Sermon - 4th May 2014
Scripture - Acts 2:14-41; Luke 24:13-35
Revd Andy Braunston
Just before Easter I was privileged to be able to share in some good news. A member of my congregation heard that she'd been invited to a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in June. Of course she's delighted; she's been invited as she volunteers with the Red Cross and they were allocated so many tickets to thank their volunteers.
My church member who has been invited to enjoy the beauty of Buckingham Palace's gardens is a destitute asylum seeker from Kenya. She has come here for protection due to the danger she faces back home. The legal process is slow and, until very recently she has been denied any form of support from the government whilst she waits for a decision. As asylum seekers are forbidden to work she has had nothing but has survived on food from our church's food bank for the last year and has lived in a home provided by the Christian Charity the Boaz Trust which houses destitute asylum seekers.
Life is difficult and days are very long when you're an asylum seeker and Ann has filled her time by putting something back in to our society by volunteering with the Red Cross – hence the invite to the Garden Party. So there is a paradox here; one of the poorest members of our society is going to tea with The Queen; someone on the edge is going to the centre. This sounds like a parable of the Kingdom where the tables are turned and it sounds like our two readings today.
In the passage from Acts the wisdom of the apostles was seen as drunkenness and the use Peter makes of the passage from Joel is, again, full of paradoxes. God's spirit will be poured on everyone meaning a radical change in how the society of believers will work. No longer will a small group of religious leaders call the shots – sons and daughters will proclaim God's message (not just men), young will see visions and the old will dream dreams – implying that the insight of young and old should be listened to when, often in our world the insights of the very young and the very old are ignored and, again, Peter quotes Joel to again include women in the ministry of proclamation.
So we have another paradox – a faith born out of Judaism where, at the time, women had little chance to voice their views which now is open to this happening. And a sadder paradox that the Church soon forgot this essential part of it's birth story.
But we have paradoxes in our Gospel story. We wonder why these dispirited disciples weren't with the others and haven't heard about the Resurrection. We wonder why they don't recognise Jesus who walks with them. We see this in different accounts of peoples' encounters with the Risen Lord – they don't recognise him at first, yet his wounds are there. He is the same, yet different. The sameness is obscured, at least at first, by the difference.
So there is a paradox, a risen Lord who isn't immediately recognised. There is the paradox that they need to change how they understood the Scriptures even though Jesus had spent three years teaching them. And there is the paradox of the bread and the wine. It, like Jesus, is the same but different. It's normal bread and wine but in the breaking and sharing of it, Jesus is perceived.
Every time we celebrate Holy Communion together we have to live with these paradoxes. We share Communion in our own local churches but know that it's the central act of Christian worship around the world. As we share here we know that Communion is being celebrated, today, in slums and Cathedrals, in homes and and on battlefields, in open and in secret for fear of persecution.
As we share bread and wine we know that there is more going on than a simple sharing, but that we're drawn into the life, death and new life of Jesus. As we share these simple everyday things we meet Jesus just as those disciples in our Gospel reading did long ago.
And in our meeting with Jesus we're drawn into more paradoxes.
Week by week we gather here to worship, to listen, to be still, to gain strength for our own lives and to build up our faith. We gather to help us become better Christians as being a Christian in today's world is hard – it always has been.
Just like my friend Ann who lives between two different worlds – Kenya and the UK - so do we all. We live as good citizens of the UK, as good friends and neighbours, as good colleagues, but we're also citizens of the coming Kingdom. We obey the laws of this world but model the laws and values of the world that is to come. We understand the priorities and prejudices of our own age but we look to the coming Kingdom where everything will be turned around and we try to model that in church and that's hard:
- In the business world we recruit people with the skills and abilities to do various jobs – in the church we try and discern a calling. That means people may end up in roles in church very different from their roles elsewhere; but Jesus did turn fishermen into pastors.
- In secular society we're interested in the bottom line financially, in the church we try and balance that with the command to give away what we have. Of course we have to do our sums and be responsible, but we realise that, in the Church, we're called to model the values of the Kingdom where we're told to give without counting the cost.
- In political life we're used to the loudest voices getting the most attention, in the Church we seek to let everyone be heard; after all Jesus said the meek would inherit the Earth.
Often in our lives we're concerned to show our independence – in our age we don't like to think of ourselves as being burdensome to others; in the Church we try and carry one another's burdens as we're conscious that we each belong to each other. We belong to each other within our congregations, within our Synod and denomination and to each other around the world in Christ's Church.
So in the Church we try to be different, to live with the paradoxes we see in Scripture and in our own faith journeys where weakness is a strength.
Mission or Refuge
There is, however, another paradox in the Christian life which can be difficult to balance. For many of us the Church is a refuge from the world. Life can be hard, and Church, for some, can be the only place where we experience grace, peace and respect. [In my congregation, for example, I realise that we're one of the few places where asylum seekers and the settled population can meet on equal terms and where the asylum seekers won't be rejected or made to feel like they are second class citizens.]
Life can be hard for all of us, we have our battles, our stresses, our worries, our insecurities and our pain and church can be a place where we find a space in the week to let that go and receive balm for our wounds. But church isn't just a refuge from the world, it's a mission to the world.
The following story illustrates the tensions between these two facets of Church life:
On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought of themselves went out day and night tirelessly searching for the lost.
Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding area, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews trained. The little lifesaving station grew.
Some of the members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. So they replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in the enlarged building.
Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they decorated it beautifully and furnished it exquisitely, because they used it as a sort of club. Fewer members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The lifesaving motif still prevailed in this club's decoration, and there was a liturgical lifeboat in the room where the club initiations were held.
About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet, and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, and some of them had black skin and some had yellow skin. The beautiful new club was in chaos. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.
At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal social life of the club. Some members insisted upon lifesaving as their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still, after all, called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the lives of all the various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did.
As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. It evolved into a club and yet another lifesaving station was founded. History continued to repeat itself. And if you visit that sea coast today, you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters, but most of the people drown.
Just as Jesus sent the women who saw him newly risen from the dead, just as he sent the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, so he sends us to proclaim the Good News of the Coming Kingdom. We're a mission – we're God's mission to the world.
Through our lives, through our love, through the use of our money, through the use of our time, through our words, we show and tell others of the Kingdom. That's being missionary and it's different to seeing church as a refuge.
In our churches we will always have those who are more drawn to one or other of these two visions of church – refuge and mission. In our own lives we may find we need church to be one or the other at different points in our own lives: but there is a tension and a paradox here and, as God's people gathered together, we have to find the balance between these two pulls so that we don't become like the lifeboat stations in the story, but are always ready to help with the mission of saving souls in the sea of our world.