Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
24th Jun 2018
Delivered to the Huaxia Chinese Church on Sunday 24th June 2018 at 2 30 pm.
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
“We urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain” 2 Corinthians 6.1
It’s with real joy that I am here at Holy Cross Church at the special invitation of your own Huaxia Church! It is thrilling for my church members that we are able to express something of God’s love and kindness in our sharing of this place of worship with you. Thank you for asking me to be here now! It is so good to be here together for this time of prayer and praise.
In the Anglican tradition we spend each Sunday looking at three separate pieces of scripture and a part of one psalm. This at first sounds as though we have taken on too much! But we have these scripture readings, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament and one from the Gospels, and the typical sermon is one which seeks to find a single link between these three readings. Often this is very difficult. But as we read scripture there is no sense in which we are in a hurry for immediate answers and quick and ready responses to what scripture is revealing to us. We read scripture and many of us are familiar with so much of what we read and hear. But we also meditate upon scripture and in this way we come gradually to an understanding of how and in what way it is speaking to us. We take our time for God’s understanding to be given to us so that our own understanding may develop appropriately.
And so I will try to do what I normally do on Sunday mornings, and offer you my understanding of the three pieces of scripture which have been set by my church for today. When Jianbi asked me for a title to this sermon I had already quickly given m scripture passage a first reading and so I said to him. “My title is “God: Our Centre of Gravity”. When I mention gravity I mean that God is the centre of our being ; God is our stability. He is our life’s true meaning and its true purpose. And yet God is also beyond anything I can ever say about Him : he will always be so much more than I can ever imagine Him to be. And because of this I am being called into a relationship with God and with His Son Jesus Christ in profound trust. I have to set all those things I lack against God’s willingness to place his trust in me. The fact that God is more than I can imagine is good news for me because it will stop me from trying to worship him as though he needed me to give him life. Instead, God is who God is and his love for me and this world is without end. I am free only when I can own that my existence is nothing without God.
I am free when I acknowledge him to be the God of my life, my faith and even my partial understanding of him and of my turning away from him. He is always ready to meet me where I am, even and especially when I am doubting or fearing. The Christian calling is the one which would have us be open to the outpouring of his love. Our Christian calling is the one which responds with a joyful ‘Yes!’ to him and of his open hearted love for me. When I say my ‘Yes’ to God I come alive in a way I had not previously thought possible, and God lives in me. It is in this light that St Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians ‘not to accept the grace of God in vain’. ‘Vain’ comes from an English word which can mean either ridiculously arrogant or something which is dead and can have no future. God is come to drive out vanity and to restore us in his true likeness. (2 Corinthians 3.18)
I will look at our readings from back to front and begin with our Gospel reading and end with our Old Testament reading from the Book of Job by way of Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthians Chapter 6.
In the Gospel reading from Mark Chapter 4 we have the simple story of Jesus in a boat with his disciples. It is such a simple story that, like children we might rush to a quick and satisfying understanding of it and miss its real meaning. A storm lashes the little boat and the disciples fear being drowned. The sea or deep water was a horror in the minds of the Jewish people, and they likened the limitless seas to ‘Sheol’ or ‘Hell’. We learn that in the storm chaos Jesus is lying asleep in the stern of the boat. The contrast of storm and sleep is very vital to the story and we come to know Jesus as the still centre. He is able as God’s own Son to inhabit God’s peace in its human totality. In one of the Anglican blessings we have the phrase ‘The Peace of God which passes all understanding’. Jesus’ peace, asleep in the boat, lies beyond the storm and the fearful disciples. And yet, as he wakes, he recognises and has pity upon their fear. There is a sharp rebuke however, as he comments upon their lack of faith. They are with the man of deep peace and yet they neither recognise him as such nor of course do they place enough trust in him. The very English translation tells us that Jesus ‘rebuked the storm’ but in reality he performs an exorcism upon the storm and repeats the words he pronounced to the man possessed of demons ‘Be gone, and come out of him!’ ‘Be still!’. And then there is as scripture tells us ‘a dead calm’. We are reminded of the words of Psalm 46 ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. Only learn to be still…
My friends, to go deeper in the life of faith and the acceptance of God’s grace we need to learn to be still. I remember the English exclamation ‘Don’t just stand there, do something!” In reverse we have ‘Don’t just do something; stand there!” Be still and know that I am God. God is the One who has astonished the disciples as they begin slowly to come to a realisation of who their teacher Jesus really is “Who is this” they say “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Beyond the anxieties, the worry, the preoccupations and our vanity; beyond these things, Jesus is able to still the storm in all of us – he is the very eye of the storm; the place of its absolute stillness and its heart. This same stillness he offers us, too, the strength and courage to be, to live life from its true source, and never to neglect such a gift of immense grace, though we often do!
In His Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 6, our second reading, St Paul reminds us that God’s gift to us is of Himself in Jesus Christ. This gift is being given to us in the present, at this very moment, at Holy Cross Church in London on this day and at this time. Paul reminds us that “Now is the acceptable time” just as Jesus in the boat works to still the storm in the ‘now’. God recognises your own fears and yet still calls you, in the now moment, to come to Him. St Paul is simply calling us to the provocative ‘opening wide’ of our hearts. This is hard for us. For perhaps there is so much that has made our hearts more closed up than they should be; we have been hurt, we have some bad memories, we have been let down or betrayed, we have withdrawn and with the withdrawal we have shut our hearts up in very subtle and clever ways, and we are in grief.
It is no longer such an easy a thing to respond to grace when we are so wounded. But St Paul knows this and that people, like you and me, need close human support and encouragement. We need the hearts that trust in the whole business of ‘going through things together’ and of an acceptance that we need one another and that we find God in one another. “As servants of God” he says “we commend ourselves in every way’. He is saying ‘Actually, we are here for the opening of hearts, we are here to express the fullness of our co-creative potential’. This is what the love of God is compelling us to do. And this is no mean task! But its effects, in the life of God’s Holy Spirit, promise transformation.
To sum up, our readings so far remind us that to place our faith and trust in God is to live truthfully. Our final and third reading, following Mark’s Gospel and St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is from the Old Testament Book of Job. This is a great story of a man who is wealthy in every way, and because wealthy thought to be specially favoured by God. But he is to be tested and all his wealth stripped from him, and his family members die, and his wife tells him only to ‘curse his life and die’. The so called ‘Job’s comforters’ are no better, reciting scripture wisdom in a way which is dis-compassionate and automatic. They think that Job’s troubles are a result of past sin, as stock religious response. Job may bemoan his cruel fate but he does not turn away from God, he perseveres, and in our reading from Chapter 38, the climax of the story, God reveals to Job who he really is. God despises ‘words without knowledge’. God challenges Job’s pride “Where were you, Job, he says, when I laid the foundations of the earth?” And yet God’s tone is never vengeful. He does not want Job to die but to live, but not before Job comes to know who God really is – not the God who is partial and has favourites but a God who is above and beyond any human capacity to limit him. Job’s goods and family are eventually restored to him, but not after a mighty personal struggle in which Job comes to see that God is limitless. He is what is real. He can be no other. He is as an English hymn puts it ‘Disposer Supreme and Judge of the Earth’. Job is a hero because he does not curse either God or his fate but acknowledges that God provides for his creation and his creatures without ever withdrawing his presence.
Finally, The Book of Job sets the love of God alongside and apart from the disciples in the boat, the Corinthian Churches and Job and his family. In doing so, God makes his presence known in no uncertain terms. This is for their understanding. God is, after all and amid all the contrary and vain elements our true centre of gravity, our one strong, natural and authentic place of being; our solid grounding and our one hope.
The coming together of our two churches, speaking different languages, and yet united in this one holy place, is a powerful sign of the same God-given gravity which I pray will hold us together in God’s love very powerfully and joyfully in the time to come.