Sunday, May 6, 2012

Abide in Christ - the Church's 'core business'

Sermon for Feast of St John the Evangelist
at Choral Mattins

Gospel for the day

John 15:1-8

Text: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.(John 15:7)

One of the privileges of my vocation is that people feel at liberty to accost me, to fix me with their glittering eye like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, and then proceed to tell me (because clearly it must have escaped my notice) that people no longer go to church as they once used to; and also ask me (as if I were the Pied Piper and had stolen them) where are the young people? All of this is usually said in a tone that nicely combines general lament with pointed accusation.

One frank response might be to inquire – ‘And where are your children (grandchildren) today? That might not be thought a very kind or sensitive response – but it would be revealing; because for many of us that thought would remind us of how the world has changed; how society has changed; how assumptions about belief and the expression of faith are now different; and how our current spiritual environment is now largely ‘post-Christian’. For example, how many of our children or our grandchildren know the Lord’s Prayer? That is something worth checking – because we can no longer assume that everyone does. However most important – the question ‘Where are your children or grandchildren today?’ reminds us all that we ‘catch’ faith in the nurturing of family life. If a close following of Jesus Christ is central in a family’s life through all the formative years, something of that tends to stick with the children and through the generations.

Of course I understand and often share the unease of those who accost me to lament and accuse. There are dissenting voices about the church. There are many who speak of the church as dying and who are looking for new signs of life, for ‘fresh expressions’ of faith; there are church leaders who talk of letting the old church die and of investing all our energy in a new way of being church. I admit to getting a little impatient when I hear this sort of talk – and there’s a lot of it about – if only because it displays a consumerist way of thinking about the church, a way of thinking that is all too close to the market forces mentality of the moment. It reminds me of the prophetic comment attributed to Dean Inge (the famous ‘gloomy Dean’ of St Paul’s, London) that ‘the church that is married to the spirit of this age will be a widow in the next’. The church’s real inner life is always at odds with the world; the church is a counter-cultural reality – always pointing us to the truth about who we are and what we are called to be. Such a church resists the commodity mentality and insists upon the mysteries of the inner life even as it calls us to resist the darkness of the world - injustice and the oppression of the poor.

In this context the appointment of Justin Duckworth as the new bishop of Wellington is especially interesting. Only recently an Anglican and recently ordained priest, Justin is associated with Urban Vision, what is sometimes called the ‘new monasticism’; groups of Christians living in communities working with the poorest, the least and the most marginalized. Urban Vision has placed itself under the spiritual oversight of the Anglican Church – it realized that its social activism needed a deep nurturing contemplative spirituality – and it discovered this in the New Zealand Prayer Book and the Anglican spiritual tradition.

Now this is not a reason for us to indulge in some self-congratulation about the wisdom of the Anglican tradition but really to remember what is the core business of the church and our ‘core business’ as followers of Christ. Our core business is captured in Jesus words: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.(John 15:7).

Now my guess is that you know what this means. Can you think back into your faith story and recall when you realised or decided that Christ was going to be ‘it’ for you? Was it through friends? Was it through a Christian group or community? Was it through reading the Bible or a book of prayers? Was it through the influence of a priest, evangelist? Was it through some experience – where suddenly the faith all made sense and you ‘knew’? Can you remember how you felt? It may have been a warming of the heart and mind, a sense of joy, of peace … something that beggars the most vivid description? Hold onto that memory, that recollection of the initial experience of Christ in your life. That is a precious clue to the life we seek.

You see, it seems to me that a church that is riddled with anxiety, fears, conflicts and resentments is a church that has temporarily forgotten the secret of its very existence and its calling – namely to ‘abide in Christ’. Let’s try and spell out what that means – at least in some rough summary fashion.

· It means to live in close connection with our Lord Jesus Christ.

· More than that, it means to constantly let Christ be the deep grounding reality of our lives.

· Let’s try again, and not pull any punches: it means that it is Christ who is our life; and to abide in Christ is to let Christ take us over. That’s what Paul meant when he said ‘It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20). That is the heart and the absolute goal of the spiritual life.

· To abide in Christ is to know what it is to live fearlessly – to know that all that we are and all that is - everything is held in the deep and loving purpose of God. To a fearful age and an anxious church that is a transforming knowledge – it is precisely what Paul understood when he proclaimed: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:38-39)

So I am going to suggest a few practical considerations to help us on our way as we seek to ‘abide in Christ’.

  • · Do we have a ‘rule of life’? Have we thought about how we live our life in Christ and have we set time aside each day for things as simple as daily prayer and bible reading; and things as practical as giving of our money, time and talents in God’s service?
  • · Do we encourage one another – by sharing our experiences and our stories?
  • · Do we spend time being together – whether just a cup of tea or having meals together? I would love to see our cathedral community doing that – and getting to know one another in the process.
  • · We need to share the faith wisely, graciously – consider inviting others to worship at the cathedral with you and to have lunch together; - and yes try to check that our children and grandchildren know the Lord’s Prayer!