Trinity 17: Jeremiah 11, 8-20, James 3, 13-4,3 7&8, Mark 9, 30-37
If I were to ask you if you either knew a truly holy person, or knew about a truly person, I wonder how you might respond? Holiness is a funny word, yet it is one of our three aspirations. It is a word, I suspect, that many of us are happier ascribing to others, yet holiness of life is something we are called to. You can’t really be Christian without seeking to grow in holiness. In fact each and every Sunday right at the beginning of the service we pray in the Prayer of Preparation, that we might grow in holiness. The words ‘cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we might perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord’ speak powerfully to the call to holiness.
Holiness might be thought of as the willingness to have our hearts cleansed, an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit and a deep desire that through our words and actions we might magnify God’s holy name.
The reading from the epistle highlights the notion of willingness to have our hearts cleansed. James asks us, for instance, to ask ourselves whether we might have ‘any bitter envy or selfish ambition’ lurking in the depths of our ‘hearts.’ From a liturgical perspective this is why the confession follows on from the prayer of preparation. Growth in holiness is, I think, contingent on preparation and confession.
Growth in holiness, which is the same thing as growth in Christian maturity and wisdom, demands that we develop the ability to honestly reflect on our motives, a willingness to offer our motives back to God for cleansing, followed by confession, and of course the willing receipt of forgiveness ritually given through the act of absolution. Please can I invite you never to simply trot out the first few prayers at the beginning of the service but to instead regard them as instrumental to your growth in holiness.
In the Gospel reading we hear about the Apostles arguing about who ‘was the greatest.’ The Apostles, just like we do in the here and now, needed to learn about the art of holiness, and so Jesus teaches them. He tells them that real holiness can never be about what they might get out of it, he tells them that real holiness is about submitting our very lives to God and trusting in the power of the resurrection, and that its about service and caring above all others for the most vulnerable in society.
Jesus puts humility, service and quality of relationship right at the heart of holiness: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all……...whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ In these words of Jesus what we see is that holiness and hospitality can’t be disaggregated. In fact, authentic Christian hospitality, the kind of hospitality that is infections and evangelical, is entirely contingent on our willingness to grow in holiness.
So can I invite you, with humility, to commit to your own growth in holiness, so that with cleanliness of heart you can truly magnify his Holy Name?
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.’
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