Parish Eucharist 22nd October 2017
You received the word with joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit
SERMON FOR PARISH EUCHARIST
HAMPSTEAD PARISH CHURCH
22 October 2017
Trinity 19, Year A
OT Lesson : Isaiah 45.1-7
NT Lesson : I Thessalonians 1.1-10
Gospel : Matthew 22.15-22
Text: You received the word with joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit (I Thess.1.6)
If you listen to the To-day programme, you will have heard plenty of cleverly loaded questions, like the one Jesus answered with such admirable dexterity in our gospel reading. Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s. A good theme for this dedication month, but one which I am sure you will be thinking about already. So let’s put that to one side, and consider instead what the young church in Thessalonica might have to teach us about the springs of Christian giving.
As we read the opening of his letter, we are touched by the warmth of Paul’s affection for the Thessalonians. Paul warmly commends them for their work of faith, for their labour of love, and for the steadfastness of their hope in the Lord Jesus Christ (v 3). Faith, hope and love, the trinity of virtues that Paul celebrates so memorably in his first letter to the Corinthians, and all this in the face of persecution. Such a joyful response to the gospel is an example to us all as we reflect on what it should mean to be a Christian community. How might we follow their example as a Christian community in Hampstead in the 21st century?
First then our faith, the solid ground on which we stand. We hold fast to the central truths of the Christian faith, as expressed in the great creeds that we recite, but we are also a critical, questioning community. Sunday by Sunday we explore together what that faith means to us, how it impacts on our growing knowledge of the cosmos, on our growing awareness of the fragility of our environment, or on the challenges of an ever more crowded, inter-related world.
Let me give you just one example from this week’s news. Donald Trump’s security adviser recently insisted that ‘the world is not a global community, but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.’ He went on to say: ‘Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.’ This is not an extreme position. It is a classic statement of the neoliberal realist approach to international relations which is also reflected in ‘taking back control’ and distancing ourselves from the European Union. The international organisations that have given expression to our international solidarity since 1945 are far from being perfect, they are indeed continually in need of reform, but as Christians I believe we have to insist that it is wrong to value conflict and competition over amity and co-operation.
The world is a global community, we are all neighbours, perhaps more so than ever before, as technology and the globalisation of trade and transport shrink distances and make us ever more dependent on one another. As Christians we believe that loving our neighbour is as relevant to our mutual flourishing as nations, as it is to our interpersonal relations. It follows that if we are to ‘engage with one another competing for advantage’, which may make good sense in economic terms, we must do so within robust frameworks which continue to recognise and value that mutual dependence, which gives expression to our love for one another within the love of God. There is plenty of room for lively debate about how best that should be achieved, but we cannot be silent about the goals of policy.
Then there is hope. As Christians we believe in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. We saw in our Old Testament lesson how God could if necessary bring his purposes to fruition through the action of a ruler – Cyrus of Persia in that case – who did not even know that he was being used. In the light of the New Testament we know that in Jesus Christ, good has already won the decisive victory. The light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never quench or overcome it (John 1.5). That was the truth which sustained the Thessalonians in the face of persecution.
And finally there is what Paul celebrates as the labor of love. Faith and hope can be dismissed by non-believers as fairy stories that we have chosen to believe in without any serious foundation, and we cannot prove them wrong, but the witness of our love is a fact which cannot be denied. In Paul’s case, news of the way he had been welcomed in Thessalonica had evidently spread throughout the surrounding regions, and got people talking about the joyful faith from which his welcome sprang. Paul himself didn’t need to speak about it. As Christians we do things for love of our neighbour which would make no sense if our overriding policy was to compete for advantage. When people see that, we don’t need to talk about it. Our actions challenge the secular foundations of the newly resurgent culture of mercantilism, and actions speak louder than words.
That is one reason why it is so exciting to be involved as a church both in sponsoring refugees, and in providing a winter night shelter for those who have been left behind by policies of austerity. Why should we do these things? What’s in it for us? We do them because we are not ashamed to take seriously our responsibility to show loving compassion in the service of our neighbours in need, welcoming them as our guests. If you haven’t yet signed up to these projects, or thought seriously about how you could get involved, don’t miss the opportunity.
After this month of dedication, let us follow the example of the Thessalonians, going forward into the coming year with joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit. There is a health warning. Such joy is infectious. It spreads like wild fire – the fire indeed of the Holy Spirit.