth is with us and awaiting us. Reason and faith both lift us to God. Saul of Tarsus whose Conversion we’re celebrating today, originally followed a reasoned religion lacking faith. He lacked openness to the transcendent. God was in his religious books and laws so he was rattled to encounter the first Christians. They spoke of laws and indeed life itself transcended through the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

It was too much. He raged against it. But Saul was to become Paul, the reasoned man became the man of faith as heavenly light came over him on the Damascus Road. His eyes were opened to a God built less to his dimensions and more to those of God who is God!

How do you get to know God?
As God is truth you need to seek truth, but that's not enough. You need to be open to truth as something or Someone seeking you! 
The best of scientists like old Archimedes get eureka moments - I see it! These moments are, like Paul’s today, a lesson in humility, that is, in disbelieving yourself so as to see something more wonderful. To get to know God – and what an awesome, joy-giving and life-enhancing business that is - you need a readiness to loosen from self pre-occupation, see the big picture of reality and be put in your place!

That happened to Saul of Tarsus in a flash which really put him in his place. He was temporarily blinded, and had to be led by the hand into Damascus where he joined the very body he was persecuting.  Later on Paul wrote of this in 1 Timothy 1:16 I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.  Paul saw himself as the foremost of sinners since he had persecuted the very body he came to join and lead. If God can use me, he says, he can use anyone.

How do you get to know God?

Former Ardinian, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop writes of his formative days here and how each day he walked out on to the terrace to look at the view with friends as they shared aspirations for the future. God is before you in that inspiring view as much as he’s before you in Chapel. It’s a bit of a leap from Ian Hislop to St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain but here goes. St Nicodemus who lived on Mount Athos in the 18th Century also admired the grand views there. He pondered and came up with an astonishing two liner that captures what it is to be in the image of God. Human beings are the macrocosm. The whole universe is the microcosm. I repeat: Human beings are the macrocosm. The whole universe is the microcosm.

You can find God by pondering yourself, or, one step back, reflecting on what it is to reflect.  As your mind and heart contain the view from the terrace, and indeed, in a thought, the whole universe, you become in a sense greater than all that is as you contain it. Human beings are the macrocosm. The whole universe is the microcosm.

God is God and always will be God. We’re made in God's image capable of his glory but that capacity isn't automatic. People miss God through two deceptions. They reason to the exclusion of faith or they believe to the exclusion of reason.

The greatest threats to peace on earth are folk who deny the transcendent and folk in possession of mindless religion. God is love and love transcends reason – it goes beyond but not against reason.
To know God who is truth you need to be drawn beyond any mental construct. You might also need freeing, as Paul was, from false and compulsive images of God.

A few ideas this evening on how you get to know God. 

I want to encourage you to pray sometime, in quiet, on your own – maybe on the terrace as you admire the view, maybe in the Chapel Crypt before the Blessed Sacrament, to pray this honest and risky prayer:  God if you're there and you love me show yourself to me. Give me a vision of yourself more to your dimensions and less to my own.

It's an honest prayer - saying 'if you're there' tames reason as it admits we can't prove God is there however strong the evidence. It's a risky prayer because you're expressing a readiness to be put right on God by God – but… God is love! It’s an ongoing prayer - you need to wait for an answer. God if you're there and you love me show yourself to me. Give me a vision of yourself more to your dimensions and less to my own.

If you already know God you’re asking for a fuller vision of him, something I find myself doing often, but not as often as I should so I’m preaching this evening at myself too.

Have a go - you won't regret it!

In Paul’s own words to Corinth, God give you the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4v6)

God who shone on Paul shine on us all!

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Epiphany 3 Christian Unity 22nd January 2017

Do you want a faith that stands on the authority of scripture and yet remains thoughtful?

Teaching that rings true to the faith of the Church through the ages?

Would you value worship that is awesome yet accessible?

A  Christian community with loose boundaries and a vision for caring within the community?

Here we are - the Church of England!

We do not look down on Catholic or Free Churches but hold hands out to both as 'the ancient church of this land, catholic and reformed' (Catechism definition).

Our worshippers are evangelical, catholic, charismatic and radical because the Church has to be all these things.

Yes, we have our problems, some of our own making, but many on account of the honesty with which we are facing up to a fast changing world.

The Church of England is part of the Church in England and has respect for those of other Faiths or no faith at all.

We welcome all who wish to engage with Jesus Christ through the Bible and the Sacraments and through Christian fellowship and service.

As they first said of Jesus, 'Come and see!'        
An advertisement I put in the parish magazine some time ago written out of concern about the bad press the Church of England was getting at the time.

It came to mind preparing this sermon based on part of the second lesson set for today from 1 Corinthians 1.10-12.

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?

This call to unity coincides with the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity held every year from 18-25th January.

It seems to me that St Paul’s warning reaches us as a church at three levels, local, national and universal, so here’s a minute or two on each level.

First local. I inherited and hope I will hand on at Easter a high degree of unity and a great sense of collaboration as we seek to promote Christianity and develop the life of St Giles with an eye to growth in faith, love and numbers. We should not be complacent, but St Giles is a coalition of catholic, evangelical, charismatic and liberal Christians that is outwardly focussed. We have a mission ‘to grow in faith, love and numbers’ and that outward focus has borne fruit over the last year where the parish returns just completed show the worshipping community rose from 98 in 2015 to 107 in 2016. Since most people worship every other week our Sunday attendances from both services run at half that figure. The valuing of Christian unity at St Giles is evidenced by how long people stay on after the eucharist and by people who say they miss out when they miss worship here on a Sunday. The sense of unity is a draw, which I know the confirmation candidates have been touched by.

Some thoughts about Christian unity as locally expressed.

Second, nationally the Church of England has reached under Archbishops Justin and John and the General Synod agreement to hold together despite deep divisions over the permanence of marriage, the ordination of women and homosexuality. The latter is said to be the major current threat to us after the truces on remarriage of the divorced, now left for parish priests to operate, and an approval of the ordination of women which has also affirmed those who go with the wider Church’s opposition to this. Anglican traditionalists are finding fresh invigoration.

In the English Reformation marriage and ordination were affirmed as sacraments – that is God-given -  but lesser sacraments and in that perspective groups that want the sacraments to better fit our western culture have taken the lead. Those who see the sacraments as being unchangeable without the agreement of the universal church are now in a minority. Changing sacraments is like changing the heating system in a church. There’s an upheaval and a chilling effect. The national church is still in the middle of this and our membership is in decline. No easy answers here, just patience. The Holy Spirit is saying one thing to part of the church and another thing to the rest. We must wait and see and avoid knee jerk reactions, seeking to maximise unity as a national church which believes its part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’.

Thirdly let’s look at that international level of the universal church. About this Christians should really be getting impatient. In first century Corinth there were Chloe’s and Apollos’ and Cephas’ groups. In the world of the 21st century there are not three but 39,000 Christian denominations!

Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? He has. His purpose to bring all things together is being much frustrated. There’s a need for each Christian church to recognise afresh that they exist by God’s grace - and so do the other denominations! Only as the different churches come together to the foot of Christ’s Cross and admit our need of his forgiveness are we ever going to be made one, as Christ certainly desires.

This is happening worldwide whenever Christians opt to maximise cooperation with their sister churches. It was very good to see a good group of us down with the Roman Catholics on St Stephen’s Day where we were warmly welcomed by Fr Martin, Fr Vlad and Deacon Gerard. Alas this year we have no local celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The last Papal visitor to England, Pope Benedict, was welcomed to  Lambeth Palace by theologian Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams with these soul provoking words:  In 1845, when John Henry Newman finally decided that he must follow his conscience and seek his future in serving God in communion with the See of Rome, one of his most intimate Anglican friends and allies, the priest Edward Bouverie Pusey.. wrote a moving meditation on this "parting of friends" in which he said of the separation between Anglicans and Roman Catholics quote: "it is what is unholy on both sides that keeps us apart". Unquote. That should not surprise us continued Rowan Williams: holiness is at its simplest fellowship with Christ; and when that fellowship with Christ is brought to maturity, so is our fellowship with one another. As bishops, we are servants of the unity of Christ's people, Christ's one Body. And, meeting as we do as bishops of separated church communities, we must all feel that each of our own ministries is made less by the fact of our dividedness, a very real but imperfect communion. Perhaps we shall not quickly overcome the remaining obstacles to full, restored communion; but no obstacles stand in the way of our seeking, as a matter of joyful obedience to the Lord, more ways in which to build up one another in holiness by prayer and public celebration together, by closer friendship, and by growing together both in the challenging work of service for all whom Christ loves, and mission to all God has made.

Wise words. "it is what is unholy on both sides that keeps us apart".

Christian unity grows – locally, nationally or internationally as Christians grow together in both holiness and mission. Let’s make that our priority as much as we can in the coming year. Come Holy Spirit!

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Baptism of the Lord Diocesan Year of the Bible 8th January 2017

As we move forward with the Diocesan Year of the Bible it’s with the reminder of how God’s word has the power to transform our lives, communities and nation. Unless we’re being strengthened, challenged and encouraged by scripture we can’t be salt and light in our culture. When we fail to let the bible speak into our everyday life we miss out on tremendous blessings.

Christian faith is personal knowledge of God gained directly by revelation and mediated by the community of faith which is the Church. Theology is the interpreting of faith one to another in the church as in this activity of preaching and listening. Belief is an expression of faith and a work of theology and the Bible is the most authoritative expression of faith because it is directly inspired by God.  What the Church teaches, her dogmas and creeds and the writings of the Church’s Fathers and Mothers has authority second to Scripture.

Yes we need guidance in reading the Bible. Yes there are passages that are obscure and unpleasant. Yes reading the Bible requires discipline. But – well I hope what I share from my own take on today’s readings makes it that bit more clear - failing to let the Bible speak into your life is failing to fuel your faith and a very great missing out.

We find in the Bible good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a portrait to live up to and guidance on how we do that.

There are a few pew Bibles out if you want to put today’s readings in context. Or you may have Scripture on your phone. Let’s start in the middle with that second reading from the Acts of the Apostles which you can find as the fifth book of the New Testament straight after the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

If you find your way to Acts 10:36-41 we can follow through one of the earliest proclamations of Christian faith from the lips of St Peter, also, of course in the eucharist booklet on p2. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced:  how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem.

In the New Testament we read repeatedly of the impact of Jesus, God’s Child sent to make us God’s children. How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good. He had to do this because, and it’s true to this day, so many are oppressed. God saw that oppression and came to lift it. How did he do it?  We read on in v39 They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. Here in a sentence of the Bible we have the whole of Christianity, the kindling of faith. When Jesus Christ suffered and died God was in him. There was divine judo at play. Death flew at God and ended up upside down and out at the count.

Today’s second reading concludes in v43 with the consequent good news. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. When we read the Bible we’re reminded of its good news that all can start again through God’s loving forgiveness. There’s a new start available to all without any partiality, whoever they are and whatever they’ve done, if they will but repent, that is turn from self-interest and bow down before the living and true God manifest in Jesus Christ.
This good news is dynamite, blowing out any exclusivity or pride in religion, affirming God as God of everyone who’ll admit their need of him.

I take out of this second bible passage today what I take out of so many bible passages the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ I need reminding of day by day so my faith gets the regular tonic it needs in the counter-faith and post-truth world I live in.

We find then, in the Bible, good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and, secondly, a portrait to live up to and guidance on how to do that.

Let’s look at today’s other two readings for that portrait. The readings are linked to today’s feast of the Lord’s Baptism at the end of Christmastide and refer to the historical base of Christian faith. The Gospel from Matthew 3 – look it up right at the start of the New Testament in your Bible - tells of the event of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and how the Spirit came upon him. This was in fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah Chapter 42, our first reading, situated well into the Old Testament among the prophetic writings, that starts with a sentence that illuminates the event of Christ’s baptism. Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

In the Matthew passage we read how Christ was baptised reluctantly from his own point of view – he had the Spirit from his conception in the womb of Our Lady - but readily as an example to all he calls to put personal faith in him within the community of faith. The portrait in Matthew 3v17 is of you and I as much as of Jesus. This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
When we read the Bible with faith, that is, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that goes beyond reason, we see how God sees us and we gain grace or help to accommodate our lives to him.
To faith those words of the Bible prophesied in Isaiah 42 and spoken of Jesus in Matthew 3 are liberating truth about ourselves. You may feel done down by life, overcome by temptation, weakness and inadequacy but God loves you nevertheless.

Pick up your bible and read all over it words like these that are for youThis is my Son, my Daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. The Spirit is waiting to confirm to us the same words that were spoken to Our Lord at his baptism: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. That’s one way the Bible can work – as a love letter from God! There is one baptism for the forgiveness of sins and it confers the Holy Spirit. God’s Child Jesus was given to anoint us with his Spirit and make us God’s children. A gift though is given that needs to be received. For Christians to seek the renewing power of the Spirit – as we do receiving Holy Communion every Sunday - is a matter of seeking to be more fully what we are in Christ and nothing more or less than that!

We want to be a people that live knowing their need of grace! Christians share in the anointing of the Anointed One – Jesus is the Christ or Anointed One so he can share his anointing with us and speak into our hearts those words of adoption: You are my son, my daughter; with you I am well pleased.

The good news of Christmas and Christianity is the Son of God became the Son of Man so children of men could become children of God. This Diocesan Year of the Bible is a fresh invitation to ponder that good news, what it means for God to give us his Son and what it means for us to enter more fully what we’re meant to be as God’s beloved daughters and sons. I wish you every blessing as you discover afresh your heritage and enter into it afresh through Scripture and the Eucharist.