Martin Fletcher's Sermon, 9 July 2017

Trinity 4
9 July 2017

(Zechariah 9:9-12;  Romans 7:15-25a;  Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30)

 

At that time Jesus said, ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,

“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.”

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

 

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

 

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

 

 

This week has seen great change in our local Deanery. Last Tuesday I attended the induction service of the new vicar of St Mary, Oatlands, Folie Olokose – who had joined us in worship two weeks ago. And the ordination services at the cathedral last weekend featured four deacons now serving in parishes neighbouring ours.

 

For each of them the clergy stole is a powerful symbol. A stole is worn for sacramental ministry and whilst deacons wear it as a sash across the shoulder, priests wear it deliberately to resemble a yoke. The stole then is the priest’s ‘yoke of office’.

 

As we have just heard, Jesus said ‘Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

 

We can be pretty sure that right now Folie and our four new deacons will not see it that way! They will be in need of the prayerful and practical support of the people amongst whom they now serve. They should also keep in mind these words from the ordination service: ‘Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit’.

 

Let me tell you that 17 years after my ordination that is what I do, every day! And let me tell you that if you have been watching the television drama ‘Broken’ then the sense of unworthiness of any priest is never far away. Father Michael in that drama is refreshingly portrayed as a good Roman Catholic priest, based in an inner city Liverpool parish. Whilst he seems somehow to get away without having to do any administration (!), what we do see is someone for whom the yoke of priestly office, whilst heavy, is full of meaning.

 

Like Martin Luther, who I mention in my article in this week’s News Sheet, Father Michael appears to see himself as ‘righteous in God’s sight and yet a sinner in everyday experience’.

 

Now Luther, in reaffirming the teaching of Saint Paul – that our righteousness comes only from our faith in Christ and not through works – actually misrepresents Saint Paul’s position. So when as in our second reading today, Saint Paul says: ‘I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand’, Luther interprets this as a description of the Christian life. In reality, Saint Paul was describing the plight from which Christ has freed us. Paul says, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’

 

Due to his own sense of unworthiness Luther failed to appreciate that to become righteous in God’s sight is to become a ‘new creation’ and incorporated in Christ. Instead, he understood his righteousness in God’s sight to be ‘fictional’, merely ascribed to him by the actual righteousness of Christ.

 

But the great theologian John Henry Newman, both before and after his switch from Anglicanism to Catholicism, maintained that: ‘Justification is an announcement of Almighty God breaking upon the gloom of our natural state, as the Creative Word upon chaos. [God] declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on [the] one hand conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous’.

 

So what a privilege it is to be called in to God’s service, whether as an ordained person or as a lay person. Either way, it is our baptism – precisely when we become a new creation and incorporated in Christ – that confers our entry into the ‘priesthood of all believers’. We all have a part to play in God’s work, a yoke to take upon us, and as long as we accept that we cannot bear its weight in our own strength then we will leave room for the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, as baptised members of Christ’s Church we are living ‘in the Spirit’ and we are therefore duty-bound to pray earnestly for the Holy Spirit.

 

In our first reading today we heard Zechariah’s prophecy of the triumphal entry of Israel’s king, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. In fulfilling that prophecy Jesus turned upside-down the values of the world. A King riding on a donkey! Within days through his ‘enthronement’ on the cross he had saved us and all believers – from ourselves and from our sins. By his wounds we are healed.

 

Matthew, Mark and Luke all write of Jesus cleansing the Temple as soon as he arrives in Jerusalem: driving out the money-changers and overturning their tables. Significantly, in this week’s final episode of ‘Broken’ Father Michael is preaching on that same event. He talks about Jesus’ ‘righteous anger’ and suggests that if the human Jesus could express such anger then so could we. And very poignantly he mobilises an overturning of the many slot machines in that poor area of Liverpool.

 

Dramatic stuff! But let’s just ask whether Father Michael is right here. There are plenty of people who say that there was only ever one human being entitled to show righteous anger, and that even being ‘righteous in his sight’ does not qualify us to do the same.

 

There are also plenty of examples of injustice in our society, some obvious, some less so, and it is surely our Christian duty to challenge them. So as Christians, and in our personal vocation and ministry, let each of us pray earnestly for the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. In this way we will know how peacefully to work with God in advancing the values of his kingdom here on earth. And during this worldwide ‘Speak Up’ Week of Action our prayer must surely be for meaningful and effective conversations between campaigners and those in authority.

 

So let us pray.

Grant us, O Lord, the spirit we pray to think and do always such things as be righteous in your sight; that we who can do nothing good without you may by you be enabled to live according to your will. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.