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St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, May 9th 2021, 6th Sunday in Easter

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Micah 6:1-9, John 15:9-17

Start of Christian Aid Week: The shape of the gospel

 

Being invited to preach in this church at the start of Christian Aid week feels like preaching to the converted: I’m pretty sure most people here ‘get it’ and understand why we support this particular charity. As a church, we give £2K a year to CA from our income; we also fund-raise, go on walks, show up at events and many people give personally and sacrificially. So, this isn’t going to be one of those tub-thumping, guilt-inducing, place your donations on the altar sermons, no siree. Take a breath in, breathe out, be calm. I would like to briefly reflect on why it is that we do what we do.

 

The historian Tom Holland, author of Dominion and recent guest lecturer at the University, while studying ancient Greek and Roman history, began to wonder how we got from generally accepted norms of callous disregard of human life, to measuring the quality of a society by how it deals with the weakest and poorest. What happened? And why? He found the answer here: ‘Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian’[1].

 

It’s quite a statement. It made me think about a home group meeting a couple of weeks ago where we used some Bible Project material to consider the word ‘gospel’. What is the gospel? I confess I expected something like, ‘believe in Jesus and you will be saved’. (Which isn’t wrong, by the way!) But the meaning of the word ‘gospel’, in Greek euangellion, means ‘good announcement’ or ‘good proclamation’. It’s the word used of a royal decree: there is a new King on the throne, Jesus. In a nutshell, that is the good news – there is a new King that we are invited to give allegiance to, a new Kingdom we are members of, a new way of life that we are called to embrace and embody. And take a look at the place where he was named ‘King’. It was a Roman cross. Citizens of this kingdom live an upside-down way of life that honours a man who gave himself for others, who honoured the poor, the sick, the disabled, the marginalised, the unclean, the sexual transgressors. We, his followers, are to embody that same way of life, marked by trust, generosity, forgiveness, and most of all, by love as we heard in our gospel reading today. There it is! Our gospel reading. Why am I telling you this? Because Christian Aid, in what it stands for and what it does, is an authentic expression of exactly that, in providing help to those most in need, and at this time in history, to do all it can to help people counter the effects of the unfolding climate crisis. It is deeply, deeply Christ-like in its mission.

 

Then the other week, home group again, we considered generosity. We thought of how God is generous! In creation, in providing enough abundantly on land and in the sea, in astonishing diversity and complexity and beauty. Think of the generosity that the gospel records: the feeding of the 5000; the water into wine at the wedding in Cana; the great haul of fish that the disciples dragged in when someone told them to put down their net on the other side of the boat after a night of fish-less labour.

 

The pandemic, which thankfully for us is in retreat, may have made some of us shut the doors a bit, to look after number one, to develop what’s been called a ‘scarcity mindset’. Think of the hoarding of toilet rolls that went on when it all started! Jesus was no stranger to this attitude: he lived in a country occupied by an oppressive military power which could tax you, take the shirt literally off your back, make you walk the extra mile. So hunker down, look after number one. Jesus embodied a completely different way of life, which was founded on trust in the generosity and faithfulness of God. More than that, he embodied God’s generosity with attitudes of forgiveness, love, acceptance, a carefreeness. Think of the Sermon on the Mount: love your enemies; give, and don’t make a song and dance about it; do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink…your heavenly Father knows you need all these things; do not worry about tomorrow; ask and it will be given to you; do to others as you would have them do to you – and so on. Don’t those words stir our hearts? Don’t they paint a picture of a world anyone would want to live and flourish in?

 

The sad truth is that many people do not experience the sort of abundance of provision and generosity of spirit that I am describing. This is almost entirely due not to the failure of the created order to be abundant, but to humanity’s greed, violence, disregard for human life and now, all-out war on the natural order. We, who have enough, are called to embrace and embody the generosity of God, the spirit of Jesus in our lives, to help to bring about the kind of transformation that is needed.

 

I was very drawn to the prayer at the beginning of our service: ‘Faithful one, whose word is life: come with saving power to free our praise, inspire our prayer, and shape our lives for the kingdom of your Son’. Phew! What a beautiful prayer. The expression, embodiment and fulfilling of that prayer in Christian Aid and what it stands for and does is connected with this church, with us. ‘…shape our lives for the kingdom of your Son.’ I want to end by re-reading a verse from Micah 6 that was read to us in the wonderful translation that was used:  ‘You are to love kindness. You are to be generous. You are to share your resources and share them with a smile. You are to care for those in need. You are to walk humbly with God. No pretence, no bluster. You are to walk wisely and purposefully.

 

Richard Croft

 

 

[1] Tom Holland, Why I was wrong about Christianity, New Statesman, 16th September 2016 https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity