Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies
Sunday 12th July
I hope you’ve been catching a sense of how God speaks to us through the weekly lectionary readings of Scripture – and particularly the gospels these past few weeks. Maybe it’s because I’m hyper-sensitive to what I hope the Holy Spirit might be saying to us (or perhaps have been thinking about things a bit more during this last week’s clergy school – which has reminded us again that all this isn’t about an organization or buildings, but about being a means of blessing for this community and our world).
The Scriptures reveal a God who speaks; who doesn’t remain far away, silently frowning on the mess we’ve made of his world and our lives, (just like Israel did as a nation, or Herod in his personal life). No – far from it – this is a God who reaches out to us; who took the initiative in Christ to rescue and restore us and so wants us to enjoy a relationship with him.
I think these past weeks we’ve also been discovering, or reminding ourselves perhaps, of what God is actually like (as opposed to those groups wearing particular sets of spectacles who tend to construct him in their own likeness. Yahweh is brimful of mercy (as the Old Testament and out Psalm today tells us.) – which we know now to be that lovely Hebrew word hesed – grace, steadfast love or loving kindness
We’ve seen how Jesus mirrors God’s behaviour towards his people - as the Good Shepherd – protecting and feeding us – bringing us home – leading and guiding us; healing us
And above all, in his very being, (as I’ve said) he’s never removed or far away. He’s near, speaking peace to his faithful people. So when we had these amazing words from the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians today, it reminds of Paul who is praying for these new Christian communities not to lose heart over their difficulties. Here’s what he says a little later (& this is in Ephesians chapter 3 if you want to have a look later:
My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you'll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ's love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God
Now I know we’ve been thinking a lot about this – but if someone asked you what the kingdom of God was all about, I wonder what answer would you give? – just think about it for a moment. If a neighbour asked why you think they should give Christianity another shot. They might be thinking it’s about getting to heaven when we die. About keeping churches going, Or keeping traditions alive? Maybe they’d presume it was all about doggedly maintaining certain values that we think are slipping in the modern world for which people these days have little respect.
Well here’s a reminder of what we’re all about really – and this is from one of my Oxford tutors who was one of the main speakers at Clergy School. He’s now moving from heading up the St Mellitus theological training in London and the church where the Alpha course started to become Suffragen Bishop of Kensington. (p.31 Graham Tomlin’s The Provocative Church)
“We sometimes think of the kingdom of God as a place people go when they die, maybe some vague spiritual world somewhere far removed from this earth, and as a consequence the normal stuff of life that we live day by day doesn’t seem to matter a great deal compared with the task of getting people ready for heaven. But is this really what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God? Does hope in the future kingdom mean this world is of no real significance?…(Jesus) has made it clear that this is a kingdom of joy, celebration and – not to be too precious about it – of fun. The images Jesus used to describe the kingdom were always full of delight. This is no stern, solemn king exercising a humourless, cold rule. It is the rule of a gracious host, inviting us into his home, the place where he is in charge, and where there is lots of rich, deep laughter. Miserable, gloomy and dull churches have simple missed the point. Churches who have truly grasped this are communities where there is a great deal of enjoyment.”
So at the heart of Christianity lies the possibility of a restored and transformed relationship with the Creator-God. And it’s this that is such great news in a culture starved of intimacy and meaning, yet sated with all sorts of false forms of these things. It is this personal encounter with God through Jesus that has been at the heart of revivals of all kinds of Christianity through its history
And here (the apostle) Paul prays for the people to understand – to know in reality – the fullness of the transforming love of Christ. He knew that the more deeply the love of Christ shapes a church, the more intensively it’s going to reflect the unity, harmony and vibrant peace that will finally be restored by God in the new creation.
And we can tell how Paul longed for these new communities of Christians to know Jesus – so much so he prostrates himself before God – on his knees with head bowed down to the ground – just as one would do when making obeisance and bringing a matter of utmost urgency to a powerful king. (The more usual prayer position was to stand). Paul certainly wants to convey the impression of God’s power and authority but he also addresses God as Father – and this wasn’t just a term of intimacy: in the east the father is the ruler over the family, the one to whom all questions of importance are related and to whom the children (however old they may be) are expected to defer. So our relationship with such a heavenly Father is one of both friendship and awe – as the saints have said through the centuries – immanence and yet transcendence; closer than breathing; nearer to us than we are to ourselves, yet so totally ”other” than us – one who surpasses human experience and who isn’t at all bound by it.
So what’s at the heart of Paul’s wishes for the Ephesians – and indeed us as we gather together this morning? Well he sums up his hopes in the prayer we just read. First he prays for God’s mighty empowering by the Spirit in their inner being or the heart.so that (& note this, there’s always a reason for it)...so that... they will be rooted in and founded on love. This isn’t a prayer for a mystical experience– it’s not for something privatized and esoteric – meant only for the individual – or an inner core of special, initiated people - removed from the rest of us. He’s praying that we should all live our lives with fuller, loving trust in Jesus – being more and more deeply moulded by the cross – the Christ-event that changed the world. A kingdom of priests blessing the world – what a picture!
And then that they may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. And let’s be clear this isn’t just about knowing stuff. I’m sure we all know a lot of stuff about lots of different things – our special subject that we’d pick if we were ever in that Mastermind chair. The ancient Greeks prided themselves on that kind of knowledge that amassed facts and it led to all sorts of problems when it came to thinking through the Christian faith. But in ancient Hebrew thought, ‘knowledge’ was primarily concerned with life as a dynamic process; it was an entry into relationship with the world as it’s experienced – the kind of knowledge that makes demands not only on our understanding or intellect but on our wills – how we actually live and behave in our families and communities.
So are you beginning to see how important this is for us? It is this indwelling Christ by the Holy Spirit that strengthens our life as Christian believers – that keeps us on a firm foundation for living – especially when the going gets rough – as I know it continues to be for many here. And it’s worth noticing that Paul says: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend – with all the saints – what is the breadth and length and height and depth – and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.
Together with all the saints. This is about the love of Christ that is known corporately – that unites people – like all of us in our new ministry area. This whole letter to the Ephesians challenges us to find better ways of making our local churches a really united community of people whose lives and worship together as a church witness to Christ’s kingdom – where his love is exercising its rule and reign – where God’s glory is pleased to dwell. And (just a thought as I close) we probably need to think about the value of being in smaller group situations to be able to dig more deeply into these things – which is what the weekly bible study and prayer meeting is designed for. It allows us to ask questions – and feel safe doing so. Think about it – and come join in!
So let’s pray (in Paul’s words): Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen