As Anglicans here, like other Anglicans all around the Diocese who are gathered for worship this morning, we follow an agreed series of Bible readings throughout the year, which we call the ‘common lectionary’. So when one of us comes to read on Sunday morning they do not have free reign to choose their favourite passage or even the portion of scripture that they feel will be most appropriate for us, as happens in some other expressions of Christianity.
Our Sunday readings and themes are agreed for us so that our study of the scriptures can be ordered into a regular sequence that ensures that we hear as much of the Bible as possible, in the clearest order, throughout the year. So Father Glen does not have the freedom, in a normal situation, to wake up on a Sunday morning and decide on the readings that he wants us to hear at the Eucharist. And I, as I travel around the Diocese, do not get to preach my favourite sermon, on my favourite story in the life of Jesus over and over again. Around the Diocese, and indeed around the world today, Anglicans and Roman Catholics and members of some of the protestant churches will be reflecting on exactly the same readings as we are hearing this morning.
One of the important things to be aware of in all of this, is that the lectionary is actually split into two halves. The first half (from Advent to Ascension) gathers together readings that broadly seek to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” – so through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter (in the early months of the year) that is the focus of our reflections Sunday by Sunday: who is Jesus? The second half of the year – the readings which we are engaged in at the moment – try to focus our attention on a second question, which is something like, “if that is who Jesus is, what does it mean for us to follow him?”
The first half of the year is often called the “Season of Christ” – when we focus on who he is, and the second half of the year, the part that we are in now – because of the focus of its readings on our response to Jesus – is often called the “Season of the Church.”
Our Gospel reading this morning reaches right to the heart of the reality of living as a disciple of Christ – of this question of what it means for us to follow Jesus. The writers of the Gospel of Luke gather together a number of the sayings of Jesus and present them, like headlines from a newspaper to summarise what Jesus has to say about living as one of his disciples. They are most likely to be a collection of teachings given over a period of time which the authors of the Gospel bring together here in one place.
Firstly, they give us the image of heavenly purses: reminding us that Jesus encouraged his disciples to give away what they had to the poor, in order to exchange the treasure of earth for the eternal treasure of God’s kingdom. What we can keep in our wallets, is of little value, says Jesus, compared with what can be stored up in heaven. Generosity is a greater priority now, than amassing personal wealth.
Secondly, they give us the image of a group of slaves awaiting their master’s return from a wedding banquet. Pointing to the reward that those slaves will receive if, when the master returns to the house, he finds them alert and ready for him, even if they have had to wait up for nearly the whole night. Indeed, so happy will the master be, that the roles will be reversed, and the master in his gratitude will serve his servants because of their faithfulness.
Thirdly, they give us the image of the owner of a house, who if he had known the time that the thief would come, would have been able to protect himself and his property from being ransacked. And the message from all three of these distillations of the teaching of Jesus for us is clear. It is like a tidal wave isn’t it, of different images pointing to the state of mind to which we are called as disciples of Christ. Be ready. Be alert. Be focused on the big picture of God’s plan. For the time is near.
Each of the four Gospels have a feeling of breathlessness about them. Jesus is in a rush. Time is short, things must be done straight away, directly, immediately. Jesus has all the time in the world for people, but time is short for preaching, teaching and for the world itself. This feeling of urgency and immediacy is a reflection, I think, of the intensity not only of the way that Jesus himself lived, but also the reality of how the first Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension lived out their lives. They believed that they were living in the last moments before the return of Christ, and passages from the Gospel like the collection of short teachings that we have heard this morning gave them great encouragement to continue to be ready for Jesus’ imminent return.
St Paul, in the first letters that he wrote, suggests that Jesus would return in his own life time. If you want an example of this you can read his letters to the Thessalonians in our New Testament. In these letters he states his belief that Jesus will return before he dies. But by the time St Paul wrote his later letters, and certainly by the time the Gospels were written down, Christians had come to understand that, whilst they knew that they lived in the last times, and that the end of the world was very near, it might not be as immediate as they had first thought.
The sense that all of this was going to happen very quickly was diluted by the experience that Christians actually had, of Jesus not returning. So the first few generations of Christians still lived with the urgency of being ready for his second coming in their minds, but they increasingly came to understand that this reality may be less immediate than they had previously thought. The Early Church became gradually less certain about the timing of the second coming of Christ, but correspondingly more certain that they needed to live lives which were prepared for that second coming, whenever it might happen. That continues to be the view of our Church in the present day.
We shy away from people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have at various points in the past set the date of the second coming of Christ. We are embarrassed by the extreme groups which became excited around the year two thousand, or when various natural disasters have taken place – and who claim that these are signs of a precise date for the return of Jesus. But at the same time, we remain committed to the belief that our lives (now) need to be ready and prepared and ordered in such a way that they are consistent with the hope that Jesus will return to bring the Kingdom which he has already inaugurated, to its fulfilment.
St Ignatius of Loyola expressed this way of living when he said, “live as if you were going to die tomorrow; die as if you were going to live forever.”
Through the various images that are created through the teachings in this morning’s Gospel we are drawn more deeply into that sense of needing to be prepared, and ready for the urgent task of being a disciple. Like slaves, remaining alert awaiting the return of our master; like the owner of a house preparing ourselves for a thief who seeks to break in and steal from us. We too are called to be ready.
And in our own time, here in this Parish, we know that we are faced with an urgent situation as well. As things stand, we who are gathered here this morning are the last generation of this Church. When we cease to be here we will leave a beautiful monument behind, but a beautiful empty building is no Church at all. We are called, like Christians have been throughout the ages, to live lives which are consistent with our hope that the Kingdom of God (all that Jesus taught about and stood for) continues to grow. In the face of this urgent situation, we are called to be ready to play our part. To ensure that there is another generation to follow us into the life of Christ.
Our situation is no different from the situation of the first followers of Jesus. If they had not shared the good news with the second generation of Christians we would not be nourished by the good news of Jesus today. But as it was for them, the call to share God’s love with others is as urgent for us, as it has been for every other group of Christians throughout the history of the Church. There is a need for us to remain focused, and to believe that the task of the Church is urgent, and to be prepared and ready to play our part in the work of Jesus, believing that he will one day return, and that between now and then his ministry is our ministry here in this parish.
That is precisely what people like you and like me are striving to do all around the Diocese. Through the ways that we carefully welcome and nurture visitors to our churches, who are seeking to explore the Christian faith. Through the way that we are trying to reach out to the generations which are currently not present in our Church family, not expecting them necessarily to worship in the way that we do – which is a more a matter of culture than anything else – but in ways which are meaningful for them. In all of these endeavours we are becoming increasingly aware that we need not only to be focused, and alert for the opportunities to make new connections and to share our faith, but that we need to be appropriately prepared and organised for the task.
That is why we give thanks this morning for the ministry team which has been established here in this parish. That team is not responsible for doing all of the tasks of ministry, but for helping us to organise ourselves, so that each one of us might use the gifts which God has given us to share in this work which belongs to us between now and when Jesus returns.
The task of mission, and of growing the Church in this Parish is an urgent one. Like Christians down through the ages we too need to be prepared and ready. Ready to commend our faith to others, and ready to be part of God’s unfolding plan of loving service to the community that lives around us. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be alert and ready to serve him.
That is what God calls each one of us who have been baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ to do, and that is why we gather Sunday by Sunday at this Eucharist. To be nurtured by God’s word, to be encouraged by our fellowship, and to be strengthened by the sacrament which we are about to receive, so that we go from this place to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God of God the father.
In the season of the Church we ask Sunday by Sunday as we hear the readings prescribed by the lectionary, “if Jesus is who the Gospels say that he is, what we are – his followers – being called to do in response to him?” Our Gospel this morning, through a number of different picture images, is clear in its response.
Live as if you were going to die tomorrow; die as if you were going to live forever. Be ready. Be prepared. Be focused on God’s eternal plan. The task is urgent and it involves us all.