Tuesday, 10 October 2017

St Francis

St Francis was born in 1182 in Assisi to a wealthy textile merchant – he was a well-loved and well-provided for child and young adult. As a young adult he was the leader of a band of unvirtuous drunkards, wealthy and gluttonous! He hated the sight of lepers, who in that time had to live on the margins of the city.

Image result for st francis
English: St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, detail from a four-foiled plaque from a reliquary. Engraved, chased, enameled and gilt champlev√© copper, Limoges or Italy, 1128–1230 (?).
The times that Francis grew up in were unsettled, with growing wealth through trade but also with many armed conflicts. His ambition was to be a knight. Assisi was at war with Perugia- and so he went to war and was imprisoned for a time. After he came home he also experienced a period of ill-health. This was to be a turning point in his life.
In1208 his life was changed by hearing a sermon- in which he heard the commission to preach. At another time he was praying in the church of St Damian and heard God asking him to rebuild his church, which was literally falling down. So, he stole cloth from his father, sold it and presented the money to the priest of St Damian. This was to lead to the straining of relationship between Francis and his parents. His friends and family thought he had gone mad and he became a social pariah. This former man who had been the life and soul of the drunken party was acting very strangely.
His father locked him up at home, but after a while his mother set him free, and Francis went to the Bishop for protection. His father went to the Bishop too to demand that he make his son return the money. The bishop was sympathetic as he didn’t encourage stealing and the Bishop told him to return the money. Francis went further and returned the money and his fine clothes –he literally stripped himself of all his ties with his former identity and life. This scene has become an emblematic one in the life of Francis as it revealed his charism to give up everything that he might focus solely on the love of God.
Many hagiographies of St Francis miss out the development of his vocation and his struggle with giving up his identity and former ties. But there was a struggle and a progression from one way of being into the total embrace of a life of evangelical poverty. The may help us as we too daily struggle with our own vocation to love God.
Working in his father’s shop, for instance, he had refused to give alms to someone who begged from him. Later he repented and saw that the desire to succeed and make a profit had blinded him to the poverty and need of another. His love of Lady Poverty (as he called it) was at the root of his conversion: it was in contrast to, and in direct revolt against, the commercialism that made some wealthy and others’ poor. A dynamic that was very evident in the city where he lived and which persists tenaciously today.
He later repented of his rejection of lepers, writing that:
The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to do penance in this way. While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body.
Sin- had robbed him of compassion for the suffering and the outcast. He had been concerned primarily with himself; after his conversion he was able to be compassionate.
In another significant episode St Francis met a poverty-stricken knight and gave him his clothes. This knight was probably an enemy to Assisi and his generosity towards him was another step in his understanding of the Gospel and its universal intent.

The rules of a pilgrim following Francis’ pattern was to live according to the Gospel example laid out by Jesus to his disciples. The Foundation of this calling was Jesus teaching: ‘if thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor’. With bare feet and a simple habit, he did not build up vast wealth in land and property. Friars had a particular call to preach, to follow the Gospel literally and to support the work of the local priests whilst helping the papacy in its reforms of clerical life.

Some of the stories that have been collected about Francis seem far-fetched to say the least, many miracles are attributed to him, stories about how he tamed wild animals and of course the most significant being the claim that in the last years of his life he was given the stigmata – cuts and wounds on his hands, feet and side that copy those the Lord Jesus would have had inflicted on him on the Cross. However, stepping back from them a little and considering their purpose and effect can help. He preached with words but much more by his example. Which is perhaps why the phrase, ‘preach the Gospel and if necessary use words’, have been attributed to him. Moreover:

He didn’t condemn the rich, but rather became poor. He didn’t condemn the proud, but rather humbled himself. In all things therefore showing not the condemnation of God but the humility of God. In so doing many were converted by his example and witness.

St Francis then provides for us a sign and witness of the reality of the kingdom of God. His prayers and writings show a man profoundly at peace with himself and utterly devoted to God’s glory. His life is a promise to all of us that, if we can let go of our devotion to the things of this world – whether that be possessions, wealth, status, love of food and drink, or other, we will know and see God.

As Francis wrote:

‘Let us desire nothing else, let us wish for nothing else, let nothing else please us and cause us delight except our Creator, and Redeemer and Saviour, the one true God’. Amen



Francis and Clare, the Complete Works, John Vaughan, OFM
A Condition of Complete Simplicity, Rowan Clare Williams
St Francis of Assisi, Michael Robson

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Father Forgive: Reconciliation for our Times

Our reading from the Gospel of Matthew (18:21-25) today is a lesson in forgiveness. Most importantly the story highlights our responsibility to be humble in receiving and giving forgiveness. If God is merciful with us, so should we too be merciful with one another.

Perhaps you would like to cast your mind to the last time you said sorry to someone, or to the last time somebody said sorry to you. How hard was it to say sorry and how hard was it to put aside the hurt that somebody had caused you? An assembly I remember from Primary School was one in which the teacher spoke about the hardest word there was to say in the world; the word he was talking about of course, was the word ‘sorry’.

Putting aside hurt is one thing when somebody has said something out of turn, or snubbed us in some way, but the work of forgiveness and repentance only gets harder when the hurt escalates; the nature of human failing means that the level of hurt and damage we can do to one another is almost without limit. When conflict escalates to armed conflict, where millions die, the challenge is ever the greater.

How can reconciliation truly be built in our complex world where hurt and counter-hurt, injustice and betrayal pervade our human societies? Forgiveness and reconciliation are perhaps the weightiest tasks that any of us are asked to bare. The need for reconciliation at all levels of our experience is deeply necessary.

But what is reconciliation? One definition of it I’ve heard is that reconciliation is the ability to tell the story of our enemy in a way that they recognize and understand. So, imagine someone you find deeply difficult, offensive even, or perhaps an enemy of yours, personal, political or other. Can you learn to understand and see the world the way that they see it; and to such an extent that you can tell their story? Being able to tell their story doesn’t mean you forgive them or agree with them, but at least it may help you on one level to understand them better. This is part of the work of reconciliation.

When I was at school we read alongside the WW1 poets, the work of a German author: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. The book describes German soldiers' extreme physical and mental stress during the first world war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front. In reading that novel alongside the WW1 poets, we were being schooled in that important task of learning to tell the story of ‘the other’, even when that other is our enemy.

Learning to understand the world from the perspective of ‘the other’ is so vital to being a compassionate and merciful person. Can we listen enough to understand what it’s like to be a refugee, a child solider, a perpetrator of a violent crime, a terrorist? Can we begin to tell their story? What becomes apparent through such an exercise is the complexity of morality; of how difficult it can be to know where to place culpability and blame.

Did anyone use to watch the Sopranos? The story of the fictional mobster, Tony Soprano? What is masterful about the series is the way in which it interweaves Mr. Soprano’s violent and ruthless mob-world with that of his domestic world. Like billions of others, Mr. Soprano is a father and husband; in showing his domestic side the viewer is left with the peculiar and discomforting feeling of having some sympathy for him.

This week I met with a friend who volunteers at a local prison. She told me about a programme there in which prisoners are enabled to encounter the stories of victims of crime. In so doing they are able to hear about the effects of their actions; to understand the pain they’ve caused. They are also encouraged to tell their story which might entail them saying ‘sorry’. This sort of work is fantastic; it is reconciliation work that brings healing, forgiveness and restoration in our communities.
Rugby is part of the diocese of Coventry which has an historic commitment to reconciliation and peace work borne from its experiences of the 2nd world ward. Coventry Cathedral was of course destroyed in 1940 and the then Provost, Howard made a commitment not to revenge but to reconciliation with those responsible.
Using a national radio broadcast from the cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940, Provost Howard declared that when the war was over he would work with those who had been enemies “to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world.”
From this genuine commitment to peace and reconciliation the Community of the Cross of Nails was borne, based at Coventry Cathedral, and today it continues its world-wide work. The Cross of Nails name came from the fact that crosses were literally formed from the old medieval nails that were found in the rubble and ruin of the charred cathedral. Provost Howard had the words ‘Father Forgive’, the words of Jesus when he was being crucified on the cross, inscribed on the wall behind the ruined altar of the old building.
The Coventry Litany, Father Forgive, is prayed every day in the ruins.

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class,
Father, forgive.
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own,
Father, forgive.
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth,
Father, forgive.
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others,
Father, forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee,
Father, forgive.
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children,
Father, forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God,
Father, forgive.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

The work of reconciliation is truly demanding and it is never finished; it requires courage, honesty and most of all a commitment to listening. For some it is an outrage. But it is essential work in our communities, local, national and international, if we are to seek renewal, healing and a better vision for our world. 

Matthew 18: 21-35


Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Looking at the Son


You may have noticed people wearing dark glasses in the news recently. They were attempting of course to look at the sun. The great shining light bulb in the sky that we long for and hide from in equal measure. They were waiting for the solar eclipse, when the sun was only visible by its outer rays – when darkness and cold descended during the day. A natural phenomenon that reminds us that we are dependent upon the movement of our planet and the position of the sun and moon for our experience of light and dark, for our experience of time.

It was for some a religious experience: an experience of transcendence that reminds us of our dependence upon the created universe. People were awed, shocked, could only exclaim: ‘Oh, my God!’.

I’ve been to France for my holidays and whilst there we visited the Bayeux Tapestry. In the tapestry, you can see a drawing of Halley’s comet. It was read as a harbinger of defeat for the upstart Harry. A sign of his infidelity. An omen for the people.

File:Bayeux Tapestry 32-33 comet Halley Harold.jpg
The Bayeux Tapestry, Halley's Comet, 

The similarity between these two events, and the great chasm of time between them struck me. It made me think about how we read our times – and how we make judgements about light and dark, truth and lies, about the actions of those in authority. Harry had been sent to Normandy by King Edward to tell William that he was the rightful heir to the English throne. On his death however, Harold had been crowned King. William, commanding an army sails to England to challenge Harold and claim the throne. William wins and is crowned King. The tapestry tells the tale and sets it within its wider astrological context.

Today, we continue to live our lives within the context of those who fight for, win and lose power over us. Except it’s worked out through the ballot box rather than the battle field; is re-set as a political question and answer, through the arrows of twitter and the duals of televised political debates.  Like those who lived in Normandy and England before us we must learn to discern the truth from the lies, the betrayers from the faithful.

For Christians, finding out what is the will of God is inseparable from recognizing Jesus as Lord. Jesus is effusive when Peter says that he is the Messiah the Son of God: ‘Blessed are you Simon, Son of Jonah…. You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it’.

Today, as in every age, we must hang onto Jesus if we are to separate the light from the dark, the truth from the lies. And it is Jesus’ character revealed in his actions that testify that he is the Son of God. His qualities should guide us as we assess and judge the world around us: humble, compassionate, peacemaker, breaker down of boundaries, challenger of the powerful, guardian of the poor and vulnerable, host for the outcast. As Christians we have a certain and clear moral compass and a faithful and true leader whom we follow. The Word of God and the power of God can be manipulated and used in all sorts of ways, to justify all sorts of appalling actions. The faithful and true will be proven by their works. If we keep looking to Jesus, we will be exposed to the greatest light that there ever was and is.

As Christians we keep on looking at the Son – and we don’t need dark glasses. He shines out for us for ever and ever, only once eclipsed by those who could not bear his light, only to rise again more glorious than ever.

Bible References: 
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Looking on from a distance

Mark 15:40-16.8
There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.

The Burial of Jesus
When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.

The Resurrection of Jesus
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

In the passage from Mark’s Gospel we get an insight into some of Jesus’ other followers; we’re all very familiar with the 12 disciples, but Mark mentions ‘women looking on from a distance’. It got me thinking about the nature of discipleship, about visibility and invisibility, about proximity and distance. Do you feel like one of God’s visible and close followers, or do you feel more hidden and further away? 

Sometimes we hide because we fear that we are not acceptable. It can take enormous courage to present ourselves to God, to ask for something. I think of the courage of the woman who dared to touch Jesus’ cloak and was healed. The prominent disciples often tried to shoo the crowds away, but Jesus commended this woman for her faith: ‘But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth. And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague. Mark 5:33-34.

Sometimes we stay in the shadows because of cultural norms and expectations. It is no accident that it is the women in Mark’s account ‘who look on from a distance’. The women stay in the shadows, loving and caring, providing and enabling, but drawing no attention to themselves (‘they used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee’). There are many people whose Christian discipleship looks just like that. Those who have served the church and God tirelessly for years and years: dusting, cleaning, washing, serving, tidying, caring, providing. The unnoticed army of disciples whose ministry is not blessed in awesome ordination services; whose love and devotion is not usually remarked upon in books of saints and martyrs. And yet, there they are, at the precise moment of God’s intersection with heaven and earth.

It was these women who were first to the tomb, these women who brought spices for the anointing of the body. And their patience, love and devotion is rewarded. They are there and they see. For once they are right at the centre, drawn into the extraordinary theo-drama: Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome.

And their response to being at the centre of this extraordinary moment? They could only run, run away from the extraordinary realisation that something had happened, something unexpected. And it had happened to them.

Despite their fear and dread, they must have spoken, eventually. And so, they provide an example for other disciples and followers of Jesus. There are so many: they walk softly into our church during the week; they would never dare attend a service, but they light and bring candles, they sit and pray, they bring an offering to God. Even if we try and stay on the margins, even if our discipleship is tentative, shy, in the shadows. Even if we only dare peek at what is happening, we may find ourselves at the centre of the God-drama. Just like the women who looked on from a distance. If you are one of those who look on from a distance you may be surprised to realise that God comes closer to you than you ever dared imagine. And that God empowers his silent army of followers to speak.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Rest in Christ

Girl in Hammock, Winslow Homer, 1873, from Wikipedia 
This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

I am not normally someone who finds it easy to rest or relax; I have a sense that that is true for many people! However, my son received a hammock for his 6th birthday and it’s been enjoyed by the whole family. We are blessed by having some of the most fantastically beautiful trees in our garden, huge glorious trees, which at the moment, in their varying versions of green and burnt amber are an absolute delight to view from the hammock. Looking upwards from a horizontal position really enables you to breathe in their grandeur and awesomeness in an overwhelming way. Together with the gentle rocking, it really is an experience of paradise. It is a place where I can pray.

‘Come unto me that are heavy laden and I will give you rest’.

These words spoken by Jesus I find nonetheless, challenging and comforting in equal measure. I am challenged by my natural inclination to seek burdens to carry, to work hard, to push myself; and then in contrast, the idea that rest is something that God desires for his people. How can it be that Jesus’ yoke is easy, that the burden is light? Surely for those of us of faith who long to see the complete revelation of the kingdom of God among us, we have a lot to work for? We only have to pick up the newspapers, speak to a few people, look on Facebook to see the angst and despair that hovers around the world. How can these words be true? ‘Come unto me that are heavy laden and I will give you rest’. Surely if these words are true it’s because we have given in to quietism and spiritual self-satisfaction of the worst sort? Isn’t that why, when I am in the hammock, I know that underneath the enjoyment is a lingering guilt?

At our Tuesday Communion Service this week we looked together at the story of Jesus on the ship with his disciples when the great storm arises. Jesus, if you remember is asleep. The disciples awake him in great fear and ask him to save them – he rebukes the wind and the waves, and chastises the disciples for their lack of faith.

This story seems connected to Jesus’ teaching on rest. If, in the midst of a storm, Jesus is able to be at peace, asleep – then does that have something to do with how we as Christians are being taught to be? Is Jesus asking us to develop serenity of mind and soul amid our own struggles and sufferings?

Apatheia is an ancient Greek word and concept which found its way into early Christian spirituality- it means literally ‘without pathos – meaning without suffering or passion’. It was interpreted in the Christian tradition to mean developing a certain sort of spirituality that was about cultivating a sense of peacefulness whatever one was experiencing or undergoing. We can see how that sort of serenity, if we have just received a cancer diagnosis or if we are very frightened, or if someone we love has just died would require an extraordinary amount of faith.

Before I went into hospital to have my twins I might have fooled myself into thinking I had something of that faith- but the experience of fear in the face of illness (which I experienced after their birth) disabused me of that pious notion. The fact is that faith in the face of personal adversity is hard to have – it’s alright looking on from the outside – but as humans our emotional responses are deeply physical. We feel, literally, not just spiritually.

Maybe that is what St Paul was struggling with in his tortured passage about the spirit and the flesh and not wanting to do what he’s doing, and doing what he doesn’t want to do (Romans 7.15ff). Humans are bound by our flesh – its desires and needs, and it was this battle (between the flesh and the spirit) that led many early Christians to follow the spiritual path of asceticism. The stories of monks and nuns who would eat only the bread of Christ for a week etc. abound in early medieval hagiography. And the Rules which underpin monastic spirituality of chastity, poverty and obedience reflect that same desire to tame the appetites of the flesh.

But, Jesus’ words don’t suggest rigorous monastic discipline, ‘I am gentle and humble of heart…. my yoke is easy and my burden is light’.

What is the connection between rest and gentleness together with humility?

I must admit that I don’t know, but here are some thoughts: humility, for instance, is about self-emptying – which means freeing ourselves from the demands of the ego, and some of the way in which we work can be about satisfying the ego. Then, there is what we were discussing on Tuesday – the idea that what is important is to place all our experiences (both good and bad) at God’s feet so that we at least are willing to share them with him, if not abandon them totally to his prescience/ foresight/ will. So, there is the letting go of that which we do that just feeds our ego (must be a few burdens there); and there is the act of relying on God for everything and in everything (to a greater or lesser degree depending on what we can manage). If we rely on God perhaps we do become gentler, less at odds with ourselves and others and more at peace with what God has given and what God has taken away, i.e. the changes and chances of this fleeting world? Have we got any closer to how rest is connected to gentleness and humility? Perhaps we have…

St Paul places his struggle in the flesh in perspective by locating it within the work of Jesus Christ which transcends, literally, our earthly existence. God has made us beings of the flesh and yet we anticipate heaven through our spiritual selves. Life on earth is about, it seems to me, learning to live with that dialectic in a creative way, a creative tension, rather than a destructive one. Christian tradition has only at times seemed to manage that; the temptation is to descend into various forms of dualism born of Gnosticism. Today, we seem better placed than ever before to appreciate the human - scientifically, psychologically and so forth - and yet perhaps least able to appreciate the spiritual self. If we are to re-imagine ourselves today in the light of Jesus it will mean learning to anticipate heaven once again and learning therefore to receive and give thanks. Something that God seems to be offering me in the gentle peace of the hammock – how might God be inviting you to receive his peace and to give thanks?

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

Relevant Bible Passages:
Romans 7.15-25a
Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end

For online Bible access search here - http://bible.oremus.org/

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Identity, belonging and holiness

Sermon for 2nd July
Doubting Thomas - Ephesians 2:19-end, John 20:24-29

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians we see classic Pauline theology in action – Paul is explaining to the Ephesians (Gentiles) that they are fully accepted into the household of God and full members of it. The implication is that they are unsure about their place. Paul is clear that their tradition and history is rooted now not only in the Patriarchs, but also in the Apostles and with Jesus Christ as the corner stone. It is the Apostles in Jesus who invite them to full membership. No longer is holiness and worship centred on the Temple in Jerusalem but, rather, the individual believers are spiritual temples and the group of believers an ‘habitation of God’.

Paul, as we know, had been fully committed to his identity as a God-fearing Jew; his life and ritual practice confirmed his sense of superior identity before God. He was saved because of his birth right and due to his strict adherence to the Law. The encounter with Jesus fundamentally changed his understanding of what it meant to be chosen by God; what it meant to be saved; and also his understanding of exactly how salvation is enacted. Paul’s radical conversion convinced him that Jesus had radically exploded the prior categories that he had grown up with. Such was the dramatic impact of his conversion experience that Paul came to have a completely faith-based understanding of identity, belonging and holiness.

The classic story of Thomas’s doubt, presented as it is in John’s Gospel, affirms Paul’s insistence on the new functionality of faith. Faith, ‘belief’ in the resurrected Jesus has replaced the whole of the Jewish Law. Jesus of course said that he had not come to obliterate the Law but to fulfil it. Jesus for Christians becomes then the fulfilment of the Law – and believing in him becomes the entire work of faith.

What mattered to Paul was that the Law no longer defined:

1) who you are - identity

2) who is included - belonging

3) ritual purity - holiness

Firstly, Jesus now gave everyone a new identity, an identity derived from God through himself and the Holy Spirit; this was not confined to one group of people, nor enacted through particular behaviours (Sabbath) or actions (circumcision). This identity as a child of God was freely given and bestowed, not earned. It was enacted through faith in Jesus, the Resurrected one.

Secondly, Jesus enabled everyone to belong; through faith in him any individual could become one with him, part of his body, the church. It was the Apostles and Jesus himself that thee new communities were being built upon. Belonging becomes about personal transformation (spiritual temples) and drawing together in remembrance (the church and communion).

Thirdly, holiness was now redefined as friendship with God. It was not a matter of ritual purity, but grace through the eternal sacrifice of the Son. Jesus makes us holy, and it is participation in his life and death that draws us back into relationship with God the Father.  

These are teachings that we desperately need to hear afresh today. Those who wish to police the ritual purity of our church do well to remember that our holiness comes from Jesus and not from our own attempts to ‘be holy’. Holiness cannot be derived from our own attempts to be perfect, morally or otherwise.

Identity is at the core of much contested ground in the church today and also in our culture. The fault lines of how we used to think about identity are being thrashed about – a person whose personality is changed through dementia, for instance, or a person who decides they want to undergo gender re-assignment. Marriage is being redefined as between two people of the same gender. Where is God in these knotty and complicated areas that stretch our thinking and understanding? One thing we can say for sure is that God is able to give us a new identity through his Son – not one that takes away our other identities, but one that underpins and strengthens our experiences. Whatever happens to us, God is able to be there at the root of who we are. A person who cannot remember who they are is still a beloved child of God; a person who changes from a man to a woman, is still a beloved child of God. It is their common identity in Christ, to which they are grafted in by faith that confirms them.

We cannot take away that in Jesus we are made anew. Similarly, we belong – not by virtue of being good, nor by being respectable, nor because we ‘fit in’- but by virtue of the fact that Jesus has invited us. Jesus invites so many people to sit at his table – but often ‘we’ and the ‘church’ can get in the way of that invitation. But, the invitation remains Jesus’ to give, not ours; Jesus consistently invites those who are not worthy. He invites those whom others would neglect; he invites the lost, the forgotten, the judged, the condemned, the troubled and the broken.

So, listening today, you may need to hear anew that:

·        You are created and loved by God: whatever particular identity struggle you may be having, your identity is in Christ and that is what gives you dignity and self-worth. IDENTITY

·        You are invited to be part of God’s family through his Son – I have not invited you here, Jesus has and whoever you are you belong by virtue of his invitation. BELONGING

·        You are saved by the grace of Jesus, you are held in his hands and you are made holy through his saving love revealed most fully on the Cross. HOLINESS

This is how identity, belonging and holiness look in the kingdom of God – identity is given, you are included and Jesus has purified. 

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Civic Service 2017

Last year we gathered together in this church on Civic Sunday just after the results of the EU Referendum. That significant result has changed the course of British history. On the anniversary of that major, seemingly once in a generation event, there have been a series of tragic events which have been incredibly bruising and distressing for the whole country. The terrorist attacks and the appalling Grenfell Tower fire have shaken our country to the core. Not once but three times in so many weeks I found myself gathering on the forecourt with others to mark a minute’s silence for the victims of terror and of course of the fire. We are in a period of history that is proving itself to be particularly fluid, surprising and almost impossible to predict. We are all being tested, none more so than our elected representatives and public servants.

For public figures and leaders in our communities, the need for humility, wisdom, and courage has never been greater. Our country needs leaders who are able to unite us. The words of Jo Cox MP, cruelly murdered by an extremist just over a year ago, sound even more prophetic and powerful one year on:  ‘We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’. But, they also challenge us to live that reality.

The reading that we’ve heard today from the New Testament comes from a letter written by one of the earliest teachers of Christianity. St Paul went around the gentile, i.e. non-Jew, Greek speaking world, spreading the good news about Jesus Christ. He had a very strong sense of call that his role was to teach the nascent non-Jewish Christian communities. The extract from the letter we have heard was from a letter written to a Christian community in Corinth, Greece (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

There seems to have been particular problems in Corinth and these problems were to do with rivalry and disunity in the community. St Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to show how a human community is similarly constructed. He describes the way in which each part of the body needs the other parts: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet ‘I have no need of you’.

St Paul’s metaphor asks us to consider how we enable all the different parts of the body to flourish in the communities that we serve. It may be we think that we can ignore certain parts, or that at least such parts are irrelevant.  The terrible fire at Grenfell reminds us that we can’t. Neglect of the poorer or more vulnerable members of our body – as St Paul calls them – the inferior members – will lead to each part of the body suffering. We cannot ignore each other and think that our neighbours are irrelevant to our well-being. If we do, over a period of time we will start to experience that neglect: ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it, if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it’.

Human communities are difficult to manage and control; we live today more than ever in complex ways and so the task is getting harder. Globalisation and technology are bringing with them ever new ways for humans to connect and interact, but they also reveal underlying currents of division, hatred and anger. Leaders today need to be extremely robust – but they also need to become much more adept at linking people together, at facilitating reconciliation within communities and at upholding our common goals and aspirations. What we need now from our public leaders is a new vision of how we can build consensus, develop connections, link people together, and bring reconciliation.

This town of Rugby has an eminent tradition of being a place where people work together, of where community is valued highly, and where we are able to be compassionate with one another. The Mayor this year has chosen the theme of ‘working together’ as her theme and it seems to me that there could not be a more fitting team in this period of our history. Team-work, common goals and shared aspirations are essential for the mutual flourishing of our town of Rugby.

I am a great believer in the need for communities to have representative people who symbolise our unity – through their symbolic roles we have a locus for our unity. The Mayor is such a civic representative figure. The presence of her Majesty the Queen and other members of the Royal Family in Manchester and London after the terror attacks and the fire were hugely comforting. I’m trusting that our new Mayor will not be needed in such tragic circumstances, but nonetheless Madam Mayor you will play an incredibly significant role in representing the unity of our common life as residents in the borough of Rugby. Your role will be to remind us all that we are deeply connected and mutually dependent on each other. You will have the great privilege of getting an insight into the lives and work of so many different people in Rugby and I know that like past Mayors before you, you will be changed by the experience. But, more importantly we pray that this community will be changed by your presence. May you steadfastly seek to bring unity and through it team-work - your honourable theme for this year – into and through our communities. May you work to enable different sections of our society to understand each other better and encourage different parts of our communities to work together for our mutual benefit, so that we may truly know the truth of living so that our grief and our joy are one.