Monday, 25 April 2016

on a new commandment

And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples. John 13.34-35 (GNB)

A religious expert, a Pharisee, once came to Jesus and said to him, "What is the greatest commandment in the law of Moses?" (You will remember that, as well as the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic law contained over 600 rules which governed how the early Israelites organised themselves as a community, and worshiped God. By the time of Jesus, many religious leaders were more concerned about the correct observance of the law than about the love the God has for people and creation.) Jesus answered the religious expert by saying, "[The greatest commandment of the Law] is to 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind...' The second most important commandment is like it: 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself.' The whole law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments." (Matthew 22.37-40 GNB)

In a heartbeat Jesus slices through all the complexities of religious observance, as well as all the bureaucracy, religious fundamentalism, intolerance, and anything else that causes religious leaders to lose touch with the heart of God.

Towards the end of his earthly ministry Jesus prepares his disciples to continue his mission once he has left them. So he gives them a new, third, commandment: "Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another."

Jesus loved his disciples in many different ways: by being alongside them through all their ups and downs, by nurturing their faith and giving them insight into the radical kingdom of God, by being patient and forgiving with their failures, by investing confidence in them, by demonstrating the divine qualities of justice and peace, by willingly giving himself to them and offering his life up for them.

This is our role model, the example for us to follow. And Jesus is telling us that the way the world will know we are his followers is by the way we love one another. The quality of our relationships with each other and the way we behave is to be so distinctive and so rooted in love that it will infect society around us.

This is how the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be transmitted. Not through cheesy evangelistic programmes, not by telling other people how to live their lives, not by copying the sterile marketing tricks of the corporate world, not by taking to the streets once a year in a 'walk of weirdness', not by rushing to street corners with our guitars and tambourines, not by climbing onto a soapbox with a squawking megaphone.

It is by being a hotbed of 'God-intoxicated misfits'* heavenbent on putting love of God, neighbour and fellow followers of Jesus ahead of anything else - particularly self-interest. Tough call. You can see why crass evangelism and bossy moralising caught on. It is so much easier than actually following the new commandment, to live a life that is so distinctively loving, generous and self-giving that it leavens society and lifts the world into the new life of the kingdom of God. Some of the bad and busy outreach programmes of the church look a lot like the Pharisees measuring their fringes and phylacteries. A lot of effort and energy goes into it, but it does little to convey the love of God.

When we graft ourselves onto the true vine, God's love is able to flow through us and out into our relationships with each other, our families, our neighbours and the world. As long as we keep plugging ourselves into that source of love, then we enable ourselves to pass it on and bear fruit.

It was in response to God's love shown in Jesus that we became Christians; it is in sharing that love with others that we grow in our faith and in ourselves. And as we exercise the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated, we broadcast our discipleship and play our part in building the kingdom of God.

As Thomas Merton put it:

The solidarity of the Christian community is not based on the awareness that the Church has authority to cast out and to anathematise, but on the realisation that Christ has given her the power to forgive sin in his name and to welcome the sinner to the banquet of his love in the holy Eucharist. More than this, the Church is aware of her divine mission to bring forgiveness and peace to all men and women. This means not only that the sacraments are there for all who will approach them, but that Christians themselves must bring love, mercy and justice into the lives of their neighbours, in order to reveal to them the presence of Christ in his Church. And this can only be done if all Christians strive generously to love and serve all people with whom they come into contact in their daily lives.
Thomas Merton, The Power and Meaning of Love (emphasis added)

Scriptures marked GNB are taken from the Good News Bible published by The Bible Societies/Collins © American Bible Society.

*Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance: Building a beloved community of resistance

Friday, 22 April 2016

on worshiping together

Annual Address from the 2016 APCM at St Anne and All Saints South Lambeth

What happens when we come to church on Sunday?
St Anne and All Saints has been a place of prayer and devotion for over 200 years. Generations of parishioners have gathered here to meet with Jesus Christ in Word, Sacrament and through the ministry of one another. Worship is our response to all that God has done for us, giving thanks for the blessings we enjoy and through which we equip ourselves to serve Jesus, in whom we enjoy new and abundant life. For many people, Sunday worship is a place for individual prayer. And it is also something we do together as a community. We are therefore responsible not just for our own worship but for that of those around us.

Refreshing the way we worship together
Over the last four years, we have made a number of changes to our worship to ensure it is honouring to God, enriching for us and attractive to visitors. Services begin punctually, and we have new orders of service which enhance the dignity of the liturgy. We have recruited a first-class musician to play our organ, and we’ve introduced new music for the Eucharist. We have been training those who participate in leading worship (by reading lessons, leading intercessions, or as altar and chalice servers), and have dropped announcing hymns, all to help services flow more smoothly. And we have explored the use of different Bible translations as we seek to make understanding the Scriptures as easy as possible.

How you can help
Enabling good worship is the work of the whole congregation and there are three ways you can help:
1. Be at church before 10.30am
Arriving late distracts others from the service, and means you haven’t had time to prepare yourself for worship — especially if you arrive after the prayers of confession which follow the opening hymn.
2. Create time for prayer before and after the service
The organ will be played for about ten minutes before the service, and for a short voluntary after the service. During this time please remain seated and silent to allow others to have time for stillness, prayer and reflection.
3. Help those around you to worship
Be aware of making unnecessary noise or creating other distractions during the service. Leave conversations (including church business) until the service has finished. Please switch off your mobile phones, refrain from eating and drinking, and leave noisy plastic carrier bags at home.

Church provides a contrast to daily life
We have all become accustomed to the constant chatter of television and radio, or the stimulus of smartphones, emails and texting. Coming to church provides a place away from the noise and distraction of daily life. This is a place where we can find stillness, attend to our inner life, and listen out for the still small voice of God speaking to us. It is a place to set aside the difficulties of life, and offer our concerns and worries to God. A place to wipe the slate clean over the times we have let ourselves and others down. A place to be recharged and restored for the week ahead, as we step out ‘in peace to love and serve the Lord.’

Here is where we root our lives in silence, prayer and deep devotion to God as we gather to encounter the living Christ and recommit ourselves to following his way.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

on the third sunday of easter - john 21.1-19

During the Sundays after Easter our gospel readings focus on the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection, and the encounters that his followers and disciples have with him. Last Sunday we heard about the disciples, locked away in the upper room, frozen in fear, and of Thomas who was unwilling to believe his fellow disciples' accounts of the risen Lord — only to be convinced once he had touched the wounds in his master's hands and side for himself.

In this week's reading the action moves to the lakeside. There is some unfinished business here for Peter, so the narrative focuses on him. And it is a passage full of echoes from elsewhere in the gospels.

Dawn breaks slowly over the water. It is the beginning of a new day, a fresh start. Peter, perhaps feeling rather purposeless and unfocused now that Jesus isn't there to follow, decides to resume his old job as a fisherman. Some of the other disciples — clearly also at something of a loss — climb into the boat with him. But it is a fruitless endeavour; a night of fishing that yields no catch. It is only as the sun begins to lift over the horizon, and Jesus appears on the shoreline calling to them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, that they meet with success. A haul that overflows to breaking point.

It is in obedience to Christ that our vocation finds its true purpose. When Jesus is present to us and we are attentive to him, we find our true calling. The Indian Jesuit Herbert Alphonso wrote:

All vocations are in Christ Jesus: the personality of Christ Jesus is so infinitely rich that it embraces all calls and vocations. If then each of us has a personal vocation, it can only be in Christ Jesus. This means that there is a facet of the personality of Christ, a 'face' of Christ Jesus, that is proper to each one of us, so that each of us can in very truth speak of 'my Jesus' — not just piously, but in a deep theological and doctrinal sense.
Discovering Your Personal Vocation, Herbert Alphonso S.J., Paulist Press

What is the face of Christ that you are drawn to? An aspect of his nature that finds true expression in you, out of which the best of who you are also flows? In other words, your calling — which not only directs what you do in life but is also perfectly embodied in the person of Christ. It could be his healing, or his teaching, his spiritual wisdom, his humility, patience, inclusiveness, his courage in speaking truth to power, his prayerfulness, his drive for justice, his self-giving, and so on. This is what takes us to the heart of what it means for us to live in Christ (Colossians 2.6). Our vocation is a person, Jesus Christ himself. Our lives are a response to all that he has done for us, and to his face reflected in us.

Perhaps Peter thoughts that fishing was his vocation. Or perhaps he just needed to go back to earning a living, to eat, now that his future was unclear. As he toils unsuccessfully on the lake, perhaps we can be drawn to think about those areas of our lives where we, too, are striving fruitlessly. Is it linked to an area of your life that is not open to Christ's presence, not listening to his voice?

Elsewhere in the gospels, the account of Peter's first meeting with Christ happens by the lake. Peter has been fishing and Jesus commands him to leave his nets and follow him, where he will learn to fish for people. For Peter his vocation lies in following Jesus and without him his efforts are in vain.

Fishing isn't the only echo of earlier passages from the gospels. When Peter and the other disciples come ashore they see that Jesus is cooking breakfast. It consists of fish and loaves of bread. Remind you of anything?

The five loaves and two fish which miraculously fed a large crowd of people, with many baskets full of leftovers, were a symbol of the abundance and ungraspable vastness of God's grace. That we see this same meal by the fireside isn't coincidence. Jesus isn't a one trick pony in the kitchen, with this as his signature dish. It is a breakfast that signals a recollection of that picnic in the desert which demonstrated how much God's grace overflows beyond what we can ever need. So, too, Peter's fishing nets when they are full to bursting symbolise this. And who is it in this passage that needs to be reminded of the magnitude of grace? Peter himself.

Peter who, when the chips were down, denied being a disciple of Jesus, not once but three times. The curious conversation in which Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, echoes the three denials. This is Peter being reinstated as a disciple, for 'it was his own identity and discipleship that he had denied' by the side of another fire, in a nighttime courtyard. Peter doesn't need forgiveness. That work has already been done on the cross. No, what Jesus is offering Peter is a chance to step back onboard the good ship discipleship and to resume his true vocation.

Yet it comes with a reminder of the challenges ahead. This is no cosy reconciliation. Peter's choice to reclaim his discipleship will ultimately lead to his martyrdom, generally thought to have been by crucifixion. So here is one final echo from elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus says to us, 'Take up your cross and follow me.'

Will you?