Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Trinity 8: A tangible stake in the future?

“A tangible stake in the future” is how the Prime Ministerial candidate Andrea Leadsom defined having children last week, claiming an advantage over the childless Mrs May.

Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 would have agreed with her. It was a standard ancient Jewish belief, in fact maintained by the Sadducees right up until Christ’s days, that the only ‘afterlife’ was the one you lived through your offspring and successive generations. This is why the fact that they had no children mattered so much to Abraham and Sarah: the end of their ancestral line meant that their family would not live to reach the promised land. It was a very physical, earthy faith, as you might expect of an ancient farming tribe. So, Jehovah himself - the name of God translated “Lord” in the Old Testament - appears to them as three men, and Abraham duly prostrates before them, the honour due to God alone. The Lord reiterates his promise, that Sarah will indeed have a son to carry the family line to the promised land. This Old Testament, Old Covenant or promise, is one of prosperity for the chosen people’s future generations: a one point lead so far for Mrs Leadsom.

But Mrs May can take heart, because the New Testament of Jesus Christ gives us a radical reinterpretation of the Old, as we hear St Luke proclaim quite markedly in the tenth chapter of his Gospel (Lk 10.38-42) and the story of Martha and Mary: matronly Martha busy, active in the kitchen, while maidenly Mary sits contemplating at our Lord’s feet. St Paul may well have had this pair in mind when he wrote in his First Epistle to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 7.34) about married women being anxious about the things of this world, while virgins could devote themselves to spiritual concerns. Part of the message of this episode surely conforms to the reading of later Christian monks and nuns, namely the priority of the contemplative life of prayer over the active life of service. But for people of New Testament times, it also makes the controversial point that God’s promise for you is not bound to the hope of future generations, not dependent on bloodline or nation, the direct opposite of the teaching of the Sadduccees: now God is present with you, God visits you, regardless of your married state and capacity or desire to procreate. God’s New Covenant is not just for your children and your children’s children: it is for you.

Many unbelievers, and not a few believers, too, think that the Christian faith is all about the hope of the afterlife: the promise of Heaven and the threat of Hell. Yet as Our Lord’s visit to Mary and Martha shows, God’s promise is just not for a “stake in the future.” It has a certain urgency to it. He tells Martha to stop fretting. There’s no time for that. In fact, says the Lord, there is only one thing you need, and whatever it is, he has not come to promise it for a later date. Mary already has it, he says: it is not to be taken from her. It is not a brood of offspring. It is not a patch of promised land. It is Christ himself, whom Mary has simply received. As St Paul writes to the Colossians (1.28), the mystery is Christ in you. Christ himself is the hope of glory.

This Gospel comes at quite a fitting time for us at St Michael’s as we “reopen” today to Camden Town and continue to think about our mission, our vocation here. I hope you have now seen the paper I left in church last week following up on your comments and ideas at the Vision Day, so full of energy and enthusiasm. Our Lord’s visit to Mary and Martha does not dismiss that energy, our action and busyness - our Legal Drop-in, work with the homeless shelter, political engagement, practical provision for people in need. After all, Jesus accepts Martha’s active welcome, and calls us to love our neighbour in action, not in thought alone. He does not dismiss these works of ours; but he does make clear our priority.

The very purpose of humanity is the love and worship of God. We are made precisely for the Sabbath of which Christ is Lord, made like Mary to rest in him. So, the Church’s primary role is to make possible the worship of God. For this to happen, as individuals in the Church, our priority must be to come to know and love God more deeply and fully. If we don’t do that - if we expend so much energy on performing good works that we have none left to listen, learn and pray - then I fear we will be building on a house of sand, still putting our hope in our abilities to “build a better future” rather than in the presence of Christ among us and the transformative power of his grace in our hearts. We need to make sure that whatever we offer here springs not just from our own will, but from the fountain of God’s love opened in prayer.

I am open to continuing our conversation about the mission of this church. Sundays at 12 takes a break in August, so on the 7th and the 14th at noon, I’d like to offer the opportunity for open discussion based on the Vision Day and my response to it that was handed out last week. In case you want to talk to somebody more neutral and one-to-one, my friend Martin Moore of Sprint HR is going to make some hours for individuals to book in with him to talk about your particular place in the life of our church, focussing on what you already do, what you want to do, and what you would like to change - dates to be confirmed. The reorganisation work will keep going on in the background. Then, in September, I hope to be able to come back to you with a detailed mission plan incorporating as much as possible from our extended deliberations together.

I would urge you to think and pray not just about what we might do, but following Mary’s example, also how we might be: how we might open ourselves and others to the transforming presence of Christ in our midst here and now, for conversion of the heart is the only lasting foundation for the peace that Camden Town and indeed our neighbours in Nice so sorely need. We open ourselves to him now as he offers himself for us in bread and wine.

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