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Sermon for Evensong for Churches Together on the Third Sunday after Easter, 11th May 2014
Ezra 3:1-13, Ephesians 2:11-22: Be Reconciled

So then you are no longer strangers …, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints and … of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. [Eph. 2:19-20]

Building a temple. Building a church. Being reconciled.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near, by the blood of Christ.

I want to welcome everyone to the church here at St Mary’s. We were excited when you, Godfrey, put your hand up in the Churches Together meeting and volunteered that we here would host the service to remember and celebrate the fellowship and spiritual growth which we enjoyed together in our Lent groups.

Our Lent groups, which were devoted to studying St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, with a strap line which Jeremy Cresswell, in his erudite study notes, identified as ‘Be Reconciled’. Obviously St Paul was talking about Jews and non-Jews, at the time of Jesus Christ, whereas in applying this message today – and certainly in the context of our service tonight – we are talking about the different Christian denominations, and how we can be reconciled, brought together in fellowship, so as to become, in unity and diversity at the same time, the body of Christ.

Ezra, the author of our Old Testament lesson, was writing in the sixth century BC following the conquest of the Babylonians, who had destroyed the Temple, by the Persians – King Cyrus followed by King Darius and the three Kings Artaxerxes.

The Persians allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple, and to have some self-government. But they were very much a minority, surrounded by people who did not necessarily sympathise with them, and who were much more powerful than they were.

Ezra tells the story of the rebuilding of the Temple. But before then, in the passage that we heard tonight, came the restoration of worship, of the One True God. It’s a theme throughout the Old Testament – certainly it comes out in Ezra, if you read Ezra and its sister book, Nehemiah – that there was one true God: that also, that one true God had made a covenant with a chosen people, and so the world was divided, divided into God’s chosen people and the rest.

It was difficult for the Israelites to maintain their faith, their belief in the one true God, when they had such terrible bad fortune. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept. .. How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land? (Ps. 137).

The Assyrians conquered the Israelites in 722, and when in 587 BC the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, the Temple, which had stood for so long, was razed to the ground. All the precious things in it were taken by the victorious Babylonians. You can read all about these disasters in the Books of Kings and the Books of Chronicles.

It didn’t really look as though God’s covenant with the Israelites, His covenant with Abraham, was really working. Then the Israelites started to understand that it was God, God Himself, who had caused all the misfortune, and it was because they had not followed God’s commandments. But God forgave them, and during the time of the Persians, they were treated much more kindly. Eventually they went about rebuilding the Temple.

Flash forward 600 years to the time of Jesus, and the time of St Paul immediately afterwards, and imagine what a huge step – a huge mental step – St Paul was making when he realised that God was not exclusive in the way that he had been brought up to think He was.

It wasn’t the case that there was one God, and that that one God favoured only the Israelites, the Jews. The lesson of Jesus was that God was – God is – a god for all of us. God created the whole world after all. The message of Jesus’ appearance is that there is still a covenant between God and His people: but his people are all people, not just one small nation.

That is, of course, a momentous step. Once St Paul had recognised that, it made it possible for the good news of Christ to spread throughout the world, and not just to stay as a minority cult among the Israelites.

So look at this timeline: Ezra, about 500 BC: St Paul, no more than a dozen or so years after the death of Christ, so, let’s say, just over 500 years later. And we are just over 2,000 years after that.

But back to the fact that we are tonight in St Mary’s. St Mary’s is the oldest church in Surrey – it was built originally in 680AD. Indeed, it’s a Saxon church: if you look, after the service, at the three little models that are on the shelf over there in the transept, you will see that it was originally a sort of Saxon shed – and then it grew progressively in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to be the shape of church which it is now.

So if we go back to the timeline – Ezra, 500 BC: St Paul, maybe 40 or 50 AD: St Mary’s, just over 500 years later, 680. And our service, written in the 1540s by Archbishop Cranmer – so, about another 5- or 600 years later.

You should know that the Book of Common Prayer, which we’re using tonight (it’s the little blue book in your pew), actually took 100 years to settle into its final form, but the key bits of it were written by Archbishop Cranmer in the middle 1500s – so, the time of Henry VIII – and we are about 700 years after that. We are joined – reconciled, sort of – with all those Christians before us.

Remember that in the 1540s Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was writing the Book of Common Prayer in the crucible of the Reformation. Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg: John Calvin had preached in Geneva; Zwingli in Zürich, and of course, Henry VIII; all contributed to a time of theological ferment and disagreement.

We are using words which haven’t changed for 700 years. We really are walking in the footsteps of the saints. Because Cranmer didn’t just dream up all the words in the services which went into the Book of Common Prayer. He based all the services on his translations, and on his understanding, of even older services which the church had been using before he compiled the Prayer Book in the 1540s.

The BCP was meant to be a prayer book, a service book, for use in common, meaning shared by everyone. Against the background of all the different strands of the Reformation, the BCP was a powerful tool for reconciliation.

So the fact that tonight we are using the BCP, a prayer book written 700 years ago which goes back even earlier in its origins, is, I think, very apt in the context of Churches Together: in the context of our variety, all our different ways of worshipping, in our seven churches.

Just like the time of St Paul. Faithful Christians in Ephesus, in Rome, in Corinth, in Colossae, in Galatia, were all confronting something which was far bigger than they were, and they didn’t know what the right answers were.

St Paul talked about it in 1 Corinthians 1:12.

‘ …. each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’

Which one of these great preachers had it right? Terribly important; once you are confronted by the Revelation, the Good News, that God cares for us, that He sent His only Son: nothing is more important than to respond appropriately.

But, as the Roman poet Terence said, ‘Quot homines, tot sententiae’ – (for as many as there are people, there are just as many opinions). That’s why the message of Ephesians is so very important. Its message of reconciliation, coming together, of agreeing together – even in circumstances where we disagree – is vitally important.

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

I pray that that has been your experience in our Lent course – and that it will continue to be: that you will come and share with us here, and we will come and share with you. In our different ways, we will spread the good news of Christ and will receive the good news of Christ; and we will live like people who have seen the Kingdom.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, 22nd September 2013
Ezra 1; John 7:14-36

‘By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion …
How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land?'(Psalm 137). The Israelites had been enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar, and they had spent fifty years in a strange land, Babylon, from 587BC until they were freed by King Cyrus, Cyrus the Great of Persia, who defeated the Babylonians and generously decided to allow the Israelites to go free, to go back to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple.

That’s the story we hear from the book of the prophet Ezra, written in the fourth century BC, Ezra being the great prophet of the Second Temple, the temple which was rebuilt following the return to Jerusalem under the Persians.

The great story of Israel, leading up to the Christian gospel, is one of obedience to the Law, to the Law of Moses; and the question whether the Israelites were faithful to one god. ‘Thou shalt have none other gods but me.’ When the Israelites turned aside and did worship other gods, Baal and Moloch for example, as a result they were deserted by God and the Temple was destroyed.

You can read all this story very succinctly in the Acts of the Apostles, in the sermon delivered by St Stephen in Acts 6 and 7, or in one of the ‘history psalms’, such as Psalms 78 or 106. The Israelites regarded the Temple as being of huge importance. They made a house for God to live in. It was the same idea that the apostle Peter had at the time of the Transfiguration, to make tabernacles, little houses, for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. (Matt. 17:4)

But Stephen in his sermon explained that Jesus had changed things. ‘Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool; what house will ye build me, saith the Lord: …. Hath not my hand made all these things?’ (Acts7:48f)

In our New Testament lesson from St John’s gospel, Jesus is pointing out that the Jews are very literal in their adherence to the Law, so there are certain things that the Law allows them to do, for instance carrying out circumcisions, on the Sabbath, but not, according to them, healing the sick.

So the Jews were questioning Jesus about what authority, what basis he had, for challenging them, and Jesus answered that he wasn’t simply a man, but that he got his knowledge also from his divine origin. St John’s gospel has a major theme, which is that Jesus was the Son of God.

It’s interesting how these theological questions evolved. In 600BC, 2,700 years ago, it was a live issue whether there was one god; but it was already part of the Jews’ vision that that one god had to have a house, and the house had to be magnificently furnished. The idea of God being beyond time and space had not really taken hold; but it was true that the Jews understood God as not being something made, like a golden calf – God was not a ‘brazen idol’. He was the Creator and sustainer of the world.

It is perhaps a bit salutary to realise that these steps in the history of our own civilisation – the Persians conquered the Babylonians, the Greeks conquered the Persians, the Romans conquered the Greeks and the Romans conquered Britain – those early steps took place in those mysterious and rather feared places which perhaps today we would see on the map and say, just represent threats and trouble: Iraq, Iran, Israel, Syria. That’s where it happened. It is perhaps difficult for us to remember that these places together represent the cradle of our civilisation.

It does look as though things have regressed from the time when the great king of Persia, Cyrus, could be so generous to the Jews living in exile in Babylon. The dreadful use of chemical weapons recently looks to be an innovation in brutality – but if you look at Herodotus’ Histories, you will realise that even in the days of Cyrus there were some ghastly inhumanities going on.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to go into the gory details here, but suffice to say that man’s inhumanity to man seems to have been a hallmark of this part of the world, at once the cradle of civilisation and at the same time the scene of bestial cruelty. That was true even in these heroic times, when the Jewish exile was coming to an end.

The idea that God did not live in a particular place was not something which Jesus started. ‘Heaven is my throne and earth is my footstool’ is an idea which comes from Isaiah chapter 66. So Jesus’ preaching was not that revolutionary – it was simply emphasising what was in the prophets’ teaching already – but, as often seemed to happen, the Pharisees didn’t understand, and thought that Jesus was some kind of a charlatan.

I think it’s not very fair that we should have this idea that the Pharisees were all bad. I think we have to have some fellow-feeling. What would we have thought if we’d been there? For instance, if we’d heard a rumour that Jesus might be the Messiah, but we’d compared it with what we could remember had been prophesied about the Messiah: ‘You won’t know where he has come from.’ But we did know exactly where Jesus had come from.

Would we have been clever enough or trusting enough to become disciples? Or would we have stood on the sidelines, going with the flow, like the majority of the Jewish people? Would we have recognised all the miracles that Jesus did and realised that He was who He claimed to be?

But hang on a minute. Isn’t that all really rather academic? What possible difference could any of that stuff make to our lives? How does the fact that we go to church and we call ourselves Christians affect how we look at what’s happening in the Middle East today? Or if we come across people who are in need, or suffering from disabilities; do we put it down to their ‘lifestyle choices’, as a government minister did the other day?

Where is God in all this now? Is God speaking to us through His Holy Spirit, or has He left us to sort things out by ourselves? I think Jesus would be cross with us, just as He was cross with the Jews, if He saw us not taking care of the hungry, the weak, the poor, those who are not as fortunate as ourselves in our society: not, in other words, loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Jesus was clearly right in saying that the Pharisees had forgotten the law of Moses, because they were setting out to kill him. They had conveniently forgotten ‘Thou shalt not kill’. He was absolutely serious when He pointed out that, even on the basis of conventional wisdom, on the basis of the Law of Moses, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. That was true in the early years of the first century, when Jesus said it (or at least when Jesus implied it); and it’s true today. The right answer to the crimes of someone like Mr Assad of Syria is not more killing.
Nearer to home, Jesus’ emphasis, when faced with the fact that many people are hungry today, even in England, even in the rich borough of Elmbridge, in Stoke and Cobham, Jesus’ emphasis would surely be on feeding those people rather than trying to blame them for somehow bringing hunger upon themselves.

I can’t help the feeling that, although I don’t think Jesus actually said it in words, what is implied by his great commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves – which is in the Law of Moses; it’s in Leviticus, chapter 19 verse 18 – is that you have to take people as you find them. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man, who had fallen among thieves and was lying injured on the road, he didn’t check whether the man had been imprudent or had not gone out properly prepared, or even had perhaps said the wrong thing.

None of that mattered. The only thing that mattered was he was hurt and in need. That should surely be our motivation too. Remember what Jesus said that the eternal Judge would say at the day of judgement: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ (Matt. 25:34f).