Trinity 6, Ezekiel 2, 1-5, 2 Corinthians 12, 2-10 & Mark 6, 1-13
I wonder whether you have ever, on an occasional or persistent basis, felt that you might not quite be good enough, or capable enough? If you have, fear not, you are not alone. Feeling not good enough, or not capable enough, is in large part characteristic of the human condition. St. Paul certainly knew what it felt like, so I suspect did the prophet Ezekiel. One of the great lies of our time is that in order to do anything remotely useful we need to be strong, highly capable and, independently resourceful. Its a lie, or a myth, than can lead to untold pain; please don’t believe it. Its a lie or a myth that leaves little or no room for God working in and through us.
As Christians we need to take to heart St. Paul’s recognition that God’s power ‘is made perfect in weakness,’ and the fact that he refused to boast about anything ‘except of my weaknesses.’ The twelve apostles who were sent to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom, and who so we are told ‘cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them,’ were hardly candidates for the front page of Hello Magazine or the Harvard Business Review. They were all, like Paul and Ezekiel, flawed and vulnerable characters. And, yet like Paul and Ezekiel they became real game changers; catalysts for the breaking in of the Kingdom.
Growing in resilience is central to growth in Christian maturity. Sometimes we hope for, and even pray for, the alleviation of all of our problems, and yet the better way is to learn to bear our equivalent of Paul’s ‘thorn’ in our sides. We become strong when we allow God to work with and through our pains and tribulations. Mother Theresa is a wonderful modern example of someone who allowed God to use and work through her vulnerability. Mother Theresa, you see, suffered terribly with feelings of black-dog, despair, depression even. She felt her self to be both physically and mentally weak and yet we know what an unbelievable contribution she made to the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.
Mother Theresa knew that she was sent from the relative security of her monastery to serve the street people of Calcutta. This sense of being sent is captured in the reading from Ezekiel - ‘mortal I am sending you’ and again ‘I am sending you to them.’ In the gospel reading we hear that Jesus ‘called the twelve and began to send them out two by two.’ One of the things we should prayerfully ask God is ‘to who, or where, I am being sent?’ At the end of today’s service I will invite you to ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ This week could I encourage you to ask just what this means for you? Where should you be serving and who should you be serving?
What strikes me about Ezekiel, Paul and the Apostles is that they were able to serve God because they trusted in God. They all had this remarkable confidence that God would provide. The Apostles, as we know, took ‘nothing for their journey,’ and yet they succeeded in their mission. But, what we also know is that trust in God and stepping out in faith won’t immunise us against worldly criticism. Ezekiel was rejected by many despite being God’s mouthpiece and lot’s of people ‘took offence at him (Jesus),’ whilst the Apostles were clearly not welcome everywhere they visited. In many ways their success rate was poor by comparison with worldly standards, as celebrated by the likes of Hello Magazine and the Harvard Business Review. However, the remarkable thing is that all of these years later we are still talking about them; still inspired by their stories.
Ezekiel, Paul, the Apostles and Mother Theresa all knew for sure that God’s strength is, paradoxically, ‘made perfect in weakness.’ Our task is simply to accept this basic spiritual truth and then to trustfully and prayerfully ask God what, and more precisely where and to whom, we should ‘go in peace to love and serve the Lord,’ for loving and serving the Lord is what we are all sent to do.
St. Peter: 1 Peter 2, 19-end & Matthew 16, 13-19
Can I ask if anyone here has a friend who they love to bits and yet who drives them crackers at times?
The relationship between Peter and Jesus must have been a little like this. Peter gets some many things right and yet he also gets so many things wrong. He is an interesting character, full of bravado at times, and yet also a little bit fickle and unreliable. And yet, he is the apostle who Jesus ultimately appoints as the one on whom he is going to build his church. Imperfect, and at times flaky, Peter is to become the rock. This is something that we should all take huge confidence from: God’s strength is perfectly capable of working in, and through, our human weakness.
I love the today’s reading from the epistle, for what we see is the mature Peter; the Peter who has come through numerous trials and tribulations, the Peter who has had to face his own character flaws and yet who has grown into full spiritual maturity. Peter teaches us that growing into a mature faith is a life time’s work. In the epistle what we hear is a full exposition of Christian maturity and understanding. Peter it seems has finally got it. He, finally, understands everything that is to be understood about Jesus. He understands that Jesus came to do one thing and one thing only: to ‘set us free from our sins.’ He also, again finally, shows us that the way to real and eternal freedom is to ‘entrust’ ourselves to ‘the one who judges justly.’
Just pause to think about this: the man who rejected his best friend, and his Messiah, at his hour of need, has come to the radical understanding that God is above all else merciful. It is an incredible thought isn’t it that Jesus, despite Peter’s rejection, sees though our human frailties to our potential. If you ever feel that you fall short in your faith can I invite you to reflect on the relationship between Jesus and Peter. But can I also invite you to look beyond the perceived frailties and shortcomings of others, just as Jesus did.
If we see the mature Peter in the epistle we see the heroic yet immature Peter, in the gospel reading. Peter is of course correct in his affirmation that Jesus is the ‘Messiah the Son of the Living God.’ Like Peter we too must continually make this affirmation of faith. The entirety of Christianity is contingent on agreeing with Peter’s declaration. And, of course the basic job of the Church is to bring people to the place where they too can answer the question Jesus poses: ‘but who do you say I am.’ This is the most basic job of this church.
When, however imperfectly, we are able to say with Peter that Jesus is the ‘Messiah the Son of the Living God, then the door is opened for the Holy Spirit to begin the journey of bringing us, like Peter, to a mature and living faith; a faith which allows us to live radically different lives, a faith which becomes characterised by our willingness to endure pain and suffering with a sense of hope, a faith which allows us to become the sort of people who extend the hand of friendship and offer forgiveness, a faith which frees people from the burdens of their past and offers them new hope and a new identity as children of God, a faith which doesn’t simply look to the after-life but which brings the Kingdom of God into the here and now, a faith which accepts and works with imperfection, frailty and vulnerability as its essential ingredients.
By mediating on the nature of the relationship, the friendship, between Peter and Jesus we get to understand a whole lot more about God, for we see the tenderness, compassion and mercy of Jesus. We begin to understand that God is good at working with and through the messiness of our lives and that God can, and will, bring us to maturity.
Surely that is a faith worth having and a faith worth sharing? Amen.
St Alban: Wisdom of Solomon 3, 1-4, 2 Timothy 2, 3-13 & John 12, 24-26
I wanted to celebrate St Alban this year, whose actual feast day is on the 22nd June, because this church was established way back in 1290 as a minster of the then St. Alban’s Abbey; now St. Alban’s Cathedral. Being a minster meant that the church existed to serve both the local community and a number of surrounding villages. It's a vision I want to re-capture for this church. With our liturgical and musical tradition it is something we can do.
Alban himself was a man of great courage; like our patron Laurence he was martyred for his faith. In often wonder, why the great martyrs were prepared to face death firmly in the face and embrace it. Its a sobering thought isn’t it? Would we be prepared to follow in their footsteps if asked to do so? In Winslow physical martyrdom is unlikely, but around the world there are still many, many, places where to be a Christian is to risk life and limb. We should always pray for those whose faith might mean paying the ultimate sacrifice.
So why would the likes of Laurence and Alban be prepared to risk all for their faith? As is said last week I suspect its because deep down they were utterly secure in their own identity. They knew that their primary identity was in Christ. Such knowledge is the source of ultimate, maybe even eternal, peace and freedom. St. Paul in the reading from the epistle captures this dynamic when he writes:
‘If we have died with him we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.’
The red martyrs who died for their faith, such as Alban and Laurence, challenge us to reflect on the depth of our faith. Faith in this sense doesn’t just mean belief, or even believing the right things, it means something far deeper: knowing that our deepest and eternal identity is in Christ and that this simple fact changes everything.
As I have already said in Winslow it is highly unlikely that any of us are going to face the possibility of risking our very lives for our faith. But, we are all called on to become what the church came to call ‘white martyrs.’ Each and everyone of us should be prepared to own the name ‘Christian.’ Each and every one of us must be prepared to profess to the truth of Jesus Christ in both word and deed. Each and everyone of us should be prepared to become ‘a good (foot) soldier of Christ Jesus,’ and so what if we take a little stick, or if people think we are a bit odd? We should take great courage in the notion that if we seek to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, things we happen around us, for as St. Paul says ‘the word of God is not chained.’
Like Alban we too are called upon to be people of prayer. It is through prayer, talking to God and more importantly listening to God, that our lives are changed and that we become the sort of people who serve others secure in our own identity. Its through prayer that we become resilient. It is through prayer that we develop that deep sense of peace that we hear about in the Old Testament reading where Solomon writes that ‘their departure was thought to be a disaster, their going from us their destruction, but they are at peace.’
Alban and Laurence were men of deep prayer. Through prayer they cam to know and own their deepest identity as beloved children of God. This sense of Peace allowed them to act courageously. The fact that we still tell and celebrate their stories today proves one thing above all else: ‘that the word of God cannot be chained.’
My invitation to you this week is to reflect on the lives of Alban (and Laurence) and let their stories lead you into an ever deepening faith.
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