Tuesday, 30 September 2008
Tomorrow is the feast of St Michael and All Angels. Ray Simpson comments that “Michael is looked upon in scripture as the protector of the individual against evil forces and as the protector of the God-honouring nation against hostile forces. In the Apocrypha Michael is portrayed as ‘the great captain’ who also wards off the devil at people’s deathbeds and escorts them to heaven. Later Christians also regarded Michael as a healer. Many Christian churches on high places are dedicated to St Michael, which means ‘who is like God’: often these are associated with angelic appearances.”
In our first reading today, we read from Revelation of the warfare in the heavenlies. The pivotal role played by Michael is mentioned, but the focus is on the triumph of the Christ, Jesus, the Lamb; we hear of the sacrificial love of the people of God, and the word of their testimony.
In the second reading we revisit the story from John’s Gospel that Robert preached about on St Bartholomew’s day, where Jesus encounters Bartholomew, also known as Nathanael. Nathanael has been meditating on the story of Jacob’s vision of God, and of a stairway where angels ascended and descended from heaven. Robert’s key point was that Nathanael was someone who recognised Jesus when he came, and that we should be a church community which makes that possible for people today. St Michael’s needs to be renewed as we ask what sort of people God is calling us to be, and what sort of building will help us to live that out.
The writers of Lectionaries have had us return to the passage today, however, because it mentions angels.
Why angels? Because they are fundamental to our understanding of God and of how we fit into his world. The New Testament is full of language that refers to Powers, Principalities, Thrones, Dominions, and so on. It may seem archaic and outmoded to us, but it is of great importance. Walter Wink writes:
“ … our eyes and minds are themselves captive to a way of seeing and thinking that can only regard such entities as mere fantasies …. Thus a gulf has been fixed between us and the biblical writers. We use the same words but project them into a wholly different world of meanings. What they meant by power and what we mean are incommensurate. If our goal is to understand the New Testament’s conception of the Powers, we cannot do so simply by applying our own modern sociological categories of power. We must instead attend carefully to the unique vocabulary and conceptions of the first century and try to grasp what the people of that time might have meant by power, within the linguistic field of their own worldview and mythic systems. It is a virtue to disbelieve what does not exist. It is dangerous to disbelieve what exists outside our limited categories.”
If the ancients spilt a drink, or tripped over a step, they did not necessarily see that as a demon fiddling with them. They were as matter of fact as we are. But they were not trapped by a materialistic mindset that limited their appreciation of how the world really works. Organisations and groupings of people have a spirit, what some have called an angel. When the Head of Education for a midlands borough was asked “What makes a good school”, he replied that it was one with “a good spirit”. We cannot always define it, but we know what it means. Some of us have been here when we looked at the concept of the “Angel of the Church”. You will remember that the four factors that come to mind are the physical setting of the church, its history, the leadership, and the sense of call to be who God wants us to be.
For over 157 years St Michael’s has sought to answer that call to be open to all. People who know us speak of a warmth of welcome, and worship that is carefully crafted to meet the needs of many different sorts of people.
Why St Michael? The front cover of the September Magazine posed the question “What is St Michael’s for?” The various images speak of community and love, but also recall the imagery of conflict that is associated with the name of Michael. He carries a sword and a shield, and is ready to combat evil. The banner that Louise Graham painted for us in 1996 puts into pictorial form the truth that we are in a conflict. Exactly as in the first century, there exists cruelty and injustice in the world today. There are wars and disasters. The financial and economic systems are tottering. In our local context there are people who are sad and feel neglected, relationships in difficulty, pride and disillusion. When we pray “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, we remind ourselves that we inhabit two worlds and seek to bring this earth into alignment with heaven. When we pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”, we do this because Jesus knew that we need to do so.
The church is at the forefront of this struggle. Jesus said he would build his church, and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. The body of men and women, boys and girls, who have a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus, and who together form God’s family here on earth are central to his plan. They, we, reveal his love and grace throughout the world. I believe in the church!
But that does not mean that every manifestation of church is obedient or will survive. There are areas such as Turkey and Northern Africa which were thriving Christian communities once, but today are hardly Christian at all. There are many chapels and church buildings in this country that have been demolished or converted to other use.
Why us? Why should we pour effort and resource into St Michael’s? Surely that can only be justified if we are convinced that it is God’s will. This is the question that we addressed together 18 months ago. We felt strongly that in a town of 30,000, where 1,500 are in church on an average Sunday, there is room for the existing eleven churches, and that St Michael’s is essential to this task. We have a unique “take” on what it means to be a loving, serving, worshipping Christian today. We are a varied family of folk, centred on Jesus Christ, each aspiring to be a disciple becoming more like Christ, each aspiring to be a minister serving more like Christ, each working to build the community of Christ and each ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us, so that more people can be helped to encounter God in Christ for themselves, and grow in him.
We find our reason for being in the statement Open for All. Can I encourage you to take that phrase and roll it around your mind? Open for All …
Kinds of people?
Levels of physical ability?
Insights into who God is?
Kinds of music?
As people and society change, we must constantly be aware and alert, so that we can continue to be as open in 2008, 2009, 2013, as we were in 1851, 1893, 1913. Our only safety lies in a constant, real time encounter with God, and an openness to keep growing in him.
Next Friday marks an important milestone in our pilgrimage, our journey together. Two firms of architects will come and each give a presentation of how this building can be secured so that it will continue to be Open for All in the future. There has been a long gap over the summer in terms of information, because there has been nothing to report. But now we are all invited to a public meeting that is Open for All. The meeting is ostensibly about the building, but it is actually about something much more important and fundamental than that.
What kind of people is God calling us to be? How will we live it out? It is hard for us to visualise the future. We cannot easily build on our past experience because so many possibilities have been blocked off from us. When couples are cancelling their weddings because they cannot afford a hotel reception, we have never been in the position to offer a church hall large enough. When we struggle to accommodate the growing Sunday Club, how can we conceive of future ministry to children and young people?
And how is it to be afforded? How open are we to the idea that God, the living God, will supply all our needs out of his riches in glory? That when we ask him for our daily bread, this is more than a meaningless phrase repeated, it is the actual experience of God’s people day by day. He will provide for us. Are we resolutely self sufficient, or are we open to all that God would like to do in us and for us, learning to trust him?
Today we are privileged to gather to praise God, together with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven. When we do this we are not withdrawing from the real world, we are consciously inhabiting the real world, where God’s love and power are made concrete in the lives we live, and the decisions we make. May God bless you this St Michael’s tide.
Please bow your heads for a special prayer for our Renewal Project:
help us so to encounter you,
that we may daily grow in faith and love,
open to all that you have for us,
open for all that you would teach us,
open to all who seek for you,
and open to follow you wherever you lead us,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
1. What is St Michael’s for?
2. How can we be more Open for All?
3. What actions or ministries can you imagine that God might be calling us to here in Camberley?
Monday, 22 September 2008
There does not seem to have been much discussion: Jesus says “Follow me,” and that is what Matthew does. I notice two things. First, Jesus has been travelling about the area, teaching and doing notable healings and miracles. He is well known. It may be that Matthew is awed, excited, at the thought that Jesus, the rabbi, the teacher, has approached him; and he responds straight away. Second, tax collectors and customs inspectors were not respectable people. Shared meals were important occasions in the time of Jesus. People who ate together felt they belonged together. Pharisees used meals to meet like-minded friends, to express their devotion to God through the careful observance of food and purity laws. Matthew knew he would never receive an invitation to such a dinner, yet here was the Teacher calling him, and arranging to come and eat at his house!
Jesus is roundly criticised for reaching out to Matthew. Surely to have any claim to be godly, he should know better than to keep such company? To enter Matthew’s house is to be at almost certain risk of ceremonial defilement, mixing with those of doubtful lifestyle and lax regard for the dietary rules. Without doubt, in the eyes of the Pharisees, Jesus is wrong.
It is all about Purpose. The Pharisees saw their chief purpose as being right, keeping the regulations. Jesus saw his chief purpose as helping people to encounter God and grow in him. It is all about people. A healer must get his or her hands dirty.
Jesus quotes Hosea 6. When he says “Go and learn what this means”, he is calling us to reflection. It is not about the surface meaning about the correct way to offer up a sacrifice, it is about the underlying concern, that religion can be merely external, relying on formal codes and observances, where ritual demands have taken the place of love.
So, Jesus was well known (Matthew was thrilled that Jesus called him), and there was a lack of shared understanding about his true mission (the Pharisees were not thrilled).
To tackle the first, how well known is Jesus today? Bonnie Appleton from the Diocese shared some research with the PCC recently, to the effect that only 8% of children have any contact with the church. The majority of the population live lives that demonstrate that Jesus is at best marginal, if he figures in their consciousness at all. Perhaps 10% of the population is in church once a month.
Whose responsibility is it to work at this? We rely upon the grace of God, but we also must respond in obedience. Faith is primarily individual; we each need our personal encounter. But faith is also public. We are called to live in community, demonstrating the love of God within and outside the church.
We do this by praying regularly for our families, neighbours, colleagues and friends. We do this by being prepared to answer their questions when they ask about Jesus. We do this by delivering a leaflet to every home in the parish. We do this by sponsoring events like the Brass Band Concert – funds for a popular and deserving local cause, but also an opportunity for strangers to visit us here. We do this by providing a building for public worship and community use. This was seen as a need in the 1840’s and the church opened in 1851. As Victorian society burgeoned and changed, so the building was altered and added to for forty years, to try to keep up with the needs of society – that it what it is here for. Today we are called to do all that we can to preserve this building, and enhance it so that it can continue to meet the needs of our community and make Jesus Christ known.
The second question is to clarify our understanding of the mission. We are to be Open to All. There is not a single person who is debarred from being a member of our church community. Historically the Church of England has been the church of the middle class and the gentry, but we should be concerned to reach out to everyone. We are called to have a care of the aged and the very young. We must labour to reach and teach the educated and those who have no confidence with written words and philosophical ideas. We must care for the abused and the abuser, the unforgiven and those who struggle to forgive. The evidence is that if Vue were to get their all-day alcohol licence, Jesus would have been in there till late at night (as well as spending hours in solitary prayer to his Father).
For the past 13 years I have tried to offer a leadership into a growing deepening relationship with God. We have tried to be Open to All. We aspire to be a Growing Community of Faith. Matthew was seized by a way of life where Jesus was central, his hearts desire was to be a disciple and a servant (minister) of the gospel, he served and built his community, and he shared in reaching out to others, whatever their background.
Questions to Stimulate Discussion
Where were you 13 years ago? Where would you like to be in 13 years time?
In what ways would you feel that you have encountered God afresh and are growing in him?
How good do you think St Michael’s is at making Jesus well known? What could we do better?
How “open” do you feel St Michael’s is to all? Are there people you are surprised to see here? Are there people, or groups of people, who surprise you by their absence?
Thank you for the welcome, it is very good to be here again.
I have been asked to speak on this short passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. It is a favourite passage of mineIf you read the first three chapters, they are all about our position in Christ. We are “seated” with him in heavenly places. In other words, while we live our lives here on earth, we do so in the knowledge that we are united with Christ, that he has done all that is needed to bring about our salvation, and we can rely upon him. This does not absolve us from doing good things, but God has prepared in advance good things for us to do. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we are also united with each other in him.
So far in the letter he has been describing who we are and the benefits that are ours, but now we come to Paul’s first real command to the Christians in Ephesus, and also to us. We are to live in a manner worthy of the calling we have received. Literally, we are to walk worthily.
It is very important to have correct, orthodox beliefs. But these are of no use if we do not reflect them in every day life. Indeed the orthodoxy of our beliefs is to be measured in six ways: humility and gentleness, patience and forbearance, love and unity. These can all be summarised under the one heading of Love.
This is the Christian life summed up! A firm in England called Ronseal make paints and varnishes. Their tagline is “It does what it says on the tin.” “Ronseal quick-drying floor varnish: it dries quickly and makes your floor look beautiful. It does what it says on the tin.”
Paul says that it says on the tin that Christians will be known by a way of life that is humble, gentle, patient and bearing with people, loving and devoted to unity. It was Jesus who said: “They will know you are Christians by the love you have for each other”.
So Paul appeals to the Christians of Ephesus, and to us, to live as those who are in Christ. Those who are not Christians know very well how Christians are supposed to live. It probably never happens here in Germany, but in England it is not uncommon to hear someone say:
“So and so is a church going Christian, but they are so hard-hearted, or critical, or proud, or self-seeking, …. If that is what Christians are like, then I do not want to be one.”
Our young people have a phrase: “If you want to talk the talk, you have to walk the walk.”
So what does it mean to walk like this? Paul explores this in the rest of the letter, giving wise advice for the whole field of our relationships, both domestic and public. He addresses us as neighbours, husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employed, all in a most down to earth way. Finally he gives advice on how we can stand against the enemy.
It is all summed up, however, in the words of our passage before us.
Humility or lowliness was much despised in the ancient world. The Greeks never used their word for humility in a context of approval or admiration. They understood it to mean servile, abject, or subservient. When Paul asks us to be humble, however, he is saying that we should be like Jesus, who came to be servant of all. Humility is essential to unity. Pride lies behind all discord. We need to be not so concerned for our own position, but instead to give respect to the views of others. In this way we will be promoting unity in God’s family of the church and more widely in society.
Gentleness or meekness is a quality of moderation. To be meek is not to be weak. It is to have a balanced personality, able to be strong, but not asserting one’s personal rights. Jesus described himself as being ‘gentle and lowly of heart’.
Humility and meekness form a natural couple. The meek person thinks little about his personal claims, while the humble person does not dwell on his or her personal merits.
The third and fourth qualities also go together. Patience is longsuffering towards aggravating people, while forbearance is that mutual tolerance without which no group of human beings can live together in peace.
Love is constructively to seek the welfare of others. It is the foundation of Christian unity, because it is the heart and essence of God. We receive his love, we reflect his love to those around us. We have no choice. Paul writes as a prisoner of, or possibly for, Christ. Physically, he is under restraint; more importantly he is constrained to live a life in union with Christ, and under the influence of his Spirit. Paul is holding open the cell door and inviting us to join him in a glorious captivity that sets us free.
Our union with the one God leads us inevitably into unity with each other. There have been attempts to form visible unity between the different branches of the Church, based on negotiations about doctrine and rules and ways of organising. But none of these will mean anything or make any progress if they are not founded on the love and friendship that Paul speaks of here. There is only one God, not many. Therefore there exists in truth only one church. We maintain different denominations and movements. This could be described as a sin against the unity of God and the love he calls us to share in this world.
In Camberley there are ten churches, representing six denominations. We are trying to do more together. Paradoxically, the more we do together, the more difficult it is as we get to know each other better, and also experience the different understandings and ways of being that we bring with us from the past. But there is the great possibility that we will discover the humility and gentleness, the patience and forbearance, the love of Christ in each other. This will enable us to be transformed into the true representation here on earth of God’s gracious presence in heaven.
As we continue to explore the link between our towns, and between our church families, let us resolve walk to truly live the life, to do what it says on the tin.
May the Lord bless each of you. Amen.
Gottesdienst am 14. 09. 08 mit englischer Partnergemeinde
Im Namen Gottes des Vaters und des Sohnes und des Heiligen Geistes. Amen.
17. n. Trinitatis; sieghafter Glaube
Wochenspruch:"Unser Glaube ist der Sieg, der die Welt überwunden hat" (1. Johannes 5,4)
Lied: "Morgenlicht leuchtet" 455, 1-3
Wochenpsalm: 25 713
Gott,am Morgen dieses Sonntags kommen wir und danken dir, dass wir in der Gemeinschaft mit unseren Freunden aus Camberley diesen Gottesdienst feiern.wir kommen zu dir, um Ruhe und Geborgenheit zu finden.Wir blicken zurück auf eine Woche mit ihren leisen und mit ihren raschen Tagen,auf volle Stunden und auf Stunden der Ruhe.Laß' uns Dich im Zurückblicken finden!Laß' uns erkennen, wie Du in der letzten Woche mit uns gegangen bist,damit wir mit Mut und Zuversicht in die kommende Zeit gehen können im wissen, daß du uns mit deiner Hilfe nahe bist - und schenke uns jetzt einen guten Gottesdienst.Amen
Wenn ich dich anrufe, dann erhörst du mich und gibst meiner Seele große Kraft. Amen.Schriftlesung Jesaja 49, 1-6
"Lobet, den Herren, alle dir ihn ehren," 447,1-3+6
Unser heutiger Predigttext steht im 4.Kapitel des Briefes an die Epheser. Dort wird uns gesagt (Verse 1-6):
So ermahne ich euch nun, ich, der Gefangene in dem Herrn, daß ihr der Berufung würdig lebt, mit der ihr berufen seid, in aller Demut und Sanftmut, in Geduld.Ertragt einer den andern in Liebe und seid darauf bedacht, zu wahren die Einigkeit im Geist durch das Band des Friedens:ein Leib und ein Geist, wie ihr auch berufen seid zu einer Hoffnung eurer Berufung; ein Herr, ein Glaube, eine Taufe; ein Gott und Vater aller, der da ist über allen und durch alle und in allen.
Gott segne diese Worte an uns allen.
„Nun danket alle Gott mit Herzen, Mund und Händen,“ 321
Du, unser Bruder Jesus Christus,du bist in unsere Welt gekommen, und du willst mitten unter uns sein durch deinen Geist in deinem Wort und in deiner Gemeinde.Gib, daß wir dich erkennen,gib, daß wir dir begegnen - in den Zeichen und Wundern, die du unter uns wirkst.Wo Menschen dein Wort weitergeben;wo Menschen in deinem Namen handeln;wo Menschen deine Liebe weiterschenken,zum Glauben ermutigen und Hoffnung eröffnen.
Wir bitten dich für alle, die gelähmt und unbeweglich sind,weil sie unter einer schweren Krankheit leiden,weil sie vom Leben enttäuscht worden sind,weil sie liebe Angehörige verloren haben,weil sie nicht mehr weiter wissen.Wir bitten dich für uns selbst,die wir uns oft genug nicht von der Stelle wagen,weil wir Angst haben,weil wir unser Vertrauen nur noch in uns selbst und nicht mehr in dich setzten.
Wir bitten dich für deine weltweite Kirche und unsere Gemeinde, daß wir erkennen: Du, Herr, baust deine Kirche und rufst uns zu deinen Mitarbeiterinnen und Mitarbeitern.Du begegnest uns in deiner Gemeinde als der lebendige Herr.Gib uns dafür offene Augen und Ohren und einen wachen Geist, der dich und dein Wirken erkennt.Segne unsere Gemeinschaft mit unseren Freunden und lass uns alle zu Zeugen deiner Gerechtigkeit, deines Friedens und deiner Liebe. Amen.
Lied: "Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren," 316, 1+2+6
Friday, 12 September 2008
There was once an old monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Centuries earlier it had been a thriving monastery where many dedicated monks lived and worked and had great influence, but now only five monks lived there and they were all over 70 years old.
This was clearly a dying order.
A few miles from the monastery lived an old hermit who many thought was a prophet. One day as the monks agonized over the impending demise of their order, they decided to visit the hermit to see if he might have some advice for them. Perhaps he would be able to see the future and show them what they could do to save the monastery.
The hermit welcomed the five monks to his hut, but when they explained the purpose of their visit he could only commiserate with them. ‘Yes I understand how it is’, said the hermit,’ the spirit has gone out of the people, hardly anyone cares much for the old things anymore’. ‘Is there anything you can tell us’, the Abbot enquired of the hermit, ‘that could help us to save the monastery?’
‘No I am sorry’, said the hermit. ‘I don’t know how your monastery can be saved. The only thing that I can tell you is that one of you is an Apostle of God’. The monks were both disappointed and confused by the hermit’s cryptic statement. They returned to the monastery wondering what the hermit could have meant by the statement ‘one of you is an Apostle of God’.
For months after their visit, the monks pondered the significance of the hermit’s words. ‘One of us is an Apostle of God’, they mused. ‘Did he actually mean, one of us monks here at the monastery? That is impossible. We are all too old, we are all too insignificant. On the other hand, what if it is true and if it is true, then which one of us is it? ‘Do you suppose he meant the Abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man, a man of wisdom and light. He couldn’t have meant Brother Elred. Elred gets crotchety at times and is difficult to reason with. On the other hand, he is almost always right. Maybe the hermit did mean Brother Elred. But surely he could not have meant Brother Philip? Brother Philip is so passive, so shy, a real nobody. Still he is always there when you need him. He is loyal and trustworthy. Yes, he could have meant Philip. Of course the hermit didn’t mean me, he couldn’t possibly have meant me. I am just an ordinary person.
Yet suppose he did. Suppose I am an Apostle of God. Oh God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for you. Or could I?’
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them might actually be an Apostle of God and on the off chance that each monk himself might be the apostle spoken of by the hermit, each monk began to treat himself with extraordinary respect.
Because the monastery was situated in a beautiful forest, many people came there to picnic on its lawn and to walk on its paths and now and then to go into the tiny chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate from them, permeating the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, people began to bring their friends to show them this special place, and their friends brought their friends. As more and more visitors came, some of the younger men started to talk with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them, then another, then another. Within a few years, the monastery had once again become a thriving order and thanks to the hermit’s wisdom a vibrant centre of light and spirituality throughout the region.
This is a lovely story of growth, and it sprang to mind when I read the two readings set for today. In our first reading we have Paul talking about the church. Through the church the wisdom of God is to be made known to the rulers and authorities. There is a sense in this passage of the coming together of Jews and Gentiles. It was such a radical message that we can’t begin to imagine it today. The idea of Gentiles being placed alongside Jews would have been anathema to the Jewish people. Theirs was the chosen race, they were the people of God, they were predestined to be the ones who were saved, the whole of the Old Testament is about the history of the Jewish people, they occupied a unique place in Christianity.
A good Jew believed that the Gentiles were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell, that God loved only Israel of all the nations that had been made. It was not lawful for a Jew to render help to a Gentile woman in childbirth for that would be to help bring another Gentile into the world. If a Jew married a Gentile, the funeral of that Jew was carried out. Even to go into a Gentile house rendered a Jew unclean. Paul himself was imprisoned after being wrongly accused of bringing the Gentile Trophimus beyond the barrier (Acts 21.28-29).
For Paul to say that the Gentiles were part of this great plan was as radical to them as eating pork, or abandoning ritual washing. It would have been unheard of. Yet here was Paul saying that this was the great mystery – the mystery that the church was to proclaim. That there was unity between Jews and Gentiles, unity amongst the faithful people of God.
Then we had the passage from John. A prayer spoken by Jesus for his disciples – that they may be one.
But this time it is spoken with the heartfelt cry of one who knows that unity must come from within rather than without. He speaks of unity with the Father, that ‘they may be in us’. On the one hand we have a passage talking of external unity amongst the Jews and Gentiles, and on the other hand a passage speaking of internal unity, between God and ourselves. It is important to bear both perspectives in mind when we think about unity. As the monks in the story discovered, growth and unity doesn’t happen unless there is a focus on both the inner and the outer. Today the reality is that despite all the moves towards church unity, there are as many if not more divisions today than ever, splinter groups breaking away over questions of doctrine, worship and church practice. All too often, instead of testifying to the love of Christ, our relationships with other Christians speak instead of our human fallibility, turning people away from the Church instead of drawing them towards it.
How then do we achieve unity that moves beyond the external, that moves beyond papering over the differences, a unity that comes from the depths, rather than glosses over the surface? Perhaps we will always have to start with what is external – what can be seen by the human eye. Perhaps we have to allow the natural conflict of human relationships.
If any of you remember the TV series The Monastery, shown a few years ago, you will remember how much conflict there was between the participants, as they lived and worked in the environment of the monastery. Yet it was only through allowing that conflict to surface that each of the people in the series realised how much they had to address at a deeper level. In other words it was only through coming to terms with external relationships that each was able to discern something of the inner union with God that Christ was praying for in our second passage.
Inner and outer unity are inextricably linked.
Unity in the church through the wisdom of Christ is something that we can achieve. But if we are to achieve a meaningful unity, then we must go beyond the surface, and look to the inner unity that Christ wanted for each one of us. This means healing at a deep level – and is something that we should allow time and space to happen. Like the monks in our opening story, once it starts to happen we will experience an inner transformation, and that will be reflected in an outer transformation of relationships.
Perhaps our prayer for today and next week should be that we allow Christ to change us from within, and that we experience union with God, and unity in the church.
Questions for Discussion
Read John 17. Can you imagine Jesus describing unity in the church as optional? How essential is it for you?
What have you found that most helps you to get on with other Christians? And what makes it difficult?
Which of the things from question 2 are internal, and which external?
Read Ephesians 4:1-6: how can we live this out?
Saturday, 6 September 2008
This book follows the story of Nehemiah. He led a group of exiles home to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city’s ruined walls. When we first meet him in Chapter 1, he is the King’s wine-taster. Like Esther and Daniel, he had reached a very high position in the Royal Court. He received the King’s permission to rebuild Jerusalem, and he was made Governor.
Chapters 3-7 makes very exciting reading! Nehemiah’s enemies started by mocking the wall-builders: ‘Can you make building stones out of heaps of burned rubble?’ ‘Even a fox could knock it down!’ But the mockery soon turned into threats, attacks, plots on Nehemiah’s life and false reports to the King. Nehemiah succeeded because of his faith in God… ‘But now, God makes me strong!’ In Chapters 8 -10, Ezra appears and reads the ‘Book of the Law’ (probably the Bible’s first five books) to the people. Shocked that they have disobeyed God’s law, they turn back to him. In the last chapters 11-13, Nehemiah leads a joyful procession around the newly completed walls of Jerusalem. Against all the odds, the Jewish people had returned home in style.
The Book of Nehemiah is about:
- One man and what he achieved for God.
- Teamwork and what can happen when people get united and excited in obeying God.
- Putting down foundations, keeping going even when it is hard work, and bringing the task to completion.
- Problems and difficulties (success did not come easily – at one point the work almost ground to a halt when the team lost its unity).
Nehemiah was a remarkable individual, living in a time when God was at work to restore and rebuild his people. Ring any bells? Nehemiah knew what it was that God had called him to do. He knew that he had to be faithful and obedient to God, and to do all that he could to understand what God wanted him to do. Nehemiah was in just the same position as you and me - and everyone else who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Your calling, your purpose in life, my calling, my purpose in life is to be faithful and obedient to God, and to the very best of our understanding, to do what he wants us to do.
God asked Nehemiah to give his time and energy, to use all his administrative and organisational skills, helping the people of Jerusalem to restore the ruined walls of that city. This work was more than just another building project; it was a public demonstration of the work of God… the rebuilt walls would be like a sign announcing the truth that God had not abandoned his people, that he still had a purpose for them and a future for them. We’re not aiming for that? Are we?
We read about how despite the opposition of neighbouring territories, the rebuilding programme had continued… stone by stone, brick by brick. Even when the opposition was so strong that it was thought that an attack was imminent…still the people had been organised so that some defended while others kept on working on the wall. Nothing had stopped the wall rebuilding programme. But now… something came to light, that threatened to make all their hard work useless and without any point or purpose. It wasn’t danger or opposition from outside… it was a threat from the inside. Or to put it another way…. One part of the people of God was complaining about the behaviour of another part of the people of God. There was deep DIVISION in this community. A division that had developed over time, but which had now reached crisis point.
Does that sound familiar at all?
Think of the issues of Women Bishops or Homosexuality.
Now in Nehemiah’s time the people of God weren’t arguing about the role of women, or human sexuality… but they were a divided community. What was going on that undermined the life and witness of the people of God? To answer the question we need to go back a few years, to the time when the people of Israel first moved into the Promised Land, God had gave instructions to see that the whole land and the wealth of the land was shared fairly between all the people of Israel. There was enough land for everyone’s needs, and it was shared equally. In Nehemiah’s time, life in the Promised Land was hard, food was in short supply. And it was not easy growing crops and raising livestock on farmland that had been spoiled by foreign invaders who had destroyed vineyards, olive groves and ploughed salt into the fields. But in this difficult situation there were some people who still had more than enough for themselves, and there were others who were starving. Now you might think this difference didn’t have to be a problem… I mean if the people of God are a community who care for one another, the very rich could help the very poor couldn’t they? Surely they would have known the OT command that said “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Well it seems that some rich people had been helping the poor… but only in a way that helped them. They had been lending them money at extortionate rates of interest that the poor people simply couldn’t afford to pay back.
Does that situation sound familiar?
Debt was a major problem in Nehemiah’s time, just as it is now. People were getting into debt in order to try to keep themselves and their families alive, not getting into debt just so they could watch the Olympics on a new flat screen TV!
When Nehemiah listened to the complaints of the people who were in debt he went straight to the rich nobles and officials and said… “You are oppressing your own relatives by charging them interest when they borrow money!” Nehemiah realised what the real problem was. The people of God had ignored the rules that God had already given to them to help them. In the records of what God said to his people through the prophet Moses… there was a very clear rule for the people of God. If you lend money to a fellow Hebrew in need, do not be like a money lender, charging interest. (Exodus 22-25). In the Old Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that rule is repeated five times. It was a rule that said if another member of the people of God is in need, you are not supposed to make a profit out of them you are supposed to HELP them!!
There was an outcry and division in the life of the people of God simply because they had taken no notice of God’s commands to them, whether because they forgot them, or ignored them, either way they were not living in the way that God had told them to. That’s why things had gone wrong.
What was Nehemiah’s answer?
He called a public meeting. He told the people that all loans were going to stop right away, even the ones that were OK, where no interest had been charged. He said that all the debts must be cancelled and all the property that had been mortgaged must be restored to the rightful owners and all interest received must be paid back.
What is truly amazing? They agreed to do it!!
I don’t think that’s because Nehemiah was a powerful and domineering figure who bullied people into doing what he wanted. This was a man who had learned to be humble, who had served as a waiter to the King for years. He was willing to be a servant and that he led by example… he didn’t even claim for himself the payments that were his due from the people, so that he didn’t add to their burdens. I don’t think the people did what Nehemiah said just because he was an exceptionally gifted leader, which he certainly was. It seems as if what is going on here is that in this community, struggling to rebuild itself, the people are willing to learn what it is that God wants them to do, and they are willing to be obedient… not obedient to Nehemiah, but obedient to God. A willingness to be obedient to God… that is what is important if divisions are to be healed. The division that there is today in the Anglican Communion can never be healed until we are all willing to be obedient to all that we can understand of God’s word to us in the Bible.
So what has the story of Nehemiah got to do with us, here in St. Michael’s in the parish of Yorktown, Camberley?
Nehemiah’s story is true. It really happened. Jerusalem was in ruins. St. Michael’s Church is not in ruins – not yet anyway – it does need restoration work both inside and out, as do we the people inside and outside. It needed someone with a vision and real concern to get it re-built and Nehemiah set to work and got it done. We need a church full of people with God’s vision for the future on how this wonderful building can be made better and serve not just those who are here today but those yet to come. Yes, and when we get discouraged this story can help us to get a different perspective on things.
Nehemiah set about building a city and a community. This is what we are aiming to do. Yes – one person agreeing with me would be good. In the New Testament this building work becomes a picture of personal and church growth. The Letter from Jude encourages the people to ‘keep on building yourselves up on your most sacred faith’ (verse 20) and the Letter to the Ephesians tells them to ‘build up the Body of Christ’ (4:12). The important building work for today is in personal spiritual growth, having a building fit for the purpose so that numerical growth can begin, and growth in fellowship.
This story is about the right time – I believe it is the right time for St. Michael’s– it’s about conviction, responsibility – we all have a duty to share the good news with those outside which means change, it means engaging, commitment – Nehemiah’s workforce were not constructors – they were ordinary people who were committed to the rebuilding – How committed are you to the renewal project, unity – we can agree to disagree sometimes, watchfulness – being ever ready, praying regularly, fervently – you may think that you are not able to do very much – wrong – this project is going to need all the prayers warriors we can muster – it’s going to need 24/7 prayer, and battling on even when it looks like a lost cause.
It points out the pit falls of the enemy within and the enemy outside (the devil will do his best to put a wedge in, create division, place doubts about the decisions being made, about the people overseeing it). Brothers and Sisters please if you have a concern, doubt, a question, please come along on the 3rd October, if you can’t then let someone know, if you need a lift, ask someone – if you get no joy – ask another and keep asking till you do or put it in writing and give it to a Church Warden or Simon. If you can’t make it at all and there are enough Simon will come along on a Saturday morning – architects may not be there – he is willing to get everyone opinion.
Your voice matters.
Above all it means change and we all know we love change. Change requires transition. Transition is not the same as change. Change refers to the external factors – new building, men in yellow hats, dust, re-structuring and things being difference. Transition is about the inner emotional, psychological and spiritual adjustments we as a community must make if are to live well and even flourish in what will changed around us. If change is about what is beginning, transition is about the journey we must take to achieve that – from the past, through the present and into the future. This will need time and space and it may seem as if we moving at snails pace. But it is transition that enables change to be effective. Our relationship with our past enables us to embrace the future and this needs time and cannot be hurried. Because change without transition is coercion. It is imposed. Unless time is given for transition, change, however worthy and Godly, will always be resented at some level. To make the journey into the new, we must honour our past.
The Nehemiah story can offer us help in these things. The lessons Nehemiah learned can give us pointers as we think about how we can build this church, how we can grow as Christian people, how the numbers in our church can grow, and how the fellowship that we experience with others can deepen.
1. Nehemiah prayed fervently each step of the way – what different aspects of prayer can you find examples of in the passage (1:2-11)?
2. How can we bring these different aspects of prayer into out own prayer life: either: - in our private prayers? – our family prayers and in our church prayers?
3. How do you react when trouble and strive come your way?
4. What role do you feel God is calling you to in the life of St. Michael’s and the community outside?
Wednesday, 3 September 2008
We are all saints, in the sense that we are the sanctified ones of God, made holy by the death of Jesus for us and our faith in him. Today we remember a particular individual who can teach us by his experience and example.
Canon Kate Tristram writes: “Aidan was an Irish monk from the monastery St.Columba had founded on the island of Iona. The Britons had been Christian before the Irish, since Britain, though not Ireland, was part of the Roman Empire. Some of the missionaries who first took the faith to Ireland were British: St.Patrick (the patron saint of Ireland) was the most famous but not the only one. But when the power of Rome declined the English (from North Germany) began to infiltrate into Britain and gradually turned it into England. These incoming English were pagans. In the north the kingdom of Northumbria was largely created by the English warrior-leader Aethelfrith but when he was killed in battle (616AD) his children fled into exile and some of these children found their way to what is now South-West Scotland. Here they met the Irish monks of Iona and accepted the Christian faith. Oswald, the second son of Aethelfrith, grew up determined to re-gain the throne of Northumbria and to let the pagans among his people hear about Christianity. In 633 he fought a successful battle and established himself as king, choosing Bamburgh, a natural outcrop of rock on the North-East coast, as his main fortress. He then invited the monks of Iona to send a mission and eventually Aidan arrived with 12 other monks and chose to settle on the island the English had renamed Lindisfarne.”
What do we know of Aidan? He was the second choice for the mission. The first man to come was harsh and overbearing; he did not go down well with the locals. When he returned to Iona complaining about this, Aidan suggested that perhaps a gentler touch was needed. So they sent him instead.
He was a man of balance. A group of us from St Michael’s are planning a pilgrimage to Holy Island, Lindisfarne, where Aidan founded his monastery after the fashion of Iona. It is a place or quiet and rest, away from the business of the world (except when the tourist coaches arrive). It was for Aidan also a place to recharge batteries, not to retreat and block the world out, but to prepare to engage again with it.
He was a missionary. In the spirit of our reading from Isaiah, he went out proclaiming the Lordship of God and the grace of Jesus Christ. But his method was to be completely human. He walked everywhere. If he found a pagan, he would talk to him about Jesus. If he found a believer, he would give words of encouragement to be more truly a disciple. He was a gentle man, and was known to be less austere than some of his contemporaries. He was equally at home in the company of a king or of a pauper; he loved each one with the love of Christ. When the king was concerned that his favourite was walking and gave him a horse, he gave the horse away to a beggar. He preferred to look people in the eye. His method of evangelism was to spend time with folk, to love them, to share the character of Christ with them. He sought to make real in the lives of people our Lord’s call to come to him and receive rest.
What would it have been like to follow Christ in the time of Aidan?
First, you would have lived in community. The monks would have lived in the monastery. The lay folk, single and married, would have had their own homes but would have been aware of a shared faith. They worked, played and worshipped together. We are exploring aspects of this by gathering on Sundays for worship, by meeting during the week for prayer. On Thursdays we try to inhabit the church – Morning Prayer, Butterflies, Lunch time fellowship, SMYL, Choir Practice. It is part of our renewal to explore how we can be a true community, caring for each other throughout the week; we are not a club that we pop into for a single hour and then forget for seven days.
Second, there was a concern that all should know Christ, that every knee should bow. To follow Christ is not an optional extra. God is the Creator of all, and therefore each and every one of us owes him our allegiance. By our prayers, by our words, by our acts of love and kindness, we make him known and encourage others to trust him and submit to him as Lord. This is not the job of the vicar and the curates. It is the high calling of each of us who has been baptised into Christ’s church. Aidan would have reminded us of that.
Third, because God is the great Creator, there is no part of life where he is absent. The Celtic Christians had prayers and blessings for mealtimes and bed time, for milking the cow and churning the milk, for planting and reaping. Aidan today would have prayers for the keyboard and the steering wheel, for the washing machine and the fan oven. God is too important and all-encompassing to be left behind in church.
Fourth, Aidan would have encouraged you to learn, to grow in your faith. He established the first school to teach the English. If you had no faith he would encourage you to believe and be baptised. If you were baptised as an infant, he would have encouraged you to be confirmed and to seek your ministry in Christ. The whole of the Christian life is pilgrimage; we are always on the move. To stop going forward is to begin to slip back. Because of the rigours of the missionary life, the monastery on Holy Island was for men and boys only; elsewhere he founded nunneries that became great centres of learning such as that at Whitby, headed by Hilda.
There are some who would promote Aidan as the best candidate to be patron saint of England. Although from overseas, he at least is well attested to have lived and to have played a major part in building the church in this land. We also live in this land; let us commit ourselves to following closely as disciples and to build his church in our land today.
1. Who can we name that have been examples and encouragements to us to live more closely for Christ?
2. God is the great Creator. How have we observed this to be true in the last week, or so?
3. What ways could we be involved in building Community here today?
4. What progress am I making to grow in learning about and knowledge of Christ? Who could help me with this?