God’s Revelation in Christ

 John 1:29-42

Christ Church Highbury, 15.1.17

 Those of you who were with us last Sunday may recall that the theme of the service was Jesus’ baptism, as is customary in the church calendar the week after Epiphany. Today’s Gospel reading features the same event, but from the perspective of John the Baptist. It is the pivotal moment in John’s understanding of who Jesus is, setting the stage for the calling of the first disciples.

Earlier in this chapter, John has testified about the coming Messiah – but does not identify who this is. Even under examination by the Jewish authorities, all he is able to say is: “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

In fact, John’s message was not a unique one. Over the years – four hundred or so since the last texts we have from the prophets of the Old Testament – plenty of different voices had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. This had resulted in Jewish society having a whole host of different expectations about who this Messiah would be. Some of these expectations arose from the prophecies we’re familiar with – like the passage we’ve heard from Isaiah & the readings at our annual carol service – but others evolved out of human expectations and ideas.

The Pharisees who came to examine John as he baptised in Bethany knew these prophecies inside out, but when John declared them as being fulfilled by the one who was to come after him, they ignored him. John is described by one commentary as “a lamp, both shining on Christ and exposing the ignorance of the opponents”.

It’s his role as a lamp shining on Christ that I want to explore this morning…

John’s declarations:

Our comparatively short Gospel reading contains four major statements concerning the revelation of God in Jesus. Two of these are made by John the Baptist.

The first of these appears both in verse 29 and 36: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” I’m sure if I was to ask you for descriptions of who Christ is, it wouldn’t take long before someone mentioned “Lamb of God”, but this is actually the first instance of its usage in Scripture. It’s not part of the Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah, but is a reference to the theme of redemption and harks back to the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover.

John repeats this statement the very next day, when in the company of his own disciples. He sees Jesus and again declares: “Look, the Lamb of God!”

Presumably, there were people with John the first time he made this statement – he wasn’t talking to himself – but in this second instance, his declaration has a hugely significant impact upon his own disciples. They leave John and follow Jesus, immediately convinced that the Messiah has been revealed to them.

In fact, it’s likely that they were with John the day before and the revelation they have received is also the result of the other things he had declared about Jesus. Most importantly, in John’s re-telling of Jesus’ baptism, he told of the Holy Spirit’s anointing of Jesus which had led him to tell all that Jesus was indeed ‘God’s chosen one’.

John’s description of Jesus’ baptism is the first instance of an ongoing theme in the Gospel of John – that of the Holy Spirit coming from God the Father to point towards his Son, Jesus Christ. The Spirit had revealed to John just who Jesus was, and in turn John was sharing this revelation with all who would listen. (And those who would not!)

We know that, at the very least, two of John’s disciples have heard and believed. When they start to follow Jesus, the disciples address him as “Rabbi”. They knew that he was a teacher, and someone who they needed to follow even more than the prophet with whom they had already been learning from. But by now they had learnt the most important lesson that John the Baptist could teach them: that this was Christ the Messiah and that they needed to follow him.

Not even a day goes by before Jesus’ first disciples are so sure of who he is that they declare him to be the Messiah to others. In verse 41 we hear how Andrew declares to his brother that “We have found the Messiah.” We don’t know if they’ve seen anything in Jesus’ behaviour during the few hours they’ve been with him that proved this to them, but they knew enough that this was big news that they needed to share.

The significance of revelation, not action:

An interesting aspect of the account in John’s Gospel is how little of Jesus’ ministry has taken place at the point at which he calls his first disciples. In the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke – by the time we read of the calling of the first disciples, Jesus has already demonstrated his identity in a number of ways.

For example, in Luke chapter 4, the disciples receive their calling immediately following one of Jesus’ teaching sessions at Galilee. In the preceding chapter, had already declared himself to be a fulfilment of prophecy in his home-town; driven out Spirits; healed multiple people; and declared the coming of the Kingdom of God.

But in John’s Gospel, it is revelation through encountering Christ that is the pivotal moment.

John the Baptist receives the revelation of who Jesus is when he baptises him.

Andrew – and the disciple whose name we don’t learn at this point – have Jesus revealed to them through John’s declared revelation, and their own encounter with him.

Simon Peter hears the good news from his brother and then has an encounter with Christ that reveals the role he will have alongside him.

It’s important for us to understand and appreciate the significance of the revelation of Christ through encountering him, because God’s revelation in Christ takes place in the same way today.

Those of us who have been Christians for much of our lives, who know Scripture – particularly the Gospels – well. We have the enormous benefit of hindsight. We know the Old Testament prophecies and how Jesus came to fulfil them. We know the accounts of the ways in which Jesus demonstrated who he was – the miracles; the casting out of demons; the healings; his teaching – but even with all that knowledge, we are lacking a full revelation of Christ in our lives.

Full revelation only takes place when we encounter Christ ourselves.

That might begin with receiving an account of Christ’s revelation from someone else. Just as John shared his revelation with his disciples, so there have been people on our spiritual journeys who have shared their own encounters with Jesus with others.

CS Lewis

CS Lewis is just one example of this. Although he grew up in what he later described as a ‘bland’ Christian childhood, by the time he was a student, he was an idealist atheist.

In his autobiographical book “Surprised by Joy”, Lewis describes a number of ‘dangerous encounters’ he had with Christians at a time when he was determined to protect his atheism. Two of the people involved in these encounters were the writers GK Chesterton and JR Tolkein – but it’s the latter who Lewis would cite as ‘delivering the fatal blow’.

A conversation with Tolkein that went on until 3am was what resulted in Lewis’ ‘capitulation’ to a relationship with Christ. He wrote in his autobiography:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen [Maudlyn], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” 

Through his Christian friends, and their sharing of their own encounters with Christ, Lewis was finally brought to a place in which he could encounter Jesus himself. In turn, as you’re all probably aware, Lewis then became one of the greatest apologists of the Christian faith in the mid-20th century.

God only knows – literally only God knows – just how many people came to have their own encounters with Christ through Lewis’ sharing of the revelation he had come to know.

What next?

I imagine that amongst the congregation this morning, people are at a range of places on the journey to encountering Christ.

Quite a few of you, I suspect, are some time beyond your first encounter with Christ. And for you, I have two challenges: firstly, ask God for further revelation. God continues to speak to his people and reveals more of his triune self – through our prayer lives, our reading, our worship and our relationships with others. Secondly: ask God to show you who you could share your experiences of encountering Christ with. Who could you have conversations with that might impact their own journey towards encountering Jesus?

Perhaps some people here are wrestling, just as CS Lewis did. My prayer for you is that God would bring people alongside you who can share their own encounters with you – just as Tolkein and Chesterton did. May God open your heart to recognise who Jesus is, and where he is at work in your life and the world.

There may be some people here who are weary. Who encountered Christ at some point along the way, but it seems a long time ago and the excitement feels like it’s worn off. For you, I pray that you would be inspired by John the Baptist’s excitement at realising that the Messiah was in front of him. Perhaps ask God for more – more of his Holy Spirit to point to the actions of Christ in your own life; more enthusiasm in sharing who Christ is; and an understanding of all that Christ has in store for your life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling the Story – Christmas Day 2016

Luke 2:1-14 Christmas Day, Christ Church Highbury 2016

The story of Christ’s birth has been re-told over and over again in the two millennia since he came to earth. The message of good news of great joy that the angels brought to the shepherds has been brought to countless people all over the world in many, many different ways.

Most of us at some point have been in a nativity play. I achieved the great heights of playing Mary in my childhood – although I was always a little jealous that my sister played the Angel Gabriel and as a result had a much prettier costume.

[A quick poll of the congregation revealed a host of nativity play roles. From Marys, Josephs and angels, to a mouse and a ‘host’. Upon further investigation, this wasn’t a sophisticated angel, this was a child who was somehow in a production of the nativity that included a Strictly Come Dancing component!!]

This year, I know quite a few grown-ups who are in nativities. My friend’s mum – in her 60s – has played a King in the ‘living nativity’ in Ely. She even got to ride a real-life camel!

Up in Doncaster, friends who had their second baby earlier this year are responsible for providing Jesus at their church’s nativity (although as baby Leonie was born in April, Jesus will have been sitting up in the manger and not looking anything like a newborn)!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was visiting her God-daughter, this baby’s 4-year-old sister Amelia. They’d got the family’s nativity set out and Amelia was going through the figures, telling her Godmother who each one was:

“This is Mary and Joseph, and Baby Jesus. These are the wise men and these are the shepherds and this is the angry cow…”

Her godmother questioned the last one. “The angry cow??”

“Yes” Amelia replied, “the angry cow”.

“Ok” said her godmother. “I thought that’s what you said. But why is he angry?”

Amelia explained: “Well, he woke up expecting to have breakfast and there was a baby in his hay!”

Quite logical really!! Upon further questioning, it turned out that this was an extra flourish Amelia’s Junior Church leader had given her re-telling of the nativity the week before, as part of their preparations for their church’s nativity play.

The ‘angry cow’ is up there with the two lobsters, octopus and spiderman at the nativity in the film Love Actually. In fact, odd characters are quite a thing – like the child who played the door-knob on the Inn Keepers’ door! Or a nativity play where aliens land and watch a nativity play performed by school children – very meta.

But, these unusual characters actually serve a really important purpose: they help to tell the story in a way that helps different people to connect with it.

*****

Each of the gospel depictions of the Nativity tell the same story, but they emphasise different parts of the narrative. This passage from Luke demonstrates who he wanted to particularly connect the story of Jesus’ birth with…

It begins grounded in historical fact. The census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, at the decree of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Luke is often described as the historian of the New Testament. He regularly cites individuals and events that help date the events of Jesus and the apostles’ lives. The census that causes Joseph to have to return to his home-town of Bethlehem is an something that historians know to be one of the first duties that Quirinius performed upon becoming governor.

Jesus’ birth is a historical event on a par with the actions of politicians.

Luke continues his account by demonstrating how Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of prophecies long spoken. Born in Bethlehem, in the line of King David, the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah are fulfilled. The angels’ words to the shepherds confirm this too: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The birth of this baby is the embodiment of promises God had made his people for centuries.

 The shepherds too, are part of Luke’s focus. They are the people to whom Jesus’ birth is announced in this gospel, rather than the magi. So the first to hear the news of the Messiah’s birth are not rich rulers, but some of the poorest of society, making their living on the hills surrounding Bethlehem.

Jesus is not a Messiah for the rich and powerful. He has come in poverty – born in a stable – and the first to visit him are shepherds with few worldly possessions. Because they lived and worked outside, in the middle of nowhere, shepherds were usually not able to be particularly observant in terms of their religion – so Luke is also showing that the Messiah had come not just for those who had followed every last letter of the Jewish law.

More than this, the angels declare to the shepherds that they bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL the people.’ Luke emphasises that Jesus has come to bring salvation for everyone throughout his gospel. He highlights the outcasts of society – women, tax-collectors, Samaritans – and demonstrates how Jesus showed his love to them.

The coming of the Messiah is good news for the whole world. Regardless of gender, race or wealth.

*****

Luke’s version of the story of Jesus’ birth therefore has several purposes:

  • To ground it in historical fact.
  • To demonstrate its fulfilment of prophecy.
  • And to highlight that he came to save EVERYONE.

I’m pretty sure none of us here are shepherds. (I could be wrong – but I’ve never seen any sheep grazing on Highbury Fields!) But Luke’s words do include us. As foreigners, and probably non-Jews, we are among those who would not have been thought – at the time of Jesus’ birth – to be beneficiaries of God’s promises. But we are!

The story of the Nativity: the angels; the virgin and the man promised to her in marriage; the birth in Bethlehem; the shepherds and the magi – they are so much more than just characters. They are the people through whom God’s work of salvation plays out.

Luke’s account of the birth of Christ emphasises those who needed to be part of the narrative, so that those like them could see that Jesus came for them too. Our modern-day nativities may include some slightly odd characters, but in doing so, they open up the story in new ways to new people.

There probably wasn’t an angry cow in the stable alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. But imagining that there was, and thinking through the implications of Jesus’ birth has at least helped one 4 year old to meditate upon the story in a new way, that she could understand.

We may laugh at the lobsters, the octopus, and even aliens that get added to nativity plays – but we remember them and with that memory is the story.

We are all invited to be part of the story of Christ’s birth. The angels have brought good news of great joy to each and every one of us, and we all have a role to play!

Some of the characters at the Love, Actually nativity. [‘Eight is a lot of legs David!’]

When God shows up…

Genesis 18: 1-15 When God Shows Up. Christ Church Highbury, October 2nd 2016

This was the second in a series of three sermons on Abraham, grounded in a book by Meg Warner. The book and the sermon series focuses on discerning God’s call in our lives. The reading for this sermon is the one that Meg uses in chapter three – the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah.

The visitors:

The reader of this passage is let into a secret that Abraham was unaware of: that his visitors were in fact God. We know, because the first verse of the chapter makes it perfectly clear: “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”

You might not notice this immediately on a first reading of the passage, because of the way in which Abraham responds to the presence of these visitors. He provides water for washing; urges Sarah to bake bread; calls for a calf to be slaughtered; and offers a feast for his guests.

He also refers to his guests as “lord”, but this is an example of the importance of punctuation! Note the difference between the ‘LORD’ of verse one, and the “my lord” of verse three. Abraham is simply using a form of address that was full of respect for these unexpected visitors.

I don’t know how you would respond to the unexpected arrival of visitors? In these days of mobile phones, it’s quite rare for someone to just turn up on the doorstep – at the very least you might get a warning half an hour ahead if a friend happened to be in the neighbourhood. My response would usually be a frantic few minutes of cleaning and tidying, followed by the filling of the kettle and checking to see that I had milk in the fridge. Because, of course, the classic British response to any visitor is the making of a cup of tea! But would I do this for a total stranger who turned up at my home? I don’t know…

In Abraham’s society, the equivalent of the British cup of tea was the hospitality that he offered these guests. Meg highlights in this chapter that this hospitality was given because it helped to convert into an ally what might actually be a dangerous stranger, and there was an expectation that some form of gift would be offered in return. Often, because strangers would be from another region, this would take the form of news or a story.

We, the readers, know that these visitors are not dangerous. They are the Lord God of Israel! But they conform to cultural expectations by providing news following their receipt of Abraham’s hospitality. In verse 10 we read: “Then one of them said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’”

This is both news to Abraham and Sarah, and a repetition of the promise the Lord had already made Abraham when he first called him and his family. This promise originates in Genesis 12, and is then repeated three chapters later, when Abraham complains that he still has no children. ‘The Lord took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’

 In chapter 17, the Lord makes it clear that Sarah is to be the mother of the descendants that will become the people of Israel. In verse 16, the Lord says to Abraham: “I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.’”

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Abraham and Sarah were not a little frustrated by this point! Promises had been made again and again, but so far they hadn’t seen them come to fruition and it now, thanks to their age, seemed impossible despite God’s words to them.

But this visitor’s words about Sarah finally gives a timeframe for this momentous event. Within a year Sarah would have given birth to the long promised son who was to be the first in this line of promised descendants.

God shows up – where & how we least expect it:

God’s renewal of his promise to Abraham and Sarah came out of their actions towards the unknown visitors. They had behaved in the way that God expected of them, and had been rewarded with the most concrete news they had had so far regarding their promised son.

It’s a brilliant example of the way in which God still works through his people today. God shows up in the most unlikely of places, and it’s up to his disciples to respond appropriately. In return, we receive a renewal of his promises to us: our salvation through Christ and our place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

I loved Meg’s closing remarks on this passage: “It is therefore important that we don’t try to limit God, but keep ourselves open to what he may choose to accomplish in us. The first aspect is tempered by a second, which is that God works within the everyday order and activities of our lives. Our part of the bargain is to undertake our lives and our work faithfully, extending hospitality, generosity and kindness to others, not because of what we might gain, but because loving others is part of loving God.”

Seeing this at work with Mickey & Christ Church:

As I was preparing for this sermon on Monday, the news of the death of a parishioner came through. [The following paragraph wasn’t in the sermon, most of the congregation were well aware of who this fabulous person was!]

Mickey was no ordinary member of the congregation and has made a lasting impression on me – and probably everyone he’s met! When I met him on my first Sunday at Christ Church, he introduced himself as “the dodgiest looking choir boy” and proceeded to sing (beautifully) a song he’d written himself. Mickey would often pop into the church office for a chat, and was always a fun person to talk to – even if he did occasionally make comments that were perhaps not that appropriate for a parishioner to make to a curate. [He once commented, mid-winter when I’d swapped my black DMs for winter boots, that I “should wear the DMs more often because they made me a much sexier vicar”!] Last year, Mickey was diagnosed with cancer. By this spring, it was confirmed as being terminal. The way in which both he and the congregation was phenomenal…

Mickey, 2015

Mickey was very much in my thoughts as I read Meg’s words, and read again the story of Abraham’s visitors. It struck me that in the short time that I knew him, Mickey embodied what God calls us to do in this passage – he was open to what God could accomplish through him. He may not have realised it, but it was most certainly the case.

Those of you who didn’t get to know Mickey really missed out! He had a charismatic personality and made friends wherever he went. He was in St Joseph’s hospice in Hackney for the last five weeks, and the first time I visited him there – when he’d been their patient for all of three days – he told me how the day before he’d walked to a Sainsbury’s down the road and had got talking to a woman behind the checkout. When her shift finished a few hours later, she popped into the hospice to say hello to him. That kind of thing was typical Mickey.

When Micky became ill, this congregation responded in a way that is testament to the amazing people who are part of Christ Church. People bestowed love, care and hospitality upon Mickey in a way that embodied the call God gives us to demonstrate his love. Because, as Meg put it in that quote, “loving others is part of loving God.” Those who gathered around Mickey weren’t doing it to get noticed, or to receive a reward, they were doing it because it was what they felt God calling them to do. Just as one day, a few years ago, God prompted Mickey to enter this building and start building relationships here.

Accidental Saints

A few weeks ago, I spent an evening at St Paul’s Cathedral listening to Rev Richard Coles – the vicar who presents Radio 4’s Saturday Live – and Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Presbyterian minister from Colorado. The subject was ‘Accidental Saints’, which is coincidentally the title of Nadia’s most recent book, which I highly recommend if you’re looking for another book to read.

The premise of ‘Accidental Saints’ is that God can use even the most unlikely or ill-suited people. She writes: “I keep making mistakes, even the same ones over and over…I stumble into holy moments not realising where I am until they are over. I love poorly, then accidentally say the right thing at the right moment without even realising it, then forget what matters, then show tenderness when it’s needed, and then turn around and think of myself way too often.”

Sound familiar? But, Nadia concludes with a positive: “I simply continue to be a person on whom God is at work.”

As I listened to her speak on this subject, I thought about Mickey – I’d just been visiting him before heading to St Paul’s. It struck me that he was the epitome of an accidental saint. He was just bumbling through life, but God used him in exceptional ways. And of course, for God, it was no accident!

The important thing was that God equipped Mickey with his gifts – his humour, his charisma – in the same way he equipped those who cared for him. God had called Abraham to the specific task of being the father of the people of Israel – but it took a while for God to give him what he needed to complete this task: a son given birth to by Sarah.

Mickey & one of his angelsMickey & one of his fabulous ‘angels’ at St Joseph’s hospice.

God shows up at times, in places and in people where we would least expect to see him. He calls, and we, in faith, respond.

Our response does not need to be a dramatic one, but should be what is expected of us as followers of Christ – that in loving God, we love others too and see where God takes that…

One last thing about Mickey…

In June, when I was priested, Mickey came to the service dressed absolutely impeccably – I had never seen him looking so smart! He reckoned that he’d never been in a room with so many vicars before, and had a great time meeting my family and friends. At one point he chatted away to my parents and sang one of his songs to them. He made quite an impression! The next day he gave me a card, containing a poem about the day. When I couldn’t make his funeral, I shared his words on social media:

Mickey's poemRest in peace and rise in glory Mickey.

Pray for all in authority…

1 Timothy 2:1-7 – Pray for all in authority. Christ Church Highbury, September 18th 2016

A couple of months ago, I received an email from my Dad entitled: “Pray for Jeremy”. Before opening it, I pondered who Jeremy might be. Was it a family friend who had been taken ill? Was it a long-forgotten cousin? As it turned out, it was our constituency MP, Jeremy Corbyn. My Dad had known that earlier that day I’d been at a “Love Islington” rally on Highbury Fields, at which both Islington MPs had spoken, alongside religious leaders, council members and other key people who were speaking out against hate crime. He was also referring back to a service he and the rest of my family had attended at Christ Church – my first Eucharist – in which I had prayed for our MP during the intercessions. It had prompted an interesting chat amongst the family later on. Did I ever pray for the Prime Minister? Were there any objections to praying for an MP who is open about not having a faith? What are the boundaries we need to have between church and politics?

Love Islington

That might sound like a rather heavy conversation, but I come from a family that’s always been interested in politics. In fact, had you met me when I was an idealistic 17-year-old, studying politics A-level, I would have told you that my ambition was to become Britain’s second female prime minister! That ship has most definitely sailed…

On the one hand, for me personally, the Christian call to social action is inseparable from political action and awareness. But that doesn’t mean that I would ever dare to tell people how they should be voting from the pulpit. I’m a member of a political party, but I’ve decided that I can’t campaign because that would be a conflict of interest. I try to get along to the Christian network attached to that party when I can, and find that the most helpful way of engaging with politics and knowing what’s going on.

This congregation has a wide range of political views, and I’m not going to assume that I know what any of them are! That’s not the point of this sermon, or of Paul’s words to Timothy. But, what is important, is that we recognise the important role that we as Christians have to play in supporting those in political authority over us.   

Paul’s words to Timothy:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (Verses 1-2)

These words, written two millennia ago, to Timothy as he led the fledgling church in Ephesus, should resonate strongly with us, in the Britain of 2016. What Paul is trying to emphasise to Timothy and the Ephesians is the role that prayer for the state should have within their Christian discipleship.

The call to pray for those in authority was not a new one. The Jews had been instructed to pray for those in authority over them, and Jesus taught to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). It’s also a theme that Paul repeats in his writing – like the famous passage in his letter to the Romans. 

Romans chapter 13 begins: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.” Verse 4 continues: “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good…”

Paul is clear that God establishes the political authorities under which they are living. It is part of God’s will for that nation and its society. In encouraging the church to submit, Paul is also helping the church to gain credibility – for example, in paying taxes and being something akin to model citizens.

So in part, Paul’s words to Timothy are to do with ensuring the protection of the church. But the call to prayer goes much deeper than that. What Paul is actually looking for are the best possible conditions in which the Kingdom of God can grow and thrive. That’s what the prayer is about.

Look again at verse 2. “That we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” It’s actually the latter part that is most important. It’s not about peace and quiet, it’s about godliness and holiness.

How we pray:

Thinking about our current political climate, it’s easy to forget the role that God has in it all – especially in Britain. How many times have you yelled at the TV or radio when you’ve heard a politician say something with which you’ve strongly disagreed? How many times have you criticised a party’s policies over drinks with friends? How many times have you bemoaned the state of British politics in the last three months alone?? When was the last time you prayed before you voted?

Every week, our prayers of intercession feature specific prayers for those in political authority. We pray for the Queen; often we pray for Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry; usually the government gets a mention. In the liturgy we use for prayers at the 9am service, this section of the intercessions ends with these words:

“Bless and guide Elizabeth our Queen; give wisdom to all in authority;
and direct this and every nation in the ways of justice and of peace;
that we may honour one another, and seek the common good.”

Usually, and I can’t speak for every single one of you, there is a murmured “Hear our Prayer” or “Amen” from the congregation at the end of this prayer. But how often do any of us really think about what we’re praying for? Are we really only keen on praying for those politicians we support? Do we actually want to pray for a politician that we wouldn’t put a vote in the ballot box for?

We pray for those in authority over us regardless of their own faith or beliefs. We know that Jeremy Corbyn describes himself as an atheist; that Sadiq Khan is Muslim; and that our Prime Minister is the daughter of a priest – but we pray for them all the same, because we believe that it is important. And, most importantly, because God calls us to do so.

What Paul – and I – would encourage, based upon his words to Timothy, is that we cover all in authority with prayer. In doing so, we are asking God to equip them to the best job possible, which is important, given just how challenging governing a country is!

Look at it another way: isn’t it bad enough that the party you support lost, without leaving the government without the support of prayer?

Not always clear where God is politics:

Of course, this is sometimes easier said than done. When political situations are difficult, it can be hard to see exactly where God is at work, or whether our prayers are having any impact at all.

Sometimes it can be hard because more than one political side may be invoking the name of God in support of their policies and ideas. Historically, this was the case in WW1 – not only did both sides believe theirs was a divinely ordained cause, but Christian imagery was a significant component of the mourning of the lives lost during the conflict. In modern politics, this is something that comes across particularly in nations like the US, where capturing the votes of religious communities is particularly important. How does prayer for the authorities work when both sides use the name of God to achieve power?

There are also times when Paul’s words regarding authority in Romans have to be weighed up against the need for the church to be a prophetic voice in society, speaking out against injustice and abuses of power. In the 1930’s, as the Nazis took control of the German government, and turned the national church into a pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement, a group of Christians came together to work out how best to write a response to these developments. In what became known as the Barmen Declaration, written in 1934, theologians and church leaders rejected the false doctrine that they felt had infiltrated the church through the Nazis’ influence. It also underlined: “the inalienable lordship of Jesus Christ by the Spirit and to the external character of church unity which “can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed”

This document emerged from prayer and conversation. Covering our political leaders doesn’t mean we have to accept their actions unquestioningly. Part of our role as Christians is to pray, listen for God’s response, and determine how best to act. Incidents where the church has stood up against governments acting unjustly – like Nazi Germany, or during the apartheid era in South Africa – are testament to the way in which God moves through the church’s prayers.

Conclusion:

Hopefully the take-home from this sermon is obvious: pray.

But this could be easier said than done! A great piece of advice on how to do this comes from one of the authors of the Barmen Declaration: the theologian Karl Barth.

He once wrote that Christians should: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” We can’t possibly pray adequately for our leaders if we don’t take the time to find out what’s going on.

Keep up to date with the news. Find out who has positions of responsibility in local and national government, so that you can pray for them by name. You could join a political and/or Christian mailing list that keeps you informed of specific issues that might need your prayers – Ekklesia is one organisation that does regular emails highlighting issues relating to faith and politics. Or, you could sign up to one of the politically affiliated groups like Christians on the Left or the Conservative Christian Fellowship.

Before I conclude with a time of prayer, I want to leave you with the words of Paul to Timothy again:

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

We have far more in common than that which divides us

I’ve never been one for posting the text of sermons on my blog (although I’ve been considering it for a while – if only to generate content!), but a sermon I preached yesterday has been requested by a few people, so I felt this would be a good thing to share more widely…

Luke 9:51-62 – We have far more in common than that which divides us

Christ Church Highbury, June 26th 2016

I read this passage on Monday, as I began to prepare for this morning, trying to work out what angle I might preach upon. It took me a while, in fact, it wasn’t until Wednesday when I felt God speak very clearly. It was my turn to lead assembly at St John’s, our primary school, and the topic for this week was ‘the Bible and refugees’. I’d spent some time wondering how to cover it in under 10 minutes, for children aged 4-11 – it was a tough call, but ultimately I focused upon the really clear message from God and Jesus that all strangers should be welcomed and that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.

I left school after assembly and went straight to Trafalgar Square for the memorial to MP Jo Cox on what would have been her 42nd birthday. It was a beautiful outpouring of love and unity in the face of such a terrible tragedy. I, along with most of the others present, let tears run down our cheeks as her husband spoke movingly about his loss; listened to her son’s classmates singing about justice and heard Malala speak of the importance of unity.

The juxtaposition of these two events brought home to me the relevance this week of the first half of this passage, where Jesus and his disciples faced opposition from Samaria. As the week has worn on, particularly with the results of the referendum, they have increased in importance!

***

Verses 52-55 reads:

“And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” 

To put this into context, as the story of the Good Samaritan so clearly shows us, the Samaritans and the Jews were deeply opposed. This opposition dates back to the division of Israel into two kingdoms – Israel in the north, whose capital was Samaria; and Judah in the south. Both nations were invaded and their inhabitants enslaved. When the former inhabitants of the south were permitted to return and to rebuild Jerusalem, the northern kingdom opposed this repatriation and tried to undermine the nation’s rebuilding. This was approximately 500 years before Christ’s birth, so by the time of the encounter we’ve just heard, the divisions were long entrenched and deeply bitter.

The Samaritans weren’t too different from the Jews – they came from the same ancestral roots and shared scriptures. One commentary writer has suggested that the reason why the Gospels & Acts feature so many encounters with Samaritans is because it’s: “not the person from the radically different culture on the other side of the world that is hardest to love, but the nearby neighbour whose skin colour, language, rituals, values, ancestry, history, and customs are different from one’s own.”

The very first verse of today’s passage states that Jesus has resolutely set out towards Jerusalem. On the one hand, this is an indication that a new phase of his ministry has begun as he heads towards the city at the heart of the authority that will oppose him and ultimately sentence him to death. But it is also another red flag for the Samaritans, owing to their belief that the temple should be in Samaria, not Jerusalem.

Jesus knew that travelling to Jerusalem would bring him into conflict before he even reached the city – that he would not be received well by some of the towns and villages through which he and his disciples passed through. But he did it anyway, echoing the words of Isaiah 50:7 “Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.”

***

Jesus behaved with grace and humility in the face of opposition. He did the right thing – sending messengers ahead to the Samaritan village instead of going directly there. Jesus wasn’t looking to deliberately offend the Samaritans – to rub his faith and ethnicity in their faces – he was simply heading towards the most convenient point on his journey to spend the night. But his civility was not returned.

His disciples are angered by the reception they received. They understood who Jesus was and held him in high honour and were therefore understandably upset that others did not see this. They also clearly understood the power Christ had as God’s son – asking Jesus whether he wanted them to call down fire from heaven to destroy them!

But Jesus? Jesus stood firm and said no, rebuking the disciples for their careless words. Jesus’ actions embodied his message: that the Son of God had come to save all, not to destroy. And that therefore he went peacefully to another village.

***

I expect that, had Jesus been one of the MPs present in the House of Commons when Jo Cox gave her maiden speech he would have cheered loudly, as her message so embodies what he might have said to the disciples regarding the Samaritans.

These words, which were not given the attention they deserved a year ago, are now something which – particularly after Friday – we should all be holding onto: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Jews and Samaritans were divided by 500 years of history and a disagreement regarding the geographical centre of their faith. Our society has faced divisions again and again: immigrant versus ‘British’; rich versus poor; north versus south; London versus everywhere else; England versus Northern Ireland, Scotland & Wales; Remain versus In. And now we have percentages too: 48 versus 52.

As I look out at you all this morning, I have a fair idea that most of you will be hurting, grieving and confused at what has happened in our nation over the last few days. After all, this borough had one of the highest remain votes in the country. But that doesn’t mean that all of us in this room share the same views either.

***

To use a very clichéd response that I’ve seen tweeted by various Christians on Twitter – there is one thing that does remain: love.

It may be a cliché, but it’s true. And it was love that turned Jesus’ towards Jerusalem, and onto another village when the Samaritans rejected him. It was love that made him rebuke the disciples for suggesting destruction.

Jesus’ love was and is sacrificial. He set his sights upon Jerusalem, knowing the fate that awaited him there – just earlier in this same chapter of Luke he had predicted his own death. Sacrifice is also what he asked of his followers – as the second half of this morning’s passage lays out. We shouldn’t be surprised by that, we all have experience of making sacrifices out of our love for others. It might be the sleepless nights after a child is born; moving house for the sake of a job; taking a less well paid role because of your passion for it…the list is endless.

It was love that I felt most of all as I attended Wednesday’s memorial. I didn’t know Jo Cox personally, although I’d heard a little about her through friends involved in politics and humanitarian work. As I stood amongst the 10,000  strong crowd, I was struck by the way in which love motivated them. I’ve found myself saying to a few people that I felt desperately sad about her murder not just because of the waste of life and the impact it will have upon her children, but because she was ‘one of my people’. By which I mean that her life and work were motivated by love and a passion for justice. It’s no coincidence that in that crowd on Wednesday I kept bumping into friends – friends from my days working in Christian mission and development charities; friends from the world of NGOs; politically active friends and fellow clergy. People do not work or get involved in those worlds without having a deep love for others and a passion to bring about justice, no matter what sacrifices are involved.

It’s also no coincidence that the vicar of a church in Jo Cox’s constituency said at a vigil immediately after her murder that she was a ‘modern day good Samaritan’. Jo, like so many others working in politics, relief work and war zones saw divisions but didn’t let it get in the way of showing love where it was so desperately needed.

The Jews and the Samaritans were not radically different and nor are our differences. The differences of language, nation of birth, voting preference are small things compared to what we have in common. We are all children of God, made in his image, loved by him and blessed with a love to share with all. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, in Christ there is no slave or free, Greek or Jew, man or woman – we are all one.

Before I finish with a prayer, I want to share some of the words that Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, spoke on Wednesday: “My sister would want her murder to mobilise people to get on with things, to try and make a positive difference in whatever way we can, to come together and unite against hate and division and fight instead for inclusion, love and unity.”

The message on Wednesday was ‘to love like Jo’. Jo loved in the way that Jesus calls us to. Without barriers, without prejudice and without inciting hatred. And that is what our world desperately needs right now.

Prayer of reconciliation:

“Guide our nation in the coming days through the inspiration of your Spirit, that understanding may put an end to discord and all bitterness.

“Give us grace to rebuild bonds of trust that together we may work for the dignity and flourishing of all; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

jo-cox-memorial