I am presently taking part, as an attendee, in the inaugural Festival of Preaching being held at Christ Church College, Oxford. It is a sort of preacher’s refresher course or inspirational ideas symposium. The line up of speakers include Nadia Bolz Weber, Sam Wells, Padraig O Tuama, Paula Gooder, Malcolm Guite, to name but a few and the intention is that we will learn how to hone the craft of preaching to produce better sermons in the future.
It is all good stuff; informative, honest and no doubt will come in useful. However, sometimes you don’t need the big name preachers, to know when you have heard a great sermon. A sermon that weaves its way succinctly through the text; deals with a difficult theme yet neither holds back or lacks tact and still manages to convey good news.
We are blessed at St James with a fantastic ministry team of both lay and ordained preachers and on Sunday one of our Licenced Lay Ministers, Carol Kidd, came up with sermon that definitely hit the spot, so much so that I wanted to share it a little wider than our own congregation. So here it is, reproduced with her permission
May I speak in the name of God who binds us together in love. Amen
‘Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed’ How then shall we live?
Our readings today challenge us to think on how we live our lives – especially where there is conflict. As we do so I ask you to bear in mind a few words from the rule of St Benedict:
‘Pardon liberates and in salvation we can find perfect freedom’
PARDON, LIBERATION, SALVATION, FREEDOM
It is truly wonderful that all these things can bring hope in conflict and will apply to the lives of EVERYONE who in faith turn to God to start anew. Last week Thomas compared Jesus’ way of establishing God’s Kingdom to Alice’s experience through the ‘Looking Glass’– I would like to continue a mirror theme by suggesting it is essential that to play our part in bringing in the Kingdom we must start by looking at ourselves in a magnifying mirror and seeing our own faults.
In order to follow Jesus and fulfil God’s Law we must love our neighbours as ourselves. ….. It is only through keeping the Commandments, acknowledging our own wrong doings, and saying sorry to God that we can begin to show forgiveness to others.
Paul emphasises the importance of loving each other as he lists examples of sinful behaviour. The early Christian communities – just like ours in 2017 – were faithful but not perfect, they did not always mirror Kingdom characteristics. Look again at Romans 13:13 – there is no place for pride or complacency. I am sure I am not alone in saying whilst innocent of debauchery and licentiousness I have in the past bordered on drunkenness and yes I have been jealous and I do argue. Unless we critically look at our own reflection we cannot mirror Jesus, it is only when we recognise our sins, repent and lay ourselves bare of our own transgressions, love our neighbour as ourselves that we truly ‘put on our Lord Jesus Christ’.
In order to reflect Kingdom attributes we are called to be persistent in seeking God’s forgiveness for our failings and shortcomings. That is why every Eucharist begins with prayers of preparation and penitence: we seek absolution first, say sorry for our sins, before receiving a renewed reconciliation with Jesus through the bread and wine of Communion or a blessing. The invitation to come and share is fully inclusive.
Jesus spoke out against exclusiveness yet all too often the image reflected by the world-wide church to those who have not yet come to faith is one of members arguing amongst themselves – for example: divisions continue within the Anglican Communion over homosexuality, gender definition, same-sex marriage and even today the ordination of women is still not universally accepted.
“Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed”: Paul’s words challenged the people then and our lifestyles today – our mission is to share the message that God can save us from our sins. Of course there are challenges in being an open welcoming community where all can come to find forgiveness and know God’s saving love. Reflecting on the life of churches down through the centuries we know religious establishments and Christian communities are not immune to arguments and quarrels. We are called to open our hearts and minds to love our neighbour – and yes that does include fellow congregation members with whom we disagree.
How to deal with conflicts within the church are laid out in Matthew’s Gospel yet it is essential to set the instruction in context: Jesus has just emphasised through the well-known parable of the lost sheep that none shall be forsaken and next week we will be reminded that we should always be ready to forgive over and over again.
Jesus says helping someone who has sinned find forgiveness must always be carried out in fraternity, with understanding and prayer. In conflict resolution it is essential to listen to the story – to strive to understand before criticising someone else! If the issue is unresolved Jesus’ instruction is to seek witnesses – not to exacerbate the situation but to help each other find the best way forward – if necessary to get advice from within the church. Jesus says [verse 17] ‘if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and Tax collector’.
In situations of conflict it is all too easy to have a knee-jerk reaction – to start to play ‘judge and jury’ rather than encourage ongoing mediation – sadly there have been times when this verse has been used as an excuse for excommunication and permanent exclusion – I suggest that is a wrong interpretation. Why? Because we must never forget: Jesus came to save the Gentiles and the Tax Collectors – salvation is available to all who come to faith and repent of their sins.
So what should we do if our strivings are unsuccessful? Prayer is the answer. Our Christian calling is to pray for others as much as for ourselves. Paul encourages us to ‘put on our Lord Jesus Christ’ – if we aspire to reflect Jesus’ behaviour we must remember to ‘forgive those who sin against us’. One thing is certain confronting sinfulness, praying for a person who has offended does not mean we approve of their wickedness and bad behaviour. Certainly it is not easy to pray when someone has physically or emotionally hurt us – sometimes it proves impossible.
Victims are courageous when they confront the situation – it is hard to forgive – often the only resolution is to walk away and ask a Christian brother or sister to speak to and pray for the perpetrator. When we are put in the situation of being that brother or sister we don’t have to like the person we are asked to pray for – it is in love for our suffering neighbour that we intercede – we can only ask that God willing our prayer will be answered – that the sinner will realise the damage done, repent of their wrongdoing, and turn to Christ’s saving love.
It can frustrate us that pardon offers the offender freedom – however even more importantly pardon always liberates the person who has been offended: frees and offers new life, helps victims to stop looking in the mirror and seeing over their shoulder what has hurt them but rather to leave the past behind and begin to find a new way forward.
It is our Christian duty to support others caught up in conflict – in just five verses today’s gospel reading sets a huge challenge. The good news? We are never alone
Jesus promises when we gather together in His name He will be there binding us together.
“Salvation is now nearer than the day we first believed”. How then shall we live?
PARDONED, LIBERATED, SAVED, FREED
When we live loving our neighbour as ourselves – when we pray that all God’s children will be loosed from their sins and bound together with and in Christ then we truly discover: ‘Pardon liberates and in salvation we can find perfect freedom’
Praise be to thee O Christ: Amen