Hopeful Realism: Night Reflection for Compline (1 Peter 1:3-5)

Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Resurrection, 2007. Oil on canvas, 178 × 122 cm (http://jyotiartashram.blogspot.com/2007/10/sign-of-jonas.html)

Night Reflection for Compline, Trinity College Chapel via Zoom (Easter Season in Coronatide). Weds 6th May 2020

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

In times like these, death seems to be omnipresent. We knew it’s name before, of course. But in these days of Corona-tide, as some have taken to calling this season, we know with greater clarity the painful reality of death. There’s no mistaking the long, dark shadow it has cast over our nation’s public life.

In the UK, during the month of April alone, 25,000 souls were lost to the coronavirus. Just last week, in a single day 600 died of Covid-19—in a one 24-hour period, what is equivalent to a medium sized Cambridge college lost to the ravages of this horrible pandemic. 

It is no surprise that in times such as these, our assumptions about that most basic reality of our existence—death—are laid bare. 

In some of us is revealed a strong and persistent fatalism; call it pessimism, cynicism, or stoicism. We resign ourselves to death. To the fatalist, death is the natural end of life, the point at which our existence runs its logical course. Nothing else is to be said or done as death has the final word.

For others of us, it isn’t fatalism but idealism that characterises our response to this pandemic. Death seems everywhere present, and yet we would rather not talk about it. As late-moderns so used to the idea of being in control of our destinies, we run a million miles from death. We prefer to laugh it off. In disparagement, we refer to those with any kind of interest in facing their own mortality as “morbid”. 

And yet into the fatalism and idealism of our own hearts, our scripture tonight counters with two assertions of its own. Death is real. Christ has been raised. 

Hear these words again from tonight’s reading:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

For the Christian, death is a topic that is very much on the table. Of all the major world religions, it is only Christianity that has God in Jesus Christ take on mortal, vulnerable, corruptible flesh and die. As our creeds state: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and buried. He descended to the dead”. I am reminded of my family in rural Northern Ireland who, as per custom, included in their most recent phone call “update”, the news of those who in the local town had died recently. Here, I thought to myself, is a community that is honest about the reality of death. The Christian faith does not shy away from our mortality. Death isn’t something we laugh off, or shut our ears and eyes to in reckless idealism. But nor is it something we fatalistically ascribe to the natural course of a life. In the face of death, the Christian exclaims, “how long O Lord?” This is emphatically not how it should be!

But our scripture this evening makes a second, far more remarkable counter-assertion. Yes death is real. But we also believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and we who trust in him will be raised as well. This is no lame attempt at emotional uplift, or a vague offer of bodyless, paradisal bliss. No, our text declares that God in Christ has given birth to a new world; he has literally birthed us anew. The language of giving birth in early Christianity held apocalyptic resonance—apocalyptic in the sense of a revealing, an unveiling. In raising Christ from the dead, in vindicating him, God unveils a new creation in which we are beginning to participate and which will be brought to full completion in the last time. 

But until then, we grieve and lament the loss of life. We are honest and realistic about the reality of death. But we do not grieve as those without hope. We are neither fatalistic nor idealistic, but realistic. And we are hopefully realistic. For we have the greatest hope of all—that Christ has defeated death in giving up his own life for us and in being raised victorious. Ours is a hopeful realism that neither idealistically turns a blind eye to death nor cynically scoffs at the living hope achieved through Christ’s death and resurrection. 

Yes, death will do its worst. But Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and we will be too. Do we dare entrust our lives, and our deaths to him? Perhaps the better question is, how could we do otherwise? 

Amen. 

We Do What We Are (Ephesians 5:8-19)

Sermon preached at St Barnabas Church, December 16th 2018

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:

“Wake up, sleeper,
    rise from the dead
,
    and Christ will shine on you.”

15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.

Upon the death of his father King George V, Edward VIII gave an interview in which he reminisced about his time as a boy. “Whenever any one of us children had done something wrong”, Edward recalled, “the King would take us aside and tell us—‘my child, you must remember who you are’”. The point being that if Edward only remembered his identity as a child of the King, and an heir to the throne, he would live a good life that brought honour to the king. 

In the passage before us this morning, Paul addresses a set of communities in Ephesus—modern day Western Turkey— that was similarly wrestling with its identity and how it lived out that identity in the world. Now, this passage is filled to the brim with moral instruction. It is rather tempting when reading such a passage to respond with despair at ever being able to fulfil what is laid out for us. The bar often seems just too high. So, before we get to the passage, let me briefly set the scene so that we might read it through the right lens. 

Paul’s message to us this morning is simple but profound—what we do flows out of who we are. This reminder is as timely now, as it was then. And who are we? Paul tells us, “You are light in the Lord”. It is on the basis of that identity that we are to live. In other words, we do what we are. Our identity defines our action, and our action flows out of our identity. If we fail to remind ourselves of who we are, then we might, like Edward VIII, risk losing sight of what we are to do, and why we are to do it. 

The question I wish to raise for us this morning is deceptively simple—who are you? What defines your identity, your sense of worth?

Who are you?

In our Western culture, we are so often defined by what we do—our career, intellect, talents, family, socio-economic status, nationality, political leanings and so on. And our present moment deepens this existential angst in some profoundly unsettling ways. The emphasis in our western culture on body weight, for instance, has contributed to the astronomical rise in eating disorders. The thought that we cannot be sure that we exist from moment to moment without proof from one of our social media profiles (be it Instagram, Twitter or Facebook) has created widespread insecurity. At the heart of this anxiety—and this is the crucial point—is the creeping fear that we constantly need to prove ourselves…What we do so often defines who we are. 

Of course, each of the aspects I have just mentioned do play a role in shaping our identity, and there is nothing wrong with that in itself; and yet, each factor—money, facebook profile, job or whatever it might be—fails to really get to the heart of who you are, fails to plumb the depths of your identity. And part of this, I think, is because all of the things I have mentioned are fundamentally centred on ourselves and what we do… 

Now, the passage this morning casts a totally different vision for how we might think about who we are—and the key to that vision is God himself. You see, we cannot understand who we are and what we are to do, without first reflecting on who God is and what he has done. A simple point, I realise, but one we are in desperate need of reminding ourselves of. 

Here’s the simple point that bears repeating: God defines who we are. The beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes this point beautifully, with a stunning cosmic vision of God’s initiative in the world. God lovingly adopts, lavishly loves, powerfully redeems and beautifully equips us. It’s a breath-taking passage (quite literally because it consists of a single 202-word sentence in the original Greek). But it’s also breath-taking in the simple assertion that it makes: God defines who we are. God takes the initiative, relentlessly pursuing us, in spite of ourselves. It is God’s gracious action that defines who we are—children of a loving father before we could even respond. This is who we are. And this is whose we are. 

The same message emerges throughout the letter: we live in light of what God has done for us and in light of what God says about us. The structure of the letter to the Ephesians follows this very move from identity to action. The first part of the letter deals with what we might call the indicative of faith—this is who we are in light of who God is, and what God has done. The imperative of faith—the activity of being disciples of Christ—follows on in the second half of the letter. It is only if we get the indicative of faith straight that the “imperative” of the Christian life makes sense. We live as children of light not to earn our father’s trust or favour—rather, we live as children of light because it is who we are. 

In the passage before us this morning, Paul continues to tie our identity to what God thinks of us. And there are three parts to this. First, Paul describes the congregations as light in the Lord. The words “in the Lord” are not a pious afterthought, or an add on to make the text read a bit more appropriately. No, to be “light in the Lord” gets to the heart of who we are and why we do what we do. You see, the source of light is the Lord himself. The phrase “in Christ” or, as here “in the Lord” permeates Ephesians, appearing no less than 13 times. To be light in the Lord means that the source of all that we are and do is Christ. Let us take hold of that this morning—we will fail and fall as disciples of Christ, but is he that is the light. We cannot go it alone—we rely on him. You are light in the Lord. The same truth is expressed differently when Paul calls the Ephesians “children of light”. Here, he again reminds his audience, and reminds us today, that we are who we are because of who our father is. Third, Paul is emphatic that the identity of the audience is a present reality. He does not say “you are becoming light in the Lord” or “you were light in the Lord”; in the Greek, the phrase is literally, “you were darkness…now light in the Lord”. In other words, this is your identity here and now. Of course, this needs nuancing. Following Christ is an ongoing process; it involves walking and waiting—and Advent reminds us that we await Christ’s return when all will be completed and light overcomes darkness at last. But in terms of what God thinks of us, it is decided now. If we are following Christ, we are light in the Lord. You are light in the Lord.

In light of this identity, there come responsibilities. You will note that Paul uses the metaphor of walking to describe being disciples. “Walk as children of the light”. As a consequence of this new calling, this new identity, the people of God are called to live differently. You are light. Now live it out. Earlier in the letter, Paul calls for the Ephesians “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called”. The image of walking fundamentally gets at the direction of our lives. Where are we heading? Who are we following? Who’s calling the shots? What’s guiding us? Who or what is defining us?  

To walk as children of the light takes wisdom. Paul lists some broad virtues in v.9—goodness, righteousness and truth. It takes discernment to know how to apply these in the complexities of life, as Paul admits in verse 10—“and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord”. But Paul has already spelled out what it means to live lives of goodness, righteousness and truth in the previous section—and it means telling the truth, not lies; not allowing ourselves to become consumed with anger, bitterness, malice, but rather being kind and forgiving. In fact, the character of this new community is to match the character of the God who had made this family a reality. “Be imitators of God”, Paul says at the outset of the chapter. How we live not only flows from our identity but is thoroughly shaped by that identity. We forgive as those whom God has forgiven in Christ. Because God our Father is light, we are to be children of light exposing the unfruitful works of darkness. And so, we have come full circle—we live out of who we are—children of our mighty and loving Father God, children of light who represent our father in the world. 

So, this morning, may we know who we are in Christ—children of light, beloved children of God. And in this season of Advent, may we walk as children of light…for it is who we are. 

Amen. 

Jesus, The Hope of the Disciple-Maker (Matthew 28.16-20)

Sermon preached at St Barnabas Church, Cambridge on September 1st 2019

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Introduction

These are uncertain times in our household. I am about to finish my job and am currently not sure what or where my next job will be. Olga is on the hunt for a curacy which could be anywhere in the country. And on top of that, we are set to move house and so are dealing with all of the upheaval that comes with packing boxes and making our home somewhere else. 

It is with excitement, then, that I heard we were looking at stories of hope—stories both about hope and stories that give us hope—in our summer series here at St Barnabas. To state the obvious, hope is tested in uncertain, seemingly hopeless times. In this last in our series, we come to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, to a passage commonly known as the Great Commission. This is a passage about mission, about disciple-making and discipling with those meaty commands to “move out, make disciples of all nations, baptising and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you”. 

So what has the Great Commission to do with hope? Well, this morning I want to suggest that we might want to consider the central point of this passage not simply to be the Great Commission, but the Great Person of Jesus himself. I don’t want us for a minute to lose sight of the vital imperative to be those who disciple others and make disciples. Yet the centre-point of this passage is Jesus himself—the risen Lord—who empowers all disciple-making and who promises to be with us as we carry out that task. This passage is about those great commands, but it is most centrally about the Great Person of Jesus and it is this that I want to focus on today. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t focus on the content of those great and important commands here in great detail this morning. This isn’t just a pragmatic decision—I believe the essential task of disciple-making (making disciples) and discipleship (deepening the faith of those who call Jesus Lord and Saviour) is about Jesus. After all, it is the hope of Christ we are sharing and it is him we are called to desire, know and serve.  

So today we’ll be looking at the person of Jesus as the hope of the disciple-maker. Verses 17 and v.20 provide the clue here, where Jesus promises his Great Power (“to me has been given all authority in heaven and earth”) and his Great Presence (“and behold, I am with you every day”). 

First of all, though, we have to put this in context. Why was this hope for the disciples in the first century? Well, earlier in his gospel, the evangelist relates that the disciples were filled with great fear. To begin with, he records the gruesome execution of Jesus at the hands of the Romans—an event that would have sent shockwaves to the very core of the disciples hopes and sense of identity. “Wasn’t he the one to redeem Israel?” They had heard, many of them had seen, their Lord’s body hanging limp and lifeless, very much dead on the Roman instrument of torture. Then, to make matters worse, the disciples learn from some of Jesus’s female followers that his body was no longer to be found at the tomb. These disciples made the claim that they had seen Jesus. And yet the elders and leaders of the people begin to spread false rumours that the disciples themselves had taken the body—not only would this have crushed the hopes of those one or two disciples who had seen the risen Lord (there’s nothing worse than those in power concocting a narrative that undermines what you’ve seen with your own eyes); the rumour that the disciples had snatched Jesus’s body away also would have also potentially put a price on the heads of the disciples as dishonourable grave-robbers and enemies of the state. This hopeless scene makes verse 16 read even more strikingly—”Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go”. The eleven disciples limp their way to Galilee on the word of Jesus passed onto a few women. Isn’t life so often like this? We follow Jesus to the place where he has told us to go, with nothing else but his word to go on. So now, let’s go with the disciples to that mountain on Galilee to see him and to hear his fresh word to us, taking with us our fear and hopelessness. 

This morning, I want to draw our attention to three things in the passage that should give us hope. 

First, Jesus does not shy away from doubting-worshippers but approaches us and sends us out.

As I alluded to before, the disciples are down to 11. Not only have they lost Judas, but there’s a sense of failure and regret in the air as this ragtag bunch remember how they denied Jesus, how they left him in his hour of need and fled. As Dale Bruner beautifully comments—“the church that Jesus sends into the world is ‘elevenish’, imperfect, fallible. And yet, Jesus uses this imperfect church to do his perfect work”. It’s sometimes easy to talk about the church as imperfect, infallible and sometimes far more difficult to admit, deep down, that that includes us. We are no less part of that 11, each one of us that calls Jesus Lord.

In this short, earthy scene, the evangelist records that while the disciples worshipped, some doubted. In other words, doubt and worship live side by side in the hearts of each of these disciples. If we’re honest with ourselves, that’s true of all of us. There is an earthy, practical realism in this remark here that I love. The author acknowledges that we will have doubts. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, unbelief is. And doubt often sits alongside worship. We are doubting-worshippers, we often doubt and struggle but we worship God nonetheless. What comfort that scripture acknowledges this reality! 

And then, remarkably, the author tells us how Jesus responds to these doubting-worshippers. What does he do in v. 18? Jesus does not shy away from his disciples, he does not cringe or angrily berate them. Instead, we are told, he approaches them. Jesus comes to us in our doubts, he steps forward and wants to know us. In the Great Commission, we move out as disciple makers, often faltering, often feeling hopeless but we must never forget that as we move out, Jesus moves towards us. Jesus doesn’t walk out on us, he walks towards us. What hope that should give us! God’s patience with us is also a challenge for us to worship. If we worship as best we can, despite our doubts, those doubts can be handled. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

So, the hope and comfort here is that just as Jesus uses this faltering group of 11, this motley crew of doubting-worshippers, he will use us in sharing the hope of Christ with others.

Second, we have the hope that comes from the promise of Jesus’s power

The commands that we associate with the Great Commission are preceded by a great promise in verse 18: “to me has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go…”. Whenever we see a therefore, we should ask what is the therefore there for! Here, the therefore provides the hopeful basis for all of our discipling and disciple-making. It grounds all of our action in the authority of Christ himself who empowers all of our going, all of our disciple-making, all of our baptising and all of our teaching. The means of disciple-making is Jesus’s power. The all-surpassing authority and power of Jesus is absolutely central to our faith. As we have proclaimed together, Jesus is the one who was vindicated by God, the one whom God brought back from the dead in power. For some of us, this is like a burden lifted off our backs—God is in charge and he has given all authority to Christ. When we are struggling just to make ends meet—and the task of sharing Christ with others seems beyond our means and energies—we are reminded that Jesus has all authority. His resources are sufficient, indeed are infinite, and he is willing to pour them out to us. This is also an encouragement as we pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in places like Sri Lanka, North Korea and China—that they would know his power in times when their hope is severely tested…even to the point of death. 

For others, this is a reminder of the times we attempt to go it alone, preferring to rely on our own efforts both in getting us by in hopeless times and in sharing the hope that we have in Christ. We confessed earlier, “forgive us for trusting our own strength, rather than yours”. Let us hold to that confession and trust in the one who holds all things in his hands. 

Third, we have the hope that comes from the assurance of Jesus’s presence

Following the commands to make disciples, Jesus rounds off his speech with the following great promise: “And behold, I am with you always”. This is the assurance of Christ’s presence with us, a guarantee which Matthew opens his gospel with the promise that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. This is the good news that Jesus is quite literally in the original, with us all days. He is NOT just with us on our good days or even in the good bits of each day. No, he is with us every day and the whole of each day.

Unlike Luke-Acts, Matthew doesn’t have an Ascension narrative. And yet we can imagine that Jesus’s departure is imminent. This makes the whole scene even more poignant. How can the disciples have hope at a moment of parting? Their master and lord is leaving them, and yet they are to hope and carry that hope to others? Surely not! But that is precisely why the assurance of Christ’s presence with us—and more than that, the hope of his return at the completion of the mission—is the bedrock of our hope. He leaves to return—and in the meantime, while he is not here physically, he guarantees his presence with us by his Spirit. The hope of Christ’s presence with us therefore becomes a choice, an act of will. It is not something simply given to us, but something that we must desire and grasp hold of as best we can, even as we hold it out to others. 

One final word of hope—we will shortly gather and share communion together, an embodied way of reminding us that Christ approaches us, takes away our sins and cleanses us. He then sends us out together to invite others to hear his word and approach the table of life and hope. So, let us approach that table of hope, doubting-worshippers though we are, and be in the presence once more of our loving Saviour who died for us and was raised to be our living hope. Amen.