Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Sunday 22 June 2008 - Superior Gifts?

This is a short, non-lectionary sermon based on 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 A minister from The Methodist Church in Ghana (his Christian name is 'Moses') came to our worship service to tell us about the work of The Methodist Church in Ghana. This was a short reflection in that service.

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Introduction

1 Corinthians 12:13 reads: ‘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’.

Paul wrote this letter to the Christian Church in Corinth about 53 or 54 AD and it wasn’t exactly a letter of congratulations. The problem was that the Corinthians really didn’t live out any kind of understanding that they were all members of one body because of their baptism in Christ. From what Paul writes, it seems that there were a number of divisions amongst Corinthian believers and there seems to have been a good deal of competition as well. We understand from the letter that the Corinthians seemed to be arguing amongst each other about which teacher was the greatest, which followers were the most preferred by God, and which of these factions had received a greater portion of the Holy Spirit.

The Corinthians had been baptised into one body – the body of Christ. And they had been baptised into one Spirit, but they weren’t acting like it at all. They weren’t living in the fullness of Christian love but were still living as if they were of the world: competing with each other of spiritual honours, looking down on each other and even celebrating Holy Communion in a way that created factions in the church rather than unity.

Challenged by Different Gifts

This evening, we have heard the Moses tell us about the Methodist Church in Ghana. I’m as certain as I can be that each one of us here tonight wholeheartedly affirms that we have all been baptised into one body in Christ: Ghanaian Methodists and British Methodists. I’m also certain that each one of us here tonight would agree with Paul’s analogy of the body having many parts, all of which are necessary to the good working of the body, none of which are superior.

As Westerners, I think we have to acknowledge that it is the world outside of Europe and America that is now most receptive to the Gospel of Christ and to the movement of the Spirit. Where we once saw ourselves as missionaries to the rest of the world, it’s we who can now benefit as African and Asian Christian brothers and sisters bring the joy and vitality of the Gospel back into our society. But Christians all over the world have their own function and their own part to play in building the Kingdom of God.

I think that there is a challenge to us in this reading from the Corinthians, though. And the challenge will be different for every individual and for every congregation – it is something for you to discern prayerfully with God. Here is the challenge: Although we might not be like the Corinthians in thinking our own brand of Christianity superior to that of others because of ethnic or cultural differences – at least I hope not! – do we nonetheless have feelings of superiority over other Christians?

Do we secretly think that our own congregation is somehow more favoured by God than a congregation down the road? Than another congregation in the circuit? Or do we think that we have superior spiritual gifts or understanding than other sorts of Christians? Do we secretly think that our form of worship is better than that of others? Do we even idolise – just a little bit – our buildings or ‘the way we always do things’?

I’m going to leave these questions for you to ponder for yourself as only you can answer for yourself. I will say that I think that no-one is exempt from this phenomenon – we all have our prejudices, including me. And I also want to sound a note of caution you if you think this is a trivial question. My challenge would be – ‘Wouldn’t be a shame to allow trivial differences to come between us?’ I’m sure there are big places where we need to draw a line in the sand and say with Martin Luther ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’, but very often in the life of the Christian church it is actually the trivial differences that become barriers to working together.

The Good News

So where is the Good News in this evening’s reading? If there ever was a motley crew of Christians, it was the Corinthians. If ever there was an assembly that was really struggling with failure to be charitable to their Christian brothers and sisters, it was the Corinthians.

But the Good News is that Paul does not tell the Church in Corinth that God has cast them out of the Body of Christ. Paul tells them, in the opening of this letter, that they are sanctified in Christ Jesus and that they are called to be Saints! Granted, this letter is a strong challenge to the Corinthians to be better disciples, but the sanctification that Paul recognises for the Corinthians is something that is completed in the past; it’s done and dusted. Their salvation is not dependant on their good discipleship but rather on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and their baptism into that life.

The Good News is that God’s love is sure. God is faithful to his promises and our salvation rests on his promise to us in Christ. The Good News is that, whatever our gifts and whether we perceive them to be small or great, God uses them for his purposes. The Good News is that we were all baptized into one body and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

My prayer this evening is that, as a Christian community, we nurture each other in our growth in the Spirit and that we recognise all spiritual gifts and different ways of being Christians as necessary to the health of the church. But most of all, I pray that we may recognise and celebrate the greatest gift of all: the saving grace of God brought into creation by the death and resurrection of Jesus, our brother and our Saviour. Amen

Sunday 15 June 2008 - A Dangerous Gospel

This sermon is a thematic sermon loosely based around the day's Gospel reading: Matthew 9:35-10:23

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Introduction

I suspect that you are probably familiar with the 1930s American comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are a couple of friends who go through life together lurching from one disaster to another. These are usually disasters that are often caused by their failure to grasp the consequence of a particular situation. Except that Oliver Hardy always has someone to blame for his own incompetence: his friend Stan Laurel. One of Ollie’s (as he is known) oft-repeated phrases is ‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.’

In this morning’s reading, Jesus tells the twelve – and by extension us – that being his disciple is going to get us into one fine mess after another if we decide to follow him. In Matthew 10, verse 16, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves’.

Now like all good Jewish rabbis, Jesus sometimes exaggerates to make a point, but I’m not sure that he’s exaggerating here. At this point in the story of Jesus’ ministry, he is beginning to encounter opposition and I suspect that he is beginning to get an understanding of the very real dangers of proclaiming his counter-cultural message. And I believe that Jesus is very plainly telling the disciples that they will be in the same danger if they follow him: That when they proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God that they too will be like sheep in the midst of wolves.

A dangerous Gospel?

The question I’d like to ask this morning is ‘What is it about the Gospel, what is it about the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that makes the message dangerous?’ ‘What is it that makes the proclamation of the Kingdom of God that makes the message foolish?’ As Christians in the 21st century, should our message be a dangerous message or was the danger only for Jesus in his time?

This morning, I’d like to point two of the primary ways that I think that the Christian Gospel is both foolish and dangerous. You are, of course, free to make up your own mind and perhaps to think of your own dangers of the Gospel.

Forgiveness

The first ‘way of the Kingdom of God’ that I believe is foolishness is that the Kingdom is based on forgiveness. This is a topic that could be the subject of several sermons and I’m not going to pretend that the practice of forgiveness is easy.

Nonetheless, this is a patently foolish message in all sorts of ways if you start thinking about the practical applications of forgiveness.

Think of all the people in our lives who it would be difficult or impractical to forgive. Certainly God does not mean for us to forgive the person who bullied us in school and whose bullying handicapped us in so many ways as we grew into adult life? Certainly God does not mean for us to forgive the drunk driver who killed or maimed a member of our family? Certainly God does not mean for us to forgive the individuals who bombed a public square on mothering Sunday or the London tube system during morning rush hour?

It may seem obvious to us that Jesus wanted his followers in his day to forgive their Christian bothers and sisters seventy times seven, but it is equally obvious to us that God understands that some people have hurt us so badly that it is simply not possible for us to forgive them.

As I said earlier, forgiveness is something that can often seem impossible, or at least extremely difficult. I do believe that God understands that it can seem impossible to forgive and I do believe that he will have compassion on those who struggle to forgive and find it difficult.

However, God’s compassion for those who have been hurt does not mean that he lifts the standard. He does not say ‘OK, I understand that it is difficult for you to forgive, so in the Kingdom of God, forgiveness will just be an optional extra’. And I suspect that the disciples were just as challenged as we are at the commandment to forgive seventy times seven and that they felt is was just as impossible as we do.

To proclaim forgiveness in the 21st century is as foolish as it was in the 1st century. Those who proclaim these values wholeheartedly will be like sheep amongst wolves.

Peace & the Rule of God

Another foolish characteristic of God’s rule in the Kingdom is that it is characterised by peace.

Once again, the direct application of Jesus’ teachings on peace seem highly dangerous in our own context today. To make Christ and the Kingdom of God the centre of our political values as well as the centre of our own personal morality would be dangerous as well as stupid.

We can easily accept that Jesus really meant that Rome was an illegitimate government in the eyes of God. We can understand that Jesus thought that the accommodation of the Temple to the prevailing Roman values of the time made the Temple illegitimate. And we can easily agree with Jesus’ opposition to the Zealots’ plan to raise an army of resistance against Rome.

But when we try to apply Jesus’ teaching directly to our own situation, we can see the dangers and complexities very clearly.

We look at our world and feel threatened by terrorism; and we see our precious sons and daughters being killed in foreign lands. We look at our own complicated world, our threatened and threatening world and we think ‘God can’t possibly be asking us to behave as if peace were already upon us; its too difficult.’

The way of peace is not only foolish, it’s downright dangerous. Couple the message of peace with the commandment to forgive others and with the message that the last shall be first and you might end up getting yourself killed just like Jesus. The ways of peace and forgiveness are not practical. They are na├»ve and idealistic and ‘everyone knows’ that the world does not work this way.

The Good News

But Jesus never said that being his disciple was going to be easy. Jesus tells us that we are going to be sent out on mission without any of the usual resources that the world thinks necessary to do a good job. And he tells us that we are going to be like sheep: targets for all the wolves who think that the way of Jesus is foolish and impractical.

But he also tells us that the world is in need of our mission. We, his followers, may be like sheep amongst the wolves, but at least we have a shepherd: the world does not have a shepherd and it is crying out for guidance. Jesus’ mission of spiritual and physical healing is our mission too. It’s the mission of the Church in the same way that it was the mission of the disciples. God’s determination to bring about the Kingdom of God begins with the twelve tribes of Israel, and it reaches fulfilment in the death and resurrection of Christ.

This is the Good News and it’s the Good News that we as a Church are sent out to proclaim. Just like the twelve disciples who Christ commissions here, Jesus’ mission is carried forward by us – the Church of Christ in every age. In this reading, we understand that our mission will not be easy but we are promised that it will be worthwhile; the healing of body, mind and spirit are always worthwhile.

Faith in Jesus will make our mission possible, but it won’t make it easy and it certainly will not earn us the world’s stamp of approval. Nonetheless, just like each one of the disciples, each of us has been called personally into our discipleship.

My prayer this morning/evening is that we may each be given the grace to follow where God leads us. I pray that we may be faithful messengers of his Good News and that our lives reflect God’s love, forgiveness and peace. Amen