Saturday, 3 March 2012

Sermon for Sunday March 4th, 2012

 Sermon for Sunday March 4th, 2012
Isaiah 53
Isaiah 50
Psalm 22:23-31
Mark 8:31-38

The Church as a learning community


Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist pastor and preacher, was waylaid at the door of his church one morning by a lady, who loudly informed him “Mr Spurgeon, I have to say that I am disappointed with your church and I am leaving to find the perfect Church” Spurgeon replied “Madam, such a church does not exist. But Should I be wrong, and you happen to find it, please do not join it, for you would only spoil it” :)

Such people as this lady have existed from time immemorial and I have to say that, happy as I am when new people come to join us, inwardly I groan when I meet one who only wants to tell me about a catalogue of faults of the church that they just left. :)

There is no such thing as the perfect church. There never has been and there never will be. It is an Idol – but it is a powerful one. If this were an all age service and I wanted to prove my point I’d ask everyone to write down what in their opinion a Perfect church should be or do – and then I’d gather them all up and set fire to them. Because if we are to be the church Christ calls us to be we have to let go of all these idols, all of them – because there is Only one thing that counts and that is the Life of Christ amongst us. Not a thriving youth and children’s work, not exemplary music, not lofty elegant preaching, not full bible classes  - because we can have all of these and be patting ourselves on the back about what a Fine church it is  - and in the words of the Risen Christ to the church in Laodicea, be poor, pitiful, poor naked and blind – because His Life is not present amongst us. Indeed many of the best churches I have known have none of these trappings

There is no such thing as the perfect church. There never has been and there never will be. But you might say, without some kind of Ideal in front of us, how do we know which way to go. Again we come to perhaps the nub of the current weakness of the church, that we have disconnected the life of the church from the life of its Saviour, that His Life is all that matters. We imagine a perfect church, we do not See a Perfect Saviour, because we do not know what Perfection looks like

Who has believed what we have heard?
   And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
   and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
   nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
   a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
   he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Why do we think for a moment that the church should look more magnificent than its Lord? We want a perfect church.  We don’t want a church that looks like Jesus, but the only Perfect church is one which looks like this disfigured servant of God, held of No account – a Perfection that no worldly measure can comprehend.

Last week I said that the Life of faith is Primarily something we do together. And I encouraged us one and all, together, to take time through the week to reflect on today’s gospel reading. Certainly if we have, we may not have had too comfortable a week. Jesus in Mark’s gospel is hard and uncompromising  - even the resurrection account in Mark has no sight of Jesus, just the call to follow him, and here we come to the eye of the needle – the narrow way that we must go through if we are to follow him. The words of Jesus, making it plain, there is no other way. Whoever wants to save his life will lose it – whoever loses his life for me will save it. There is no other way.

Jesus begins by asking his disciples whether or not they know who he is – there are so many rumours flying around –some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets – Who do you say that I am? He needs to know, because unless they know who he is, he cannot take them any further. Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” Note, there is nothing of Matthew’s Blessed are you Simon bar – Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you – no – Jesus only wants to know that they know who he is. He hasn’t asked for faith  - all he has asked is that they know who he is. He is the Messiah – he is God’s chosen One. And he sternly ordered them to tell no-one. God’s Messiah is hidden, he is Not obvious – some will say Here he is – others, There he is – he is not obvious – don’t listen to them – he had nothing in him that we might desire him, despised and we held him of no account.

THEN he begins to teach them the way of the Messiah – but they don’t want to hear – they don’t want to know that the road to life leads through such a hard and narrow way. Peter rebukes Jesus and Jesus thunders back - “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Once more Jesus is in the wilderness – once more the Accuser is telling him, be Relevant! Be Spectacular! Be Powerful! Once more the Accuser says The World’s way of success is much much easier – Don’t be a Hidden Messiah – let everyone See what a Great Messiah you are. But Jesus is unflinching, like the Servant in Isaiah, The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced, therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Though All the lights are humanly speaking going to go out, it is the Way of Life – whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life . . . will save it. That is the way Jesus must go – it is the Only way life can be released into the world – it is the Only way that life can be released into the world

And so he says both to the disciples and the crowd “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” – Note he says it even to those who know who he is – many of his disciples scandalized by his teaching turned back, many still do – it is easier to take the path of lights we have lit for ourselves, easier to make grand plans for this and that and the other and build a perfect church, far far easier than it is to be a follower of Jesus. TO belong to church is one thing – to follow Jesus, all too often something different – because Jesus loses his life. He is Nothing in the eyes of the World.

I titled this sermon – the Church as a learning community. I guess we may have thought that I might talk about our need to read our bibles more or do any number of educational things – but we are a community of disciples of Jesus and Jesus’ disciples seem to do very little sitting around studying scripture. Indeed it is Very interesting to note that by and large those churches which major on such things tend to avoid the direct teaching of Jesus – after all, how can you have a big successful church with well paid staff that everyone can feel proud of if everyone has sold all there possessions and given the proceeds to the poor, which Jesus says in Luke is a prerequisite for being a disciple J

I spoke last week about how hard it is for example to practise the disciplines of Lent individually. My guess is that few folk in the western protestant churches do such things now. Understanding our lives primarily at least in practise as individuals, as people who make the choice to go to church, rather than as members of the church by the election of God we do not think we ought to do what the church counsels – or at least we think it a matter of our individual choice. Thus separated from the flock of the church, we are all too prey to the prevailing culture which is now our flock, which is manifestly not one of self denial.

Lent seems just too hard for us. Fasting for just one day a week a huge mountain, praying for just one extra hour too much to ask, giving away even a tenth more than we usually do impossible. But, how on earth then can we take up our cross, lose our lives if we cannot do this one small thing. As I asked last week, can we truly say we have faith when Israel had to learn it 40 years, and even Christ himself in his humanity was required to spend 40 days in the wilderness?

Yet we were never called into this life of self denial alone  - this losing our lives to find them –we are called together and perhaps here is our true challenge – to lay aside all our ideas of a perfect church and rather to follow Christ together in the way of the cross, and allow Him to be our perfection.

Last week we faced a difficult situation as a church during the service. Someone who was severely disturbed was amongst us – and we were helpless. I was thankful that no one said ‘Thank Goodness the police came and took him away’, for it should have been and indeed was a Most Painful experience for us as a church – we were faced with our inadequacy – We couldn’t help, we thought We ought to have been able to.

In many churches, this Sunday is marked by the story of the Transfiguration – Peter James and John on the mountain seeing Christ in his glory. This is a vision of the End – Christ glorified. But we have it at the beginning of Lent to remind us that although the way is dark this is the way we are headed – to the glorification of Christ. But immediately after they come down form the mountain they are confronted with their first lesson of faith and they fail – a demon possessed child whom they cannot deliver. Having come down from the glory of the mountain with their heads filled with this vision of the end, they fall flat on their faces – and Jesus rebukes them - Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.’ They have to learn true faith – they have to let go of everything they have and cling to Him – they have to begin to learn what it is to lose their life.

Why could we not do something last week? We need to feel that helplessness – we don’t need to start casting around for solutions either – it is not a matter of our resources – what we need is Christ – our total dependence upon him in and through and for Everything. That sense of inadequacy is Gift – with it we teach one another to cling more closely to Christ. It reminds us that we are far from perfect.

His invitation to follow him – to take up our cross and deny ourselves  - to lose our life with Him is the Way we follow to the End. The disciples reliant on themselves could do nothing – we felt our inadequacy. The gift of Lent is that emptiness – that lack of anything worthwhile that we can do as a community – for all of the unpleasantness of last week, it was I think great gift. Perhaps it can begin conversations amongst us as to how we can learn together what it means to lose everything for his sake - to follow Christ in truth – because that is the goal, not a perfect church but a community of Christians who together are learning from Christ the life of true faith in God, that our hidden Messiah may be joyfully present amongst us.

To be the church is to be a learning community.
Learning not about our faith, but learning faith,
 not learning about the life of Christ,
but in following him together, Learning a Life,
Learning His Life

We may want a perfect church, the only Perfect church is one which looks like the crucified son of God, held of No account – His is a Perfection, a Glory, that no worldly measure can comprehend.

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