Sunday, January 29, 2012

Belonging to Highbury - something special that has to do with glue!

A large part of this sermon was a conversation between Richard and Sharon, one of Highbury's deacons, who has recently started a course in Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Gloucestershire.  These are in part notes prepared before hand, and in part notes of the conversation.  As ever with preaching, what was shared did not stick rigidly to the prepared script.  This is shared in the hope that it gives a flavour of the word that was shared this morning.

About a third of the congregation stayed on for a bring and share lunch at our Word Cafe.  On each table was a two sided table mat with a summary of some of what was said in that conversation and the preaching, and questions to prompt discussion.

At the first Church Meeting of the year we asked people to come up with five words that sum up what makes  Highbury special.  These are the words we came up with.

I guess you could say that’s what it means for us to belong to Highbury.  With the help of our Deacons on Thursday we are going to home in on six of those words and then we are going to dig a bit more deeply in Sunday services in Highbury News on the web site on face book in as we ask ourselves how we can build up that aspect of our church life here at Highbury.  We have something special, something we feel is really worth sharing – we want to go from strength to strength.

But today I want to push us forward a bit.  What are our dreams and visions for Highbury for the future?  Are there words that come to mind that capture the vision we have for the church here at Highbury in the future that lies ahead of us.

That’s a subtly different question – and it makes you think.

It’s a question I put to Sharon at the end of a fascinating day at Horfield Baptist Church in Bristol last Saturday.  The response I got was not what I was expecting.  It was good to share with Sharon in conversation.

When you told us you were going to go to the University to do a degree in Philosophy and Religious studies, I remember  you saying one of the things you wanted to work at was giving presentations, not least in church.  So … first, how’s the course going?

Sharon told us how much she was enjoying the course and how well it was going.

One of your lecturers set up the day last Saturday.  Tell us a little about the day.

Sharon described the way Lloyd Pieterson took us through his recently published book Reading the Bible After Christendom (Paternoster, 2011)

Observing that Christianity in the west no longer has that position of power it once had and has become marginalised, he went on to suggest that that is no bad thing. 

With his roots in the Anabaptist tradition Lloyd Pieterson is very close to the tradition I come from.  How you read the Bible will be shaped by the community of faith you are part of – and his reading of the Bible acknowledges that.  It is a community of faith that has common roots with our own Congregational heritage in the radical reformation of the sixteenth century.  I was excited as I found myself sharing common ground with Lloyd Pieterson in the way I have been teaching the Bible in the last 30 years in the context of our Congregational churches.

In particular, Lloyd Pieterson was concerned to explore the way much of the way the Bible has been read has been shaped by the aftermath of Constantine making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  The result of that was to tame the radical nature of much of Jesus’ teaching.  The Christianity of Christendom that had power and influence was a Christianity that had been harnessed, or hijacked, by those in power to buttress that power.  Now, in the west we are in a post Christendom period we need to go back to the way the Bible was read pre-Christendom,  in the first couple of hundred years of Christianity and indeed seek to go back to the Jesus of history.  Then we shall have a very different way of reading a Bible that challenges us to take seriously the teachings of Jesus as we follow in his way ….

That then will shape the way we are church.

I recalled how as we got back into the car after an excellent day ‘reading the Bible after Christendom’ it struck me that we needed to follow up the day and share with everyone else what we had shared.

Today we are going to be looking at belonging to Highbury and we will be looking at the hopes and dreams we have for the church.  And then there will be an opportunity to gather ‘around the word’ we have shared during our service at our Word Café when we shall have an opportunity to share our thoughts together.

So how could we explore our hopes and dreams for the church?  I asked Sharon  for her response wondering how best we might ‘shape’ the church for the future.

How Sharon responded set me thinking along different lines.  And I found what she shared really challenging and really helpful.

I was fishing I guess for ideas about what shape the church should take, what kind of things we as a church should be doing..  What hopes and dreams for the church here?  What’s your vision?  What kind of things would you like to see going on in the life of our church?  What shape do you think our church should take.

Sharon was not happy with the way I asked the question.

The question implies that the church should take a certain kind of shape, she said.

But that is to misunderstand what ‘church’ is about.

We should not seek to make the church a certain kind of shape.

That is to think of the church as ‘an institution’.

And the church is very different from that.

It’s better to think of church as ‘glue’.

We live in an age when there are around us all kinds of different people.  We live in a society that is multi-faceted and immensely diverse.  We should think of church as ‘the glue’ that helps to hold that diverse range of people and ‘societies’ together.

Our conversation went on … and built on that analogy of the church as ‘glue’.

It feels very much as if things are falling apart at the moment – that can be in people’s personal lives, it can be in a community in our locality.  That’s how it feels in the wider world,  in the work place, in the state of the world’s economy, the financial crisis in our country, in Europe.  So many things are falling apart.

Church should be the glue that helps puts things together again, that mends what is broken.

If the church is to be glue, however, we must focus on Jesus.  That’s what makes us church and not some other organisation.  Lloyd Pieterson had been passionate about modelling what we do and the people we are on Jesus, the Jesus we can access through the Bible.

So I asked Sharon to reflect on passages from the Bible that pointed us in that kind of direction.

Then something special happened.  Sharon came up with passages from Paul, starting in Ephesians 2:19-22.  I found myself going to similar passages, and drawing particularly on Colossians 3.  We were in the same part of the Bible, in the same range of thinking.  And it hadn’t been planned. One of those special moments.

Sharon shared with us those words from Ephesians.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

There is something in those words about being ‘joined together’ and ‘growing into a holy temple in the Lord’ that has about it the feel of ‘glue’.  I found myself reflecting on the way Jesus was enraged at what the powers that be had done to the temple – it should have been a house of prayer, but it had been made into a den of thieves.  Destroy this temple, he had said, and I will re-build it in three days.

Temple, where God’s presence is most real, happens not in a particular place in a particular location – but it happens in Christ.  And Paul takes up that theme suggesting each Christian is a temple for the Holy Spirit.  And here Paul says collectively church is ‘temple’ that place where  God’s presence touches earth and is real.

As I have been thinking about those thoughts Sharon shared in the last few days, I have felt more and more that Sharon has put her finger on something that goes to the very heart of what it means to be church.  It goes to the very heart of the Good News at the heart of the Christian faith.

What’s the big picture that we work to?

For lots of people church and all it stands for is a framework – a set of do’s and don’ts – a way of life to follow.

For others church and all it stands for is about getting people into heaven – a personal salvation.

What’s the big picture we work to – that individuals need to get into heaven and that’s what we have to offer?  That people need values to live by and that’s what we offer?

Or is there a bigger picture.

Can we think of this as a picture.  We can often be conscious that things seem broken – in our personal lives, in family life, in the nation.  The big picture is that that is the case.  There is a brokenness in our world.  From the largest scale to the smallest most personal, it can feel as if we are in thrall to powers beyond our control that damage.  It may be greed that is so endemic in humanity that no one can get the better of it, as someone suggested to me at the Community Café this week.  It may be the breakdown of things we have come to take for granted.

What is the big picture that our faith holds out for us?

The very first followers of Jesus sensed that Jesus not only put things back together for the leprosy sufferers, for people whose families had fallen apart, for people who simply felt as if the world was falling apart, he also was about putting the world back together again.  He came saying the kingdom of God was near.  God’s rule breaking in.  Paul sensed that in Christ there was a new creation – it was possible to look to a new heaven and a new earth.  Nothing less than a new order.

When Paul writes to a church in Colossae about the kind of church they should be, he does exactly the kind of exercise we did at the church meeting – he came up with key words that summed up the life of the church.

But before he got to that nitty gritty kind of detail, he painted the big picture.

In Jesus Christ he saw one was the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, notice what he says in Colossians 1:15ff

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in Christ all things hold together. 

This is the big picture – that sets the frame for us.  It is that in Christ all things hold together.

We are conscious of a broken world.

Our Christian faith holds out for us the vision of a restored world.

in Christ all things hold together. 

That’s the big picture.

No sooner has he spoken those words, than Paul goes on to speak of Christ then as head of the church.

We are not far off the analogy of glue.

Christ – the light, the love, the care that he embodies, the victory over darkness, the victory over death he invites us to share – this is the glue that holds all things together.

What of us in the church?

We are called to em-body Christ.  Be the body of Christ.  And in being the body of Christ we look to Christ as Head of the Body and we seek to live out all he wills for us.

So Paul goes on in Colossians 3 to come up with his core words …

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

That has to be one of my favourite passages when it comes to thinking about the church.  Those words are so powerful.

Chosen, holy, beloved
Compassion, kindness, humility, patience
Bear with one another
Forgive each other

Then comes something I had not noticed before.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

I had always linked those words with what the church should be like as an institution.  We should be bound together in love.

Clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together.

Isn’t this the key to being part of the big picture?

If in that big picture we se in Christ all things hold together, we see Christ as the glue that holds things together, then it is for us to live out that love so that in our little bit of that big picture, the people we are, the things we say, the things we do can bind everything together – in other words church can be the glue our broken world so needs.

Now then, if that is our vision for the future of Highbury, we need to be asking ourselves – in all we do are we being the glue that holds things together in the world around us?

How can we work that out in practice?

There’s one thing more to add.  I shared today’s theme with one of our older members, Jocelyn Bell one afternoon this week.  She came back with a thought-provoking response – the glue must be the kind that’s flexible.  It mustn’t be too rigid!  How wise, I thought!

Love binds everything together in perfect harmony in Christ all things hold together

This was the double-sided placemat that served as an aide memoire and a discussion starter when a third of the congregation stayed on for lunch at our Word Café


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Changed through Peace-making

For the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we shared with our local anglican church, St Luke's in a united service.  Richard preached on the theme for the day from the Week of Prayer for Christian unity leaflet.

It’s what you do.

Maybe I shouldn’t speak for other people.

It’s what I do.

And I guess it’s what a lot of us do.

When things have gone wrong, when things are going wrong, it’s good to come back to somewhere safe, somewhere warm, somewhere you can be with friends, with family.  Somewhere secure.  Somewhere safe.

Maybe there’s stuff going on now that makes you feel that way.

It’s how that small group of people who had given their all to follow Jesus felt in the hours after his execution.

If you stop and think this is a rock-bottom moment for them all.  Hopes shattered.  Not just one life ended, but their lives destroyed.  What they do is what we all do.  They found somewhere safe.  Somewhere warm.  Somewhere secure.  Family were far away.  But they had each other.  They could lock the doors and keep the fears outside.

It was into that place, into that moment that Jesus came and stood among them and said “Peace be with you.”

I want to hold on to that picture for a moment.  I want to hold on to that presence of the risen Christ.  I want to hold on to those words.

We can tell stories, we can think through ideas, we can discuss and we can argue, but at the end of the day, this is what it’s all about.

At the moment when all is at its worst.  When nothing makes sense.  When everything has fallen apart.  At that moment when there is nothing else but a place to retreat to for your own security.  It is at that moment, that Christ comes into our presence, into the very place where we seek some kind of security.  And he says those words to us.  Peace be with you.

This is that peace that is beyond anything we can begin to understand, it transcends the intellect.  It is something we cannot begin to explain.

You can almost see the disciples blinking.  They cannot believe their eyes.  There is that moment of taking stock.  Checking.  Is it really true.  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then comes the rejoicing.

Sense that place you are in … hear those words of Jesus, Peace be with you.  Take a reality check.  And then as they did rejoice.  Take courage, take heart.  Christ is with us.

The disciples in that upper room needed to hear those words again.  And so Jesus sasid to them again, Peace be with you.

This is that inner peace, that calm, that we year for, that we need, that Christ offers.

But there is something about the peace that Christ gives.  It becomes a true peace in our hearts as we receive it and then as we pro-actively do something with this peace.

It is not simply a comfort blanket for us to keep to ourselves, to give us a warm glow in that safe place where we feel secure.

Peace be with you, Jesus said.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

Almost as soon as that sense of peace has come upon the disciples they are told by Jesus they cannot stay in the place of safety.  They cannot stay where they are secure.  They cannot stay in the warmth.

Just as Jesus was sent into the messiness of an incredibly troubled and disturbed world, so his followers are to be sent into that world as well.  They have to unbolt those locked doors and go out into the very hostile world they have sought refuge from.

This is where the very Christian faith that is such a warmth and a peace takes on a different dimension.  Never let it be said that religion is simply a comforter, a way of easing over problems.

The Peace that Jesus offers is a peace that becomes real only as it becomes something actively to share.

So, in the troubles of the world, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, as we sense the presence of Christ with us and hear those wonderful words addressed individually to us … Peace be with you, we then need to be alert to where it is that Jesus is sending us.

Is it that we are to go into the very situation from which we have sought refuge … now to bring Christ’s peace?  Is it that we are to go into an entirely different setting to bring that peace into Christ’s world?

Just as I invited you to think of the troubles from which you seek refuge, I now invite you to think of where it might be Jesus is sending you to take his peace.

What will it involve to take that peace of Christ out into that situation?  Is there a possibility that actually it will involve being changed? 

Our theme this morning comes from the prayers for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Those prayers have been put together by churches in Poland.  The overall theme for the week is ‘We will all be changed’.  Are we prepared to be changed?  Are we open to that to happen?

Those followers of Jesus went out into the very troubled world from which they had sought refuge with the peace of Christ.  Just as God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, so God has given us in Christ a ministry of reconciliation.

Where can we bring peace?

Think of that in your own personal situation, in the situation of your home.

Think of that in the context of the church family too.  Where can we bring peace?

A particular task we can do … in the immediate church setting.  We are at the point in our church calendar where we are asking people to be prepared to be part of our leadership team, serving as a Deacon.  Think seriously abouyt it.  No doubt there are things here in St Luke’s needing to be done.

We are thinking about what it means to belong to church at Highbury next Sunday with an invitiation to stay on to lunch and think things through in a conversation over the lunch table.

Practical things to do – this Thursday an invitation to share in a service with Jewish friends at the Municipal Offices at 6-00 for Holocaust memorial day.

A team going out through Latin Link to serve in South America.

With our Polish links we think of Gosia who spent a year with us from Poland not so long ago.  She writes a greeting to us for today.

Dear Richard,

Thank you for e-mail.
I am sorry that I haven’t write for such a long time.
I am fine. Just packing for mountain trip and some skiing!
Half a year ago I started a new job. I’m working for Engineering Company and part of our responsibilities is to coordinate different constructions. 
Me and my team coordinate building a power station in Bielsko-Biala (which is in southern Poland in Beskidy mountain). 
I’m office assistant and I’m responsible for all the documentation. I wouldn’t have this job if it weren’t for my experience during gap year in Cheltenham. 
I learn so much from an amazing people involved in Highbury Congregation. I’m very grateful. I improved my social skills and I improved my English. 
I really need that now. I like my job :) The only problem is that Bielsko-Biala is about 50 miles from the place I live. So week days I spend in Bielsko, weekends in my flat in Bedzin. 
This is the only disadvantage. Maybe there is one more.. I start work at 6am every day and as You may remember – I love sleeping. 
Huge step in being grown up for me.
On the beginning of February I’m going to Warsaw for a ball organized by my company ILF. I’m terrified. 
There will be about 300 people that I don’t really know. In the same time I’m thinking that if I manage to survive a year in foreign country this ball is piece of cake :) I’m still in touch with some members of Highbury. I’m very pleased. I also received Highbury News each month. Thank You.
I’m also quite happy to say, that I started meeting someone. I hope it’s quite serious.
Now I really have to rush in with packing. I would like to ski a little bit today and I prefer doing that during the day light. 
(I’m also meeting my friend Ewa today – you should remember her).

Greetings for all Highbury Members and Friends.


There are all sorts of opportunities to take the peace of Christ into the wider world.

In them all we are in the business of bringing peace into the world around us.

And it’s something we cannot do.

The whole point of coming aside is that we are being overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world around us.  There’s one thing more in this wonderful moment in the story of jesus we need to hold on to.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.

But I cannot do that.  I cannot face what’s in store.  I cannot go out.

Then we need to remember what Jesus did next.

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

We cannot do I t in our own strength.  But we are not on our own.  WE are not dependent on our own strength.  We have a strength from beyond ousevlves in the unseen, yet very real power of God, the power and strengthening of othe |Holy Spirit.

Let’s sense the breath of God coming deep within us to strengthen us for wherever it is we have to go, for whatever it is we have to do.

And as we do it – we are to take with us in the strength of God a spirit of forgveness.

Sending – peace-making – breaking barriers down – week of prayer – Polish churches – Latin Link – holocaust memorial on Thursday evening at 6-00.  Pro-active peace making.


Psalm 133  How good unity is!
Ephesians 2:14-20   Peace to the far off and to the near
John 20:19-23 “Peace be with you!”

Peace is not the absence of guns
but the presence of restraint.
Peace is not the absence of bombs
but the presence of compassion.
Peace is not the absence of vengeance
but the presence of mercy.
Peace is not the absence of retribution
but the presence of reconciliation.
Peace is not the absence of division
but the presence of grace.
Peace is not the absence of greed
but the presence of justice.
Peace is not the absence of difference
but the presence of unity.

Loving and merciful God,
speak peace to our hearts and minds
that we may make peace in the world:
breaching divisions to bring reconciliation,
bringing justice to bear where prejudice prevails,
bearing your grace by the power of the Holy Spirit
in and through our lives.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

We belong to the church world-wide

The following sermon was preached in a Baptism service, when Ruth and Matt brought Jessica to share with us in baptism.

In all sorts of ways it is very special to come together here today at Highbury to share in Jessica’s baptism.   Little Jessica and Matt and Ruth have been very much in our thoughts and prayers since we heard of the condition she has and of the hospital treatment she would need.  It was wonderful welcoming Jessica to church the Sunday after she returned from hospital, full of beans and full of bounce!

It seems but yesterday that family and friends met with church family here too and we were celebrating Ruth and Matt’s marriage.

At one level it’s just good to be together again and in our service celebrate Jessica’s arrival.  Family is so important.

And family works at all sorts of levels.  It’s great to see Matt and Ruth and Jessica as a family together … but it’s also great to see Matt and Ruth’s wider family getting together as well.  Here at Highbury we know Ruth’s family – and it’s great to welcome Matt’s family.  Together they make up Ruth, Matt and Jessica’s extended family.

And I guess it’s good to know that Jessica belongs as much to that extended family as to her immediate family – and can find real support from that extended family too.

Something else is going on too in our baptism service today.  Ruth and Matt have chosen to share in a baptism service today because they want to share with Jessica what was shared with both of them when they were little, a sense of belonging not only to their own family but to a church family too.

There is something special about belonging to a church family.  When you stop and think about it it is one of those rare places where people of all ages come together to share in learning together in a setting where they offer support to each other.  We all of us look out for each other, supporting youngsters as they grow up, supporting older people as the needs of advancing years become more apparent.

We are convinced that a church family here at Highbury is something very special.  At our church Meeting last Thursday we asked people to think of five words or phrases to describe what makes Highbury special and then together in groups share their findings and try to come up with a set of words together.  We are going to look through all the words people came up with and try to put together something that goes to the heart of what makes this church family special.  We think we have something special we want others to share.

Let me share one set of words that one of those groups came up with.   It came out first from the pile.

Relevant Preaching to Today.  At the heart of our Church services on a Sunday we share in reflections on the Christian faith and seek to make connections with our real lives – in a very troubled time it’s a very real way of getting your bearings and sensing what it is we should be doing in this world of ours.

Friendly – it’s great to see friendships growing in a church family – and we hope the kind of friendliness that can draw others in too.

Caring - our hope is that Highbury is a church family where everyone looks out for each other and offers care and support literally from the cradle to the grave.

Embracing to all – that’s another thing we seek to build on here.  We want to include everyone, give a welcome to people of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and thinking.

Outward looking – At our church meeting it was great to hear that we heard that our Christmas collection for County Community Projects and its work among the most vulnerable families and young people in the county has  reached £1,150 – but great also to know that three of Ruth’s contemporaries growing up at church here are now working for CCP  - Matt, Al and our Dave.

Belonging to a church family seems to me to be much the same as belonging to your own close family.

But to belong to a church family here in one locality is to belong to a church family that reaches out much more widely.  It is to belong to a church family that is all over the world.

One of the great things about the Baptism certificate we use today is that it is recognised by so many churches – Church of England, Roman Catholic, Methodist – across the board.  We differ in our thinking with Baptist friends but have just as much fellowship with them too.

The great thing about being part of a church family is that that makes you part of the world-wide family of the Church wherever you are.

We have links with the world wide church through the Council for World Mission.  We are hoping to meet up with some of the team that went over to Malawi at the end of last year later in the Spring, and then make contacts with some of those over here for the Olympics in the summer.

And we have a great partnership with Stefan and Birgit teaching at a theological seminary in Brazil and all those volunteers who spent a year with us from Germany and Poland.

I contacted Stefan and Birgit, letting them know about today’s service.  And they sent the following email letter for Ruth, Matt and Jessica …

Dear Ruth and Matt, dear little Jessica,

we are so delighted to hear that you three are forming a little family. As each child shows God's continuing hope for his world - this is very good news!

Here in Brazil children are very much part of everything. They are cuddled by complete strangers on the road and everyone is commenting about how wonderful they are. This is certainly true for your baby daughter as well: What a beautiful child! What a blessing for us all to know her in the loving arms of her parents!

We know from our own experience that there will be quite some hours if not days of exhaustion ahead. This is normal and belongs to our limited resources.

There are a couple of verses that we would like to pass on to you for reflection:

Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:30-31)

All of our faith is basically relationship - relationship with God. It is knowing that Jesus is close and celebrating with us in same way that he is suffering with us. To hope for this is "waiting for the Lord". This is something we begin to learn here from our Brazilian brothers and sisters. 
May the knowledge of God's closeness be always present  - today and all the days to come.

With lots of love and a Brazilian hug,
Stefan & Birgit with Marit, Simeon and Jakob

I almost forgot the prayer... (as it is a baptism I thought something trinitarian appropriate)

Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
set up your kingdom in our midst 
and show your love for all this world through this new family.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God,
have mercy on us as sinners,
who often fall short to wait for you,
to love you and the people close and valuable to us.

Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew us, our families, our church and all the world.

Belonging to one church is to belong to a world wide church.

What does that world wide church family look like – what should be at its heart?

I think there are some wonderful words from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus that say it all.  It’s a prayer that echoes down through the ages and is a prayer for us all today.

Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. 
Belonging to that world wide church – we seek a strengthening in our inner being with power through his Spirit.  That’s a recognition that stuff happens in all our lives that on our own we cannot cope with.  That’s when being part of a wider family locks in and becomes all important.

In the wider church family we have a very real strength from beyond ourselves that can be a source of strength in our inner being.  A strength from beyond ourselves in the unseen but very real power of God.  IT was great when Jessica was on hospital to be able to pick up the phone chat to someone I had never met before who was on the chaplaincy team there and know that they were able to call in to see you later that same day with love from us here.  Sharing prayer, and that sense of power and strength in your inner being that we wanted to share with Jessica that day.  And that’s all because we are part of that extended church family that seeks a source of strength in God’s power, in God’s spirit.

The next thing about belonging to that world-wide church wherever it may be is that we may find a focus in our lives.   Churches all over the world come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  They have all sorts of traditions.  All sorts of different ways of doing things.  Some familiar to us.  Some very different from what we are used to.

One thing all those churches have in common – is the importance of Christ.  What is it about Jesus Christ that is so important – paul’s prayer puts it in a nutshell.

That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

Christ dwells in our hearts through faith as we are rooted and grounded in love.  That’s the love we are to have for each other.

It has caught my imagination from as far back as I can remember – having Christ in our hearts involves being a people committed to love and concern and care.  Another of those international links we have through Judi Marsh, one of our children’s leaders is with Moffatt, a prisoner in Zambia, awaiting the outcome of a trial.  Links with churches – expressed in love for one person in need.

Churches are made up of people and there will always be shortcomings.  But when a church abandons the love of Christ that’s the point at which I begin to feel not part of that.  It is the love of Christ that marks out what it means to belong to the world-wide family of the church.

The love of Christ is then something that is all encompassing.  Paul’s prayer is that we knows the breadth and length and height and depth of that love of Christ that surpasses knowledge so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

That’s the thing about the love of Christ.  It is higher than the heights we can climb, lower than the depths we plumb and so wide you can’t get round it.  It’s at this point that no end of songs come to mind to share with a Primary School teacher with responsibility for music in school.

This is one of those precious thoughts at the heart of our faith that Paul comes back to time and again –

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Belonging to the church world wide means that we are being filled with the very fullness of God so much that there is nothing that can happen that is outside of the protection and the strength that God in Christ can give us in all his love.

Paul rounds off his prayer with a a wonderful conclusion – that gives all the power all the glory to God –

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

We belong to God - New Year's Day

There’s a special feel to the first Sunday of the New Year, especially when that’s the 1st January.  There’s something special about this place.  We have had some special services over Christmas.  There have been moments that have been really moving.  There’s something special about this place.  There’s something special about belonging to Highbury.

What is that something special?   If we can identify what it is that is special about this place, then maybe that gives us something that will help us to build up the church here at Highbury.  That’s going to be our focus in our Church Meeting on Thursday evening – and on Sunday mornings in this New Year we are going to explore what it means for us to belong here at Highbury.

On this first Sunday of the New Year we begin by asking what it means for us when we make a very big claim and say that we belong to God.

In its 186th year it has to be one of the longest running TV shows in Television history.  Well, to be fair, it’s only been on TV each Christmas for 46 years.  Started in 1825 by Michael Farraday the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures are aimed at young people not just to teach science but to inspire and enthuse young people with the wonders of science.  With a break only in the second world war the lectures have been delivered from the very same lecture hall in the  Royal Institution in London since Michael Farraday started them in 1825, they have been televised since 1966 and they are a highlight of the Christmas TV schedules.  This year’s lectures were given by an experimental psychologist, Dr Bruce Hood with the catchy title Meet Your Brain.  At one moment holding in his hands the brain of someone who had bequeathed their body to scientific research and in another moment doing a live link-up with one of the country’s most powerful CAT scanners which just happened to be round the corner at the Cobalt Unit here in Cheltenham, he had his very young audience riveted.

He kept on coming back to the really big question … who am I?  Am I the sum total of all the links between the bits in my brain … or is there something greater than the sum of the parts that makes me, me?

Who am I?  What makes me, me?

What was very apparent in his lectures was the absence of any mention of God.  I sensed the implication of what he was saying was there was no space for God.

I want to say something different.  There is something about this brain that really does make us humans unique, at least on planet earth.  Human beings have the capacity to investigate the beginnings of the universe and understand its workings.  Human beings have the capacity to appreciate the wonders of a world of beauty and the dangers of nature’s awesome power.  Human beings have the capacity to create and to be incredibly creative.  IT is as if we bear within us the stamp of something that permeates the universe itself – we bear the.  For me that something that is deep within and far beyond all we can see or explore is the creator God.  Our capacity to investigate and appreciate that creation and ourselves to be creative bears out the conviction that we are made  in the image of God.

What difference does it make to say that we belong to God?

I want to point to three thoughts, each linked to a powerful passage of Scripture.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ 
So God created humankind
 in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;

   male and female he created them. 
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’

Made in the image of God that means we seek something of God in all other people and we must never forget that.  It is one of the great insights of the Quakers that there is ‘that of God’ in each person.  That changes our perspective on other people.  Each person is precious in the sight of God and we must always seek in others ‘that of God’.

At the same time we have a responsibility to the whole of creation – to have dominion is not to have a free hand to destroy that world – it is to care for that world, to act as good stewards of that world and hand it on to the next generation.

What is this creator God like?  That’s what this Christmas season is all about.  The notion that the God of creation is to be found in all the fullness of God in a person who bears the stamp of God in all its fullness.

It was wonderful at our Candle Lit carol service to hear the opening words of John’s Gospel read from the Authorised Version as the 400th anniversary year of the AV came towards its close.  Wonderful to read those words together again on Christmas Day.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was  God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten, full of grace and truth.

That is the big idea behind Christmas, behind our Christian faith that focuses us on Jesus Christ.  The God we belong to is the God who is to be found in every way possible in Jesus Christ.  Those thoughts from John 1 are echoed in the opening verses of Hebrews 1.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Want to find out what this God is like?  Look to Jesus and see God.  And what is it that we see.  Love, compassion, forgiveness … Look to Jesus, see God, and discover that God is Love.

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine

To belong to God means that we seek that of God in other people and care for God’s creation.

To belong to God whets our appetite to find out what this God is like.  Look to Jesus, see God and know that God is love.

So the key for us and what we do with our lives is then found in Jesus Christ.  We can sense in him the forgiving love of God reaching out deep into our very being to transform and renew us … and set us up with a new start, not least at the beginning of a New Year.  More than that we have someone we can model ourselves on.  That brings me to the third of the passages I want to turn to.   It is from Philippians 2.

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

That’s the most wonderful of thoughts – let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

That’s for us to do individually.  A great measure of what we can do with our lives as a new year unfolds.

But it is also what we seek to do as a church.  At the heart of our way of being the church is the opportunity we have to come together and through the conversations we have with each other and the prayer we share with God we seek out the mind of Christ for us.  That’s what our church meeting is all about.  And why we are going to do Church meeting differently.

To belong to God means

We seek that of God in others and care for God’s creation.

The God we belong to is to be found fully in Jesus Christ – look to Jesus, see God and know that God is love.

Come to Jesus, know the forgiving love of God that sets us free and seek to have the mind of Christ in all we do.

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light