Reflections

Holding it all together

I suppose it`s fair to say that the last few years have been a bit turbulent! And so, as I turned to this morning`s New Testament reading I was reminded of what comfort I had taken, in the darker moments of pandemic and the like, by those words of St. Paul. Speaking of Christ, he says: “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together”. (Colossians 1.17)

That someone (anyone!) might be holding things together, mattered a great deal to me in moments when it felt as though everything was falling apart! So, I find this a very welcome passage of scripture today. Again, I find myself warming to the way Paul turn our attention to some foundational things.

Today of course is known as the Feast of Christ the King. It`s a relatively new `marker` in the Christian Year; it was begun by Pius XI back in 1925. As a commemoration of course, it is well placed because it brings the Christian Year to something of a climax. But the reason behind it is somewhat defiant. In days when Mussolini was on the rise the Pope wanted to remind the faithful of what we might call our higher loyalty.

So, today, we`re asked to give our attention to the fundamental back story which Christians have to tell and which, under pressures of various sorts we are likely to forget. The Colossians, to whom Paul was writing, of course, knew all about living in a pressured and alien environment; and this is made clear from the first few verses of todays reading. In the midst of their world, where things seemed to be falling apart, Paul is praying for them, isn`t he? He prays that they may be given strength. He prays that they might have the gifts of endurance, patience and even joy.

But what we need to notice, is how this is far more than tea and sympathy. He`s offering far more than warm words. No, he`s asking them to remember that in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ something fundamental has changed. Something has happened which means that in their uncertainty and, on the face of it, precarious circumstances, they can draw on some deep wells. He tells them that the source of their strength will be the power of God. Their endurance, patience and joy will come from knowing that they have an inheritance. Like the Israelites who were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they have been rescued. They`re no longer under “the power of darkness”. They`ve been “transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son”. (Colossians 1.13) In short, they are now subjects of a new world order. It`s characterised by knowing ourselves to be, again, as he says, “redeemed and forgiven”. So, what Paul is essentially doing, is helping some disorientated Christians get their bearings again.

He`s reminding them of precisely who holds all things together. Of what the real state of play is behind the bluster of tyrants and nations and what the Prayer Book calls, “the wilderness of this world’s temptations”.  And all I can do this morning is to suggest that you take away those few verses and let the depth and significance of what Paul is saying, take root in you. Hold on to them, especially in days when it seems things are falling apart.

But notice, in particular, how the second part of today`s passage is basically a hymn. It`s a song of praise to Christ for all that he has achieved and begun. Paul is not just singing to keep up his spirits. As we might say, “whistling to keep up morale”. No, he`s saying that we can experience the strength, the endurance, the patience and even joy of God in the midst of our troubles when we enlarge our vision of who Christ is and what he has done. This, is why songs of praise are so important. A material change comes over us when we realise something of who we are dealing with:

This Christ, says Paul, “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1.15-17).

 

 

 

 

A Shadow of the Real Thing

There`s nothing new in people misunderstanding what the Christian faith is about. In the early days, when people heard us talking about “this is my body; this is my blood”, we found ourselves accused of cannibalism!

Nowadays, of course, the misunderstandings are less graphic but if people think of us at all, my sense is that the prevailing view is that we deal in what has been called a giant `reward-punishment system`. Simply put, the assumption is that we believe ourselves to have been created by an otherwise absentee `God` and the object of the exercise is to keep our nose clean long enough to get into a place called `Heaven` when we die. At very least we have to justify ourselves sufficiently so as to avoid being consigned to the other place!

In this scenario, Jesus is thought of as an otherwise good bloke who was basically misunderstood. He died prematurely but Easter reminds us that heroic living gets its reward and it will all turn out right in the end.

So, when it comes to Worship, Church and the like; these are the optional things the extras depending on how keen you are. There are many who are content to `live a good life` as they put it; without all the trappings. There are others who seem to regard Worship as an insurance policy (fire insurance, we might call it!) just to keep `on side` with the deity.

Still others, of course, the more sophisticated ones, treat it all as a way of cultivating our spiritual persona. As long as the preacher agrees with me it gives reassurance that I`m on the right track. It meets what I call my `spiritual needs`. And in this religious market-place clergy like me, are there to keep us entertained or enforce the rules. As someone put it to me the other day, “You`re here to check up on us aren`t you?”.

Now, this is a bit of a parody, of course but there`s enough truth here to convince me that something has gone sadly wrong. Especially when, as we heard in that Gospel reading, the Lord defines his Mission and what we`re about in very different terms. Listen again to what Jesus says: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news”. In contrast to what I`ve just been saying there`s something here which is energising, filled with hope and possibility, isn`t there?

But time and again, as never tire of saying, I think it boils down to what we might think of as the direction of travel. In other words, the faith that bears the name of Christ is not about religious ideas or philosophy; it`s simply an announcement. We call it `Gospel` or Good News. For those who first heard Jesus it carried two particular meanings. In the Jewish world it was about God`s final victory over evil and the rescue of his people. For Roman ears it was a word used for the birthday or accession of a new king. So, when you bring these things together and you get both liberation and regime change. To `Gospel` is to say, “the facts on the ground have changed”. That`s the essential claim we`re making.

So, far from focussing on us and our striving to get to some `end` point called heaven; we`re actually talking about hearing and responding to the fact that this `heaven`, God`s sphere of influence, the Kingdom (as Jesus calls it) has in fact come out to meet us. It embraces the poor in Spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and so on.

So, to those who say, “Why doesn`t God do something?” Jesus says, the “Time is fulfilled”. The waiting is over. The revolution has begun. “Behold! Look! Very truly I tell you!” he says. This, then, is what`s happening; this is what`s being inaugurated in the life and ministry of Jesus and we, we`re called to get on board. The word Jesus uses, is `repent`.

It`s a word that literally means change your mind; drop your agenda for living and trust me for mine. It`s worth pondering; I wonder what attitudes and behaviours you need to drop, repent of, to make you more available to the Lord and his Kingdom? Pray with that today.

You see, all it takes is a little word “Yes”. And the great project in which we are `caught up` (we don`t get to make this up for ourselves) is the call to holiness. The most interesting thing about you and I is not what we`re doing but what the Lord wants to do in and through us; as he goes about reclaiming his creation. And his whole desire that we should become Christ-like; chips off the old block, if you will. The Christian, as Paul says is `in Christ`.

Now this, of course is what we celebrate; this is what holds our attention in this season of All Saints. And sure enough, this is the one thing the saints all have in common, isn`t it? They became what we might call `windows onto the divine`. Yes, clearly, they did many good and transformative things; for which we`re grateful. They showed the world a better way. They lived and died as if they belonged to another world; the world of God`s Kingdom.

But the point is that they modelled and demonstrated what it`s like when a human life is lived in relationship with the Father. And all the emphasis is not on the `performance` so much as the `transformation`.

You see the one thing that stands out for me in that perhaps unfair parody of faith I`ve just shared with you, is that it`s such hard work. And I wonder what we`ve been doing all these years to leave people with the impression that faith should be so full of anxiety and striving; of fear and looking over the shoulder? No, it isn`t easy. To repent, to let go and to live one`s life from a different centre than our own self-interest; to live a life that contradicts the patterns and values many take for granted and to consider them `sin` (a second-best way of living) feels like losing.

That kind of downward mobility doesn`t seem like good news at all! But Jesus insists, “those who save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”. Here`s the way of the Cross. The way of self-giving love is paradoxically the way to life; life as the Kingdom of God would have it. This is how we participate in and reveal to others what the life of Heaven looks like in the here and now.

Now because I don`t want to `witter on` about these things I didn`t say anything about how the parody of faith is always an individualistic thing. For all manner of reasons; Church, that is anything `communal` is nowadays avoided. 

Yes, it goes without saying that collectively speaking, we Christians have much to apologise for and (here`s that word again) `Repent` over. But I would argue that the Church for which we need to apologise is simply what you get when you have an overly anxious, judgemental, self- justifying and consumerist view of faith.

But let`s turn this around. What kind of Church do you get when you begin to take Jesus seriously? What do you suppose happens to a Church when we start to accept his view of the world and what he`s about?

What if, as Jesus says, God`s time is now. If his very alternative way of being a world is dawning. What if we say “yes” to his call to repent; to let go of our ego-driven self. What if we say “yes” to his transforming work and become the bearers of some really good news. What then?

My parody of faith is perhaps exaggerated and even unkind. But the point is, what you believe; what narrative or picture you have of the faith will colour your attitudes and behaviour; the person you are becoming and the kind of Church we are becoming.

might say that the saints whom we remember at this time of year understood that faith, in this sense, is an inside job. If you begin with that parody of faith which is full of brittleness and striving; the results are obvious. But, if you begin with the graciousness which falls from the lips of Jesus, the result can only be very good news indeed.

“We shouldn`t apologize for being a bit wierd”

The first time that I was fortunate enough to travel by air, I found the airport and the whole process of departures, checking-in, baggage and boarding passes extremely confusing. Basically, it felt like being in another world where everyone else seemed to know what was going on except me! All of which was very unnerving to say the least.

Of course, it`s experiences like this which make us want to ensure that someone who might be new to the life of the Church and the way we do things around here, doesn`t experience the same sense of uncertainty or exclusion isn`t it?

And yet, I sometimes wonder whether this sense of entering a totally different world isn`t actually a pretty good picture of what it means to have an authentic experience of the presence of Jesus? In other words, I sometimes wonder whether we apologize too much for instance, for the trappings worship, and fall into the trap of making things too familiar, too much like a `world` Christ is calling them to leave behind?

You see, whenever I ask people, “What do you think Jesus teaches?” they`ll respond in all manner of ways. However, very few will home-in on the one thing which, it seems to me, completely preoccupied Jesus. That is, what he calls `the Kingdom of God`. Right at the beginning of Mark`s Gospel we`re told exactly what was at the heart of Jesus`s teaching. Quote, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.14-15).

To coin a phrase that we often hear these days; we might say that Jesus is heralding `regime change`. In his life and ministry, God`s way of being a world; God`s way of being human is breaking in. But notice, right from the outset, Jesus takes it for granted, he assumes that not everyone is going to get it straight away. He realizes that some of us will be totally at sea. In fact, because of the way we`ve been formed; our sin and ignorance, we won`t necessarily want to get on board with this `new way` of his. But the reality of what`s happening is not determined by our acceptance of it and Jesus is adamant that the Kingdom is coming….

Jesus tries to open up this completely new way of understanding ourselves and the world by igniting our imagination, doesn`t he? But even here, his parables and stories, his table fellowship with all those people from the wrong part of town, leave people disorientated. Whilst some are outraged and astonished at how he overturns convention; others are overwhelmed to discover that even they in all their mess are somehow included in the heavenly embrace. Still others are left scratching their heads and wondering “what on earth is he talking about? How can it possible, for instance, to live in such a gracious and forgiving and healing way?” But we find ourselves as perplexed as poor old Nicodemus.

And then, of course, we come to all of those miracles. Far from being `party tricks` or attempts to impress the credulous, they better thought of as `signs`. They are moments in which this deeper reality, as it were, hove`s into view.

And this seems to be a consistent picture which the Lord gives us of his Kingdom. Doesn`t it? This Kingdom, this new age is both irresistible and yet somehow, hidden. Which is where we come, this morning, to all this talk about seeds growing secretly.  Putting it simply, not only is the Kingdom coming. Not only is it receiving a mixed response; (listen again to the parable of the sower! Mark 4.3) but those of us who do seek to get on board should never imagine we`re in control of it.

This morning we`re told, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how”. I recall the writer and pastor Dallas Willard saying that this text saved his ministry. He pointed out how easy it is for the `professionally religious` to fall into the trap of thinking that we can do God`s work for him or maybe build his Kingdom for him.

But this isn`t just a salutary message for managerial clergy. For all of us, this is quite a liberating message. If from the outset we`re told that we`re not in control of things. That the things of God are not ours to shape and manipulate, then this changes the whole dynamic, it colours entirely, what `being a Christian` might feel like and look like. If we took this to heart we wouldn`t fall into the trap of packaging and marketing the faith; assuring people that what we`re selling will `meet their needs`, give them a `spiritual` high (whatever that means), provide community, entertainment or meaning; all of which we smother with the word `relevant`.

But that isn`t to proclaim the Gospel. That makes us the purveyor of `religious goods and services`. Yes, if we`re good at it we`ll gather a crowd; for a while at any rate. But foolishly thinking that we have to make things happen effectively insulates and blinds us to the Kingdom.

But Jesus doesn`t talk about any of this. He simply announces the Kingdom. Something has been set in train; something irresistible, something irrepressible. If you will, God is becoming King. We don`t set the conditions or terms. God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself and it`s time to get on board. Seek first the Kingdom; yes, then the other stuff follows.

So, when Jesus says, “Repent”, he means “drop your agenda for living and trust me for mine”. And be ready for the change. As anyone who has been through a `Citizenship Test` will tell you, when you transfer your allegiance, you come under different authority. A lot of stuff gets left behind. You don`t fit in THERE anymore…. You`re learning a new language and culture. You discover a different way of being in the world. And it`s Baptism which marks our entrance into this new world; where we become a “citizen of the kingdom”.

But notice how the symbolism associated with Baptism pushes the message forward. In this country, in the Baptism of a child, we make a lot of fuss over the Christening robe. But sometimes the prettiness of it obscures it`s true significance. To be Baptized, as Paul says, means literally to `put on` Christ (Galatians 3.27) and let obedience to him shape the person we are becoming. When you start with the Kingdom; this change of citizenship, then the difference in being a Christian has firmer foundations. We begin to ask what our home, our work, our church, look like when God is allowed to be God?

In short, I sometimes wonder whether in our completely correct desire to appear friendly, we`re making people feel too much at home? Offering them little more than a religious `tinge` to the life they`ve already decided upon?

So, think and pray with that fourth Chapter of Mark`s Gospel and all that Jesus teaches about the in-breaking Kingdom. Our call to announce it. What it means to receive or reject it. This emerging reign of God which is beyond our control or understanding… and say yes to it. Of course, we don`t want to alienate anyone. But as someone said, ”We shouldn`t apologize for being a bit weird”.