Sunday, 13 August 2017

Ninth Sunday after Trinity

Well, it is good to be with you today, having been away for our summer holidays. We spent a week sightseeing in Amsterdam, an amazing city drawn out of the sea by channelling the waters, and filled with creativity; followed by a week with 15,000 other people attending week 2 of New Wine, which is one of the major Christian gatherings in the UK. In fact, this evening’s Songs of Praise was filmed at week 1, if you’d like a taste of what we were up to. And in that second week I’ve been listening to and reading a young American pastor called John Mark Comer, and reflecting on what the Bible tells us about work and rest.

In the beginning, God created, and then took the time to enjoy the fruit of his work. And God made humans to share in that pattern. To take the raw materials of the world and bring creation to its fulfilment. To cease from work at the culmination of each week, on a day God blessed—that is, gave the ability to create life. And we came up with tools and agriculture and architecture and music. But we failed to trust God, and so we also came up with murder and rape and war and slavery. The blessing of work was frustrated, cursed, to limit destruction and in the hope that it might bring us back to God. And every so often, God would intervene to re-set the world, as in the story of the great flood. But it never lasted.

Later, in the writings of the prophets such as Isaiah, we see glimpses of a day when God will act decisively, once-and-for-all, after which the people will experience work and celebratory rest from work as God intended, without frustration.

Elijah, exhausted from his work and finding nothing life-giving in his rest, is graciously given a foretaste of the future. The earth—or at least that bit of the earth on which he stood—is scoured clean by fire that consumes everything in its path; and then, after stillness and silence—after rest—God begins again, choosing new humans to exercise their rule over creation. But this is not yet the decisive, for-ever, new beginning. It is only a foretaste.

Jump forward with me to our Gospel reading. The disciples are in the boat surrounded by a stormy sea. The imagery resonates with that of the flood story: God saving a few people with whom to begin again. But the episode also contains a revelation of who Jesus truly is, the human faithfully ruling over creation for God.

Years later, in a letter to the church, Peter looks back to the flood event and forward to a future day when God will visit not with flood but fire, to consume all miss-rule—all exploitation of the earth’s resources, all injustice and oppression, all that is sorry and sad and scary in the world—and reveal the earth as it has not been seen for millennia, in all its beauty.

Then Jesus, who is the first fruits of the Resurrection, will return; and with him in the Resurrection all those who have died and rest in him. And we will rule with him, as kings and queens, working and resting, for eternity.

And no, I don’t believe that God needs a helping hand—or, his hand forced—a nuclear Armageddon.

But I do believe that the church is also meant to be a foretaste of this future. The church upon which fire fell at Pentecost. We are not yet brought to perfection, nor is the world. But we are called to live in the present in the light of the future.

It is easy to lose focus, like Elijah, like Peter on the water. But we are all called to live in such a way that glorifies God and serves our neighbour, by joining in the divine narrative, through our work and our rest, through our witness and our investing in others.

Writing to the church in Rome—the very centre of a civilisation built on military technology and endless cheap labour—Paul says we are not called to be demi-gods who ascend the seat of the gods or descend into the inner pit of hell reserved for monsters, to fetch or rescue Jesus. No, we are already kings and queens; and it is through Jesus that God not only rescues us but recommissions us.

What you do matters, not only now but, potentially, into eternity. Tomorrow I am conducting the funeral of a woman who was a seamstress. In the Age to Come, our imperishable resurrected bodies will need clothes, not made by children in sweatshops or women working in firetraps so that a man can be rich; but the skilful work of taking materials and making something beautiful. This is a story worth telling, a hope worth living into. Will you step into it? Will you go, to tell others?

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