All in the eye of the Beholder?

Sermon preached on The Baptism of Christ 

 I’ve sometimes referred to Epiphany as “the season of revelation” – a time when  we gradually learn more about Christ’s identity. And this first week of Epiphany has seen revelations of a different kind, however, and not always welcome ones.

I suspect that for many people Friday evening was rather spoiled by the publication of a report by the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, – which stated that, after all,  Red wine is NOT particularly good for our health.

Presumably now we can wait for a u-turn on dark chocolate too!

But then, almost at the same time, there was some surprisingly good news for some of us. Other voices this week have been proclaiming the health benefits of the next superfood.

And what was it they were celebrating? –  well, naturally, it was the Black Pudding.

Speaking as someone who grew up only a few miles from Bury Market, in Lancashire – the true home of the Black Pudding – I have to say that I was rather surprised to hear this particular revelation!   I do actually like the taste of black pudding, and I have been known to enjoy the odd Full English breakfast when it’s on offer – but I’d certainly never thought of either  of those things as  health food!

Apparently, however, black pudding is a valuable source of iron, of potassium, of calcium and magnesium – while not posing the same health risks recently attributed to processed meats such as bacon and ham.

But then, of course, even before we’ve had chance to digest that information let alone some actual black pudding,  someone else has to come along to spoil it all:  a spokesman for the Institute of Food Research pointed out that black pudding is also around 15 – 20% fat, high in calories and in salt.  Possibly NOT quite so good for us after all!

It may be then, that if you wanted to assess whether or not this particular northern delicacy is for you,  your gut reaction to the list of ingredients may be at least as good as test as a list of the chemical traces found in them.

As so often – it’s a matter of perspective – what you “see” depends on what you were looking for in the first place.

So, before I either start to make you feel hungry OR put you off your lunch completely, let’s turn to the particular “revelation” of this morning’s Gospel.

Here again there is a question of perspective.

This particular event – the Baptism of Christ – is recorded in all four gospels, but with a slightly different focus. It’s not always clear, for example, whether the voice from heaven is addressed to the reader, to the crowds gathered by the Jordan or – as seems the case with the version from Luke’s gospel that we’ve just heard – to Jesus himself.

“YOU are my Son, the beloved, in YOU I am well pleased.”

In other Gospels we read “This is my Son” and “He is my Son” – slightly less direct and a slightly more theatrical presentation of God the Father, perhaps.

We simply can’t know which if these accounts, if any, is factually correct. Taken together, the four gospels encourage us to ponder what effect this event had on all those who were there – and whether it’s possible that this was the point where Christ first realised the full implications of his own identity  –  the human Jesus grasping at his Father’s divine revelation as we do.

The common factor in all four gospels however is the Father’s expression of love for Jesus – it is that which is reveals to US the true nature of God and which, in context, gives Jesus the strength to face what lies ahead.

And that revelation, I think, IS for the reader of the gospels –  IS for the crowd gathered around Jesus and IS for Jesus himself. What we learn here is that the Father loves the Son NOT because of what he has done – but because of who he is.

Jesus’ real ministry has yet to begin – and it’s that bedrock of divine love that will enable him to see it through.

It’s because Jesus is loved from before the foundation of the world, that he can withstand the isolation of the desert wilderness, that he dares to console the outcasts, to challenge the religious authorities, to endure the shame and agony of the Cross.

He knows who he is and that he is precious in God’s eyes –  and that no matter how hostile the stares of others, nothing will change that fact. “You are my Son, the beloved.”

I’ve hinted that the same reassurance is intended for us, the readers of the Gospels, as well – and if we’re not so sure about that – perhaps Isaiah’s perspective on God can help us: the God who says “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name, you are mine. You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you. Do not fear for I am with you.”

Just as at the Baptism of Christ, then, Isaiah presents to us a vision of God, who loves us – NOT because of the wonderful deeds we may have done, NOT even because of the quality of our faith – but because He has formed us and knows exactly who we are – has always known us – and, even so, yearns for us to be his.

We don’t have to earn his forgiveness – He has redeemed us.

We don’t have to earn his love – just to accept it.

That unbidden, undeserved love does not give us license just to do whatever we choose, nor is it an excuse just to do nothing with our lives.

God calls us by name – he has plans for us.

For our families – for all whom we love – we find strength and patience to bear many things, to risk many things, that are not obviously in our own interests, but which, instinctively, we know are the right things to do. That same instinct, that same resilience, is part of our proper response to God’s love.

As we continue to step into this new year, then,  with all the possibilities and uncertainties that it will bring, may we do so trusting that it is US whom God calls “beloved” – and that he will journey with us through whatever lies ahead.

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All Together Now!

From a Sermon preached at a shared Eucharist with Wilton Baptist Church – during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 

It is remarkably easy for our messages to get mangled somewhere in transmission.

One of the curses of email is that’s it very easy to write a message, meaning one thing, only for the person or persons receiving it to miss the nuance and read something completely different.

And if messages are being passed from person to person to person – there’s plenty of scope for subtle re-workings, so that by the end of the chain, the message is barely recognisable.

So, what about the message of the Gospel – what about the story of our faith? How on earth do we know that our version hasn’t been tweaked beyond all recognition since the time of the first Disciples of Christ?

Well, in short we don’t! That IS one of our biggest challenges – and we shouldn’t be surprised that there are so many different versions – so many different opinions with the Church.  Christian people have different perspectives, different backgrounds and different personalities – they instinctively react in different ways and are naturally attracted to different aspects of the Faith, and turned off by others.

So we are left with a mixture of messages, all overlapping but not always agreeing.

As a result, all of us have to engage with the process of sifting the evidence, always trying to detect human error and, by God’s grace, seeing beyond it the truth of the Gospel.

But, of course, the way we set about doing that depends on just the same things – the same personality traits – that have led to the disagreements in the first place.

When I was studying for ordination there was a mix of students from the Anglicans, Methodist and United Reform Churches – and it was always fascinating watching the way that other trainee ministers went about things.

Among that mix, there were those – sporting bracelets with “What Would Jesus Do?”  – who liked to pronounce that “If Jesus was here with us now, he’d be telling us to do this

– and there were others who’d answer “Actually, Jesus IS here with us now, and I firmly believe he’s telling us THIS.”

And naturally the “this” that Jesus was allegedly saying was wildly different.

There were some who knew their Scriptures forwards, backwards and inside out – who would turn to the Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles to demonstrate how early Christians lived, arguing that we should model our lives on theirs.

Then there were others who liked to read the works of the early Church Fathers, and the traditions and teaching of the early, institutional Church – arguing that their teaching was timeless and we really ought to be living like THEM.

On top of all that, there were those who wanted the reassurance of some clear, authoritative teaching from the Church of today.

So some students waded through the encyclicals of Pope John Paul and the incoming Pope Benedict for enlightenment. Whereas some of the  Methodists and URCs – who had no time for bishops, let alone any Pope –  took very seriously the statements of their own church councils.

Two distinct groups of students then, with totally different perspectives, but for all of whom obedience to the teaching of the Church was central to their faith.

So what do we make of all that?

We can’t escape the fact that, even though we’re all trying to work out the real message of the Gospel; even when we use the same methods to do it – somehow we still manage to end up with wildly different conclusions.

And we can either despair of that fact, as an organisational disaster OR we can learn to rejoice in the rich and complex diversity of the human family.

If we, as Christian people, are going to take the message of salvation into all the world – with all the cultural challenges that involves – then perhaps, after all, it is a blessing that the people of God are such a motley crew!

 

Yes – of course – where there is diversity there is plenty of room for confusion – for more than one message to be in circulation. But perhaps that very diversity can teach us proper humility and respect – for each other and for God. If any of us presume to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth –  then I think we presume too much.

There IS only ONE who knows the full truth of the Gospel – the one who spoke the Word – God himself.

From all that I want to make two suggestions: firstly that our ability – as fellow Christians in this place –  to draw people to Christ, or our failure to do so, is more about the attractiveness of our faith – the way we LIVE the Gospel – than it is about the slickness of the message we offer verbally.

There’s nothing more off-putting than watching someone with whom we disagree fervently trying to ram home their own point of view: whereas seeing that same person acting in generous love towards another person is profoundly moving and uplifting.

And we are engaged in that active witness – whether it be Coffee Corner here or Lunch with Friends at the Baptist Church, our combined “Open the Book” team in school, or any of a range of community groups – I think there is a real sense that God’s love IS being shown through us, among us and between us!

Secondly, what do we make of the notion of Christian Unity?

We are all a long way from being one Church – one institution singing from the same hymn sheet – but actually I’m not sure that really matters.

Far more important that we find a unity of purpose –  that we recognise each other as sharing in the same mission – to make Christ known in this place, and throughout the world.

Last weekend we had a glimpse of what that kind of unity might look like.

A group of us, from a wide variety of churches, drew together more than 30 young people – mostly secondary school pupils. Both we, and they, brought with to the gathering a huge variation in belief and preferred worship styles.

But actually none of that mattered – as we all just on with the business of enjoying each other’s company and celebrating the faith which does unite us.

We laughed together, prayed together, reflected together – and, when it came to lighting fires to cook our tea, I think we all prayed again even harder!

It was an utterly exhausting day! And yet, it was also a real sign of hope for the churches of our area. Some of those teenagers are decidedly passionate and, dare I say, inflexible in their beliefs. And so if THEY can just get over it and get on with one another, then surely their elders can do the same.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon us all, because he has anointed us to bring good news” here and now.

 Let us work together in that common cause where we can, and alongside each other where we can’t. And let us try to keep each other in our prayers – and not just in this one week of the year.

Lord God, we thank you
For calling us into the company
Of those who trust in Christ
And seek to obey his will.
May your Spirit guide and strengthen us
In mission and service to your world;
For we are strangers no longer
But pilgrims together on the way to your Kingdom
Amen.