Thursday, 31 March 2016

Stop doubting and start believing. Stop fearing start sharing peace.

Stop doubting and start believing. Stop fearing start sharing peace.

The interaction between Jesus and Thomas is one of the most known stories of the New Testament Still today most people will use the phrase “doubting Thomas” to describe someone whether the are Christians or not.

Yet the story we heard today begins at a different point – the disciples locked in a room fearing. Fearing the Jews.

This morning I want us to reflect on both of these aspects of the story fearing and doubting.  Emotions and actions that are countered by Jesus’ presence in which sharing peace and witnessing in faith supplant the fearing and doubting and so become the appropriate response.

To begin with we will look through the window into the room where the disciples had locked themselves and think about the story as it was told by John.  We will then look into the window of our own lives at the fearing and doubting that continue to plague us in our faith.

As we engage this story we will also contemplate the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, the meaning of the peace he declares and the response peace sharing and witnessing in faith.

The community of Christians that John was writing his gospel for was very different from us.  It was around 60 years since the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection had occurred.  A few generations had passed and followers of Jesus had experienced a difficult time.

Right from the outset there was tension with the Temple authorities.  The first followers of Jesus as the Christ came from within Jewish community and it was only in the decades that followed that gentiles began to become followers of Christ as well.  This tension was continuing to be played out in John’s time as Christianity had been emerging from being a sect within Judaism to a religion in its own right.

Alongside, this in the mid-60s and then again in the late 80s and early 90s two Roman Emperor’s, Nero and then Domitian, specifically targeted the Christians.

The imagery of the disciples locked in the room for fear of the Jews is a story that would have had a great deal of meaning for the persecuted Christians in John’s community: fearing possibly the Jews and the Romans.  The disciples were in hiding and the community that John wrote for may have well felt a connection to the kind of fear the disciples felt.

Despite having heard the news of the resurrection the disciples continued to be afraid.  They may have thought that their lives, like Jesus’ life, was at risk.  The reality is their lives probably were at risk but Jesus’ resurrection was a sign that the worst that could be done could not hold God’s loves back.

And so it is that despite the fear and the locked doors Jesus comes and stands among his disciples and declares “Peace be with you” – “Shalom”. 2000 years on I think it is sometimes hard to capture the significance Jesus’ words carry.  As Jesus declares “Shalom” there are undertones of the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur and there overtones of the promised peace that God desires for all peoples.  Peace with God and peace with one another – stop fearing for here in Christ’s presence there is peace.

Fear can be a powerful motivating force for any of us.  Though we do not meet this day behind locked doors, we meet in a building set aside for Christian worship with the doors flung wide open in welcome we can and do lock the doors of our faith.  We can be fearful that beyond this building or even with one another sharing our faith might not be such a good thing.

Consider some of these fears we might have in being open about our faith.

We might fear ridicule and persecution due to our association with particular people who claim to be Christians, or because the history within our church, or simply because there are those out there who want to undermine us.

I have to admit when I hear that Donald Trump is being supported by American Evangelicals I fear for the Church and am reticent to own my faith.  Trump’s politics is built on fear and hate and violence none of which reflects the Christ that I have come to know in the gospels. 

I know that within the church, not just the Catholic Church, there has been an abominable history of child abuse.  It is part of every denomination and I have been personally attacked for continuing to be a Christian because of the atrocities committed by those who follow Christ.

In many Christian circles the rejection of scientific understandings and research is simply embarrassing and peddling ignorance simply feeds the militant atheists who attack the church.

The news cycle feeds us with continued information about terrorists who attack Christians and so we might also feel a personal sense of fear around this issue as well.

Because of these issues, among others, we might fear being socially ostracised as followers of Jesus or fear our ability to defend or articulate or faith adequately in the face of an onslaught of questions.

It is easier for us to lock our faith inside than be open about it and declare and defend our faith when called upon to.  Yet, this decision can allow the ignorance and misinformation about Jesus and his followers to continue.

The resurrected Christ comes into our midst through the power of the Holy Spirit, just as he did so long ago, and speaks into our fearing and says to us Peace be with you, Shalom!  This is a word of hope and comfort and affirmation we need to hear as well.  We need to hear it as much as the first disciples needed to hear it, as much as John’s community, stop fearing – peace be with you.

Each week as a congregation we take the time to share the peace but I often wonder whether we are really able to convey the depth of the peace being offered by God and the peace each one of us needs.  Peace which quells our sense of guilt over things that gave gone awry in our lives; peace that stills our anxious hearts over the worries which beset us; peace that builds bridges between us when we find it difficult to get on with one another; peace that gives us hope beyond the suffering in this world; peace in a coming kingdom what we cannot see but only glimpse. Peace, shalom! Peace that comes down from heaven and helps us transcend our fears.

Stop fearing – know Christ’s peace. 

This brings me to the second movement in the story, it is that well know interaction with Thomas – stop doubting and start believing.  The end of John’s gospel is clear: John records his gospel that people might believe that Jesus is the son of God but in this moment Thomas simply did not believe that Jesus had risen from among the dead.  He did not believe the testimony of the other disciples.

His doubting came from the lack of personal experience and encounter. How often do any of us say something along these lines, “Unless I see it for myself I won’t believe it.”

Thomas’s doubting and ours springs from within us:

·         doubting because we have not seen
·         doubting because we were not there
·         doubting because we have no experience
·         doubting because we do not understand

I have often preaching that our doubting is a good thing because doubts can lead us to questions and lead us to grow in our faith and understanding.  This conviction remains true – doubting can lead us to grow but when we look at this passage the response to doubting is not knowing or understanding but believing.

We are not told whether Thomas actually touched Jesus and had such a tangible and earthy experience of Jesus’ but Thomas responds with a confession of faith.

“My Lord and my God.”

Thomas confessing of Jesus as Lord and God transcends the moment and in some way retains something of the mystery of believing.  Believing is not about knowing everything or being able to prove it. It is simply what it claims it is: ‘belief’ which is defined as “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.”

Believing may involve placing our trust in something that is otherworldly, that is not provable, but it does not have to be completely blind or ignorant either.

The notion of believing can sit comfortably alongside the notion of continuing to grow and even doubt.  Rather in believing in Jesus our lives and our questions bceome shaped around the one in whom we believe.

To be a confessing people, to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God”, is not to make some ambit claim at knowing everything but is to place our trust and focus in life in something beyond the parameters of our personal experiences.

We, like Thomas, may struggle with the lack of personal encounter, or understanding, or proof, yet the peace of God comes among us and we can move from doubting to believing.

Finally, after declaring the peace to the disciples Jesus breathes on them with the Holy Spirit and sends them into the world. 

This sending of the disciples is I believe about sending them to be bearers of the ‘shalom’ he has shared with them.  The disciples become apostles, sent into the world, to be about the business of peace sharing.

Sharing peace between peoples who find themselves estranged from God, estranged from community and estranged from each other.  To do so would mean transcending their fears and doubts and it means the same for us.

When we consider the world around us and the division and pain that continue to abide in the world the work of peace sharing is before us.  Peace sharing within the difficulties and brokenness of our own families.  Peace sharing between communities separated by race or religion.  Peace sharing between communities dominated by fear, doubt and hate. Peace sharing so that we might live as one humanity loving one another.

What dominates us? Fearing and doubting or God’s peace and our belief.

Having shared the peace here together, at the end of the service we will be sent out, to go about our daily lives sharing this peace of God with others.  May God give you strength to transcend the locked rooms of your fears and doubts and declare the ‘shalom’ of God through your words and actions. 

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Mystery and hope: Sorrow and love flow mingled down.

So why are you here?
Why did you come to church on Good Friday? 
Why did you come to listen to this story of a man who dies on a cross?
This story of Jesus’ death is a story filled with: betrayal, denial, indifference, torture, brutality and deep sorrow.
What sort of masochistic tendencies do we have as people to want to embrace this macabre spectacle? 
What brings us together on this day?
Why are you here?
Why am I here?

One of the reasons that I remain a Christian; one of the reasons I continue in ministry; one of the reasons I am here this day and this story remains important to me; is that I am continuing to search for meaning in life and in death.  I am trying to understand the purpose of my life and a sense of meaning for the life of the world.

The story of Jesus as the centre point in history gives to us an overarching narrative, a grad story, a story of a life lived in the world that can help us explore the meaning and purposes of our own lives.

This day is not about having all the answers but sitting with uncomfortable questions in hope before the mystery of God; before the mystery of life and the mystery that is death.

Each one of you as you contemplate Jesus hanging on the cross, as you consider Jesus’ death, will be connecting that death to your own life.  Jesus’ death might evoke a range of emotions for you.  It may even give you glimpses into the meaning of your life of the world.  Each one of you will have a sense that as you witness this event something is occurring for you at a personal level and in this you are given purpose and meaning for your own life.

But here on the sacred ground of this day, as we sit and contemplate Jesus life and death, we should be wary of thinking that we have got God’s plan tamed.

It is too easy for us to move quickly and say ‘yes we understand the violence and hope of this day’.  To suggest that you or I have fully understood the nuances of this story is to domesticate it to something which suits us. 

You and I have been filled up with interpretations of the atonement and simplifications of God’s plan in such a way that the mystery of life and death and eternal life is overtaken.  The answers we arrive at when we say that this death means good news can often be alienating and confusing to others.

Our simplification of the story can just as much exclude others from it as it can invite them in to it.  Our simplification of the story can avoid the hard questions we still have or at least that we should be asking of ourselves.

So often our understanding of the story conforms God to our existence. It makes sense to me, it makes sense to you, but it makes little sense when weighed against the fullness of God and the mysteries of life and death.

Jesus death, the cross, defies our domestication. 

Life, suffering in life, death and what lies beyond death are mysterious.

I am not suggesting that God does not have an overarching story or that this story is not central to who we are.  Rather, what I am saying is that we can only see and understand this story of Jesus’ death and our place in it in a very limited way from our human perceptions.

For me on Good Friday we are called to step back.  We are confronted with mystery. We are onlookers at this violent moment in history. We, like the disciples and the women, like Pilate and his soldiers, like Caiaphas and his priests, are trying to make sense of our place in the world.  We are trying to make sense of life in the face of suffering and cruelty and death.

Why are we here?  We are here because we still have questions. What meaning and purpose is there here at the cross?  What purpose does my life serve?  What meaning will my death have?  How can I make sense of suffering in this world?  The suffering we cause each other and the suffering that appears to be ay worst the result of decisions made by a capricious God, or, at best, completely meaningless and random.

We look on but we want to look away.  No theology can encapsulate this mystery well enough.  No explanation covers the whole gambit of what is occurring.  Our human minds cannot contain the enormity of this event, of death.  Of the death of God.  Sorrow and love flow mingled down as we who watch on are swept up into the emotions of this day.

Is there someone to blame?  Can we point a finger?  Historically Christians have blamed the Romans, have blamed Judas, have blamed the Jews and have even blamed each other and ourselves.  And when this hasn’t worked we have reduced it to God’s responsibility – we have blamed God’s decisions and methods.  But the suffering of Jesus, the suffering of those who seem to die needlessly, should not be simply causally related as if there is someone to be held to account.  

The God who stopped Abraham from killing Isaac is the same God who declared that he does not desire sacrifice.  Why then would we even think God would sacrifice his son?  Why then would we distort the words of the Psalm to suggest God would turn away from Jesus on the cross?

Jesus had shared a deep secret with his followers and with us:  he and the Father are one.  Whilst Jesus guttural cry of desolation rings out God is present – the Psalm speaks to us of hope, “he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”  The story of the cross is the story of God with us, sharing in suffering and death, entering into the mystery of mortality.  God is with us.

Is there guilt? Maybe.  And maybe there should be.  Jesus’ death is about setting you and I free from guilt and sin so maybe guilt is not quite right but when I look upon the world and into my life suffering is all around us.  I know the words that I have said which have torn others down rather than build them up.  I know the people I have neglected to respond to though I am aware of their deep needs.  I look upon humanity and I see our tribalism, our greed, our hunger to preserve our way of life even if it costs others.  The politics and the religion swirling about Jesus’ death swirl around us still and more than one life is lost in this gyre.  If looking at the cross with a sense of guilt causes you or I to question our own lives, to change who we are, to become fully human and to love others then maybe guilt is not a bad emotion to have on this day.

Is there confusion at the cross? Confusion when we see death?  Yes, and yes, and yes again.  Who can explain to the people of Brussels why they have to mourn the loss of so many?  Who can tell why a child dies of cancer or some other disease?  Who can give a reason for our inhumane decisions that lead people to suicide in refugee detention centres?  Who knows why the grief of watching a parent, a spouse, a sibling or a child die has to be played out again and again so painfully?  The cross does not answer all these questions and we must be wary of our platitudes but if it is God who hangs there in Christ’s body then maybe, just maybe there is hope in knowing this God who knows how we suffer as he dies on the cross.

The emotions of the cross overwhelm us because here we are confronted by and contemplate life and death in all its fullness.  Where is God in this moment?  Where is our Creator?

“I and the Father are one”.

If this event is the moment of God’s death then no explanation is adequate. No attempt to comprehend this mystery will suffice.  Yet somewhere, somewhere, deep within ourselves we know there is love and there is hope in this story.

Yes, there is sorrow; yes there is fear; and there is guilt; and there is confusion. But more than that, there is hope; and, there is love.

What do we come for?  Why are we here? Why on this so-called ‘good’ Friday? Why did you come?  Why did I?

We long for meaning. We long for hope.  We long to understand the purpose of our lives and more importantly the purpose of our deaths.

On this day of mystery, of life and of suffering and of death, we cling to this mysterious hope:

“He did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”

Love and sorrow flow mingled down from our God, who is broken and dying on the cross and it touches our lives.  It sneaks in to our souls.  Grace and mercy in the moment of death.  Is it any wonder then with this hope that the words of the Psalmist ring so true on this day, “I shall live for him”.

No easy answers, no complete explanations, faith in life and death: I shall live for him.  Amen.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Ripples of the Resurrection

Easter Day

For many of us the resurrection of Jesus is an intensely personal thing.  In our lives we have encountered the good news of Jesus for ourselves and we have found hope that in Jesus God was doing something wonderful for us.  We have felt the power of the resurrection, we have contemplated its mystery and its depth – there has been a moment of revelation and of hope.  Resurrection is God’s response to Jesus’ death.  

Whilst we might celebrate our place as recipients of this good news we should remember that what God was doing had implications for the whole creation and so on this day we are called to reflect on how far the ripples of the resurrection might reach.  

On the same day that Mary and the women found themselves going to the tomb far away on the northern coast, of the place we now call Wales, the sun rose over a small village of Celts. They had heard the rumours of the Romans.  They even had a few trade items which had made their way across Briton and into their small village.  The men and women got up to go about their daily work, coming out of their wattle and daub huts to face the cold morning air.  A child could be heard crying and a dog howled in the distance.  Thousands of miles away the women found the tomb open and wondered at this mystery but in this Celtic village no soul was stirred by the miraculous news and no one in this place would even hear the story of Jesus resurrection for almost 200 years.

Within the tomb the women were greeted by an angel, a messenger, who asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” But the question was not heard half way across the world near the Ganges River where some farmers from the Kushana Kingdom gathered in their crops from the field.  On the day the women puzzled over the angel’s words the Kushana toiled under the hot sun. They had no mind for the God that Jesus called Father. They were not to hear about Jesus or his resurrection in the Eastern reaches of India for many a century, even though Thomas is said to have arrived in India in the year of our Lord 52, Anno Domini

The women wandered away from the tomb and back to the disciples whilst on a southern island continent the Jagera people fished in the river not far from where we meet today.  The fishermen had a strong sense of connection to the land, spiritually they understood themselves to be part of the land.  They had a deep sense of connection to the creation and to their ancestors that had been in the area for generations that stretched beyond their memories.  It would be another 1800 years before the news of Jesus resurrection reached them through a conquering race who saw the Jagera people as less than human.  As the women shared their news with Peter and the other disciples the strongest emotion was disbelief. 

Peter made his way to the tomb to find it empty whilst on the same day in South America the great cities of the Mayan culture thrived.  Children played whilst women watched over them.  Men hunted and collected crops under the same sun that beat down on Peter as he ran to the tomb.  For the Mayan culture the cycle of life continued birth and life and death merged into an eternal process of existence and it was 1500 years before anyone here would know anything about Peter’s confusion and elation.

I could go on with such stories.  Stories that remind us of cultures and peoples who knew nothing of Jesus death and suspected resurrection from the moment it happened to the centuries that followed.  But the question lies before us how did the ripples of the resurrection flow out to impact the lives of these peoples as well.  And how does the resurrection of Jesus roll down to us through the centuries?

What is clear in the stories of the day of resurrection is that the disciples themselves struggled with the mystery, that whilst Peter was amazed, disbelief and confusion were also rife.  Yet, what God had done was already taking effect. 

As the news of the mystery was being shared Jesus presence in the world and the empty tomb signified that God’s love had triumphed – that God’s will for the whole creation was not destruction but recreation.

God is faithful to the promise made to Noah never to destroy the creation again and whilst changes are still to come the creation goes on and death does not prevail, but life.

For the Celts, for the Kushana, for the Jagera and for the Mayan’s, as well as the myriad of other cultures that have ever lived, the ignorance they have of the events of Easter does not, cannot, preclude them from being recipients of grace.  At a very basic level the fact that the creation goes on is a sign of God’s love for them.  Beyond this it is not our place to suggest that anyone else is left out of God’s grace but to continuously remember the promise of the book of Revelations that in Christ God was making all things new and of Paul that there will come a day when every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God.

The great Russian scholar Alexander Khomikoff, over 150 years ago, said this: “The rest of (hu)mankind, whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her, she leaves to the judgment of the great day.  The Church on earth judges herself only, according to the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (Khomiakoff in Birkbeck 1895: 194)
The ripples of the resurrection go out.  Like the ripples across the water in a pond they continue outward to very edges of the creation, the ripples of the resurrection transcend time and they transcend cultures.

As people who have experienced the good news of Jesus in our lives our place is not to judge but to be what Christ calls us to be ‘a priesthood of all believers’.  The role of priests is to come before God on behalf of others and to come before others on behalf of God.  We come on behalf of others who do not know or understand the good news yet in the hope that the ripples of resurrection will be felt in their lives.  And we go out into the world in the hope that as we share the good news of our personal encounter with the crucified and risen one, Jesus, they too might be transformed by the story of God’s love.

It is difficult for us to imagine what the women and disciples understood and felt on that day so long ago but whatever it was God’s faithfulness to the creation was being played out in Jesus.  Eventually, it is the stories of this imperfect people that have passed on through the centuries so that we too might ponder the resurrection of Jesus and consider how the ripples of the event have flowed down to us through time and beyond the boundaries we create.

There is no doubt in my mind that today should be an intensely personal thing; that each one of us should feel and know and celebrate the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus. This is a gift of encountering the resurrection of Jesus life now, of entering into the eternal divine life through the power of the Holy Spirit.

At the same time as that as we encounter the mystery of the empty tomb we should also find hope in the idea that what God was doing in Christ was an entirely and powerfully cosmic event.  An event that can lift our hearts and heads in hope above the suffering and death and exclusion we see in this world.  An event that speaks of God’s faithfulness to all that God has made as see the ripples of the resurrection and hear the deep echo of hope for peoples, in all times and in all places: “Behold I make all things new!”

Photo: Creative commons by Kevin Gessner Flickr

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The cloaks that didn't make the road.

Palm Sunday has often been a celebration for churches as we recall the people long ago who went out to greet Jesus coming into Jerusalem.

I have been in many services and at events where the excitement of the moment has been highlighted by children waving palm branches, people holding signs or placards with words like “hosanna” and “rejoice” emblazoned across them.

We have drawn ourselves into the story.  We have explored our feelings and often we have been challenged with the notion that the crowd who yell “Hosanna!” at the beginning of the week also yell “crucify him!” at the end of the week.

And so we come this day and we celebrate again Palm Sunday and maybe we lay our cloaks on the ground as we witness the miracle once again.  Maybe we lift our hands in praise and shout “hosanna!”

Yet, as I thought about this scene again, and the people that came out by the roadside so long ago, I was left wondering about the cloaks that didn’t find their way onto the road that day as Jesus approached Jerusalem.  I wondered about the people who didn’t come down to welcome Jesus as he entered the city – the cloaks that stayed at home.

Who were these people? 
Was Jesus coming for them as well? 
For the ones who did not come out that day?

Maybe one of these cloaks belonged to a woman with small children, a mother who had the responsibility to put food on the table and to feed her young brood.  The religious festival may have just seemed a burden to her already busy life, even if her faith was strong.  To drag the children down to the roadside to see some so-called itinerant king coming into the city may have felt a foolish waste of time.  So many chores and jobs to do!  Her cloak remained in the house.  Does Jesus come for her as well?

Maybe one of these cloaks belong to a Roman soldier so far from his home and family.  He had to work in Pilate’s palace on that day.  He had to patrol the corridors of earthly power and protect the governor.  His cloak never made the ground before Jesus, it was with him at his daily work. Does Jesus come for him?

Maybe one of these cloaks was a child’s cloak.  A kid running in the street with his friends and just doing what the kids did.  He played and cajoled and drifted here and there and had no interest in the adults and their parades and processions.  His cloak stayed at home because when you run along the streets with your friends you don’t need a cloak on.  Does Jesus enter Jerusalem for this child?

Or, maybe one of the cloaks belonged to someone old, someone who was struggling with their health.  It was too hard to get out of the house on that day.  Who needed crowds anyway?  Life was hard and the toll of aging meant worries about attending religious festivals were not what they used to be.  Does Jesus enter Jerusalem for them as well?

You see more often than not we think about the story from the perspective of those who show up, even if we admit that the crowd is fickle, that each one of us is fickle.  But what about those who don’t show up, who don’t understand what is going on, who maybe don’t even care, those who don’t get involved.

Which leads me to a somewhat obvious question what about the ones who are not here today?

The parents who took their children and their sporting equipment off to the next event.  Who are busy all week and want to have some quality time letting their kids do what they want to do.  The parents who see Sunday as sacred family time. Does Jesus have space for them?

The people in the shopping centres working because so many of us are drawn to the shops on our day off and we are embedded in a deep culture of consumerism.  We are driven by the market.  Or maybe the people who are working in our hospitals, or as police or as firefighters who have to take a shift this day whilst we have privilege and opportunity to be here worshipping God.

Or maybe even more controversially we might think those who have rejected the Christian notion or understanding of God.  People from different religions or from none.  People for whom the church has not been there or even has caused distress and pain in their lives.

Does Jesus enter Jerusalem for them as well?

There is a clue to this perplexing issue in Jesus answer when the Pharisees say, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

“The stones would shout out!”

What is occurring as Jesus enters Jerusalem is not just for the benefit of the few gathered but is an event for the whole creation.  The event is not simply for the ones that turned up it has cosmic implications.  There are overtones in this of what Paul had written about Jesus to the Colossians – he is the cosmic Christ.  Or maybe at the beginning of John’s gospel in the beginning was the Word and all things came into being through him.

Does Jesus enter Jerusalem for the people who did not turn up? 

We can only hope so for if the very stones would cry out the extent of the grace in this moment is not within our spiritual or intellectual scope to judge.

What does this mean for those of who are here?  What does it mean for we who do lay our cloaks down or take up our branches to call our hosanna?

If Jesus entry into Jerusalem is for people who don’t come to church we could easily ask ourselves what is the point of us giving up this time in our mundane and our busy lives.

For me the answer is as simple and as complex as it was on that day – God loves us as we who have had a glimpse of Jesus power and authority are drawn to respond.  We are drawn into following and celebrating God’s love revealed in him.

In gathering here we lay the cloak of our lives before Jesus we offer ourselves to him and we sing out “Hosanna” and “Save us” not because we are the privilege few and that we can judge anyone else but simply because God is and God loves.

On this day when prophecies are fulfilled, when Jesus comes riding in on a donkey and a colt, our excitement is held in check by our knowledge that whilst we might yell “hosanna” today “crucify him” is just as easy on the next day.  And, more than this we are reminded of all the cloaks still at home, the people who are not with us here, the ones for whom God’s relationship and offering may remain a mystery to us and to them.

The good news is this, the stones themselves would cry out, for Jesus the Christ is coming.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Kings College Commencement Sermon 2016

Bible Passages 1 Corinthians 9:19-27  John 18:33-38a

Last Tuesday morning around 6:30 I rode my bike around the corner between Emmanual and Union and turned onto Upland road heading towards the Esplanade.  As I cycled towards Kings College a torrent of young men in grey and blue poured out of the gate of Kings.  A torrent of sinew and muscle.  A torrent filled with hope and expectation.  Leading the group of freshers were some of the RAs and exec.  Then running alongside the freshers and bringing up the rear the same.  A community of young men subjecting your bodies to a fitness regime: per chance death PT.

As I thought about what to say this evening that imagery of you off for your morning run played on my mind and I was drawn to a letter written by Paul to a small community of Christians in Corinth not quite 2000 years ago.  “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one wins the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.”

Many of you here are already excellent athletes and you understand the rigours of training and you understand that being an athlete is as much about your mind and your spirit as it is about your body.  The self-control that is needed and the discipline required engages all of who you are if you are going to excel and win the race.

The race of which Paul was writing is not simply a print but is a distance event. He is referring to the race of life itself.  And towards the end of the passage he asserts, “I do not run aimlessly” - he has a purpose and a direction that he is going. The fundamental question this raises for each one of us here is, “What kind of race are you running through life?” 

Do you know where you are headed?  Can you see the markers along the way?  When you get towards the end of your life will you look back and see a life well-lived? Do you even know who has set the course you are on? What does it mean for you to be a man?  And what does it mean for you to be a king’s man?

Paul clearly understands that his life is about sharing the good news of Jesus.  He indicates that he is willing to become something that he is not in order that others might know about who Jesus is and what God has done through Jesus.  For Paul it is the message of Jesus and the sense of the call to follow Jesus that defines his life.  Jesus is the one who forgives, who draws us into God’s life, who shows us what sacrifice means. Jesus is a teacher and a guide to be followed.

The idea of putting something of oneself aside for of the sake of others has a personal implication for me standing here tonight among this community at Kings.  When I came to UQ I stayed at Cromwell College but when I come to Kings and I join with you I feel that I have been accepted and become part of your community.

I desire to be one with you so that you might know the one whom I identify as the true king. The one whom I think sets the true standard for what it means to be a king’s man, when we understand Jesus to be king.

In the reading from John that we heard Jesus is standing before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  He has been accused of claiming that he is the king of the Jews.  

The conversation that flows indicates that Jesus understands that his kingdom is not of this world.  This world in which live now is shaped by the sanctification of the free market and the buying and selling of goods.  That is the race that the world is inviting to run.  A race focussed on consumption and individualism.

Even within the broader academic and scientific community the sanctification of the free market is under scrutiny.

The philosopher Zygmunt Bauman asks the question in the title his book “Does ethics have a chance in a world of consumers?”  Is there a desire for the common good in this environment? I dare say that the answer is no.

For Jesus the kingdom of God, the rule of God in his life was not subject to the Roman rule but came from beyond this world.  It came from God.  It is a kingdom which we are invited to be part of, a race we are invited to run.  It sets a different standard for what it means to live.

The exchange between Jesus and Pilate ends with a powerful question that all of us must grapple with: “What is truth?”  What is the truth of my life?  What is the truth of your life? What is the truth of this world and this universe?  Here again is the question of the purpose and meaning of life.  It is the same question that we asked before: “What race are you running through life?”  “What is the truth that is shaping that race?”

These are deeply held spiritual questions.  I am going to confess I do not have all of the answers. Rather, what I have is faith that accompanies my uncertainty and doubt.  A faith that points me in a direction towards Jesus, just as Paul was heading that way.  For me this is not about certainty but hope.

One of the books I am currently reading is called “This Will Make You Smarter” – I am hoping it does.  There is a section written by scientists that promotes the importance of uncertainty – good science they argue is more about not being certain and being curious. I would argue the same is true of spirituality and God.

The motto of Kings is “The truth shall set you free”.  The truth that you buy in to, whether you do so consciously or not, sets the course of the race that you will run.  It is my conviction that the race that Paul ran is worthy of your time and effort as well.  To have the curiosity uncertainty and doubt that is accompanied by a willingness to trust and follow.  To follow Jesus and to listen to him in your race through life.

The Master Greg speaks of seeking to achieve at the highest level here at King’s – to become elite but not elitist!  I would encourage you to contemplate not simply the physical and mental side of the race you will run but the spiritual as well.   I would concur with Greg that in this place you should seek after excellence but to do so with humility, it is one of the core values of the community.  To remember that Kings was founded by followers of Jesus and the race that you are invited to run is a race which not conditioned to this world but one which has higher aspirations, the kingdom of God.

So run the race, run with purpose, run towards Jesus, seek his truth - find hope and purpose in life and may God bless you all this year.