Category Archives: Basics Sermons

Sermon – 14 June – Margaret Arnall

CREED – Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Barbara Mosse, a retired Anglican priest tells the story of a church she once attended where an elderly lady refused to receive the chalice from another younger woman, a lay assistant in the parish. The reasons for the older woman’s taking offence were almost lost in the mists of time, but apparently had something to do with a misunderstanding over the baking of cakes for a church function. The younger woman was unaware of what exactly she was supposed to have done wrong, but had made repeated attempts to heal the breach. She was rebuffed every time.
The rift was causing upset in the wider congregation and the minister was urged to sit down with the two women and try to help them towards reconciliation. He refused to do so, afraid that the older woman would stop coming to services if confronted, so her hostility and her visibly broken relationship with the younger woman continued to undermine the sacrament and spread like a cancer through the fellowship.

I shall return to this later.

We believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church we sing the hymn ‘the church’s one foundation’ but we are not talking about the buildings we are talking about the body of Christ, you and me.

At the heart of the oneness we profess is, of course, God himself. The source of the Church’s unity is the unity found in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Church teaches us that there are visible bonds or signs of communion which makes the Church, the body of Christ, one.

The profession of faith as received from the Apostles
The common celebration of the sacraments
The Apostolic succession of Holy Orders’ Bishops’ Priests, Deacons.

It is all too easy however for the church today, fragmented into a multitude of different denominations, to lose sight of its essential unity in Jesus Christ.

The church, the Body of Jesus Christ, can very easily ‘take its eye off the ball’ as it were and become bogged down in the politics and minutiae of its institutional life.

Paul’s inspirational description of the church as a perfectly working body may cause us to smile at times when we recall some of the aspects of institutional life.

Importantly Paul offers a timely reminder that we are not Christians in isolation. Anything that happens to one member of the body inevitably affects all others, whether for good or ill.

Just like it did in the body of Christ in that story I mentioned earlier and, as we heard, it began to destroy not just the two people involved but the whole community.

So we are members of one body, we partake of one Holy Food, whether it is known as the Holy Communion, the Mass, the Agape, the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, the community’s sharing of the bread and wine is a commemoration of or a participation in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and has become the expression of our membership of Christ’s body, the Church. The Priest at the Eucharist breaks the wafer with the words, ‘we break this bread to share in the body of Christ and we respond Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share one bread.

Not just one bread shared in St Laurence’s, St Mark’s or another building in the world, but as part of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I was heartened to read that the new Bishop appointed to look after those who in conscience cannot accept the ministry of women bishops, has made it clear that he is there not to create two churches but to do all he can to facilitate working together as one body.

The church’s oneness derives from the unity of the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is called to stand in history as a sign and agent of this unity-in-love.
The Church is holy.  (Set apart for something special)
The Church is not holy by itself; the church is made Holy by Jesus Christ. The visible embodiment of the church’s holiness is its sacramental life so whether we are Roman Catholics, Anglicans, or Orthodox we go on believing the church is holy and it is this Holiness that the Church is called to share with all people.

Catholic derives from the Greek adjective katholikos, meaning all inclusive

The church, the body of Christ, is catholic because it is one church and it has been sent out by Jesus with a universal mission to all humanity.
To this end the church must be an open rather than a closed society.
One commentator has said that to proclaim belief in the church’s catholicity we must hold the authentic, universal faith, a faith embodied in the catholic creeds.

A faith Peter expressed when Jesus asked the question of the disciples, ‘who do you say that I am?’ Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ the Son of the living God’.

That is what holds us all together. It is a question we all have to face, not just those disciples.

If we say we believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church what do we say to the question Jesus asks.

We also believe the church is Apostolic.
Apostolic: built on the foundation of the Apostles, those witnesses chosen by Jesus to continue his work, the work of the Father. (John 20-21) ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’

In its apostolic character, the Church participates in the outgoing scope of God’s love in Christ. To be an apostle is to be sent out as the bearer of good tidings, of this love that God has for all people.
From the beginning the apostolic church continued the teaching and practice of the Apostles and faithfulness to the Apostles’ instructions appears to be the mark of the NT church as we read in Acts 2:42, they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching.

In confessing the apostolic movement of the church, the creed celebrates our continuity with the founding witnesses of the past. Because they witnessed in their lives, and often in their deaths, to the truth of Jesus Christ, we, you and me, rejoice in the gospel today and face our apostolic responsibilities in the present.

If we own this one holy catholic and apostolic faith, we celebrate the universality of Jesus Christ’s mission; and we share in the patience of God who has time for all until the prayer ‘That they may be one’, is answered’.

Where does that leave you and me?
We cannot say:
We believe, without first asking ourselves what it is we believe in.

Without answering the question Jesus asked of the disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’

Although we may be members of St Mark’s, St Laurence’s, St Luke’s and the village churches as part of the NSGM we are members of the one holy, catholic and apostolic church and as Paul urges the Corinthians in his first letter, ‘we should be united in the same mind and the same purpose’.

What is that purpose?

To work for unity not to be divisive.

To be apostles sent out by Jesus to spread the good news.

To be people who will speak out against injustice, and persecution.

To be people who will care for God’s body, the Church but not in a way that it becomes an exclusive club but a Church a body that works together for the good of all.

To share God’s love with all people whatever their race, colour or Churchmanship.

What kind of Church can we claim to be as we continue to make the same profession of faith, Sunday by Sunday?

J John, “The snowflake is one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together”.

Individual Churches may feel fragile on their own but we need to recognise the impact we can have when we work together as one.

Sermon – 14 June – Alastair

14.6.15 – 10am St Peter’s, Hackness
‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’
Eph.4:1-6; Matt.16:13-23

We’re drawing near the end of a series of sermons on the Creed – that declaration of Christian faith we say week by week in churches.  Today we’re looking at a phrase near the end of the Creed that often raises an eyebrow – ‘I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.’  ‘What, are we in a catholic church?!’ people sometimes look at each other and whisper.  ‘We thought it was Church of England?’  Yes it is Church of England – I’ll explain later, because it’s probably worth going through those words one by one – so perhaps a 5 point sermon – one… holy… catholic… apostolic… Church.

But first a reminder about what we mean when we say, ‘I believe’ at all.  It’s not supposed to be about our considered opinions – rather it’s about what we live our lives by – what we trust in – the beliefs that shape what we do and how we live.  In the way we might say ‘I believe in a bridge’ – meaning I’m willing to walk across it and let it hold my weight – in this way we say, ‘I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church’.

In our society we very much tend to think of the church as the building – or the people who meet in a particular building, and we think of there being a lot of churches (plural).  We think of St Peter’s as ‘a’ church and part of the North Scarborough Group Ministry which consists of 8 churches (meaning the buildings) – or perhaps 6 churches (meaning the regular Sunday congregations).  And we think that Scarborough has a lot of churches in it – it used to have more, but some have closed.  There are Anglican churches like ours, Methodist churches, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Salvation Army, Christian Fellowship, Kingdom Faith – the list could go on and on.

There’s also perhaps some level of confusion as well because there are groups like the Unitarians who also use the word ‘church’ – who I would consider fellow travellers on the spiritual journey, but whose faith is only loosely what we might describe as ‘Christian’.  Then there are groups like spiritualist churches or that fellow in the local paper this week who thinks he’s possessed by St Paul, who really aren’t Christian at all in any sense I could easily recognize, but still use the name of ‘church’.  It’s all a bit confusing for us – what must it look like to those outside our churches?

But the Creed refers to the Church as ‘one’.  There may be historical divisions but, in the eyes of God, there is only one Church.  That emphatically does not mean that only one Christian group is in the right – the true Church of God – and the rest are in error and outside the ‘true’ Church – as the Roman Catholic church seems to say.  I don’t know whether they would actually say that, but that is the implication of saying non-Roman Catholics can’t receive communion in a Roman Catholic church.  The Creed is not – not – not – saying there is one denomination here on earth who are in the right, while the rest are wrong.  It is referring to what has sometimes been called ‘the Church invisible’ – that is the sum total of all who trust in Jesus.  It may be that some who have been churchgoers all their lives have never really trusted in Jesus.  They may be part of the visible church but not part of the invisible Church.  And there may be countless people who we wouldn’t really regard as Christians who are, surprisingly to us, in the eyes of God, part of the Church invisible.

Being one Church can be a bit of a challenge to us as we deal with the diversity of expressions and divisions within this one Church – even on as small a scale as the Northern Group we struggle to get the sense we are one.  We struggle to get people to attend joint events.  People may say, or perhaps think, ‘I only go to ‘my’ church’ – referring (usually) to a building or (perhaps) to a local church community, as long as they meet in that building.

So what does it mean to be one Church.  It’s a challenge because we do disagree with each other over different issues – I’ve had a bit of a disagreement with the Roman Catholic church in this sermon already.  But we are called, by God, to be one.

In our first Bible reading from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he says “there is one body” – his image for the Church was the body of Christ – even though all the bits of the body are different they care for one another and work together.  If you stub your toe, the rest of the body reacts and tries to comfort the wounded part.  If Christians in Iraq are suffering we ought to feel it, and be concerned and react to comfort them.  There is one body, Paul says, we share in one spirit, we have one hope, one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith.  Even though there are differences of belief, and there were many in Paul’s day as well, there is still one faith.  There is one baptism – in fact it is true, even in our state of division, that the different Christian churches recognize one baptism.  If you want to get married in a Roman Catholic church they, I think, ask to see proof of baptism for at least one of you, and if they see you were baptised at St Peter’s, Hackness or in the Baptist church or wherever, they will accept that.  You are not baptised Church of England or Catholic or whatever – you are baptised a Christian.

All this because there is only one God and father of all who is over all and through all and in all.  So, Paul writes, make every effort to keep unity – to be one with your fellow believers.  See past the differences, love them, meet with them, care for them.  There are many things the different denominations disagree about, but most now see that keeping unity is more important than those differences.  It is more important to me that I love my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and that together we bear witness to the love of God in Christ, than that we agree on everything.  I think they are wrong about a number of things, and they think I am wrong.  But the unity of the church is more important than that.  That’s one of the big difficulties in the wider Anglican communion at the moment.  Many disagree, for example with the ministry of women priests and bishops, many differ violently about attitudes to issues of sexuality.  Why don’t we just say, ‘This is the agreed view of the Church of England – like it or leave!’?  Because even though we may disagree they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Unity, despite the pains and tensions it causes, is more important.

The Church is one – not just Christians together locally, but millions of people across the world in China and South America, across Europe, in the Middle East and all over – we are one with them. And also across history – we are one with all the countless Christians who have gone before us and are now in the presence of God. Particularly as we share in communion, in a mystical way, we gather together with them – receiving the body of Christ, together we are the body of Christ – one body.

One Church – and one ‘holy’ Church.  To say we are ‘Holy’ is not a claim to be better than anyone else – holier than thou!  You don’t have to be what we might call a ‘holy’ person, to be part of the Church.  Somebody once said that if you find the perfect church don’t join it cos you’ll spoil it!  Rather than being a group of the specially good or spiritual or respectable, we gather together as a group of recovering sinners!  A bit like alcoholics anonymous – to be a Christian is to admit you have a problem – that you need God’s help.  Holy, as the word is used in the Bible, doesn’t usually mean especially good or pure, but its main meaning is ‘set apart’ – set apart for and from what?  We are set apart from the world as dedicated to God.  We have a purpose for which we are set apart – to make Christ known in the world – to witness to the love of God.  The Church exists not for its own benefit but to bless the whole world.  There’s lots more that can be said about that that we don’t have time to go into today.

But what about that word ‘catholic’?  We are one holy catholic Church.  We believe in a Church that is catholic (with a small ‘c’ – and that’s significant).  The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’ or ‘all embracing’ – it’s what we have already thought about in the Church being one.  The Church embraces all Christians.  When the word is used with a capital ‘C’ is when it refers to the Roman Catholic Church.  This is not what is being referred to in the Creed.  The creed is older than the split between the Roman Catholic church of the west of Europe and the orthodox churches of the east.

In our Gospel reading from Matthew chapter 16 we find one of Jesus few mentions of the word ‘Church’ when he refers to giving Peter the Keys to the Kingdom, and he says that on Peter he would build the Church.  It would start with this ordinary fallible man, and by his actions he would be able to let people into the Kingdom, and perhaps by his mistakes he would shut people out.   The idea that this is some sort of handing over of authority to the Pope as the successor of Peter is, again, I think, a misunderstanding.

But it is an important pointer to that other word we use – ‘Apostolic.’  The word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’ so calling the Church apostolic means it is sent to the world, but it also refers to tracing the Church’s origins to the apostles – Peter and the other witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection – those who met him alive after Easter.  Saying the church is apostolic is saying it is founded on the witness of the apostles and linked through them directly to Jesus.  Peter and the others passed on the leadership of the church to others and commissioned other leaders, and they in turn commissioned others so there is an unbroken line back to Jesus.  Different churches find that idea more or less important.  My personal opinion is that through the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit each and every one of us has a direct connection to Jesus ourselves and we don’t need the mediation of the church – apostolic or not.  But having said that the idea of a Christian living and believing outside the community of the Church would have been nonsense to Paul and the early Christians – a bit like the idea of a disembodied hand or other body part running around on its own.  We are part of the one body of Christ and can’t say we don’t need the rest of the body.

This brings us back to where we began – we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  The final word is one we’ve been talking about all along – ‘Church’ – this time importantly with a capital ‘C’.  Church with a small ‘c’ may refer to the building to any individual congregation, or even to a denomination – but with a capital ‘C’ the word refers to the one ‘Church’ of God.  Jesus said he would build his Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it.  The word he used, and the word always used in the Bible for ‘church’ is the Greek ‘Ekklesia’.  It literally means ‘the called out’.  In the ancient world an ekklesia was a gathering of people called out from their homes to assemble in some public place for some reason or another – to have an election or hear a public pronouncement.

As a church with a small ‘c’ we are those called out by God to gather together locally in Jesus name, and as the Church with a capital ‘C’ we are those called out from all the world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ for all the world.  We can only do that effectively if we are united with our brothers and sisters.  Insofar as we are divided as individuals, as churches, as denominations – the witness to Jesus Christ is damaged.

We believe in this Church, the Creed states, like we might believe a bridge can hold our weight.  Are we willing to trust the Church – despite all its human failings – as the vehicle of the good news of salvation – let it hold our weight and work with and in it for the glory of God?

Sermon – 17th May 10 a.m. Philip

‘He Ascended into Heaven’
Readings: Acts 1: 1 – 11 and Luke: 24: 44 – 53.
“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”

Well it was Ascension Day last Thursday and a number of you will have been at the Ascension Day meal on Thursday evening when we released a load of balloons into the open air.  And as we stood there watching those balloons ascend into the sky until they disappeared from view it was such wonderful sight. And it all fits very neatly with our current sermon series in which we are exploring various themes in the Nicene Creed.

And so, as it happens we’ve now arrived at the bit in the Creed where we proclaim, speaking of Jesus that ‘we believe he ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’  Very familiar words for most of us I’m sure – as we will have repeated them so many times as we’ve joined together in saying the Creed on a Sunday morning.

And so what’s that all about?  What actually happened at the ascension and does it have anything to say to us today? And there does seem to be something of a problem with the Feast of the Ascension in that it tends to be overshadowed on the one hand by the events of Easter and then on the other by Pentecost and so we tend to lose sight of its importance and significance.  But it is important and certainly Luke regards it as important as he describes it twice, first of all in the closing chapter of his first book, the Gospel according to Luke and then in more detail later on in the opening chapter of his second volume, which is the book of Acts.
And so what are we to make of this mysterious event we call the Ascension. Well let’s take a closer look.  And it’s been 40 days since the events of that first Easter Day and Jesus has shown himself to be alive to his followers on numerous occasions.  In fact, his followers have almost got used to the possibility of Jesus, in his resurrected body, showing up at unexpected times and in unexpected places.  But on this particular occasion Jesus meets with them for one last time and it’s near the village of Bethany on the Mount of Olives.  And one moment he’s sharing fellowship with them and then he’s gone.  And it’s as he’s blessing them that he’s taken up into heaven and a cloud hides him from their sight.  In a moment, Jesus has moved from this earthly reality with which we are familiar to a much greater and more solid heavenly reality.

And perhaps Jesus hasn’t gone as far as we are sometimes inclined to think. And this is something that Tom Wright is keen to emphasise in his book, ‘Surprised by Hope.’ And he makes the point that we shouldn’t think of heaven and earth as being such a long way apart. ‘They are meant to overlap and interlock’ he says.  And so for Jesus ‘going to heaven,’ isn’t necessarily a matter of him disappearing into some distant galaxy but probably more like moving from one dimension to another.  And doesn’t the Apostle Paul say something like that to the people of Athens when he says that: ‘God’s not far from each one of us.’

But in saying this we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there was obviously something very visible and physical in the way that Jesus did go, as that’s emphasised in the text, and maybe the reason for that was to make it clear that this would be the last of this series of post resurrection appearances by Jesus.

And so as Jesus disappears from sight his disciples just stand there staring up into the sky completely dumbfounded and bewildered and bemused not knowing where to go or what to do next.  And as they are standing there staring into space they haven’t realised that two men dressed in white have slipped in quietly alongside them, and they say: “You men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?  Well most commentators seem to assume the two men are angels although the text does not actually say that they are but I don’t suppose they could really have been anything else.

“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”  And the implication is that it is something of a rebuke.  “Why are you looking into the sky – you’re looking in the wrong place.”  And there are times when we can be like that.  We can find ourselves in situations day by day where circumstances begin to overwhelm us and we ask ourselves: “Where is Jesus in all this?”  Well he may have disappeared from physical sight but the ascension is not about his absence it’s about his presence.  This is what Rowan Williams says:

“Whatever we may be feeling from moment to moment, we’ve been given a relationship with Jesus that doesn’t depend on being able to see him in the way his friends could during his earthly life and immediately after his resurrection.  And this relationship means that we are able to turn in complete trust to God as father in the way Jesus did.”

‘A relationship with Jesus that doesn’t depend on being able to see him.’ And that’s the wonderful thing about the ascension.  Jesus may no longer be with us in the way he was during his earthly ministry but that does not mean we cannot relate to him now in a personal and intimate way. And that’s because the Holy Spirit has come in his place to be with us and in us if we invite him to do so. And it’s that indwelling presence of the Spirit that makes Jesus real to us just as much as it did for those early disciples.

And as Jesus returns to the Father and the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost it means that the presence of Jesus is no longer confined to his physical presence in one place but to all those, in every place and in every generation, including us, who call upon him.

And, of course, there is a heavenly purpose in all this in that as followers of Jesus we are commissioned to carry on his work in this world.  And I like the way the Apostle of Paul puts it; he says this: that we are his ambassadors.  Think about it -we are ambassadors for Jesus and his kingdom – and what a privilege.  And each one of us is called to play our part in building for his kingdom.

And there’s an old story which makes this very point.  And the story tells of the return of Jesus to glory after his time on earth.  And even there in the heaven he still bears the marks of all his suffering on the cross.  And the story goes that the angel Gabriel approached him and said: “Master, you suffered terribly while you were there.  Do they know and appreciate how much you loved them and what you did for them?”  And Jesus replied, “Oh, no! Not yet.  Right now only a handful of people around Judea and Galilee know.”

But Gabriel was perplexed and asked: “Then how will people learn of what you have done and your love for them?” And Jesus said: “Well I’ve asked Peter, James, John and Mary, and few more friends to tell others about me.  And then they will tell others and eventually my story will be spread to farthest part of the globe.”

And Gabriel frowned and looked rather sceptical as he knew the poor stuff humans were made of.  And so he said: “Yes, but what if Peter and the others grow weary?  What if those who come after them forget?  What if they just fail to tell?  What is your alternative plan?”
And Jesus answered: “There is no other plan.”

Well it’s only a story but we get the point don’t we?  It’s up to us to make Jesus known and why he came.  Yes – it’s up to us and if we don’t it doesn’t happen.

Well we can’t leave it there can we as what we say in the creed is not only that we believe Jesus ascended into heaven but that he is also: ‘seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.’  And so what’s that all about?  Well first of all it’s a phrase that we see running all the way through the New Testament.  And so for example Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost speaks of Jesus as ‘being exalted at the right hand of God.’ And then the author of Hebrews has this in mind when he says: ‘for the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.’  And then Peter in the first of his New Testament letters speaks of ‘Jesus who has gone into heaven, and is at the right hand of God.’  And we could go on.

And to sit at someone’s right hand in the ancient world was a place of honour and prestige.  It was a place of supreme honour and glory.  And William Barclay in his book on the Apostle’s Creed says this: ‘almost always Jesus is pictured as sitting, – which stresses the royalty – the honour – and the glory.

And so if that first Easter Sunday was the most exciting day of the disciples’ lives, for Jesus it was probably this event, the Ascension as having completed what he had been sent into the world to do, he was now heading home to the Father for a coronation as God’s anointed king.  He was exchanging the crown of thorns for a crown of glory.  And one commentator puts it like this, he says: ‘the picture of the Son taking his seat on the right hand of the Father is the picture of Christ entering upon his regal office as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.’

Well the story doesn’t end there.  It’s not the end by any means, but the beginning of something new that’s yet to be fully accomplished.  And so let’s return to where we started:  “Men of Galilee why do you stand there looking into the sky?”  But there was something else these men dressed in white said to the disciples as well wasn’t there? And it was this:  “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Yes, Jesus is coming back but this time when he comes he comes to reign as Lord and King.  And this is what Tom Wright says in his book ‘Simply Jesus’: ‘Jesus’s first followers were unequivocal: He will reappear in power and glory, triumphing over all the forces of death, decay, and destruction, including those structures that have used those horrible forces to enslave and devastate human lives.’

And the confession of those early followers of Jesus was this: ‘Jesus is Lord’ and the question we need to ask ourselves is: have we acknowledged Jesus as our own personal Lord and King?  Have we knelt before him and given him our wholehearted allegiance?  And have we said: “Lord Jesus come and reign in me?

And so let me finish with some well-known words written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Philippi which speaks of the honour given to Jesus following his victory over the powers of sin and death on the cross:

‘Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave  him a name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at a service of Holy Communion at St Laurence’s, Scalby on Sunday 17th May 2015

Sermon – 22 March 2015 – Philip

‘Righteousness’

Readings: Philippians 3: 1 – 12 and Matthew 6: 25 – 34

‘Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.’

Well you may or may not have heard of the name, John Stuart Mill but he was a philosopher in the 19th century who wrote about a variety of things.  And as part of my recent holiday reading I came across something he said that really caught my attention and made me stop and think, in fact, I found it rather disconcerting.  And it was because in 1859 John Stuart Mill wrote an essay in which he was trying to explain the process by which words lose their meaning.  And in seeking to illustrate his argument, he came up with the view that the best example he could give of this were Christians.  And he said this:

‘Christians seem to have the amazing ability to say the most wonderful things without actually believing them.’

And he then went on to give a list of things that Christians actually say: things like – blessed are the poor and humble; it’s better to give than to receive; judge not, lest you be judged; love your neighbour as yourself and so on.  He then concluded by suggesting that as far as Christians were concerned, the sayings of Jesus seemed to produce hardly any effect in them at all beyond saying that they believed them.  Well whether you agree with what he says or not I’ll leave you to think about.

But it certainly began to make me think once more of how I, personally take to heart the words of Jesus and act on them.  Just how seriously do I take the teaching of Jesus? Am I selective and just take the bits I like and then gloss over the others?  And I find myself constantly being challenged along these lines by various Christian social activists.  People like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis and many others.  In fact, I went to hear to Tony Campolo speak at York Minster a couple of years ago.  And he often refers to himself as one of those ‘Red Letter Christians.’  And you’ve probably seen those Bibles where the words of Jesus are printed in red, in fact, Janet has one.  And Tony Campolo says this:

‘The goal of Red Letter Christians is simple: to take Jesus seriously by endeavouring to live out his radical counter-cultural teaching as set forth in Scripture and committing ourselves first and foremost to doing what Jesus said; especially embracing the lifestyle prescribed in the Sermon on the Mount.’

And so as we proceed with our sermon series looking at some of our basic Christian beliefs it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the things we say we believe and how seriously we do take them and the extent we may put them into practice.  And just think of the difference it would make in our world if we truly began to act on all that Jesus teaches in those red lettered verses.
And so what I want to do this morning is to pick up on those words of Jesus which I started with and where Jesus says: ‘Seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness.’  And it’s the second part of that phrase I want to look at and what it really means ‘to seek God’s righteousness?’  And that’s our theme for today and I have three simple points.

And so firstly let me suggest it means seeking to be in a right relationship with God through faith in Christ. And do you remember that bit in our first reading from Philippians where Paul, the author is reflecting on some of the things in his past and which others of his day would regard as a sign of success and to his credit.  And he says “look I consider all these things as nothing compared with knowing Christ.”  He says:

‘I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.’

And knowing Christ is what’s important – that living relationship we can enter into with him.  And we can only begin to know him and be in that relationship with him when we turn to him in faith and repentance – and as the rest of the New Testament shows us; that means faith specifically in what Jesus did for us on the cross. And it was there that he bore the guilt of our sin in himself so that we might share in his righteousness and be right with God.  And it was on the cross that Jesus did for us what we could do for ourselves; our sins were laid on him and his righteousness was accounted to us – and we accept it by simple faith.  It’s not something we can achieve through our own efforts – it’s the free gift of God – and that’s what grace is all about.

And we see this principle operating in the Old Testament as well.  And so if we go way back into the book of Genesis we see God making certain promises to Abraham.  And it says: ‘that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’  And we see the Apostle Paul reminding his readers of this very same point in his letters to the Romans and Galatians.

2.  And then secondly, righteousness not only means being in a right relationship with God but it’s also living out that right relationship with God through obedience to him.  We can’t just say: “well if salvation is a free gift from God, what does it matter how we live?”  But it does matter – it matters immensely.  And look at what Jesus says in John’s gospel – and again it’s in red letters.  “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.  My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home in them.”  And this obedience should not be seen as some kind of unwelcome imposition on us from above; no – it is a loving response to all that Jesus has done for us.

And James in his New Testament letter tells us that faith that stops at words is not really faith at all.   We can’t claim to have faith if our lives remain unchanged.  Where faith is real it will spill over into what we do and how we behave.  It will manifest itself in our personal moral integrity, in obedience and in seeking to do what is right before God.  Faith without deeds is useless says James.  The evidence of true faith shows itself in a commitment to love and serve others and following the example of Jesus.

And if we go back again to our Old Testament example of Abraham again we see that he was not only counted as righteous by God because of his faith but he lived out that righteousness through his obedience.  And we see that in Genesis 26 when the original promise to him by God is renewed through his son Isaac, and as it’s renewed as God says: “it was because Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements”

3.  And so we have looked at righteousness on a personal level – as seeking to be in right relationship with God through faith in Jesus.  And also at righteousness as living out that relationship with God through obedience to him.

And now there’s a further aspect of righteousness which we need to consider and that brings me to my third point which is the social dimension of righteousness.  And it relates to doing all we can in seeking justice and pursuing righteousness in an unjust world.

And I am given to understand that in the original bible languages the words justice and righteousness are almost a single word.  They are virtually interchangeable and have a similar meaning.  And they are words that recur time and time again throughout the whole of Scripture.

And so when Jesus says: “Seek God’s righteousness” his original hearers would instinctively have known, from what we call the Old Testament, what he meant by it.  And that it meant active concern and action on behalf of the poor and the needy, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, the hungry and the naked.  And they would also have known that it meant honouring and obeying God’s command that such disadvantaged people should be looked after and cared for.  And I love those words of the Old Testament where the prophet Isaiah says:

‘Learn to do good! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.’

And so once more, we can go back to the example of Abraham.  He was not just counted righteous by God for his faith and or for his personal obedience but we also see this other aspect of righteousness as well when God gives his own reason for calling and choosing him.  This is what God says to him in Genesis 19:

‘For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.’

And then something else we see in the Old Testament, is the prophets who are passionate about justice and righteousness; about freedom from oppression; about the promotion of civil rights and justice in the law courts; about integrity in business dealings and about honour in the home and in family affairs.

And this is why it is important that as Christians we support missions and agencies like Christian Aid; Tear Fund and many others and all those which we support as a church, which campaign for justice and seek to alleviate suffering in a world in which there is so much injustice.
And it’s part of our mission as Christians to this hurting world.  All our mission flows from the mission of God and it’s what Jesus commissioned us to do; it’s part of building for his kingdom.  And yes there is a day when God is coming to put things to right when Jesus comes again; when heaven and earth become one and when as the prophet Isaiah puts it:

‘when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’

But we are not called to just sit back and wait for that to happen we are called to live now in the light of what is still yet to come.  And this is what Tom Wright says in his book ‘Surprised by Hope.’ He says this:

‘What we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt and energised by the Spirit is to build for the kingdom.’
Well it’s time for me to finish so let me briefly recap on what it means to seek God’s righteousness?

1.  Well firstly it means seeking to be in right relationship with God through faith in Jesus.
2. Secondly it means living out that right relationship through obedience to him.
3. And finally it means doing all we can to seek justice and pursue righteousness in an unjust world.

Amen.

Philip Newell – Reader
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby Holy Communion on Sunday 22nd March 2015 (am).

Sermon – Alastair – 8 March @ Hackness

Ten Commandments – Deutronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23-3:6

In Lent, across the North Scarborough Group, we’re doing our best in our sermons and services to think about the Ten Commandments.  Lent is a time of reflection and self-examination, and, as we did in the confession, we can use the commandments as an aid to reflect.

The Ten Commandments used to be prominent in every church in England, on a big board somewhere in plain view.  I’m not sure why they were so prominent as I’m not sure they were particularly big in the thinking of the early church or even in the Bible.  They were certainly there, in the Bible, and taken seriously, but I don’t think you’d have found them on the wall of a synagogue or an early church meeting place.  They don’t have a central place in the Old Testament and are not mentioned in the New Testament.  Occasionally one or other of the Ten Commandments gets a mention, but they’re never referred to collectively as if they were a key moral code or a particularly important part of the Christian life.

I suspect the prominence in our country is to do with some hangover from 17th Century Puritanism – a sort of Christianity that rather liked to say, “Thou shalt not!” about anything that might conceivably be fun or pleasurable.  But it has got into the psyche of Christianity in our nation – years spent by generations of churchgoers looking up at all those, ‘Thou shalt nots’ and ‘Thou shalts.’  I’m not sure, either when the boards started to come down or weren’t included in many new churches, but the damage has been done. The perception in the minds of many is that God is sat on a cloud frowning and occasionally bellowing, ‘Thou shalt not!’ at us if we get close to enjoying ourselves.

Many think that the Ten Commandments are all there is to being a Christian.  I’ve been told many a time, ‘I don’t go to church, but I’m still a Christian.  I keep the 10 Commandments!’  And I’ve also heard many, mostly, but not entirely, older folk, saying everything would be OK if only people would keep the 10 Commandments.  Perhaps that’s not far from true.  But there’s a danger in thinking the 10 Commandments are all there is to it.  Think for a moment.  Most people think they do OK by the Ten Commandments because they haven’t ever committed adultery, shoplifted of murdered anyone, but you can keep every one of the commandments to the letter and still be an absolute swine!

You may not actually kill anyone, but you can bitch and snipe, and grumble, and insult, make people’s lives a misery, be full of hate and anger at those different from you.  You may not actually commit adultery but what if you ignore the needs of your partner, abuse them, flirt with others, continually think the grass would be greener on the other side of the fence if you had a different partner?  You may not steal, but is your money invested in companies that exploit the environment, rip off poor communities, underpay their workforce, and so on?  It’s not as straightforward as we think.  Jesus made the point in his Sermon on the Mount, that if you are angry with someone without cause, insult them, lust after another’s wife, etc, you are breaking the spirit of the law.

One commandment, though – the one we’re thinking about today – is pretty much ignored by non-Jews today, and I think that is very damaging to us and to our society.  That commandment is Sabbath.  Here’s a little story:
A priest, an imam, and a rabbi were talking one day about how good God had been to them. The priest told of an occasion when he was caught in a snowstorm so terrible that he couldn’t see a foot in front of him. He was completely confused, unsure even of which direction he needed to walk. He prayed to God, and miraculously, while the storm continued for miles in every direction, it seemed to calm just around him, and he could clearly see 100 yards around him and he was able to find his way home.  The imam told a similar story. He had been out on a small boat when a heavy storm struck. There were 20-foot high waves, and the boat was sure to capsize. He prayed to Allah, and, while the storm continued all around, for 100 yards around his boat, the sea calmed, and he was able to return safely to port.
The rabbi, too, had a story. “One Sabbath morning, on the way home from my prayers, I saw a very thick wad of £20 notes in the gutter. Of course, since it was Sabbath, I wasn’t able to bend down and pick it up, for that would be work, neither am I allowed to touch money on the Sabbath.  But when I prayed to God, though everywhere else, it was Sabbath, for 10 feet around me, until I reached home, it was Thursday!”

Sabbath has got twisted in that sort of way.  It was already twisted by Jesus day.  So many extra rules about how to honour the Sabbath and keep it holy had grown up.  There’s a famous example of the rule that, if a lady spotted a grey hair in the mirror, she couldn’t pluck it out on the Sabbath, because that would count as harvesting!  Jesus’ disciples fell foul of that, by plucking ears of corn for a nibble on the Sabbath, but the resulting debate gave rise to his saying, which goes to the heart of Sabbath.  “The Sabbath is for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  That is true of all the Commandments.  They are for our benefit – to make life better, not harder – to make life more restful, not more awkward.  God is not frowning at us, watching in case we have fun!

I remember reading, as a child, the Little House on the Prairie books, and being troubled when I read in one how Laura Ingalls Wilder had been severely told off – even beaten, perhaps, I can’t remember – on the Sabbath because she and her siblings had been having fun sledging!  That was in the late 19th Century, but I know a lady in her 50’s at St Laurence’s who was brought up to believe fun on Sunday was definitely not on!  It was a day for being holy – and for ‘holy’ read ‘miserable’!  But that is to completely misunderstand what Sabbath was, and is, for.  We can badly miss the point if we just stick rigidly to rules and think that’s what the Commandments are about.  Think of Jesus’ opponents forbidding healing on the Sabbath but happy to plot his death.

Sabbath is holy, in the first place, because it was the day God rested from his labours of creation.  But it wasn’t as if God needed to rest.  What is going on is that on the seventh day God enjoyed the creation he had made.  And as it is written in the Ten Commandments, Sabbath is to be kept by the Israelites because they were slaves once, and they weren’t to be slaves again, and they weren’t to make anyone else a slave – even an animal!  But we make ourselves slaves to continual busyness all the time.

Our culture has become what we often call 24/7.  I remember all the arguments a few years back about the Keep Sunday Special campaign.  At the time I didn’t particularly think it mattered, and it seemed wrong to prevent people going shopping just because of my belief, which they didn’t share.  Keep Sunday Special smacked, to me, of the Little House on the Prairie attitude.  But now I’m not so sure.  I think we have lost a lot in losing the specialness of Sunday.  There’s a lad at St Laurence’s left us last year to go to university and is going great guns in his faith.  When he was about 10 he always came to church with his friend, but that friend was a keen footballer, and we lost him to football fixtures on a Sunday.  I wonder, if he had stayed in church with us and his friend, whether he wouldn’t now be like his friend – full of the faith.  And, as someone who doesn’t understand how anyone could conceivably go shopping as a leisure activity, I lament the opportunity all those shoppers would have for doing something more worthy – and all those shop assistants who have to work.  The day for spending time with families seems to have gone and that’s a great sadness.

But, of course, Sabbath in the Bible isn’t Sunday at all – it’s Saturday.  But never mind what day we keep it on – there are always people who will have to work on any given day – emergency services, and so forth.  But we can still keep Sabbath in principle.  Just from a sanity point of view we need to have time off – it’s good if it can be a whole day.  It doesn’t matter if you have fun and do lots of stuff that day, that’s what it’s for, but when do we have time for God?

We can keep Sabbath time every day if we make time for it.  The Sabbath principle is as valuable as it ever was, particularly in a society that has got itself in a big hurry and doesn’t know how to slow down.  Employers seem to expect their workers to work all the time.  Even if they get a day off, they don’t have enough time for their families the rest of the week.  I think that’s a violation of the Sabbath principle.  And even if employers don’t do it, we’re quite capable of doing it to ourselves.  I’m preaching to myself here as much as to anyone else.  When is our Sabbath time.

We tend to feel guilty if we lie in bed in the morning and gaze at the ceiling, or if we soak in the bath until we’re pink and wrinkly.  Even if we stop for a cup of tea and gaze out of the window.  We have ago at our teenagers who seem to be able to snooze until midday.  What a waste of life!  That’s what we think.  Or are we just secretly jealous!?  But I think it might also be true that most of the really important thoughts and ideas we have ever had have come in those moments that we might otherwise consider wasted?  How much of life we miss if we’re always doing something ‘useful’!

Sabbath says God didn’t create us to be always doing stuff!  He created us to be!  He created us to enjoy him and his creation and enjoy the gift that our lives are.  How do you feel if you give someone a book as a present – one you think they’d really enjoy, and they never actually get round to reading it.  How would you feel if you cook a really tasty meal, and your guest just shovels it down and runs out of the door?  Well multiply that by a lot, and that’s how God feels when we ignore the wonderful gifts of life because we are too busy doing stuff.  Even when we’re too busy doing stuff for him!  Sabbath is a reminder of what life is for.

Someone from St Mark’s gave me this poem a week or two ago and I keep coming back to it.  It’s by R.S. Thomas.  I’ll give you all a copy after.  It’s called ‘The Bright Field’:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

The pearl of great price is being able to turn aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush.  Life as God intended it does not consist of hurrying.  To be sure, there’s hurrying to be done, but Sabbath reminds us there is much more.  I’m also reminded of that poem, ‘Leisure’ – ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’

I read this book for Lent a few years ago and found it quite an eye-opener.  It’s called, ‘Do nothing to change your life.’  A double meaning there.  How often do we do nothing without feeling guilty?  If anyone would like to borrow, you’re welcome.

We may not keep a Sabbath Day as such – though it would be valuable if we did – but let’s keep at least some Sabbath Time.

Sermon – 22 February 2015 – Alastair

10am St Luke’s – Exodus 20:1-17 and Mark 12:28-34
Beginning the 10 Commandments series – Jesus’ Summary of the Law

Henry, who was rather elderly, and liable to forget things was unhappy because he had lost his favourite hat.  Instead of searching for a new one in a similar style, he decided he would go to church and steal one out of the entrance porch when the worshippers were busy praying – he knew some of the men who went there wore hats like that.  But when Henry arrived at the church a sidesman intercepted him at the door and showed him to a pew where he had to sit and listen to the entire sermon on ‘The Ten Commandments.’

After the service, Henry met the vicar at the doorway, shook his hand vigorously, and told him, ‘I want to thank you Father for saving my soul today.  I came to church to steal a hat and after hearing your sermon on the 10 Commandments, I decided against it.’ The vicar answered, ‘You mean the commandment ‘Thou shall not steal’ changed your mind?’

‘No!’ retorted Henry, ‘Sorry I’d better go quick!  The one about adultery did it. As soon as you said that, I remembered where I’d left my old hat!’

The Ten Commandments used to be prominent in every church in England, on a big board somewhere in plain view.  I’m not sure why they were so prominent as I’m not sure they were particularly big in the thinking of the early church or even in the Bible.  They were certainly there, in the Bible, and taken seriously, but I don’t think you’d have found them on the wall of a synagogue or an early church meeting place.  They don’t have a central place in the Old Testament and are not mentioned in the New Testament.  Occasionally one or other of the Ten Commandments gets a mention, but they’re never referred to collectively as if they were a key moral code or a particularly important part of the Christian life.

I suspect the prominence in our country is to do with some hangover from 17th Century Puritanism – a sort of Christianity that rather liked to say, “Thou shalt not!” about anything that might conceivably be fun or pleasurable.  But it has got into the psyche of Christianity in our nation – years spent by generations of churchgoers looking up at all those, ‘Thou shalt nots’ and ‘Thou shalts.’  I’m not sure, either when the boards started to come down or weren’t included in many new churches, but the damage has been done. The perception in the minds of many is that God is sat on a cloud frowning and occasionally bellowing, ‘Thou shalt not!’ at us if we get close to enjoying ourselves.

Many think that the Ten Commandments are all there is to being a Christian.  I’ve been told many a time, ‘I don’t go to church, but I’m still a Christian.  I keep the 10 Commandments!’  And I’ve also heard many, mostly, but not entirely, older folk, saying everything would be OK if only people would keep the 10 Commandments.

That’s perhaps not far off true.  I don’t for a moment think that they are a bad thing!  If the Vladimir Putin’s of this world took them more seriously it would be a far better world – indeed if everybody did it would, but the trouble is people perceive the commandments as coming from outside themselves.  Let me explain what I mean.  The commandments are perceived to stand over and against us, judging us, rather than as part of a relationship with God.  If you don’t have a relationship with God, you may agree the commandments are a good thing, but when they conflict with what you want to do, you’ll try to find some way around them, some excuse not to keep them, or simply ignore them.

I came across this quote from some one called H.L. Mencken: ‘Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.’  Of course there are many more commandments and laws in the Old Testament, but on the whole people think, ‘The fewer the better!’  They see commandments as limitations to their freedom – things they would rather do without, but their purpose is to give life a decent shape.  If there are no rules you can’t play a game.  If you can do whatever you like with chess pieces there is no chess.  If you can just hit the golf ball wherever and with whatever you please there is no golf.  If you just do whatever you like in life without regard for God or neighbour, there is no life.  It’s a meaningless chaos of every man and woman for themselves.

The commandments were given to give shape to what it meant to be God’s people as opposed to a people living for themselves.  They are part of the Covenant – the relationship based on a promise between God and his people.  Actually the Bible doesn’t call them ‘commandments’, which gives this impression that they stand threateningly over us, but it calls them ‘words’.  “God spake these words and said…”  It’s more like advice for a good life – strong and serious advice, certainly, but the Hebrew doesn’t carry the bossy sounding force of the English word ‘Commandments’.  But whatever we call them, before Moses even came down the mountain they had broken the commandments and he broke the tablets they were written on.  The first two ‘words’ were ‘Have no gods before or besides me, and don’t make a graven image to represent me or any other god.’  And the Israelites had already decided it was a golden calf deity (probably an Egyptian deity) that had brought them out of Egypt and made an idol to worship.

The commands, by themselves, don’t help us to do any better.  By themselves they simply show up how much we fail.  St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (3:6) wrote, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”  The letter – that is the written commandment – says, ‘This is the way of life for God’s people,’ but without the Spirit you won’t be able to keep this way of life, so the commandment that promises life (that’s why it was given) proves to be death in you.

As I said, the Law stands outside us.  Even in the Old Testament the prophets foretold that it needs in the end to be written on our hearts, not on tablets of stone.  Ezekiel 36:26 says one day God will take away his people’s hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh; and Jeremiah 31:33 foretold that one day God would make a new Covenant with his people when his law would be written on their hearts.  If Law is outside us we won’t obey it if we think we can get away with it.  Think about the inclination to drive over the speed limit until you see a camera.  That’s probably because we don’t particularly agree with the law, or we think something else (our own wishes perhaps?) is more important, or something else (our own ability to control our vehicle) somehow trumps the law, so we don’t keep the law unless we have to.

The Commandments are a bit different, in that if you believe in God, you believe he sees you breaking them, but the point remains, if the Law remains outside us, it is only ever kept reluctantly, and as our belief waxes and wanes we tend to ignore the law.  But if we see the point of a law and agree with it and accept it – for example if we become aware of the possibility of an accident happening suddenly and unexpectedly, or a child running out and finding ourselves unable to stop in time – then we’ll be more inclined to keep the law, cameras or not.  The law of God needs to be written on our hearts in this way.  It becomes internal to us – part of who we are.  That doesn’t just mean it’s been learned by heart – it means we see the point of it and because we want to live in love for God and love for neighbour we want to keep it.

We sadly are not very likely to achieve anything, I don’t think, by standing over Vladimir Putin, or anyone else for that matter, saying. ‘Thou shalt not!’  We only really change the world by changing the human heart.  I know that’s not exactly the answer to the Ukraine crisis right now, but it’s the only real hope for the world in the long term.  That’s how the Kingdom of God comes and that is how the world is saved.  Not by shouting ever louder, ‘Thou shalt!’ and ‘Thou shalt not!’ but by loving God and loving neighbour and spreading that love so the commandments become written on our hearts.

Jesus shows us the point of the law – love God and love neighbour – it’s all about love.  Not about whether or not we cross boundaries – it’s all about relationship.  Crossing boundaries can certainly damage relationships, but it is the relationship that is the point of having the boundaries in the first place.  We’ll come onto this in the next few weeks as we consider the commandments throughout Lent in a series of sermons, but Jesus widens the commands to show people the point of them.  He says it’s no good just not killing people.  If you treat them like dirt, insult, hate, burn with anger against them, you haven’t written the commandment on your heart.  If you don’t actually love your partner, always lust after others, fantasize that the grass would be greener in another relationship, then it matters not if you don’t actually commit adultery, you’re not keeping the commandment.

It’s a good discipline in Lent to spend a bit of time meditating on the 10 Commandments, because we can tend to think we do OK by them if we haven’t murdered anyone or shoplifted lately, but if we take each one, in order to see the point of it, it can quickly become apparent how far short we fall.  How do we measure up to the command to have no gods but me?  What other things in our lives take up more time and energy, or are more important to us than our relationship with God?  Do we love God with all our heart?  I may not steal, but is my money invested in companies that don’t pay a fair wage or a fair price to their suppliers?  We may be gaining from somebody else’s violation of the commandment.  There’s plenty of self-examination for us all to do, I’m sure, with these and the rest of the 10 commandments.  But it’s not about beating ourselves up.  It’s about trying to do ourselves good.  We examine ourselves in much the way that we might examine parts of our bodies for lumps.  If we find any we go to the doctor.  If we examine ourselves and find we don’t live up to the commandments we turn to Jesus.  How do we get the commandments written on our hearts?  We can’t write them there ourselves – the Spirit writes them there – but we have to want that and receive it.

It is through Jesus that the law is written on our hearts – he is the mediator of a new relationship with God – a new covenant – the New Testament.  He lived a life of perfect relationship with God.  When we ask him into our lives, we become what St Paul called ‘In Christ’.  We share in his relationship with God and his Spirit lives in us and starts to make us want to keep the commandments – not for their own sake, but for the sake of the love he gives us for God and the love he gives us for our neighbour.  Those, Jesus said, are the greatest commandments.
It puzzles me that those two commandments aren’t written on boards in prominent positions in our churches.  Let’s ask Jesus to write them in prominent places in our hearts.

Sermon – 22 February 2015 – Graham

St Laurence – 10.00 a.m. – Exodus 20: 1 – 17 and Mark 12: 28 – 34

As part of the Northern Group’s teaching programme about the basics of our faith, it falls to me to begin a four week series of sermons about the Commandments – but, as happened earlier in the service, I shall omit the Eleventh of them, which – as we all know – is “Thou shalt not be found out.”

My task is to introduce the Mosaic Commandments, but leave their detailed consideration to others, and then to spend the rest of my time talking about Jesus’ summary of them, sometimes known as the Great Commandment.

As most, perhaps all of you, know, the Ten Commandments form the basis of the faith and practice which Moses brought from Mount Sinai – reputably written on two stone tablets – and which Jews and Christians share. According to the Book of Exodus, he had spent forty days alone on the mountain communing with God. How long he had really spent up there is open to question, though, for, as with Jesus in the wilderness, forty days merely signified a long time.

Having escaped from Egypt, the Jewish nation was feeling its feet as as an independent state, no longer subject to the law codes forced upon it by its previous masters. Almost all the colonial possessions of the great European powers have been given their independence since the end of the Second World War, and have felt their way towards their own codes of law and practice, so many of us can fully understand the position the Jews felt themselves to be in.

If we take the relevant parts of the first five books of the Old Testament at face value Moses seems to have tackled the whole task on his own, ending up by carrying down those two tablets, with the new law code literally carved in stone upon both sides of both of them. But straightway Moses found his ideals and plans in jeopardy because, in his absence, his people had turned away from the one true God to unseemly revelry and worshipping a golden calf.

Moses was incandescent as we can read in Exodus 32: 19 – 20:
“As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the camp and the dancing, his anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the [golden] calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.”
And, in the voice of Basil Brush, Jews and Christians alike have been taking the tablets for their spiritual and moral health ever since. Boom! Boom!
Nevertheless a second pair of inscribed tablets was soon made and Exodus tells us that, again, God himself did the writing

But as I explained earlier my task this morning is to talk about about Jesus’ very short summary of the Ten Commandments which, under pressure from the Pharisees, he boiled down to just two laws.

Jesus’ deceptively simple formula emerged when a Pharisean lawyer asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

He said to him, ” ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And it is fair to say that those two linked commandments, sometimes called the Great Commandment., reveal the basis of true religion which starts with loving God, not in some kind of sentimental, feel-good sort of way, but in total commitment of heart, soul, and mind.
And so Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5 as the greatest and first commandment and that verse from Deuteronomy is part of the basic creed of Judaism.

“It means,” said the great Baptist commentator William Barclay, “that we must give total love to God, a love which dominates our emotions, a love which directs our thoughts, and a love which is the dynamic of our actions.”

The second commandment Jesus cites is from Leviticus 19:18. Only when we love our neighbour in concrete acts of justice and compassion does our love for God become real – and not merely an abstract idea. As Jesus says in Matthew 7: 16 in the Sermon on the Mount: “You will know them by their fruits.”

But it is important I emphasize the final two words of our Lord’s second Great Commandment, for the Gospel accounts do not record him as saying simply “Love your neighbour” but “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

For, in the last resort, if one doesn’t look after oneself, one cannot take one’s proper place in life, be it in the family, at work or at leisure, or in helping one’s fellow human beings wherever they might be in the world. or in helping the world at large.

To give you one example from my personal experience, I shall always value the advice I was given by Bishop Timothy of Portsmouth who ordained me Deacon on Michaelmas Day in 1987 – a very wise man who previously had been Bishop of Johannesburg, with Desmond Tutu as his Dean and once he had retired he became a monk in Alton Abbey, Hampshire. After dinner on the evening before the ordination, he ended my private talk with him by saying “I expect that after tomorrow you’re going to feel you’re fired up to conquer the world for God, but never forget that come what may – as it will – your major responsibility should not be to the world but to yourself and your family.

Without looking after yourself and looking after them, you will be ineffective and no real long term good to anyone. Advice which stipendiary clergy should take particularly to heart, but sadly – sometimes even tragically – rarely do. So it’s the duty of the rest of us to make sure they take their time off and aren’t forced to attend all the meetings they do and for the rest of us to accept that a home visit doesn’t mean that it’s always the vicar who has to call.

Now to conclude, let me offer you some final thoughts on the two commandments from St. Cyril of Alexandria, an outstanding theologian who died in the year 444.

The first Great Commandment teaches every kind of godliness. For to love God with the whole heart is the cause of every good. The second commandment includes the righteous acts we do toward other people.

The first commandment prepares the way for the second and in turn is established by the second. For the person who is grounded in the love of God clearly also loves his neighbour in all things.

So may God give you grace to obey Jesus’ two commandments in all their fulness, so that you may experience the blessings to be gained from obeying the whole ten which Moses brought down from the mountain.

Amen

Sermon – 15th February – Alastair

Sunday Before Lent – 8 a.m. – 1 Cor.13:1-13 &  Lk.18:31-43

Our first reading, 1 Corinthians Chapter 13.  It’s probably the best known passage in the Bible these days, because of its common use at weddings.  Our version though replaces the usual word ‘Love’ with the word ‘charity’ – this is because the Greek word used for love is a special one – the word ‘agape’ – which Paul was using for the special quality of love that ought to exist between Christians.

Love should be the lifeblood of the body of Christ -love should be the defining characteristic of any church.  But though this passage is very familiar, it seems to me it very often ignored by Christians who insist on being divided by matters of doctrine or church practice – the very things that Paul was directly addressing.

The Christians in Corinth – as far as Paul was concerned – had a few wires crossed over what it is to be a Christian.  They thought it was all about being really religious – speaking in tongues, for example – it seems many Corinthians believed that you had to speak in tongues to be a proper Christian and they looked down on those who didn’t.

But Paul says if I can speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am nothing.  Speaking in tongues is nothing.  Similarly having prophetic powers, power to perform miracles and move mountains is nothing.  It matters not to God.  Giving away all your possessions and living as an ascetic – giving up worldly pleasures – another manifestation of religion, then as now, is nothing without love.

Understanding all mysteries and having all knowledge of spiritual matters is similarly nothing.  But how many Christians insist you must believe all the right things about God and Jesus – hold a correct set of opinions in your head without doubt or deviation to be saved?  Paul says this too is nothing.  When it comes to God, we can know only in part, and see “as through a glass darkly”.  To understand that you need to realize that 1st century glass technology was somewhat different to ours.  Glass was thick and let through light, but you wouldn’t expect to see much detail through it.  Such is our knowledge of God.  To insist that you must believe the right things perfectly is a nonsense, and Paul says as much.  You won’t get to, or be shut out of, heaven by correct or incorrect beliefs and opinions about God.  Paul says as much for he says knowledge will come to an end.

What Paul is saying, pretty much, is religion will come to an end.  All religions and denominations and styles of worship will come to an end.  But faith, hope and love won’t.   What makes a church live and grow is not its style of worship or how well organised it is, it is love.  There can be any number of styles of worship.  I may have my preferences but they are not important – but love is important.  I personally can put up with or even enjoy any style of worship.  The one thing I can’t stand is people falling out over it, and I’ve seen churches that do that and churches that don’t.  I’ve seen churches where they really enjoyed swinging the incense or ringing the bells but simply laughed about it if the procession all went wrong and they got confused and tripped over each other, and I’ve come across churches where they will tear into each other for not doing the smallest things properly.  The difference here is love.

No church will stand or fall by innovations in worship or by redeveloping its building or even closing it – a church will stand or fall by love and love alone.  We could push down an evangelical line or a catholic line, or middle of the road – more all age services or more traditional ones – these things are significant, but, Paul would tell us, they will pass away.  If our building fell down and we had to meet in a school for example, what would determine whether the church survived or not?  Love and only love.  If it was the building that was important to you, well you wouldn’t come any more.  But if it was love for one another…?  The loss of the building wouldn’t change that.  Love will keep us together, or lack of love will stop us meeting.  Or, conversely, we could have a wonderful well kept building and churchyard but ultimately only love will help the congregation stay together and grow.  Without love we would end up with a wonderful building but have no one worshipping in it.  There are lots of difficulties churches can have, but the only thing that can destroy a church is failure in love – if we have not love we are nothing – we are not a church at all.

If love for God and one another is more important than anything else, that will make us give financially to sustain our community life.  Love will make us put ourselves out for one another – love will make us give of our time and energy, serve on the PCC, clean the church, make the tea, be a churchwarden, or a sidesperson, or whatever involvement might help sustain our church life.   Indeed this sort of thing is what love is – love is not a feeling – it is being prepared to give of ourselves to God and one another.  A thing I often quote, but it’s true – ‘How do children spell ‘Love’?  T – I -M – E.  No other way.  How do we spell our love for one another?  By being prepared to give time and effort to one another and our church life together.  Paul says nothing about love being a feeling – it is an act of the will – a determination to love one another.  It is not being irritable and resentful with each other – it is not insisting on our own way so far as the direction of our church is concerned – but finding a common way.

Love is the only way our church (or any church) will grow.  People will not join a community where they don’t find love.  People are not, by and large, starved of religion.  Lack of religion may lead to a certain emptiness, but lack of love is what really does the damage.  People are not looking for religion, they are looking for love.  Will they find it among us?

Three things, writes St Paul, abide – they can endure forever – faith and hope and love – but the greatest of these is love.  In the end neither conservative nor liberal will be proved right – no belief system will be proved right.  No direction we try to go as a church will be proved right or wrong.  The only thing that will be proved right in the end is love.

Sermon – Alastair – 8th February

‘Do you repent of your sins?’

Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!” – an eight word summary of his preaching!  It seems the idea of repentance was at the heart of Jesus’ message.  When we are baptised – when we first become Christians – one of the questions that is asked of us – or was asked of our parents and godparents – is ‘Do you repent of your sins?’  But what does it mean to repent?  Also what is sin?  We ask people at baptisms, ‘Do you repent of your sins?’ but most people struggle to understand what those words mean; so I’ll try to take them one by one.

First, what does repent mean?  Literally it means, ‘turn around’ – particularly ‘turn your mind around’ – ‘change your mind’ – change the direction you are facing in life.  The promises we make at baptism are all about turning from darkness to light.  We turn away from sin and renounce evil (the promise we’re looking at next week) and turn to Christ.  It’s about the direction you’re facing in life.  Let me be an illustration … stand in the middle of the church and spin around and stop, facing any old direction  Imagine to start with that in my life I’m facing any old direction I please, then imagine the cross on the altar is Jesus… how am I going to get closer to him?  What’s the first thing I have to do?  Of course the first thing I need to do is turn around to face the cross – then I can start putting one foot in front of the other to get closer to Christ.  If I don’t turn first I’m not going to get there.  The first thing we are asked to do as Christians is turn around.  Turn away from sin, and turn to Christ.  There will always be times, I guess, when we lose focus and find ourselves facing, and therefore moving, the wrong way again (do so!), which illustrates that repentance is not just a one off thing, but a lifelong journey.  To repent is to turn around, away from sin and towards Christ.

But what is the sin we promise to turn away from and keep turning away from?  Someone once said to me they thought sin was a wicked concept because it amounted to blaming people for all that had gone wrong in their lives.  She was working with the homeless and addicts and people who had really gone off the rails, and she felt that for most of them that was because of the hand they had been dealt in life – terrible parenting, lack of love, grinding poverty, abuse and so forth and calling them ‘sinners’ was judging them for something they couldn’t help.  I’d agree up to a point.  Jesus warned us about judging, and we can never tell how we would have ended up, what mistakes we would have made, had we been dealt the same hand in life as people we are inclined to condemn as sinners.

The term ‘sinner’ was a term the Pharisees liked to use about those who didn’t live up to their standards and Jesus always seemed to welcome those who the so-called ‘righteous’ were inclined to judge and write off; but Jesus himself did use the term as well.  He said, ‘I haven’t come to call the righteous (or those who think they are righteous) but I have come to call sinners to repentance.’  You might remember Jesus saying to the woman caught in adultery, after saving her from the mob who wanted to stone her, that he didn’t judge her, but he also said, ‘Go and sin no more.’

Actually I think sin as an idea gives us back our human dignity.  Saying they can’t help it because of their upbringing or whatever actually writes them off – as if they had no choice – as if they were just ‘things’ or objects that have no choice but to pass on the badness passed on to them.  To say they are ‘sinners’ actually says they are not objects that can’t help their behaviour, but human beings who have gone wrong, and they could go right again – they do have a choice – they could be so much more, and that is the tragedy of sin.  When clergy are ordained, one of the things we are called to do is to try to save the lives that sin would sweep away, and it does sweep lives away.

But I do think we tend to misunderstand the concept of sin these days.  If you say the word ‘sin’ in our wider society it’s usually thought to mean the pleasurable consumption of something that might be thought to be just a bit bad for you.  Rachel’s mum was on a diet a few years back, that basically meant eating a lot of fairly dull stuff, but you were allowed a certain number of ‘sins’ a day – I think you were allowed 10, and she had a book that told you how many ‘sins’ were in various foodstuffs.  I remember a pint of real ale weighed in at 9 sins (or was that just a half?).  Basically I was a big sinner according to this diet!

Sin is usually thought to have something to do with chocolate – or of course something to do with sex.  Anything pleasurable basically that might be spiced with a certain zing of naughtiness!  Sin for most, then, is basically committing an offence against healthy nutrition or against some boring old idea of good taste that is considered too silly to worry about.  It means indulgence or naughtiness.  If you were really concerned about something you would talk of eating disorders or addictions, but you wouldn’t tend to talk of sin.  Anyone talking of sin in the old biblical sense tends to be completely misunderstood, for what does more damage to human happiness – a box of Belgian chocolates or some killjoy religious fanatic denouncing them?!  If I talk of sin most people out there would just write me off as bizarrely opposed to pleasure.

But when the Bible talks of sin it has very little to do with anything you might think of as yummy transgression.  It is talking about the deep-rooted human tendency to muck up!  The human tendency to muck things up.  Not just by accident or clumsiness, but our active tendency to break stuff – including moods, promises, relationships we care about, our own well-being and other people’s well-being.  And we do this mostly through self-centredness, and sometimes even through active malice and destructiveness of the happiness of others.

When I talk about sin in a school assembly – which I can’t say I’ve done very often, but I have – I ask, ‘What is the heart of sin?  What is the middle letter of the word ‘sin’?  It is ‘I’.  It is putting myself, my own needs or desires, my own comfort or security, my own views on how things should be done, ahead of those of everybody else.  It is seeing the world with myself at the centre and everyone else in orbit around me, and getting infuriated and lashing out when they don’t seem to behave as if I’m the be all and end all.  Martin Luther – that great theologian of the Reformation – described the state of the sinful human being as ‘homo incurvatus se’ – Latin for ‘man turned in on himself.’ – the human heart and soul like an in-growing toenail – a condition of pain and distress for us and everyone around us.

I think where we often misunderstand sin is when we think of God being somehow furious with us all because of our sins.  I think there is such a thing as the wrath of God, or judgement for sin, but that is more along the lines of the fact that bad actions have bad consequences, or sometimes that God disciplines us a bit like a parent disciplines their children.  When my boys misbehave it doesn’t mean I hate them – sometimes it means I’m angry with them, but that’s often my weakness and temper rather than a good response.  More often it’s just that I’m saddened by that behaviour, and I think God is saddened by our self-centredness and lack of love.  In an attempt to bring my children up well I generally try to make sure there are consequences to bad behaviour that will hopefully help them to learn.  In this way there are consequences when we sin.

But we should never lose sight of the fact that God loves us – though sinners we all are.  There isn’t some class of righteous people and another class of sinful people.  The Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  But Jesus has dealt with sin – dealt it a mortal blow, so that it need no longer control our lives.  He has broken the hold of our self-centredness and enabled us to turn to God and live life as God always intended it to be.  We are forgiven – everything we have ever done is forgiven, though to make it real we need to receive that forgiveness.  God’s forgiveness is offered so freely that when understand it, we can be tempted to ask questions like, “Does it actually matter if I sin.  God loves me anyway!”  St Paul addressed that question directly in our first Bible reading.  “Shall we go on sinning that grace – that is God’s free love and forgiveness – may increase?”  Of course the answer is no.

Before we turn to Christ the Bible describes us as slaves to sin – slaves to our own self-centredness – slaves to our tendency to muck things up.  We don’t have any choice but to obey that tendency.  It’s as if we had a disease called sin – or terminally in-growing self.  Sin is the disease; sins – the individual things we do wrong – are the symptoms.  Our sins may be our attitudes to others, spite, grumbling, moaning, making others’ lives miserable, greed that makes us abandon our families in pursuit of wealth, lustful thoughts or actions that make us less than faithful to those we love and destroy our relationships, they may be addictive behaviours, which could include over-eating or drinking to excess, they may be angry thoughts or actions, hateful attitudes to those who are different from us – you could go on and on and on.  Sin can be almost anything that lessens our lives, or the lives of others, that damages love.  Jesus said the commandments of God are summed up in ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself.’  So anything that is less than loving towards God, towards others or less than loving towards yourself, could be defined as sin.

But the heart of sin is ‘I’ – that self-centredness.  That is the disease, and if we have the disease we can hardly help displaying the symptoms, any more than you can help coughing when you have bronchitis.  But what Jesus does in our lives is break the power of sin.  Break its hold on us.  That doesn’t mean we become perfect overnight and never sin again, but we find we have a choice.  Jesus gives us back our dignity in that we are no longer slaves to our self-centredness, but we find we have the ability to live differently.  He enables us, by his Holy Spirit, to turn away from sin and turn to him.  But we have to want it.  He won’t force us.  It’s still up to us to repent – to turn our minds around and start walking in a different direction – towards Christ.

I’ll finish with an image to hold in your minds.  I don’t know if you have seen the Godfather mafia films?  In one of them – I think it’s the second one – the mafia Godfather is being a godfather at the baptism of a baby.  The priest asks him, “Do you renounce evil?” and he says, “I renounce evil.” Then the action flashes to another part of the city where somebody is being murdered at his behest.  Then he is asked, “Do you repent of your sins?”  He says, “I repent of my sins.”  And the action flashes to elsewhere and somebody else is being killed.  The promises carry on and a purge of his enemies is occurring.  It’s a powerful image of how his baptismal promises meant nothing to him.  Now I don’t expect that any of you are likely to be instigating a massacre in the near future, but do those promises mean anything to you, or are they just words?  Have you repented of your sins?  Do you want to?  If you’d like to talk further about it, do have a word with myself or another minister after.

Turn to Christ.  The way to God is open and all are welcome to follow it.  We just have to turn around and start putting one foot in front of the other.  That’s how any journey begins.

Sermon – 25th January – Alastair

Hosea 11:1-4 and Matthew 28:16-20
“Do you believe and trust in God… Father… Son… and Holy Spirit”

A conversation from ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’:  “‘Let’s consider your age to begin with,” said the Queen, ‘– how old are you?’ `I`m seven and a half exactly.’ said Alice.  `You needn’t say “exactually,”‘ the Queen remarked: `I can believe it without that. Now I’ll give you something to believe.  I’m just one hundred and one, five months and a day.’ `I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.  `Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. `Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’   Alice laughed. `There’s no use trying,’ she said: `one can’t believe impossible things.’   `I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'”

When we become Christians, are we asked to try our hardest, by sheer effort, to believe impossible things?  Now and for the next few weeks across the Northern Group we’re hoping to think a bit about our baptisms – if we’ve been baptised – and the promises that were made at them, or that we might make at them.  It’s sort of Christian basics really.

Why?  Well, who of you can remember what promises are made at baptism?  Who can remember their own baptism?  Not many, because most people in this country, if they’re baptised, are baptised when they are babies.  But even if you can remember your baptisms can you remember the promises you made?  Anyone?  How about if you’ve been confirmed?  If you’ve confirmed your baptism, can you remember what promises you made then?  One of the reasons we’re often a bit shy about sharing our faith is that we’re not sure what it is.  So I’d like, us, if possible, to think a bit about some of those first things in Christian faith.

Baptism is symbolically the start of the Christian journey.  One of the first questions you’re asked before you’re baptised – or perhaps your parents were asked is this:  “Do you turn to Christ?” and I believe you might have thought a bit about that with Don last week.

Today I’d like to think about the profession of faith that we’re asked to make at our baptisms.  The usual baptism service asks three questions: “Do you believe and trust in God the Father?”  “Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ?”  “Do you believe and trust in the Holy Spirit?”  To which the response is to recite the Apostles Creed in three parts.  There’s a little rubric underneath that in Common Worship which says, “Where there are strong pastoral reasons the alternative profession of faith may be used”, and that alternative asks, slightly differently, “Do you believe and trust in God the Father, source of all being and life, the one for whom we exist?”  “Do you believe and trust in God the Son, who took our human nature, died for us and rose again?”  and “Do you believe and trust in God the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God, and makes Christ known in the world?”  To these questions you’re then not asked to recite the Creed but simply to say, “I believe and trust in him.”

Now I don’t know what ‘strong pastoral reasons’ are supposed to be, but we nearly always use that alternative form – the ‘strong pastoral reason’ being that young couples who bring their children for baptism with little or no church background, just can’t make sense of being asked to recite a Creed!  It’s like being asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast, by a sheer effort of the will.  “Can’t do it?  Try again!  Draw a long breath, and shut your eyes!”  Not that, in many ways, the alternative is any easier to swallow, it’s just less wordy.  I do always sit down and explain it to couples as best as I’m able, and I’ll tell you what I tell them in a minute.

But just as an aside, I did have a strong pastoral reason to use the full version a couple of years ago, which was quite interesting.  A lady wanted to be confirmed and she was very thoughtful indeed.  A former Jehovah’s Witness she knew all the arguments against the Trinity you can think of, but wanted to be a Christian.  She believed in Jesus as Son of God and wanted to follow him, but, because of her background, she was still wrestling with calling Jesus ‘God’.  She felt she couldn’t definitely answer to the alternative, “Do you believe in God the Son?” where the normal declaration is just to answer to “Do you believe in God and in Jesus Christ his Son.”  It’s interesting the Apostles Creed doesn’t say, definitely, that Jesus is God – it leaves what you might call ‘wriggle room’ – so she was happy with that.

Now you might think I did wrong, but this lady wanted to turn to Christ and follow in his way, and has carried on in that journey, and was prepared to use all the normal words of the Confirmation service and answer with the Apostles’ Creed, about which she had thought deeply, and though she had her doubts about the Nicene Creed, which goes into more detail as says Jesus is ‘true God from true God’, I felt, who am I to look into her heart and judge her here?  Most of those who answer those words don’t have a clue what they’re saying and haven’t thought much about it.

But, and here’s my main point really, at baptism, and confirmation, and even when we say the Creed on a Sunday, I don’t think we’re really being asked whether we have entirely correct opinions about God.  I don’t want to go in depth into the mysteries of the Trinity today, we do intend to go on with this as a series and later, after Easter, come to think about the Creed in more detail.  But what I do want to think about is what we’re asked, and what we answer to, at baptism… those words, “Do you believe and trust…”

When it comes to understanding God, I think all humanity, the cleverest minds that have ever been, are all completely out of their depth.  Imagine standing on the sea strand on the North Bay, looking out to sea…  From there the ocean looks pretty big, and you know it extends beyond your sight, but you can’t really comprehend the scale of it.  Imagine, then, standing on the castle headland and looking down at that person on the sea strand.  From there you can see how tiny they look next to the massive expanse, that they just can’t see from there.  You could extend that.  How about someone looking down at the castle headland from a plane – a human being looks even smaller, or from space!

When it comes to understanding God we’re like that person stood on the sea strand.  We simply have no idea of the sheer scale of what we are thinking about when we think about God.  The idea that our tiny human minds can have correct opinions about God is laughable.  I’m reminded of St Thomas Aquinas, the medieval thinker – one of the brightest minds that ever lived – he wrote volumes and volumes of systematic thought about the nature of God and our relationship to God, and there’s a lot of good in his writings, but he suddenly came to a point in his life, when he took a step back and looked at all his thinking, by this time becoming renowned throughout the world, as it was for centuries after, and he wrote, “It reminds me of a straw!”  And he just gave up his great project to try to systematize thought about God.

I don’t think when we are asked, ‘Do you believe and trust in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?’ that we are being asked if we have, or think we have, correct opinions about God, as opposed to the supposedly wrong opinions of others.  I know the Church has historically thought of it like that, with horrible consequences – excommunicating, shunning, attacking, even killing, people whose belief – by which they meant, opinions – they did not consider correct or ‘orthodox’.  I think, and I think the meaning of the Greek word for ‘believe’ bears this out, that we’re not being asked whether we understand at our baptisms, because nobody does, but we’re being asked whether we’re prepared to live by this – to walk this path.

Think of it as a bit like believing in the pew you’re sitting on.  I doubt many of us know how the pew is made, what wood it’s made of, what weight it can hold, whether it’s screwed down or not.  But you were willing to sit on it.  You believed and trusted that it would hold your weight and wouldn’t tip over.  Again, think of a wooden bridge over a stream… you may not know much about structural engineering or the materials of the bridge, but you believe in the bridge, not by having accurate opinions about it, but by walking across it.  Or, slightly differently, when walking in the mountains, I frequently find and follow paths that I haven’t walked before.  The country can be dangerous – there could be cliffs or bogs or all sorts of hazards.  I can usually only see a few hundred yards of the path, at most, but I ‘believe and trust’ that path, if I’m willing to follow it – to walk on it and see where it leads.  In the early days of Christianity, Christians were not called Christians, they were called ‘followers of The Way’.  They had found a path they believed in and were walking on it.

We’re not asked at baptism, I don’t think, to have exactly identical opinions about God to every other believer.  Our opinions will differ.  We are being asked, to some extent, to keep some sense of unity with our fellow believers though.  We are being asked, I think, to think about God in a way that has been revealed to us in Scripture, handed down to us, rather than believe in an idea of God we’ve thought up for ourselves – and that can be a bit of a challenge in our society where freedom of thought and opinion is valued extremely highly.  We are being asked to follow a path that’s already there, not just to wander all over the mountain!

The path we’re asked about is belief in God the Father – the idea there is a Creator – that this world is not just a cosmic accident, and that God cares about us and His creation.  We share that belief with Jews and Muslims and many others but what people exactly mean by that may vary widely.  But then the Christian is asked, ‘Do you believe and trust in Jesus Christ his Son?’ – who I believe is the image of God, God come to be with us.  What we mean by that, again, may vary, but we seek to follow the path of Jesus.  And we are also asked if we believe in the Holy Spirit – and there most of us get lost – but it’s really, I think – (again just an opinion of something I really can’t comprehend, but) I believe the Holy Spirit is that same Father and Son at work in the world and in our lives.

There is a tradition when saying the Creed that I think says more than the words we say, and that is that when saying the Creed we face in the same direction.  It’s not very obvious in this church when we’re pretty much faced the same way anyway, but in other churches you might see people turn around to say those words.  I think at baptism we’re not asked to take a deep breath and try our hardest to believe several things we find impossible to get our heads around, but we’re asked to say we’ll do our best to face the same direction as our brothers and sisters in Christ, despite our fallible human opinions.  We’re asked, ‘Are we willing to walk this road together with others?’  We believe and trust in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – even though we don’t understand.