Last Sunday was Paula's priesting here at St Matthew's, along with Sue, Liz and Rob. We had a very splendid service with a bishop and archdeacon, processions here and there and more vicars than you can shake a stick at. The bishop asked me to preach, so I chose 2 Corinthians 3:1-6, which is about being a living letter from Jesus.
Afterwards someone was kind enough to ask for a copy of the sermon, so I promised to put it on the blog. Here it is!
A nervous young vicar was wandering around his new parish, feeling slightly self-conscious in his shiny clerical collar. He saw an old gaffer working in his garden and decided he ought to do his part to spread the word.
"Good morning!" he called. "You and the Lord together have made a beautiful job of that garden!"
"You're right, vicar," said the old gaffer, "But you should have seen it when He had it on His own!"
Ever since God gave the task of ruling and nurturing the world to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 He has chosen to work through us human beings. Supremely He has done this through the Son of Man, who is the ultimate expression of His purposes in human form; and since Jesus ascended into heaven He continues to use us His people to communicate with His world.
But how can we be an effective communication? Communication is a dark art, fraught with difficulties and misunderstandings: like the young man who decided to say it with flowers:
A young man was very much in love with a beautiful girl. One day she told him that the next day was her birthday. He told her he would send her a bouquet of roses, one for each year of her life.
That evening he called the local florist and ordered twenty-one roses with instructions that they be delivered first thing the next morning. As the florist was preparing the order, she decided that since the young man was such a good customer, she would put an extra dozen roses in the bouquet...
He never did find out why the girl never spoke to him again.
Today's reading describes that communication as a living letter, written on human hearts (v.3), known and read by everybody (v.2). How can we be a letter from Jesus more effectively? 3 ways:-
1. be a love letter.
• above all the message of Jesus is a message of love: "God so loved the world..." If people don't see God's love in us then we are not an authentic letter from Jesus because we are not conveying his message.
• My biggest mistakes in ministry have been when I've become too absorbed in tasks and not given enough time to people. If people can't see God's love in us we have lost the plot. But it's so easy when you sit down in front of your to do list.
• in 1907 there were around 50k clergy serving a population of some 40m. in 2007 there are not much over 10k clergy serving 60m. Of course we're hard pressed...
• but let's see people who come to us not as interruptions but as messengers from God, reminding us to re-prioritise. The rotas and timetables and agendas and meetings and reports and returns are not the most important things. People need to know you love them!
• Not only that, but if we are not a love letter, nobody will want to read us. People are fed up of reading of a church that is judgmental, stuffy, that fudges everything, hypocritical and inward-looking. People are crying out for an authentic spirituality: for Christians, that means love.
• Above all, give people time - a precious gift in an over busy age - as Jesus did.
2. be human
• God's ultimate communication was not through the prophets or written laws. It was through a human being - "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Jesus was not afraid to be vulnerable - hungry, thirsty, tired, angry, sad, happy, suffering, tempted - and nor should we.
• Our humanity is therefore not an obstruction to God's work in our lives, but the very vehicle and living channel of it - because that's how it was for Jesus. Our humanity is God's gift!
• Christian testimony is not "look at me, I'm perfect!" - that's the testimony of the Pharisees. Christian testimony says, "I'm fallen - but I have somebody with me who keeps on picking me up"
• So don't keep up a front! People aren't helped by that. They feel, "I can't live up to that" and they go away discouraged. That's the letter that kills, v.6.
3. hand written
• No word processors for Paul! everything was written by hand. In the same way, we, God's letter to the world, need to have His fingerprints all over us.
• The Holy Spirit's role is absolutely essential - v.3: vital to keep the channel of communication with God wide open! Even the apostle Paul couldn't do it on his own, v.5: how much less can we. We simply must have the Spirit for thi ministry, v.6.
• The Spirit should be writing the story of our lives, shaping our attitudes, outlook, values, vision, relationships... Footballers have ghost writers to help them tell their story and we need a Holy Ghost writer to work with uson the story of our lives.
• That's why we pray for the Spirit's anointing at a priesting - and at confirmations...
• ... you see this isn't just about Paula, Liz, Sue and Rob, with me as the grizzled old veteran addressing the rookies and telling them how to do it. For one thing, Paula, Liz, Sue and Rob already have loads of experience!
• This is about everyone here! Letter addressed to everyone in the church at Corinth.
• Some have special roles, like our new priests - to help prepare the letter (v.3). But we all together are that letter.
So what kind of letter are you?
- A love letter?
- is your humanity showing?
- are you handwritten by the Spirit?
What do people read when they look into your life?