DECLARING OUR LOVING ALLEGIANCE

Sermon delivered on the 5th Sunday after Easter the 21st May 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England (Cayman Islands).

Scriptures: Acts 17:22-31     1 Peter 3:13-22     S. John 14:15-21

Acts 17: 24 S. Paul proclaimed: "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything."

THE VALUE OF WHAT IS THERE
In my 30's and early 40's I used to grow a beard, and when occasionally people asked me why, I told them that after all, one cultivated a garden rather than cutting it down. A Moravian clergy friend of mine once told me that he had wanted to sport his beard at his ordination, but his father and the church elders prevailed upon him to get rid of it. Although I suppose I too can be said to have switched sides over the years where the beard is concerned, I still use the same basic argument in connection with land sites. If you have craggy and interesting rocks in your property, why destroy them all with a bulldozer? If you have some interesting and flourishing wild trees on your property, why treat them like weeds, and go to all sorts of trouble to destroy them all and start over with a moonscape? Unfortunately when developing a property it is normally other people who make these decisions for you, rather than yourself, unless you are extremely firm about such matters from the beginning and can exert the necessary control over the process. I'm happy to recall that although we didn't win all the battles along the way, we were sufficiently successful that a few years after we moved into the current Rectory the property got featured in the first issue of a local magazine.

APPRECIATING GIFTS TO US
The basic argument I am trying to illustrate is between two opposing sides. First, there are those who want to discern, uncover and delight in some basic goodness, sense or beauty in what has been provided by forces or events that we do not ourselves create - and, in the ultimate analysis, provided by God the Creator Himself (since as S. Paul proclaimed to the Areopagans, "God himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything."). On the other side are those who, perhaps thoughtlessly, assume that it is right and reasonable to clear away everything that does not fit in with a wholly man-made design. The result of the second method is a focus on man and the power of his machinery and the built-in tendency to exclude those things that can enter our own little universe from outside ourselves and renew us. The first method is one of trying to fit one's own thoughts and visions, such as they may be, into a greater purpose or vision which one first has to acknowledge objectively exists. For instance, it is objectively true that two things and another two things must make four things, and the fact that a child might be marked down by a teacher for saying that they make five things is due neither to a teacher’s prejudice against “five-ness” as against “four-ness” nor to any unjust discrimination against the child himself. And indeed such objectivity supports the great sculptors explaining that their work does not come out of their own personal vision exclusively, but at least as much out of the stone or whatever material they are working with.

PROVIDED GRACES
A corresponding argument takes place in the Church today. The argument is between those on the one hand who want to discern, uncover and delight in the basic goodness, sense and beauty that has been provided by revelation from outside ourselves, by the doctrine of the Church and the devotion of the saints, indeed by God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and those on the other hand who, often thoughtlessly, assume that it is right and reasonable to clear away everything that does not fit in with man's own designs and schemes that do not take the guidelines or the will of God into account. It is significant that the German word for what we rather blithely call the European Enlightenment means a clearing out. In today's Church, let alone the world in general, there are those who assume that the right and progressive way forward is one of exclusive modernisation. They assume that we must clear out what is handed down to us from former ages, like a thoughtless developer clearing out an ancient forest; we must clear out the age-old doctrines or ethical guidelines or any vestiges of patriarchal authority; we must clear out all that does not fit into our own scheme. We should not have to fit into anything that is not modern, or not of our own design. But the result, in spiritual terms, is a concrete jungle.

EFFECTING THE WILL OF GOD
St. Peter in the great ethical teaching he gives in the 2nd Lesson today as being consequent upon the objective fact of the Resurrection of Christ exhorts us to make a defence to anyone that asks us to account for our Christian hope. He says, "Always be prepared to make a defence to any one who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and respect." He is instructing us to explain to people what the objective grounds are for us to act to uphold the things that are right; and to explain to people what the grounds are for us to be suffering unjustly for the sake of things that are right. As St. Paul says somewhere, we are to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us. We are seeing that St. Peter and St. Paul presuppose that we follow our first method or procedure that we have thought about, rather than the second. And might this not also have direct relevance in regards to which person might get a vote on Wednesday? Our manner of life, Peter and Paul agree, is judged by how well or otherwise it fits into and brings into effect the will of God, and not judged merely by its innovative powers devoid of this context. "If you love me, you will keep my commandments", says Jesus in today's Gospel. “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him." St. Peter speaks not just about affirming the grounds of our manner of life, but of a certain restraint in the way we defend it. We are to do it with gentleness and respect. We are not to get ourselves upset by any misunderstanding or criticism and opposition. We are to do it with a “heart of flesh”, in the prophet Ezekiel’s phrase, a responsive and not a stony heart. That means being able to forget those hurts that we suffer, not taking them personally. The Passion and the Resurrection of our Lord give us the power as we go on in discipleship, of getting these difficult things right. All this we must take into account as we seek to defend, to anyone who asks us, our own individual walk in Christ, or as we seek to defend the Church, or as we seek to preserve the Cayman Islands from the kinds of modernisation that dissolve the old glues that have always held people together here in community.

SEEING THE WHOLE WOOD
Sometimes in our need to declare our allegiance and defend the hope that is in us we get to that place where we really cannot see the wood for the trees. This is when the burdens of self-expression become too great for the capacity of the available communication. Then we need to step back from the trees and take a fresh look at the whole wood. We need first to reflect that the death and Resurrection of Christ have this sort of personal effect on us, to foster a change in our hearts and to give us the capacity to defend our hope both to ourselves and to others in a gentle and effective way. Why so? No doubt because the character of that event moves us and works within us deeply, and gives us not only an allegiance to Him, but a loving allegiance. The gracious gift of the Son of God for us required His death, a death, however, that the Resurrection declared to be victorious. While this action was unique, the character of it is to be reproduced again and again in the lives of disciples. We are to love one another as He loved us, and if we love Him, we will keep His commandments. That of course is how the Lord Himself related to His Father, loving Him and doing His will. The Spirit of Truth, the Advocate, the Comforter or Strengthener, the Counsellor was a part of the many-faceted gift of God's loving grace to us, consequent on the Atonement and the Resurrection. Your participation in the life of the Church today constitutes an invitation to you to step back from your problems, and believe what God has told you. When you do, that ominous tree that obscures your view will recede, and the whole wood will come slowly but surely into focus. Thanks be to God for His great power that works upon us and within us His people by virtue of the Resurrection of the Lord. No love for Him that we can possibly offer, can be too much.

QUESTIONS

1. How can we "effect the will of God" for our physical environment? What options do we have?

2. What does being "Christlike" mean for our own Christian walk? Where was Jesus' own starting point?

3. What should be our approach towards change in (1) the church (b) our country and (c) ourselves?