PRESENCE, OBEDIENCE AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Sermon delivered on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, the 1st October 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the Church of England congregation of St. Alban's, George Town.
Scriptures: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Philippians 2: 1-13 S. Matthew 21: 23-32
Philippians 2:12 Words from the Apostle Paul: "As you always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure."
The earliest comment in the Scriptural narrative made about the character of man, was made by God in the second chapter of Genesis: “It is not good for man to be alone.” In that particular account, we know that the condition was solved by the production of a wife ... but such a solution is clearly not universally available in the circumstances of a man's or a woman's isolation. Also, the sense of loneliness or abandonment may exist even if there is another human being physically present. Old persons, for example, may receive care from others, but through mental degeneration have no sense of relationship with them. In such a state we can become self-centred and difficult, because of not holding ourselves accountable to others for our own actions. Younger persons too may fail to escape the inherent self-centredness of our imperfect humanity, not holding themselves accountable to others for their own actions, and under a variety of circumstances becoming difficult and unaccountable, leading even to some of the heartbreaks our community has endured in recent times.
But of course, you may say, the Church has always taught, and teaches still, God's Presence as the primary reality of our life. But we do not always hold firmly in practice even what we might truly believe. Churchmen do not always put into practice our pledged discipleship, the pledge of our baptism to belief and obedience. We do not always, in the famous phrase of Brother Lawrence, "practise the presence of God." The monastic lay brother known as Brother Lawrence who wrote the little spiritual classic called "The Practice of the Presence of God" had a lowly position in his monastery as a kitchen worker, and it was in the context of his many years of cleaning up the kitchen rather than meditating in his cell or in the chapel that he developed his simple spiritual classic on practising the presence of God, a work of help and direction that has gone all over the world and into the widest variety of forms of Christianity.
MODEL OF OBEDIENCE TO GOD THE FATHER
St. Paul's great model of obedience to the holy will of God was the obedience of the incarnate Christ Jesus, who on earth was emptied of the exalted position of His divine nature and took the form of man, and was willingly obedient as God's suffering Servant-Messiah to the death of the Cross. In Gethsemane He cried, "Not my will, but thine be done!" Our Lord immersed Himself completely, so to speak, in the creation, but He was not captured or beholden by it. Even His death was not a defeat by it, but rather an exodus from it, and His pathway is our spiritual exodus from it as well. The Gospels make it very clear that in His incarnate life on earth the presence of His Father was with Him and sustained Him. The works that He did and the words that He said were what He saw His Father accomplishing and uttering. His spirit of obedience was a continual celebration of the presence of His Father, so that in His life we see the perfect and complete "practice of the presence of God." May it be said of God's people too that their spirit of obedience is the celebration of the presence of God with them.
For all that, however, it’s worth pointing out that both in the Old Testament and in the New, the value of our human presence to one another is made clear. We do sometimes forget that Paul's use in Philippians ch. 2 of the example of Christ leaving His exalted position beside the Father to become man and suffer for our sake was to point to the relationship needs in the church, the need of the church brothers to be "of the same mind, having the same love, and being in full accord and of one mind, doing nothing from selfishness or conceit." God’s solution for the loneliness of Adam is not what God could very well have said, “Well, Adam, see Me here.” For if God had so chosen, His own sufficiency for Adam’s company could have been presented, but instead, we are told, God made for Adam human company. We can take this to say to us how necessary it is that when we see somebody become isolated, like an elderly person living alone, or a young person starting to go off the rails, we should do what we can to make of ourselves some human company for that person. From the very first, part of the design of our human species is that we should associate with one another and not remain alone. We ought to do what we can to offer such association as a gift to those who show need of it, in whatever condition of life they may be. Actually, that’s following the example that God shows us in Genesis.
The New Testament very deliberately incorporates this pattern. Even though the Lord Jesus indeed “practises the Presence of God” in His obedience to the words and works of the Father, the very core of His work involves the formation of human company, and in particular His twelve disciples, who have become the apostolic foundation of the Church. When His work on earth was completed, Jesus Himself left no work of art or writing as the fruit of lonely genius. What He left on earth was indeed something that could and did produce these things, namely, a human company, the apostolic Church, the extension of the Incarnation, the divine-human Body of Christ on earth. And from New Testament times, this has been far different from a number of individuals isolated from one another and practising their religion. The Presence of God has involved them in company both with Him and with one another. They, or rather we, because we ourselves are part of that company, are in communion or fellowship with one another and with Him. In St. Paul’s writings in the New Testament we discern the relationship he has with those he writes to, and that relationship is one of accountability. The Apostle is accountable to God for his charges, and they in turn are accountable for their behaviour to the Apostle as well as to God who gave them the apostolic relationship in the first place. He says to them, "As you always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure." St. Paul affirms that his presence, though now veiled from them by his imprisonment, had been necessary for the ongoing faithful discipleship of the Philippian Christians. It is not good for the new man in Christ always to be humanly alone. The design of the New Man requires for its formation the new human company, which the Son of Man Himself called a Kingdom.
For the Lord Himself refers to the new state or company He came to earth to set up as “The Kingdom of God”. Within the Kingdom of God there is accountability, a spirit of obedience. His parable of the two sons, one of whom obeyed his father in spite of his saying he wouldn’t, and the other not obeying in spite of saying he would, illustrated this accountability. Jesus said that the way the religious leaders of His day had not believed the message of John the Baptist illustrated their real lack of accountability to God, in spite of their reputation of being religious men, in contrast to what had been shown by the faith of less reputable people.
When we pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, we are expressing the faith that God’s work for the establishment of the Church on earth will continue until the end is achieved. May we in our own time and circumstances find in this work the reality of true communion and fellowship with one another, and real obedience and accountability in our human relationships, under the headship and authority of the Lord.