Who are we as a church?

PATRONAL FESTIVAL SERMON: THE FEAST OF ST PETER AND ST PAUL

SUNDAY 2 JULY 2017
Sermon preached by Rev David Walsh

2 Timothy 4:6-8,17-18
Matthew 16: 13-19

Patronal Festivals are a time for churches to look at themselves in the mirror and ask: who are we as a church?

As it happens, our Patronal Festival falls in the very week our Parochial Church Council, the PCC, has decided to spend the whole of the autumn asking this very question and listening carefully to the answers.

We’re not just asking questions for the sake of asking questions.  The questions and the answers they provoke will lead to action, to action which could have a profound affect on every part of our church’s life and on the parish which we share with St Michael’s.

But all the action and energy we can summon up is worthless unless we’re heading in the right direction.  And so it’s worth taking time properly to listen.  And the autumn is going to be all about listening.

Firstly, listening to each other here in the church.  Listening out especially for the voices that perhaps don’t normally get heard.  We’ll be listening for example to our children as well as our adults.  We’ll be listening to those who’ve only just arrived, and asking them what the experience was like. Listening to those who used to be members and have now left and asking them: why?  We want to have honest and frank answers.  That’s the best way to help the church.

So we’ll be listening to each other.

But secondly, we’ll be listening to the people of Kettering, to our parish with its 19.000 parishioners.  Does this medieval building, Kettering’s oldest and most prominent landmark, stand for anything of any significance now to the town at large?  Who do they think we are?  Is that different from what we used to be?  What would they like us to be, for the town and people of Kettering?  Are we relevant to their deepest needs and aspirations?  Do we know what those are?

And third, as well as listening to each other and listening to the people of Kettering, it is above all important that we should be listening to God.  I want prayer to be at the heart of what we do in the autumn.  I was talking yesterday to a member of the church I hope might end up hosting a regular prayer group focusing on the church and parish as we ask these questions and as we work out how to respond to the answers we hear.

And this means that one of the most crucial and powerful roles in our time of listening might be played by members of our extended church family who are largely housebound.  But they can still pray.

Understanding who we are as a church means even more than this listening exercise.

At a time when the church nationally faces huge challenges, it’s becoming increasingly clear that whilst many churches are in decline, others are thriving.  This is true across different church traditions.  Growth and life are not confined to just one part of the Church of England.  Neither is decline.  I have known many liberal catholic churches which are thriving and full of energy.  And I have known evangelical churches in rapid decline.

Evidence is beginning to emerge which tells us what the thriving churches have in common.  It suggests to me key clues about what it means to be a church, a church which experiences new life.  So part of what we as a church need to do before taking big decisions about our future is learn what it means to be a church with a future in challenging times.

But that doesn’t mean we simply want to become like other churches, with no distinctive identity of our own.  Quite the opposite.  I believe passionately that when God calls us as individuals, as churches, as communities, to change, to be transformed, he wants us to become more fully ourselves, not less so.

So we also need to ask what is distinctive about this church.  As we change and grow, how will we do so in a way that is different to other churches?  That takes seriously our setting here in the middle of Kettering?  That builds on our centuries of faithful worship and service based on this building?  That reflects the things which matter to us as we express our faith: rhythm and colour in our worship; intelligent questioning as we work through our faith; generous open hearted acceptance of those who are different from us, especially the marginalised.

One small part of what makes us distinctive is our dedication to Peter and Paul.  What can we learn from them as we ask ourselves who we are as a church?

Peter is told by Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading from Matthew that he will build his church on this rock.  The wordplay in the original Greek is lost in the English translation.  To recapture the original meaning we would have to imagine something like:

‘You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church’

In this image, the church is a building.  And that gives all kinds of clues to us as we work out how to grow the church and revive it.

So from Peter we gain some clues about what we are as a church.  And our other patron, Paul, repeats this insight when he writes to the young church at Corinth: ‘you are God’s building’.

But Paul adds another image. What he actually writes to the Corinthians is ‘You are God’s field, God’s building.’

And what you need to do if you are a farmer, or a gardener, and you want your field to flourish, want it to be full of growth and life, is rather different from what you need to do to plan and construct a building.

Paul uses both images and so it’s probably true that our churches need both understandings and need leaders who can work with both understandings.

But it might be useful for you as a church – as we head into whatever the coming years might bring – to know what kind of leader I am.  I think I know myself reasonably well and I know that the image with which I’m most comfortable is that of a field.

Why is that?  It suggests that the role of Christian leaders – and that’s not just the Rector of a parish, it’s anyone who exercises any kind of influence in the life of the church – it suggests that their role isn’t so much to do things themselves, as to create the right conditions in which things will grow naturally.

Farmers and gardeners know there are things you can do which will lead to growth, and mistakes you can make which will choke growth off.

It’s interesting how often Jesus himself used these kinds of images when talking about the kingdom of God.  We think of the Parable of the Sower.  And it’s no coincidence that at my Service of Institution and Induction ten months ago, one of the readings I chose the following words from Mark’s Gospel:

‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

The natural thing to happen in the Kingdom, suggests Jesus himself, is growth.  But we can stifle that – leaders in particular can stifle this –  if we fail to understand that our role is like farmers and gardeners.  We need to create the conditions in which things flourish and blossom naturally, of their own accord.

It means of course to some extent that leaders have to give up control.  That we leaders need to expect to be surprised by what happens in our own churches, to be delighted when unexpected new things happen.  Our role is to create the conditions which make such new and unexpected things more likely.

As Paul writes to the Corinthians:

‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’

There are clearly moments in a church’s life when it needs to become more like a building.  Times when groups of people need to sit down and plan in detail how they are going to work together to create something they’ve all agreed on.  But if that’s the only way we work as a church, I fear we are not fully living out what being church means.

So both Peter and Paul can help us as we try to understand who we are as a church.  Paul has another way of describing the church which would I think be shocking to us if we weren’t so used to the image from his writings.  We might almost think it bordered on the blasphemous if it wasn’t so firmly embedded in the New Testament.  The Church, says Paul, is the Body of Christ.

It is a remarkable image.  If we want to know where Christ is now, it suggests, one of the best places to look is towards this group of not always impressive, deeply flawed humans who find themselves drawn together week by week in what we call ‘church’.

As Paul writes to the Church at Corinth: ‘You collectively are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.’

Christ’s presence is in the mix.   In the variety of people in our churches, the way we contrast with each other and yet at the same time work together.  That’s what makes it possible for us to be ‘the body of Christ’.  That’s when Jesus can be seen in us.

It is, again, no coincidence that the second reading I chose for my service of Induction and Institution was this very passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul explores in some details what it means for a church to be the body of Christ.

Because a church can’t properly be a church until it understands what Paul is talking about in this letter.

As Paul writes:

‘The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?’

What this means is that for a church properly to be a church every single member has to be playing their own unique part, the part which no one else can play.  And if they are not encouraged to do so, are not allowed to do so, if the culture of the church focuses on just a small number of people rather than on every member, then we cannot properly be the body of Christ and anyone who looks at us cannot properly see Christ in us, because something is missing.

And that’s one reason why today, we’re asking ourselves what our gifts and talents are, what part we might play in the church, in the body of Christ.  So that each of us can play our part in allowing Jesus to become visible in and through our church.

Fortunately we are all different.  No two people here today have the same gifts, talents and experience to offer.

And this is one more thing we can learn from our two Patron Saints, Peter and Paul.

Both in their own way rocks on which the early church was built.  And yet they could not be more different.

Which is one reason why the church celebrates them both together on the same day.  It’s important to know that right from the very beginning there was not just one model of being a Christian, one model of being a Christian leader.

It’s hard to think of two more different characters.  Paul was a Roman citizen, a Pharisee educated at the feet of one of the most respected Jewish scholars of all time.  In many ways he was an ‘insider’.

And Peter was a fisherman.  Quite a prosperous fisherman, quite a successful businessman, it would appear. But still a very different person from Paul.  Much more of an outsider.

You get the feeling, reading the New Testament, that these two huge figures in the early church circled rather warily around each other.  Yet think what together they made possible.  We wouldn’t be here today without them.

Paul writes quite a lot about Peter, who he calls by his Greek name ‘Cephas’.  He acknowledges that already, in the early days of the Christian church, members are dividing themselves up depending on whether they feel they are ‘Peter’ type Christians or ‘Paul’ type Christians.

Although in the wider world Paul was something of an establishment figure, within the church itself he was more of an outsider, less an acknowledged figure of authority.  And at times a degree of mild resentment appears to creep into Paul’s letters as he compares his lot with that of Peter:

‘Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?’

And occasionally they openly clashed about the future of the church:

‘When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face’  (Galatians 2:11)

And yet the church was big enough to contain two such very different characters.  Indeed, this may well have been part of what led it to thrive.

So our church too needs to be a place which admits diversity and difference.  It’s a huge shame that no women appear in this story, that instead of Peter and Paul, we don’t have Peter and Pauline.  But our task, now, is to allow a church to grow and flourish which allows as much diversity and difference as possible.

Who are we as a church?

Such a deceptively simple question.  Yet it opens up such rich and promising territory.  Let’s address it with relish over the coming months.  As we try to work what our church might look like if it were to experience new life; what it would mean for this to be a place where individuals experienced personal renewal; and what our distinctive contribution as a church might be towards the renewal of this town of ours.

As we ask these questions, let’s keep coming back to what we can learn from our two Patrons, from Peter and from Paul.

Today we give thanks for them and for all who have made our life together as a church possible.

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Making all things new 

Sermon preached by Rev David Walsh on Easter Day, Sunday 16th April 2017

Making all things new

On Good Friday one of the church’s prayers asks God to:

let the whole world feel and see
that things which were cast down are being raised up
and things which had grown old are being made new
and that all things are returning to perfection through him from whom they took their origin.

It may be a Good Friday prayer, but for me it sums up what Easter is all about.  Actually, for me it sums up the central hope of Christian faith: things which were cast down being raised up; things which had grown old being made new.

It’s a theme woven through the pages of the Bible.

Right towards the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, God says ‘Behold I make all things new’.

And the apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, describes the hope at the heart of his faith: ‘that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay.’   (Romans 8.21)

The resurrection story we’ve just heard isn’t describing a one-off event in the past.  It provides a foretaste, a glimpse, of how things will one day be.  That day is in the future.  But we –  now – can taste for ourselves something of the new life God promises.  God wants to make all things new.  And he wants to start now.  With me.  And with you.  With this church.  And with this town of Kettering.

Twenty centuries on our main witness to the resurrection are the changed lives of those touched by it.

Let me tell you just one such story, set 20 years ago, on Easter Day 1997.  A man walked into a church for the first time in many years.  In some ways, this man wasn’t so unusual in his relationship to Christian faith.  When he was younger, he’d been a committed church member.  But at some point, he started asking serious questions about the rather narrow, unimaginative flavour of Christianity he’d experienced.  Increasingly he became unconvinced by the answers he was getting.  Eventually he lost his faith and had little contact with any church for around 15 years.  This is not an unusual story. Many of us might know people like this.  Possibly there are people like this living in the same street as us. Perhaps even someone here this morning.

But in other ways this man’s story is not quite so ordinary.  His faith and his religious experiences as a teenager had been remarkably intense, at times giving him a sense of intimacy with God.  He never forgot this, even when he lost his faith.  All this had led to him training for the ordained Anglican ministry.  So, his loss of faith was also a loss of vocation.  The intervening years had not been entirely fruitless.  He’d met his soul partner and married her.  And he’d had interesting jobs.  But something vital was missing.  Later, as he looked back, he realised these years had been wilderness years.  His closest friends pointed out he’d become more selfish.  His heart was less open that it had been before.

But on Easter Day 1997 he happened to find himself in church at an all-age service and heard the gospel story just read to us.  Afterwards the Vicar talked to the children about the two disciples in this morning’s gospel reading. Their friend and leader Jesus had died.  It must have been, said the Vicar, as if everything they knew about God had died.  The former ordinand thought back to the time he’d lost faith and said to himself ’15 years ago God died in me.’  And immediately he realised he was not alone, that others before him had had a similar experience, and they included the two men in our gospel story, founders and rocks of the early church. Maybe there was space in the church for someone like him after all.

The Vicar continued to tell the children the story of the two disciples on their way to the tomb.  But now as the former ordinand listened, he found himself walking alongside the two disciples, sharing the journey.  And suddenly he was brought up short by the realisation he knew how this story ended.  He was now on a journey towards the tomb of Jesus, and it was Easter Day.

Suddenly an image flashed into his mind, of green shoots pushing up through concrete.  At the same time, he experienced what felt like a movement in his chest, as if the green shoots were actually sprouting inside him.  Overcome with emotion, he left the church and spent the rest of the service trying to come to terms with what had happened.  This was the moment of his reconversion to Christian faith.

Twenty years on, his life is completely changed, his faith has blossomed and continues to do so.

This is just one of countless stories which could be told of lives transformed by encountering, experiencing the new life at the heart of the Easter story.  I just happen to know this story rather well.  Because that man was me.

And that’s why I’m standing here today.

Not just because of something that happened twenty years ago.  I’m here because I believe the Easter vision of new life is possible not only for individuals, but for communities: for a town like Kettering, for a church like this one.

The resurrection was not the resuscitation of a dead man, restoring to him the life he had just lost.

No, what is depicted is the breaking into the world of a completely different order of reality, one in which life and not death has the last say, the ultimate reality.

The Christian vision is that this completely different reality is in fact our future, our destiny.  That what happened to the man Jesus will one day happen to us, will one day happen to our world, our universe.

But this new life is not just in the future.  In the meantime, those of us who follow Jesus are summoned to invest in that which brings life, rather than death.

‘Why do we continue to put time and energy into parts of our lives that belong to the past, that are no longer fruitful if they ever were?  Why do we not put our energy and our time into life, into God’s kingdom, since this is where our true treasure is?

Ask yourself where the genuine life is in your world.

Ask yourself where the genuine life is in our society.  The creative, the risky, the unpredictable, the life-enhancing, challenging.

These are the signs of God’s kingdom.

But too often we allow ourselves to get fobbed off with the easy option: the well-ordered, the predictable and certain; the option which minimises our risks.

But these are not the places where the risen Christ is to be found. And these are not the places for we his followers to be looking.

We are an Easter people; and our joy is the vision of the risen Christ, who reveals to us that death need not have the last word, that God has greater things in store for us, for the whole of his creation.

Alleluia, Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

‘I am the resurrection and the life’

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on Sunday 2nd April 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45

‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’

These words from today’s gospel reading are familiar as the opening sentence of many funeral services.

In the Christian vision, life and death are tightly intermingled. The apostle Paul writes:

‘while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.’ (2 Cor 4. 10-11)

There are echoes of this in familiar words from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘in the midst of life we are in death’.

For Jesus and those who followed him in the adventure of faith, death was an ever-present reality. At the heart of our gospel reading this morning is a death, followed by life. But the possibility of death is present from the start of the story to its end. Before Jesus travels to Bethany, where Lazarus lived and where he has died, his disciples warn him against going there, because it’s just two miles from Jerusalem, and the religious leaders in Jerusalem want Jesus killed.

And our gospel reading has a postscript, which we didn’t hear this morning, in which the religious leaders plan to kill not only Jesus, but also Lazarus, who’s become something of a local celebrity and is drawing large crowds.

This has always struck me as an unintentionally comic moment in John’s Gospel, highlighting the incapacity of the religious leaders to respond to the challenge presented by Jesus. A man has been raised from the dead, an event demonstrating that when Jesus is involved, death is no longer the ultimate sanction or threat. And how do the religious leaders respond? They plan to put the man to death again. Their response simply highlights their impotence and increasing irrelevance. Something new is happening in their sphere of influence and they are not part of it.

Life and death are intermingled in this story, in a way unfamiliar to many of us.

It is as if our brains have two separate compartments, one concerned with ‘life’, the other with ‘death’, and it’s impossible for both to be switched on at the same time.

And yet there is a small group of people whose stories suggest that true life, life lived in the here and now, life lived with passion, commitment and authenticity, isn’t unconnected with awareness of death. These are people living active lives who suddenly discover they may only have months or years left to live. People of course respond in all kinds of ways to this shocking news and understandably the responses can include fear, anger and regret. But there are a significant number of people who end up responding by living in a way they’ve never lived before: recognising what really matters in life and putting to one side the stuff which ultimately doesn’t matter at all. Such people must wonder why they hadn’t done this earlier, why it has taken the imminence of death to show them what life is truly about.

So, death and true life are perhaps not so unconnected.

The prospect of death, the reality of death, can teach us how to live. Some of you will know of Bronnie Ware’s book ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’. Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She writes of the clarity of vision people gain at the end of their lives and how we might learn from their wisdom. ‘When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,’ she says, ‘common themes surfaced again and again.’

What are the top five regrets of the dying?

First, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’

Second, ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’

Third, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’

Fourth, ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’

And fifth, ‘I wish that I had let myself be happy.’

So, it can take death, or rather the imminence of death, to reveal to us what life is truly about.

And there are others for whom the possibility of death is wrapped up even more closely with a meaningful life.

Let me read some words from Martin Luther King’s sermon at Selma, Alabama in March 1965:

‘Deep down in our … creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life – some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the delayed announcement of an earlier death of the spirit’.

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.’

50 years later, I’m sure Luther King wouldn’t object if I point out this is equally true for women.

So, here’s the paradox. In order fully to be alive, we need to be ready to die. We need to be unafraid of death, knowing that some things are more important.

The story of Lazarus has had a significance down the centuries far beyond the space it takes up in the New Testament.

It’s believed by quite a few biblical scholars that Lazarus is the man described by the Fourth Gospel as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ That might be hard to take in if you’ve been told all your life that the disciple whom Jesus loved was John, one of the Twelve. But I think a closer look at the text of the Bible shows it to be quite plausible and I’d be very happy one evening to lead a discussion about this fascinating idea.

If it is true, it identifies Lazarus with the disciple in the gospels least afraid of death and most clear that death is not the end. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the one brave enough to be present at the crucifixion and watch Jesus die. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the one who looked into his tomb, and seeing the linen wrappings lying there, understood that he had risen. And the disciple whom Jesus loved was expected by many in the early church never to die.

So, today’s reading possibly had a significance even at the time far beyond the space it takes up in the Gospel. Whether or not that’s so, the story continues to resonate down the centuries. When David Bowie died last year, it was less than a month after the release of his final single, a single in which he clearly reflects on the possibility of death, a single named simply ‘Lazarus’ after our gospel reading today.

We seem to live most fully when instead of allowing our fear of death to shut it out of our thoughts, we accept it and live in the face of its reality, find some way of making it part of our lives, even allowing it to shape our lives.

Engaging with the reality of death whilst we’re still alive isn’t the only way to hold life and death together in our minds. For followers of Jesus, we also do this by engaging, even when death is present in our lives, with the reality of the life God promises us. This vision of resurrection gave Martin Luther King the courage to risk his life for what really mattered. We too need to be people, followers of Jesus, ready to take risks for what matters.

Not just in our individual lives, but also as a church. Churches, like people, experience a kind of death when they become afraid to take risks.

The bones strewn across a valley in our graphic first reading are a picture of God’s people, who have experienced a kind of death. God wants to breathe his life into us and to say to us, as he said to the people of Israel: ‘You shall know that I am the Lord. I will out my spirit within you, and you shall live.’

 

 

 

 

Who are we?

Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh at Choral Evensong, on Sunday March 26th 2017
ISAIAH 43. 1- 7; EPHESIANS 2.8 – 14

Who are we?

We may think it’s obvious who we are. But there are many ways of answering this question ‘who are we’?

NATIONAL IDENTITY

The question ‘who are we?’ as a nation is rather important at this moment in our history. We are British, but what would it mean to be ‘British’ if Scotland gained independence? We are British, but are we also European, whether or not we belong to the European Union? Is Norway European? Is Switzerland European? And if they are, despite not being in the EU, how does it affect our understanding of ourselves that we are European as well as British?

Or that, as well as being British, we are English rather than Welsh?

‘Who are we?’ The answer doesn’t seem simple, even if we look just at our national identity.

FAMILY IDENTITY

There are many other ways of answering the question ‘Who are we?’ We start our lives as sons and daughters. That doesn’t change, but what it means to be a son or a daughter changes greatly through our lives, until we can reach a moment when our parents feel almost like children in their need and dependency. We remain sons and daughters even beyond the old age of our parents, but as a memory rather than as a lived experience. And through all those years, we acquire at the same time new identities: brother, sister, husband, wife, father, mother, grandparent, great-grandparent.

NAMES

So who are we? Who am I? When someone asks me the question, my answer is normally simple: ‘I’m David.’ We identify so closely with our names that for me to say ‘I’m David’ is more than passing on information about my name. It sums up in one word the whole bundle of memories, characteristics and emotions that make me ‘me’. And although I’ve changed, my name hasn’t. It provides continuity, enables others to identify me with the baby born in the Royal United Hospital, Bath, in February 1959.

And yet names not only reveal identity: they also conceal it. Yes, our surnames say who we are by identifying us with a family stretching back hundreds of years, all sharing the same name. But surnames only tell half the story, failing to identify us with our mothers and their families. And for many married women their names mirror the disruptions and lack of continuity in their lives, as they lose one name at marriage and acquire a new one.

So names, at first sight so simple a badge of identity, turn out to reflect the changes and complexities in our identity. They also make it clear that our genes and our families are far from being the only noteworthy thing about us. Although our surnames have been fixed for centuries now, often they bear witness to a time when someone’s name and so identity was wrapped up with what they did for a living: Smith, Mason, Wright, Butcher, Baker, Potter, Cooper, Taylor, Thatcher, Miller, Cook, Fisher, Shepherd.

ASCRIBED AND ACHIEVED STATUS

There’s been quite a lot of public conversation in recent months about different kinds of identity.

One way to make sense of the current disagreements in our country is to identify two different types of people: on the one hand those whose identity comes largely with things they were born with: a nationality, a language, a family, a town; and on the other hand, those whose identity is largely a matter of what they have achieved, through education and work, often by moving away from a town, from their family, sometimes even moving nations and learning a new language.

Sociologists have their own words for these two types of status in our society: ‘ascribed’ status and ‘achieved’ status. But there are simpler ways of putting this: we could instead see the divide as being between people who come from somewhere in particular, and people who could come from anywhere, whose roots and origins seem almost irrelevant.

The way we see ourselves – and the ways others see us – are important because they shape the way we behave.

THE IDENTITY OF CHURCHES

And so it’s not surprising that Christian faith raises questions about our identity. Of course who we are is shaped by the particular Christian tradition to which we belong. If instead of being an Anglican priest, I was ordained into the Coptic Orthodox Church; or the leader of an independent charismatic church, then I would understand my role, and so my life, in rather different ways.

The earliest Christian communities had within decades developed their own individual character or identity, and this becomes clear when we read the letters written to them by the apostle Paul’s, when we read the very specific way he addresses each church, revealing something of its character and identity:

To the church at Corinth, Paul writes: ‘We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.’ (2 Cor ‪6.11-12‬)‬

To the churches of Galatia, Paul writes: ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ Did you experience so much for nothing?’ (Galatians 3. 1a, 4a)

To the church at Philippi, Paul writes: ‘You Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.’ (Phil 4.15)

To the church at Thessalonika, Paul writes: ‘We boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.’ (2 Thess 1.4)

THE LETTER TO THE EPHESIANS

But Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus, from which we heard earlier, lacks anything addressed to its recipients this specific. And although book of the Bible has always been known by its title of ‘Ephesians’, we now know that the very earliest copies of the letter are addressed simply ‘to the saints who are faithful’, missing out the words ‘at Ephesus’.

So it seems quite likely that the New Testament book we now know as the ‘Letter to the Ephesians’ started life as a general letter and that what ended up in our New Testament was a version of the letter which found its way to Ephesus.

OUR IDENTITY BEFORE GOD

But this doesn’t stop the letter from exploring issues about identity and reaching conclusions presumably not only for Christians at Ephesus, but also in Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonika and Kettering. It’s true for Christians in all these places and others because it’s talking about something more fundamental, our relationship with God, our standing with God.

The Letter to the Ephesians, in words we heard earlier, makes it clear that for God our identity is not something we achieve ourselves, but something ascribed to us, as a gift: ‘by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God … For we are what he has made us.’ (Eph 2. 8, 10a)

‘We are what he has made us.’ There is no such thing in the spiritual life as the self-made man or woman.

The big identity issue troubling the early churches was the divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians, and the letter to the Ephesians addresses this issue head on:

‘Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near … For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us’. (Eph ‪2.13-14‬)‬

In other words, their identity as Jews or Gentiles has now been transcended by a new identity they share in Christ. And this might remind us of the apostle Paul’s words in the Letter to the Galatians:

‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ (Gal 3.28)

We don’t completely lose our identity when we accept our place in the family of God. But we are given a surname which transcends our differences.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah God addresses a foreign ruler, Cyrus, whose actions will unwittingly play a part in the history of God’s people, of his family:

I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me. (Is 45.4)

If God calls by name someone who doesn’t know him, if he gives him a new name – surnames him – as he becomes part of God’s purposes, how much more will he do so for those in his family, his people? And just two chapters earlier, in words we have heard this evening from the Book of Isaiah, God addresses his people and says:

‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine. ‘ (Is 43.1)

Each of us here today has their own unique identity. For each of us it is complex and embraces family, place of birth, nationality, language, work and so on.

But ultimately through all the changes in our life, our true and ultimate identity is hidden with the God who made us, who loves us, who calls us by our name. ‘Who are we?’

The answer is ‘God knows’

‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts’.

Sermon by Revd David Walsh at Candlemas Evensong, Sunday January 29th 2017

These words may be familiar to us.  And the name Haggai may also be vaguely familiar.   But it may be little more than a name: one of a long list of minor prophets.  I’m going to spend a few minutes exploring a few details about Haggai, with the hope that for all of us, the prophet and the book become a little more than just a name.

One way of understanding any of the Old Testament prophets and how they relate to one another is to place them in relation to the huge defining event in the history of the Jewish nation: the exile to Babylon.

Some of the prophets lived just before the Exile and warned about it.  Some lived during the Exile, others around the time of the return.

Our reading tonight provides its historical context with its opening words: ‘In the second year of Darius’.  But to work out why that is significant and how to place it in relation to the Exile, we need to turn to some of the ‘historical’ books of the Old Testament: The Second Book of Chronicles and the Book of Ezra.

At the end of the Second Book of Chronicles, we read how Jerusalem was attacked by the King of the Chaldeans, who ruled Babylon, modern day Iraq.

It tells how he killed the youth of Jerusalem, showed no compassion to the rest of the population, ransacked the treasures of the king, his officials and the temple, taking them to Babylon, then burnt the temple down and broke down the city wall.

It continues ‘He took into exile in Babylon all those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons until the establishment of the kingdom of Persia.’

Jerusalem lay desolate for seventy years.

Seventy years later, Babylon had been taken over by the Persians – modern day Iran – under King Cyrus and we read, again in the Second Book of Chronicles: ‘the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he declared: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven … has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem.   Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him! Let him go up.’’

This was an extraordinary turnaround and it’s understandable how this foreign King, Cyrus, is seen as a hero in the Old Testament writings.   In the book of the prophet Isaiah we read ‘Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who made all things, who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose’; and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt” and of the Temple “Your foundations shall be laid”

The story is continued in the historical book of Ezra which depicts exiles returning from Babylon to Jerusalem and laying the foundations of a new temple.  We read ‘many of the old people who had seen the first house on its foundations wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.’

But as we read on, we discover that: ‘The people of the land discouraged the people of Judah, and made them afraid to build, and they bribed officials to frustrate their plan throughout the reign of King Cyrus of Persia and until the reign of King Darius of Persia.’

And suddenly we come across a familiar name, because Darius is the name right at the beginning of our reading this evening from the prophet Haggai which started ‘in the second year of King Darius’.

So we need to continue reading the historical book of Ezra to discovered what was so important about the second year of King Darius.  And we read: ‘the work on the house of God in Jerusalem stopped and was discontinued until the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia.  Now the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem in the name of the God of Israel.    So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah.  They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius of Persia; and this house was finished in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.’

So now we understand something of the context.  Exiles have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon.  They’ve laid the foundations of the Temple, but their work has been frustrated by opposition.

It’s in this context that two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, prophesy.  Their writings appear together at the very end of the Old Testament: only the very last book in the Old Testament follows them.  Haggai is one of the shortest books in the Bible – just two chapters – and it records three words, or sayings, from God all given in the second year of King Darius: the first in the sixth month, the next in the seventh month, the final one in the ninth month, overlapping with the rather longer book of Zechariah, whose first prophecy starts in the eighth month.

They don’t know what we know from reading other books of the Bible: that within four years, the temple will be rebuilt.

The book of Haggai starts with a reprimand: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the Lord’s house.  Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins?”

Embodied spirituality

Why all this concern for a building?

Perhaps we can get some clue from a Christian perspective when we turn to our Gospel reading. ‘Destroy this temple’ says Jesus ‘and in three days I will raise it up.’  He was speaking of the temple of his body.

Is Jesus simply speaking in riddles just to be difficult and obscure?  Or is he hinting at something fundamental here?

In the Old Testament, the temple is the dwelling place of God.  In the Christian vision, God makes himself present in his creation by embodying or enfleshing Himself in the person of Jesus.   So is it possible that in the Christian understanding for God to be present and to be known as present in this world, a building, or a body – some physical or ordered structure – is needed?

If we continue reading through the New Testament and reflect on the ongoing life of the Christian Church, God’s presence has above all been discerned in two ways: first, in the ritual of bread and wine he passed on to us, when he said ‘This is my body’.  And second, in and among his followers.  ‘You are the body of Christ’ writes Paul to the Church at Corinth, ‘and each of you is a member of it’.   And the writer to the Ephesians says ‘’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 is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.’

Bodies and temples.  What do they have in common?

What I think they have in common is a mystery close to the heart of the Christian story.  Which is that our physicality is not something accidental or temporary, but a fundamental part of what it means to be human.  And that for us, there is simply no other way of experiencing God.  We know God in and through our bodies, this physical world, rather than by escaping them.

The Christian understanding of what it means to be human sees our limitations, our boundedness, as an essential part of who we are.   This becomes clear if we reflect on one of the most difficult of all Christian doctrines to understand: that of the ‘resurrection of the body’.  What can it possibly mean for our bodies to be resurrected?  Surely it’s our spirits that matter?

It’s not at all easy to cash out what the doctrine of the resurrection of the body really means.  But one thing it clearly suggests is that our experience of having edges, of standing out from our environment, is part not only of our physical, but also of our spiritual identity, an essential part of who we are.  There is no concept in the Christian picture of our one day attaining infinite freedom and capability, or of merging indissolubly with others or with the universe.

And this is why it is the Christian tradition which feeds and nurtures me: why, after around 15 years of wandering and searching, it was the Christian tradition to which I returned.

Because I am at heart a dreamer.  It would be very easy for me to float off into the ether in my spiritual life, to become completely ungrounded, lacking in any focus or definition.  But the doctrine of the Incarnation, of God enfleshed, which is at the very heart of the Christian story, and which we have been celebrating for the past few weeks, imagines the spirit enfleshed and the body ensouled.  And this is what drew me back to Christianity and what is at the heart of the Christian vision which inspires my faith and motivates my ministry.  Many of my fellow Christians possibly think that I’m far too relaxed about exactly what beliefs Christians should and should not have.  And it’s true: I don’t think what ideas we subscribe to, is, in the end, what counts.  And yet it does make me sad when Christians fail to take seriously, fail to begin to understand, this remarkable vision at the heart of Christianity.  That God encamped among us, made atoms and molecules his home, shared our life, became one of us.  It makes me sad because I think they are missing out on the precious jewel at the heart of our faith.  Sometimes Christians miss this even as they celebrate the Feast of the Incarnation, the celebrations which come to an end this evening.

The Welsh poet R S Thomas uses the phrase ‘the scaffolding of spirit’ to describe the words and sentences with which he wrestles, which he shapes and is then in turn shaped by.

Thomas is talking primarily about language, about the grammar and contours of words and sentences which structure thought and emotion and so spirit.

But Thomas is a poet and it’s hard to imagine he is talking about just one thing.  He has touched on a fundamental principle of the spiritual life – at least one seen from a Christian perspective.  Which is that our spiritual life needs scaffolding, needs structure, if it is to act as a container, as a holder for the presence and working of God.  Whether that is language, or music, or a building, or bodies, or a group of people coming together to follow Jesus and in doing so, however informal they are, necessarily shaping themselves into some greater whole, with relationships and so inevitably some kind of structure.

But does all this mean that because it won’t work for me to float off into some unbounded fantasy world, that I can no longer dream?

Far from it.

‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts’.

The prophet Haggai’s aspirations are centred on a building in Jerusalem.  And yet his dreams and ambitions for this house and what it means, are huge. ‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former.’

In the words of Jesus, who describes his body as a temple, this latter splendour is given a whole new dimension.  No longer is it just about the Temple in Jerusalem.

‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’   The temple of his body.  And yet once it is raised, it is still a body, with contours and edges and traces of a life lived in the flesh.

‘Put your finger here and see my hands’ Jesus says to Thomas.  ‘Reach out your hand and put it in my side.’

It is a body.  But it is a raised body.  It is, for a while, the only example we have, of the new heaven and new earth which is the final destination point for the whole of creation.  The new heaven and new earth are not a replacement or a substitute for the present heaven and earth.  Not their replacement but their transformation.

And we can see glimpses of this transformation here and now.

‘The latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former’ says the Lord of hosts.

That could be true for any house of God.  It could be true for this house of God.

Do you believe that?

I do.  That’s why I’m here.

Be born in us today

Sermon by Rev David Walsh at Midnight Eucharist, 24th December 2016

Isaiah 52.7-10; John 1.1-14.

Well we’re not going to forget 2016 in a hurry.

As we look forward to 2017 and beyond we know that the world is changing.  But we don’t know, can’t be sure, what the changes will look like.  Nobody knows.

Our society and our world are clearly deeply divided.

Can we hold together despite our differences?  Can we live together despite our differences?  These are key questions for our society, for our nation, even for our community here in Kettering.

One disturbing feature looking back at 2016 has been the growing lack of respect, of genuine conversation, between people who disagree.

Stable societies find ways for people who disagree nevertheless to live alongside each other.    Ways of agreeing to disagree.  Once we lose this, we have a serious problem.

As we look forward into 2017 and beyond, in a world that is clearly changing, the fear is of change so unpredictable that few understand what is really happening and even fewer work out how best to respond.

‘History doesn’t repeat itself.  But it does rhyme.’ as Mark Twain reputedly said.

As we try to understand our own times, our hope has to be that the apparent parallels between our own decade and the 1930s turn out to be false and that events fail to take the ugly turn they did back then.

In the meantime, it’s not surprising if people are wary and anxious about the future.

Our first reading this evening from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is set in a culture, in a city, not anticipating the threat of calamity, but on the other side of it, after it’s already happened.

The disaster has actually struck.  And in the circumstances the message is a little jarring:

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Jerusalem.’

It’s hard for us to get a handle on just how inappropriate these words must have sounded.  Because Jerusalem was indeed in ruins, destroyed in 587 BC by the Babylonians, modern-day Iraq.

What might open our eyes is the fate of another great ancient city, just 400 miles north of Jerusalem.  A city even more ancient than Jerusalem itself.

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, a city whose wealth once made it the second city of the Ottoman Empire.  A city mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   But now lying in ruins.

I’m talking about Aleppo.

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Jerusalem.’

Perhaps one way to imagine the original impact of these words is to recall the images on our TV screens in recent weeks.   And imagine anyone saying

‘Break forth together into singing
You ruins of Aleppo.’

This is the desperate backdrop to some of the most inspiring literature ever written, the prophecies of Isaiah, a few lines of which we heard in our first reading.  These writings are one of the glories of Hebrew literature and speak to us today, 2,500 years later with such freshness, with such creative and vivid use of imagery and metaphor that the words at times simply leap off the page.  And what is their message?  One of hope.  One of liberation and transformation.  Of new life.

The lesson appears to be that if it’s visions of hope we want, it’s best not to go looking in comfortable, complacent times.  Our most profound and transforming visions appear to emerge in times of uncertainty, of anxiety and even distress.

The visionary writings written when Jerusalem lay ruined were inspired by another group of prophecies written 200 years earlier, prophecies which appear towards the beginning of the Book of Isaiah.

Those earlier prophecies also foresaw a new start, one very specifically related to a birth:

‘The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’

Hopes for the future are here crystallised in the hope surrounding a birth.  That’s not so unusual.  But these hopes eventually come to fruition in the birth of Christ.

This need not be the end of the story.   The hope that something new might be born and be a sign of God’s presence is one we can continue to nurture and cherish.

As 2016 draws to a close, many of us are understandably anxious about an uncertain future.  But uncertain times, times of transition and change, can be moments of opportunity as well as threat.

Perhaps, in a time of crisis, a new poetic vision will transform our expectations about the world

Perhaps something new is waiting to be born in our world. If so, how will we recognise it?  And how will we respond?

Do we believe that something new could be born here in Kettering?  And that we could be part of it?

Do we believe something new could be born in this church and this parish?

Do we believe something new could be born in our hearts?

That which is born is new and unpredictable.  But it is also familiar.  It draws on what is already there, isn’t something imposed from outside, something alien.  And yet it is new.

If something new is to be born in Kettering, the raw material, the seeds,  are almost certainly already here.

If something new is to be born in this church, in this parish, for it to be genuine and authentic, it needs to grow out of what is already here.

If something new is to be born in our lives, the change, the miracle, needs to happen within us.

The prayer at the heart of our Christmas celebrations was summed up in the last carol we sang:

O holy child of Bethlehem,
descend to us we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in,
be born in us today.

‘Be born in us today’.

Or, to borrow the language of our gospel reading, we pray that in some new way the Word might take flesh and live among us.   That we might see glory and that we might know God’s grace and truth amongst us.

Christmas Lights

Here is the talk by Rev David Walsh at the switching on of the Christmas Lights in Kettering Town Centre on 24th November 2016:

If we’d been standing here in the Market Place exactly a hundred years ago, quite a few of the buildings would be familiar to us.

But if we were to travel further back in time – two hundred years, three hundred years, four or five hundred years, eventually there’d be just one building we’d still recognise. That’s the Town Church just behind us.

The Town Church is a gift from Kettering’s past to us – to Kettering’s present and to its future. It’s a gift to each one of us here.

Every day people wander into the church, which is open to anyone. People come in who aren’t members, who aren’t even sure if they have any faith. And yet still they come.

Sometimes they don’t know themselves what brings them in. Some want a place for quiet reflection. Some come to mourn loved ones who’ve died. Sometimes they come to cry & even to howl out loud. But they also come to celebrate, to say ‘thank you’. There’s no charge for any of this. It’s a gift.

The church belongs to the town. Many people in Kettering don’t realise they’re entitled to be married here, to have christenings here, even if they’re not regular members.

We want the church to be even more open to the people of Kettering.

In four weeks time – just 3 days before Christmas Day – we host the Town Carol Service, a service not just for our regular crowd but for the whole Town of Kettering. A service for you.

And this evening the church is open. Do come in and look around. We’re offering mulled wine to the first hundred visitors.

And we want to hear from you how we could make this church even more your church, so that it is really is Kettering’s Town Church. There are plenty of other churches in Kettering and we’re keen to work closely with them. But this historic building has a special place in the heart of the town, a special place when Kettering comes together on special occasions like this. We want to do that better. And we want you to tell us what we need to do.

So next year we’re going to ask you. Next year we want to contact as many people as possible in the Town to hear what they want from the church. What we could be doing differently.

We also want to work with people of other faiths and of no faith at all for a better Kettering.

The gift of this church is only possible because of a far more significant gift.

When we meet week by week, we come because we’ve discovered that our lives and everything in them are a gift. We come to give thanks, in joyful gratitude.

And as Christmas approaches we celebrate what is for Christians the biggest gift of all. That God has given us not only our lives and all that we have, but given us also Himself, in the person of Jesus. We celebrate this man and we try to follow him. He shows us what it really means to be truly human. And we believe that because of what he’s done, we become able to be more truly human ourselves, to live life in all its fullness.

I hope that when Christmas finally arrives, it bring gifts you’re able to treasure. And a new year full of unexpected blessings.

God bless you all.

mnt1-24-11-16-ab-1-90
Kettering Christmas: Kettering: Lights switch on in the Market Place. Chrstmas lights switch on by Beauty and the Beast panto cast Cheryl Fergison and Lucie Downer. Choir of Ss Peter and Paul Church Thursday November 24, 2016

(Picture by Alison Bagley)