Sunday, 10 May 2015

Abiding: being shaped to live Christ's hope

Every now and then a major event coincides with one or two other dates in the calendar and these provide an interesting backdrop or context in which to view that event.  Thursday’s General Election and the results being announced on Friday is one such occurrence.  There were shocks and surprises on Friday.  Some will have caused delight and some horror or regret.  Whatever your political views a number of dedicated and wise politicians lost their seats.  We now have a government with a majority, though there are competing convictions within it and Parliament will be a lively place.  The Labour Party needs to re-form its leadership, which is no bad thing – I’ve thought they needed a new front bench for a while.  As ever, I can see the Church of England needing to exercise a watching brief and remind the government, as we always do, of its primary responsibility, which is justice.  And that is apposite in this year of Magna Carta.

But Friday was also the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the end of the Second World War.  Writing an introduction for the Act of Remembrance at the War Memorial for Friday, I found myself reflecting on what had happened then and over the previous 48 hours.   We gathered to remember all who died during the Second World War and to give thanks for the peace in Europe which has ensued for 70 years since.  We gave thanks that we could chose our government through free elections (as we had just done) and that there is an honoured place secured for official opposition, for peaceful protest and free speech.  We stood still shocked by the atrocities of the Holocaust and with sorrow for all who mourn or continue to carry the scars of warfare.  In hope, with justice and for peace our task was to dedicate ourselves anew to pursuing and maintaining the Common Good, where all can flourish and be honoured.  VE Day reminded us what government is for and that they are accountable to the people who elect them, not just those who vote for them.

Today is the beginning of Christian Aid Week.  This places our focus on the poorest people in the world, for whom running water, easily accessible fuel and food in the cupboards is not taken for granted.  The world is full of inequalities and by virtue of living in this country we are among the richest people on the planet.  Forget billionaires, they are a distraction; we have access to a standard of living beyond the imaginations of so many.  The presence of Christian Aid Week, at the beginning of a new government term of office, is a poignant challenge to our priorities and our focus, the scope of our concern and compassion.  It challenges the selfishness which seems to characterize so much of our political debate.  We ignore aid and the issues of global justice at our peril, so there is a self-interest aspect to it all the same.  But it is also important because it is about justice and that is what should characterize us and be the primary goal of government.  The Old Testament prophets were extremely critical of the leaders who failed to uphold justice.

So the freedoms and responsibilities which we celebrated on Friday with VE Day and the cry and obligation for justice which we mark today with Christian Aid Week, point to the character which is to guide and shape our approach.  This came out of our gospel reading, with that wonderfully old-fashioned sounding word ‘abide’ (John15:9-17).  The call from Jesus to his disciples, to his followers, to you and me, is to abide in his love.  This is where we are to dwell.  Not visit, not take on as an optional extra to enhance something else, but we are to live there.  And love is gracious, kind, generous, hospitable, open, compassionate, concerned for what makes us flourish, it is not irritable or rude, forgives, welcomes, embraces with acceptance and patience.  It is filled with hope and not hatred, with faith rather than fear.  It trusts in God’s providence and hold that in the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, whose day we kept on Friday too, ‘all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. 

We have a calling, as followers of Jesus, to make a difference, to be a difference.  That difference is that we abide in the love of God in Christ and live it.  Easy words to say, but they have to become all consuming and all embracing.  When we want a mission strategy, it is actually very simple: abide in Christ’s love.  Do that and we will change the world as our second reading put it (1 John 5:1-6); people will be drawn to the living water that flows from his grace made visible.  The world will be changed because it will find its priorities are reshaped to truly reflect all that is captured by that term ‘the common good’. 

So much of our grasping and acquiring, the dreams of yet more riches for ourselves, are to do with not being content in who we are.  When we abide in the love of Christ, we find that we are filled with a peace the satiates, that fills that deep hunger that is restless.  This is what St Augustine referred to in his famous prayer about our hearts being restless till they find their rest in God.  It is what the Book of Common Prayer refers to in the alternative absolution for Evensong which prays that we will have a ‘quiet mind’.  Not one troubled by anxiety about our worth or value, our place or one that is disturbed by guilt and feeling worthless.  Abiding in love is to know that this love is our home and where we belong.  It embraces us and calls us the beloved.  No longer are we called ‘servants’, but we are called ‘friends’.  This is because truth has been revealed in Christ Jesus and by being truly in his presence, being present in the moment and in the hope, we have a confidence that trusts that all is well, even when it may not look like it.  We know, deep within our hearts, that the Christ who rose from the dead has the victory over the worst that this life and world can throw at us, even death.

This is what inspires me and keeps me buoyant.  I know that I need it refreshing and renewing; I need to be renewed in it and that only comes through being still in prayer, being present and attentive so that love can work within and cleanse the grime of disgruntlement and all that makes us jaded; the myriad of assaults that batter us and raise those doubts about whether God really does have the upper hand, which can grind us down.  That is why each day needs to begin and end with prayer, with thanksgiving and if that sounds hard for your routine, the Lord’s Prayer carries everything that you need to pray and that takes less than 30 seconds to say, even at a moderately reflective speed.  It praises God, it longs for God’s Kingdom and dedicates our will to God’s will, it asks for food, for bread, for forgiveness for ourselves and others, and to be able to stand firm, to abide, when the going gets tough.  All finished off with a final phrase of praise and it takes less than 30 seconds to say.  It is also a prayer that reconnects people with the hope of Christ.  I used it with a man in advanced stages of dementia on Thursday and another slipping in and out of consciousness as he lay in his bed.  It brought to both of them a moment when they connected with the faith that held them, the place their deepest selves abide.  I’m always struck by how there is a flicker of recognition even in those who don’t respond much to anything else. When I use it with the bereaved it often releases the tears of grief mixed with those of hope.  In that simple prayer we have a tool for abiding that is formational, inspiring, and holding.

Jesus called on his disciples, whom he then called friends, to abide in his love.  When we do that we are shaped to live his hope and that changes our priorities towards those of God’s justice and peace for everyone, especially the world’s poorest.  It makes us generous, people characterized by love.  All of this is fed each day through the simplest of prayers, but not without it.  Love is where we are to abide, to be where we live and to be where we are embraced.  In turn it is the face we are to offer to the world.  This simple message is the radical justice through which we will assess our new government and if necessary call them back to.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th May 2015

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