This Sunday marks the beginning of Christian Aid Week. I’m off preaching this Sunday, and this is my sermon:
Christian Aid Week Sermon
Genesis 1 : 1 – 28, 2 Corinthians 5 : 17 – 23
Imagine growing up as part of an oppressed people. You may never have known the land of your ancestors, of your heritage, and have only your parents’ and grandparents’ stories to go on. You may feel rootless, even be technically nationless, and worry if you’ll ever be able to go home. Worse, the place you’re at is not exactly wonderful, and danger feels just around the corner. I could be describing the plight of modern-day refugees throughout the world, but I’m actually thinking of the situation thatIsraelfound themselves in, over two-and-a-half millennia ago, in exile in Babylon. From those seventy years in captivity came some of the most powerful writings, poems, stories and songs in the whole Bible, many of which still have much to say to our world today. After all, like the author of Psalm 137, most of us have at some point in time struggled with what it means to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land…
A case in point is the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which most scholars accept was written inBabylon, for a people far away from home. At a time when most cultures understood national deities only to operate within a given geographical region, and having seen Solomon’s temple, God’s dwelling-place, destroyed, the Psalmist’s question was far from academic, and was actually incredibly urgent. CouldIsrael’s God be at work, even in Babylon?
For the author of the beautiful doxology, the hymn of praise that is the first chapter of Genesis, the answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’, because God is the creator of heaven and earth. Read through that poem and note the pattern and repetition; it conveys a sense of order and stability, as does God’s very act of bringing order out of the chaos of the formless void. Together with God having made the Sun and Moon, which the Babylonians worshipped as gods, the chapter makes a powerful statement: even in the midst of exile, God is God, and so there’s reason to hope.
Today marks the beginning of Christian Aid Week, an annual effort to raise funds to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people, and to spread awareness of international; development issues. Christian Aid’s motto is that they believe in life before death, and it’s a vision which is underpinned by our Genesis passage. The idea of being made in the image of God is one of the most mysterious in the whole of Scripture; it’s only mentioned three times, all of those within the first eleven chapters of Genesis. It’s never once formally explained, but whatever else it means, and there has been much debate down the centuries, to bare God’s image is to have an intrinsic value in his eyes that does not depend on stuff or status, power or wealth. Put simply, it means that each person is uniquely and irreplaceably valuable to God. Our faith can then never purely be concerned with what happens when we die, but rather must reflect a deep concern for the welfare of others, and a desire for all to have the Life with a capital ‘L’ that Jesus came to bring.
However, as we all know, this is not a straightforward business. Despite being made in God’s image, one need only switch on the news to see humanity at loggerheads, and to witness the consequences of human greed and indifference to one another. That doesn’t sound too far away from the world that Jesus inhabited, and into which the freedom and inexhaustible inventiveness of God’s love came, in human form. The Kingdom that Christ proclaimed offered a new way to be, a view of the world in which all are valued and God’s rule is established. When that proved too threatening for the powers that be, religious and secular,Templeand Sword, conspired to have Jesus crucified. Yet, as we celebrate in this season of Easter, death could not contain him, and even when we had done our worst, love had the last word.
Rowan Williams once described Jesus’ resurrection as being like a second Big Bang, an explosion of creative energy into the universe, and so being part of a new creation is to enter a world of new possibilities, and of fresh hope. It means that whatever the world confronts us with and wherever we find ourselves, God is God, and his love without end. There’s always room for something to happen that can change the game, if we’re willing to let God work through us. After all, the mission begun on the first Easter morning is far from finished; we’re called to look for what the Holy Spirit is up to, in our local communities, in our nation and in the wider world, then to roll up our sleeves and join in. God longs for the world to know its value in his eyes and flourish – that’s the vision of Christian Aid Week.
Our reading from 2 Corinthians helps us to look at this more deeply. In that letter, Paul was being forced to defend his authority and the authenticity of his teaching to a church that was fractious and caught up in its own issues. The fifth chapter of the letter reflects on what Christ’s resurrection means, and in particular on how being part of a new creation is to be reconciled to God and friends with Jesus. It’s from that restored relationship, with God and potentially with each other, that the new possibilities God wants to bring about flow. We don’t receive salvation for our own private good, but to share with it others, so that they too may be reconciled to God, and know his love, which is as much earthly and practical as it is mysterious and spiritual. It’s that message that Paul wanted the Corinthians really to grasp, and to live in its light.
Earlier in the service, we thought about how God takes all the varied parts of who we are, some alive and flourishing, others damaged and fragile, and works to transform that complicated bundle into an integrated whole, a new creation. He has the same vision and hope for the whole world, and given that the Church can be all too good at focussing inwardly, it’s worth reflecting on the five Marks of Mission, which are:
- To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
- To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
- To respond to human need by loving service
- To seek to transform unjust structures of society
- To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth
God clearly wants the whole creation to know its value in his eyes, and while I passionately believe that the Kingdom is bigger than the Church, that mission has nevertheless been entrusted to us, as the Body of Christ. Our communities need to embody God’s love, a love that believes in life before death, not as a nice idea, but as a concrete reality. I came across this poem a few weeks ago, which sums things up nicely:
If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can I go to cry?
If this is not a place where my spirit can take wing, where can I go to fly?
If this is not a place where my questions can be asked, where can I go to seek?
If this is not a place where my feelings can be heard, where can I go to speak?
If this is not a place where you will accept me as I am, where can I go to be?
If this is not a place where I can go to learn and grow, where can I just be me?