THE FIRE OF NOT PROCLAIMING
Sermon delivered on the 2nd Sunday after Trinity, the 25th June 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes at the Holy Eucharist in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Jeremiah 20: 7-13 Romans 6: 1b-11 S. Matthew 10:24-39
Jeremiah 20:9 If I say, "I will not mention Him, or speak any more in His name," there is in my heart as it were a burning fire ...
THE PROPHETIC CHARGE
The Lesson from Jeremiah this morning is described by biblical scholars as that prophet’s Fifth Personal Lament. The prophet Jeremiah seems to be the first of the line to have recorded his innermost feelings, and here they reveal his anguish. His anguish derives from the fact that no matter what trouble it causes him from his compatriots and particularly the authorities of the land that he loves, the prophet of God is from his very depths compelled to speak in God's Name. It is a very simple and direct point of view. Moses, great in the Lord though he was, is said not to have reached the Promised Land because after he was directed to obtain water from the rock in the desert he did not take care to acknowledge by his words the authority of God before the people in what he was doing. So some of the company of Israelites could have got the mistaken idea that Moses in himself had divine powers. We have to conclude that it was, and still is, a seriously important matter, explicitly to acknowledge the divine presence and activity.
SUPPRESSING THE NAME
And so the recollection always sticks in my mind that when Billy Graham, no less, prayed publicly on the occasion of President Bill Clinton's inauguration as the United States President, he did not end his prayer "through Jesus Christ our Lord", or mention Christ's Name at any time. Was the fact that Clinton was being inaugurated as the President of non-Christians in that country too a sufficient rationale for that in the eyes of God? Biblical expression both of the Old and the New Testament suggests No, indeed absolutely not. Likewise it sticks in my mind, whenever I have heard the now former Bishop of London presiding at the Remembrance Sunday service in multicultural London, that the words he used were still uncompromisingly Christian, no matter how many persons of other faiths or none may have died in the wars, or indeed how many of such persons participated in the service. On he other side of the coin it was likewise remarkable that the Western armies in the West-friendly Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War when Western countries with their Christian heritage were coming to the rescue of the small Muslim country Kuwait from the large Muslim state of Iraq, were not allowed to hold Christian services or even to display personal pendants like small crosses. Since those days we have seen British Airways, no less, fight against, but eventually give in to an air hostess wearing such a pendant. Yet as a Daily Telegraph writer wrote some time ago there are elements of the developed world of the West, and especially young people, that are tiring of the fashion of leaving God out of public life. I truly hope that what may seem to be these counter-cultural elements are alive and well, in spite of the weighty agnosticism of the opinion-forming media of today! Whilst the outlook of atheism has gone through a phase of getting more muscular and assertive in the last thirty years, still perhaps underneath all that a sea-change is making its slow way to visibility, and forms of political and scientific philosophy based on the adequacy of non-theistic humanism may come to be seen as tired, worn-out and out-dated. It is possible to find in up-to-date as well as older literature some very good counter-arguments. And from the point of view of those who see the Christian truths as life-giving and deriving from the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, these counter-cultural expectations should be seen as more prophetic than surprising, indeed as the things we should be watching for as the "watchman looks for the dawn". But meanwhile the religion of non-theistic humanism overwhelms both the media and public life. Courageous and good acts are publicly spoken of only as a victory for the values of human decency and tolerance, but seldom as an exercise of Christian compassion. The Church herself especially needs to remember the adage, that a Church that is married to the spirit of the current age will become a widow in the next, and friends, this is a warning to St. Alban's.
THE CHURCH'S ESSENTIAL CHARACTER
For the true character of the Church is essentially a prophetic, proclaiming character. So when the Scriptures are read in public, the reader should not merely be informing or relating: he must be proclaiming. Similarly, sermons should not merely stay at the level of personal opinion or good advice. Sermons must proclaim, whether the proclamation be encouraging or uncomfortable. When St. Alban our patron declared at his final trial, "I worship and adore the true and living God who created all things," he was, of course, proclaiming. Even our proposed St. Alban's church building needs to be more than just a structure for the convenient assemblage of a larger number. For we consider that the very stones must cry out to the community. Its very presence and shape must speak of the Triune God. If the fellowship of the Church and its signs do not proclaim God or speak any more in Christ's name, there is in her heart as it were a “burning fire shut up in her bones”, to paraphrase Jeremiah's words of our text this morning. We must proclaim to the community and to the media those life-giving truths of our faith that are attached to the Resurrection of Christ. Not to do so is to succumb to what may appear to be life, but is death, and in our own time it is to succumb to the deadness of a religion of non-theistic humanism that the media of the West predominantly consider to be the way of life. But as St. Paul teaches in our second Lesson today, “All of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death. We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
WE HOLD THE SEEDS
Let us not forget that taking history as a whole, the West and its institutions, including our own little Islands, have been immersed in the name of Christ. Now we are being tempted to walk away from that baptism, but when we do so, we also have to walk away from the crucifixion which alone destroys the body of sin, as St. Paul evocatively puts it in our New Testament lesson today. If we have been united with Christ in a death like his, we shall certainly be united in a resurrection like his, as St. Paul says. When the West walks away from its baptism, it walks away from the death and resurrection that has yielded it its life. It is for this basic reason why the present social order is a collapsing one, but we are the ones who hold the seeds that can regenerate it. Legalities and conventions alone, however well-meaning they may be, can never regenerate it. Neither can a stance of anti-extremism (hear me, United Kingdom), lest what is extremely good be purged along with the extremely bad. So as those immersed in the name of Christ we hold the seeds; we are, if you like, the children of Sarah and Isaac rather than of Hagar and Ishmael, but we will need both the wisdom and the gentleness that Jesus spoke of, and persistence and endurance too, if we are to plant the seeds effectively.
JESUS CALLS US TO NAME HIM
In the Gospel today our Lord calls us to courageous proclamation. The Master of the House, Jesus Himself, was called Beelzebul the Prince of Lies - then must we too not expect times of being maligned? Jesus calls us to endure times of conflict even with those who are close to us. We don't court conflict, but we are not to be afraid of it when it comes. We are not even to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, because in Christ we have already died and been raised. They wouldn't be able to touch the essential person whatever they did.
LOSING OUR LIFE FOR HIS SAKE
But we are, I believe, to fear and indeed shun that which can kill the soul of the Church. Let not the Church be so adjusted and accommodated to the thought and language of political and media correctness that it loses its distinctiveness, its teaching from that which went before, and its hope in that which is to come. Jesus said "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it." If we ever fail to proclaim the life of Jesus, let us agree with Jeremiah! may a burning fire arise in our hearts, until we find again the Source of all that gives us meaning and power!