Monday, 16 July 2018

Knowledge puffs up, love builds up


15/22July                    1 Corinthians 6-8


In this fourth sermon in our series on 1 Corinthians, we come to chapters 6,7 and 8. In these chapters, we find Paul referring to letters that he has been sent by members of the Corinthian church, and responding to the issues that they have raised. As he tackles their questions, Paul keeps the heart of his message the same as it has been, and will be throughout the letter: followers of Jesus must try to live in unity. The need for unity is more important than differences between believers. The need for unity is more important than being on the winning side in an argument. The need for unity is more important than whether you believe yourself to be the one who is technically in the right.

Paul, living in Ephesus at the time that he wrote his letter, may well have had opportunities to learn from the apostle John, both in Ephesus and in earlier years in Jerusalem. He may well have heard John’s stories of Jesus’ teaching, many of which would later be put together to form John’s gospel. Paul would have learned from John, and from his own listening to the holy spirit, that unless the followers of Jesus are as one, living in unity and love, then the world will not believe in their message. Jesus prayed (John 17.22) that coming generations of followers would be one, so that the world might believe. But why should the world believe a message of love delivered by a church which demonstrates a lack of love? Why should the world believe in a God of love when we are seen to argue amongst ourselves? When we are heard belittling each other? So often what we demonstrate is that we do not love each other – or at least we don’t act as if we do. When that is what people see, why should they believe in our God of love?

In Corinth, Paul had heard, two believers were at loggerheads with each other, and had taken their case to the public courts. See these Christians, how they sue one another! Paul was troubled that their disagreement was being dealt with so publicly and acrimoniously. They should, he felt, have found wise people within the Christian community to help mediate the problem and find a loving way to sort it out. By going to court, the church – and by association, Jesus himself – was brought into disrepute.
The church – and Jesus – was brought into disrepute too by the behaviour of some members of who told Paul ‘I have the right to do anything’. Paul taught that Jewish law no longer applied, but his teaching was being misused by some church members to justify and ‘anything goes’ attitude that included a horrifying strand of sexual immorality. Paul had to put their thinking straight. The law may no longer apply, but the way of love and unity with God is a way of holiness. As the body of Christ, we must strife to behave like Christ. Or, if you like, what Cranmer described as a ‘godly, righteous and sober life’. Using deliberate shock tactics, Paul returned to his image of the church as Jesus’ body, and that body as a vessel for God’s spirit. So if a church member uses a prostitute, or commits adultery, he was taking Jesus into that liaison with him. It’s a sobering thought. Our bodies should always honour God, and what we do with them matters. What we do with our bodies reflects on God. Sexual relations can be godly and beautiful. Sex is a gift from God. Sex is not shameful, nor is it unholy – so long as it only happens within marriage.

In chapter 7 Paul turned to their questions on marriage. Some of the members were anxious about what sort of relationships were acceptable. We still hear the same concerns from people joining the Christian community now. A young person engaged to a longtime girlfriend or boyfriend, finds faith in Jesus. But their partner is not persuaded. What do they do? Can a follower of Jesus commit to living with a non-believer? Paul responds that commitments already entered into should be honoured. Yes, marry him, he says. Though if you’re not engaged, don’t marry at all – single people can serve God ore effectively. Unless of course, temptation is so strong it will distract you from serving God. Then you must marry.

The important thing is to live out God’s love in a holy way, and to be properly loving and respectful in all of our relationships. This way, we reflect God’s love, and it will be seen and respected by others.

Chapter 8 is a section of the letter addressing questions raised by members about food sacrificed to idols. Members who were wealthy or well connected would regularly be invited to feasts in temples or private homes. Meat served at such feasts would have been dedicated to one of the gods. Leftover meat from temple feasts was sold in the market. So, as a rule, any meat available wold have been from a sacrifice of some sort. Some Christians, Paul included, had no problem with this. The gods weren’t real, Paul did not accept them or join with the worship of them. So when he ate meat he didn’t feel he was joining himself with a god, he was just enjoying his dinner. But not everyone saw it that way. For some people, eating this meat was offensive, or suggestive of double standards. And for some it carried strong memories of their days of joining in with the feasting and other indulgences at the temples, and was both a reminder of a sinful life and a temptation to return to it. Paul called upon Corinthian Christians who shared his ‘strong’ position to be more considerate to ‘weak’ ones who could not in conscience eat this meat. To force them to do so would be unloving. The ‘strong’ Christians who relied on their liberal understanding risked becoming ‘puffed up’, Paul warned. Remember, Paul included himself among this group, and perhaps was reminding himself as much as advising his fellow Christians, that an attitude based on what you ‘know’ to be right can lead to behaviour that is unloving towards others. Knowledge, Paul said, puffs you up, while love builds you up.

So we are not to approach any issue that we disagree on from the point of view of ‘I know best, I know the right answer’. Perhaps you do, but that doesn’t mean that the community is ready to act on what you believe. Instead, prioritise love. Prioritise a loving approach that builds up the people you disagree with and builds up the community as a whole.

Love that builds up undergirds unity. In this case, it meant that for a while at least some people would have to abstain from eating meat in order to support a loving and united community. So be it.

As we look at the issues that divide us today, when does knowledge puff us up, and risk exacerbating division instead of supporting unity? When do we put our desire to be in the right ahead of loving treatment of our fellow Christians? When do we allow division to be more important than unity, rightness to be more important than love?

Let’s examine ourselves carefully. What is our equivalent of meat sacrificed to idols, or of taking our fellow Christians to court? Is it the way we speak of each other in emails? Or on social media? Is it our fallings out over how best to care for our historic buildings? Or whether to pay parish share? In the wider Church of England at the moment we are publicly seen to argue over ordaining women, over inclusion of LGBT people, over how we deal with historic sex abuse cases, over how we invest our money. And the more we argue and rehearse our cases in the public domain, the more we seem to show people that there is no God. And we need to take care over this. I can assure you that the amount of argument reported in the press that apparently happened before and during General Synod very much exceeds what actually happened. If we air disagreements in public, even minor ones, they will be blown out of proportion. But what the world will read in the press will tell them that we are not a loving church. And if we are not loving, how can we persuade them that our God of love is real?

We proclaim that God is love.
We teach that we are the body of Christ.
And thus, as the body of Christ, we are as Christ, and we are love.
Or, as St John put it: ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them’ (1 John 4.16).

Paul’s teaching is as vital now as it was when he first wrote it down. We must prioritise unity based on love, even when that means personal soul searching and stepping away from our own personal priorities, away from defending what we feel we are in the right about, in favour of a common loving way.

Because knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor 8.2).

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Peter and Paul


It is AD 30. Passover has come and gone and a small but troublesome religious group was put down and dispersed. Rabbi Gamaliel had argued against it, but had been overruled by the stricter leaders in the Temple community. One of Gamaliel’s young students, a young man in his early twenties, was convinced by Caiaphas’s certainty and strong defence of the faith. He watched and learned from their tough approach. Perhaps, thought Saul, this could be the life for me. As a Benjamite, being a priest was never going to be an option, but working for these people to defend the one holy God from all these strange people who turn up with alternative movements, that would be a life worth living. A life devoted to serving the one true God.

Meanwhile, the dispersed group had reassembled in Galilee, home to many of them. One member of the group, a fisherman, married with young children, in his later twenties or early thirties, was reassessing his life. He had a trade, but for a while had begun to think he’d be leaving that trade behind in order to work permanently for the man he knew to be the Son of God, Jesus the Christ. A life devoted to serving the Son of the one true God. But he’d messed up. When things went wrong at Passover, Peter had failed. He denied Jesus, ran, hid, put his own life before Jesus’. Whatever Jesus might have suggested about Peter becoming ‘the rock on which I will build my church’, that wasn’t going to happen now. And he had mouths to feed.

John’s gospel suggests that Peter’s return to fishing wasn’t a success. A long night on the Sea of Tiberius yielded nothing, until Jesus intervened. Jesus had apparently already been fishing, or been to the market, because he was cooking fish when Peter and his friends met him on the beach. Breakfast preceded the conversation that put Peter’s life back on track. Jesus gave Peter the chance to say the words that wiped out the denials: I love you. I love you. I love you. And he responded by restating the calling: Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep. Tend my sheep. Jesus was telling Peter that whatever his doubts were, whatever he’d done, he was called to what we’d see now as the role of a bishop, overseeing and caring for the people of God. No more fishing then.

Peter returned to Jerusalem, with young John, Jesus’ brother James and many of the disciples. Others of the disciples and apostles began to spread out, taking the word of God around the world, but for now, Peter, John and James stayed in Jerusalem and became known as ‘the pillars of the church’. Jerusalem was a risky place to be. Caiaphas and Annas’s enforcers were determined to stamp out the Jesus movement. Peter would likely have heard of one of the lead enforcers, young Saul, if only by reputation. And it probably wasn’t long before Peter heard the story of what happened to Saul on the way to Damascus.

Saul, so certain about his beliefs, would not have been won over by the sort of gentle encounter that settled Peter in his calling. For Saul, Jesus met him in his full glory, offering not breakfast and gentle talk, but old-fashioned, old testament style lights in the sky, voices from heaven and blindness after the conversation that could only be cured when obedience to God’s demands was fulfilled. Saul was young, determined and quick-thinking and Jesus met him as such, calling him to share his new insights across the known world. Saul started this immediately, despite at this stage not fully understanding what he was talking about, preaching first in Damascus and then in Jerusalem, where Peter will surely have heard the strange story. In both cases, Saul’s energy in preaching about Jesus was as strong as it had been in persecuting him, and the result was a huge risk to his own life. Perhaps – we shall never know – Peter was involved in organising the group of believers in Jerusalem who took Saul into their care and sent the young man home to safety with his own family in Tarsus, persuading him that – at least for now – he should curb his loud preaching, which was putting him and others in danger.

Saul stayed in Tarsus for a while, presumably during this time reverting to his Roman name, Paul. He probably took up the family trade, tent-making, and worked with his father in his workshop in Tarsus. At some point he travelled to Arabia, following the common practice of people who had encountered God and needed time to pray and reflect – going to the desert. He followed the example of John the Baptist and many prophets before him, and indeed of Jesus himself. Paul doesn’t tell us how long he spent on this extended retreat, but it changed and matured him, and gave him time to really study the scriptures, seeing how Jesus is present right from the beginning of Genesis, and to work out what he, Paul, believed. He went back to Tarsus and settled down.
There is probably a gap of about ten years between the dramatic conversion experience and the day when Barnabus fetched Saul and asked him to come on a mission to Antioch with him. When God calls us, however instant and dramatic the call and conversion might be, he always gives us time to fully prepare ourselves, to learn and to become ready for the work ahead. Peter had years listening to Jesus and then gradually learning more as he and the other apostles began settling the church in Jerusalem. Paul had years too, spent very differently, but equally important. Once Paul got started, his was to be a life of travelling, staying in places for between a few weeks in some cases, and a couple of years in others, sharing the good news, calling local people in leadership, and then leaving them to get on with being the local church. Paul and Barnabus were apostle evangelists, travelling, teaching, starting new things, moving on.

Peter had a different call. Surely, he shared the good news too, and hearing from him must have been incredibly exciting – he was one of Jesus’ best friends, so his story was as direct and correct as you could get. But when he travelled, it wasn’t to found new churches but to encourage and support existing ones. People like Paul and Barnabus got things started, and Peter followed to strengthen, bless and support the young church communities. And sometimes to correct things that were not happening as they should.
Peter was a man who avoided conflict at all costs, even if that meant retreating from a stated position and looking weak. He would doubt his own mind when faced with arguments from people who were good at offering a strong argument and being determined and unmoving about their positions. James, Jesus’ brother, appears to be the kind of strongly spoken person who could persuade someone like Peter to step back from a position he’d taken. Paul was going to have a similar effect – leading Peter to find himself caught between the two opposing views that Paul and James took.

That happened in Antioch, when Peter’s belief that it was OK to eat with Gentiles, and that they should be included fully in the Jesus movement, a belief that Paul held strongly and unmovably, was challenged by James, who cited Jewish law. Peter got caught between the two, and Paul felt his behaviour was weak. Being caught between those two strong personalities must have been pretty stressful for Peter. The conflict led to the council of Jerusalem, at which the inclusion of Gentiles was agreed, and a set of rules was drawn up – a compromise position which probably pleased only Peter. Paul was given the title ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’, and from that point on his life was one of constant movement on his mission to share the good news and to care for the poor (in the form of a collection for the church in Jerusalem).

Perhaps Paul and Peter wrote to each other after that. Paul had stayed with Peter during the council, so they’d had time to get to know each other well. Peter wrote in one of his surviving letters that Paul’s letters were confusing and easily distorted, but that Paul was wise. We can say with certainty that they had contact and knew each other’s movements. Peter went to Corinth after Paul had been there, again to encourage and support the young Jesus movement in the town, and Paul mentions this in 1 Corinthians. Paul also mentions, in the course of an argument with the Corinthians about whether leaders like Peter or Paul should be financially supported by the local church, that when Peter travelled, his wife was with him. Presumably by the time Peter was a travelling apostle-bishop (in the way we’d see a bishop – the word as used at the time applied to local leaders, more like our parish priests), their children were independent and so she was free to join and support him in his missionary work.

We don’t know how extensive Peter’s travels were. Our evidence for their lives comes from their letters and from Luke’s account in the book of Acts. Acts was almost certainly written as part of the defence case for Paul when he was tried in Rome. That is why so much of the work of the early apostles – Thomas, for example – isn’t there. It wasn’t relevant to Paul’s case, and Luke didn’t know Thomas. Luke was a travelling companion and fellow missionary with Paul in his later years, and shared a house with him in Rome. It is likely that Peter had come to Rome before Paul – he certainly wasn’t in Jerusalem during the dramatic days of Paul’s arrest, so he must have been visiting churches in Europe and probably heading in that direction. Jerusalem became a very unsafe place to be, and it is unlikely that Peter returned there.

In the house that Paul and Luke shared in Rome – you can make out parts of the first century structure amongst the later additions and adaptations – there is a 16th century sculpture representing Paul and Peter in conversation, and Luke writing down their words.

We can date Paul’s house arrest in Rome to the early 60’s AD, so the traditional images that show Paul and Peter as old men don’t give us a really accurate image to imagine them from. Even at this point in their lives Paul would have been in his mid to late fifties, Peter maybe a little older. The likelihood is that Paul didn’t live beyond his 60th birthday, Peter probably not much older than that. So not old men. And don’t imagine Paul with long hair, despite images, including the sculpture I’ve mentioned, showing long hair. Paul despised long hair on men and said so very firmly. So imagine for yourself the scene that the sculptor wanted you to depict. There, in that little Roman house, two men in their late fifties, remembering, telling each other things that filled in the gaps, considering together the words of Jesus, and all they had learned over their years of leadership. And Luke, listening, writing it down, making notes that informed his gospel and his book about the early church.

Peter settled in Rome, and lived the life of the apostle-bishop supporting the Jesus movement. After his death in the persecutions that followed the great fire of Rome, Peter was spoken of by the people of Rome as the first apostle-bishop of their experience, and the father of their church. They hid and guarded his remains and years later, when Christianity was the state religion, they retrieved then and built the first basilica of St Peter around them.

Paul didn’t settle. Rome was only ever a stopping off point on the way to a new mission ground in Spain. We can only speculate that he got to Spain – but the people of Tarragosa insist that he did. It seems he also revisited some old haunts, before finally returning to Rome, perhaps to support the church in the days of persecution. And Paul got caught up in the persecution too. His remains, like Peter’s, were hidden and guarded by Christians who recognised him as a great apostle-evangelist, and who reflected on the words he had written to the Roman church in almost his last surviving letter. Those remains, like Peter’s, were moved and a great basilica built in his honour.

And so these two men, whose lives were entwined by their devotion to serving Jesus and their different but connected callings, are still remembered together in Rome, and on their shared patronal day, and in churches like this one. Here we hold together the apostle-bishop, with his doubts, and his avoidance of conflict, and his encouraging, loving ways, and the apostle-evangelist, confident, loving and argument, wise but sometimes very confusing. Some like to suggest that Peter started the church in Rome and Paul the church everywhere else. We’d do well to listen to Paul’s wisdom on this: Jesus started the church everywhere. Jesus is the foundation and the cornerstone. The church that Jesus starred wouldn’t have got going and established, in Jerusalem, Corinth, Rome or anywhere else, without both Peter and Paul, and the others that Jesus called to the task. Both men, called so differently, so different in character and background, and different in their calling and task in the church, both men were essential to the beginning of the Jesus movement. They weren’t the only essential men, and we do well to remember that others, like James, or Thomas, or Barnabus, or Philip, did equally important work in those early days.

And every one of them would remind us that some things don’t change: while the church has a collection of leaders – among them bishops and evangelists – it remains as it has always been, the church of Jesus. Founded on Jesus, supported by Jesus, following Jesus. Seeking the will of Jesus and trying to do it. Loving Jesus. Living lives devoted to serving the Son of the one true God. We are a Jesus movement, not a Peter or a Paul movement. If we remember that, and live it out today, then Peter and Paul have well fulfilled their calling.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Partying when the parents are away


1/8 July                    1 Corinthians 4-5

                                                           

Mum and Dad are having an evening out. They’ve left a friend to sit in the house with their teenage children, but the young people have the sitter twisted around their little fingers – those sitters just don’t have the rights or authority over their teenage charges that Mum or Dad would have. And this is too good an opportunity to miss. Mum and Dad are out – we’re having a party!
Many a tv soap, sitcom, coming of age movie, teen novel or even advert has included this scenario. The results vary. Yellow Pages got the French polisher out in time to ensure that Mum and Dad never found out. More often, the parents walk in on the party, with predictable results.
Paul, writing to the Corinthians, is the Dad in the scenario. He’s had a call – perhaps from the outraged next door neighbours. Your kids have ignored the sitters and now they are having a very wild party. Do something about it!
First, Paul has to remind the Corinthians that he is the dad, and that he does have authority. They have been treating him, and other people who’ve been in leadership in the town, with disdain. They’ve treated him as if he were a babysitter – and in the Roman period a babysitter was likely to be a household slave, and so of less importance in the household than the children he is trying to care for. But I’m not the sitter, said Paul. I’m the father – the head of the household – that’s my place as an apostle.
The Corinthians imagined that they could judge the worth of Paul as an apostle, as if he were a slave in the household. Imagine if a modern Anglican congregation decides that they won’t have the bishop to visit, because they don’t like the way he tells stories in his sermons. That would of course be inappropriate. The bishop has authority in his or her diocese, and has the right to come and talk to a congregation, whether or not they like his storytelling style. The same was true for Paul, in his opinion, and he felt that in suggesting otherwise, the Corinthians were getting puffed up – a phrase he uses a lot. It’s often translated as arrogant in the translation we hear in church.
And the worst of it was, that while they were behaving in this puffed up way towards Paul, the Corinthians were behaving pretty badly themselves. Yes, Paul admitted, he had faults. Everyone has faults, and they will, quite rightly, be judged by God. There must be judgement, our faults must be corrected, and the day we each have to face that will be very uncomfortable indeed. But it seemed that the Corinthians were pointing out the speck in Paul’s eye while ignoring the plank in their own. And it was a very big plank.
Now, Paul had written to the Corinthians about this particular plank on a previous occasion. He had outlined the problem: there was a particular case of sexual immorality which the church was not only ignoring, but even seemed to be boasting of their tolerance and liberality in permitting it. In this case, the immorality involved both adultery and incest – a man living with his stepmother. Paul had explained that such sin could not be tolerated by Christians, and that they could not mix with people who sinned in this way, but his letter had not been fully understood. Rejecting his authority to speak on the matter, the Corinthians had objected that if they could not mix with sinners, then the only way to avoid them would be either to die or to move to another planet. The world is full of immorality, it’s unavoidable. You can almost hear the teenager from the movie saying ‘duh’ or see her rolling her eyes in despair at the daftness of what is being asked of her.
So Paul corrected their misunderstanding. Yes, the world is full of sin, and we don’t have the option of moving to another world. But that’s not what I meant, said Paul. What I meant is that people call themselves Christians, and yet who commit sin in this way, knowingly, are no longer welcome in the church. They should be thrown out. I am telling you, he said, to meet together and to throw out the man who is living with his stepmother, and because I believe that is what you should do, I’ll be with you in spirit when you do it.
That’s tough. It means doing something really uncomfortable. Something that will, without question be very unpopular with some people. But it is necessary. Paul expected the Corinthians to act on his instruction – and not only with regard to the man living with his stepmother and other sexually immoral people, but to anyone who thought they could be a part of the church and yet still be a thief, or live greedily at the expense of others, or continue to worship idols, or be deliberately rude and belittling of other Christians, or be a drunkard. Any such people must be cast out.
Now, let’s be clear. Paul was not advocating intolerance. We are all sinners and we are all relying on Jesus for the grace that saves us from our sin. Paul’s whole theology is a theology of the cross, of the astonishing gift of forgiveness that comes to us as a gift from Jesus. Because of that gift of forgiveness which saves us, given to us by the Son of God, we call Jesus ‘Lord’. Jesus, the Son of God, is our King, our Lord – and that isn’t just a title or a phrase without further implication. If we call Jesus Lord, then we are saying that we submit to Jesus’ authority, that from this point onwards we live according to Jesus’ principles. These principles are found in scripture and are the basis for all our behaviour and choices. Thus a thief who calls Jesus Lord is forgiven, and receives eternal life with Jesus. But that new Christian must cease to be a thief, because robbery is unacceptable for a follower of Jesus – God’s commandments forbid it. If the man who was a thief really means it when he calls Jesus Lord, he will never steal again. Indeed he will try to make good the hurt he caused in his previous life of thieving. But what if the thief reasons differently, and thinks that because God forgives us, that he can continue to steal? As soon as he takes something that does not belong to him, he is as good as announcing that he does not believe Jesus to be Lord after all. Because he is not obeying Jesus’ principles, he is not living according to God’s law of love, rather he is choosing a human way of selfishness. Every time he steals, Jesus is not his Lord. To steal and then to join other Christians in worship is hypocrisy, a lie, and it must be challenged. The Christian community must say to him: change – really change this time – or go.
Over the years, much of the Christian church has become as soft and confused on this subject as the Corinthians were. The distinction between a tolerant, forgiving welcome for all, and the obligation to live according to God’s holy law for those who have accepted and proclaimed Jesus as Lord, has become blurred. We tell ourselves that tolerance and love are the same thing. But sometimes tolerance isn’t love, its lazy. Sometimes tolerance is a way of avoiding the unpleasantness of saying hard things, or of being seen to act in a way that the community around us would not like. And occasionally tolerance is code for not wanting to challenge the community leader, if she or he is the person who is failing to live out the life of one who lives what they proclaim: Jesus is Lord.
The results of that failure can be horrendous. In Corinth, a horrible sinful situation was being tolerated in a way that reflected very badly on the whole Christian community. At the present time we can see it in the investigations into sexual abuse in the church. In living memory, leaders in the church have committed acts, or turned a blind eye to others committing acts, that deny Jesus’ lordship. Jesus was clear about sex having a place only in a monogamous marriage. He was also clear that to hurt a child was the worst of sins – better to have a millstone tied around your neck and be dropped into the sea than to hurt a child. And yet abuse has happened in church schools and camps, in church choirs and confirmation classes, in convents and private homes. It has been perpetrated by choirmasters, nuns, children’s leaders, churchwardens, vicars, even bishops. And others have seen it happening and said and done nothing. It is shameful. It is sinful. It stains every one of us. And every time it happened, every time a leader let it by without passing, the act denied that Jesus is Lord. Anyone who has been involved in such behaviour and does not repent, utterly and unchangeably, does not have a place in the community of people whose bottom line is ‘Jesus is Lord’.
As a whole church, we are in the same shamefaced position that the Corinthians were in over that poorly judged relationship. Just as the people of Corinth could be justified in thinking that Christianity was immoral and not to be trusted, so the people of our world today might feel the same. As they read the papers or listen to the news and hear the stories coming out from the inquiry into sexual abuse in institutions in this country, including many shameful stories from our churches, they can justifiably wonder just what it means to be a Christian. And it means this: we reject such appalling sin. And any sinner who does not repent can not be a part of the church.
St Paul made it very clear to the Corinthians that he expected them to get into line on this. Sort it out he said, before I get there, because I want to arrive smiling, not threatening you with a big stick. Imagine again, if you like, our teenage party throwers. Someone told Dad and he has phoned them. I’m on my way home now, says Dad. You’ve got time to sort it out – in fact, I’m sending uncle Tim to give you a hand. Clean up! I want to find the house clean and tidy and empty of party guests when I get back. If I do, all will be well, but if I find it’s still a mess and that you’re not sorry, well, you’ll be in trouble.
Perhaps, when we look at ourselves and the way we live today, we need to imagine that phone call happening now. Imagine a hotline from heaven, and Paul calling us, and saying, I’m coming, and I really want to be pleased when I get there… make sure I am. However hard the sorting out is. As a church that means getting to grips with issues like sexual abuse and really, properly changing and challenging each other. What does it mean for each of us, who are listening today? Can we all say ‘Jesus is Lord’ and not undermine that declaration by our actions when we’re not in church? And if not, can we find the courage to sort ourselves out, and to remove all that falls short of our declaration? Would Paul be able to greet us with a smile, or will he need his big stick?

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A divided church

17/24 June                    1 Corinthians 3


World cup fever has broken out again, and people choose their sides. The real fans get even more picky in their support, naming players and coaches that they follow. It happens in all sports and indeed in every sphere of life. Children at school consider which teacher is the one they like best. Music fans express preferences for particular bands or composers. You’ll even find vicars discussing their preferred theologians. We take sides and follow personalities, styles or opinions that appeal to us. Sometimes the sides we take lead us into disagreement and even into conflict with others. The way that others with differing views express themselves can feel oppressive or threatening. I recall attending a rugby match not long ago and sitting among a group of fans of the opposing team. Normally that is a pleasure at rugby matches, but this group of away fans were vocally aggressive towards my team and to the fans supporting my team. Which meant me. In the end the experience was so unpleasant that I left the game early, feeling pretty ruffled and very disappointed, because that just wasn’t how watching rugby is supposed to be.
That ruffled and disappointed feeling is magnified considerably when a lack of unity and an outbreak of bad behaviour towards others turns up in a church. The church of Christ is the body of Christ. Jesus has only one body, so if parts of the body start turning on each other, that’s a sign of very poor health. Jesus prayed for his body, his followers, to be united - to be one – in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. That is a profound, deep, inseparable unity. We are called as Christians to pray for that depth of unity, and it follows that we are to work for unity amongst ourselves. To work to ensure that the body of Christ is a healthy body, with all the parts working together for the good of the whole.

So when Paul heard that the people in the church in Corinth were arguing among themselves, he was deeply disappointed. And to make matters worse, the church members were setting up Paul, his old friend Peter and his new friend Apollos as if they were the cause of the divisions. When the Corinthians argued and created party groups under the notional leadership of Paul, Peter and Apollos, none of the three of them were even in town. So as Paul wrote to them, he wanted the Corinthians to stop taking the names of the apostles in vain and to look properly at their own behaviour. And as he wrote, he effectively said to them: you are behaving childishly. You are blaming Paul, Apollos, Peter and even Jesus for your divisions. Grow up and consider who is really important!

Paul gave examples. He compared the Corinthians to plants in a garden. Neither he nor Apollos was responsible for their growth. They were a pair of gardeners working for God, who makes the plants grow. Then he compares the Corinthians to a building site -specifically, given the materials he describes, the Temple in Jerusalem. Paul is a worker on the site, the Corinthians are the building, the Temple. But Jesus is the foundation, and like the Temple in Jerusalem, God – in the form of the Holy Spirit – lives in the Temple. The Temple is God’s home, and so it is holy. And yet the same people who are the home of God, the Temple or church of God, spoil it by arguing and behaving selfishly, perhaps forgetting that God is there. And so the Temple is spoiled, and that spoiling is self-inflicted.

The church in Corinth consisted of a number of groups meeting in people’s homes who occasionally came together as a larger group for special occasions. Even on those occasions they were still meeting in a private home, possibly that of Titius Justus next to the synagogue, as they did when Paul was in town. One of the house churches met at Gaius’s house. Another met at Phoebe’s in Cenchrae. There were probably a couple of others too. When they all came together there were probably no more than forty or fifty people -no more than could fit into a largish house. So Paul was writing to a group of people that was a bit smaller than the Living Brook Benefice’s total of regular worshippers.

There’s not as much difference between that first century church and this twenty-first century church as you might imagine. Living Brook too is full of human beings who forget that each of us is a temple of God. We too forget that since we are the body of Christ we should work hard for unity instead of nursing the disagreements we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We too damage the church, and make it ugly and unattractive to others, by allowing our opinions to become more important than the shared vision. We too forget that the foundation is Jesus,that the growth comes from Jesus. We too get caught up in who we follow:
 ‘I’m in the pro-pews party’.
‘I’m in the anti-pews party’.      
‘I’m in the ‘fill our church with children’ party’.
‘I’m in the ‘church is not a place for children’ party’.
‘I’m in the ‘every service should be a communion led by the vicar’ party’.
‘I’m in the ‘only lay-led services lead to growth’ party’.
Worst of all, even those who proclaim that they follow me, or some other member of the clergy. My heart sinks.

We live in the same danger as the Corinthians church. We risk putting our own ideas and assumptions ahead of God’s wisdom. We risk putting our disagreements with others in our churches ahead of what God wants to do, and then we get in God’s way. And all too often we disguise our behaviour by labelling it as following some respected person, whether it’s the Rector or some other leader.

There is only one person we should be following, now as then, and that is Jesus. And if following Jesus feels like a foolish option compared to the way that you would do it, well so be it. If what is best for the health of Jesus’s body isn’t the way you wanted to go, and doesn’t feel like the option you preferred, that’s the way that God’s wisdom goes. Sometimes it looks foolish compared to the world’s opinions. Sometimes it looks foolish compared to our own opinions.

If I took a long hard look at my own prospects from a worldly wisdom point of view – what I earn, where I have to live, the moves I have had to make, dragging my poor family with me – well, I could have done much better for myself and for them in a number of the other career paths I could have tried. Perhaps the same is true for you. And whoever thought being crucified was a good idea? Seriously? But the truth is, that particular crucifixion was the best thing that ever happened for us. And that for me and for my family no other option was acceptable or joyful, however much more I might have earned, or however much more time off I might have had. Our foolishness in the eyes of the world is God’s wisdom and it is very, very good.

So why do we allow our foolishness, our take on things, to get in the way of God’s wisdom within the church so often? Why do we allow our disagreements to colour the way that our churches feel, and to prevent the churches from flourishing? The Corinthian churches, by their behaviour, broke Paul’s heart. He loved them so much, and wanted to see them united in love, not broken by pointless squabbles. I want the same for Living Brook. A church that puts unity ahead of our own ideas. A church that puts love for one another ahead of self. A church that sets aside ego, and pride, and worldly self-esteem, in order to listen to Jesus. To follow Jesus. To seek the will of Jesus. To do the will of Jesus, together.

So let’s keep our taking of sides to the team we follow in the world cup, or the tennis player we want to win Wimbledon – and keep it out of the church.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Paul and Corinth


3/10 June                    1 Corinthians 1-2

May I speak, and may we hear, not words taught by human wisdom, but words taught by the Spirit. Amen.                                                                cf 1 Cor 2.13


Over the next few weeks the majority of our sermons will take us on a journey through St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. A lot of people shy away from Paul because he is considered difficult to understand. Even when he first wrote his famous letters, that was the case. St Peter, who got to know him well, wrote that Paul’s ‘letters are hard to understand’ and that some people distorted what Paul said, but that Paul was full of God’s wisdom (2 Peter 3.15-16). Paul’s letters are full of energy, and sometimes we see Paul working his ideas out as he spoke them to whoever was scribing each letter.
As we begin, I would like to invite you to read this letter in one sitting. Ideally, read it aloud – perhaps you could get together with some friends. Have a coffee, or a glass of wine, perhaps take a chapter each in turn, and read with as much energy and emphasis as you can. By hearing the whole letter in one go, you’ll get more of a sense of what Paul’s overall intention and how it all connects together, as well as getting more of a sense of Paul’s voice. I strongly commend it.
Let’s begin by setting the scene. Corinth is in Greece, in a region that was called Achaia. It had three large harbours, and was a centre of trading and commerce attracting people from all around the world. For hundreds of years it had been one of the most important of the Greek cities, and boasted many temples, including a particular cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. in 146BC the Achaians went to war against the Romans, and Corinth suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of Mummius, who destroyed the city. For the next hundred years Corinth was a shadow of its former self, until in 44BC Julius Caesar reinvented it as a Roman colony for former soldiers. Corinth became once again a thriving trading centre, now with a strongly multicultural feel. Its inhabitants were former soldiers and their families from all over the new empire, along with a changing population of traders from across the known world: India, China, Indonesia, North Africa, Italy, Spain, Northern Europe. Corinth became known as a place of new beginnings, where you could leave behind one identity and take up a new one. It attracted many freed slaves, living their free lives in a place where they weren’t remembered as slaves – some of the names mentioned by Paul in this letter are typical slave names – Quartus, for example – and may well be people who started out in Rome as slaves and came to Corinth for a new start. It was a city of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, a city where many people passed through as stopping points on longer journeys and others stayed, enjoying the vitality and colour of the place.
Here, early in 51AD, Paul arrived, travelling from Athens by himself, but soon to be joined by his friends Timothy and Silas. Paul stayed with Prisca and Aquila, Jewish followers of Jesus who had left Rome when Claudius threw the Jews out, and settled in Corinth, where they could thrive in their tentmaking business. Paul stayed with them and shared their workshop. AD 51 in Corinth was a good year for tentmaking, as it was a year when the Isthmian games was held. People travelled a long way to take part or to watch the great games, and many stayed in tents – the workshop would have seen plenty of new customers during that year.
Paul wasn’t there to take advantage of a great time for the tentmaking business, though that must have been an advantage. His purpose was twofold: to share the good news of Jesus, and to collect money for the poor members of the church in Jerusalem. The gospel was already known by some in Corinth. Prisca and Aquila were great evangelists, and others had passed through. The followers of Jesus in towns like Corinth were always glad to welcome visits from apostles like Paul, who encouraged them and taught them much more about Jesus. Other apostles travelled too. St Peter regularly visited the young churches across the Mediterranean, St Thomas journeyed in a different direction into India, and St John settled in Ephesus. Some time after Paul’s visit to Corinth, Peter also visited, and made just as strong an impression as Paul.
Wherever Paul travelled, he always began in the synagogue, or wherever Jews met if there was no synagogue. Following Jesus’ example, he began with the people of Israel. Given that Paul is known as the apostle to the Gentiles, and that he is known for his strong arguments for including Gentiles freely within the family of Jesus’ followers, it is easy to forget how important it was to him to make sure that wherever he went his Jewish brothers and sisters had the chance to hear that the scriptures had been fulfilled in Jesus. But we need to remember this in order to understand him. In Corinth Paul taught about Jesus in the synagogue for some time. He brought the synagogue ruler, Crispus, to faith, and baptised him with his whole household. Other Jews came to faith as well – and as always happened wherever Paul went, there was increasing tension between the Jews who followed Jesus and the Jews who did not, particularly over Paul’s mixing with Gentiles and his failure to insist that Gentile believers should fully convert to Judaism and undergo circumcision and obedience to the Jewish law. In Corinth, the Jews became abusive. Crispus had to leave the synagogue, and (as always happened with Paul), Paul had to stop preaching to the Jews and concentrate on the Gentiles.
In Corinth, the next thing Paul did was rather provocative. He accepted an offer to hold regular worship and teaching sessions in the home of a Gentile worshipper called Titius Justus. As it happened, Titius Justus’s house was right next door to the synagogue. Paul was asking for trouble. He saw a vision of Jesus telling him to stick with it, that all would be well, and that vision encouraged him to keep on talking of Jesus in the tentmaking workshop and at worship sessions in the house by the synagogue. Eventually the Jews – led by their new synagogue ruler, Sosthenes - made their attack on Paul, and brought him to the proconsul, probably some time in AD52. The proconsul was Gallio (brother of the philosopher Seneca), and his ruling was a landmark ruling that affected the way that Jesus followers were seen in Roman law.
Jews were excused attendance at Roman sacrifices and were not expected to worship the deified Caesar. They were an exception to the usual rules followed by Romans about religious practice. When Gallio listened to the case against Paul he heard what the Jews had to say and then forbade Paul to speak – he had probably been warned about the length of Paul’s speeches, or perhaps had heard about the long defence Paul had made when last on trial, in Athens. Instead Gallio ruled that the dispute was an internal one amongst Jews. By deciding that, Gallio was declaring that all Jesus followers counted – at least in the eyes of Rome – as Jews, and that meant that all Jesus followers were exempt from worshipping Caesar and the other Roman gods.
Paul stayed on in Corinth for a few more months before moving on in the company of Prisca and Aquila. Timothy and Silas stayed on for a while in Corinth, presumably helping the young church, especially the groups converted by Paul, to carry on comfortably without Paul present. Meanwhile Prisca and Aquila set up a new workshop in Ephesus, where Paul would later join them, and Paul went on a journey visiting other churches that he and Barnabus had founded during the first missionary journey. Prisca and Aquila soon met a new and enthusiastic young preacher in Ephesus who had learned about Jesus from group of John the Baptist’s disciples. The young preacher, Apollos, hadn’t quite got all his facts right, but the tentmaking couple invited him to stay with them and explained the gospel to him properly. By the time Prisca and Aquila were finished, Apollos was ready to be an evangelist, and the church in Ephesus trusted and encouraged him. Apollos felt called to go to Achaia, and was sent with the blessing of the Ephesians, and, no doubt, letters of recommendation from Prisca and Aquila. Apollos was as successful in his ministry as Paul – indeed possibly more so, as his preaching would have been easier to understand than Paul’s! By the time Paul wrote the letter we are studying, Apollos had returned to Ephesus, and he and Paul had got to know each other. Indeed, when Paul signed the letter off he wrote that he had tried to persuade Apollos to be one of the group who went to Corinth to deliver the letter. That didn’t fit in with Apollos’s plans, but he promised via Paul to make a return visit to Corinth before long.
Everything I’ve told you so far can be found in Act 18, or in 1 Corinthians. Some things, however, we can only guess at through the clues in the texts or in what we know of the history of the period. The church in Corinth, which would have consisted of a number of small groups meeting in private houses and only coming together as a whole city group very occasionally, grew and was influenced strongly by the different people who visited the city. Many of the churches were very charismatic in style – there was much speaking in tongues and a great expectation that the Holy Spirit would work dramatically amongst them. Over time, the cultural influences brought into the group from the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds came into conflict, and it wasn’t always easy to remember how to balance the cultural practices of Corinth with the teaching of Jesus. What to do when sitting wealthy people and poor people down to share a meal in the same room? What to do in a town with many prostitutes and different understandings of how marriage worked? Believers disagreed on how to deal with certain problems, and some of them wrote to Paul about their difficulties and disagreements.
The letter we call 1 Corinthians is almost certainly not the first letter Paul wrote to the Corinthian church. In chapter 5.9 Paul mentions a letter that he had sent before about a particular problem that had been brought to his attention. We’ll talk about the problem itself later in this series. After Paul settled in Ephesus with Prisca and Aquila, he received a visit from some of his Corinthian friends, including a group he calls ‘Chloe’s people’. They brought him letters from Corinth and updated him on the state of the church there. Although they could report good teaching from Apollos, and that Peter had made an influential visit, the news was not all good. Paul was very disappointed in what he was told, hearing about a church that divided itself, and members who put their arguments and grudges ahead of being one united group of followers of Jesus. He was also disturbed at the immoral behaviour of some of the members. This letter is his response to that visit.
Paul’s letters were usually co-authored with someone else, and in this case the other author is called Sosthenes. We can imagine Paul and Sosthenes sitting down with the scribe, and Paul pacing the room, dictating as he thought. Sometimes he lost the flow of thought or interrupted himself. Occasionally we can imagine Sosthenes interrupting or correcting him. For example, in today’s reading Paul listed those he had baptised – only Crispus and Gaius. I imagine, as he told the scribe to write that no one else was baptised by him, Sosthenes saying – ‘But Paul, you baptised Stephanus’s household too!’ A pause. ‘Oh yes, I did, didn’t I? Was there anyone else?’ ‘No, I don’t think so’. So Paul adds a comment about Stephanus and the patient scribe carries on. The ‘I’ in Paul's letters always denotes Paul, so we have to live with the frustration of knowing almost nothing about Sosthenes, or how he came to be writing with Paul.
We’ll think more about the divisions in the church that Paul was writing about in the second sermon of the series. If you don’t have time to prepare for this sermon series by reading the whole of 1 Corinthians in one sitting – although it would take you more than an hour – then at least read chapters 1-3.
Over the next few weeks we will get to grips with this famous letter, asking what it meant to the people of first century Corinth, and what it means to us today.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

One God, three experiences. Trinity Sunday 2018


When I pray, I often find it helpful to use short prayers. The kind of prayers that can be repeated many times as you try to settle down, concentrate on God and drive away the distractions that are all around us. The prayer I began with is the sort of thing I mean. My favourites are the Jesus prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner’, and a prayer given to me by one of the Clewer sisters during a retreat when I was preparing to get married: ‘Lord, may my whole being be directed to your service and praise’.
For the people of Israel, the short prayer that came – and comes – most easily to the lips is this one: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one’. From a young age, Hebrew children learned to recite this prayer frequently. Morning and evening, in the rhythm of travelling and in stilling oneself to pray: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. The words were given by Moses (we find it in Deuteronomy 6.4) in his summary of all of the law. The words to memorise and teach to your children – Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. St Mark tells us that Jesus repeated these words when asked what the most important law was.
In ages when many cultures believed that there were multiple deities, the Jewish, and then the Christian, insistence that there is only one God seemed barmy. Most cultures saw deities as more powerful variants of humanity – more akin to today’s comic superheroes than to the Jewish and Christian idea of God. So that constant reminder to oneself that the Lord is one was vital – a reminder of the real power and grace of the creator God when one was surrounded by idols.
Some outsiders, looking in on Christianity, find today’s festival a confusing one. If we insist that there is only one God, and indeed that it is the first of the commandments that we accept that there is only one God, why does it look as though we have three? We speak of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some theologians during the twentieth century developed ideas of what was called ‘the social trinity’, talking about the father, the son and the holy spirit communicating with each other, being in relationship with each other, even somehow dancing with each other – and this emphasis has made it easier to visualise three separate beings and to give the impression that we worship three gods.
Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. One God, experienced by human beings in different ways, ways that we describe as three persons. Why do we find ourselves needing to describe God this way? Because God is far too immense for us to understand. No human mind could ever understand the fullness of the living God.
St Augustine tells a story that reminds us how limited our human understanding is. He tells of taking a break from writing one of his great theological works, in which he was attempting to define the trinity – the Threeness of God – and going for a walk along the seashore. There he saw a small boy (who was of course an angel in disguise). The boy had dug a hole in the sand and was fetching bucket loads of water from the ocean and pouring it into the hole. Augustine watched him running to the sea, filling his bucket, running to the hole, pouring it out, over and over again. Eventually he could not resist asking the boy: ‘what are you doing?’ ‘I’m putting the sea into my hole in the sand’, said the boy. ‘Don’t be daft’, said Augustine, ‘you can’t put all that water into that little hole’. ‘Neither can you, with your human mind, put into it all the understanding of God’, replied the boy.
Well, we could give up. We can’t possibly understand God. But God wants us to understand just enough to be able to trust him for the rest. And so God comes to us and shows us what we need to know in order to believe that we are loved, and that because God loves us we are freed from sin, forgiven, and given life for ever with God, if we believe and trust in him.
And as, over the centuries, we’ve listened to each other’s stories of how we’ve experienced God, we have learned to think of God in three distinct ways. Each of those ways describes the same God, but each is quite distinct. By the fourth century, Christians had developed the idea of the Holy Trinity as the way to describe those ways of encountering God.
You have each been given a postcard today. The image on it is a photograph that I took earlier this year while on sabbatical leave and visiting the lovely church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It is a 13th century fresco painted by an artist called Masaccio, and depicting the Trinity in a way that is particular to northern Italy in this period. We see God the Father, the universal creator, crowned to represent the glory that is described whenever the Bible speaks of visions of God in heaven – like the one in our first reading.

Jesus called God Father, and taught us to do the same. Whenever you pray, Jesus said, say ‘Our father in heaven…’ Here the loving relationship between the father and the son is shown in a very moving way. If you look carefully, you will see that the father’s hands are supporting the weight of the cross. God so loved the world, Jesus told Nicodemus, that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have everlasting life. God’s loving support of Jesus in the image is his loving taking of the burden for every one of us. God came amongst us to share the burden of the world and to lift it from us – if we are prepared to let him. Part of the conceit of the painting is that although Jesus is shown here as dying – and in some variants of this painting, he is shown dead, lying in the father’s arms – we all know that Jesus is the one who brings life. He is, he told us, the resurrection and the life. The image captures a moment in the action of God in the world, but it is not the moment we live in. Jesus is risen, he is alive, and his life is the gateway to life with God for every believer.
That giving of life has been happening since the first moment of creation. In the beginning, we see God creating and the spirit of God – the breath of life – hovering over what was being created – and the word of God being spoken and bringing things into being. In the new testament Jesus explained that God is spirit, coming and going as unpredictably and uncontrollably as the wind. We often use the image of a dove to represent God as spirit, because St Luke described the spirit arriving at Jesus’ baptism as being like a dove. If you look closely, you can see that Masaccio has painted the dove between the father and the son’s heads in his fresco. It is as if the spirit of God is moving from father to son in order to give that resurrection life to the son. In this frozen moment the father supports his dying son and sends the spirit that restores him to life. The son in turn sends the same spirit to us, bringing us the same eternal life, and helping us to live well as followers of Jesus while we are in this life.
And so we see in this painting one God, three ways: God the creator, loving us into being and loving us as his children. God the son, by his death and resurrection offering us the grace of salvation. And God the holy spirit, bring us life, guiding us into becoming a church that reflects the image of the one God.
We experience and speak of God in three ways, but the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  So when we remember the command to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls and with all our strength, we are commanded to love God who is revealed in the bible as our creator and father – the one who made us and loves us; to love God as he is revealed in scripture as son and saviour, the one by whose grace we are freed from sin; and to love God as she is revealed in scripture as the spirit of wisdom and the bringer of life, the one who draws us together as communities in the fellowship that we call church.
St Paul, always a good and faithful Jew, taught us that there is ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is father of all’. And as we seek to love and serve our one God, it was St Paul who also gave us another short prayer, one that enables us to pray to God naming the three ways that we encounter him. In 2 Corinthians 13.13 Paul wrote the prayer that we all know very well, a prayer of blessing for the people he loved in Corinth, praying that the great gifts that God offers us will be theirs – and as we use the prayer, we claim the gifts of God as ours.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion (fellowship) of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Follow God's heart


Sermon preached at a service of prayer following the marriage of Sarah and Vanessa Elliott-Hart.

I think that one of the mantras of 21st century western society is ‘follow your heart’. We are encouraged to chase our own dreams, live according to our own desires, define meaning in life according to our own emotions. It’s well intentioned in some ways – following your heart requires self-awareness, and that’s good, and it suggests a loving attitude, which is also good. But it’s also a profoundly selfish and self-centred way of being – it is a way of being that asks you to do what you want to do. It doesn’t reference anyone else. So it isn’t a loving way of being and it isn’t, despite what some people think, a recipe for a good relationship.

So I want to suggest a Christian variant of this mantra, which I hope will serve you better: ‘follow God’s heart’. God’s is a heart of love. A heart that loved the world so much that he sent his only son so that all who believe in him will not perish but will have eternal life. A heart that loves so much that the process of giving us eternal life meant willingly going to the brutality and humiliation of the cross. Jesus told us to love as he loves us – and that is a sacrificial, other centred, self-giving love. The complete opposite of what the world requires, but when you look at our heroes, it is what the world often admires – people like Edith Cavell, Mother Theresa of Calcutta or Truus Weissmuller-Meijer, a Dutch Christian who risked her life on multiple occasions to bring hundreds of Jewish children out of Europe to escape the death camps. These women followed God’s heart and lived sacrificially to show God’s love to others. Of course, most of us do not live in such difficult times or places, and are not called to do such large scale acts of heroism, but it doesn’t change the rule of life for Jesus’s followers: follow God’s heart.
photo by Sebastian Unrau.

How do we do this? How can we possibly know what is in God’s heart, how can we bring the song of our own hearts into tune with God’s heart song? The clue is in the psalm, 139, and especially in verse 23, which we all said as a refrain throughout the psalm: ‘search me out, O God, and know my heart’. Throughout this beautiful psalm we are reminded that God knows us, thoroughly, completely, intimately. The writer invites God to search him, using a verb – haqar – that suggests an in-depth, intimate exploration. We’re not asking God to give us a quick once-over. No, we are asking God to give us the spiritual, emotional and intellectual equivalent of a fingertip search. And he’s never going to stop looking at us, wherever we are; whatever we do; he will know every moment.

In verse 3 the writer says ‘even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely’. That’s an interesting thought for when you are sitting down to write a sermon! From the moment of our conception God knows everything of us and loves everything of us. If we choose to respond to this intimate knowledge of God, then it moves from a one-sided approach by our all knowing, all present, all powerful God and becomes a relationship in which we can be touched and changed by God, and in which we can come to know God too. Verse 17 reads ‘how deep are your counsels to me, O God’. I love another translation of these words: ‘how precious to me are your thoughts, O God’. Actually, I find that awesome. The creator of the universe is yet so intimate with me that, if I’m prepared to listen, I can hear his thoughts. I can hear God’s thoughts – his counsel, wisdom, guidance, for me and for others. That’s astonishing – who am I, who are you, who is anyone, to hear God?

The big risk in this rule of life, following God’s heart, is that God expects to change us. As he searches us he cleanses, purifies, improves, directs and redirects. And God’s thoughts are new every morning. Yes, in essence, in love, God does not change. But as humanity grows and changes, as we individuals grow and change, the rules and conditions around us change. We must listen very carefully to God to make sure we get it right. Some people say that certain things can’t change. If it says something in the bible, it is fixed, an unchanging rule. And yes, changing things from what the bible says is very risky. We have to listen hard, be absolutely certain that we are hearing God’s deep counsel, his precious thoughts- that we are following God’s heart and not our own. When Jesus and St Peter and St Paul were here on earth, the bible consisted of what we now call the Old Testament. It set out clear rules for who could be included in God’s people and how they had to live. The people of those times, who read this psalm, would never have dreamed of adding sour cream to a beef stew, or eating a prawn sandwich, or a bacon one, or getting a tattoo, or changing the rituals that identified you as God’s child. And yet we think nothing of any of those things because the Holy Spirit showed the early followers that things could and should change. Peter and Paul faced years of opposition and hassle from others who didn’t want to risk changing what they found in scripture, who didn’t hear God’s thoughts as he told them to include people who had been excluded, and to change in order to welcome them. Paul and Peter faced a lot of abuse and harassing from fellow Christians as they argued for change. But they did it anyway because they were following God’s heart. It took courage, determination and a lot of prayer, but we benefit from that today.

I believe we live in such challenging times of change today. God’s precious thoughts, his deep counsel, challenge the church to see and do things differently, more inclusively. In a way I’m an example of that change as an ordained woman. I’ve had to deal with a lot of opposition and unpleasantness and I’m sure I have plenty more ahead of me. I’m hopeful that if I’m ever blessed with grandchildren they will grow up seeing that women and men as equal leaders is completely normal and obviously God’s will for his people. But we aren’t there yet. And there is a long journey ahead in listening to God as he shows us how to follow his heart when it comes to sexuality and gender identity. You are in the early days of change. I believe and hope that a new way is coming for those who allow God to search us and change us, those of us who really mean it when we pray ‘search me out O God and know my heart’. And we need to be as courageous, determined and prayerful as Peter and Paul. We have to be sure of our ground, sure of what God is showing us, and ready to live it out despite the opposition of people who see God’s precious thoughts limited to what we find in scripture.

God asks us to follow his heart because he loves us and wants us to love in the same way. Vanessa and Sarah, in marriage that means being committed to being changed by God and by each other. Being committed to seeking together, listening together, changing together. In marriage what changes and affects one person always changes and affects the other person – and in a marriage in which both people follow God’s heart, both people are changed and affected by God, and both live together to bring that love not just to each other but to everyone they have contact with. God’s design for humanity makes us much stronger, much more able, when we live in community – two are a lot stronger and a lot more able than one person to bear God’s searching, to hear God’s precious thoughts and to follow God’s heart.

So that is my prayer and my request to you: let God know your hearts, and together, follow God’s heart.