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Sermon: Evensong - 7 December 2014

Sunday 7th December 2014
Choral Evensong
1 Kings 22:1-18
Romans 15:4-13
Download Recording (MP3, 14.9M) Download

Extraordinary, fractious, diverse, argumentative, wonderful, united, ferocious, peaceful, persecuted.

Just some of the words Archbishop Justin used to describe the suffering body of the Anglican Communion at General Synod last month.  Paul might've described the Christian community in Rome that way as they struggled with diversity in theology and ethics. They knew the challenges of witnessing in a culturally diverse city with hope and generosity. They confronted divisions between rich and poor; Jew and Gentile; strong and weak. 

In the face of these challenges, Paul calls them back to the faithfulness of God; to a vision of hope that transcends difference and crosses generations. Such hope is cosmic in scope and has implications in the nitty-gritty reality of the world.

Paul reminds us that our unity is in God.  The scriptures witness to his steadfastness and encouragement. Therefore, we are to live in harmony with one another. Diversity is underpinned by our unity in Christ in the power of the Spirit.  Therefore, we are to glorify God with one voice.

In our own generation, we are to draw near to God in order to build up our common life. Our ability to welcome one another is grounded in Christ who welcomes us: fragile men and women, who are members of fractious and  wonderful body.

Our capacity to welcome others is extended when we pay attention to God in prayer.  We grow closer to God in Christ Jesus, who continues to intercede for us. That Spirit enables us to cry abba, father; guiding us to find unity in diversity; to love in difference.

To welcome others in Christ is costly. It means setting aside tribal loyalties in order to listen with care. It demands time and patience. We are commanded not only to love our neighbour as ourselves, but also to love our enemy. It can't be done in our own strength, but in God's. In worship we rejoice in the source of our hope, so we learn to live in harmony.

Prayer and praise reshapes us as God's people: we repent and receive mercy; we rejoice and find encouragement.  No wonder that the renewal of the life of prayer and religious community is our Archbishop's first priority. Out of that depth of honest attention to human frailty and divine grace, flows hope and peace. Gifts that are made manifest in our common life.  Reconciled lives within community becomes an act of witness.

However diverse and argumentative the church is, we cannot avoid this calling to proclaim the good news in word and deed, in action and relationship. As Justin puts it:  We must grasp that challenge, it is the prize of a world seeing Christ loved and obeyed in His church, a world hearing the news of his salvation... [we] take a lead in our sacrificial, truthful and committed love for the sake of Christ and His mission in His world.

A vision of a church living in hope and harmony, rooted in God's steadfastness and encouragement, is for the sake of his world.  Paul reminds the church in Rome of that reality; as we journey through Advent we too need to pay attention to that.  In Christ, God reconciles the world to himself.  The promises of the patriarchs are fulfilled.  They had responded in trust to God's call; they lived in the hope that all nations would be drawn to the light of God.

Paul testifies to the way in which Gentiles are, in Christ, glorifying God for his mercy.  He multiplies quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures to make his point more powerfully: there is an abundance of faith confessed and praises sung; there is rejoicing amongst all people.

Steadfastness and encouragement; harmony and praise. Paul is saying something about the way in which God's love reaches out to us; and also what that love demands of us.  In part there is a challenge to our common life; but there is also a challenge to our deepening engagement with the world.  If the power of Christ's love is at work in us by the Spirit, how do we express God's faithfulness in a complex world?

As the second candle on our Advent wreath burns, we are invited to think about the role of God's prophets: and in their example we might find a clue as to how to answer that question.  The curious reading from 1 Kings might help us here!

After a period of stability, we hear a how the Kings of Judah and Israel deliberate about taking Ramoth-gilead back from the control of the King of Aram.  Upon consulting the prophets, there's a resounding 'yes' to the prospect of battle. There is a vivid description of thrones, robes, noise and drama as the prophets say 'go up and triumph'.  These are people conditioned to tell the King what he wants to hear; they collude with his ideas of violence and vain glory.

There is another prophet however: one named Micaiah.  He is hated by the King of Israel because his prophecies speak truthfully. He doesn't seek favour by speaking favourably. He names the consequences of violence.  There will be disaster.

In this episode, Micaiah goes against type: he knows that the King ignores him; it seems as if he is playing a double bluff.  'Go up and triumph', he says.  The King is suspicious and disbelieving.  Having attracted attention by mockery and collusion with falsehood, the prophet boldly declares the unpalatable truth: Israel will be scattered; the king will die; they will long for peace.

You will have to read on to the end of the chapter to discover whether the King of Israel listens to the disastrous and unfavourable words; but what we have heard still resonates with the political pressures at work in our world.  Our headlines still carry news of the pursuit of violence, disputed territories, the fallibility of those in authority - and the lone voices expressing the consequences.

How does a church called to harmony and rejoicing respond?  How does a church that is persecuted, fractious and peaceful enable the transformation of the world?  We live in what Archbishop Justin calls a hypersensitive world. The pace and intensity of communication via social media, mobile phones and the internet opens us to cultural influence and the impact of other agendas in a disruptive way. 

Addressing the House of Lords on Friday, ++Justin addressed the issue of soft power - and also the place of the church in bringing harmony and a hopeful vision.  Soft power means using social, cultural and economic means of persuasion in international relations. We might include our universities, diplomatic service, BBC NGOs and Commonwealth as means of such influence for mutual benefit.

Soft power, said the Archbishop, is the only way to avoid a long descent into the dark and fear filled ways of anarchic, networked conflicts.  In the face of international terror, localised conflict and the ideological struggles, there has to be an alternative violence and the mantra 'go up and triumph'.  As ++Justim put it: we need the development of a fresh narrative which provides a peaceful, humane, viable, motivating and effective alternative to the terrible visions of ISIS and Boko Haram.

Having spent 18 months travelling to all 37 Provinces of the Anglican Communion sharing joys and struggles, diversity and disagreements, ++Justin argues that a church rooted prayerfully in Christ might be the best network we have for developing that fresh narrative. A narrative of understanding, generosity of spirit, reconciliation and hope.

In Christ, we are a people called to harmony and praise; rooted in God's steadfastness and encouragement. By the power of the Spirit, we are to be prophetic agents of reconciliation deeply engaged in the world; using our soft power for the sake of the Kingdom.

May the God of hope fill you will all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.