SERMON 28 MAY 2017
Sometimes I write my sermon quite early in the week. This week I was sitting at home on Thursday night aware of some pressure to write it so I could send it to Jane by Friday. Some of the pressure was that part of me wanted just to stand up and speak, not stand behind the lectern reading. Another part of the pressure, if that is what it is, is that I feel there is something very important to say and I am not sure how to begin.
There are, for me, at least three things going on in my head. Firstly, last Thursday was Ascension Day. Maybe that doesn’t seem very important, but it was, and is. As Malcolm Guite, the Anglican poet priest says: “In the mystery of the Ascension we reflect on the way in which, one sense Christ ‘leaves’ us and is taken away into Heaven, but in another sense he is given to us and to the world in a new and more universal way. He is no longer located only in one physical space to the exclusion of all others. He is in Heaven which is at the heart of all things now and is universally accessible to all who call upon him. And since his humanity is taken into Heaven, our humanity belongs there too, and is in a sense already there with Him.
The season of Easter is coming to an end. We prepared for it through Lent and were led to ponder then how the cross questions many of the things we hold onto and leaves us hanging by a thread. We remembered how we are baptised into the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, and we celebrate resurrection life. Now we have been reminded of our calling to be Jesus’ followers and we wait to celebrate the Day of Pentecost.
These are all enormous things, enormous thoughts to get our head around if, as we must, we ask ourselves what they mean for us in our day to day lives. It is comforting to remember how inexpert, unqualified, Jesus’ friends felt. They had not understood, but the reading from Acts tells us that they stayed together and waited to find out what would happen, what this Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them would do for them. So today there is a pause in the story, even though we ourselves know how we are sustained by the Holy Spirit that is never absent.
Into that pause the lectionary gives us the words from John’s gospel. This seems to back-track because these words we heard come very near the end of what is known as the Farewell Discourse. Jesus has given his last words to his disciples. He has been reassuring them before he is betrayed into the hands of the authorities. What we heard today was his own prayer to his Father. Time and again Jesus speaks about what God has given him, and what he has given the disciples. “Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.”
This a God who gives, time and again. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son.” This leads to what seems to me to be absolutely the core of what we are doing here. What do we think God is giving us here today? Is it just a bit of respite from the pressures of the week? Is it just a valued connection to people who share this journey of faith and life? Is it just a bit of inspiration, hopefully, and encouragement?
I have begun reading a book by Douglas John Hall, a Canadian, one of my favourite contemporary theologians. The book is called “Waiting for Gospel”. It is highly relevant and challenging to a world, to all churches, where the temptation is to give in to what he calls “sloganization”. We are losing the understanding of some of the words that are deeply important, like gospel, rebirth, repentance, justification, obedience, grace, sin and many others. Have you switched off a bit now? How, he asks, and I ask myself, do we preach the gospel in a world where communication is very often reduced to sound bites and social media slogans. We are under pressure to communicate but we are not sure how to do it.
And yet, and yet, there is a longing, a waiting to be filled. As the Psalmist says “Deep calls to deep”. Those depths are not simply the layers below our common superficiality. They are also depths where we feel at risk of drowning in a world where children are bombed out of existence or maimed, where people starve and die of thirst, where people, in their millions are displaced, homeless. There are the depths of personal aloneness and helplessness and depression. There are depths of silence into which we are afraid to speak. All these depths cry out. People cry out to a God they would reject because there is nothing left to rail against. They target God for allowing all this suffering. We here are caught up in this too and we turn back to the cross, to that agony and suffering, that terrible gift. We are left sometimes, faith hanging by a thread and we stretch out to the light of resurrection. But it takes time. It takes time to pull ourselves up from the depths.
One thing we all know is that we cannot do this on our own. We can’t struggle with the answers on our own, or deal with the lack of answers on our own. We need to hear the gospel, and that is why we are here.
So what is the gospel for us in these times? The thread that has been holding me and sticking in my mind comes from the Bible Study we had nearly two weeks ago on Galatians. We spent a long time looking at the first three verses of this epistle which Martin Luther loved more than any other book. “Grace to you and peace” writes Paul. Martin Luther stated “These two terms, grace and peace, constitute Christianity”. Grace always comes first, because you can’t have peace unless you know grace.
This then is surely why we are here today. Grace is God’s gift. But it is a gift we always struggle to accept. We may happily accept a freebie from the supermarket, but forgiving grace – that, apparently we find too much to believe in. There is too much sin. Surely we must have to make amends, to earn this forgiving grace! Philip Yancey, quite a long time ago now wrote a book that I expect some of you may have read: “What’s so Amazing about Grace.” Yancey, himself struggled to define what grace really means. He said he doesn’t even try. He told a story about getting caught up in traffic in Los Angeles and arriving 58 minutes late at the desk to return his Hertz rental car. He said he walked up to the counter in a bad mood, put the keys down and said, “How much do I owe you?” The woman said “Nothing. You’re all clear.” Yancey said he was late. The woman smiled and said, “There’s a one hour grace period.” So Yancey said, “Oh really, what is grace?” The woman replied, “I don’t know. I guess what it means is that even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to.”
Do we grasp what grace means for us, when, most often we judge ourselves and carry burdens of shame and failure at how we don’t match up to what we know we should be or do? We make God like ourselves, we flawed, mostly ego-centric, self-centred people that we are, even if we can also have our moments of great generosity and selflessness. Our finite minds and hearts simply cannot perceive God’s infinite grace and love, so we put limits to it. And we believe that that must be right.
Sadly, often that is done in the name of religion. As Richard Rohr says, there is a “creative tension between religion as requirements and religion as transformation. Is God’s favour based on a performance principle (Law)? Or does religion work with an entirely different economy and equation? This is a necessary boxing match but one which grace must win. When it doesn’t, religion become moralistic, which is merely the ego’s need for order and control.” We need law to keep us on track, to protect everyone. Paul in his epistles writes a lot about law, or legalism and grace. Laws can give us very good boundaries, but boundary-keeping of itself is a long way from love.
We don’t, in this place, come to church to hear about keeping religious laws. To hear such requirements only becomes a source of deeper anxiety. We do come because our “deep” needs to learn of God’s grace. We are turned to Jesus because it is in him and his humanity that we are given a handle to grasp what this amazing grace of God can mean. That grace has been defined as “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it.” This grace comes as God’s initiative, not ours. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.”
Now I feel I am getting caught up, tied up in words. This is what happens when we try to describe and makes sense of something that we struggle to comprehend. Maybe we should pause and ponder for a moment the countless stories of men and women who have found themselves transformed, brought up from the pit, from the depths of darkness when they were weighed down by sin, by guilt and pain and hopelessness. Maybe we should pause and ponder the unexpected little moments of grace that transform all our days with glimpses of wonder, of love, of joy.
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. That is it, the heart of Christianity. This is the gift that goes on giving. Whoever we are, whatever our lives are about or whatever loss of meaning we may feel in our lives, this is the gospel that is offered to us, no exceptions: grace to you and peace. God’s free, amazing gift, that gently, profoundly, goes on waiting for us to accept. This is, above all, the thing we can trust. Jesus has shown us.
Let us pause for a moment in silence before God’s grace and peace.