Preached by the Dean, theVery Revd James Atwell, using scripture Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18, Luke: 13: 31 – end, at Mattins and Sung Eucharist on Sunday 24th February 2013, the second Sunday of Lent.
This sermon gives me opportunity to engage with the overall title of this Lent course – 21st Century Discipleship. There is no doubt that the Church of England is ‘stalling’ in seeking to communicate its message in contemporary Britain. Indeed, raising faith in secular Western Europe is proving a challenge for all the churches. There is a vibrance of faith in the developing world and some even expect the successor to Pope Benedict to come from that direction. For many of us, however, we are part of 21st Century Britain and we have to seek to commend faith in that context. The genie is out of the bottle. We are part of a post-renaissance world in which knowledge and scientific discovery have altered for ever our perception of ourselves, of our world and how we understand Scripture.
As regards 21st Century Discipleship, I would want to commend three key words as making some sense of: ‘Why continue to wrestle with faith in the 21st Century?’ All who commend faith do so because they are convinced it adds something to our humanity; it is transformative and life giving. People go jogging because they feel it is enabling them to have a healthier lifestyle. So, faith too, is part of the whole person. If I take the word jog I am giving you a mnemonic of my three words: journey, offering and gift – jog.
Journey has always been a significant word in describing the faith enterprise. Throughout the whole of biblical history, the concept of journey emerges again and again. It is about human vision being partial and changing. We never have the full picture; here ‘we see through a glass darkly’. If our life is a journey, and a faith-journey is often described as a pilgrimage, it takes us through many changing scenes. Sometimes in the words of the psalmist ‘going through the veil of tears’ we have to ‘use it for a well’ (Psalm 84:6). On other occasions our journey takes us through the ‘highways to Zion’ (Psalm 84:5) and our progress seems to take wings. For all of us there are times of darkness and of light; we have to grow through encounter with both.
The Old Testament lesson gave us a story from the saga of Abraham. Abraham sets out on a journey, but he does not understand how it is going to work out for him. We meet him in our reading at a stage when he is asking what is going on: ‘a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him’ (Genesis 15:12). At that moment in his journey he simply had to trust the divine compass and walk by faith and not by sight. It is a case of continuing with the questions and not being reassured by easy answers.
For the 21st Century Discipleship, it is likewise a case of daring the journey and not expecting to have all the answers. We live in a huge and complex world and our understanding will be challenged and changed by encounter with it.
There are two versions of the Creed in our Liturgies. The ‘I believe’ in the Book of Common Prayer retains the original purpose of the Creed as the expression of the individual’s faith at baptism. The Common Worship version ‘We believe’ is the version that all the Bishops would sign at the Great Councils. ‘This is the faith of the church’. Sometimes in our journey we are allowed to say ‘We believe’ and be carried by the faith of the church, even when my personal journey makes ‘I believe’ very difficult to utter.
My next word is offering; it is a word that we do not use very often in our daily vocabulary. However, at the heart of the symbolism of our worship is an altar. It reminds us that we are drawn to worship in order to offer our lives. In the glorious words of the Prayer Book Communion Service: ‘Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice’.
Our discipleship is presenting us with the possibility of seeing our lives as ‘something offered’. It is the absolute opposite of the question too easily asked in a consumer culture: ‘What’s in it for me?’ Discipleship is presenting to us in the 21st Century a different priority for our lives from ‘What’s in it for me?’ it is replaced by ‘What can I offer?’
I was lucky enough to visit Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s home for the dying. It is in the Khali Temple, in some rooms commandeered at the back, but within the building. As we approached a family brought a goat to sacrifice to the goddess; they brought it very reverently. Doubtless its value to them represented a significant offering of the family wealth. In the same temple were Mother Teresa’s sisters with broken human beings gathered from the streets; they were laid out on what looked like camp beds, being washed, tended and lovingly cared for by the sisters. For me the juxtaposition of the two activities answered the question: ‘Why are the sisters doing this?’ They were doing it as an offering to God. Discipleship invites us to do ‘something beautiful for God’ with our lives. That’s my second word – offering.
The third word is gift. Children love gifts. It can be very exciting at a child’s birthday party watching them break into a parcel, open the wrapper and eyes pop out as they discover something which for a moment is very precious. I always remember when our eldest was probably only three or four and he had been given a new pair of trousers. He suddenly discovered pockets. He marched around very excitedly exclaiming to the world “pockets, pockets!” What a discovery!
When Jesus commended children, one of the things I am sure he commended was the ability of children to see the world as a gift – discovering new friends, jumping in a puddle, climbing a tree, spotting the moon. All these things are journeys of discovery, joyous moments – just like the unwrapping of a gift.
What discipleship offers is recognising the giftedness of the world: receiving each new day, each new friendship, each new opportunity as a gift. The world can only be properly understood as the gift of love and not as brute fact or even a stage set for my personal opera. It is a sense of the giftedness of creation that begins to change our attitude to the environment. If you have ever watched a chicken hatch from an egg, then you are aware that something rather special is going on; ‘all good gifts around us are sent from Heaven above’.
21st Century discipleship, like a jog, is life enhancing. This jog is about journey going out in faith and living with the questions. It is about offering – accepting the invitation to make our lives ‘something beautiful for God’. It is about gift – recognising the ‘grace and giftedness of things’. That jog is life-transforming and enriching.
But, how do we get there?
Well, that’s a gift too!
The Christian answer is: In response to the call of Jesus of Nazareth to make the journey’. It is because he nudges that we can awaken to opportunity.
We meet him in this morning’s gospel making a journey, too. ‘Yet today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way’ (Luke 13:33). His goal is Jerusalem. But, even Jesus has to ‘see through a glass darkly’. He foresees a prophet’s death by stoning. Jerusalem is a city that ‘kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!’ (Luke13:34b). However, what awaits him is not even the glory of a prophet’s martyrdom: it is a criminal’s death upon the gallows. He has to take the form of a servant and seek beauty even in ignominy. That ignominy turns out to be the very extent of God’s love as those last days are seen in the glory of the resurrection. The life of Jesus becomes, not the record of a martyred prophet, but an invitation to discipleship in this Century no less than all the previous ones ‘costing not less than everything’.