Trinity 14: James 1, 17-end & Mark 7,1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Do you know anyone who has a complete blind spot about a particular issue? Well, I think Martin Luther, the great reformer, had a bit of a blind spot about the book of James. He famously referred to it as an ‘epistle of straw,’ in fact he would have preferred it if it had been excluded from the canon of scripture. Fortunately it wasn’t. The book of James is a wonderful pastoral epistle.
This week I would particularly invite you to reflect on what it might mean to ‘be doers of the word.’ Now Luther thought that the problem with James’ great exhortation was that it undermined his great theological scheme, at the centre of which was the notion that salvation can only be graced through faith. Luther thought that James was suggesting that salvation could be purchased through works. I think that Luther had a particular blind spot when it comes to James, and that what James in fact offers is a highly distinctive intentional theology modelled on the life of Christ. James, at no point, suggests that we are strong enough by ourselves, or though our own merits, to live the Christ-like life, for he says that we need to ‘welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.’
For James being able to be doers of the word, the sort of people, who are genuinely able to keep our faith ‘undefiled’ through the uncritical acceptance of worldly philosophies, whilst exercising compassion towards the most vulnerable, flows entirely from the quality of our inner lives and our willingness to welcome and foster the ‘implanted word,’ within us, and of course the way we do this is through prayer, imaginatively reading the bible and receipt of the sacraments; these three are the nutrients for our souls.
The good news is that when we take these three seriously, when prayer and reading the bible become our daily bread, we change and ripen, we become what James describes as the ‘first fruits;’ we become Holy and observable; we become the sort of people who wear our faith. We become ‘doers of the word.’
The problem with the ‘Pharisees and some of the Scribes’ is simply this: that they haven’t ‘welcomed with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save.’ Instead they have sought to redefine their faith in human terms. In the language of James they allowed themselves to become ‘stained by the world.’ Jesus is more forthright in his criticism: he refers to them as hypocrites.
My deepest desire is that this church will increase in holiness; that each and every one of us will let the ‘implanted word’ ripen still further within us. To this end we are going to be continuing with our teaching on prayer. In October we hope to offer more Thursday evening sessions on various types of, primarily contemplative, prayer, the aim of which is to help us ‘look into the perfect law.’ In February I am hoping that we might have a one day festival of prayer led by a wonderful priest-theologian from Liverpool. In the meantime can I invite you to take the pew sheet home with you, read and meditate on the readings and use our daily prayer card. Let us together commit to ‘welcoming with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save,’
Trinity 13: Ephesians 6, 10-20 & John 6, 56-59
Has anyone ever said to you, or have you ever said to anyone else, ‘why do you always have to have the last word?’ It can feel a little like this with St. Paul. Paul, unlike Peter, always seems to have the last word. Peter often seems to say the right thing, but then needs correcting. Sometimes with Peter his words run ahead of his actions and the depth of his understanding. With Paul by contrast, everything can seem so final; so settled.
And yet in today’s readings both Peter and Paul get right to the heart of things. From Peter we hear the most wonderful words a Christian can ever hear: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal Life. We have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of God.’ These words are so important, to me, that I pray them each and every morning as my basic affirmation of faith. Above all else these are words which we must cling to. But we must go further for, as I challenged the PCC last year, the entire rationale of the church is in bringing people to a place where they truly believe this to be the case. Every single decision we make as a church must serve the aim of facilitating the possibility of every one who enters through our doors coming to the earth shattering realisation that he, Jesus has ‘the words of eternal life,’ and that he truly is the Messiah, the saviour, ‘the Holy One of God.’ Coming to know and understand this is the whole point of Christianity. Christianity’s central claim is that being able to say and believe these words is the only true source of liberation, freedom and salvation.
As we know from the gospel this is actually quite a hard lesson to accept and learn; certainly it was beyond the capacity of ‘many of his disciples,’ who ‘turned back and no longer went about with him.’ It’s a hard lesson because it demands humility and suppression of the ego, for I suspect that for many of us we would prefer salvation to come through our own merits and efforts. Sometimes we struggle to accept the simple lesson that all we really have to do is ‘believe.’
Believing doesn’t of course make everything easy and straightforward. Our belief is always carried in the midst of real life, with all its joys, trials, and tribulations. Real life can be an anxious and unsettling experience, for all of us. Sometimes, and sadly, I have met Christians who have sincerely believed that faith was supposed to immunise them from the pain of life. The point of faith isn’t, as I understand it, to be a form of magic which guarantees ease and pleasure and dispels disease and pain, but rather a living relationship with the one who has ‘the words of eternal life.’ St. Paul points us in the direction of active faith through his injunctions to ‘stand firm’ and dress for the spiritual battle. But, for Paul, the first and last word is ‘prayer:’
‘Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication…...pray also for me,’ and so forth.
Its really simple: if we are to be truly people of faith; people who can stand in solidarity with St. Peter in affirming that Jesus Christ truly and uniquely has the ‘words of eternal life’ and that he truly is the ‘Holy One of God,’ we must also stand in solidarity with St. Paul and become people of prayer. To pray must be our first instinct, prayer must be the oxygen we breathe, as individuals and as a community we must be rooted in and routed from prayer. If we are, two things will happen: we will find our own freedom and liberation and others will come to know that Jesus really is the Messiah, the one with the ‘words of eternal life,’ and the ‘Holy one of God.’
Trinity 11: 1 Kings 19, 4-8, Ephesians 4, 25 – 5,2 & John 6, 35 & 45-51
A quick Google search earlier this week revealed that some of the most common preoccupations include: death, sex, hand-washing, hoarding, skin and hair plucking, fear of germs, cleanliness, and the fear of the internet going down.
St. Paul’s preoccupation, as we have just heard in our reading from the epistle, is the development of Christian character. St. Paul makes it clear, that through the work of the Holy Spirit, our minds are to be ‘renewed’ and that we are to be clothed according to the very likeness of ‘God, in true righteousness and holiness.’ To be renewed, and re-clothed, is to grow into towards the full stature of God.
But, St Paul, somewhat bizarrely we might think, starts his grand exhortation with the words ‘be angry,’ which he then qualifies by saying, ‘but do not sin.’ Anger it seems can be the impetus for holiness. According to St. Paul it’s okay to be angry, but not at the cost of ‘bitterness….wrangling and slander.’ Our anger must be a Christ-like anger. So, if this is true, which I believe it to be, what should we be angry about? The obvious answer is the same things that Jesus was angry about: injustice, iniquity, hypocrisy – specifically religious hypocrisy -, tyranny, the de-humanising treatment of the poor, the outcast and the refugee and, so forth. In summary what we should always be angry about is protectionist behaviour and the abuse of power.
Christian character must always be about extending the table and widening the doors. It must be about bringing people into the fold. It must never be about building walls between people just like us, and people who are not like us. Just think for a second who Jesus extended the table for; Samaritans, women, lepers, tax collectors alongside good God fearing Jews such as Nicodemus. Just pause and think about the stories about Jesus overturning the money lenders tables and about how he esteemed and privileged the widow who gave her mite. Jesus’ ministry was largely fuelled by righteous, Godly, anger and so should ours.
This week I have been reading the biography of Beyers Naude. Naude was a prominent member of the South African Broederbond, the secret and deeply religious group, that gave such support to South Africa’s apartheid regime. He was also a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Naude was, according, to Desmond Tutu, a ‘member of the Afrikaner aristocracy,’ and yet he came to understand that God is always on the side of the oppressed and the excluded. He came to understand that all, yes all, are made in the very image of God. For his beliefs, because of the development of his Christian character, because he refused to accept and propagate what St. Paul describes as ‘false doctrine,’ he was thrown out of the church and eventually became a ‘banned person.’ Yet, despite the appalling treatment he received he refused to become bitter or angry, for in his own words ‘I realized that if there really is a sincere love of your fellow human being, including your enemies, then that love must express itself in the willingness to at least not allow anger and aggressiveness and vindictiveness to lay claim to your life.’ Like Jesus, like St. Paul, and like Beyers Naude, we too must learn the art of Holy Anger.
But how do we do this? Well, the answer again is stunningly simple. Like Elijah in the Old Testament reading we must learn to accept that God will provide and that our first responsibility is to feed on the ‘bread of life.’ Let us as a community learn to feed off the ‘bread of life,’ through prayer, through reading the bible and through sharing in the sacrament. If we do this we will learn the art of ‘Holy Anger,’ and this in turn will equip us for mission and ministry.
I would like us, as a church, to capture the things that make us angry, so that we can pray into them and be led by the Holy Spirit into action. I am going to suggest that at the beginning of September we create a list of things we feel angry about, and that we then commit to praying about these things, always trusting in the ‘bread of life,’ and with a real commitment in our hearts that the anger we might feel should never be fuelled by aggressiveness and vindictiveness. As a community I would like us to commit to learning the art of Holy Anger, for ultimately, and paradoxically, this is a route to Holy Peace, (peace in this sense meaning Shalom: right, righteous and Godly relationships between all people),
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