Archives for posts with tag: Methodist

Sermon for Evensong on the 13th Sunday after Trinity, 26th August 2018

Hebrews 13:16-21 – see https://tinyurl.com/y754tzue

‘Now the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant,
Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ’.

This lovely blessing comes from the letter to the Hebrews, from the end of our second lesson which Len read for us. It’s often used at Easter time, and if you are a Methodist, as I used to be, you will be familiar with the blessing as it is the one used at the end of the communion service.

May God make us perfect. It’s a really inspiring idea to go out with at the end of the service. May God make us perfect, perfect to do His will. I’m not quite sure how we would put that today: ‘perfectly suited’ to do it, perhaps.

The modern Bible translation in some of our other services [NRSV Anglicised Edition] says, ‘.. make you complete in everything good, so that you may do His will..’, which isn’t so memorable, and I’m not sure that it’s any more understandable; because in normal speech today, we don’t say we are ‘complete’ to do something. [I have also put at the beginning a link to Paul Ingram’s very useful ‘katapi’ site, showing the excellent New English Bible translation alongside the Greek original].

We don’t talk about being ‘complete’ people. ‘The Compleat Angler’ was the title of the famous book by Izaak Walton published in 1653, which subsequently went on to become the name of countless riverside pubs: ‘The Complete [sic, 1760] Angler, or, Contemplative Man’s Recreation’ was the full title of the book. You can get an early edition, a 1760 one, printed 100 years after the original one was published, for the bargain price of £1,500, I see, on the Internet, at biblio.co.uk: but you don’t have to pay such a lot, because it looks to be still in print, at much more modest prices.

The book title, The Compleat Angler, is the only use of the word ‘complete’ to describe a person that has occurred to me. You certainly might say that some thing was complete: my Hoover is complete with all its attachments. The spares kit in the boot of the car is complete. But I, a person, am not normally referred to as ‘complete’ in that sense. Tom Wolfe wrote a good novel called ‘A Man in Full’, published in 1998. The description ‘in full’, ‘A Man in Full’, has something of the same connotation as ‘complete’ has in the NRSV Bible.

Thinking about this prompted me to read the passage in the original Greek to see what this intriguing couple of sentences really says. It’s very inspiring, particularly at the end of an uplifting service, to feel that, with God’s help, we could be perfect. But does it really mean that?

The Greek word, καταρτισαι, is a word which means to ‘fully prepare’ someone or something, to ‘restore’ them, to put them in full working order. It’s not really the same as ‘perfect’, though – at least not nowadays.

Clearly the translators of the King James Bible (which is the version Len read from, the one we use for Evensong and Mattins), those three groups of learned scholars, used the word ‘perfect’ slightly differently from how we would use it today. They actually adopted, nearly word for word, the translation by William Tyndale just under 100 years earlier. Tyndale’s two editions, of 1525 and 1535, both used the word ‘perfect’: they said, ‘… make you perfect in all good works, to do his will, working in you that which is pleasant in his sight…’ In those days ‘perfect’ had a connotation of being ‘apt’ or ‘well-equipped’, as well as of being faultless.

These famous words in the Bible, in Hebrews, first written by Tyndale, link us right back to the time of the Reformation. William Tyndale was martyred because he dared to translate the Bible out of Latin into English. The Reformers, like him, Martin Luther and John Calvin, didn’t want there to be any barriers between the people and God in worship.

The idea, that only the priests could understand the words, was something that the Reformers were dead against. ‘Hoc est … corpus meum’, the Latin for ‘This is my body’, in the Communion service, became ‘hocus pocus’. Hocus pocus – hoc est corpus. That’s what the ordinary people tended to think about it. Sacrament had become superstition. I do think that, if we let words just pass by unexamined, we might fall into the same trap.

Article XXIV of the 39 Articles reflects the Reformers’ intentions. Thomas Cranmer, who wrote it, was familiar with the work of Martin Luther, and may have met both him and Huldrych Zwingli, the great Zurich reformer. The Article is entitled,

‘Article XXIV: Of speaking in the congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth.

It says:

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the word of God, and the custom of the primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.’

You can find Art XXIV on page 621 at the back of your little blue Prayer Book. As a small aside, you can look at the whole Letter to the Hebrews as another angle on the whole theology of priesthood. A lot of the Letter, its main theme, is taken up with discussion of Jesus’ position as a priest ‘of the order of Melchizedek’, which is an idea that only people steeped in the Old Testament, Jews or Jewish converts to Christianity, would understand.

The Jews never referred to God by name. God was the great ‘I am’, and anyone who met God face-to-face would be destroyed by the sight. Only the prophets and priests of the Temple could encounter God face-to-face and survive. And the Letter to the Hebrews goes into great detail in explaining how Jesus is indeed a true priest, with a direct line to God the Father.

Contrast that with the Reformation, Protestant, idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, (originally espoused by Luther and Calvin, following 1 Peter 2:9, which says, ‘But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people…’), the belief that you didn’t need a priest to stand between you and God. Any worshipper, any true believer, was his own priest. So in this earliest English translation, adopted by King James’ translators, a Greek word which means to prepare or to restore – ‘may the God of peace prepare you, make you up to the task’ – which I suppose is a bit like being ‘complete’ in the sense of the ‘Compleat Angler’, fully qualified, fully prepared, becomes, ‘perfect’. Make you perfect.

Perhaps I’m being too finicky about words here. Perhaps we do really know what it is to be made ‘perfect in every good work to do his will’. But it’s not all down to us whether we are ‘perfect’. Whether we have 20-20 spiritual vision or not is a question of grace; God has either blessed us with it or He hasn’t. There’s another version of the Hebrews blessing which is perhaps a bit closer to our modern way of thinking and expressing what we mean. This is:

‘May Christ the Son of God perfect in you the image of his glory

and gladden your hearts with the good news of his kingdom’

‘Perfect in you’ the image. Make it perfect. Not make you perfect, though. But in Hebrews it is a prayer for you: and it is to make you perfect. Not perfectly formed, necessarily, but perfectly equipped.

So let us pray.

May the God of peace,

that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,

that great shepherd of the sheep,

through the blood of the everlasting covenant,
Make us perfect in every good work to do his will,

working in us that which is wellpleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ.

Advertisements

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on the Second Sunday of Advent, 8th December 2013
1 Kings 18:17-39, Matthew 3:1-12

I’m not a very good guide to celebrity baking contests, although apparently I use the same bread-making machine as the Prime Minister. Elijah’s roasting contest with the prophets of Baal is a spectacular story, from which we can certainly draw a message that God backed up the prophecy of Elijah by performing a substantial miracle.

On the second Sunday in Advent, which today is, we are focusing on the prophets, and starting to look at John the Baptist. There are a lot of parallels between Elijah and John. Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, were of course said to be ‘transfigured’ with Jesus later on in the Gospel (Matt. 17), and John the Baptist’s message was ‘Repent’ – μετανοιειτε in Greek, which means literally, ‘change your minds’.

So much of the New Testament involves changing one’s mind: the word I think of in this context is ‘counterintuitive’. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount is counterintuitive. Turn the other cheek: go the other mile – or in St Ignatius’ prayer, ‘Render to no man evil for evil.’ This week, the person who springs to mind, when we talk of those kind of counterintuitive standards, is of course Nelson Mandela.

Counterintuitives abound when you talk about Nelson Mandela. He was perhaps the greatest world leader in the 20th century – but for 27 years, he was imprisoned as a terrorist. Quite a lot of the politicians now joining in the the chorus of praise for him have in the past condemned him as a terrorist. I suppose that the answer is that it depends on your point of view. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like when he walked out of jail free, after 27 years? Not only was he free, but he was walking more or less directly into government and into the presidency of his country. The ideology which had locked him up, which he had fought, apartheid, had been utterly defeated.

So often, when there has been a mighty struggle – even a struggle to the death – the victors exact terrible vengeance. Indeed, in the passage immediately after our Old Testament lesson, when the fire of The Lord consumed the burnt offering which Elijah had prepared, the people fell on their faces and sang, ‘The Lord indeed is God’. Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ And they seized them, and killed all of them, all 450 of them. It was terrible vengeance. I’m tempted to say that 27 years in jail must have felt far worse to Nelson Mandela than it felt for Elijah having a celebrity bake-off with the prophets of Baal. If anyone might have been expected to inflict victors’ justice on the defeated parties, it would have been Nelson Mandela.

It was a very bizarre coincidence that on the very day that Nelson Mandela died, a new film, a biopic about him, simply called ‘Mandela’, opened in London. In our Spiritual Cinema, we had a very good film called ‘Goodbye Bafana’, which was about the way in which a hard-bitten Afrikaner prison guard, James Gregory, who was appointed to be the warden of the prison on Robben Island, because he could speak the Xhosa language, which Mandela and his fellow-prisoners spoke. He was supposed to eavesdrop on them for the government.

Gradually he became more and more influenced by what he saw and heard. He and Mandela became very good friends. He evolved from a narrow-minded bigot to be a sensitive, humane critic of social injustice. Nelson Mandela seemed to inspire everyone he met.

One of his greatest friends, of course, was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela was certainly a Christian. He was educated in a Methodist school, and some people think that he was a Methodist. Other people believe that he was a Jehovah’s Witness. He definitely was a Christian.

Nobody is very sure. But one thing that was very well-known is that he was very good friends with ‘the Arch’, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. With Archbishop Tutu he conceived the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a way of dealing with the excesses of the apartheid era, and the inhumanities which had been shown by both sides in the struggle. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought together people who had hurt other people and people who had been hurt.

The offenders had to confess the truth and accept responsibility for what they had done. In some cases they received an amnesty, but in many others they didn’t. The real work of the Commission was not as an alternative to the justice system, but to bring the communities together in reconciliation.

Again, how extraordinary to think that the people who had suffered under the apartheid rule, where they were clearly not treated as being fully human, were invited to meet and forgive their oppressors. ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’.

The whole story of Nelson Mandela, the greatness and generosity of his heart, is so reminiscent of the teaching of Jesus, and of the preparation for that teaching, which John the Baptist gave: μετανοείτε, repent, be reconciled.

So often people dismiss the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as being Utopian, impractical: no real human being could keep up that level of business, they say. People say, when it comes down to the hard choices in life, the Sermon on the Mount just isn’t practical. And yet, it looks as though Nelson Mandela really did do it; for him, the Sermon on the Mount was a reality, and he carried out what Jesus recommended.

For Nelson Mandela it really wasn’t an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. He really did turn the other cheek, and he really did go the second mile. He put up with his unjust incarceration. He didn’t complain. He even made friends with his jailer.

For John the Baptist, the coming Messiah was going to sort the wheat from the chaff, and he was going to chuck the chaff into the ‘unquenchable fire’; but when Jesus came, he wasn’t a fire-breathing horseman of the Apocalypse – he was a baby: a helpless baby. Counterintuitive again.

So our second Advent signpost points to the Prophets and to John the Baptist, and invites us to adopt his message: μετανοιειτε, change your minds, repent.

Just think: if Nelson Mandela had not pursued the path of forgiveness and reconciliation, would he be so revered today? Certainly he would have been recognised as a great leader – but would he have been called the greatest leader? He didn’t stand up for himself. No Nuremberg trials for South Africa.

And so we pray, with Nelson Mandela, that wherever there is conflict, there will be reconciliation. That will, truly, prepare the way of the Lord.

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.