Sunday 22nd March 2015 – Lent 5
Earlier this week we witnessed a rare spectacle (unless we found ourselves under cover of cloud) – a near complete solar eclipse. Even if we did not see the full spectacle, the sky got darker, it got cooler – and you could see why earlier societies, without our scientific understanding of the process, would have been very much in awe of this sudden, unexpected darkening of the sun.
I recalled the time of the last eclipse that was seen in this part of the world in 1999. As it so happened we were in France, travelling back to the boat for the trip home. The road we were travelling followed the path of the eclipse. As the time of the eclipse approached, the French police ordered all cars into the motorway car parks. We found ourselves next to a group of Germans who had travelled down specially. The were equipped with a telescope that projected the image of the sun onto a screen and many of us watched this amazing spectacle – all except one 9 year old English girl, who was resolutely swinging on a swing. As the eclipse moved towards totality, her mother called to her to come across and see the image on the screen. ‘Mummy. can you not see that I am busy!’
The significance of the event was completely lost on her – I would suspect that this week, somewhere in England, a woman in her early twenties has heard this story repeated over and over again.
Then of course yesterday there were three matches, promising three different outcomes for the RBS Rugby Six Nations. And let’s not forget the women’s rugby team today. The outcome of these matches will have huge implications for the teams, for the players and for future sponsorship.
Each of these, the eclipse, the Six Nations matches have been keenly anticipated. Our newspapers, our TV screens have given detailed analysis that heightened our sense of anticipation, that had even the most sceptical keeping an eye on TV screens, on the sky, on the news headlines.
I want to run with these themes of anticipation and significance. Our Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah, written in a time of Exile, speaks of anticipation. As he wrote, Jerusalem was in ruins, her leaders in Babylon. This was a crucial period for the people. The old certainties of Temple worship, of the covenant, their understanding of themselves as the People of God seemed in tatters. It is out of this experience of loss and alienation that the great prophets spoke. As we read in our lesson this morning they spoke words of hope, of new beginnings, speaking again in terms of covenant:
33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
This expectation of hope, of new beginnings began to find expression in the idea of a new David, a messianic figure who would restore the Kingdom of Israel, who would rescue Israel from her enemies, who would bring in God’s reign on earth.
Moving forward to the time of Jesus, there was a mood of expectation in 1st Century Palestine with revolts being centred around a number of figures who lead people in failed uprisings against the Romans.
It is into this environment that the figure of Jesus comes to minister. As we read the Gospel accounts of his ministry, we encounter a man who made a profound impression on those who came to hear him, to be healed by him, to challenge him. We encounter a man with a very clear awareness of who he is as he speaks of God as his Father, who announces forgiveness of sins. As we are drawn into the story through the reading of the Gospel, as the story moves towards Jerusalem, we begin to see the forthcoming drama of trial, of cross and resurrection as Jesus speaks of approaching events in terms of decision.
25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? The religious authorities of his day decided he was a danger to be done away with. Those who followed him, who saw him teach and heal, who experienced the trauma of his suffering and death came to see him as none other than the Christ.
Who is this Jesus of Nazareth? That son of the Church of Ireland, C.S. Lewis, who himself struggled against this whole of idea of faith before becoming, in his own words, the most miserable convert in the whole of England said this in a war time radio broadcast:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God’
C.S. Lewis ‘Mere Christianity’
I began by thinking of the significance of events, significance of people. May we, as Good Friday and Easter approach, recognise the truth of Lewis’ words: ‘however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God’ – and fall down and worship.
This last ten days we have seen every parents nightmare across our papers and television screens. The J1 visa has become something of a rite of passage for Irish college students down through the years with its opportunities to work and travel in America. Then in the midst of a 21st Birthday party in Berkley, as they celebrated with friends, as a balcony plunged down into the street below, 6 lives were cut short and others scarred physically and mentally for life.
All this week, we have watched hearses leaving Dublin Airport, coffins carried into Church way before their time, friends and family consoling each other. We are left asking that unanswerable question, ‘Why?’ Even in the absence of answers, we still ask, we still search for meaning; meaning of life, meaning of death.
In a thought provoking piece in the ‘Irish Times’ on Wednesday, Kathy Sheridan wrote out of her self confessed cynicism of the Church:
“The ‘J-1’ will never sound the same again,” said a wistful young woman outside the church in UCD at last Friday’s memorial service for the students who died. She was last in a church for a wedding 12 months ago, she said. Last time for me was for a funeral, I said.
No doubt most of the 500 or so people gathered in that oasis of peace and contemplation would have said the same. College chaplain Fr Leon Ó Giolláin acknowledged as much when he addressed us as “believers or non-believers, Christians or other . . . ”
And yet we were here, non-believers and other, in a church, dabbing away tears, finding release in the heartfelt prayers of students, in the stirring Irish laments on cello and piano, in a gloriously sung Pie Jesu and the beautiful old Celtic blessing: “Deep peace of the gentle night to you/Moon and stars pour their healing light on you . . . Deep peace of Christ to you.”
We were the same people who only a few weeks ago had nodded balefully at Archbishop Diarmuid Martin when, after the marriage equality referendum, he conceded that the church needed to do a reality check and ask itself had it “drifted away completely from young people”. Bit late for that, we said, pleased we had put an ocean of clear blue water between them and us.
Hour upon heartsick hour, we heard of Masses, vigils, prayer services and tree-planting in church grounds, all attended by vast numbers of young people finding solace, connection and meaning in old rituals.
And hour upon hour, we found ourselves listening to the words of bishops, chaplains and priests, in all their weary helplessness, listening to people who a few weeks ago seemed about as relevant as snowploughs in the Sahara. ………………………
Is it only because it happened a continent away that we noticed how the church remains so deeply entwined with us in our times of sorrow, that it became almost an emblem of our nationhood and connectedness, like the beloved Aer Lingus planes that flew our children home?
Observing the rituals of these weeks and many other weeks, it seems there is something there that speaks to us in times of trial and of joy.
Kathy Sheridan – Irish Times Wed 24th
She speaks of something deep with in ourselves that reaches out beyond the limits of our comprehension. It is as times such as this that I find myself turning more and more to the Old Testament. To the Book Job, as he works through his own pain and loss, rejecting the trite answers of well meaning friends, in which nothing is held back, almost swearing at God. To the Psalms, those wonderful hymns of praise and prayer, lament and complaint, in which we find incredible joy, pain, despair, profound questioning of God. And it is as the pain, the anger, the despair is expressed (let’s face it, God knows how we feel anyway) that light and hope begin to shine through.
And so our psalm this morning begins:
1 Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord;
Lord, | hear my | voice; @
let your ears consider well the | voice ~ of my | suppli|cation.
Out of the depths, out of the darkness of regrets, of deep and searing loss, our cry goes up to God. God hears our cry, feels our pain, and walks alongside us on the road. And the Church in all its imperfection is called to be a community within which those life searing questions can be asked, the presence of God experienced.
And so Kathy Sheridan acknowledged: ‘Observing the rituals of these weeks and many other weeks, it seems there is something there that speaks to us in times of trial and of joy.’ She also wrote last Wednesday:
The received wisdom is that most young people don’t know what the inside of a church looks like any more. ……. But the full truth about ourselves as a nation remains somewhere beyond that.
For example, a poll for The Irish Times about family values conducted by Ipsos MRBI in March, suggests that people under 35 – our young people – are the most likely to have their children baptised. And that 95 per cent of them have done so.
Why? Some are hypocrites, of course. If you believe they are all hypocrites, however, then you risk patronising vast numbers of your fellow citizens ……… .
Observing the rituals of these weeks and many other weeks, it seems there is something there that speaks to us in times of trial and of joy.
Of course it is easy, isn’t it, when we hear of a funeral of someone we have never seen, a baptism for a family we have never heard of, to bring out the well rehearsed diatribe against ‘four wheel Christians’ and indignantly complain ‘they know where we are when they hit trouble.’
Whenever I feel these thoughts bubbling beneath the surface, I recall the words of the late Archbishop William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury for a tragically short period of two years during the Second World War, in which he said that the Church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of those outside its membership. We are there for those on the outside who are seeking, who are searching, who are hurting. It is part of our vocation as members of the Body of Christ in this place to be the hands and feet and lips of Christ in the places and situations God has placed us.
With these thoughts in mind, I want to turn to our Gospel reading for today, and in particular, the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage, that is almost introduced in the form of an aside to the raising of Jairus’ daughter. There are two key characters in this sub plot, Jesus and the woman herself.. Jesus is a man on a mission; he has been called to the house of Jairus. The woman should not be where she is. Her haemorrhage renders her unclean, anyone touching her would be similarly affected so she is risking at the very least the hostility of those around her. And so in the midst of that crowd she is alone. She had tried all the doctors in town to no avail. Perhaps, just perhaps, ‘if I can but touch the hem of his garment.’ It works, we are told she is healed – but she has been noticed. Jesus, we are told felt power coming out of him and he asks who touched him. In the midst of his busyness, in the midst of the crush he is aware of her and there is something about him that makes her want to share her story of sickness, of disappointed hopes, of desperation. And she hears words of healing, of peace.
If I can but touch the hem of his garment. In that environment, in the heat, the garment was loose fitting – she could touch without getting too close. I was at a conference last year addressed by the retired Bishop of Lincoln. Reflecting on this passage, he asked of the Church ‘How wide is the hem of our garment?’ How easy is it for those on the outside of our fellowship to draw near? Are we perceived by those on the outside as intolerant? Are we seen as wrapping the garment of our doctrinal purity tightly around us lest we be soiled by the world? Does the stranger find a welcome? How do those who have been hurt by life, by society, perhaps by the Church experience us – do they find in us words of welcome, of healing, of peace – or what?
They know where we are when they hit trouble – do those who are hurting, do those on the margins know we are here? Here not just to offer a grudging accommodation for the funeral of one they have loved, but here to stand alongside them in their hurt or their pain, here to bring something of the peace and presence of Christ.
As Kathy Sheridan wrote this week: ‘Observing the rituals of these weeks and many other weeks, it seems there is something there that speaks to us in times of trial and of joy.’ How wide is the hem of our garment? How wide is our welcome? Can we be the ones in whom and through whom God continues to speak to this broken and hurting world in all its joys and its sorrows.
As much as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.
During the week I turned up a book I had read many years ago, ‘Fear no Evil’ by the late Rev David Watson. I was prompted to return to this book by the second half of our Second Lesson this morning, from the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul, having spoken of the heights of his spiritual experiences, talks in very human terms of his ‘thorn in the flesh’:
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ 2 Cor 12:7-9
This book by David Watson is his reflection on his journey with cancer from the date of his diagnosis to his death some 11 months later. Until that diagnosis David Watson, from the beginnings of his ministry in York, had been in great demand as a preacher throughout the British Isles and further afield.
In the course of the book he takes us through the highs and lows of that period, the diagnosis, the operation and recovery. The diagnosis came just four days before he was due to depart on a month long lecturing and preaching tour of the USA and he had to pull out. He spoke of the strange experience for him of finding himself as the one being ministered to and prayed for instead of being the one who was doing the ministry, doing the praying. He, churches in Britain and America prayed that this thorn, this cancer would be removed – so that he could get on with the work that he was doing for God.
And Paul says: ‘8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’’
We find ourselves struggling with the problems of unanswered prayer, of mortality. I find myself, as I so often do, going back to the service of Baptism, that sacrament that marks the beginning of my spiritual life. There is a lovely Pastoral Introduction to the service of Baptism in the Prayer book that begins:
Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God which continues for the rest of our lives, the first step in response to God’s love.
The beginning of a journey with God, a journey into God, back to God that continues for the rest of our life. As the child is signed with the sign of the cross:
Christ claims you for his own.
Receive the sign of the cross.
Live as a disciple of Christ,
fight the good fight,
finish the race, keep the faith.
Confess Christ crucified,
proclaim his resurrection,
look for his coming in glory.
May almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness, restore in you the image of his glory, and lead you in the light and obedience of Christ. Amen.
An injunction to faithfulness; Live as a disciple of Christ, fight the good fight, keep the faith
a prayer for healing, ‘May almighty God …. restore in you the image of his glory.’
We live in a broken and hurting world. Our lifelong journey to God and into God is a journey of healing, of restoration. As I mentioned a few Sundays back, healing and salvation are closely linked in the New Testament, being translations of a single Greek word in the original text. In this lifelong journey we are talking about we travel all sorts of terrain. There are times when the road is easy, times when the path is rough and hard to follow; times of great joy, times of anxiety and disappointment – times when our hopes and most earnest prayers seem to meet a brick wall. Then I remember Jesus in Gethsemene, as he contemplates the suffering that lies ahead, ‘Father, let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will but yours be done.’
I realise he is with me, travelling the road with me, listening to me, sharing my joys and my sorrows, speaking into my hopes and fear. I realise he is with me in other people, in loved ones, in friends and colleagues, in the stranger who listens and understands.
I am with you always, to the very end of time. There is fundamental healing, when I fully embrace that promise.
Returning to our reading from this 2nd letter to the Corinthinians, I sense Paul looking back to a similar fundamental healing in his own life, as he recalls:
8Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ 2 Cor 12:8,9
It all comes down to that lovely word grace, God acting in Jesus Christ to forgive, inspire, and strengthen me by his Holy Spirit – as I let go of past regrets, as I respond to his guiding hand and go forward trusting not in my strength, my talents, my abilities but in the strength that God supplies.
I go back to David Watson’s book, that journal of his final illness. At the end of his lifelong journey with God and into God, we find a man at peace with God, at peace with others, at peace with himself. There is a lovely review of this book on the Amazon website which includes the following:
Something transformational occurred in Watson’s life. This is what God does: he transforms. Sometimes that transformation may include physical healing and sometimes it might include bringing someone home.
This something that is transformational is healing, this is grace, this is:
The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, that keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord:
2 Christ on my right hand,
Christ on my left hand,
Christ all around me,
shield in the strife.
Christ in my sleeping,
Christ in my sitting,
Christ in my rising,
never to part. Hymn 611
I remember when I was at school, a friend pointed out an advertisement in the ‘Readers Digest’ for a speed reading course. As with many of these ads there was a testimonial by someone famous, in this case an American comedian (whose name I have forgotten). He testified; “After taking this speed reading course, I read Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ in four hours – its about Russia.” He had if you liked got the big picture, even if the finer details of the story had passed him by.
Each Sunday, we read passages of scripture as part of our worship – I think the ordered reading of the Scriptures is a wonderful part of our tradition. But we sometimes lose sight of the wider context in which the passages we read are set. We get focussed on the finer detail and lose sight of the bigger picture.
Take our Gospel reading for today. At one level it is anything but Good News – it is St Mark’s account of the death of John the Baptist. It is a story of a powerful man trapped by his own vanity and weakness. Rather than lose face in front of his guests, he feels trapped into fulfilling the request made by a pretty woman to whom he has made a rash promise. In the process, John the Baptist falls victim to human frailty, human sin, manifesting itself in the vanity of Herod.. It seems rather incongruous to say at the end – ‘
This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.
So let us just step back and take a look at the bigger picture, the context in which Mark has set this story. It is an example of how the way the individual writers select and lay out their material tells its own wider story. In this case St Mark has set his account of the death of John the Baptist between the account of Jesus sending out the disciples in pairs on their own ministry and that of their return with news of their successes.
This is a reminder that our Christian witness, our Christian service does not happen in isolation; it is offered in the context of our life in the wider world.
John, like the prophets before him, in his own day spoke truth to power and power did not like what it heard. This story is a sombre reminder of the fact that this is a world that operates under very different value systems. It is a reminder that , even in a society that would describe itself as Christian, the values of the Kingdom of God and the values of the Kingdom of this world are not identical; they may at times be at odds with each other. This is why messages of reconciliation in areas of conflict; calls for justice for the poor, relief of debt, establishment of fair trade regimes for producers in the 3rd world, demands for racial equality in South Africa in times of Apartheid have each in their own time been treated with scorn by those in positions of power. They may not be in a position to lop off heads and serve them up on a platter any more but they will certainly try to discredit and vilify those who challenge the norms of contemporary society.
But of course it is easy to point the finger at others. The more I think a bout this story of Herod and John the Baptist and its setting in the wider story told to us by St Mark’s Gospel, the more I come to realise that we are ourselves a bundle of ambiguities. In our daily living we find ourselves caught between the demands of the Kingdom of god and the demands of the world; caught between our own aspirations to Christian discipleship, Christian service and our own frailty.
This inner tension, with which we can all identify, is articulated in St Paul’s words in his letter to the Church at Rome:
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind,
making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom 7:21-25)
Like Paul, I must accept the reality of that tension within me; and I bring the whole of my being, the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the strong and the frail, the attractive and the ugly; I bring it all into the presence of God and I offer the whole of my being in the service of God. As we were thinking last week, the whole of my life, my journey with God, my journey into God and back to God is a journey of healing and restoration as we work through these inner conflicts and tensions that are part of our seeking to live our discipleship in this broken and imperfect world
There is a prayer that I would often use around Passiontide and Holy Week:
O Jesus, Master Carpenter of Nazareth, who on the cross through wood and nails didst work man’s whole salvation; Wield well thy tools in this thy workshop; that we who come to thee rough hewn may by they hand be fashioned to a truer beauty and a greater usefulness; for the honour of thy name.’
That in itself is a prayer for Christian healing and restoration.
God is a God who can work in and through our inner tensions and ambiguities. I take encouragement from the way the writer of St Mark’s Gospel has set out his material. Either side of the tragic and pointless death of John, something wonderful is happening in the lives of twelve ordinary men as they are sent out in the service of Christ and return with wonderful news of all that has happened on their journey. We are witnessing the beginnings of the Christian Church which has outlasted the Herods, the Neros, the Hitlers and the Stalins of this world.
May God take each one of us in all our weakness and imperfection:
‘that we who come to thee rough hewn may by thy hand be fashioned to a truer beauty and a greater usefulness;’
Over the summer months there are many visitors who come to Ireland. Among these are visitors who come from North America, from Australia and New Zealand. Many come not only to visit the areas their forebears grew up in but also to discover something about their ancestors, who they were, what their background was. There is a search for identity beyond what they work at, the money they earn, the car they drive.
Over these past few weeks in our readings from the Old Testament we have been following the story of David, his anointing by Samuel, his defeat of Goliath, his rise to power despite all efforts of Saul to eliminate him, his bringing together of all the tribes of Israel into a single Kingdom. David, born to be a shepherd boy, grew up to be King of Israel, probably the greatest King Israel every had, one from whom, Jesus was destined to be descended.
In our Lesson this morning we find David now established in his capital, living in a place that befitted his status as King. Conscious that, while he lived in a palace, the Ark of God, symbolising the presence of God with his people, continued to be housed in a tent as it had during the time of wandering in the wilderness, the King shares with the prophet Nathan his desire to build a Temple as a more fitting place to house the Ark of God.
Nathan’s first reaction is to say do what you feel is right. But that night Nathan feels God telling him to tell David to hold back, that this is not the right time. Before a Temple was to be built, the Lord would first establish the community. Before the house of the Lord is built, the house of David will first be established.
This links in with the closing words of the passage we read from the Letter to the Ephesians
22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. Eph 2:22
This underlines what we know to be true – that when we speak of the Church, we speak first of the community and only then on the building in which that community meets.
I think back to when I was in Kildare Diocese. At that time there was a radical look at the number of buildings we had in use at that time. This involved a careful consideration of what was the nature of the Church. There was one particular area just south of Mountmellick, around Durrow in Leighlin Diocese, where an area served by two Roman Catholic Churches was served by five Church of Ireland Churches. When the history of those particular buildings was looked at it was realised that many had their origins in a fashion by owners of big houses to each build private chapels for their families and their Church of Ireland workers – there was an element of one upmanship.
With demise of the big house, for both political and economic reasons, we were left with buildings without communities – to be frank some of them never had real communities even when they were built. We also had a distortion of spirituality in which the preservation of a particular building became more important that the worship that was offered in that building.
What is at issue here is the whole matter of identity and where we find that identity. This is the same issue at stake in whether David was to build the Temple at that particular point in time. For buildings, even our most beautiful and impressive buildings can, if we allow them, distort rather than enhance our spiritual pilgrimage. Take the Temple itself; even in its ruins you can see it must have been a magnificent building. Many years after it was finally built by Solomon, Jewish spiritual life became a shadow of what it was intended to be. When the city was besieged and surrounded by enemies, the people assumed because of the physical presence of the Temple, God would never allow the city to be captured. At that time Ezekiel had his vision of the glory of God leaving the Temple and departing the city. In the eyes of the people the Temple had become the focus of their identity rather than a faithfulness to the God who was worshipped there. The people had to go through the painful experience of the Exile to rediscover their identity as the People of God.
We are now preparing to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Consecration of our Parish Church and the 200th Anniversary of the Church that was on this site beforehand, the tower of which is incorporated into St Mary’s. We are very conscious that we are remembering not just the building of this Church but also the community that has worshipped here over the years. This building is held in great affection and as we restore the roof we are preserving this building for use by future generations. But as I remind every confirmation group, this building is not the Church. The Church is the community that meets here for worship. Or as Bishop Noel Willoughby once said in General Synod, ‘The Church is what is left when the building has fallen down.’ As so as we prepare a history of our Parish we are compiling not just a history of this building but of the people who have made this Parish what it is – so we are looking for photographs, for stories, for memorabilia – so that we can tell the story of who we are as a community.
As we prepare to move forward the Vestry are in the process of having a look at how we use this building into the future. So prior to work beginning on the roof we are beginning a process of trying out a few things. The choir now comes down here for Family Services and that has worked well. Over the last number of weeks we have tried roping off some of the pews to draw us closer together in our worship. Our hymn singing has definitely benefitted. At present, there is a huge gap between me at the communion table and the first of the pews that have people sitting in them – so we will be moving the Communion Table further forward to a point level with the pulpit for a while – the idea is we gather around the table rather than watch what is going on at the table. We are not looking for an immediate reaction. There is nothing set in stone – let us just see how it feels over a period of time.
I go back to the fundamental truth that the Church here is the community that gathers around this place; this Church of St Mary which has been the place where people have worshipped, have celebrated family occasions, where they have come to seek solace in times of loss. How can this building continue to serve the community that is the Church in this place as we move into the future?
There is something about the arrival of a child in a family – new birth speaks of future. It brings to mind the births of other members of the family. Grandparents remember the birth of the parents of this new child, their child hood and early development. There is that reaffirmation of identity as we welcome the arrival of one who is ‘flesh of my flesh’.
Who am I? Son of Gilbert and Kathleen Brew – and the line goes back through my grandparents and great-grandparents. We look at physical characteristics, temperament – even mannerisms – and we say ‘Don’t you see his grandmother in him?’
Baptism encourages to set this question of identity, ‘Who am I?’ in a wider context.
Most of our Gospel readings in this year B of the Revised Common Lectionary have been from Mark’s Gospel. for the next few weeks we will be reading from John, chapter 6. we started this morning with the feeding of the 5000 and in the weeks to follow we will hear John’s account of Jesus speaking of himself at some length as ‘the Bread of Life’.
The writer of John’s Gospel uses a very distinctive expression that we have translated as ‘I am’, egw eimi, – it is very emphatic, ‘I myself am’ So we have ‘I myself am’ egw eimi, bread of life, light, good shepherd, the way, the truth and the life.
egw eimi, I myself am, calls to mind Moses’ experience at the burning bush and God’s revelation of himself as Yahweh, I AM WHO I AM,
As we prepare to baptise this child, I ask ‘Who am I?’ Who am I, who are you, who are we before this great I AM, before Christ, in whose name we baptise this child?
We get the beginnings of an answer in the greeting we will all give to Isobel after her baptism:
We therefore receive and welcome you
as a member with us of the body of Christ,
as a child of the one heavenly Father,
and as an inheritor of the kingdom of God.
We welcome you as a member with us of the Body of Christ – that is our fundamental identity as Christians that transcends age, gender, nationality, tradition – we are members of the Body of Christ in this place. In a prayer I would often use at the end of a funeral
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting light
Called by Christ, redeemed by Christ, beloved by Christ. I often find myself turning to words of Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Isobel, as she grows up will discover her identity as a member of the Fanning family. May she also discover what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ. That, like us, she is called to be the lips, the feet, the hands of Christ in the situations in which God places her
The Christ, the great I AM, we are called to proclaim, to show to the world, draws near.:-
In times of darkness, he comes to us as light along the way.
In times of uncertainty and confusion, he comes to us as the way, the truth and the life.
The bread of life comes to us to sustain us, to strengthen, to feed us..
In the words of an ancient blessing:
Our Lord Jesus Christ be near thee to defend thee,
within thee to refresh thee,
around thee to preserve thee,
before thee to guide thee,
behind thee to justify thee,
above thee to bless thee,
who liveth and reigneth with the Father and the Holy Ghost, God for evermore.
As with last Sunday, we once again have the delight and privilege of welcoming a child into the fellowship of the Church in Baptism. I always think that a Baptism gives us wonderful opportunities to reflect on what it means to be a Christian, to reflect on our own Christian discipleship. Then our readings this morning give us much food for thought. In our Gospel reading, we are continuing in our reading of John chapter 6, teaching that comes back again and again to Jesus’ words concerning himself, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.’
In the rearing of Ted, one of the first things Dave and Joanna have had to get right is feeding. There is a growing awareness of the importance of diet both in the womb and in the early stages of life.
There is also the importance of developing good behaviour patterns. As we grow up, we all have to learn that the world does not revolve around what I want. Already Ted will be learning the give and take of what it means to live in a family. We all have our preferences – what I want to eat, to watch on TV, films, holidays. Ted of course will have his – I want more milk, I want biscuits, I want to be changed, I don’t want to go to sleep. We learn at an early age that ‘I’ doesn’t always get its way – that is how healthy families, healthy relationships, healthy communities grow – selfishness breeds resentments in families, in communities.
With these thoughts in mind, let us turn to the words used to introduce the promises that will be made on Ted’s behalf later in this service:
In baptism, God calls us from darkness into his marvellous light.
To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him.
How do we lift that out of the realm of theological jargon that just slips off the tongue? As we do so, we’ll just hold that picture of poor Ted learning that what he wants doesn’t always hold sway.
To follow Christ, to walk in the steps of him who, in the Garden of Gethsemene, as he contemplated what lay ahead, prayed:
42 “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” Luke 22:42
Jesus lived a life of close communion with the Father, one in which what God wants lay at the heart of his whole life – a life if you like of ‘I’ crossed out. And so we have the cross – a symbol of Jesus’ total commitment to the Father, a symbol of the extent of God’s love for us – ‘God so loved the world that he gave’.
How do we, complex creatures that we are, respond to this love of God in Christ? We have all known in ourselves that turmoil that Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans:
19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Romans 7:19
that tension between what God wants and what I want, between the power of sin and the will of God. Against that I set the closing words of that lovely old hymn, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
What I want begins to be displaced more and more by what God wants. That demanding ‘I’ in my life displaced more and more by what God wants.
Dying to sin, rising to new life in him. Do you notice – both of those are in the present? What we are talking about here is an ongoing process that goes on through the whole of my Christian life, as what I want becomes less and less important and what God wants comes more and more to the for. This is what is described by that lovely old word ‘sanctification’. Not that we get it right all the time, not that there aren’t set backs along the way. But we are on this journey that we’ve thought about before, a journey to God and into God. Bit by bit the ‘I’ is crossed out as I draw closer and closer to him. This is where words from our First lesson, from the letter to the Ephesians, strikes a chord with me:
we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ
Growing up in every way into ….. Christ. This is where we find our true self, as one made in the image of God, redeemed by God, beloved by God.
Over the coming years, Ted will be taking his place in the family. As his young body grows nourishment, the right nourishment will play a vital role. This will be taken not in isolation, but around the table as the news of the day is shared, family stories are told, as joys are celebrated, as disappointments and fears understood.
May he find his place within the family of the Church; may he find in the fellowship of this place, in you and in me (as ones who are in ourselves on this journey of growing into Christ) something of that same Christ who loved us and gave himself for us, and be drawn to feed on him who is the very Bread of Life.
A prayer for ourselves and Ted along this journey of life, one of the collects at Morning Prayer:-
O God, the author of peace and lover of concord,
to know you is eternal life, and to serve you is perfect freedom:
Defend us in all assaults of our enemies,
that we, surely trusting in your protection,
may not fear the power of any adversaries;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.