Saturday, January 27, 2007

Sunday 21 January 2007 - Christian Unity Sunday

This sermon was delivered to a local Anglican congregation during a "pulpit swap" on Christian Unity Sunday. It is based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

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Introduction

The Christian denominations that are part of the World Council of Churches began an eight-day period of prayer for Christian Unity this past Thursday, the eighteenth of January.

It is as part of the observance of this week that I am here with you, as a Methodist minister, invited to preach and also participating with you in your service of worship. You may or may not be aware that the Anglican and Methodist denominations signed a Covenant on 1 November 2003, agreeing to work toward the “full visible unity of Christ’s Church”.

But as far as I am personally concerned, it is not this Covenant between our two denominations that makes us one. Rather, as Paul wrote in his First letter to the Corinthians, I believe that you and I are brothers and sisters in Christ by virtue of our baptism, and by virtue of the fact that we confess Jesus Christ to be our saviour and Lord.

Now, different people have different ideas about what it means for Christians to be “in full visible unity”. I expect that any position I took on this matter I would likely find someone here who would disagree with me. I expect that I’d probably have the same experience in my own congregation.

So I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that there is “one right way” for Christians to express their unity. If anything, I think that it is a Christian virtue to be able to listen respectfully to the point of view of another Christian on this matter and to agree to disagree if necessary.

But this morning, I’d like to look at the first two verses from our Epistle reading and see if we can draw any useful ideas from it with respect to Christian unity.

How A Community Functions

1 Corinthians, Chapter 12, verses twelve and thirteen read as follows: ‘Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit’ (1 Cor 12: 12, 13 NRSV)

The Apostle Paul was an expert at taking current ideas and adapting them in order to communicate a Christian message to his audience. The Corinthian readers of this letter would have been familiar with this image of the body and the workings of its different members because it originated in the world of Greek politics.

The Greeks and Romans used this image of the body in a particular way and this is how their story went.

The community is like the human body (Greek political leaders would say). Some people are more important than others just as some body parts are more important to the functioning of the body than others. The King is the head of the community - the most important part of the body – and then other classes proceed down the line from more important people to the less important people.

However - they would exhort their citizens - even though some people are more important to the life of the community than others, it is necessary for our community to function as one, just as all parts of the body cooperate and function together.

But Paul takes this story and changes the details. Rather than using the image of the body to make the point that some people in the community are more important than others, Paul uses the image to make the opposite point: that all members of the Christian community have equal status in the eyes of God, no matter what their function.

He even emphasises this by saying that the body’s “shameful bits” do not have a lesser status, but have vital functions that have been ordained by God. Paul uses this common metaphor about the secular community to make the point that the Church universal is an alternative community with an alternative way of living.

So, we have here the familiar principle that is usually drawn from these verses: Each person in a church community has been given different abilities and gifts to exercise on behalf of the church community. In God’s eyes, what is important is not whether a person is a bishop, a churchwarden or a volunteer worker, what matters is that each person is using his or her own gifts in obedience to the call of God and for the benefit of the Kingdom of God.

Different Denominations, Different Gifts

But I think that perhaps we might be able to extend this idea beyond the walls of any particular congregation and think about the Church universal and the church as a whole.

I expect that this may be one of those areas of disagreement, but I’d like to put it to you that perhaps different “sorts” of Christian congregations may have different functions to fulfil in the Universal Church of Christ.

Some congregations may best be able to minister to young people and young families, other congregations may be best placed to minister to older people. Some congregations are best suited to people who are moved by beauty and ceremony and symbols. Other congregations can communicate the love of God best to people who respond to words and ideas.

It’s my suspicion that just as every individual has his or her own gifts, so do different denominations and different congregations have different gifts to contribute to the Church of Christ on earth. God has created human beings with an amazing variety of different personality characteristics and talents. It doesn’t seem surprising to me that one kind of Christian community will not necessarily help all Christians to grow in faith and discipleship.

One in Christ


In just a few minutes, we are going to affirm our faith together in the Triune God. We are going to say that we believe in the Father as Creator, the Son as Saviour and the Spirit as the one who makes Christ known.

For me, it is this belief in the Triune God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - that makes us one. For me, it is the fact that we profess belief in Jesus Christ as our saviour and Lord that makes us one.

As someone who grew up in the bad old days when Christians of different denominations were suspicious of each other and would not take communion together, I rejoice that as a Methodist, I am able to receive communion here with you today. For me, our communion together is an important indication that we understand that we are one in Christ.

The progress that has been made over the last decades with respect to different denominations being in communion with each other is significant and we should be encouraged by it and not under-estimate it. We should be even more encouraged by the Anglican Methodist Covenant which challenges us to go even further and seek for “full visible unity” – whatever that may mean.

In the meantime, I think that we can demonstrate some “visible unity” in the community of B*******, not in any institutional sense, but by all the Christian churches seeking to increase their contact with each other.

Between the different denominations and the different Anglican parishes, we have many hundreds of people with all sorts of different abilities and talents who can work together.

I believe that in working together and pooling our talents and resources, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts – which is the great message of this image that Paul uses. I realise that I am a new face here in B******* but my impression is that there is an awful lot of good will amongst Christians here – both clergy and lay people.

So my prayer for all of us this morning is that as Christian congregations, we can find ways to celebrate the talents that we possess and at the same time look increasingly for ways to come together in order to discern the will of God for us as representatives of the Universal Church of Christ here in B*******.

I pray this in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Saturday, January 06, 2007

7 January 2007 - The Covenant Prayer

The following sermon is based on John Wesley's "Covenant Prayer". The text of the prayer is given below.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
in all that I do
and in all that I may endure;
when there is work for me
and when there is none;
when I am troubled
and when I am at peace.
Your will be done
when I am valued
and when I am disregarded;
when I find fulfilment
and when it is lacking;
when I have all things,
and when I have nothing.
I willingly offer
all I have and am
to serve you,
as and where you choose.

Glorious and bless├Ęd God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so for ever.
Let this covenant now made on earth
be fulfilled in heaven. Amen.


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Introduction

When I was studying in theology college, one of my tutors told us about his experience attending bible college in the United States in the 1970s. The tutor – let’s call him John – had actually decided to study theology as a young man for his first degree. In his second year at university he had the opportunity to go to the United States for a term and study in a US bible college.

John arrived at the US bible college as a life-long British Methodist. He was 19 years old and had never before left the UK. This was his first experience with a foreign country and it was also his first experience with Christianity, American style.

John told us that one of the first things his fellow students asked him was “Have you made a commitment to Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” John said that he was quite surprised by the question, that he thought for a few seconds and then said “Well, the last time I made a commitment to Jesus as my Lord and Saviour was this morning, why do you ask?”

Today we observe “Covenant Sunday” together and I want to explore the idea of what it means for a human being to make a commitment to God in conjunction with the observance of this special Sunday.

The Covenant Prayer is quite a powerful prayer. One might even call it extreme. It is certainly uncompromising. I suspect that it would more than meet the demands of the student who wondered whether my tutor had committed his life to God.

If you wish to do so, turn to page 288 in the Worship Book and look at this prayer with me. I want first to look at the last six lines of the prayer, on page 289.

These lines tell us clearly that we are praying to the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although the Covenant Prayer does not begin with an address to the Father, Son or Spirit, it does end with the Holy Trinity because it has been assumed from the beginning hat it is the Triune God to whom we are praying.

Now, let’s go back to the very beginning of the prayer – to the boldfaced type – and look at the very first line of the prayer.

This is strong stuff and the prayer jumps right in with a most astonishing commitment: addressing our prayer to the Holy Trinity, we pray, “I am no longer my own but yours.”

I am no longer my own but yours

“I am no longer my own but yours” What, exactly, does this phrase mean?

First of all, I think that it is simply making a statement of truth. Properly speaking from God’s perspective, we are not “our own” in any sense of the word.
When we make our offerings of money here in church we often say to God in prayer that we are giving back to him what he has given to us in the first place. And that is also what we are doing in the first line of the Covenant prayer. God has given each individual here his or her life and in this prayer we are offering that life back to God. But the thing is that we don’t have to.

Although it is true from a “God’s eye perspective”, that our lives are a gift from God and we are held in being by God, God does not say that he will cease to hold us in being if we do not acknowledge that our lives are gifted to us by Him – which is just another way of saying that God is Lord in our life.

Our very lives are a free gift from God and God generously holds us in being for as long as we are to live whether or not we acknowledge God, whether or not we ignore God, whether or not we curse God. God gives us the gift of free will because he wants us to freely turn our lives over to him.

As we know, the Great Commandment is love God and love your neighbour. (I hope you know this by now, because I think I must say it almost every week). As we also know, love is about self-giving.

The only way that a person can love God is to give to back God his or her life, his or her very self. Because the essence of Christian love is the action of self-giving, our love for God can’t be coerced from us, nor can it be pre-programmed into us. God freely gives us our lives and he hopes for our free giving in return.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the film “Bruce Almighty”, a film where the character Bruce is given all of God’s abilities and responsibilities for a short time. Bruce’s one frustration is that he can’t make the woman he loves love him back, even with God’s powers. At one point, Bruce asks God “How do you get someone to love you?” and God chuckles and responds “Welcome to my world!”

God freely gives us our lives, our families and everything that we have. God also gives us the gift of freedom – to choose to acknowledge him and love him in return or to choose to turn our back on him. God hopes that we will respond by giving him our love, by acknowledging him as Lord, as the one who holds us in being.

And in this prayer we begin by doing that very thing. We pray “I am no longer my own, but yours”. Lord, I give up any notion I have of being in charge of my own life and my own soul. I know that without you, I am nothing, and I freely acknowledge this fact to you, to myself and to my Christian brothers and sisters. I give back to you, I intend to give back to you, I hope to give back to you, the very life that you have given me.

Your Will be Done

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “your will be done”. In the Covenant Prayer, we also pray “your will be done”.

If you look again on page 288, most of the rest of the prayer after the first line is an elaboration on the sorts of situations where we pray for God’s will to be done in our lives. The list does not make for comfortable reading.

This list is also powerful, extreme and uncompromising. If you look closely I think we can divide this list into two broad categories: when things are going well and when things are not going well. It’s very much like the marriage vow to stick by one’s spouse for better or for worse. What’s effective about this prayer – and also somewhat shocking – are the specific instances listed.

Many of us who consider ourselves committed Christians will want to work for the Kingdom of God. But in this prayer, we are asking for God’s will to be done when there is no Kingdom work for us to do as well as when there is Kingdom work for us to do. This can be very difficult. Sometimes God may say to us “No, this kingdom work is for your brother or sister in Christ to do, it’s not for you.” Or God may say “This work is for the Holy Spirit, not for you.” And we may feel troubled and useless because we think we see an urgent need and we want something to happen. Now!

But this prayer also asks us to pray: “Your will be done when I am valued and when I am disregarded.” The work of the Kingdom ultimately belongs to God and God knows what he is doing. But this can be really hard to trust – I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. I’m sure we’ve all been there. God calls us to work for his Kingdom, but we always have to keep in mind that it is God who will ultimately usher in the Kingdom, not us and our work.

This can be a delicate and difficult balance to strike. It is a hard thing to be disregarded and it is especially difficult to be disregarded if we think that it is only in “Doing Something” that we can be tools of God.

Conclusion

My tutor’s youthful college friends wanted to know if he acknowledged the Triune God to be his Lord. The Covenant Prayer that we will pray together in just a few minutes acknowledges the Lordship of the Trinity in a fairly dramatic way.

The prayer acknowledges implicitly that all that we have – our family, friends, homes and our very lives – are gifts from God. The prayer acknowledges that none of these things could exist apart from the love and grace of God.

We begin the prayer by offering back to God the greatest gift that he has given us – our selves.

We remember that as our Lord, it is the Triune God who has offered us the possibility of this Covenant. It is he who initiates this Covenant, not us.

The Covenant of God’s faithfulness was offered from the beginning and is testified to in both the Old and the New Testaments. The Covenant was made possible and was brought to fruition by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who died and rose so that we might be reconciled with the Father.

Before we could do anything, God offered us his forgiveness, his love and his grace in order to draw us to him in love. This prayer is an opportunity to respond to God’s offer for forgiveness, love and grace and I hope that each of us will feel able to pray this prayer.

If you have never before responded to God’s offer of forgiveness and love, this service is a good opportunity to do so. If you responded to God’s offer of forgiveness and love many years ago, this service is an opportunity to make that commitment again in the context of Holy Communion.

At the Communion table, we understand in very concrete terms that God has prepared his banquet table for us in advance, before we could do anything. In the company of our brothers and sisters, we will now confess our sins, renew our commitment to God and we will taste and see that the Lord is good. Amen