Sunday, July 15, 2012

Disagreement to Discipleship

Here is my sermon from my visit to Mill End Baptist Church - based on Phil 4:2-9. You can listen to it here

I heard recently a story about Trevor Huddleston. Trevor Huddleston was was an Anglican priest, and later a bishop and later Archbishop, who served a significant amount of his ministry overseas - especially in Africa. Now it’s important for a sec to put Trevor Huddleston in context. He was born in Bedford in 1913 and trained for ordained ministry at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, near Leeds. Mirfield still trains men and now women to serve God’s church as priests and deacons. It was and is a very high church, Anglo-Catholic college and students would be expected to wear their cassocks all day - in the lectures, in their student rooms and especially in chapel. The central drive of the training that people who go to Mirfield get still is a focus on leading people in worship - especially in the daily sharing of communion and working tirelessly to support pastorally the poor and downtrodden.

So you can imagine Trevor Huddleston, later in a parish, kind of a characture of an Anglican cleric of a bygone era, swanning around in his black cassock all day every day, faithfully praying for and pastoring the people in his care.

In 1943, he felt called to serve the church in the heat of South Africa. So this tall, thin, creamy skinned man, donned in this thick black cassock went to live with the poverty stricken, politically oppressed people of Sophiatown. The ministry to which he was called remained unchanged. Each day he would make his way through the community from his home to the church to say his prayers and to lead the daily communion service. As went he would pass people in the street, on their porches and in their gardens. He paid no attention to who it was ok or not ok for him to greet. As he walked by he would raise his wide brimmed hat and wish whoever he walked by a cheery good morning or good afternoon.

Near to the church was a house where a woman called Aletta lived with her family. She was a domestic worker and earned what little she could by taking in washing from other families in the Sophiatown community. All too aware of her humble lot, not too long after Trevor Huddleston had arrived in the town, she found herself in the garden one day as the new priest made his was to church.

As he neared her house, this tall well spoken Englishman, looked over the wall into the meagre yard where she was hanging our someone else’s curtains. He looked her in the eye, doffed his hat, and wished her a hearty good day.

The simple act of him recognising her humanity made a huge impact on her nine year old son who was playing in the yard that day. His name is Desmond... The now retired Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, described that meeting as ‘...the biggest defining moment in my life... I saw this tall, white priest in a black cassock doff his hat to my mother...  I didn't know then that it would have affected me so much... it blew your mind that a white man would doff his hat.  And subsequently I discovered, of course, that this was quite consistent with his theology that every person is of significance, of infinite value, because they are created in the image of God.  And the passion with which he then later opposed apartheid and any other injustice is something that I sought then to emulate...’
Writing to the Christians in Philippi, Paul says at the end of the section we hear today, keep doing what you have seen me doing. Keep emulating the way of life I have set for you in the pattern set for all of us by Jesus Christ, keep faithfully following Him. I guess the encouragement for us us is, you will never ever know what seeds your Christian living will sow for someone else. You have no idea what impact your kind word, your offer of a lift, your simple act of recognising a fellow human being will have on them in God’s timing for the furtherance of His Kingdom.
Now for those of you who don’t know me, I’m married and I have 3 kids. Most of the time our kids are fabulous, but there are days when they are quite frankly a nightmare - there I said it. They become a seething bundle of bickering, infighting, whinging, selfishness which I am sure the good Lord allows them to be to test my patience, and to remind me, in my brokenness how much I need His grace and His patience with me!

Anyway there are days when you can feel the fighting rising in the air like an emotional thunderstorm, just waiting for the first fat raindrop of an insult to begin to kick the storm off. Know what I mean? Welcome to parenthood, but no-one tells you this stuff. They tell you, oh, being a parent is a gift, you’ll treasure those moments, they grow up so quickly. They never told me about these sorts of days where I arrive having to do something like a school assembly and be all lively or a visit grieving relatives having just had to deal with my kids who have been having a doozy of an argument.

Paul, has heard that it’s been a bit like this for the church in Philippi. There has been some heated disagreement, we don’t know what, but he urges Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. We don’t really know who these two women were, but Paul describes them as struggling beside him in the work of the Gospel. They were in leadership.

Bearing in mind that Paul is writing a letter that will be read to the whole community, it seems a bit harsh for paul to name and shame these two women doesn’t it? By naming them he is drawing the attention of the whole community to their disagreement and reminding the women that they set the standard of Godly living as leaders. To be a leader says Paul, is to accept responsability beyond private preference - remember Jesus’ words? Not my will but yours... The way you live should set the standard, especially in leadership.

Paul also expects the church to play a part in healing their relationship. That’s the nature of the partnership to which church leaders are called. Paul refers to this when he writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 6:1-6) where he encourages the whole church to play a part in resolving difficulties amongst fellow believers.

But Paul is asking for more than an apology here. He is looking for these women to be of the same mind in Christ.  He asks them to meet, despite their disagreement, where they do stand together - their common bond through faith in Christ.  Paul reminds us that as Christians we are not left to figure out our disagreements by ourselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran pastor) in his book The Cost of Discipleship put it so well when he reminds us that because Christ is our Saviour and Lord, and because of His radical intervention in our world and in our lives, we now have mediated relationships with each other because of Christ. Christ stands between us and our neighbour us us and God and puts He  puts our case forward so well, in such a way that reconcilliation or agreement is the only outcome. It is not possible for God the Judge not to reach an uncertain verdict in our case - because through the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as He puts forward our case, we are reconciled to each other and to God. This should have a huge impact on the way we deal with any disagreements in the church friends.  We are reconciled to God in Christ, so we should reconcile to each other because of Him.

I’m going to skip past the radical nature of the community that is called together in the church here in Philippi because of Christ’s intervention in our world and in our lives. There is a co-equality, a mutuality, in the church, because of the way that Christ sees us, the way He loves us. He doffs his hat to us all - young or old, male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free as Paul would write later. As a result, and to re-emaphsize the new thing that God is doing and to mark them out as a different community to the male-dominated world around them, women are called into positions of senior leadership in the earliest churches - as an Anglican whose General Synod is prayerfully debating whether women should be bishops in the church, should really take note of the earliest of churches...

Paul goes on - he encourages the Christians in Philippi and Mill End to rejoice in the presence of God amongst us. To give thanks for the new thing that He is doing in our lives. Just as the Philippians have seen how Christ has and is continuing to transform the lives of Lydia and then the Jailer who imprisoned Paul and Silas so we should rejoice at the way that He is transforming all of our lives still.  Do make time and space in our daily living to thank God for the people He is making us to be in Christ? Do we have opportunity to share some of that good news with others in our community - to give testimony to the goodness and grace of God?

The gentleness for which the Philippian Christians  are renowned, is not a soppiness but rather an unflapability that comes from a sure hope in the return of Christ. As you know the nearness, the presence of Christ Himself amongst you says Paul, let that overflow into the way you pray - ask and it shall be given you, as Jesus once put it. Paul refs back to Matt 6 - Jesus says, don’t worry, trust God and He will surpass the need you have. Live and love in God this way, says Paul, and God will give you His peace - the sense that all is right with the world and with God, the Shalom, the completeness of all things in God - and it will stand vigilant watch day and night, like a sentry over your lives, drives, thoughts and motives. Sounds good doesn’t it?

But I wonder, do we live like that? We live in an anxious world, in very anxious times - not least of all will Andy Murray do the seemingly miraculous. Many people, maybe even some of you are anxious - will there be more month at the end of the money? Will I still have a job next week? How far will my pension go in real terms and over how many years? Can I continue to afford to live here? Not only that, but being a 21st century person is tough - it requires us to make thousands of day by decisions about how we behave in any number of situations. Those decisions paint a picture of the sort of person I real am, deep down, my character. Now it’s easy, comparatively speaking to sign up to big, world-shaping aspirations like world peace and justice, but all too often we’re like Linus in the Peanuts cartoons who once said “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” The small scale choices we make in the supermarket, on the motorway, in the office, at home and at a thousand other forks in the road express or diminish the big ideals that win our respect.

For this reason, Paul calls the Christians in Philippi and in Mill End for that matter, to actively chose and be responsible for specifically choosing ways of living that honour the big ideals we aspire to - to Godly living might be another way to put it. Rob Bell in his book ‘Velvet Elvis’  describes what Paul’s getting at well when he said:

‘...  As a Christian, I am simply trying to orient myself around living a particular kind of way. The kind of way that Jesus taught is possible. And I think that the way of Jesus is the best possible way to live.
This isn’t irrational or primitive or blind faith. It is merely being honest that we are all trying to live a ‘way’.

I’m convinced being generous is a better way to live.  I’m convinced forgiving people and not carrying around bitterness is a better way to live.  I’m convinced having compassion is a better way to live.  I’m convinced pursuing peace in every situation is a better way to live.  I’m convinced listening to the wisdom of others is a better way to live.  I’m convinced being honest with people is a better way to live.  This way of thinking isn’t weird or strange; it is simply acknowledging that everybody follows somebody, and I’m trying to follow Jesus...’

What about us?  Paul says to us - think about your own life and work out as you shop, drive or spend time at the office, what it means to live lives that are honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and praise-worthy. In other words, God being present with us has to cash up. He needs to be visibly tangibly present in our lives, and we can practice living that way.  Whilst these character traits are straight out the textbook of a Greek life-coach and they’re not specifically Christian, those who live this way, Paul infers, live lives within the boarders of the Kingdom of God. He is encouraging us, as those growing to spiritual maturity, to work out with these character traits like weights at the gym.  He is encouraging us each to begin to be responsible for our own discipleship.  He says, look I have taught and shown you much about what it means to follow Christ, now it’s your turn.  Try to live lives, with Christ at the centre, that by your true and trustworthy dealings with one another, by the way you honour one another in love, by your seeking after justice and pure lifestyles make others go - wow, look at guys - I wonder what drives them to be the sort of people that they are, because whatever it is they have got, I want. 

St. Jerome tells the well-loved story that Saint John continued preaching even when he was in his 90s.  He was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher.  And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long sermon, his custom was to lean up on one elbow each time and say simply: “Little children, love one another.”  This continued on, even when the ageing John was on his deathbed.  Then he would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out.

Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, with the same message: “Little children, love one another.”  One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?”  And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

Those values that Paul lists, are about living out in our the love the God has for each one of us in Christ.  Living out those virtues needs practice, they should become as much part of our spiritual disciplines as saying our prayers, studying the scriptures and fasting. It’s easy, comparatively speaking to be honest in our daily dealings, but loving - hmmm we find that strangely hard to do - even or perhaps especially with fellow Christians. Instead we stumble into conversations and important moments in odd places and on seemingly insignificant occasions not really sure of how to act or speak. Yet how we are to know how important our good morning or raised hat might be many years down the line coupled with lives lived with Christ at the centre?

Paul sets the Philippian Church and example of Godly leadership and living.  Live out those character traits, try them out and keep doing all that you have seen me do says Paul.  He has such a great love for Christ’s church that he longs to see the grace of God at work in our lives more and more. This is Paul saying, not arrogantly but actually in great humility, even if you can’t work out with these life traits, if you don’t understand everything I have taught you, copy what I do and you’ll get the drift. This is Paul the mentor, Paul the personal trainer, Paul the Discipler prepared to go the extra mile with the church in Philippi and Mill End, the people he intimately calls beloved - much loved - ensuring that we understand the purpose of all of that he teaches, all that he has shown, all that he lives is not just a better way to live, but the way to live Christ’s Way as God’s people together.  Do all of this says Paul and the God who brought all things into being with the words ‘let there be light’, the God who rested on on the Sabbath day, the God who answers the longing of an anxious age, the God of Peace Himself will be with you. Amen.

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