Did you hear our Gospel reading this morning? And if you heard it, would you be able to tell me the heart of the teaching of Jesus which it proclaimed to us? And if you could do that today, could you also do it tomorrow? And the next day? And next Saturday?
I find it hard a lot of the time to honestly be able to say yes to those questions. Its not that I don’t listen, its not that I’m not committed to wanting to know what the Church remembers Jesus saying. Its not even that I don’t find it interesting. The simple fact is that I hear those words each week which are pregnant with the eternal good news of God – and then I forget them. The things of God which find their focus in prayer, and in Bible-study and in worship… and in all those other aspects of my experience of life in Christ, glow for a moment and then fall partly or totally asleep. And that’s true not only of the words I hear but of the faith that I believe.
And because I can be honest with you – because I only have one more week left here in your Parish – it seems that there is always a monumental difference between the faith which I want to live out, and the faith which I actually live out; and between the way in which I should be believing and the way that I am actually believing. There appears to be an insuperable balance in all of these things – in my life – in favour of this world and against God’s kingdom.
And I came to our Gospel reading today with a sense of horror, because here again in the words of Jesus we find another of those ideals which it is so difficult to live up to.
Jesus has gathered around himself those friends who have been following him and learning from him, and a crowd of other people who have been attracted to him.
And he’s teaching about right relationships – he’s talking about the Kingdom of God, and how in that Kingdom, people should relate to each other with love and understanding, in a spirit of reconciliation. Just as he has taught people to listen to God his Father, now he is teaching them to listen to each other.
It is hard for us, I think, to imagine what it must have been like to be part of all that happened in the last years of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and the first years of his ministry through the Church. The birth of Christianity was a hectic series of events, it wasn’t an organisation – it was a message. Out of a situation in which there were few precedents, no New Testament scriptures, no liturgy or form of worship and no agreed hierarchies; the first Christians who brought together the texts which are our gospels, sought to remember the life of Jesus through the shape of his cross and the significance of his resurrection. They did it through a process of ongoing debate and discernment, which included disagreement. And Jesus’ words about how to deal with disputes would have been near the top of the spiritual survival bags which they carried around with them.
So it is clear why our Gospel text this morning made it into the Gospel of Matthew, over and above the many other teachings which must have been being recounted in the churches but which didn’t make it onto the pages of the New Testament.
But that still does not take away the sinking feeling deep within me when I come to reflect on these words. Because I know how I deal with disputes and contentious issues, so often, in very different ways. I like the gifts of the Christian life, but I’m not so keen on the responsibilities.
The theological college which I live in, (in Oxford in England) sometimes reaches boiling point over the issues which are discussed there. Different groups within the College have drawn battle lines about which Prayer Book should be used for our daily worship, whether women should be invited to celebrate the Mass, whether gay men should be allowed to train for the priestly ministry… the issues go on and on. The two largest groups in the College are the traditionalists, who want everything to be as it has been in the past; and the Affirming Catholics, who want to open up the Church to doing things in a new way. You can imagine the tensions!
A couple of Terms ago a priest came as preacher and he tried to help us to live alongside each other, in the manner which the Church expects and which Jesus sets before us by his example. And his sermon was quite brilliant, but it was not ten minutes after the end of that service that I heard a fellow ordinand in our cloisters saying to another, “that really told it to the traditionalists didn’t it.” And I can only imagine that in another part of that College someone was saying the same thing in reverse.
I wonder if that ever happens here? Not perhaps over the same issues, but disputes within the Church family, the body of Christ: unsympathetic words about another member of the congregation, assumptions about those who hold different views from our own.
So often we suffer the forgetfulness which puts worldly standards above God’s standards. So often we listen to ourselves and not to others in a way which only reinforces our preconceptions. So often we forget that all of humanity is made in the image of Christ.
Our Old Testament reading tells the story that we have heard so many times before of the preparation for the first Passover when God brings his people, the Israelites, out of slavery and on towards the promised land. But it wouldn’t take us long, if we read on in the Book of Exodus, to find out how quickly the Israelites began to forget God’s faithfulness to them.
That continual cycle of forgetting God, and then being brought back to him, and then forgetting again and following other gods, and being brought back to him, was one of the themes of our Discipleship Group a few days ago, as we looked at the history of these people who God chose for his own. The history of the Israelites is a mirror of our own lives. We are people who so easily forget.
And the good news of all of this – if you read on in that story – is that in the middle of our forgetfulness, we can be sure that God remembers us. In the middle of our wanderings, Jesus assures us in the words of today’s Gospel reading that he is among us. And that gives me hope.
It gives us hope because God has been among us in time and space in the person of Jesus. Which means that sometimes when we forget God and turn to our world, it is in the beauty of our world that we find him again. God is amongst us. When we forget him he remembers us.
We are thrilled to be bringing children to baptism this morning. I was asking Connor’s sister last evening whether she remembered her baptism here a couple of years ago (and she wasn’t too sure, but I suspect that she doesn’t). Amber and Connor and Jessica won’t remember the things which we are going to do this morning: that’s why we’re here to remember it for them – parents, sponsors, and all of us.
And if God by his spirit is here with us in the midst of our sacraments, as we believe him to be, then the baptisms this morning are not just events which relate to Amber and Connor and Jessica. The rest of us don’t just watch on from a distance as we see others come to baptism. We remember for ourselves – and for the whole body of Christ – the ongoing and unconditional love and acceptance of God, which baptism symbolises for us.
And that remembering alerts us to the responsibilities too which life in Christ, (which is life in his body – the Church) brings upon each of us.
May God who is at the heart of our worship, (the one who says that he is here among us) bring us with Amber and Connor and Jessica through his cleansing waters and towards his altar of love again afresh this morning.