Sermons from Rev Julie Wagstaff


Sunday 24th January

There is a real tendency isn’t there to separate life into distinct categories.  Work, home, family, friends, social life, holidays ...... and dare I say it ..... church.  In fact, separating the ‘sacred’ from the ‘secular’ is particularly prevalent – how often do we hear things like ‘you can’t do that in church’ ..... and I know from experience that walking into a party atmosphere wearing my collar tends to subdue the atmosphere ...... it’s as though the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

 But it’s wrong – it is an attitude that damages, sometimes irreparably, any attempt to live a whole and satisfying life, a coherent life with meaning and purpose, a life lived with God at the centre. 

 The worst damage can be done when we apply this separation to our daily work.  Work, by its very nature, is holy.  But we tend to think that it is only the work of clergy – pastors, priests or missionaries that is ‘sacred’ and that of lawyers, farmers and engineers etc. is ‘secular’.  But I wonder where this idea comes from?  Scripture is dominated by people who have jobs in gardening, shepherding, the military, politics, carpentry, tent making, homemaking, fishing and so on.  People who have been crucial to God’s plan, to His purpose for His creation.

Nehemiah, who provides today’s OT reading, is one such person.  Nehemiah is one of the many Jews carried away into exile in Babylon and while working as a cupbearer for King Artaxerxes he seeks and gets permission from the king to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city.  In the months that follow, despite opposition, ridicule and constant danger, Jerusalem is rebuilt. 

But that is the easy bit.  The next task is to rebuild a people fit to live in Jerusalem and be God’s covenant people.

This is where today’s story begins. The people of the rebuilt Jerusalem are a very mixed bag who are far from being a ‘priestly kingdom and a holy nation’.  Ezra was a scholar and teacher working with the Scriptures, a religious professional, Nehemiah worked with stones and mortar, he was not part of the priestly guild, he was, however, a man committed to doing the work of the Lord.

The stories of these two men are interwoven.  Ezra led the people back to their religious roots and Nehemiah showed the people how to live what they had learned from Scripture.  Neither job was more or less important or holy than the other.  Nehemiah needed Ezra; Ezra needed Nehemiah, God’s people needed the work of both of them.

The people of Jerusalem had to learn again about their God.  They had to learn how to live together as a society that is obedient to God in all things.  To understand what it meant to be the people of God.

The reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians too, is about trying to build a new people, a church that would live as a community.  The more we read the Bible the more inescapable it is that being part of a community is basic to any human attempt to understand God.  We can get only so far with a personal, private knowledge of God, kept separate from the rest of life.  It is how we live and the way that we live together, on a daily basis, that is the test.

The Corinthian church has a lot going for it, the people are enthusiastic and talented but they are testing Paul’s patience in their inability to live together in love.  He is pleading with them to think in a completely new way.  Rather than always focussing on themselves and their needs and rights (sounds depressingly familiar doesn’t it?) and wanting to be the most important and gifted person in any gathering, they have to learn to think of themselves as one entity, one body, whose health and whose very life depends upon co-operation and connection.  A lesson that desperately needs to be learnt in today’s world.

And then we come to Jesus’ chosen description of his mission.  The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.  This declaration of intent is not about teaching us a better spirituality but about doing God’s justice and creating God’s community.  And as followers of Jesus we are now charged with doing the same.

Jesus came with a message of hope for all people both rich and poor.  His death and resurrection mean that anyone can become part of God’s people: all can have an equal relationship with God.  Nobody is to be excluded.  Through Jesus, God’s love and grace is offered to everybody.  Freedom to be who we are, who He intended us to be, a life lived in His light, confident that we are loved, forgiven and precious to Him.

This gospel message brings purpose to life. It points us outside ourselves. It leads us into a community of mutual support where we look after each other; where the other person is just as important as we are. It provides a focus outside of ourselves, a focus on God and his will for the world.

The church is a place where there should be no elevation of people on the basis of their job, or their education, or wealth.  Although the body is made up of lots of different parts, they’re all part of the one body. ‘Although we are many we are one body for we are all partakers of the one bread’. 

Although there are many different types of people, with different gifts in the church, they are all part of the one body with Christ as its head. We have all been baptised into the one body, and we’ve all been given the one Spirit.  Just as Jesus said "the Spirit of Lord is upon me", so now the same Spirit has been poured out on us. 

So nobody can say, I’ve got nothing to offer, I don’t have a particular gift, or I’m too old, or too young.  Few of us will be stand up evangelists.  Perhaps we don’t have the gifts needed to start talking to a complete stranger about the gospel.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a part to play in God’s plan.

Paul reminds us that in the body, those parts that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable parts are treated with greater respect.  

We can all live lives that reflect the gospel - lives that shine as a light in a darkened world.  We can all work at being people who are selfless rather than selfish.  Who are always ready to lend a helping hand to both Christian and non-Christian.  We can be ready with a word of comfort or encouragement.  

The Christian body that Paul is pleading for will be recognizable by the way it behaves toward others.

We can let people know in a natural way that we are part of St Barnabas church, that we’re part of a loving community.    We might also work at being ready to give an answer for the faith that’s within us, not in any deeply theological way, but as a natural expression of what’s most important to us in life.

And let’s not forget the power of prayer.  Everyone of us can be praying for the work of the gospel on a regular basis, praying that God’s word might be received by those who hear it and that people might come to faith in Jesus Christ.  

Nehemiah was a man who prayed for his people.  He was a man of action, his work was practical, he was organised and efficient ..... but it was all done for the glory of God.  He was a man of prayer.  His prayers were simple and direct petitions and for him, they were also a means of strengthening and reshaping his own heart.

Let’s remember that the prayer of the righteous person is powerful and effective.