Sermon preached at St Mary and St John, Trinity 17 (Sunday 8th October), by Fr Phil Ritchie
I want to start a conversation with you about our shared life as the church in this place. And I want this conversation to begin with 7 sermons, 7 reflections from me about the ways in which we seek to live out our calling to be disciples of Christ in this place. The overarching theme of these sermons is: Christ at our heart. And I know some of you may feel that this is a daring or rather an awkward choice of preposition. Shouldn’t Jesus be in rather than at. For me, Christ at our heart is both about a place of meeting or encounter with Christ but also that sense of Christ journeying with us.
The 7 lamps that we have had restored at SMJ hang on the way to the altar, and they represent for us 7 themes – themes of both affirmation and challenge.
On the bookmarks in front of you you have the 7 lamps in 7 words but let me just list all 7: Lamp 1 is Christ at our Heart through Worship, Prayer and Contemplation. Lamp 2 is Sharing the Good News of Jesus. Lamp 3 is Hospitality and Fellowship. Lamp 4 is Discipleship and Exploring Christianity Lamp 5 is Care for Others and for Creation Lamp 6 is Health and Healing – and in fact that is the lamp we will cover next week on Mental Health Sunday. Lamp 7 is Interfaith: Dialogue and Proclamation.
And in 7 words: Pray Share Belong Grow Care Heal Converse
There’s not going to be a test! I mean I can’t remember them all at once, but there they are!
And the first lamp is the one that is already lit, the lamp that represents Christ who we meet in the sacrament, in the scriptures, in prayer and in each other.
At the heart of our life together and at the heart of this building both in its shape and it numerous examples around the church, is the cross of Christ. So we begin with the cross, as a church which ‘must stand over against its surrounding culture and environment and see God revealed in weakness and god-forsakeness, in darkness and negation. And we believe that we are saved by the cross. To save comes I’m told from the Hebrew Jasha (Yey – sha) (with the noun Jeshua, saviour) and its root meaning is roomy, broad, its opposite being oppressed or hemmed in. The cross and resurrection is a victory over death, a liberation but a liberation only achieved through the experience of desolation and pain. In his encounter with Death and darkness, with the abyss Christ brings us the light and the life of God.
So to be Christian is first and foremost to be a follower of the crucified. We are not just remembering a past event or even imitating that event – this sharing in the passion and death of Christ – as we do around this altar -, is – in Bonhoeffer’s words – ‘a participation in the powerlessness of God in the world’. ‘To be a Christian is to be part of a passion centred community, the Church is ‘the people under the cross’.
There’s a wonderful passage at the beginning of the 1st letter of John which I have included on the pew sheet. Reading it seems to sum up much of what we are called to do. In many ways the passage is a reflection of the Prologue to John’s Gospel but whereas in John’s Gospel there is a definite emphasis on the Divine Word – in the beginning was the Word – here the key phrase is the word of life, this life was revealed and we have seen it and testify to it.
All of our life together flows from this, the desire for health and healing that we will look at next week on Mental Health Sunday, the care for others and creation, the hospitality and fellowship. The love of community, of social justice, of serving those in need flows from our crucified and risen Lord.
John of the Cross writes:
‘In giving us, as he did, his Son, who is his only Word – he has no other – he has spoken it all to us, once and for all, in this only Word, he has no more to say’.
We live in a society that is hungry for the new, for the instant, for fresh excitement and gratification so it is sometimes difficult for us to live faithfully within a Christian tradition which can seem life denying, narrow, dogmatic, brittle or lacking sustenance. We can cope with the fullness but not the emptiness, the speech but not the silence.
Faithfulness, fidelity, trust in the Word of Life revealed to us in Jesus is no easy path to walk. Sometimes talk about God – theology – has seemed to be about a great concern with the proper order of things, as if we might finally arrive at a point where the universe made sense, a rational divine economy – 2+2=4 More recently theology has had to deal with the post modern concern with the end of meaning, the contention that the search for meaning is a waste of time. But what Jesus Christ calls us back to is a recognition of our creatureliness, that our understanding is stinted, broken, partial but that through Jesus’s death and resurrection we are offered salvation, the opportunity to be part of a redeemed creation.
I am saved, I will be saved or I am being saved – however we package it, the root of what we are about is sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is why we come here. We seek to be alongside people as they explore what it means to know, love and follow Jesus. A deepening of our relationship with Jesus brings us to discipleship, a call which is both individual and collective.
Much of Jesus’ ministry seems to have been concerned with creating a new community and with drawing people into this. It’s a community made up of undesirables, nuisances and nobodies, the socially marginalised, the shamed and the stigmatised. The greatest thing about the falling numbers, the slow demise of the church of England in this country has been the opportunity for us to return the crucified Christ, to return to the hope of resurrection.
It can sometimes feel like there are two kinds of churches, those who focus on the cross and those who focus on the incarnation, God coming to be with us in human form. The Cross churches saying its about the transcendent God out there who through Jesus reveals himself to us and the incarnation churches saying its about God’s solidarity with us, God coming to help us . But the reality is that you can’t have one without the other. God does come to be with us in Jesus but through the death and resurrection he also reveals to us the divine nature, a transcendent truth about what it is to be human, to be God’s creatures.
As a teenager I jumped easily from the birth of Jesus to his resurrection but the authentically Christian path runs through the cross. The resurrection that we proclaim is not a new story, it is the story of THE cross, a story about redemption, about being saved, about being made new but a story that passes through darkness and desolation, in order to draw near to the mystery of our salvation. Amen.