Trinity 8: Faith - Isaiah 1, 1 & 10-20, Hebrews 11, 1-3 & 8-16 & Luke 12, 32-40
As a parish priest people often say funny things to you, such as ‘I wish I had faith,’ or ‘I am not religious but...’. I always find this the most interesting statement. In fact I think that in many ways mission and evangelism is about speaking into, and hopefully erasing, the ‘but.’
Of course some people will always want to rubbish or ridicule faith but, and here is my but, one of the reasons they are able to do so is because they haven’t seen the consequences or outworking of faith enabling them to conflate faith, as an active and dynamic virtue, with mere cognitive belief. Belief is, for sure, an element of faith, but faith, real transformative faith, cannot and should not be reduced to straightforward belief. In terms of mission and evangelism dynamic, active, transformative faith is the answer to the wishes and the buts that so many people express to me.
So what does such faith look like and how does it differ from straightforward belief? Before I start to answer this I think that I would want to say something very important by stressing once again that faith, if it is to be convincing, if it is to answer the wishes and the buts, must be observable; it must look like something. If it isn’t observable, in some ways visible, it – faith – is hardly likely to be convincing. In many ways this is the entire point of the gospel reading; if our faith is to be judged as credible it must be an alert and active faith.
The gospel also makes something else abundantly clear: faith is an antidote to selfishness and individualism. If our faith is to be credible and transformative the one thing it must always do is to point away from us and towards God and neighbour. As Christians, especially rationally minded Western Christians, we need to make sure that our belief in Jesus captures not only our heads but our hearts and hands too; for this is the essence of an active, missional, evangelistic and transformative faith. Faith is in many ways belief made real in both feeling and doing.
So what should we feel? Again the Gospel reading gives the answer: trust and lack of fear, where trust is firmly grounded in the surety that Jesus is truly the Messiah. It is this level of trust, or surety, that allows us to move beyond the paralysis of fear and into action.
It is this trust, the trust that we are a part of a much larger picture, that allows us to move from self=centeredness and individualism, and a belief that we can be saved through the acquisition of things, into fellowship and communion. We need to develop such radical trust as the basis for an active faith, and the way we do this is through prayer, for it is through prayer that we become open to the transformative presence of God, for faith isn’t really about belief but about relationship. In some ways this shouldn’t be too hard to grasp, for many, perhaps most of us, will know that it is through relationships, loving relationships, that we are changed for the better and as we are changed for the better the nature of our desires changes and what we begin to crave is a new ‘homeland,’ ‘a better country, that is a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11 14 & 16): ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’
Faith is belief acting on desire. But I would want to go further and say that faith, I think, is belief acting on desire and leading to transformative and empirically observable action. This is Isaiah’s point: for Isaiah the fruit of an active faith is holiness, where holiness means that we ‘learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow,’ (Isaiah 1, 17).
Doing all of this looks like a tall order! But the good news is this: we are not called on to do it alone, instead we do it together as the Holy Communion of God’s people; we do it grounded in prayer and empowered by the Holy Spirit, for whereas belief is individual faith is corporate, or communal.
What I have sought to do today is to make explicit the link between faith, mission and evangelism. I have tried to show how faith transcends belief and suggested that faith is belief, acting on desire, made manifest and credible through transformative action.
Over the next few weeks and months we are going to consider, in some depth, various aspects of mission and evangelism, but as we do can I ask you to commit to deepening and enriching your own faith so that we can help fashion a new ‘homeland,’ and a ‘better country; that is a heavenly one,’ so that we can start to answer those wishes and erase those buts that I referred to at the beginning of this homily? Amen.
Trinity 7: Colossians 3, 1-11 & Luke 12, 13-21
Last Sunday, at the church door, someone mentioned to me that they couldn’t join in various bits of the service because they had left their glasses at home. Now, I must admit I too would struggle without my glasses. In fact last year I knew it was time for an eye test when I was struggling to read the gospel; I had to keep moving it further away and then nearer to make any sense of it. You see I need varifocals! Does anyone else wear varifocals?
The thing about varifocals is that they help us to see both into the longer distance and the shorter distance. As Christians we need to develop the ability to see as though we are wearing varifocals. We need to be able to look into the far distance whilst also seeing that which is right under our eyes. We need to hold within our mind's eye a kingdom view, an eternal perspective, whilst also seeing that which needs our immediate attention. Over the last few weeks the readings from Luke’s gospel have, in many ways, been about the art of seeing; spiritual seeing.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is all about seeing clearly that which requires our immediate attention. In many ways the Priest and the Levite in the story can be regarded as wearing the wrong sort of specs. They were so hung up on misplaced conceptions of duty and protocol that they failed to see, unlike the Samaritan, that which required their immediate attention. In the story of Martha and Mary, Martha is so fixated with getting the housework done that she forgets that any growth in Christian faith requires that we spend some time focusing on the person of Jesus. Mary, by contrast, understands that we often learn through the simple art of observation. Last week we heard the account of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. Very early in the Lord’s Prayer we hear the words: ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’ The implication is clear: if we want to be of any earthly use we need to have developed a vision of what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.
In today’s readings we are given an insight into what it means to live a life devoid of all spiritual vision:
Put simply it means to live a life characterised by false distinctions and hierarchies where this is possible because we fail to see, in the words of the Taize Chant, that ‘the Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ To see into the far distance, into eternity, into heaven, by contrast implies agreeing with Paul that ‘there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free,’ because ‘Christ is all and in all.’ But because to be Christian means to work for the breaking in of the Kingdom of God, ‘here on earth as in heaven’ or in Paul’s words to work for ‘that renewal,’ we need to develop the ability to see where people are made to feel less than fully human, less than fully loved, in the here and now and then we need to act: ‘thy kingdom come on earth as in heaven.’
The Gospel reading provides us with a picture of someone who is spiritually completely and utterly blind; someone who can see no further than themselves and cares about nothing other than the satisfaction of their desires. The rich man has no vision of the Kingdom of God; that’s his basic problem. Because he can’t see beyond his own barns he's of no earthly use, less still of heavenly value.
So how do we avoid becoming the sort of people who seek to prop up our self esteem through perpetuating false hierarchies and thinking solely of ourselves? The answer is clear: we take to heart the teaching of Luke’s gospel, allowing it to act as our varifocals. We spend time each and every day, like Mary, observing Jesus and becoming fascinated by Jesus, through reading the gospels, and we pray.
It is through fixating on the person of Jesus and praying the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we develop our spiritual vision, becoming the sort of people who are of both earthly use and heavenly value. So please do take home your pew sheets, read through the readings, or perhaps use the app we are endorsing, and pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer each and every day, for if you do you will become agents, God’s agents, of ‘that renewal,’ that St. Paul talks about, and the world so badly needs, Amen.
Sermon, 28th July 2019
Today, I am going to invite you into a wonderful conspiracy, a conspiracy that is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. It is something that has been seen as so dangerous by numerous dictators and despots over the centuries that they have tried to stamp it out, thankfully without much success, because it is the very bedrock on which our faith is built... but before Andrew vaults out of his seat, hurdling the pews to bound up these steps and drag me out of the pulpit, I should really clarify what I mean.
Over the last few weeks we have spent time focussing on the Gospel readings that get to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. Firstly we had the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story telling us that what matters to God is not our social standing, its not about where we come from or whether we are from a, for want of a better word, distinguished family but he cares about how we react to the people around us, especially those people that we encounter who are in genuine need. It tells us about the things that we are doing that help to build God’s kingdom.
Last week we had the story of Mary and Martha, illustrating the importance of being able to recognise just who Jesus is and seeing that he wants us to take time to get to know him. At this point you may be wondering what on earth has this got to do with conspiracies? We generally associate the word “Conspire” with it’s political meaning: to plot to overthrow some public power, person, or nation. Or perhaps it brings to mind conspiracy theories about moon landings and such like that a vocal minority of people seem desperate to buy into.
But I am talking, thankfully, about a different sort of conspiracy, something that unlike the other definitions, does have the potential to feed and nurture us. Something that has been seen by the persecutors of Christians over the centuries as a deeply rebellious act and has been punished as such. You see, the word, “conspiracy” is rooted in much deeper soil than the context in which it is now used.
This conspiracy means literally to breathe together, con-spiritus. To conspire is to join your breathe in with others, as we say in the liturgy “With the whole company of heaven”. If we pause to think what that means, that really is profound. To be of one breath means to pray as one. No matter where we are when we pray we are not alone, far from it. We are with the many millions of people who have gone before, uncountable in their vast number. We are with those others that walk alongside us in the present and of course those of us who are yet to come.
Praying has strong parallels with breathing. Breathing maintains life, it is necessary for growth to happen, when we try to hold our breath our bodies tell us in a matter of seconds just what a seriously bad idea that is. And so it is also with prayer, without it our faith fails to reach the heights that it could, our relationship with God remains shallow and superficial, it fails to grow, it lacks depth. The God-given potential that is inside all of us, that little divine spark is missed, it passes us by. Prayer is vital to growth, we need it. I think it is notable in the Gospel reading that it wasn’t Jesus who instigated the exchange, it was an unnamed disciple, seeking the tools from Jesus. He saw Jesus praying and he wanted some of that!
What Jesus told him was not complicated, there wasn’t anything esoteric or lots of doctrine, he said simply that talking to God is like a family conversation where you get to talk unselfconciously knowing that you will be heard and understood. It is a life of prayer, of communion with God that liberates us, although it isn’t a way of getting something but a way of developing a relationship with God. A healthy prayer life gives us strength, it gives us clarity, it gives us the space to discern what is the best course to try and bring God’s Kingdom to bear down here on earth. Our Father in heaven, like Jesus, wants to give us through prayer so much more than we know how to ask. To pray is to be willing to trust that, through prayer, God is giving us the riches of His life-changing grace. And it comes down to the fact, are we willing to trust God enough to pray?
So if you are willing to be a rebel and conspire, just as countless others have done before you, and no matter where you currently find yourself, whether you have been doing it for years or think that you are just no good at it, this really is the best place to start or start over.
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