There are one or two key themes in the Bible and how we see everything rests on these key concepts. For the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of these is reconciliation and he has made this one of his priorities for his tenure in office. Christ came to reconcile us to God and to one another. He brings peace and in that peace we live peace. Justin Welby wants us to live this reconciling love and his hope is that focusing on this will change the church and affect the world. To my mind he is right.
Behind this is another key idea, which I think is foundational. It is that of gift, of grace. Everything is gift. We only exist because God chose to make it happen as a gift, out of his generous love. We see how exceptional life is through the various space explorations. There is a probe around Pluto at the moment and it has sent back spectacular images. Journalists are fascinated with whether they will find signs of life. They may, they may not, but the more we see of these planets and other orbiting masses, the more remarkable and incredible we see our planet to be with its ability to enable life to emerge and to support it. That there is something rather than nothing is incredible and the result of gift.
There is a prayer used in Morning Prayer that reminds us that the night is passed and the day lies open before us, and we rejoice in the gift of this new day. It seems to be very popular to ridicule politicians who own up to having a faith in God. Tim Fallon, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, has been on the receiving end of this recently. Having faith means that you are someone who believes in gift and is thankful for that gift. Out of this gift a great deal flows, but the opposite of it is to believe that life is random and ultimately pointless. All sorts can flow from that, but at its core it is not very hopeful. I feel sorry for the sneerers.
Our readings were full of gift and grace. The story of Elisha feeding 100 people (2 Kings 4:42-44) prefigured Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, which we heard about in our gospel reading. The clear message about Jesus is that not only can he tick the box of performing wonders, he does it and some – not 100 hungry people, but 5,000 are fed (John 6:1-21). He takes the meagre provisions of a small boy’s lunch and turns them into a banquet. The gift of the God who makes everything out of nothing is that there is no situation that cannot be transformed by gift, by grace, being let loose.
The reading from Ephesians (3:14-21) was a beautiful song of praise and thanksgiving to God praying for strength in our inner being, that Christ may so dwell in our hearts, that we will be rooted and grounded in love. This love will fill us with nothing less than the fullness of God, accomplishing abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine. This all comes from gift, from grace, pouring, flowing from God. It is generosity which cannot stay contained or shut inside. It has to flow and it changes us; it changes everything. It becomes the reconciliation where that is needed, it becomes the life that blesses, it refreshes with energy and new life, it is the opening for evangelism and mission.
I think a lot of people are quite frightened by the words evangelism and mission. They have become buzzwords but they can conjure up all sorts of different things depending on what you have seen those labels attached to. And around the city centre we see some pretty bad examples of shouting and aggressive behaviour in the name of evangelism and mission. It is a turn off. But at its root sharing the faith that inspires us and gives us hope is really rather simple. It involves making friends and being friendly. We meet people; treat them with the love and value which everyone deserves by virtue of being a fellow beloved child of God. They too are the fruit of gift and grace. And as we get to know them the faith that is the focus of who we are shines through and can be shared. It can be as simple as asking if they think life is fundamentally pointless or has a point. That point lies with God who doesn’t stay aloof, but meets us, supremely in everything we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In trying to be more like him we become one of his disciples and meet each week to be renewed in grace, as we share together in bread and wine, coffee and Jaffa cakes. The last two don’t appear in the Bible, but they should. What could be a better sign of gift and grace than a small chocolate covered sponge cake with jam inside it! May be clotted cream and scone…
None of this is rocket science, but it can prove to be quite elusive. How doe we fare here? When people come through the doors, do we greet them with the love and value they deserve as fellow fruit of God’s gift and grace? Do we treat one another like that? If we are really honest about this, we will find that there are times when we do. There is generous caring; there is welcome and acceptance. But there are also times when we don’t manage it. We do have a reputation of not always being a happy place. That’s not good. We have to turn down the volume on the grumps and bad temper and turn it up on the grace, on the love, on the remembering that the person in front of us is a fellow beloved child of God.
There are times when this is difficult, not least because some people make it hard to respond that way. Like Harry Potter combatting the Dementors we have to conjure up our patronus, whatever reminds us of hope, grace and love so that we can be these. Sometimes we are caught off guard, absorbed in another task, with challenges we have to get sorted and the request or comment comes at us what feels like sideways and there is a side-on collision that shunts us across the road like in a high speed car chase in a film. How we respond in a crash may say quite a lot about us. I have been involved in a head on collision and I didn’t get out and stab the person who smashed into me, like happened recently in West Sussex. Few of us would. It is an extreme response. But there are degrees of aggression and degrees of crash. If we find it hard to be gracious when there are sudden challenges then we may need help, at the most extreme with anger management, or it may be that public facing roles are not for us.
I’ve been the vicar of a church that had a lot of angry people in it and it was not pleasant at times and it was destructive of mission. People looked and said if that is how Christians treat one another then you can count me out. I went to a funeral tea in the early days in that parish and someone asked me if I’d met the witches yet. When I looked puzzled she said ‘you’ll find out’. Not a good reputation and it takes a lot to overcome it. It can happen but only if the gift, the grace of God dwells in us so much that we are filled with the life and love of Christ. Without that we have no good news to share. We are not good news to share. We cannot be the agents of the reconciling love that we see and proclaim in Christ. The Archbishop’s priority for reconciliation will only happen if it is rooted and grounded in grace, in gift, in love.
This church is not unique is struggling with this. A lot do. In fact I think our culture struggles with the realities of community. Communities are made up of people who are different, have their joys and injuries, their raw nerves which if you wait long enough someone will find and irritate. Community, in an age of individual consumer choice that sells the lie of designing your own life to tailor fit you, does not flow easily. We need to work at it. That work begins inside us. It begins with seeking to be so filled with the grace and gift, the love and life of God in Christ, that we become people who honour, respect and value those we meet. That becomes a moment of blessing for them and in the peace the gospel can be shared. It can’t be shared without it and indeed won’t be.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 26th July 2015