Recent sermons given at churches in the Benefice
Trinity 11: Fundamental questions Romans 12:1-8 & Matthew 16:13-20
I suspect that most of us will, at some stage, either have asked or been asked a question of such fundamental importance that it changes everything. Such fundamental questions might include: ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Would you like to spend the rest of your life with me?’ ‘Will you marry me?’ The answers we give to such fundamental questions have the potential to change literally everything, to reorient the way we live our lives, taking us out of ourselves and towards the other (potentially).
Fundamental questions also prompt us to think of whose interests we are serving. In today’s gospel reading, we hear Jesus asking Christianity’s most fundamental question of His disciples: ‘But, who do you say I am?’ It is a question that all who claim the name Christian are asked to answer, but it is also a question that we should, in some ways, make sure we are slow to answer - or at the very least should avoid answering glibly - for it is a very, very serious question; ‘who do you say I am?’
For once, Peter gives the right answer: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’ For sure Peter hasn’t, as yet, worked out the implications of his answer, but he does show us that our Christian journey needs to start with the acceptance that Jesus truly is the Messiah and that God is a living reality. Peter’s life and witness should provide us with the reassurance that having answered our most fundamental question, true growth in discipleship can then take place.
Like Peter, we need to answer the question from the guts of our very being, for what we are being asked is not a technical question but a spiritual question; a question that invites the ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Peter, having given the right, technically, or even doctrinally, correct answer, is of course, at a later stage, to be asked another set of fundamental questions: ‘Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?’ What Peter, like all of us, needs to learn is that head knowledge simply isn’t enough. What we know and accept in our heads, if it is to make any difference whatsoever, needs to then make the journey downwards into our hearts, shaping our very characters and then moving outwards into the work of our hands.
Like Peter, inspired by Peter, we are called upon to become brickies and kingdom builders for Christ, and the workshop or building site where are called on to ply our trade is the church. The gospel reminds us that the church, like any building, needs strong foundations. For the church, our foundations must be a spirit of love, forgiveness and reconciliation; the gospel tells us so. It is to become Peter’s ministry to ensure that the church is built upon such foundations. Peter’s role is to dig deep so that others can ply their trade, for one artisan alone cannot build a whole house, let alone a church.
For many of us, perhaps even very many of us, this is a hard lesson to learn. We need to make sure that in declaring that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,’ we don’t develop our very own Messiah complex. We need to learn, accept and rejoice in the fact that many artisans and labourers will be required if we are to build a truly beautiful, sustainable, loving and, yes, practically useful Church. We need to accept and provide space for those who have different skills and abilities to ply their trade, for ‘not all members have the same function.’ Today’s readings invite all who exercise priestly ministry, even episcopal ministry, in the church to ask of themselves two questions: are we spending enough time below ground doing the dirty work of digging the foundations, and are we seeking the help of other artisans in shaping and building - or even rebuilding - the church? For as St Paul reminds us: ‘Not all the members have the same function, so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another.’
As a church, we need to make sure that we dig the deepest of foundations, and then we need to release the many and diverse gifts of others. We need to avoid monochrome ways of thinking and behaving - we need to make sure that we don’t develop a Messiah complex, for there is only one Messiah. The church should be a workshop, or even a building site, where the many can work to build something beautiful and sustainable. We need to create a culture and a built environment where others can hear themselves being asked Christianity’s fundamental question: ‘But who do you say I am?’ An anxious and unhealthy world needs a healthy church. Our job is to help build and restore it from the foundations upwards and outwards, making sure that we always create the space for that most fundamental of all questions to be popped: ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Amen
St Laurence: Holiness - Tobit 4:5-11 & Matthew 6:19-24
I wonder whether you have a favourite saint - someone who inspires you, perhaps someone you might like to sit down with and share a cup of coffee or even a meal? A saint which you would, in some ways, just like to get to know better?
For me, Laurence would be such a saint. He intrigues me, and of course, part of the reason for that is we don’t in reality know much about him. But what we do know is enough to whet our appetites. Laurence isn’t one of the biblical saints, nor is he one of the great theologians of the early church. Laurence was simply a man who did and said the right thing at the right time, no doubt under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And, maybe, this is a useful definition of holiness - doing the right thing at the right time under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit?
One of the reasons that Laurence intrigues me is that he was just a humble deacon of the church; a man set aside to serve. He wasn’t a bishop or priest, a scholar or a theologian; just a deacon, a servant of the church, who dared to do and say the right thing at the right time. And he was courageous. Courage, service, righteousness - these are the hallmarks of authentic Christian holiness. If we are to grow in holiness, these too should be both our hallmarks and our witness.
The contemporary church faces many challenges. In fact, I would go further and suggest that we need to ask ourselves what it means to be the church in these strange and turbulent times. As Christians, we need to constantly ask ourselves what it means to be a ‘healthy’ church, so that we can be ‘light’, shining into the ‘darkness.’ We need to constantly ask ourselves, just as Laurence was compelled to do, who is it we are serving? It is in asking these questions - these uncomfortable questions - of ourselves that we start the process of growing in holiness.
Laurence dared to risk all: he risked his life - in fact, he paid for his faith with his life. But I think Laurence did more than risk his own life, for he also risked - even placed a divine bet on - the very future of the church. It would have been very easy for Laurence to seek to appease the imperial powers and to make the mistake of thinking that in their security lay the security of the church. It would have been very easy for Laurence to bargain with what the Bible refers to as the ‘powers and dominions’, giving them what they wanted – wealth – in exchange for a false perception of relative security. As the contemporary church, we must guard against the temptation to appease others in order to secure for ourselves an easy life. And we need to be clear that this is a very real temptation. In fact, it one of evil’s most cunning, devilish temptations. Inspired by Laurence, we must be prepared to run the risk of losing all; for this is another characteristic of holiness.
Laurence was a deacon, a man who served his Lord through both word and deed. He recognised that the poor have a special place in God’s heart, and he dared to speak truth to power. Laurence, from his place in the Communion of Saints, is asking us to reflect on what it means to be a servant church, a courageous church, a righteous church, and a prophetic church. He is asking us to reflect on what it means to be a holy church and a healthy church, a church which shines as light into the darkness of the gloom that feels as though it is closing in on us day by day.
There can be no doubt that the world is an increasingly unhealthy place and that greed and exploitation are very real threats to the common good. The most basic question that we are asked to answer as Christians is simply this; ‘whose interests are we called on to serve?’
Laurence’s life and witness provides the answer: God’s. Amen.
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