Archives for posts with tag: John Wesley

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 7th January 2018

Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=382181977

Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, hit the headlines the other day by suggesting that Americans who go to church, but who also support the policies of President Trump, are not really Christians. Or, shall we say, by supporting Trump, they are acting in a way which conflicts with true Christian belief.

He doesn’t see how you can square professing to be a Christian with supporting Donald Trump, in that Donald Trump has shown that he is a womaniser, a xenophobe, a racist and a warmonger. If Christians support Donald Trump, does that in any way compromise their Christianity? The Bishop of Liverpool clearly says, ‘Yes, it does.’

Instead of the President, look for a minute at the leader whom Isaiah was describing in our first Bible reading. This is sometimes called the Song of the Covenant. It is a proclamation, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, putting God’s words into the mouth of the prophet, describing that chosen leader, the Messiah, leading the people bound by their agreement with God, the covenant with Abraham: ‘He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street.’ He is gentle. ‘A bruised reed shall he not break’. Strangely, you might feel, there’s no mention of Twitter.

But interestingly – perhaps a bit paradoxically – this is all in a series of chapters describing God reaching an agreement, a covenant, with his chosen people – it’s not just an agreement between God and the chosen people, the Israelites. Even back in the beginning, in the Old Testament, in Isaiah it says, ‘… he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles’ and ‘I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles’. A light of the Gentiles – the Gentiles were the non-Jews. They were what we are.

So right at the beginning, at the championing of the people of Israel in God’s eyes, there was also more than a look over the shoulder at the people who were not Jewish. The Messiah was going to be a light to them too, a ‘light to the Gentiles’. This is universal. Christ is for all the world, for everyone.

The idea of a private understanding, a covenant, between God and his ‘chosen people’ may seem a bit strange to us now. But in the Methodist Church all over the world this Sunday, the first Sunday of the year, is known as Covenant Sunday, and there is a special service in which the congregation renew their commitment to follow God’s commandments, and John Wesley’s special Covenant prayer is said. I will pray that prayer for us when I lead our prayers in a few minutes.

What the Messiah was going to do had a distinctly revolutionary aspect to it. He would bring the prisoners out of prison and give light to the blind, in a society where, if you were disabled, people thought that was because you had done something wrong and were bad in some way. So in other words the people who had the deal with the Almighty, the chosen, the chosen race, the Israelites, were not chosen so that they could carry all before them and rule the world, they were to be a haven of social justice and reconciliation, where the leader was not a mighty warrior but was a gentle person who would not hurt a fly. Rather different from President Trump.

People who are politically savvy will probably glaze over a bit as I go through this because, they will say, ‘What is the relevance of what happened 2000 years ago – or even earlier, if you are talking about Isaiah?’ There are practical things that you just can’t ignore. ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I mean, in this country these days, even if in an ideal world we would like to, we just don’t have the money to do all the good things that we would like to do.’

But it is notable that in the Bible there is never any reference to what doing the right thing might cost. It’s just a question whether it’s the right thing to do or not. St Paul’s point in our second lesson from Ephesians is that, given that the Messiah has come, that Jesus has appeared, and in so doing God has renewed his covenant; so there is an effect on the faithful believers. Once they realise that God has taken an interest in them, then, the argument goes, they won’t want to do any bad things in future. It won’t matter what the practicalities are: ‘Teach us, good Lord …. to give, and not to count the cost’. That will be their guiding principle.

But whereas perhaps even in the light of this, all we can do about the godlessness of President Trump is to sigh, and say how much we disapprove, what about things nearer to home? For instance, what about the leader of Windsor borough council?

The leader of the Windsor council has written to the police and crime commissioner local to him, to ask that homeless people be cleared off the streets in time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Now is there any kind of conflict between the Christianity of the wedding and the unsympathetic attitude to homeless people exhibited by the council leader? He has said that he just wanted to do something to help the wedding couple. He has said that he thought that many of the homeless people were not really homeless, because there were places where they could stay. They were begging, making themselves a nuisance.

But what would Jesus say about that? Or indeed Isaiah? The Old Testament has numerous places where the prophets tell people to look after widows and orphans, and ‘the stranger that is in your midst’. That must imply that they are homeless. And in the New Testament, in Jesus’ own words, what about the Great Judgement in Matthew 25:

Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I would suggest that it’s pretty clear that Jesus wouldn’t be sympathetic to the leader of Windsor borough council. I think Jesus would say that it doesn’t matter why someone is homeless, or a beggar. The Good Samaritan didn’t check to see whether the man who had been hurt had in some way been responsible for his plight, to blame for it, had somehow brought his misfortune on himself.

And indeed many of the organisations which work to care for the homeless have challenged the council leader’s reasoning. Thames Valley Police, the ones he asked to clear so-called ‘rough sleepers’ off the streets, didn’t think that would help. It would be more effective, the police said, if the causes of homelessness and destitution were addressed instead. Crisis, the charity for the homeless, said similar things. People don’t choose to be homeless, and they only beg when they are desperate. Shelter and Centrepoint, two other leading charities, have agreed.

I don’t know whether the leader of Windsor and Maidenhead Royal Borough Council goes to church at all. But I think that if he does, he ought to reflect very carefully on what the Bishop of Liverpool has said about whether it’s possible to be a Trump supporter and a Christian at the same time. It applies here on this side of the Atlantic too. If you don’t love your neighbour as yourself, never mind what it costs, you’re not a real Christian.

The Covenant Prayer of John Wesley (1703–1791)

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.

Further Bible references: see http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20110203_1.htm

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Sermon at Holy Communion at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, The Conversion of St Paul – 25th January 2015
Acts 9:1-22 – ‘Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.’

For a couple of weeks now, I have been going to a house group, which is not one of ours, run by St Mary’s or St Andrew’s, but it’s a sort of spontaneous house group, run by some nice people who live locally, who go to the International Community Church (the American church, that was). I was invited to go along by a friend of mine who sometimes worships here but who usually goes to St Andrew’s, Oxshott.

It’s a shame, in a way, that in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the ICC church is no longer a member of Churches Together in Cobham, Stoke, Oxshott and Surrounding Areas. They used to be, when they used to meet locally, but now they hold their meetings in Chertsey, so they are not local to us any more.

The house group is watching a series of videos made by an American evangelist called Rob Bell, who looks about 15 but who is apparently a bit older than that, and runs a mega-church somewhere in the USA. If you want to look up his videos, they are on YouTube under the title ‘NOOMA’, N-O-O-M-A, which he explains as a phonetic transliteration of the Greek word πνεύμα, from which we get ‘pneumatic’, for example. It’s a word for a wind or a spirit: so το πνεύμα άγιον is the Holy Spirit.

On the NOOMA YouTube channel there are a number of videos, which are really illustrated sermons by Mr Bell. The one that we watched this week [http://nooma.com/films/001-rain] involved Mr Bell going for a walk in the woods with his one-year-old son – whose name I didn’t catch, but it sounded like one of those American ‘surname’ names like ‘Spencer’ or ‘Washington’ or whatever – although his friends probably call him Spike, or Bonzo, of course.

Mr Bell hoisted the baby on to his back in some kind of back-pack affair and strode off into the woods, in true frontiersman fashion. It looked like a scene out of a holiday promotion video: beautiful warm sunlight coming through the trees, birds singing, and so on.

They were walking round a lake. Half way round, the weather changed, and it started to rain. The rain quickly turned into a full-blooded thunderstorm. Mr Bell and his offspring were both wearing tops which had hoods. Mr Bell reached behind him and pulled the baby’s hood up over his head, to keep the rain off, and did the same for himself. The baby, of course, as babies do, immediately threw off his hood. However, Mr Bell was oblivious to this, because he had the baby hitched to his back, so he couldn’t see him.

He strode on, at a military pace. He told us that he was about a mile from home. Obviously this was not the sort of afternoon stroll that you or I might get up to after lunch today, but something altogether more athletic. Anyway, there’s Bell, striding along under his hoodie top, and suddenly, Rufus Alexander Williamson III starts to protest – because he is now wet, not having his hood up.

He shouts and screams and generally makes all the usual baby protesting noises. Mr Bell, finally, rumbles the fact that all is not well with the baby. So he unhitches the backpack and he tucks the baby under his own coat in front, snuggling him up and getting him nice and warm again, out of the rain.

All the while, Mr Bell is gently repeating to the baby, ‘I love you, Rufus Alexander Washington III: and we are going to make it.’ Fortunately, they do make it; they get back home – and we have to imagine the scene in the log cabin, with the blazing fire, jacuzzi and fluffy towels which no doubt the returning father and son then enjoyed.

Cut instead to Mr Bell, who tells us that the story was an analogy, a metaphor, for how God is. God is with us in our darkest moments, when it is raining on us and our hood is not up. God will be there, and He will say that He, our Heavenly Father, loves us, and that we will make it together.

I thought it was a nice idea, but I wasn’t sure. It was a pity that it wasn’t a Churches Together house group during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, because I would then have got a lot of points for being outside my comfort zone, but still, with Christian friends!

The leader of the group had a sheet of questions. One was, were we conscious of God being alongside us, perhaps in times of trouble? Did we have experiences like Mr Bell and his little boy, caught in the rain?

I was rather challenged. I haven’t had an experience like John Wesley, who was going to a Bible class and who suddenly felt his heart was ‘strangely warmed’, for example. I certainly haven’t had a Road to Damascus experience like St Paul.

I felt rather stuck – because I am not given to that kind of spirituality, unfortunately. I am a rather down-to-earth person and I’m not sure that I necessarily would hear a ‘still small voice of calm’ – although what St Paul experienced would surely have got through to me.

I have, however, been reading a new book, from our bookshop – and by the way, please remember, where bookshops are concerned, you must use them or lose them, and not be tempted by the likes of Amazon. Our bookshop can get you any book you like the next day, just as quickly as Amazon. (The usual disclaimers apply.)

Well anyway, I have been reading a new book, which is a series of papers assembled and edited by Archbishop John, John Sentamu, called ‘On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain’s future’. It’s a series of essays designed to inform the debate which is going to lead up to our General Election in May. It’s not meant to be party-political in any way, but is intended to inspire all our politicians to think in terms of what Archbishop John calls ευδαιμονία, the Greek word which roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’.

The idea is that it’s not enough for us to flourish in material terms, but rather we have to flourish as men and women made in the image of God. According to Genesis 1:27: … God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

We have to flourish, to reach our full human potential, according to Archbishop John. The two greatest commandments, to love God and to love our neighbour, are to be applied to our economic and political situation. The essays explore how we can become closer to how God intended us to be, and therefore to flourish and reach our full potential, in a fair, just and loving way.

John Sentamu’s book in many ways is influenced by, and perhaps was inspired by, Archbishop William Temple’s 1942 book, ‘Christianity and Social Order’ [Shepheard-Walwyn 1976, 1987, ISBN -10: 0-85683-025-9], which was one of the key documents which led to the creation of the Welfare State and NHS after the Second World War.

Archbishop Temple, R.H. Tawney, the famous economic historian, and William Beveridge, the architect of the Welfare State, were all at Balliol College, Oxford. They were sent off by the Master of Balliol, Edward Caird, in the vacations to work in the East End of London among poor and deprived people, which gave them an insight which they would not otherwise have received. People sometimes forget that, when the Welfare State and the NHS were created, the National Debt was far greater than it is today: but the inspiration which drove Archbishop Temple and his fellow students pointed to something far more important than money, or the lack of it.

In a similar vein, Jean Vanier, the Canadian theologian who founded the worldwide network of L’Arche communities where people with disabilities live together with able-bodied people, to great mutual benefit, was interviewed on the Today programme on Thursday [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02hkfzr]. He told a story about visiting a city in South America and being told, as they drove down a main road, that on one side of the road the poor people lived, in squalor and depravity; lives full of uncertainty, hunger and disease.

On the other side of the same road were the big houses with gates and armed guards, with police patrols, in which the rich and privileged lived. Nobody from that side of the road ever crossed over to meet the people in the slums. Jean Vanier said that his whole work had been to encourage people to cross the road; to go and see, and make friends with, people who are differently situated: handicapped or poor, just not so fortunate.

It occurred to me that for me, reading Archbishop John and his contributors’ words of hope, setting out a vision according to which more things matter than just money and the market: and Jean Vanier, showing how it is possible to cross the road – they, for me, showed that God is there. For me, no bright light; no voices from heaven. Like St Paul, I haven’t been fortunate enough actually to be around with Jesus and his first disciples. But just as surely, I felt the presence of God. I’m sure we all can, too.

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 19th January 2014, at St Mary’s
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

In Father Ted, whenever anyone asked Father Jack a question he couldn’t answer, he would say, ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’. What is an ecumenical matter, really? It means a question of the organisation, the οικουμένη, meaning the world, the set-up, of the church. We use the term ‘ecumenism’ to cover the whole question of Christian unity.

At four o’clock this afternoon I will be going – as I hope some of you will too – to the Methodist Church in Cedar Road, for the annual service, arranged by Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott, to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In our first lesson today St Paul begins his first letter to the church at Corinth, addressing them all as ‘saints’, ‘saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.’

‘Both theirs and ours’ – their and our what? The modern translations, for example the New English Bible, say, ‘their Lord as well as ours.’ But the Greek says literally that Paul is writing to those who are called together in Corinth, called to be saints, with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, of theirs and of ours.

It perhaps doesn’t make a vast difference, but what it means is that there were different bodies of Christians in different places, even in the earliest days. There was a church at Corinth, and it had some distinctive features.

Well, today I shall go, I shall go back, to the Methodist chapel. I was brought up a Methodist. Both my grandpas and one great-grandpa were Methodist ministers; and indeed I worshipped in the Methodist Church, was a member of the Methodist Church, until 1996. So in some senses, going to the service this afternoon will be like coming home.

But it won’t really be, because the service this afternoon is actually going to be run by another of the churches in Cobham, which uses the Methodist chapel as their base for worship too, and that is Cobham Community Church, which describes itself as a ‘congregation of Bookham Baptist Church’. Although they don’t say so very obviously, they are Baptists.

In Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon there are Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformeds, Scottish Presbyterians: six different denominations, just in our little group of villages. This Churches Together area includes about 17,000 people, of whom about 4,000 claim to belong to one or other of the churches here.

I expect that, this afternoon, the worship may be strange – well, strange to me: and, dare I say, not something that I will necessarily find very congenial. But I’m certainly ready to be pleasantly surprised. I should say straightway that going to church is not a matter of entertainment; so to some extent it’s not relevant whether I like the worship or not.

A better question might be whether the worship is worthy; whether it is a proper sacrifice of praise: if it is a sacrament, whether it is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us’, [The Book of Common Prayer, A Catechism, p.294].

For some reason the first lesson, from 1 Corinthians, set for today in the Lectionary, stops at verse 9, and is just the opening greeting from St Paul’s letter, where he praises the Corinthians, acknowledges them to be saints, and says that they are ‘enriched by the grace of God, so that they come behind in no gift.’ They are not mere runners-up in the the race for gifts.

But if you read on, you immediately get to the passage which is much more commonly used in the context of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ He goes on to say, ‘Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptised in the name of Paul?’

In other words, Paul started to criticise the fact that even then, the church had factions in it. I’m not sure when a faction becomes a denomination, or indeed, when a faction becomes a schism, but it does seem that, even in the very earliest church, there were differences of opinion about how best to express the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, as we have seen, even locally, we have a whole variety of denominations. The denominations stand for different interpretations of the gospel of Christ. Even within the Anglican church, there are a wide variety of shades of opinion about our faith. There are threats of schism, splits in the church, over the question what we should believe about human sexuality, for example.

The African Anglicans, in general, and the North Americans, are diametrically opposed, and we Englishmen try to sit on the fence. And so, each year, we embark on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Dare I say that I don’t think that we are approaching this question of Christian unity in quite the straightforward way that St Paul recommends?

He says, ‘I beseech you that ye all speak the same thing, and that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ But I have to confess that I don’t have the same mind and the same judgement as my friends in the Catholic Church, or my friends in the Cobham Community Church, or in the United Reformed Church. I probably do have the same ‘mind’ as my friends in the Methodist Church, because by and large they believe the same things that we Anglicans do. John and Charles Wesley were Anglican vicars till they died.

Although even saying that, an amber light goes on in my brain, because we Anglicans have such a wide variety of belief: so it might be better to say that the Methodists and some Anglicans share common ground.

Of course, historically, the two biggest splits in the church were those between the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches first of all, between Constantinople and Rome, and then between the Protestants and the Catholics. Article XIX of the 39 Articles says,

‘The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’

So said Archbishop Cranmer in 1542. It’s still officially the belief of the Church of England.

It doesn’t sound like we have followed St Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth. But I’m bound to say, the question which occurs to me is whether it matters. Never mind, for a minute, the divisions between Christians: think about the divisions between the various religions – or certainly, the so-called religions of the book, that is, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of them make claims to be the exclusive way to the true God. ‘No man cometh unto the Father but by me’ [John 14:6].

The problem is that this whole area is of the highest importance. Nothing could be more important than that we correctly understand, and have the right attitude towards, God, the creator and sustainer of everything. That then leads on to the question, ‘What is true, what is truth?’ Clearly there’s room for a lot of disagreement and different understandings.

In 1834, Thomas Arnold, who became the famous headmaster of Rugby School and was at some time the Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford and a fellow of Oriel College, wrote to the Professor of Moral Philosophy, R.D. Hampden, saying, ‘Your view of the difference between Christian Truth’ – capital C, capital T – ‘and Theological opinion is one which I have long cherished.’ Hampden had said that he made a distinction between religion, or divine revelation on the one hand, and theological opinions on the other, suggesting that Christians were in broad agreement over the first: everyone broadly recognised the basic revelation of God in Jesus Christ, but only human interpretations of divine word caused Christians to differ over the second, over theological opinion of what the gospel meant. [Catto, J., ed., 2013, Oriel College, a History: Oxford, OUP, p.336]

But of course, if you say that every word in the Bible is literally true, then there are all sorts of difficulties. You may have to believe that the world was created in 4004 BC, and that Methuselah was over 900 years old, for example. Blood-curdling consequences arise if you follow literally the prescriptions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A rebellious child can be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18): men can be polygamous. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all had several wives: slavery is acceptable (Lev. 25:44-45).

So there is in the Church of England a helpful compromise, according to which our understanding of Christian truth in the Bible can be informed by reason and tradition. But, however reasonable that sounds, not all Christians would agree.

So these days, we tend not to be so exercised about the divisions of the church. The ecumenical movement, things like the World Council of Churches, which had a general assembly recently in South Korea, doesn’t worry so much about trying to merge the various denominations together, but rather there is an understanding that all of us ‘live in more than one place at once’ as Canon John Nurser, of the ecumenical group Christianity and the Future of Europe, put it recently. [John Nurser, book review, ‘Christian unity reconsidered’, in Church Times, 17th January 2014, p. 23].

Ecumenism now works in trying to reconcile the churches, not only one with another, but also with the challenges outside. So the World Council of Churches was united in its resistance to apartheid in South Africa and the oppression of poor people in Latin America. More recently, the World Council has become concerned with reconciling lifestyles in the West with the sustainability of creation. We can all agree that we must respect God’s creation: but we may not agree on the details of how we go around it, because we are ‘differently situated’. [Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women]

It’s easy to talk about drawing a distinction between divine revelation and theological opinion; but ultimately everything comes to us the lens of our human experience. We are all different; we all have different experience. Therefore even our understanding of religious truth is likely to be different.

Actually, St Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth may be capable of a rather more mundane explanation, namely, that he thought that they had forgotten that the Gospel came from Jesus Christ, from God, and not from Paul and Apollos, or the various other preachers. Remember, said St Paul: the preachers were preaching the Gospel of Jesus; they weren’t themselves divine.

Thomas Arnold’s distinction between Christian Truth and theological opinion may not be a final answer, but I think that it is still quite a useful way for us to look at our friends in the other churches. There is a core of belief which Christians all share. But the theological interpretation of that belief, of course, goes in all sorts of different ways. We should, I suggest, not try to change each other, but simply respect each other’s differences. After all, those of us, who have experienced mergers at work, know that mergers and takeovers are very rarely an unmixed blessing.

I do hope that you will join me this afternoon at 4 o’clock. We will join with our fellow Christians from Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott, to worship God together. It will be different from what we are used to. But that’s all right.

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.