Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Grace of God Within

I found myself thinking of her again as we were preparing to watch our film show for the Christian Arts Festival.  She was a diminutive woman, but a firebrand nonetheless.  She was the first President of our Congregational Federation and an inspirational character.  In a sense she was the matriarch of a remarkable family of parliamentarians.  There’s been a member of her family in the House of Commons for well over a hundred years.  Her father, her husband, her son  (Tony Benn) and now her grandson (Hilary Benn) have all been MPs   Her name, Margaret Stansgate.  She was lovely to get to know and I found myself one day in London visiting her in a nursing home just as she had turned 90 and the 90’s were just beginning.  They were heady days.  It had seemed an impossibility for the first thirty five years of my life.  And then it had happened.  The iron curtain was torn down, the Berlin wall demolished, the two halves of Germany reunited and the Cold War over.  The impossible had happened.

With her husband who was Minister for Air Lady Stansgate had visited Stalin’s Moscow.    She insisted, as she had done on a previous visit to Soviet Moscow on going to church on the Sunday of their stay.  More than that she took the opportunity to preach in church on the Sunday.  Pretty remarkable for a woman to be preaching in Stalin’s Moscow at a time when the church was severely persecuted and the iron curtain was about to be raised for a generation.

As she recalled in that memorable conversation with me she chose to preach on a remarkable set of verses in Ephesians 2.13-14

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

In many ways Ephesians is a distillation of Paul’s thinking that has no time for barriers and shares a vision for a world without frontiers.

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;

It's a theme that runs through Paul’s thinking and goes to the heart of what he was about.  And it is a theme that challenges us.

As we welcome Brian and Margaret into church membership it’s good to reflect on what church is about.  We have a vision for Highbury that it should be a place to share Christian friendship, explore Christian faith, enter into Christian mission with Christ at the centre and open to all.  It’s quite some vision and one we won’t fully achieve this side of glory.  But it is a vision to strive for nonetheless.

It’s so easy to be drawn into defining who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ who is ‘acceptable’ and who is ‘not’.  Maybe that’s how we’re made – we’re tribal we set our boundaries.  Woe betide those who cross them.  You’re either Spurs or Arsenal … unless you are Leicester City and even when we go off to the Robins on our church outing in a couple of weeks time the away fans will be kept carefully apart from the home fans.

And in church?

Right early on they were very wary of Paul in Jersualem – it hadn’t been long since he was the persecutor.  He was the one hounding the followers of Jesus.  And now he had returned.  Years had passe but he was still the same man … or was he.

It’s fascinating to see what those folk did in the Jerusalem church.  They got to know Paul.  They got to talk with him, to chat.  And as they got to know him the barriers began to come down.  It was Peter, James and John, the ones who had the reputation of being the ‘pillars of the church’ who took time out to get to know Paul.  And a wonderful thing happened.

They saw, in his own words as he recalled in his letter at Galatians 2 ‘the grace of God that had been given to me”

What a wonderful thought.

I glimpsed the grace of God at work in that lovely lady in that nursing home.  To be entirely truthful I have seen the grace of God that’s been given to people in many a nursing home visit.  What would it take for people to see in us the grace that God has given us?  Would it be the kind of person who has a love, a joy, a peace about them that somehow shines out of their words and their deeds?  Would it be the kind of person who had a patience, a kindness a generosity that touched people who got to know them.  Was it indeed a faithfulness, a gentleness a self-control that struck Peter James and John as they recognized the grace God had given Paul?

These are the marks of the gracious senior deacon in the church I grew up in in Leicester who had grown up in what really had been a workhouse in Romford in Essex, had moved to what really was the workhouse in Leicester and then worked his way through to become the chief chef decorating cakes for the Lord Mayor’s annual banquet.  The gentlest, the kindest, the most loving of people.

Mind you even such a person can fall out with others.  And can take his stand.  And what Paul took his stand on as he wrote his letter to the Galatians was that tendency people had within the church family to build up the barriers, to set out the frontiers, to be jealous that there’s was the right and proper way to do things, the right and proper and only way to do things to be truly the people of God.

And the issue was who you eat with and who you don’t eat with and what you eat and what you don’t eat.  Because that’s where a lot of people wanted to draw the lines, that’s where a lot of people wanted to build the barriers.

Reading Galatians 2:11-21

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; 12for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. 13And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

That’s what it takes to be someone of grace.  Tear down the barriers.  Don’t get trapped into defining the boundaries.

There’s something else that counts now.  And that something else cannot be reduced to details that separate … I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

That’s the mark of a place with no barriers.

It is Christ who lives in me.

What a wonderful thought.  A church without walls is a church with Christ at the centre.

We have seen the passing of those who have been for many, many years the pillars of our church.  Last Sunday evening Gwen Clarke’s niece brought her to church before taking her down to the south coast to move into a nursing home.  Just for three weeks … but the three weeks may well extend further.  A couple of weeks ago we gave thanks for Dick Adams and remembered a year before the passing of  Diana Adams.

Is there something about the church they have passed on to us that we can pass on to those who come after us?  One of the most moving places I visited was that church of reconciliation, ultra modern, environmentally friendly built on the site of its gothic predecessor that had been closed as the wall sealed off its front doors and had been demolished in 1988 by East Germany’s President Honecker.  But church is more than a building.  The people had kept on worshipping albeit separated from the church building they loved by the wall.  And when the church was demolished they danced in defiance on the wall.  And then the wall came down .. and a new church went up in its place.

It influence my early ministry and shaped Highbury’s thinking and is a book I would take my stand on.  Its author, Eric Burton whose last two visits here have been to funerals of people who thought the world of him, Dick and Di.  He was here in the late 60’s and the early 70’s when the cold war was at its height, and so he chose a very particular picture for the cover of his book.  It was a picture of the doors to that church cut off by the wall.  And the words of David Shepherd he quoted at the end are words to take to heart today.  They were words it was wonderful to share with one of the ministry team at that church as we stood on the site of the wall and I presened a little bit of Highbury to the church of Reconciliation on the site of the Berlin wall.

Is ours his church without walls?

If people are to see the grace God has given us it must be.

If people are to recognize in us the fruit of the Spirit it must be.

If people are going to see in us that it is Chrsit who lives in us it must be.

Let’s have in Eric’s words no walls within.  And let’s extend the vision and have no walls keeping people out.

I stood on the steps and saw what this church would be toi all the people.  There passed me into its warm interior all sorts of people … with all their difficulties, trials and sorrows

That takes some doing – wouldn’t it be so much better to have people with no difficulties, no trials, no sorrows.  Those non-existent people of the dreamer’s imagination.  But if we are to be a church with Christ at the centre and open to all we need to equip ourselves to be patient and kind and generous and gentle with one another and with those facing such difficulties.   One of those things that’s important for us and right at the heart of what we believe we are called to do is to be first and foremost a church where pastoral care is something real.  Twice a year we invite people to an evening – we used to think of it as for visitors.  But not now. IT’s an opportunity for all of us to reflect together on how better we can build up our pastoral care.  Do join us – not this Thursday but the last Thursday of the month, the 28th – when we are going to think how better we can respond to the loneliness that some say is reaching epidemic proportions in our society.

Is ours his church without walls?

There passed me into its warm inerior all sorts of people … with all their difficulties, trrials and sorrows. And they said only one thing.  This is our home.  This is where we are going to learn the love of Jesus Christ.  And this is where we are going to put it into practice.

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