The sermon below was preached in a number of settings and versions at the beginning of 2016 at what Methodists call our Covenant Services, where we renew our covenant with God. This version was delivered at a service shared by Paul Parish Church and Mousehole Methodists. I came across it again while preparing for the round of 2017’s Covenant Services and thought it might be worth popping up here, especially given all the religious conflict that is being stirred up at present.
First: God is. That may seem obvious but in a sense it says more than I want to say, and certainly less.
The church has, in its creeds, attempted to define God, a task by the nature of its subject, impossible. Yet many of us stop at those creedal definitions believing that they contain all that can be said about God, and that to believe in God is to believe all those things, no more, no less. I want to say that for me to say God is is to say that I have seen the power of love in the world, that I have seen also the power of hate, and that I choose the path of love and that I choose to believe that love is, in the end most powerful, and therefore God.
Second, God is for all. From the time of Constantine, God and Christianity have been drafted in to support all manner of partisan ills.
Countries have gone into battle against each other each claiming the support of God for their cause. Worse still, denominations used the instruments of state to slaughter each other, each claiming the support of God for their form of belief. That, to me, is blasphemy of the highest order. God is for all or God is not God; if God is no more than a tribal totem, then God is not worth our bothering with.
Third: Jesus is love in action. I have seen that love, and that love for all, in the life of Jesus. That life is, for me, a window into God. It is what godliness looks like in human actions and words. Jesus is, then, for me, my way to God, and my way to you and to others.
I want to say that there are insights in all faiths, particularly, for Christians, in Judaism, but for me the life of Jesus, the church which carries his story and tradition and the faith of Jesus are my way!
Fourth: This all makes demands. I’ve spent years studying theology and enough related ologies to make Maureen Lipman proud but this is not just an academic interest. My understanding of God and Jesus makes demands on me as a person. When I contributed to a book by Stephen Dawes many years ago I said that my return to the church of my childhood involved giving what I knew of myself to what I knew of God, which in both cases wasn’t much.
My life since has been a continuing exploration of what that giving means in terms of a developing ministry and theological understanding, worked out with people like you and others not at all like you.
But, being Christian is not for me primarily about going to Church or about maintaining the church’s structure, the institution or its buildings. Church, for me, isn’t a place to go but a movement to join, a movement for the transformation of lives individually and corporately, a movement for the transformation of the world.
I am convinced Jesus never meant to found a church, but wanted instead to invite people to come and live the kingdom.
I am convinced that when he talked about the kingdom he wasn’t talking about somewhere we go when we die. I believe he was contrasting the way of the world, or the way it so often is, with God’s way. I believe he was saying, in his time, the Kings of Rome demand you live one way; I invite you to live another. Their way is based on violence and oppression, injustice and servitude. I invite you to live another way, said Jesus. And he described that way in that Nazareth synagogue statement of intent with which he opened his ministry.
There Jesus took those words from his scriptures, from Isaiah, and said, as it were, “These aren’t just words in a scroll. I am making them my own. I am making them my cause. I am going to live them.” It is as if Jesus said, “In me there is good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and freedom for the oppressed. In me God’s favour, God’s grace, God’s loving kindness and compassion will find expression.”
And that, I believe, is what is demanded of me if I dare call myself a disciple of Jesus. Do I always succeed? No. Do I live up to my own standards let alone those of a fully committed disciple? No.
And that is why I come back again and again to the meeting of the church, to moments like this. I reset my discipleship compass. I remind myself again of Jesus’s call to live, to model, to invite others to be part of, a realm of justice and compassion, mercy and grace, constant and unlimited loving-kindness. It’s to that I commit myself again today. What about you?