Thursday, 25 September 2008

Work Out Your Own Salvation

Regular commentator Dorcas in Luther King House Library.

You will be pleased to see Simon here in Oxford, ready to start his training.

Here is a copy of the sermon I will be preaching this Sunday at a local Church for the baptism of the child of a local family, who have many connections with the Church in question. The texts are the readings from the Common Worship Lectionary for this Sunday, track two. For those of you wondering what is going on in Lourdes, Rowan Williams has given a good sermon relating to Bernadette and Our Lady, and the Protestant Truth Society (who once sellotaped a stolen consecrated host to the window of their Manchester office, only to be shamed by the devotion of passers by and the sanctity of a group of nuns who knelt throughout in adoration) has, of course, complained bitterly about this. Nothing new there then.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I have only been on a horse once and it was a wilful beast. It thought nothing of blithely leaving paths on mountainsides and leaping joyfully to streams many metres below to drink whilst I clung unsteadily and uncomfortably to it, willing it to return to the safety of the path and the relative comfort of only being uncomfortable, rather than terrified.

The horse was as unimpressed with me as I was with it and on return to the stables I was unceremoniously thrown off him into a pile of what you expect to be on the floor of stables. Lying on the floor, filthy, sweat stained and dazed, looking up at the sun beating down on me I should love to say that I felt like Saint Paul as he fell off his horse, but I was in the Lake District in early Autumn, not on the Damascus Road in high Summer. Whatever happened to me that day (in fact, I had a good lunch and a boat on the lake) was quite different to what happened to Paul and to what happened to the apostles before him. He was called by God to build the Church in whichever parts of the world he could reach and the apostles were called to ‘follow me’ and follow they did, to their deaths and to their eternal life. These people all heard the voice of God, by the lakeside offering them grilled fish on the way to Emmaus, on the Damascus Road, by the docks and at the lakeside, at places of departure and journey and at inconvenient times. ‘Follow me’ does not mean walk blindly behind me but do as I do, act as I act and be as I am. I did not hear the voice of Jesus say ‘get up and follow me in the stables, just myself saying ‘get up and run for it while you still can’.

Paul, once he had fallen and heard the voice of God, immediately set about following the word of God. He built Churches – by which I mean he built communities – and he wrote to those people supporting and teaching and admonishing them. He wrote in today’s second reading of the
life apart from Christ in which we spend our time pushing ourselves to the forefront in selfish ambition. The root of this driving need to be number one is vain conceit, the hunger for our own glory. Instead we should be seeking to promote the needs of others before our own. The means by which this is possible is found in the Godhead, as Father, Son and Holy Ghost give us encouragement, comfort, partnership. The goal is to be of one mind, thinking the same thoughts. Paul did not fall off his horse, the evangelists were not called to follow, and Christ did not die so that we can spend our time tearing ourselves apart and walking over each other to be first, to have the most and to squeeze others the hardest. Paul reiterates this in his letter when, after explaining the greatness of God and His command over the whole world, he speaks still to us who he knows will not understand, us to whom the feet of Christ have faded and to whom the finger of God has not filled with joy. He says ‘work out your own salvation in fear and trembling – change the teachings of God with fear that you tamper with the divine. Believe that you can overthrow His word with terror. For you cannot. Bishop Gore said that many will come to Him at the last day - so we cannot but paraphrase his own words - with manifold pleas and excuse derived from the maxims of what is called the Christian world: 'Lord, we never denied the Christian creed; no, we had a zeal for orthodoxy, for churchmanship, for Bible distribution, but of course in our business we did as every one else did: we sold in the dearest and bought in the cheapest market; we did not, of course we did not, entertain any other consideration when we were investing our money, except whether the investments were safe; we never imagined that we could love our neighbors as ourselves in the competition of business, or that we could carry into commercial transactions the sort of strict righteousness that we knew to be obligatory in private life. Lord, in all these matters we went by commonly accepted standards; we never thought much about Christianity as a brotherhood.'

"Then he will protest unto them; 'did I not say to you, in that written word wherein thou didst profess to have eternal life: your life consisteth not in the abundance of things that you possesseth? Did I not warn thee: How hardly shall they who have riches enter into the kingdom of God? Did I not bid thee seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness? Did I not tell thee that except you in spirit and in will, at least, forsook all that had, unless he took up his cross and followed Me, he could not be my disciple? Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Heaven, but he that doeth that hath done the Will of my Father.

My friends, you may depend upon it, that you cannot be a Christian by mere tradition or respectability. You will have to choose to be Christians. And how do you choose? How do you make sure that you will enter the kingdom of Heaven? Be holy and righteous in his sight, enter the kingdom of heaven now, on earth, with the despised am hares, the prostitutes and tax collectors of today’s Gospel, for the shocking paradox that they will enter the kingdom of heaven first is at the heart of today’s Gospel for the public sinner knows that they have to repent, it is the secret sinner, who sins in their heart and in their business practice, or in their bad words about each other, who lead others to believe that they are righteous, who will fall by the wayside of eternity.

What can we do? You are here! Rejoice! We are on the way! You are to welcome a new member of your community today! Rejoice! You are on the way! Soon we will petition the Holy Ghost to come upon the head of this blessed child, to publically witness to our faith – and the Holy Ghost will respond to your public faith – and that will be done for him which was done for Jesus by John and which came to the apostles in fire. He will be anointed and he will be cleansed by God from the state of unredeemed humanity and raised up to new life. To the new life which was given on the cross for you and for me so that we might live life to God and in the hope of living for eternity with Him. This is the greatest thing we can do and to do it here, during the Mass where the Lord descends onto our altar surrounded by His people is not only good, it is necessary and vital for the life of the world. Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for the Lord your God is here, receiving ……n.........into His Church today. What we come together to do is not because of a Gospel, or our Gospel. It is the Gospel, and it is the way to salvation.

Characterise this community by joy. Let this day be one of gladness for the Lord has worked out His salvation and a new generation has come to share in it. Set the example of Christ to your newest member, for as Bishop Weston almost said, you have got your Mass, you have got your Altar; you have got your font. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the secular government will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in the subjugated and violated and pray to God that you are not part of the system that keeps them there. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.