Sermon for Holy Communion at the Dedication Festival, 6th October 2013, at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon, Surrey

Ephesians 2:19-22 – You are … built upon the cornerstone of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
John 2:13-22 – Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.

Collect: John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.
[John Wesley, 1780: as used in the Book of Offices of the British Methodist Church, 1936]

Dedicated. A ‘dedicated follower of fashion’, according to the Kinks. ‘A subtle book which I cannot praise as I would, because it has been dedicated to me’, as W.B. Yeats once wrote in a book review. Dedicated. In a church sense, dedication means consecration, means devoting a building to sacred purposes, means dedicating a building to God. Today is our dedication festival.

A dedication festival in a church can be a celebration of that church’s birthday. If you know exactly when in 680AD St Mary’s was first consecrated, dedicated, we could celebrate that day as the dedication festival. But we don’t know when it was, exactly. The Lectionary, which lays down all the dates and celebrations in the church’s year, says rather sniffily, ‘When the date of dedication is unknown, the Dedication Festival may be observed on the first Sunday of October (6 October), or on the Last Sunday after Trinity (27 October), or on a suitable date chosen locally.’

So this, the first Sunday of October, is our dedication festival. We are celebrating the beginnings of St Mary’s, the oldest church in Surrey and probably the second-oldest in England, in Saxon times, in 680. Over 1300 years ago.

Just by the entrance to the Norbury Chapel, on the shelf, there are three charming little models which show how our church evolved from a kind of Saxon shed to the pretty building with a bell tower, a chantry chapel, and a side aisle, as we know it today. We’re very fond of our church. We feel that, as a place dedicated to God, it is as good as we can make it. We wouldn’t like to see anyone being rude about how we look after it, how we run it – much less if anyone even talked about knocking it down.

We can sympathise with the Jews in our gospel story, being affronted by Jesus sweeping the money-changers out of the Temple, telling them that they were not looking after the Temple properly. On what authority was He doing this, what was the sign to show He was justified? Jesus, as He often did when asked difficult questions, gave a difficult answer. If the Temple were knocked down, in three days He would build it up again. What did He mean?

Their Temple had been 46 years in the building, so not surprisingly the Jews didn’t get it. But Jesus was talking not about the building, but metaphorically about the ‘temple’ (in quotes) which was His body; that He would be destroyed, and then He would be rebuilt again in three days. It was a prophecy.

St Paul picked up on that, and realised that the new meaning of the word ‘Temple’ in the light of Jesus Christ was the church: the church was not just a place, not just a building, however lovely, but much more importantly it was the gathering together of the people of God, as our lesson from Ephesians eloquently explained. ‘You are … members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure … grows into a holy temple.’

So you can see that Jesus, and then St Paul, are encouraging us to think of dedication not just in terms of dedicating a temple, a church, but of dedicating ourselves, ‘our souls and bodies’ as we say in the prayer after Communion: ‘Through him we offer thee our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice’. We dedicate ourselves.

The greatest dedication prayer that I know is the so-called Covenant Prayer of the Methodists, which we used today as our Collect. It was originally written in 1755 by John Wesley as part of his ‘Covenant Service’. He wanted a form of worship which would ‘help people to open themselves to God more fully’, and he used material from the 17th century Puritan divine Richard Alleine for the purpose.

The Methodists have what they call Covenant Sunday, which is either the first Sunday in January or at the beginning of September, which is the beginning of the Methodist church year. The aim of the service is for people to re-dedicate themselves to God. ‘To hear God’s offer and God’s challenge. To provide space for God to prompt, and for people to respond.’ http://www.rootsontheweb.com/content/PDFs/346041/Methodist_Covenant_Prayer_study.pdf

‘Covenant’ is another name for a contract. The Covenant Service, and the Covenant Prayer, are a collective bargain. The whole church joining together to dedicate themselves, to make their covenant with, God.

‘It is a commitment to being a disciple and putting God first in our lives and in everything about our lives. What we do and what we say and who we are. It is a surrender to and a trust in God.’ ‘You are mine and I am yours’. We are not self-sufficient. We accept God’s grace, God’s gift to us, and in return we give ourselves to Him.
http://www.methodist.org.uk/who-we-are/what-is-distinctive-about-methodism/a-covenant-with-god/the-covenant-service

John Wesley remembered Jeremiah 31: ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant …. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’

Even though the words of the Covenant Prayer might not be totally familiar to us here, the idea of our dedicating ourselves to God is something that we nevertheless almost take for granted. We’ve been baptised; we’ve been confirmed; we’re about to say the Creed. That’s it, surely? But the idea of real dedication, in the sense of consecration, being the Temple of God, is actually something more.

At the time of John Wesley – who of course didn’t have a church, although he was an Anglican vicar till he died: he went about preaching on horseback – the annual Covenant Service ‘came out of the Puritan tradition of pastoral and spiritual guidance’. Therefore the Covenant Service wasn’t just an annual service, but it came at the end of a series of services and sermons ‘laying out the nature of Christian commitment’.

Then there was an invitation addressed to ‘those as will’ – that’s what Wesley’s words were – to come to the Covenant Service. Not so fast! First there would be a day’s retreat, for the people to prepare themselves ‘in prayer, fasting, reflection and self-examination’, and after that, the Covenant Service itself, which would end with the Lord’s Supper, with Holy Communion. Afterwards there would be pastoral guidance and follow-up for a period of days after the service, to ensure that people were not ‘backsliding’! Tough stuff.

I think it’s not out of order just to finish by mentioning my own experience. For years I would go to church most, but not all, Sundays. Things might crop up. If I was away on business or something, over a weekend, I wouldn’t bother to go to church. I did various jobs in the church – was on the PCC and things – but I would stop short of saying that I was really ‘dedicated’.

Then I was talked into becoming a churchwarden. A couple of days afterwards, the senior warden mentioned to me in passing that ‘of course, the warden’s job is to attend all the services.’ And I did. I became more dedicated. And things started to change. I really began to feel the Holy Spirit at work in me. I was drawn in. God was drawing me in, and at the same time God was giving me grace to enable me to go out – ‘Send us out, in the power of your spirit.’

John Wesley’s idea was that the Covenant was like a marriage, the marriage between Jesus and His church. The marriage vows were those defined in Ephesians 5. Wesley’s original covenant prayer involved taking Jesus Christ as ‘my head and husband; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; for all times and conditions; to love, honour and obey, before all others; and this to death’.

So I hope that you will take home your daily notes and look at the Covenant Prayer again; and perhaps, quietly pray it again tonight and maybe a couple of days later on this week. Pray the prayer. Enter into the covenant: be dedicated.

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