Celebrating a New Ministry (a sermon)

My colleague Hugh Matheson did me the honour of asking me to preach at his induction as Rector of Immanuel Church, Wetaskiwin on Sunday evening (Sept. 29th). This is the sermon I preached; the text was Mark 12:28-34

I’d like to thank Hugh for inviting me to preach tonight at this celebration of his new ministry in this parish. Of course, I use the word ‘new’ rather loosely here, as he’s already been around for quite a while! But tonight we’re going to make it official; after tonight, Hugh, you may officially do what you’ve already been doing for the past nine months or so!

I realized earlier this year that attending ordination and induction services is really quite important for me. You see, it’s really easy in church land to get distracted by all sorts of fascinating things that don’t really have a great deal to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ and with the gospel ministry that he’s entrusted to us. And then along comes an ordination or an induction, and once again we’re reminded of the wonderful love of God in Christ, and of our calling as Christians to live and share that love.

And so it is tonight. In our gospel reading, a scribe comes to Jesus and asks him a ‘back to basics’ question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” and Jesus replies, in words that are so familiar to us that they just roll off our tongue,

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

So here we have it. If you want a list of the things that the Lord thinks are really important, here it is: love God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself. What else is there to say? You can all breathe a sigh of relief, because the preacher has obviously finished his sermon, and we can go on to the next part of the liturgy with no more delay!

Well, not so fast! I think these two commandments are vital and central to our lives as Christians, but in order for them to really do the work God wants them to do, we have to free them of two unnecessary burdens. Let me explain to you what I mean.

Firstly, these two commandments are not the basic Christian message. This might be a shock to some of you, but really, they’re not.

Now at this point some of you might be thinking, “Tim, you’re contradicting Jesus; he says that these are the greatest commandments of all”. Exactly! What was the question Jesus was asked? It was not, “What’s the essential Christian message?” It was more limited: “Which commandment is the first of all?” In his response, Jesus isolates two commands from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the commands to love God and to love our neighbour.

But let me ask you this: in the Christian life, which comes first: our love for God, or God’s love for us? In the first letter of John we read these words:

‘In this is love; not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… We love because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:10-11, 19).

In the New Testament, the Christian message is called the ‘Gospel’, which means the Good News. But commandments are not good news; they are good advice – and there’s a world of difference between good news and good advice!  So the two great commandments cannot be ‘the Gospel’. Rather, John tells us that the Good News is not that we love God, but that God loved us and sent Jesus to die for our sins.

The Gospel is like a brilliant diamond with many facets, or a Persian carpet with many strands. The New Testament uses many images to describe this treasure for us. The Gospel brings us forgiveness of sin, adoption into God’s family as his children, and the wonderful privilege of knowing God as our ‘Abba’ – our Father in heaven. It brings us the gift of the Holy Spirit and the strength to do what we could never do by ourselves. It brings us healing from the hurts of the past, and a sense of optimism about the future as we remember the promise that one day, God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. It brings us a sense of security in our relationship with God, and a sense of direction as we discover what God is calling us to do. And all of these lovely gifts are related to this central fact: that we love God, because he first loved us, and came among us in Christ to show us the true extent of that love. As Philip Yancey puts it, the gospel tells us that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less, because God already loves us infinitely, and nothing we can do can ever change that fact.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, do you believe this? If you really do believe it, you’ll leave this place of worship tonight with your burdens lifted and a song in your heart. But it’s easy to forget it, and that’s one of the reasons why God has called Hugh to be your pastor. Tonight, in celebrating this ministry, you are saying to Hugh, “Hugh, we have a basic memory problem. Out in the world where we live our daily lives, we’re always judged by our achievements. Out there, there are hundreds of voices placing demands on us and telling us what we should be doing. Out there, the burdens are being piled more and more heavily on our shoulders and our hearts. And it’s so easy for us to forget that God’s love doesn’t depend on our successes or our achievements; it’s truly unconditional, and it’s expressed in the perfect work of Jesus Christ who died and rose again to save us. So Hugh, we need you to remind us of this – not just once, but every week, and maybe even several times a week! – so that we can go out there into the world strengthened by God’s love rather than burdened by the impossible demands that are placed on us”.

I know that Hugh will not forget this. I know that before he challenges you to do anything or to be anything, he will constantly be bringing you back to this wonderful news that God loves you. After all, Hugh has been to seminary, and so he knows that the Greek words behind our English phrase ‘preaching the gospel’ actually mean ‘joyfully announcing the good news’! And he’s going to do that!

So I said that we needed to free these two great commandments of a couple of unnecessary burdens. The first was the burden of being the centre of the Christian message, which they are not. The Christian message is about God’s love for us in Christ; the commandments then follow on: after we have put our trust in Christ, they show us the best way to live as followers of Jesus.

But there’s a second burden that we need to strip away from these commandments, and this is it: these two commandments are not telling us to feel anything. That’s because the word for ‘love’ here is not a feeling word; it’s an action word. In our culture, ‘love’ usually is a feeling word, but the Greek language had other words to do that job: ‘storge’, which meant ‘affection’, or ‘eros’, which meant romantic or sexual love. But the word used in this passage today is ‘agapé’, which is an action, not a feeling. It’s about practical, self-sacrificial care for another, whether we like them or not, whether we feel like it or not.

It would have helped me years ago to have known this. When I was a teenager I worked for a newsagent in our little village in England. One morning I went in to work and discovered that there had been a terrorist bombing at a pub in London the night before; the newspapers were full of it, and some of the photographs were horrible. My boss, Ian, said to me, “I’m glad I’m not a Christian because you Christians are supposed to love your enemies. There’s no way I could love people who would do something like that”.

I had no answer for Ian that day. However, if he said the same thing to me today, I would have replied something like this: “You’re right – no matter how hard I try, I don’t seem to be able to sit around and manufacture a good feeling for those people. But that’s not what Jesus is commanding us. He’s commanding me to act in a loving way toward them, rather than taking vengeance on them. I might not be able to feel good toward someone who hurts me – but I can still bring them a cup of coffee when they’re tired and thirsty. And that’s what Jesus is talking about”.

So when Jesus tells us to love God with out whole heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, he’s talking primarily about actions, not feelings. We might be a little misled by the word ‘heart’ there, because in modern English the word ‘heart’ usually does mean feelings, but it didn’t in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ day people thought the feelings lived in the bowels, not the heart; you might remember that in the King James Version the word ‘compassion’ is sometimes translated by the rather strange phrase ‘bowels of mercy’! But the heart was the centre of the personality, the place where you made choices and decisions. To love God with all your heart means to choose to walk with him and to do his will without reservation, when you feel like it and when you don’t feel like it.

Of course, this is one of the greatest struggles that Hugh will have as your pastor, and it is one of the greatest struggles that you will have as his parishioners. Because, of course, there are days when we don’t feel like loving each other! At the moment, of course, Hugh has only been with you for a few months, and you might not have discovered the shadow side of his personality yet! But trust me, you will! And he’s going to discover the ornery parts of your personalities, too! And as you get to know each other better – when you see Hugh on one of his bad days, and he sees you when you’re not exactly being a shining example of Christian discipleship – well, that’s when love is more of a challenge!

One of my favourite writers, Eugene Peterson, says that the doctrine of original sin is one of the most important doctrines for Christian pastors to believe. ‘Original sin’ means that since our first ancestors chose to turn away from God, sin has lived in the human race like a bad infection, and we’ve all gotten sick with it. It infects every single one of us without exception, and the struggle to be free of it will last our whole life long.

Why is it important for pastors to remember this? Well, Peterson says, if they remember it, they won’t be surprised when the members of their congregation turn out to be sinners! They won’t be surprised by the grumbling, and the factions, and the lack of enthusiasm, and the selfishness, and all the other kinds of sinfulness that are present in every Christian congregation. They won’t be surprised at this, and therefore they won’t be constantly scolding their congregations for being ordinary human sinners. Instead, they’ll be able to minister God’s grace – God’s unconditional love – the good news that Jesus came to save sinners.

And of course, congregations have to remember this, too! Please do not be surprised when your pastor turns out to be a sinner! Ordination is not an antidote to the infection of original sin! We have the same struggles as everyone else in our parishes, and the same need for the grace and mercy of God. Truly, we’re all in this together.

So this is what you will be working on together as priest and people in this parish; in fact this is what all of us are working on together, as Christians and as members of local churches. First of all, we’re working on remembering and celebrating the wonderful good news that long before we loved God, he first loved us, and came among us as one of us, to live and die and rise again to save us. This good news has touched us, and captivated us, and turned our lives around. And if we really believe this, and if we’ve really experienced it, we won’t need someone to browbeat us into sharing our faith with others. Like the first apostles, our attitude will be, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

So we’re going to be a community that remembers and celebrates and lives the wonderful Gospel of the love of Jesus Christ. And the second thing we’re going to be doing is learning to be a community of love: a community that loves God, loves our fellow Christians, and loves the people in the world around us – loves them, not just when we feel like it, but when we don’t feel like it – loves them, not just in words, but in actions too.

Harold Percy likes to say that when some people die, God will have to write this epitaph for them: ‘Brilliant performance, but he missed the whole point”. I sometimes wonder whether God might not say that about some congregations too. We can so easily get excited and worked up about so many things that, in the long run, don’t really matter. And we can so easily fall into the trap of feeling that church life is very complicated. Well, it really isn’t! In fact, I would say that there are very few problems that we face in the Christian church today that couldn’t be solved by these two things: a renewed sense of joy and wonder in the good news of Jesus Christ, and a renewed commitment to love God and to love each other, not just in words but in actions.

So this evening, as we celebrate Hugh’s ministry in partnership with you in this parish, let’s take this opportunity to have a ‘back to basics’ movement. Let’s commit ourselves afresh to remembering and experiencing and celebrating and sharing the wonderful news that long before we loved God, he loved us and came among us in Jesus to save us. And let’s commit ourselves afresh to being communities marked by love in action: love for God, love for each other, love for the world around us. If we get those two things right, I’m pretty sure everything else will fall into place as well!

Are Atheists ‘Fools’?

A while ago I was taking part in a discussion on another blog about the question of the existence of God and how we handle the arguments offered by atheists.

At one point in the discussion, someone quoted Psalm 14:1:

‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good’ (NRSV).

There it is, he said; the Bible says that atheists are fools; they deny the obvious so that they can throw off the chains of morality and just do what they like. There’s no point in trying to engage with their ridiculous arguments. Atheists just need to accept the fact that they are wrong – that God says in the Bible that they are foolish – turn to God and learn a new way of thinking.

This is, of course, not an argument that is designed to convince atheists; it’s an argument to make Christians feel better. It reminds me of the joke Bishop Maurice Wood shared long ago at a conference I attended, in which he told us about the preacher who had scrawled these words in the margins of his sermon notes: ‘Argument weak: shout a bit here!’ Atheists are not going to be convinced by this argument, for the simple reason that it’s an argument from the authority of the Bible, and atheists, obviously, do not accept the authority of the Bible.

Furthermore, I think we even need to ask whether the author of Psalm 14 was saying what this commenter thought he was saying. It seems clear to me that the ‘fool’ in Psalm 14 is a person who has turned away from God in order to be able to cast off the claims of morality and do whatever they like. This, by the way, is also the meaning of the word ‘fool’ in the Bible; a ‘foolish’ person is a person who has foolishly abandoned God’s commandments and chosen to live an immoral life.

However, to claim that all atheists reject belief in God in order to escape the claims of morality is to fly in the face of the facts. Many atheists, curiously, are highly moral people (for the reason I use the word ‘curiously’, see this blog post). And for those of the who were once believers, the chances are that a desire to live in debauchery was not their main reason for abandoning their belief in God.

I have a confession to make; I’m quite fond of atheists. I enjoy reading their books, and I enjoy conversations with them. I have a couple of atheist friends; they are intelligent, witty, honest, and just plain fun to be around, and I enjoy their company. And atheist authors have done me a good turn, too; they’ve helped me re-examine, and discard, some of the bad arguments I’ve used in favour of my Christian faith. They’ve forced me to face some of the difficult issues that we Christians like to avoid – the uncomfortable ones that make it hard at times to believe in God – and they’ve made me, perhaps, just a tiny bit more humble about my beliefs. And that’s all to the good, I think.

The truth is, there are all sorts of good reasons for not believing in God.

Some people just find the problem of evil too disturbing. Why do good things happen to bad people? Why doesn’t God answer the prayers of righteous people? I know this one well; I prayed for several years that my Dad would be delivered from the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, and he wasn’t.

Some people just don’t find the evidence for God’s existence compelling. They believe that the universe can be quite adequately explained by natural causes, without invoking the existence of a God. And some of the sharper atheists also point out that the traditional argument from design isn’t as strong as we once thought it was. The late Christopher Hitchens used to enjoy pointing out that somewhere in outer space there is a galaxy on a collision course with ours. True, it won’t hit us for a few million years yet, but one day…!

Some people find some elements of traditional Christian belief to be somewhat outdated. I’m not just talking about the whole creation versus evolution debate. I mean, for instance, the traditional Christian belief that through the evil choices of the first human beings, evil came into the world. It is very hard for an intelligent person to believe this nowadays, given that we know that dinosaurs were ripping each others’ throats out millions of years before human beings ever arrived on the scene. Three centuries ago it might have been possible to argue that God created an idyllic, pain-free universe, but that the sin of Adam and Eve caused it to fall from God’s purpose, and thus pain and death entered into the world. But looking at the world now, it seems obvious that a large part of the chain of life is based on stronger creatures killing and eating weaker ones, and that many diseases are simply microscopic life-forms struggling to survive by preying on their hosts (rather like human beings on the face of the earth, actually!).

These are just three examples of the reasons why intelligent people might in all sincerity arrive at the conclusion that they just can’t believe in God. I use the word ‘can’t’ advisedly, because I think that often times we do not choose our beliefs – they choose us. What I mean by this is that we don’t usually weigh up two competing arguments and then make a conscious choice to accept one or the other. Rather, we find that one of the arguments just grabs us; it seems obvious to us that it is true, and we can’t imagine ourselves taking the opposite opinion.

So I don’t think Christians do themselves any favours by ridiculing atheists. In fact, I would go even further and say that I think we have absolutely no hope of leading atheists to faith in Christ unless we respect them, unless we engage with them and take their views seriously, and unless we do our best to find out why they believe what they believe, and to discover the story of the journey that has led them to those beliefs.

In case anyone is worrying that Tim is wavering in his faith – don’t! I’m not a secret atheist, nor am I going to become one. But it has become clear to me that it is entirely possible for two people to examine exactly the same evidence and come to different conclusions. Ridiculing and browbeating people is not a very good way of persuading them to change their minds. Respect, friendship, prayer, faithful witness, and a basic humility that doesn’t claim certainty where no certainty is possible – these are, I believe, far more likely to be effective.

Visionaries Defy Categorization!

Tuesday morning I walked down to All Saints’ Oakham to join those gathered there for Morning Prayer, as is my custom when I’m staying in Oakham. The commemoration for the day was Hildegaard of Bingen. Vyv, who was leading our prayers, read the article about her from the book of daily commemorations (I forget its proper title); the first sentence was ‘Hildegaard is classified as a visionary’.

It occurred to me that it might just be a contradiction in terms to classify someone as a visionary. My experience of visionaries is that they defy classification!

Footnote to All Prayers

Footnote to All Prayers

by C. S. Lewis

 
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.

Take not, O Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in thy great
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.

 

NOTE: “Pheidian fantasies” is a reference to the 5th century B.C. Greek sculptor and artist, Pheidias, who was renowned for his statues of Zeus and Athena.

This poem appears in the collected POEMS by C. S. Lewis.

A collection of Lewis’s shorter poetry on a wide range of subjects-God and the pagan deities, unicorns and spaceships, nature, love, age, and reason: “Idea poems which reiterate themes known to have occupied Lewis’s ingenious and provocative mind” (Clyde S. Kilby, New York Times Book Review). Edited and with a Preface by Walter Hooper.

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H/t Dave Burkum

The Big Questions

Some years ago I attended a clergy conference at which we were discussing a rather esoteric document produced by, I believe, the Primate’s Theological Commission (non-Anglican readers should note that in this context ‘primate’ refers to the presiding archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, not to a monkey).

I have no exact memory of what the subject matter was, but I think it was something along the lines of ‘What exactly is an Anglican?’ or ‘is it possible to draw a circle so that everyone inside that circle is seen to be Anglican?’ or ‘How do Anglicans actually do theology and ethics?’ All of it of course was an attempt to dance around the issue of whether being gay or lesbian is, in fact, A Good Thing in the Anglican Church.

A comment that I frequently heard at the conference, from my clergy colleagues, was that the members of our congregations ‘Don’t do theology’ and that it was hard to drum up any enthusiasm for this sort of theological reflection at the parish level.

Now, as it happened, the conference was being held at Lakeland College in Lloydminster, so I had a fairly long drive through open prairie country to get there. It was a very dry summer; many of the sloughs had gone completely dry, and the crops were not in good shape at all. I remember looking at the parched ground I was driving through and thinking ‘some farmers are not going to make it through this season’. For some, I suspected, it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The next day, when I kept hearing at the conference that ‘lay people aren’t too enthusiastic about this sort of theological reflection’, I found myself wondering whether or not that was true. Could it be, perhaps, that we were just reflecting on the wrong subjects? How surprising was it that the lay people of eastern Alberta didn’t find discussions of ‘what constitutes a distinctively Anglican method of doing theology?’ particularly exciting? Their crops were dying in the fields around them, and those of them who considered themselves Christians were no doubt praying fervently for rain several times a day. That summer their prayers were not answered, and undoubtedly some of them lost their farms as a result. The luxury of a theological discussion about whether or not God was particularly interested in the evolution of a tiny theological tradition originating far away in the British Isles was something they literally did not have time for. Some of them, no doubt, were clinging to their Christian faith by their fingernails – any Christian faith, Anglican or not.

And I found myself wondering, is it in fact true that there’s no theological reflection going on in the coffee shops of Vermilion or Wainwright? What do Christian farmers talk about when they get together for coffee? And do they ever struggle with the ‘why?’ questions? You know the ones I mean. ‘Why doesn’t God answer my prayer and send me rain so that my farm can survive?’ ‘What does it mean to say that God is all-powerful and then to say that you can’t blame him for the drought?’ ‘How can you possibly believe that God is a God of love when he can’t even be bothered to help me feed my family by sending us a drop of rain?’ All of those questions, of course, are just ringing the changes on the perennial theological questions of evil; ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ ‘Why is God silent?’ ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’

Why weren’t we gathering together as clergy to help our parishioners grapple with these questions, rather than ‘Anglican Identity’? Does God actually give a sh** about Anglican identity? What does it mean to be a pastor among people who are struggling to make sense of the silence and inaction of the heavens? And is it, in fact, the case that we don’t want to deal with these questions, or help our parishioners deal with them, because we are terrified that we don’t have any answers for them, and, as professional religionists, we desperately need to Have All The Answers?

Here’s what I know about the questions around the problem of pain and evil and the silence and inactivity of God. First, I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers to those questions – answers, that is, that dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. I said to an agnostic friend last week that the problem of evil is the greatest challenge to faith for most believers. Most of us can’t find a coherent answer to it that actually satisfies us. We stay believers, because leaving God out of our world views raises even more difficult questions for us (more about that some other time, perhaps). But I have yet to hear a theological explanation for evil and the silence and inactivity of God that I find completely convincing.

So no, I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers to these questions, which may be why we pastors are so afraid of them. But the second thing I know is this: nevertheless, it is crucial for us to continue to acknowledge these questions and to keep exploring them and discussing them with people. If we don’t, people think they aren’t allowed to question God, and when they can no longer restrain themselves from questioning God, then they drop out of faith altogether. This is because their pastors have never taught them that praying the questioning and angry psalms is a Christian thing to do.

For the last two years I have watched from a distance as my Dad has gotten increasingly more frail through the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. He lost more and more control over bodily functions as more and more parts of his body have declared independence from his brain. He lost most of his dignity and most of his sense of joy in his life. It would not surprise me to learn that he came close to losing his faith, though I don’t think he did; I do know that he struggled with the ‘why?’ questions just like any other Christian would. Eventually he almost lost his ability to swallow, and so more and more particles of food got stuck in his aesophagus. When he died, he was struggling to breathe, so my Mum tells me.

My Dad died on August 12th. It is now September 6th, and I am still waiting for a call from a Christian pastor or priest who will offer to get together with me and help me struggle with the theological issues raised by my Dad’s death. I do not expect to find answers to these questions, and I do not expect to lose my faith over them, but they are troubling me. I need to talk about them. During the past three weeks two friends – a lay member of my congregation, and a songwriter friend who is an agnostic – have taken the trouble to invite me to join them for coffee or lunch and give me space to talk about my Dad. Many people have left kind messages on Facebook, and I am grateful for their support and sympathy. But I am still waiting for the opportunity to have a theological conversation with a Christian pastor about the problem of pain and the seeming unresponsiveness of God. And I find myself wondering, would we really rather discuss ‘Anglican Identity’ and ‘Missional Theology’ than grapple with the biggest questions that ordinary Christians face in their lives?

Reflections inspired by mortality

So the day of my Dad’s funeral has come and gone. It seems strange, somehow; I’ve lived with the impending reality of this day for two or three years, since the day Dad asked me to preach at it, and now it is a past event. Somehow it seems as if it should be a permanent event, existing continually outside of time.

This morning I find myself remembering the words of an old Bruce Cockburn song from the 1980s:

I don’t mean to cling to you my friends
It’s just I hate the day to have to end
Never enough time to spend
I haven’t done enough for this to be the end

There must be more… more…
More songs more warmth
More love more life
Not more fear not more fame
Not more money not more games

That’s the way I felt yesterday. I was the preacher at the service, so I had the best view of who was there. Many, but not all, of the faces were familiar to me. Mum and Dad returned to England from Canada in 1978, and from that day on their circle of acquaintance diverged from mine; I know some of the friends they’ve made since then (especially over the past twenty or so years in Oakham and Ketton), but not all. Still, there were lots of extended family members there, and friends going all the way back to our Southminster days. We had the service at St. Mary’s, Ketton, which was Dad and Mum’s home church for the past few years, and the vicar, Andrew Rayment, did a fine job with the service and the prayers. We sang some fine hymns that Dad loved – ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘To God be the Glory’, and my personal favourite, ‘Thine be the Glory’, with those great lines:

Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.

My brother Mike read the reading Dad had selected, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and my niece Ellie read the gospel, John 14:1-6. I preached, and people were kind enough to tell me that they had appreciated it afterwards. When the service was over we went to Grantham Crematorium for the cremation, and then back to Oakham for a reception.

That was when I had my Cockburn ‘It’s just I hate the day to have to end’ feeling. The love of people was palpable in that room – their affection for Dad, and their affection for Mum, and Mike and me. It’s funny, but I haven’t really felt of myself as being a ‘mourner’ yet. I’ve officiated at so many funerals and tried to provide support and comfort to the bereaved, but until yesterday it hadn’t really sunk in that I was in that category. I guess people seem to feel that clergy are somehow above all that; I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. But yesterday at the reception in Ketton I was in the midst of cousins and aunts and uncles and friends I’d known since long before I had any idea of being a clergy person, and they were united in love for Dad and Mum and in wanting to provide support for us. And it was all the more poignant in that some of them were the family of my Uncle John, who died three days after my Dad, and whose funeral is tomorrow.

‘Cling onto these relationships’, I found myself thinking. ‘Make no excuses for not keeping in touch with them. Do all you can to let them know you love them and appreciate them. These are the most important things in life. The gospel of Jesus Christ – which gives my life meaning and gives me hope for the future as well as strength for the present – and the love that human beings share with each other – in the end, this is what matters’.

I said to my old friend Steve Palmer afterwards that since Dad died I find that my patience with the bullshit that often happens in churchland has been at an all time low. That may not be a good thing – impatience is rarely a good thing – but I find myself thinking about things in the light of my Dad’s death and wondering why we’re bothering with so much that isn’t really important in the light of eternity. I’m not pointing fingers at my congregation or diocese, or even myself; I’m just making a general observation about the tendency of Christians to get worked up about the latest fad or fashion in ‘church health’ or ‘congregational development’ or whatever the latest trend is (I’ve been around long enough to be seeing most of them come around for the second time now), all the time doing our best to avoid the thought of actually asking someone how they are doing, and really wanting an answer, or actually talking about Jesus with a non-Christian friend.

My Dad’s life counted; that was obvious yesterday. There were people in that church who became Christians through his ministry, and at least two people who are in ordained ministry because of him. Dad was far from perfect, but he knew how to share the gospel, how to love people, and how to encourage people in their Christian calling. He and Mum also did a pretty good job of bringing up Christian sons, and that wasn’t just luck, it was also prayer and hard work and, at times, sheer cussedness!

I really hope that I will remember, from now on, to major on the things that will really count, and not to get caught up in fascinating side roads and the latest fads and fashions. This blog post is my reminder to myself: make your life count, and refuse to allow either other people’s opinions or your own laziness and inertia to cause you to settle for less than that.

Many years ago I was out walking one day beside the Peel River in Aklavik. I was pondering what it was that God wanted me to do, and I got an answer. It wasn’t an audible voice, but somehow three words impressed themselves firmly on my mind, and I have never doubted from that day to this that they were God’s guidance to me (and I very, very rarely experience what I believe to be clear, unambiguous guidance from God). The three words were ‘prayer’, ‘love’, and ‘evangelism’. Ever since then, I have felt most at peace with myself when I have made these three things the centre of my life and ministry. When I’ve gotten diverted from these things, I’ve felt that my life was off centre and everything was somehow out of place.

So, as old Thomas Ken put it,

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
Live each day as if ’twere thy last.

This I will do, The Lord being my helper.

Joy and Suffering: A Sermon for my Dad’s Funeral

September 3rd 2013
Text: 1 Peter 1:3-9

I’d like to begin by thanking you all, every single one of you, for coming today for this very special service, as we give thanks to God for my Dad’s life and commit him into God’s care and keeping.

Dad asked me a few years ago if I would preach at his funeral, and when I said yes, he told me that the text was to be 1 Peter 1:3-9. He didn’t go so far as to actually write the sermon for me, but I know that he would have wanted two things to stand out front and centre: the good news of Jesus Christ, and the note of joy.

But I don’t want to start with the note of joy. I want to start by acknowledging the suffering of the past few years. Most of you know that Dad has suffered with Parkinson’s Disease, as well as scoliosis, and multiple other health issues. Life has not been easy for him, and it hasn’t been easy for my Mum; as the months and years have gone by, Dad has lost more and more control and more and more dignity, as more and more parts of his body have declared independence from his brain. And although my Dad was a man of great faith, he was also a human being, and he would have had to be superhuman to have never asked himself the question, “Why me?” I know that he asked that question, and I know that he had to cling hard to his faith as he lived with ever-increasing frailty in the last few years.

So I don’t want to ignore this reality, because I think that Christian joy does not ignore this reality. A joy that ignores this reality is a very fragile joy, a joy that can only survive by working very hard to keep certain questions locked away – and those questions have a tendency to break out of prison and come back to trouble us. So it’s important to name the suffering that Dad, and Mum, have gone through over the past few years, and to honour it, and to take it seriously, because a Christian joy that’s worth its salt is a joy that takes every part of life seriously.

Peter certainly takes it seriously in the passage from his letter that we read this afternoon. The Christians he was writing to were going through a time of suffering for their faith in Christ; it would have included ostracism, economic hardship, and in some cases imprisonment and death. Maybe some of them were asking the question, “Why me?” Maybe some of them were even asking the question, “Is it worth it?”

Peter takes this suffering very seriously in this passage. After telling them about the wonderful blessings that they are receiving because of Jesus and his resurrection, he goes on to say, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (v.6).

‘All kinds of trials’. There it is, right in the middle of our reading, just as the trials are often found right in the middle of our lives. Peter doesn’t try to pretend that they don’t happen. He doesn’t try to pretend, as some Christians do, that if you just put your trust in Jesus all your problems will go away. He doesn’t try to pretend that there are no difficult questions for us to struggle with.

What he does is to set the trials in the context of the big picture of the Christian life. Let me briefly explore with you what Peter does here. In this passage he deals with the two components of the Christian life: joy, and suffering. Or, another way of looking at it would be to say that in this passage he gives us both hope for the future and strength for the present. In verses 3-5 Peter says,

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed at the last time.

So this hope that Peter is talking about is unashamedly a future hope. He uses the illustration of a wonderful inheritance that is waiting for us. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but these days inheritances aren’t as wonderful as they used to be! Jesus talks in the gospels about the mistake of trusting in treasure on earth, “where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). These days those moths and vermin and thieves often take the form of stock market crashes and the collapse of interest rates, so that what we assumed were good pension plans and secure savings accounts turn out to be a lot less secure than we thought!

But like all the writers of the New Testament, Peter points ahead to a day that God has promised. As we look around now we see a world full of sorrow and suffering – with joy and happiness too, yes, but also so much that is evil and broken. But God has promised that this is not the last word. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – and the gospel promises us that one day God will answer that prayer. Even now, God is quietly at work transforming the world by his love, and the love of his people. That work is still far from complete, but one day it will be completed.

Peter promises us that we will see that day. Like all the writers of the New Testament, he believed that the resurrection of Jesus Christ wasn’t just about Jesus; it was about us, too. Life after death isn’t just about the survival of the soul in a place where there are no bodies. It’s much better than that. In the New Testament a believer who has died is often said to have ‘fallen asleep’. Why ‘sleep’? Because sleep is temporary; even a teenager on a Saturday will wake up eventually! When his friend Lazarus died, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up” (John 11:11). And this afternoon Jesus wants us to know that although his friend Bob has fallen asleep, one day Jesus is going to come and wake him up!

Yes, the kingdom of God is coming, and when it comes in all its fullness, God will raise his people from the dead and they will enjoy it with him forever. I have absolutely no idea what that will look like; I expect that it’s far above anything I can conceive or imagine. But Jesus has promised it, and he invites us to believe it, and to live by it. If we accept that invitation, we can never live as if suffering has the last word, and we can never live as if death is final.

But how can we know that we’re going to be part of that glorious resurrection? Peter mentions two things: the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new birth.

Death looks final. I was not present at my Dad’s death, but I have been present at the deaths of others, and it certainly looks final to me. And when the disciples of Jesus saw his battered body taken down from the cross on Good Friday, they all assumed that it was the end of the story. Even on the Sunday morning, when the reports started to come in of strange happenings at the tomb, they responded as you and I would have responded – skeptically. It took a lot of persuading, and a few resurrection appearances of Jesus, to convince them that it was true: love really was stronger than death, and evil hadn’t had the last word after all.

But having been persuaded, the disciples’ lives were transformed. Never again would they be afraid of tyrants who said, “Do as we say, or we’ll kill you!” They’d seen their master tortured to death on the cross, but three days later they’d seen him alive again, so what was there to be afraid of? Even the last enemy, death, turned out to be a toothless tiger after all.

So we know that we will be raised, Peter says, because Jesus was raised, and he has promised that one day we will share in his resurrection. But Peter also talks about the new birth. This is how the power of Jesus’ resurrection invades your life and my life.

Birth is a huge change in the life of a baby! And God wants to bring a huge change into our lives too. When he created us, he had a dream for us – a glorious dream. The glory of God is a human being fully alive, free from evil and sin, reaching out and achieving all that God has planned for us. This is impossible without the help of God, so God gives us the gift of a new birth to help us in that process of transformation.

In the New Testament this new birth is often associated with three things: faith, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They don’t always happen at the same time, and they don’t always happen in the same order!

My Dad was baptized when he was a little baby, and his parents took him regularly to church as he grew up. But Dad sometimes talked about a very special week, Holy Week 1954, when his faith came alive in a new way. On each day of Holy Week, St. Barnabas’ church had special early morning services; Dad went down to those services with my grandfather, and each day the scripture readings spoke to him in a powerful way. That week changed his life, and I’ve heard him speak about it more than once as a new birth. Later, in 1971 in Southminster, he experienced for the first time a powerful infilling of the Holy Spirit. He said it felt like standing under the waterfall of God’s love, and the water wasn’t just running over him but running into him as well, touching even the deepest parts of his soul with the love of God.

We’re all different, so we all experience these things in different ways. But the common thread is transformation. Jesus experienced transformation as God raised him from the dead, and now we experience transformation as God brings us to the new birth and gradually changes us so that we become more and more like Jesus.

And, hard though it is for us to think of it, suffering has a part in this. It did for Jesus, and it does for us as well. This is how Peter puts it:

‘In all of this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in various kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed’ (vv.6-7).

I once heard a story about a little girl who was taken to see some sheepdog trials. She enjoyed watching the dogs running around and herding the sheep, but she was quite surprised to discover that there was no judge sitting with a black robe and a wig. To her mind, the word ‘trial’ always included a judge and a jail sentence! She learned that afternoon that ‘trials’ don’t always include the threat of punishment; sometimes they are about exercising our abilities and discovering what we can do when we’re put to the test.

Suffering can be like that; it can drive us into the arms of God, teach us to rely on his presence and his strength, and help us grow in faith. Certainly no one in their right mind seeks suffering, but this passage teaches us that in God’s good purposes, suffering need not be wasted; it can teach us wisdom, and patience, and reliance on God, and compassion for others.

And so even in the midst of our suffering there is joy. At the end of our reading Peter says,

‘Although you have not seen (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy’.

This joy of knowing Jesus is a golden thread that runs through the pages of the New Testament. In one place Paul says, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Philippians 1:21). This is lovers’ language, isn’t it? A young couple, very much in love with each other, might say, “Yes, our life has a lot of hardship, but our love is enough to carry us through”. And that’s what Peter is saying here: “My dear Christian friends, you are going through great suffering right now, but in the midst of it all you’re finding that Jesus is enough; knowing him and walking with him day by day is giving you a sense of joy that no trouble can touch”.

I know that my Dad believed this, even though his faith was severely tested by his suffering; this is the faith in which he lived and died. By God’s grace, I hope to live and die in that faith myself, and I hope you do as well. So let us pray that God will keep us in that faith now and always. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.