What is the Church?

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Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7;  Psalm 40;  John 1:29-42

 

Today I want to ask question “What is the Church?”

 

Please close your eyes for a moment, and with your eyes closed I want you to visualise the Church of the Ascension.

 

Take a few moments to form a mental image…

 

How many of you imagined the building?

 

I think most people, most of the time, I’d asked to imagine a ‘church’ will imagine the building.  Which is fair enough – this building has “the Church of the Ascension” written on the front of it.  Our logo is an image of the front of the building.

 

Google’s Dictionary defines “Church” as “a building used for public Christian worship.”

 

And offers the synonyms:     “house of God, the Lord’s house, house of prayer; kirk.”

 

It’s only the second definition that gets to the nitty gritty: “a particular Christian organization [sic.] with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.”

 

The building is not what the church is.

 

The Church is you and me.

 

The word “Church” (or in the original Greek, “ecclesia”) is an interesting word, it was deliberately chosen by the first Christians who could have called their places of worship “temples” like the pagans or “synagogues” like their Jewish forbears, but instead chose “ecclesia” translated “church.”  “Ecclesia” is used 115 times in the New Testament, but only two or three times is it usually translated as “Church” because the word simply means a gathering of people or an assembly.

 

The Church is the people, not the place where they gather.

 

We are the church. Without us it’s just a building (an interesting & historic building, but just a building nonetheless).

 

In the same way that your family (if you live with one or more other people) is not the house or flat you live in.  Your home may be very important to you, but your house is not your family….

 

Our building is important, it is a sign to our neighbourhood that we are here, and it is a great resource for our community, but it is not the Church.  The church is us.

 

 

 

What does it mean to be the church?

 

I wonder what we think we are doing when we come together as a church?

 

What secular activity is it most like?  What is a good metaphor for coming together to be the Church.

 

For some services (a Choral Evensong springs to mind) a service can bear a lot of resemblance to a concert.  We listen to a sermon and we pray, but we spend most of the time sitting and listening to music.

 

But this is not what we are about – for several reasons.  If worship is like a concert, it makes us passive receivers.  It means that Worship is something other people do (the choir and clergy); the congregation’s role is just the audience.  The congregation are an audience to be entertained.

 

If we look for a better metaphor, I have heard church described as a time to “recharge our spiritual batteries.” …This places church as something like a “battery charger,” or perhaps a “spiritual health spa” where our favourite hymns are a pedicure and the prayers an exfoliating body scrub…?

 

This is a better metaphor than a concert because we are changed by the process, we are not simply entertained, we are healthier, feel better and maybe look better (I’ve never actually been in a spa, so it’s possible I’m talking nonsense !)

 

However, the idea of the church as a spa still has the problem that the religion is “done to us” by the professionals.  The experts do their work and the customers lay back and enjoy it.

 

I attended a lecture last year that said the best metaphor for the church was a gym – St. Ignatius described his system of prayer as “Spiritual Exercises” – so perhaps Church is best described as a “Soul Gym.”

 

Unlike a concert or spa, everyone actively participates in the gym; it makes us fitter and better able to do things (like climb stairs and run for the bus).  There are trained experts around to help, but everyone works at their own level and does their own exercise.

 

Perhaps like going to the gym we may not jump up with excitement at the idea of a trip to church, but hopefully, like the gym we feel better for going, and the cumulative effect of regularly attending gym or church is improvement in our physical or spiritual health.  The more often you go and the more seriously you take it the more marked the results.

 

(It is also worth mentioning that if every church member paid like people pay at the gym (by a standing order that comes out of your account wether you attend once a year or seven times a week) all of our financial concerns would be over!)

 

I like the gym metaphor, but it is also flawed.  At the gym everyone is doing their own thing.  Everyone may be in the same room, but they are all pursuing their own aims.

 

The problem of all these metaphors is that they place the congregation in the place of “consumers” of one sort or another.  In the church we are not “consumers” of religion.  We are “citizens” of the Kingdom of God.  We are the Body of Christ.

 

If we were consumers we have religion done to us.  We pay the clergy to do our religion for us, and then buy whatever slice or flavour is to our taste.

 

As citizens of the Kingdom, as the body of Christ, as people who are the church we don’t just consume faith, we live it out in our lives

 

We gather as a church in order to be sent out again to change the world and proclaim the Kingdom.

 

So church may share some superficial similarities with a concert or spa or gym, but none of them do justice to what we are about.  To my mind the best metaphor for the church is a family meal.

 

Like family meals it is wonderful – it’s fantastic to share time with people who matter to us.  But it is also a challenge, some of the children may be noisy at inappropriate times and uncle Jim’s sense of humour is alarmingly unreconstructed.  But we are family, children of the same Heavenly Father.

 

But we have a responsibility for each other in church. 

 

If there is someone new next to us looking lost with the handfuls of service sheets and hymn books, if we are consumers it’s none of our business, but if we are the church we have a responsibility to help them out and guide them through…

 

If we are consumers if we run out run out of service sheets the only thing that matters is that we get our own sheet, as citizens we must share with our neighbours…

 

If we were consumers we would see tea and coffee after the church as an experience similar to a quick visit to Starbucks.  (With cheaper coffee.)  If we are consumers all that matters is our coffee and our conversations with our friends, but if we are citizens we need to look out for folks who are on their own or looking left out.

 

I have heard from people who started coming to church because of the wonderful welcome they had at the door.  I have, also, recently received an email from a potential new member who decided not to come back because they felt someone was rude to them because they weren’t looking at them directly during the Peace!

 

How we behave to each other really matters.

 

We are the church, and the church will thrive or decline according to how we act.

 

If the church is going to grow their is no outreach programme or activity that could even come close to “word of mouth” from all of us.  Evangelical churches have run all sorts of studies on what makes churches grow: door-to-door evangelism?  Billy-Graeme-style rallies? singing in market squares? giving out pamphlets…?  and every single study I have read comes to the same conclusion: the congregation telling their friends, neighbours and families about the church, and inviting them along is by miles the most effective means of growth.

 

If we are consumers then church growth has nothing to do with us – we just attend to buy a fresh slice of religious observance.  However, if we are citizens then we all have to play our part in building the church.

 

I think every Church service should end with the famous words of St Teresa of Avila:

 

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,

 

no hands but yours,

 

no feet but yours,

 

yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion

 

is to look out to the earth,

 

yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good

 

and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

 

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Soul Gym?

Image2 Timothy 2.3-15

 

            Once there was a man who went to play golf with his priest.

            He was on the third hole and only 3 feet away from the hole. He putted his shot and missed. “Damn it, I missed!” the man yelled. The priest replied that it was a sin to say “Damn it!”. The man thought that his priest was correct and apologised.

Later he was on the 15th hole and only 2 feet away, when he missed the shot and yelled “Damn it, I missed!” The priest replied that it was a sin to speak lightly of damnation. The man realised his mistake and that his Father was right and apologised.

Later after that he was on the 18th hole and if he made a 6 inch put he would win the entire game. He of course missed and as before yelled “Damn it, I missed!” The priest was disturbed as times before and angrily shook his head as he was about to speak.

Just as the priest was correcting the man and said, “It is a….” A huge bolt of lightning came down from the skies and struck the priest dead on the spot. Then came a huge rumbling voice that shuck the ground as it said, “Damn it, I missed!”

            I found that joke while searching for “anti religion humour” on the Internet – that was extremely mild compared to a lot of what I found.

            I don’t want to sound like I’m ‘going all Daily Mail’ but it is a difficult time to be a Christian.  Maybe ‘difficult’ is overstating it – we are not likely to be fed to lions or arrested by the Secret Police, but the intellectual climate is certainly hostile to Christianity.  In the 1970s lazy comedians would make jokes about mother-in-laws and foreigners; today religion is the shortcut to laughter.

            It would be a mistake to blame media bias or look for an anti-Christian conspiracy… I think the root cause of this hostility is the Christian Church itself.

            The medievalists who believe in a six-day creation shout loudly and gain attention because what they are saying is so crazy.  But the liberals are too unassuming and quiet to call the crazy people out.

            It’s the same with women bishops and homosexuality.  Those who oppose women bishops say “you could no more make my dog a bishop than a woman” (something that was said to me in all seriousness).  And the progressive Christians wring their hands and say “it’s all terribly difficult.”  It’s not terribly difficult.  In society it used to be impossible for women to be M.P.s or doctors – we realised this was wrong and changed. 

            Wider society sees Christianity as an outdated, superstitious, misogynistic, homophobic institution.  People think they know what Christianity is about, and because we see our faith very differently, we have to explain that they haven’t got it…

We live in a society that sees religion as irrelevant and unnecessary; to most people it doesn’t seem to offer anything useful.

            Why is society so ambivalent or hostile to religion?  Partly because we live in a society that is dominated by consumerism.  Politicians have been introducing the ideals of consumerism into healthcare and education.  And not just politicians of the Right – it was under labour that ‘choice’ in healthcare became a central theme.  I don’t want choice in healthcare, I just want the closest hospital to be able to fix me.

            Consumerism has replaced religion in many ways.  It’s done so quite blatantly:  Supermarkets style themselves as Churches for the twenty-first century, they have aisles and music and surprisingly often the buildings even have spires.  If people are feeling low they are likely to think of ‘retail therapy’ before prayer or meditation.

            Another factor working against faith in world is what some commentators have called ‘a crisis of Character.’  We are no longer sure what “the Good” is.  Some of these commentators (returning to the Daily Mail) will blame our crisis of Character on how pluralistic our society has become.  In our pluralist society there are many different visions of “the Good:”  Liberals value tolerance; Muslims value submission; Buddhists value detachment; some flavours Christians value humility & sacrifice.              But submission, detachment, humility come from those with a clear sense of “the Good” and if we pursued there there maybe some disagreement, but our society would be a better place.  The problem is seen clearly if we consider who our heroes are today.  Fame is seen as an achievement, an end in itself, rather than a side effect of doing something amazing.  We value celebrity and people who are ‘famous for being famous.’  I know I sound like a curmudgeonly kill-joy to some and to others I’ll sound like I’m picking on easy targets, but vacuous nature of our press and television is a real sign of a vacuum of morality.  I have seen Heat magazine run as a story that a picture was taken of a celebrity with sweat under her armpits.

            We live in a society where its OK to be a celebrity because of drunken antics at society parties, but you are vilified for sweating, developing a bald-patch, or worst of all – a V.P.L. (a visible panty line for the uninitiated). 

            So along comes Christianity, like a prudish maiden aunt, and says stop buying Heat magazine, reject consumerism, and you’ve got to start working to build the Kingdom of God.

            It’s a hard thing to sell.  It’s made even more difficult because we basically have the whole of the advertising industry trying to tell the opposite story.  The multi-billion pound advertising industry exists to tell us that we will be happier, fitter, more attractive, have more sex, live longer or be more intelligent if we buy this magazine, eat that ice cream, spray on this deodorant, buy that car, or wear these clothes…

            But we need to reject greed, it’s not fulfilling us as human beings and our planet cannot sustain it…

            Asceticism is out of fashion.  Self-denial is hard to sell.

            But asceticism does exist in out culture and in fact it thrives… …in fitness centres!

            We all recognise the image of a perfect body:  Slim, toned and more-or-less hairless.  The gym exists to bring about this ideal of physical fitness & health.  And like the life of faith there is cost: time, money, and effort.  Gyms are successful because if people can see the value they will pay the price; fitness allows you to do all kinds of things: run, play tennis, attract a partner…

            When we think of Church and how to attract more members we often think of the primary metaphor for our worship as ‘entertainment’ – but on a better ‘show’ with better hymns, better music, better prayers, better sermons (!)…   And while we should find ways to do worship better if we can… a much better metaphor for what we are doing this morning is a trip to the gym:

            We heard this metaphor in our reading from Timothy (it’s also used in 1 Corinthians 9)

            The Church is not a ‘show’ or an ‘entertainment,’ it is a school for character, where you learn what to do to lead a good life.

            There is an old monastic story:

            Two monks who had been brothers and friends for many years were talking.

            “Brother” said the first, “let’s have a fight”

            “Why?” asked the second.

            “Other people do,” explained the first, “and we cannot understand them unless we experience what they do.”

            “Ok, what shall we fight over?”

            The first walked off and found a brick.  He put the brink in the between them and said,  “Let us fight over who owns this brick.”

            “OK,” his friend said, “This brick is mine.”

            “No” he replied, “it is mine.”

            “OK then, you have it.”

            The commentary on the story ends: “And so they were unable to fight as other men do.”

            Our aim is to become people to whom violence is alien, and love and peace are natural.  Our aim to to grow as people – using the story of Jesus life and his teaching as the example and inspiration for how to live.

            Returning to the idea of a current crisis of character, Allan Bloom wrote: “Students have powerful images of what the perfect body is and pursue it incessantly.  But… They no longer have an image of a perfect soul, and hence do not long to have one.”

            Church is our soul-gym, teaching us the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, tolerance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

            And just like none of us would do the training programme of Mo Farah, we work to find our own level, then work to get better.

            To live this life brings fulfilment and joy and will change the world around us.

And here is where the gym metaphor breaks down.  Church is not solitary like the gym – we need each other. We only grow and change together, we need the local community of faith.

            We work at our soul-gym to grow as individuals, to grow together, and to change the world around us.  Amen.

The Science & Theology of Creation

This year we have been observing the Season of Creation. We have talked about the world, we have considered humanity, made in God’s image, and today I want to give a thought to science.

Too often when someone talks about the ‘theology of creation’ the conversation instantly moves to the supposed debate between sciene and religion.

I want to look at the scientific view of the origin of the world, but rather than see theology as opposed to science, I want to draw some theological reflections from scientific theory:

Einstein, Albert said: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” So this sermon is an attempt to bring Science and religion together…

In the beginning was nothing.

Then 13.7 billion years ago, in a singularity, an infinitely small pinprick of existence, the big bang was sparked into existence and there was light.

As the infant universe expanded faster than the speed of light, and within the first fraction of the first second of existence the laws of physics crystalised out of the chaos. At first the universe was only a hot soup of quarks, gluons and leptons, but while the universe was one ten-thousandth of a second old protons, neutrons and electrons (the famalier building blocks of atoms) had appeared.

The whole universe remained hot enough to be nothing more than constant nuclear reactions until beyond the first three minutes.

There were still no atoms yet – just the raw materials – the universe was not cool enough for atoms for half a million years.

At this point the gross nuclear structure of the universe was left at the ratio of today with a quarter helium to three quarters hydrogen. (Although the ratios of protons to neutons and electrons had made this inevitable three minutes after the initial big bang.)

The greatest miracle, ever had already occurred. Water into wine? Feeding 5,000? These are nothing to the laws of physics created in the first second of existence and the protons, neutons and electrons that formed in the first minutes. If any of these forces or measurements were even slightly different, no life would exist. For example if gravity were slightly stronger, or any of these nuclear particles just a little bigger (giving them a stronger pull, and so having the same effect) then the big bang would have been followed by the universe pulling itself together within a few billion years in a big crunch with no opportunity for suns and planets to from. If gravity were slightly weaker, or any nuclear particles just a little smaller (giving them a weaker pull, and so having the same effect) then the big bang would have been followed by the universe expanding so fast that stars would never form, and the universe would be an ever-expanding and ever-thinning cloud of hydrogen and helium.

But in our perfectly ballanced universe, once atoms formed, the forces of gravity started to draw them together, forming larger and larger clumps of matter, until some clumps became so vast that their internal forces of gravity became so strong that they broke apart the atoms in nuclear reactions and the first stars were born, about 1 billion years after the Big Bang.

In these first stars the atoms of hydrogen and helium were broken apart, and they reformed as new elements, including the carbon that is the elemental building block of life were formed – every atom of carbon in your body was created in the nuclear reactions in the heart of a sun.

Our sun and our home planet were formed in the second generation of stars.

Around 4.5 billion years ago life on earth began. (Just 3 million years ago the human race appeared.) The evolution of life is every bit as wonderful as the physical origen, but I will not go into it, as we will run out of time, and I was always much better at physics than biology.

But I would like to echo the words of Carl Segen who said of human civilisation: “These are the things hydrogen atoms do given 13.7 billion years.”

Science has its own miracles that can inspire awe, and wonder, and spirituality.

Atoms are mostly empty space, if you were able to remove all the space from and atom and compress it, then the entire human race could fit into a space the size of a sugar cube.

Some of you may know that I edit the Newsletter for the campaigning charity, Inclusive Church. The editorial that recieved more comment & feedback than all my others put together was based the sermon I delivered here on Ash Wednesday. I hope those who were here on Ash Wednesday will forgive me repeating what I said back then.

As I have already said, after the Big Bang, scientists believe that the only elements that existed were hydrogen and helium (the lightest and simplest elements). No carbon or metal or any complex elements. Then these atoms of hydrogen and helium slowly clustered over unimaginable aeons of time the clusters became enormous balls of matter that had so much gravity that the atoms were pulled apart in a nuclear reaction, and the universe’s first generation of stars sprung to light.

All of the heavy elements that exist in the universe – metals, and the carbon of our bodies was created in the heart of the first generation of stars.

On Ash Wednesday we say “remember that you are dust…” we are not just made of dust, as Genesis tells us, we are made of stardust! “Remember you are stardust…”

Our human bodies that we so often feel ashamed of (or are made to feel ashamed of) are the stuff of stars, made by God, loved by God, inhabited by God.

We are stardust! We need to learn to stand tall and not be ashamed: regardless of gender, sexuality, race, disability, social status, education: you are stardust. You are a child of God. You matter.

We are frail, but we are also part of a holy adventure reflecting God’s love over billions of years and in billions of galaxies.

Our lives are strange and sometimes difficult, but life is also wonderful and beautiful.

Paralympics in the season of Creation

There was story going round about three men who wanted to get into the Olympics but they hadn’t been able to get tickets. They came up with a plan to pose as athletes: the first man picked up a manhole-cover, tucked it under his arm and walks to the gate. “Corsini, Poland” he said, “Discus”, and in he walked. The next man picked up a length of scaffolding and slings it over his shoulder. “Piaf, France,” he said, “Pole vault,” and in he walked. The last man looked around, picked up a roll of barbed wire and tucked it under his arm. “O’Malley, Ireland,” he said, “Fencing.”

Every Sunday throughout the Summer Juliet has asked me what my sermon was going to be about; I have told her ‘Creation…’ or ‘Inclusion…’ or ‘Whatever…’ and Juliet has said ‘You really should talks about the Olympics or Paralympics…’ Well, today, as the Paralympians have their bags packed, ready to head for home after tonight’s closing ceremony, I have finally given in.

Today we continue the season of Creation. Last Sunday was Earth Sunday, when we gave thanks for the gift of our home, planet earth. Today is humanity Sunday – when we give thanks for our creation.

Over the Summer at the Olympics we have seen the pinnacle of human createdness, with athletes whose bodies are examples of physical perfection, pushed to the limits of possibility. When we see Mo Farah running or Bradley Wiggins cycling we see the heights of what human bodies can achieve.

At the Paralympics we have seen human physical perfection redefined. Ellie Simmonds swimming or Oscar Pistorius running we see something every bit as awe-inspiring as anything at the Olympics.

The Paralympics motto is ‘Spirit in Motion,’ which is not an immediately obvious. But as a motto, the Church could struggle to find better: ‘Spirit in Motion.’

The Holy Spirit, God’s presence in humanity, is at work in the world through the lives of Christian people who make up the church.

Reflecting on the Spirit, Jesus repeated the words of Isaiah when he began his ministry as a sort of manifesto:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4.18,19)

Jesus brings the ‘Spirit in Motion’ to bring good news to people who are poor, captive, blind or oppressed.

In Britain today disabled people can find themselves falling into all four of the categories that Jesus declared to be the target of his message: living in relative poverty, captive in their own homes, with debilitating conditions and oppressed by discrimination in community or workplace.

In the Gospels Jesus goes on to fulfil this ministry in many different ways, including miraculous healings.

But how do we relate to stories of the lame walking, the blind being restored to sight while we are watching the amazing skill and commitment of Paralympians performing without sight or the full use of their limbs?

The whole idea of ‘healing’ in a religious context has to be handled with care. We have to recognise the part that the Christian religion has done in making the lives of people with disabilities more difficult. The promise of healing to those with faith is bad enough, but the Bible repeatedly links healthy bodies with God’s approval, and sickness as a sign of sin.

The Levitical law describes those who may not be Priests:

Leviticus 21.17-21

…Whosoever of thy seed in their generations that hath any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God.
For whatsoever man that hath a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that hath a flat nose, or any thing superfluous, or a man that is brokenfooted, or brokenhanded, or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken;
No man that hath a blemish of the seed of Aaron the priest shall come nigh to offer the offerings of the LORD made by fire: he hath a blemish; he shall not come nigh to offer the bread of his God.

Very often sickness is the outward and visible sign of sin; perfection is a sign of God’s pleasure. According to the creation myth of Genesis the world was perfect without sickness or death until Adam and Eve sinned.

But it is not just mythic legend, the Law of the Hebrew Scriptures comes with a threat:

“If thou wilt NOT observe to do all the words of this law…then the Lord will make thy plagues…great plagues and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance. Moreover he will bring upon thee all the diseases of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of…Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the Lord bring upon thee (Deuteronomy 28.58-61).

The reason why the book of Job is such a resonant story is that it shows the suffering of a good and holy man.

This linking of disease and deformity with sin is an ancient prejudice. It almost seems to be human instinct to equate abnormality with evil. From pre-Christian times so-called ‘monstrous births’ were considered an ill omen (or result of unnatural unions). If a baby was born without the usual number of limbs it was seen as a sign of something gone wrong with the heavens. The origin of the word ‘monster’ is from the Latin ‘monstrum:’ ‘to warn.’

Today, even minor blemishes are despised. Celebrity magazines like ‘Heat’ make their money by publishing photographs of famous people showing cellulite, varicose veins or a roll of fat, as if they are revealing character flaws.

We strive to dress like everyone else, hide of differences, the whole cosmetic industry is built on the idea that we should hide what we truly look like.

When people with differences that cannot be concealed by makup appear, more often than not they evoke fear & pity.

The idea of healing just adds to the pain and can create feelings on inferiority and sinfulness.

Jesus resolutely refuses to equate sin with and sickness and poverty. He also refuses to equate goodness with health and wealth. In fact one of the great philosophical and religious truths that Jesus brings to the world is that God makes “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Mathew 5.45)

Which is great, but we are left with the problem that Jesus is reported to have physically healed people. I think we will only do justice to the spirit of Jesus message if we reinterpret the reported physical healing as spiritual healing.

If God heals one, then why not heal all? If God heals one then why allow the conflict in Syria to rage on? If God intervenes to heal one why not intervene to reach down to Zimbabwe, pick up Mugabe and drop him on a desert island somewhere in the Pacific?

There are philosophical and moral problems with the idea of religious healing. It makes us doubt the morality of God and damages the lives of those whose lives and health and abilities do not measure up to a bogus ideal of perfection.

The Paralympics may give us a better vision of true healing than miracle stories.

The actor and writer Nabil Shaban created an ‘Everyman’ programme in 1990 entitled ‘The Fifth Gospel.’ He concluded with this fictional Gospel of Jesus:

And on the third day in Cana in Galilee there gathered before him a great multitude of sick and impotent folk that were taken up with diverse diseases and torments: the blind, the halt, lame, the withered, waiting for him.

And Jesus asketh onto the multitude what is it that they desire?

And they cried out as one, “Make us whole! Cast out our torments and diseases! Make us see and walk! Cure us!”

And he rebuketh them, saying, “You have no need of miracles! You are complete as you are! God gave the fish of the sea fins, and the birds of the air wings. Yet man, who has not these things, thinks no less of himself. Verily I say unto you, you are not impotent because you are different, you are impotent because you have believed the lies that the world has told you. Your differences are God’s gifts, for the everlasting enrichment of the world. I will cure no one, for I wish not to sow the seeds of discontent. I wish not to sow the seeds of self-hate. Love the light in thyself, and that is cure enough.

Pentecost (and Songs of Praise)

Verses from Acts of the Apostles. Ch.2
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language speaking about God’s deeds of power?” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

From John 15.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

I have been thinking about hymns this week.  We have our Songs of Praise service tonight so my sermon this morning is not only a reflection on Pentecost, but also a prelude or introduction to tonight’s service.

Our reading from John today is one that makes me a little uncomfortable:

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;

That text has been used to give divine authority to the Church.  Jesus could not say everything that needed to be said while he was alive – so his successors in the Church, and particularly the Spirit-led Clergy.

If the Church acts with the authority of the Holy Spirit then its authority is unquestionable.  And too bad if you disagree, are a women, or are gay.

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely; ecclesiastical power corrupts diabolically.”

However, the passage from John is valuable because it reminds us that Jesus did not think his words stitched up every ethical, moral and religious issue, that there is room for development and growth.

I actually don’t believe that Church or its leaders have any spiritual authority at all.  I believe in the disestablishment of the Church of England, and think the sooner Lords are reformed and the Bishops evicted the better.  The church has a practical authority to maintain an institution, it needs its rules and regulations.  But this is a secular authority, it does not speak for God, and if any religious leader claims to be speaking for God I suggest you walk away, or maybe run…

The authority of the Church is purely charismatic, if what the church is saying resonates in your life then listen for some more.  If it doesn’t resonate there is no reason to listen further.  That was Jesus’ approach.  He preached, and people listened or walked away.  He did not insist that people listen or obey.  He talked about Judgement, but judgement was not based on obedience to him, accepting him as saviour, or joining the church, judgement was based solely on our love for our God’s children, our sisters and brothers in need.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth;

As long as we see Jesus words as allowing a diversity of opinion through time and not giving the Church some sinister authority.

This diversity, and the charismatic authority of religious teaching and words has been illustrated in the selection of music for our Songs of Praise Service.  When I suggested tonight’s service I had no idea what sort of hymns would be chosen.  I wondered if there were any dentists in the congregation who would choose “Crown Him With Many Crowns.”   I thought some keen golfer might select “There is A Green Hill Far Away” or some shopaholic might want “Sweet By and By.”   The Geologist’s Hymn is of course “Rock of Ages” whereas a tax collector likes to hear “I Surrender All.”

You may have heard before the recommend hymns for speeding in your car:

AT 75 miles per hour: “God Will Take Care of Me”
AT 85 miles per hour “Guide me, O Great Jehovah”
AT 95 miles per hour “Nearer My God to Thee”
AT 105 miles per hour: “Lord, I’m Coming Home”

Jokes aside Hymns resonate deeply within our spirituality.  Sometimes, the words move us, sometimes the tune, sometimes the time when we heard it.  Often they sum up comfort we received from God at a certain point in our life.  Often what we love someone else will hate and visa versa – tolerance in our worship is important.

Music itself is an amazing gift from God.  To me it is a sacrament.  In communion ordinary bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ – the normal becomes the sacred.  In music the sound of wind through pipes, or strings struck or plucked, or the vibration of vocal chords become something that defies description.  Music is a sign of the Kingdom of God – that the ordinary can become the sacred.

In essence this is the hart of Christianity, that an ordinary human life, the life of a wandering penniless preacher, who lived in a small county under Roman occupation 2000 years ago could reveal to us God, in all God’s fullness.

That also, bread and wine can reveal to, today God’s presence with us still.

And, perhaps most significant of all, that our lives, can be transformed, by the presence of God’s Spirit.  A hymn not chosen tonight, but which makes the point of this sermon more eloquently than I could is “Teach me, my God and King”

All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean
which, with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.

A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine;
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.

This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.

“nothing can be so mean which, with this tincture, “for thy sake,” will not grow bright and clean.” – bread and wine can become for us the body and blood of Christ, as sound waves can become music, so can our lives be lifted, transformed, made into a sacrament of God’s love and presence

Finally, as a postscript to this sermon: a cautionary tale about hymns…  I have a curious inability to remember numbers, phone numbers, house numbers, dates, bible chapter-and-verses and hymn numbers.  I can forget a hymn number in the time it takes for me to look up from my notes and announce it.

A man went to a friend’s wedding and was impressed with the choice of hymns, especially ‘Love Divine’. He was due to be married himself a few months later, so he made a note of the number: 343.

When he next met with the minister who was to conduct his wedding, he told him he would like hymn 343.

‘Are you sure?’ asked the minister. ‘It is rather an unusual choice!’

‘No, I am certain. I heard it at my friend’s wedding, and it is just what I want to say,’ insisted the man.

What he had not realised is that his friend was married in a Methodist church, using the Methodist hymn book, whereas at his wedding they were using Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Imagine the surprise of all – not least the bride – when they started to sing:

HA&M 343:
Come, O thou traveller unknown
whom still I hold, but cannot see;
my company before is gone
and I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay,
and wrestle till the break of day.