Romans 6:12-end, Matthew 10:40-end
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Lockdown has, I believe, changed and challenged much of what we have taken for granted as a society.
The earliest days saw shortages on shelves in supermarkets – I remember feeling quite shocked the first time I saw row after row of emptiness where everyday goods should be.
And then many ‘non-essential’ shops were shut entirely, and our High Streets became nearly deserted. Our easy consumerism disappeared overnight.
The schools closed and a society which has recently criminalised non-attendance at school now sent the vast majority of students home for up to six months and the exams which some had spent years working towards were cancelled.
Many of the more vulnerable members of our society were told to shield at home, putting themselves in isolation for weeks. People who had defined themselves and enjoyed themselves in terms of their relationships with friends and family were suddenly cut off from all physical contact.
And people have died. Whilst Hadlow has been spared the worst the reality is that our country has suffered something like 54,000 ‘excess deaths’ during this time and many of those deaths have occurred whilst people are not able to be with loved ones and their funerals too have been sparse affairs.
As a nation I don’t think we have even begun to mourn the people who have died.
And the churches have closed. As the current custodian of St Mary’s I am deeply conscious that it is has been a place of prayer and sacrament for the last 1000 years and I don’t believe there has ever been a time when it has been closed for so long. As a priest who values history, sacred space and the sacramental life this does not make me feel good.
But maybe, just maybe, pausing our usual worship life for a season gives us the opportunity to reflect on why we are Christians. By that I don’t mean what caused us to become Christians, because there will be a different story for every person, but what is the purpose or the goal of our faith which, I am going to suggest, ought to be the same for all of us.
Because, much as I love St Mary’s, I think we all know that the building is not the church and being in the building is not the purpose of the Christian life.
Much as I love the great musical tradition we have at St. Mary’s, and I have been honoured to sit close to our choir and organist whilst they have produced some truly heavenly sounds we know that either producing or hearing great music is not, in itself, the purpose or goal of the Christian life. If it were then some of us would not fare well on the production side!
Doing good works amongst the poor and needy may be what many Christians do, and we should always challenge ourselves about what more we can do on that front, but we also know that there are plenty of non-Christians who do such work so it would be misleading to suggest that such service alone is the goal of the Christian life.
Finally, and this is a toughie for me, speaking as someone who felt called into faith at least partly by a desire to receive Communion, and called into the priesthood at least partly by a desire to share the sacraments, I would still say that receiving the Eucharist of itself is not the purpose of the Christian life. It is a sign of grace, and may also be a means of grace, but it is not the goal towards which it points.
“OK, then, Vicar, cut to the chase and tell us the purpose of this life we are living.”
A nun, who was my spiritual director at the time, asked me that question. Or words to that effect. My answer was and remains: “Union with God.”
On Trinity Sunday we thought about the three persons of God sitting around a four-sided table, with the open invitation for us to take our seat at the table, to join in their meal and to participate in that Divine relationship of love.
Union with God, that everlasting life which is not confined to the afterlife, is the goal and the purpose to which the Christian life should be leading us.
In this morning’s reading from Romans St Paul uses an important word twice: “Sanctification”. To be sanctified is to be made holy and, let me put it bluntly, it is holiness towards which we are all called.
The author of 1 Peter puts is a more clearly than St Paul:
14 Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15 Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16 for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ 1 Peter 1:14-16
Sadly ‘holiness’ is not much talked about in church these days and, as a term, it seems quite out of fashion. I think this is partly because of the ‘holier than thou’ brigade, who are extremely off-putting and often far from holy. At the other extreme, the people we hold up as holy, the saints past and present, often seem so far removed from who we imagine ourselves to be that it seems to be an unattainable goal. Holiness is for other people, while we just get on with being Church of England.
No. We make a big thing these days about ‘come to church as you are’, and people should, but we do everyone a grave disservice if we simply stay as we are. The point of the Christian life is not to stay far off from God and stuck in a cycle of self-obsessed and destructive behaviours but to draw closer to God, to have our behaviours and our life transformed, to clear away all that marrs the image of God in us, and the more we polish the image of God in us, the more we are sanctified and made holy.
To be made holy does not mean to become dour and dull and give up all pleasure. In John 10:10 Jesus said that he came so that we should ‘have life and have it abundantly’. To be holy, to be sanctified, is to be the whole and complete person that God made us to be, and that means not being a slave to sin, as St Paul puts it, and not being conformed to the old desires as St Peter puts it, but seeking the desires of God and aligning ourselves so closely with the will of God that we cannot help but do his will, to be a slave to righteousness. Which, again, is quite different from self-righteousness.
One of the things which attracted me to join the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests was their very simple mission statement: “Because the world needs holy priests.” That risks sounding priggish and, for those that know me, even laughable but I did not join because I think I am holy, but because I know my need for holiness. Perhaps the mission statement of the church should be: “Because the world needs holy Christians”. The greatest tool for evangelising and baptising the world is not courses and websites but truly holy Christians who live life abundantly.
So how do we become sanctified and holy? Well, God sanctifies all as a matter of grace – it is not something that is earned and clocked up like loyalty points. God’s grace is all. But, that doesn’t mean we are powerless and simply awaiting the big pointy finger from the sky. Like Mary we are all able to say ‘yes’ to God’s grace, we can all choose whether we take a sinful action or a graceful action, and we can all chose whether we seek God’s will for our lives or our own.
When we take one step towards God he takes ten steps running towards us, like the father of the prodigal son, and when we seek God’s will rather than our own then we will find our lives overflowing with his grace and then, in joyful response to that freely given grace then we cannot help but draw together as people travelling in the same direction, to pray, to sing, to receive the sacraments physically or spiritually, to serve the poor and to be the people we were made to be. And when we do those things joyfully and with God always at the centre then others may look to us as sanctified and holy people, showing that there is more than one way to live in this life.
The world changes and turns around us. Shops open and close, school open and close and church buildings open and close. But the centre of our lives should be a Holy God who is always open to us and never closes and who calls each of us to be sanctified and made holy by his grace and the fruits of our holiness will then flow into all the world.