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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Monday, 13 July 2009

Sermon for Stebbing and Lindsell, Trinity 5

I've rather let my sermons blog go cold, perhaps in anticipation of podcast capability on the imminent but as yet unlinkable-to new Stebbing Church website. However this sermon took a lot of effort to write and deliver so I thought I'd stick it here.

The readings were Ephesians 1, 3-14 and Mark 6 14-29. The background to the opening remarks is that I had just announced 2 deaths, one a teenager with brain cancer.

On the face of it I think you might excuse me, had I decided to choose a gospel reading other than the one we have just had, especially after the news we have shared this morning. However, I do believe that the lectionary is there for a reason, and we have been working our way through Mark’s gospel, so I decided to continue. You might also be wondering what I can say to connect these two readings together, and build up our faith.

Well, they are both about power; not necessarily the same kind of power or the same attitude to power, but power connects them.
Ephesians 1, 3-14 is a prayer of blessing and praise of our powerful God. The blessings received by the recipients of the letter come from God, their greatest benefactor, who consistently works for good and offers salvation through Christ. He may appear distant when described as the ruler of the universe but we know he is near to us as the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so also our father.

These verses introduce some themes that run through Ephesians – the relationship of God to the universe, the holiness of God's people and the joy of redemption. The passage includes the astounding claim that, in the end, all 'things in heaven and things on earth' will be brought together in Christ (v. 10 – compare this with Colossians 1.20 which says, “through him [that is Christ] to reconcile all things to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through h s blood shed on the cross). This stretches our imagination beyond our limited horizons, and ultimately shows us how far the power of God can go. It also helpfully focuses our attention on the fact that the power – or for that matter the love – of God is most clearly expressed in the cross of Christ
We can read this passage in three ways.
The first is chronological: the Father's original and eternal purpose was worked out in history through Christ and realised later in human experience. It moves not only through time but also from the universal to the personal.
Secondly, we may opt to see it liturgically. The poetic features of the passage indicate that it may have been adapted from an early Christian liturgical format. The pattern is Trinitarian – the Father chooses his people, Christ the Son brings redemption and the Spirit works that out in God's people.
Thirdly we may see it as disputational. It may have been written or compiled to counter claims of Jewish believers that they were superior to non-Jews who had come to faith in Christ: the choice and the power to redeem rests in God, not in the believer. There’s that word again, power. God has the power to redeem humanity, whoever we are, whatever we have done.

These three approaches are not mutually exclusive. We live in Christ because of God's choice. The passage speaks of God's eternal purposes with words like 'chose' (v. 4), 'destined' (v. 5 and v. 11) and 'adoption' (v. 5). There are none of the negative aspects of election. God's choosing is to be celebrated as an act of generosity and love.
Let me just spend a little moment on the concept of predestination. Millions of words have been written and preached about it, especially based on verses such as these. Not all of it has been helpful, and so I digress slightly from the theme of power.

I want to say that it is good to know that God has chosen us, that he knew us before the creation of the world and he has a purpose for us; this is a foundation of our trust in God, even when things seem horrible.

But we must not let our predestination – our chosen-ness, make us complacent; I have often felt that the strange complexity of predestination is well summed up by the Matt Redman song “I found Jesus”, in which we sing “I was lost but Jesus found me, I found Jesus”. It may be true that God chose us, but we still have to choose him; he has worked out our salvation in Christ, but that is ineffective in our lives until we respond to him and are open to his transforming power. In the same way sometimes I feel that the church can be infected with complacency in mission by thoughts of predestination – I guess logically one might conclude that if we were chosen then that’s all great, everyone else will be chosen too, we don’t have to worry about it.

But of course the great thing about predestination is that it is not exclusive. Everyone who hears and responds to the message of God’s love in Christ finds himself or herself included among the chosen. We read that in verse 13. There is no fixed list, with God ticking off names until he gets to the end; rather, he is joyfully adding to the list those who he knew all along would be choosing Christ. Unlike the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we Anglicans do not believe that that hypothetical list in finite.

The power of the cross was not just for a select band; that power has the potential to save every human; the fact that some are perishing is an indictment of the church, not a sign of the cruelty of a selective God.

So we rejoice in the power of God, but let us not be complacent and keep it to ourselves; God is waiting for us to help others choose him. That’s what our vision process has been about, and from what I’m hearing and seeing, it is already beginning to bear fruit.

So, you’re wondering, what on earth is he going to say about the death of John the Baptist?

Well, here we see how people abuse power; this is an example of learning by saying, “don’t do that …”

Herod and his completely dysfunctional family have obtained a degree of political power, though they are effectively puppets of the Roman regime. Perhaps because of this Herod likes to throw his weight around and pretty much takes what he wants – even his brother’s wife.

He’s not completely without redeeming features, though, for the text suggests John was in protective custody to prevent Herodias from having him killed. Clearly, the Baptist’s ministry had reached his ears and he liked to listen to him, we read. But actually we need to remember that this episode is in effect told in flashback, because now the ministry of Jesus and his disciples has come to his attention. People were saying Jesus was John risen from the dead, so we then get Marks’ account of how John came to die.

In the preceding paragraphs we read that Jesus' ministry was being extended through the mission of the Twelve so it was not surprising that he came to the attention of Herod. The parallels between Jesus and John obviously touched a raw nerve with Herod – was this John come back to disturb him? Significantly, in verse 16, when Herod says, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” it is not a question, it is a statement – he obviously believes it to be true.

We can see in Mark's account some parallels with stories in the Jewish Scriptures – e.g. Elijah and Ahab (1 Kings 17 and 18) with John playing Elijah and Herod and Herodias as Ahab and Jezebel. John did not just suffer the consequences of his bold preaching; he also fell foul of the sexual and power politics of the court. Herod, like many leaders before and after him, was willing to sacrifice others in order to maintain his own prestige, honour and power. This stands in stark contrast to the simplicity of life of the twelve in their mission.

In Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome”, which dramatises this incident, Herod says, on hearing of the possibility that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, “I will not allow this man to raise the dead!” This is a fine example of how humans think they can tell God what he can and can’t do. I read about that play on an Internet site discussing the dogmatic, even fundamentalist attitudes of militant atheists like Richard Dawkins. They are so determined that Christianity cannot be true that they behave like Wilde’s Herod, and end up making ridiculous statements that show only their prejudice and none of their wisdom.

On the other hand, the sort of person we are most likely to encounter in our daily lives is more like the Biblical Herod than the fictional one. These are the people who have heard of Jesus, just as Herod had, and who might feel protective of the church, even the Christian faith, even as Herod enjoyed listening to John and protected him.
However, like Herod, they just don’t know the full story; Herod thought Jesus was John raised to life, and our neighbours and colleagues, even our family, may have similar misconceptions about the Christian story and the Christian faith.
Because we enjoy the kind of life in Christ that our first reading from Ephesians describes, ought we not to endeavour to overcome some of these misconceptions? Sometimes the first step on a journey of mission is to say, “Actually that’s not quite what happens”.

Let us then pray for confidence

Some material by Simon Oxley from www.rootsontheweb.com copyright © Roots for Churches Ltd 2009.

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