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“We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic”

I think this may be the first sermon I have ever preached about cucumbers but more of that in a moment.

Four weeks ago, on 2nd September, I began a journey from this Cathedral Church, as many of you will know. After the 8 am service of Holy Communion, the Sub Dean and congregation prayed for me and those with me at the shrine of St. Frideswide. I set out on a prayer walk which took me to all 46 Anglican churches in the city of Oxford over the next 8 days.

It was a journey of 100,000 steps or more than 50 miles plus one memorable day travelling by narrowboat. My fitbit was delirious for the entire week. We prayed in each church with those who came – about 800 people across the whole journey. I left a mark in chalk on each church which is still visible on the door leading into the cloisters here. I can say with confidence that I have defaced more churches than anyone else in the city.

There were many good things in the journey. I learned again that bishops are tangential to ordinary parish life but very welcome when they come and visit. Both were good news. I appreciated silent prayer in still churches. There were many good conversations on the way. I’m not supposed to have favourites but I can now say with conviction which is my favourite font in the city of Oxford. Ask me at the door if you want to know. I have a small prize for the person who guesses correctly.

The journey had a central purpose. I wanted to pray in each church for God’s grace and for the renewal of a particular part of the ministry we share. I prayed in every place for God to renew that part of our common life which is about welcome and listening, teaching and learning and accompanying new believers to baptism and confirmation. This is the ministry which the church in every age has called catechesis: helping to form the likeness of Christ in children and young people, in families, in adult enquires. My prayer is for that ministry to be central again in every church in this city and this diocese and across this nation.

It’s a ministry of great joy and wonder. It’s a ministry which renews the whole church in the likeness of Christ. It’s a ministry which has become submerged and sometimes forgotten in our own generation. It’s a ministry in which we need to recover confidence.

This cathedral has a vital part to play in this renewal and in this ministry. More than a thousand churches and chaplaincies and schools look to this cathedral as our mother church. Christ Church is unique among English Cathedrals, a place of learning and teaching and research in one of the great intellectual and cultural crossroads of the world. The very name Christ Church is still shaping the life of this diocese: our vision is to become a more Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world: more contemplative, more compassionate and more courageous. The name of our Cathedral is our vision for the Church in this diocese. As you pray here for the life of this diocese pray for this renewal of catechesis and for your part in this ministry.

I promised you cucumbers and cucumbers you shall have along with melons and leeks and onions and garlic.

Moses is leading the Israelites through the wilderness. Behind them is back breaking slavery in Egypt. Ahead of them is the promised land. But right now they are in the middle of the desert learning how to be the people of God. Or rather not learning how to be the people of God.

As they travel, God gives them each day their daily bread: manna from heaven. The manna appears on the ground each morning. The Israelites go out and gather enough for each day. Nothing can be hoarded or kept except on the Sabbath. The manna is a daily miracle – a reminder of God’s grace.

But the people long for more. They eat the food of heaven but they are bored and restless. They long to go back. They long for meat and fish and cucumbers and melons and leeks and onions and garlic. They long for what they do not have.

And of course in every generation they offer a lesson for God’s people as we too travel through this wilderness together. Behind us is slavery. Christ has set us free. Ahead of us is the promised land: life eternal when all shall be well. Right now we are in the middle of the desert, learning how to be the people of God. This life is meant to be uncomfortable. It is not our destination.

Our Lord Jesus Christ has given us a prayer to say each day. It is a prayer for people travelling through the wilderness. At the very heart of the prayer is this petition: “Give us this day our daily bread”. That petition has its roots in this story in the Book of Numbers. We are not authorised to pray for cucumbers or melons or onions or garlic: for the foods of Egypt. We are to shape our lives around this prayer only: “Give us this day our daily bread” – our manna.

The generation in which we live needs this prayer more than any other which has lived before us. We are bombarded with advertising 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year in our most personal space and every public place. The advertising is targeted and sophisticated beyond our understanding. It is designed with one aim in mind: to feed our discontent; to make us long for what we do not have; to spin us lies about what will make us happy; to ensnare us in the coils of Egypt.

The entire economy of the world depends on creating this insatiable thirst for more in as many of its citizens as possible. The end result is slavery to money and possessions and perpetual unhappiness. How can you resist it without an inner life, without a better song without a different story.

It is our calling as the Church of Christ to shape the inner life; to sing a better song, to tell that different story. And somewhere near the heart of it is to live and teach this life changing, simple prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread”.

Teach us to be content with just enough. For that is the only way to joy. Teach us to see heaven in ordinary, to give thanks for small mercies, to cultivate simplicity, to shape our lives and our world in ways which are sustainable.

Help us to see that we are women and men made in the image of God. Cucumbers and melons and onions and garlic can never in the end satisfy our deepest longings. Nor can power or position or riches or fame.

All of this as Paul once said is to be reckoned as dross compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord, Christ who says to us this day: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty”.

Give us this day our daily bread. We come as the imperfect and forgiven people of God to gather around his table. We are here by God’s invitation. We come welcoming equally all those who would travel with us for God’s grace is for all people. We come as those journeying through the wilderness, unsure of our way.

We come hungry and thirsty for the bread of heaven. We come seeking manna for the journey. We come and kneel with empty hands, not presuming but simply trusting. We come to holy communion, to meet with our God, seeking strength for this part of our journey and food for this day.

And we come seeking to be the Church of Christ: contemplative, compassionate, courageous for the sake of God’s world.

Amen.

 

A sermon in Christ Church Oxford
30 September, 2018

chch.ox.ac.uk/services-and-events/sermons 

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God”(3.1).

(The following Bible study was recorded at the Living Waters clergy conference. View it here on YouTube)

In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, CS Lewis offers an enduring picture of the change wrought by grace in baptism. The subject is Eustace, the spoiled child, who has been turned into a greedy dragon. The dragon meets Aslan by a clear pool of water. Eustace tells the story of what happens next.

“The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. but the lion told me I must undress first…..I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was a most lovely feeling. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.

But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe”.

The same thing happens twice more.

“The lion said – but I don’t know if it spoke – ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

The very first tear he made was do deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me – (with his paws?) – Well, I don’t exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes – the same I’ve got on now, as a matter of fact. and then suddenly I was back here”

Paul continues his focus on baptism in Colossians. First he continues the death and resurrection motif: for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Our baptism is an ending and a beginning. Our baptism is to be lived out in our everyday growth in holiness.

The death of Christ is a powerful, cosmic event. In the death of Christ, God has erased the record that stood against us and set it aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers.

In baptism we are joined to the powerful, life giving death of Christ. We are buried with him. But this putting to death is a lifelong process as we seek to live out our baptism: to be more Christ-like and a more Christ-like Church. We are called go grow in virtue and holiness.

Colossians shows us, helpfully I think, that this growth in holiness and Christ-likeness is a two fold process. We do not simply live the risen life. We first put to death the things which are not of God. We do not simply put on new clothes. We first take off the old, soiled garments. This is a daily death and a daily rising to new life. It is vital to understanding ourselves and understanding the human condition.

You will know that I have developed an interest and some knowledge of the field of artificial intelligence. I began to be involved because I was given a book by Paul, my eldest son, who works in the computer games industry. The book is by Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine. Kelly argues, rightly I think, that every new development in AI is going to ask new questions about what it means to be human. He writes: “We will spend the next three decades, perhaps the next century, in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for”.

Think about that for a moment. The world around us is exploring the mystery of what it means to be human. We are ministers of a faith which dares to believe that Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, became human. We have something to contribute to that conversation.

But here is something else. The brilliant scientists and technology which is reshaping our culture has a particular and hugely optimistic view of what it means to be human. There is at present no vocabulary in the culture to describe the reality of sin and brokenness and imperfection. There are very few ways in this over optimistic emerging culture, to cope with the difficult things in life and to live with imperfection and the call to be better. The rise in mental health issues among young people and adults I suspect has a lot to do with being unable to articulate pain and grief and questions and evil within a meaningful world view.

The world around us needs a new language of sin and forgiveness but also a new language of grace and sanctification. We have a great work of translation to do, a hermeneutic, in the life we live together and in our individual lives.

This is what Paul offers to us. The Church in Colossae is facing the same universal questions. Baptism is a way of life not a once and for all and forgotten experience. Daily we are to put off certain behaviours. There are two lists of five qualities. Fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed in the first. Then in the second, anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language. There are echoes of the Sermon on the Mount and of other New Testament lists.

Paul adds the direct command, as it were underlined: “Do not lie to one another”. This is above all an appeal for authenticity and integrity. It is an echo of Blessed are the pure in heart perhaps and of all the references in the Sermon on the Mount about being on the inside as we are on the outside.

Paul then moves very naturally into his second central image drawn from baptism where he will stay until the end of our passage: stripping off the old self, to go back to Eustace, and putting on the new.

As I said yesterday, we know from the accounts of the early church how much drama is involved in the once and for all act of baptism. The candidates are baptised on the night before the dawn of Easter day. They bring all of their old self to the cross.

Before they come to the waters of baptism, the candidates are stripped naked, men and women in separate places, of course. Each is anointed with the oil of chrism for exorcism from head to foot, to drive away the devil and to celebrate this radical new beginning.

Each then goes down into the waters of baptism not once but three times, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Each then comes out of the water into the light of Easter and puts on new clothes for this new walk with God. These would not be spare clothes kept in a drawer. This would be your normal garment for the next season.

This is the powerful experience and background to our text. Eating washed and dressed is a daily experience not a once and for all event. This baptism was to shape the life of the early church:

“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self”.

This baptism is a radical, ever present new beginning. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. It is a work of God and a work of restoration:

“…you have clothed yourself with the new self which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator”.

Note the reference again to the knowledge of God which is present in the great prayer in Colossians 1 and again at the beginning of Colossians 2: what is meant here once again is the knowledge of God in Christ. Note also that this change is not only about individuals but about the formation of a new community – the body of Christ, the Church, called to be Christ-like:

“There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, Scythian, slave and free but Christ is all and in all!”

Through baptism we have been joined with Christ and in baptism we become part of the body of Christ, the Church. In Christ our ethnic divisions are healed and made new: a message our world desperately needs to hear.

The following verses are for me one of the most attractive and beautiful descriptions of the Christian life in the New Testament. They continue the language of putting off and putting on only now the emphasis is on the new clothes we are given as we come out of the water. In Ephesians 6, Paul has a similar image but there we are being clothed, as it were, for battle and putting on our spiritual armour. These are our everyday clothes. The first of them is compassion. We are to be different: a compassionate church.

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” we begin. Each of these titles for the Church is a title of grace. We are who we are because God has loved us, sanctified us through Christ’s death on the cross and called us to be part of his Church. This is not about what we have done.

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience”.

The English word compassion translates two words in the Greek: heartfelt compassion; mercy; the love we feel in our inmost being. The other virtues balance the two lists in 3.5 and 8. There are echoes again of the beatitudes and of the Sermon on the Mount.

The five abstract qualities are followed by two participles: forgiving one another and being gracious to one another if anyone has a complaint against anyone. Here again there is an echo of the Lord’s Prayer: “just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Then Paul returns to the beginning of the letter for the crowning virtue. “We have heard of the love you have for all the saints”, he says in 1.4. Now he says “Above all” – an echo of all those references to all in Colossians 1 – “clothe yourselves with love which binds everything together”. This is the way to completeness or perfection. Perfect knowledge is not enough. Love is the self giving love of Christ, the love described so powerfully in 1 Corinthians 13 (which again shares so much of the same vocabulary).

We need a paragraph break after verse 14. None of the English versions provides one because we go straight from love to peace and they are both virtues and closely linked in Paul’s thought. But the grammar and structure of the words changes. We have come to the end of this long baptismal metaphor now.

We have died with Christ to rise again. We have put to death the old self and risen to the new life. We have taken off our old clothes and put on the new – and Paul has encouraged us above everything else to put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. This is the high point of the image.

We then have a threefold form in what is almost a final blessing. The first two verbs use a different form: a subjunctive. In the third arm of the blessing the same verb form is assumed. Each of the virtues is joined to Christ.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts ….
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly….
And whatever you do, do (let) everything (be done) in the name of the Lord Jesus….

Paul’s benediction to the Colossian Church. Every one of these words can be unpacked. Peace is shalom, health, well being. This is what God calls us into as we said yesterday in the session on clergy well being. God sets his peace within us, to be our governor and guide. The risen Christ says to his disciples in John 20: Peace be with you, my own peace I give you.

The word translated rule is interesting. It means to referee or umpire or guide or judge. Where we are in conflict within, have the courage to go where the peace of Christ directs us and guides us. Discerning that will take time. Chrysostom says “Don’t let passion direct nor rivalry nor mere human peace but the peace of Christ”. The words are addressed to the community not simply to individuals.

“And be thankful”. Again our lives are to begin and overflow with appreciation.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”. Let Christ’s word and the word who is Christ come and live in you and make a home in you and abide in you not just a little but richly and deeply. I have come to love the practise of dwelling in the word as practiced in this Diocese. Allowing a particular passage to sink in, exploring it from every angle, living with it for a season. Colossians invites us to use many different ways in which this living word dwells within us: “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God”. This is exactly what Paul has done in Colossians 1 in exploring the Christ hymn and embedding its thought in the life of the Colossian Church.

And finally the third clause of the blessing:

“And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him”. Nothing in our lives is outside of the influence of God in Christ. Our faith is not a hobby, for part of our lives. We believe in whole life discipleship: the whole length of our lives, every part of our lives, the call to wholeness of live.

Sisters and brothers, we are called to receive and hold and treasure in our hearts the inestimable riches of Christ. We dare to believe and place our faith in the truth that Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, has revealed himself fully and completely through his Son Jesus Christ.

We believe that in the words of Colossians, he is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. In him all things in heaven and earth were created. He is the head of the body, the church. Through him God was pleased to reconcile all things by making peace through the blood of his cross.

In Christ creation is reconciled. As we are drawn to Christ in contemplation so we are renewed in our understanding of the breadth and depth of God’s love. We are drawn back to the beginning. To our baptism.

Sisters and brothers we are called to be renewed in our appreciation of our baptism. To remember that we are called, as we have received Christ, so to continue to live our lives in him. We have not graduated to some different way of living out our Christian faith whether through length of years or ordination to a particular ministry.

We are called to recentre our discipleship again around that first call to repentance, faith and baptism and to recentre our ministry around word and sacrament, to present each person mature in Christ. We are called to courage and to seek a deep renewal of catechesis and through that renewal a renewal and rekindling of the whole Church.

Sisters and brothers we are called to live out our baptism in dying each day to the old and rising to new life. By stripping off the old self and putting on the new garments of heartfelt compassion and mercy and kindness and love.

We are called to be a Christ-like Church for the sake of God’s world.

 

+Steven
Living Waters Clergy Conference
Swanwick, 3 May 2018

“I, Paul, became a servant, a minister, a deacon of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”.

(The following Bible study was recorded at the Living Waters clergy conference. View it here on YouTube)

———————————————

A few weeks ago my youngest grandson, Joshua, had his dedication service in Bristol where his dad is the minister of a community church. My part was to make the cake. As you can see, my work with icing could be neater.

I tried to show the moment in the story of Joshua where the tribes cross the Jordan. Here is the river. The yellow icing represents the wilderness: the dry and thirsty land. The green icing is the promised land, flowing with milk and honey.

This is the figure of Joshua: Joshua and Jesus are the same words in Hebrew of course. Here is the ark of the old covenant being carried across the river. The waters of the Jordan are piled up in a heap. To the right you can see twelve coloured Smarties representing the twelve stones placed in the Jordan as the tribes cross.

 

How much more theology can you fit into a cake?

The crossing of the Jordan is one of the many stories in the Old Testament which become a type of baptism in the New. Ezekiel 47 is another as we saw on Monday. The Joshua stories are linked particularly with the virtue of courage which we consider today. In the story of the spies in Numbers 13 and 14, a loss of courage causes a whole generation of God’s people to be lost, wandering in the wilderness, except Joshua and Caleb.

In Joshua 1, as Joshua is ordained to his task by God and the people he is given the same command over and over again: “Only be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened or dismayed for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go”. It is in this context, the need for courage in the Church and in God’s ministers, that we read the central section of Colossians today.

Paul began his letter with contemplation, with an exposition of the wonder of the mystery of Christ. In this second section he talks of courage: of the struggle and joy of Christian ministry and discipleship, the passing from the wilderness to the promised land, from death to life in baptism.

We are focussing in our conference mainly on the call to be disciples and on the renewal of our own discipleship. But it is well worth pausing to listen to what Colossians has to say to us about the ministry to which we are called. Paul describes himself here as a deacon: a term which is used from the earliest New Testament texts to describe those entrusted with a particular ministry. Deacons are more than servants. Deacons are authoritative ambassadors for God, agents of God’s love in the world, to quote the ordinal. Paul’s understanding of his ministry begins as it does elsewhere with the cost of that ministry to him:

“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (1.24).

Paul is not arguing that his own suffering has a redemptive quality. He has already explored the completeness of Christ’s redemptive work in salvation. But he is describing the truth experienced by every generation of ministers and amply witnessed to in this room that the vocation to serve the gospel is a ministry both of great joy and of significant cost over the course of a lifetime.

Perseverance in ministry with courage, pursuing our vocation, means continually bearing that cost which is worked out in different ways in different lives and at different life stages. The New Testament writers and the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church bear witness that this is among the most difficult of vocations. Paul speaks here of his sufferings and trials. He speaks of his labour, his toil and his struggle, literally his agony, his wrestling in prayer. Yet, with courage, he perseveres.

We need to be honest about these costs and difficulties of ministry with ourselves and one another. It’s hard. Where suffering and pain is not acknowledged it can twist and damage the heart of our ministry. Where it is acknowledged we can see that suffering reframed in a still deeper joy.

We need to be a company of priests which expects things to be difficult, which supports and encourages one another, which does not allow suffering and difficulty to sap our strength or to produce cynicism and despair (so corrosive to the church) or empty our faith of joy and hope. Paul will demonstrate the key to that in this passage.

What is at the centre of Paul’s understanding of this ministry to which he is called? It is the bifocal ministry of prayer and service of the word of God: of word and sacrament – the ministry which the Church comes to see as vital for the health and wellbeing of the body of Christ in each generation.

It has been wisely said that some of the stress of contemporary ministry comes from the degree of choice which we are able to exercise about what we do in chaplaincy or parish ministry or episcopal ministry. There are very few things we have to do. There are an infinite number of things we can do. How do we determine where best to invest our time and skills?

In an age in which the Church is experiencing a transition from one kind of society and world to another, from Christendom to post Christendom to use one form of shorthand, we experience then a crisis of ministerial identity which works its way out in our everyday choices.

As a generation of ministers in a world in transition, we search for metaphors which will help us understand our role better. Together we are trying on different identities. We come to see ourselves at different times as therapists; as healers; as social workers; as community builders or changers; as managers or leaders; as sports coaches. The Church has experimented with each of those identities over the time I have been ordained.

All of these probably have some value but none is sufficient. We will rediscover the centre of our vocation as deacons and priests and bishops not in the culture around us but in the scriptures and in our own tradition powerfully summarised here by Paul in this deep well which is Colossians. That in itself requires courage.

Paul’s ministry if we read the text carefully is centred in prayer and in teaching.

“For I want you to know how much I am struggling for you, and for those in Laodicaea, and for all who have not seen me face to face”(2.1). The struggle is primarily in prayer. “I want their hearts to be encouraged (note the word- he is writing to put the courage back into the life of the Church) “and united in love so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is Christ himself” (2.2).

The goal of this ministry is powerfully stated in the preceding verses: it is mature Christian discipleship:

“It is Christ whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me”(1.28).

This is to be according to Paul the centre and goal of our ministry: to present every person mature in Christ. How are we to do that? By prayer and the ministry of the word. Through word and sacrament.

I find there are many echoes between this part of Colossians and the early part of Acts 6, the setting aside of the seven. It is no coincidence I think that Luke the beloved physician is mentioned in the closing greeting to this letter.

Acts 6 describes a quarrelling church and the apostles struggling to discern what should be at the very heart of their ministry as they are pulled in different directions. It describes the costs of ministry as Stephen, one of the seven chosen here, will be the first Christian martyr. It describes the necessary task of releasing and discovering new ministries as times change. But it describes most of all the need to guard the priorities of pastoral, priestly ministry. For what are we set aside? For prayer and for the service of the word so that we might present every person mature in Christ.

You may hear me talk now and in the coming months about the need for the renewal of catechesis in the Church. Catechesis is the ministry of welcoming enquirers to baptism, confirmation and discipleship in the life of every parish and chaplaincy. Catechesis is essentially the ministry Paul is describing here: through prayer and teaching presenting every person mature in Christ, able to live our lives courageously.

Take time over the gift of these four days to recalibrate your ministry and I would invite you, as the apostles do in Acts 6, set prayer and the ministry of the word at the centre again. This in itself is an act of courage and faith, or that is my experience.

Paul introduces the goal of his ministry and the means of his ministry. He then unpacks the very heart of his teaching about what it means to be a disciple and to live the Christian life in the central verses of the whole epistle, 2.6-7:

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”.

All that Paul has said so far flows into this paragraph. All that he will say flows from it. The NRSV sets it apart by the spacing of the text and rightly so but there are also internal signposts. There are many references in Colossians to Christ from the opening verse to the final chapter but this is the only place were Paul uses the full phrase: Christ Jesus the Lord. It is his way of underlining that this is the key verse to remember. There are similar headline and summary verses in Romans 1.16-17 and in Galatians 1.11-12.

Paul is here communicating something vital to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Our beginning is the pattern for our living. As we received Christ so we are to live in him. We do not graduate from the very beginnings of our faith. We never move on from setting Christ at the centre. We are always returning to first principles.

Paul may be here contrasting the true Christian faith with some of the mystery religions of the ancient world and some forms of Gnosticism. In these faiths, converts would begin with very simple truths and would as it were graduate or move on to more and more in depth and esoteric practices as they were initiated further into the cult.

There have been numerous attempts to make Christianity into this kind of faith down the ages: to try and convince people that you begin in one place but then move on to something else. Colossians 2.6-7 stands against all of that. The centre of our faith is what CS Lewis calls Mere Christianity (but there is nothing mere about it) : As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

One of the contemporary examples of this idea that we begin with elementary Christianity and graduate to some kind of different, more advanced Christianity is clericalism. Clericalism is the idea that there are two kinds of Christians: lay disciples and a clerical caste. One kind lives an elementary Christianity. The other has moved on. Clericalism is subtle and destructive in the life of the Church. It’s chief manifestation is a professional clerical mindset. The chief antidote is Colossians 2.6-7: realising that the only way to live the Christian life is just as we began it.

Our beginning is our centre and our goal. Repentance and faith are not just the way we receive Christ, they are the way in which we are to walk and live all our days. The test of every movement of renewal is that it takes us back to the sufficiency of Christ and the centrality of the cross. There are many things which are helpful to our Christian lives. But nothing is necessary beyond the saving death and resurrection of the Son of God. There are no rules or disciplines which bring greater holiness or righteousness or knowledge than living out of the very centre of the gospel, the death and resurrection of Christ.

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him.

And this is why Paul reaches at this point in Colossians for the language and imagery of baptism, and why we need this language and imagery also. Baptism is the outward and visible sign of the inward and invisible grace by which we receive the gospel and in receiving the gospel receive Christ Jesus the Lord.

Baptism is to be the very way in which we walk as Christian disciples. It is more than the beginning but the very centre of our walk with God. As we set baptism at the heart of our walk with God, so the Church is transformed from a hierarchy, from a clericalised community, from a community of ordained and lay, to the community of the baptised, living out our faith in the whole of our lives.

Colossians unpacks the word walk, peripateo, in four participles (as in the prayer in 1.10-12). There are close parallels between the two passages.

In 1.10 Paul prays that the Colossians might walk worthily of the Lord as here. The first image there is bearing fruit in every good work. Here it is rooted in him – a similar agricultural metaphor. Second the Colossians are to be growing in the knowledge of God and in 2.7, built up in him. Third in 1.10, the Colossians are to be enabled or empowered. In 2.7 the word is strengthened. Finally in 1.10 the Colossians are to be giving thanks and here overflowing with thanksgiving.

Baptism is a very big deal for the New Testament Church and for the Church in the early centuries. It is the rite by which disciples enter pass from death to life and are washed and set free from their sins, cleansed and delivered. Before baptism there is and has to be a long and deep process of formation, catechesis. In the forty days before baptism at Easter there are fastings and exorcisms, the signing with the cross. Baptism at Easter is part of a ritual of passing from darkness to light, stripped of the old life and given new clothes, going down into the waters of death and being born again to new life, being welcomed with the kiss of peace. In the days after Easter, the new Christians are initiated into the creed and the sacraments and entrusted with the food which will sustain them in the rest of the earthly pilgrimage.

Paul deploys two rich and deep metaphors for baptism, helping that baptism to be a lived reality in the life of the believer. Both underline his main theme that as we received Christ, so we are to walk in him. Tomorrow we will explore the metaphor of putting off and putting on: of new baptismal garments. Today it is the theme of dying and rising again with Christ.

In verse 11: “In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead”.

“And when you were dead in the trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and make a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”

There is a rich seam here of Christ’s complete victory in the cross. But the main point Paul is making is the pattern of our receiving Christ is also the pattern of our life in him. We are called to live out our baptism, continually dying to rise again.

One of the many reasons the renewal of catechesis is vital for the Church of England at the present time is that something happens as we walk the way of faith with enquirers and new Christians. As we make that journey with our sisters and brothers to and through baptism, we ourselves return to the centre of our own faith. We come to see again the core of what it is to be a Christian: to be buried with him through baptism and to rise again through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead. We learn again that we are to walk and to live just as we received Christ: deeply rooted in him in word and sacrament; being built up, enabled and established in faith; overflowing with thanksgiving.

Where will we find courage in the life of the Church?

Today’s bible reading encourages us to do two things.

The first is to recentre and recalibrate our ministry: to return to the centre, to the ministry of prayer and the service of the word, of word and sacrament, with the simple and life changing aim of presenting everyone mature in Christ.

The second is to recentre and recalibrate our discipleship: to repent of any clericalism which might be lurking in the shadows; to remember that we are to live as we have received Christ, that there is no graduation to a more complex or detailed form of Christian faith, that mere Christianity is enough and that there are depths to our baptism which have yet fully to understand.

We recentre our ministry. We recentre our discipleship. You will see I hope that the two are closely related.

“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving”.

 

+Steven
Living Waters Clergy Conference
Swanwick, 2 May 2018

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother.  To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

Welcome to this series of Bible readings on Colossians, structured around our three themes of a call to be more contemplative, more courageous and more compassionate.

Read more

Bishop Steven’s Opening Address to the Living Waters Clergy Conference

“Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple towards the east…”

(The following address was recorded at the Living Waters clergy conference. Listen to it and other talks from the conference on SoundCloud)

A warm welcome to our clergy conference. It’s good to see you. Every single person. I hope these four days will be a gift from God, a means of renewal in grace, a deepening of community and trust and friendship, a way of discovering what God is doing among us.

Thanks to all who have prepared this conference for us and have served us. Thanks to those who have prepared worship and workshops and every part of the programme and welcomed us. Thanks to those who will come and speak to us. We have done our best to make sure that everything is as good as it can be. Even so the most important parts of the conference will be in the spaces and the interaction between us: the friendships that will form and deepen and the business we will do with God.

We gather together as a large community and thank God for one another. Please lets look out for one another as we gather. It’s easy to be lost in such a big crowd. We need to treat one another as adults and make our own decisions about how best to engage but also be concerned for each other particularly in the small groups which make up an important part of the conference. No leaders have been designated for those groups. We take responsibility for them together.

We will do our best to welcome and care for one another but our particular thanks and welcome to our chaplains, Sister Sue, Brother Joseph Emmanuel and Brother Philip Bartholemew. They are available to us throughout the conference and the Chapel is also available as quiet prayer space.

And a particular welcome to those who have come to join us from the dioceses of Kimberley and Kuruman, Vaxjo and Nandyal. I have been to K and K and Vaxjo in the last six months and as Meatloaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad.

The Bible passage before us as we have planned this conference is Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life flowing from the temple.

I would not want you to think that this is just any old moment in the story of the Old Testament. It isn’t. I don’t think you have understood the Old Testament until you understand this. Ezekiel 47 represents the lowest point in the entire narrative and also the turning point.

Let me remind you of the story. God delivered his people from slavery and established them as a nation. There were judges and then there were kings as the power of Israel grew. Jerusalem was established as a city with a temple in the city where God was present.

Then immediately that earthly power waned. The nation was divided. Worship was corrupted. The northern kingdom fell to Assyria. The southern kingdom rallied then was overcome by Babylon. Jerusalem was taken. The temple was destroyed. The best of the nation were taken into exile.

For two generation the prophets and theologians wrestled with all that happened. Why has the nation been so destroyed. Their answer: we deserved it. We were under a curse.

For 25 years at the time of this prophecy the nation has been in exile and Jerusalem a wilderness. Ezekiel has wrestled all of his life with how hope can be restored. The only way back is grace. All renewal is in God’s hands. All renewal flows from a fresh and powerful vision of God.

Finally at the end of his great prophecy, Ezekiel sets out his vision, his plan for the new temple. The House of God is describe to the smallest detail in seven of the dullest chapters in the entire Bible. All is made ready. There is seemingly no life here.

But then, at the end of it all, at the point of deepest despair:

“Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there water was flowing from below the threshold of the east and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate and led me round on the outside of the outer gate that faces towards the east; and the water was coming out on the south side”.

Here is where the entire story turns: here in Ezekiel 47. From this point on we will be looking forward in hope to the coming of the Christ. This is the moment of desolation and the moment of renewal. A tiny trickle of water, so small, a teardrop of grace flowing from the place of prayer and sacrifice out into the desert.

This is living water. Everything in the story points to the power of the life it holds. It comes from God, from grace alone. First there is the way the water grows and deepens as it flows. The only measurement taken is the depth of the water of life: after one thousand cubits, ankle deep; after another thousand knee deep; another thousand, waist deep; Another thousand and it is deep enough to swim in, a river no one could cross. Mortal have you seen this?

Next there is the effect of the water of life on the desert where nothing grows. In the length of time it takes to walk out four thousand cubits and then back, there are trees on each side of the river. These are all kinds of trees for food. This is the new Garden of Eden. This is a new creation. There is no forbidden fruit. There is a harvest not once a year but every month. Their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.

Next and greatest of all there is the effect of this river on the landlocked sea south of Jerusalem known all over the world as the Dead Sea. The clue is in the name. The Dead Sea is 1,400 feet below sea level, earth’s lowest elevation on land. It is almost 1,000 feet deep, 30 miles long and nine miles wide. The Jordan flows into it. Nothing flows out of it.

The Dead Sea has its name for a reason. It is completely dead. Nothing lives in that vast expanse of water. There are no fish. There are no aquatic plants. There are miniscule quantities of bacteria and fungi. But the world over, the Dead Sea is the only place where David Attenborough cannot make a documentary. It is the one place on the entire surface of the planet where there are no plants or animals and no life.

What happens when this tiny trickle of water, this teardrop from the place of prayer and sacrifice, has grown into a stream and then a river and enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters. The waters will come fresh. Such is the power of this living water.

“It will become fresh and everything will live where the river goes. People will stand fishing beside the sea from Engedi to Eneglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea”.

Everything will live where the river goes.

This is the turning point. This is where the great movement from death to life begins in the great sweep of the story of salvation. It begins with a prophet who has lived 25 years with the failure of his nation in which he shares. Yet his vision of God and the grace of God overcomes even the desert and the Dead Sea and the destruction of his nation. He is able to imagine a river of life which will overcome even death itself and change everything.

Three times John’s Gospel points us back to Ezekiel 47. With the woman at the well we read of this living water: “The water I will give will become in them a spring of water – or literally a well of water – gushing up to eternal life” (John 4.14). In John 7, Jesus stands up on the last and greatest day of the feast and calls out:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”.

Now he said this about the Spirit (John 7.38).

And in the story of the passion, as they pierce his side, blood and water flow out (20.34). The stream of living water flows from the place of prayer and sacrifice. Everything will live where the river goes.

This may not be the lowest point ever in the life of the Church of England or the Church of Jesus Christ. Each generation has its own challenges in the world and in the life of the Church. But it is a moment where significant renewal is needed.

There is no doubt in my mind though that as humanity and as the Church we do face significant challenges.

As we seek to develop fresh vision, we need God’s renewing grace and power.

It will not do simply to prescribe easy remedies and solutions and tell each other what to do as if we knew. It will not do simply to dwell in our decline and somehow expect new life to come. It will not do to place still more burdens on the shoulders of clergy or congregations and expect more with less.

The only place to begin is by coming again to the living waters. We need to dig the wells, to unblock the springs of new life. To come again to the place of prayer and sacrifice and stay long enough to notice what God is doing, the beginning of the river’s source, new life. We need to come again to the living waters of our baptism, of repentance and faith, to die and rise again, to put on Christ.

As we seek fresh vision as diocese we are exploring what it means to be a more Christ-like Church: more contemplative, more courageous and more compassionate. Those themes will run through our four days together.

We have been exploring this call so far through two biblical passages: the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 and the Raising of Lazarus in John 11 and 12. Thousands of people have engaged in many different ways with these themes. We will continue to explore them this week through a third text, the Letter to the Colossians and through all that our speakers and workshop leaders bring.

We are pondering carefully locally and as a diocese what this will mean for our strategy going forward. There are many good ideas emerging and being tested. We will not be able even to name them or to do them all at once.

In this next year, it seems to me important to find ways to encourage local churches to find ways of translating this fresh vision of Christ into local mission action plans.

It seems important to help local churches and chaplaincies and schools to go further in our care for the environment. It seems important to find ways for local churches to plant new churches and congregations and to develop resources to enable that, especially in new housing areas. It seems important to pray and work towards the renewal of catechesis; to build better links between parishes and schools and to take new steps in enabling the discipleship of all.

But most of all, we are called to go deeper into Christ, to find the springs of new life. To come to the waters, especially the waters of our baptism, and find there these points of renewal for a Christ like Church. So come.

 

+Steven
Living Waters Clergy Conference
Swanwick, 30 April 2018

Copyright © 2018 Tom Bower, www.tombower.co.uk

Lent begins this year on Ash Wednesday, 14th February, and lasts for 40 days until Easter.

Lent began in the early church as 40 days of preparation time for new Christians to prepare for baptism at Easter.  Read more