This was a packed gathering at Hope Church, with people from many churches and many projects and a real buzz about the future. I spoke ‘off the cuff’ with this script in my mind, after we read the opening of John’s Gospel.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. That gets to the heart of the matter and the heart of this evening together: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. God is good – all the time. All the time – God is good. (You’re so good at responses I’ll make Anglicans of you yet …)
Tonight is about encouraging one another to shine with God’s light, and let’s nail one thing straight away. It’s God’s light, the light of Christ, not ours. In fact, I’m just a bit scared tonight. Not just because I am in front of so big a crowd of people with so many amazing projects being showcased. But because I might get in the way. And because even you might get in the way, and we might end up shining with our own light not God’s.
And we’ve been seeing such dark things in the world recently, even done in the name of religion, that we have to take that worry seriously. Thank goodness God is good, and his light will in the end overcome.
So was Christmas good too? I just remembered in time to get my camera out and take some snaps, and look through some of the ones from earlier in the year. I’m sorry but I’ve just got to bore you with some of my favourites
Here’s a great one to start with of an amazing flight of bluebirds above Ipswich in a wonderful blue sky.
But actually, to backtrack to my worries, I think it might also sometimes be a picture of a local church, any of our churches some of the time, lights out, not shining into the darkness but overwhelmed by it. And I’m, showing it now because before we go any further I want us to stop and pray: to face the darkness, confront it, and turn to the light.
It might be the darkness in ourselves. I don’t just mean our own sinfulness, though that’s there all the time, but all the sickness, bereavement, crime, relationship problems and all the rest that push in on us. I was praying for around 20 such situations over Christmas which affected the clergy of our diocese, and I don’t suppose they are unusual.
It could be the darkness in our churches. We’re about to start the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and this year the material we’ll be using comes from Brazil where their society which was quite integrated has started to divide – and the churches instead of standing against that joined in and started to compete for money for money and membership. Do you think that ever happens here? The Brazilian churches have said no, and turned to Christ, the well that is deep, and so must we.
It could be the darkness in wider society that we’ve already mentioned, in which we’ve seen awful outrages, and even the response of solidarity and freedom has been marred immediately by further aggression.
So let’s pray …
Good Father God, be with us tonight as we look to your light, and seek to shine with it more brightly in this new year. We ask especially that the light of your love would shine into our own lives where we ourselves know darkness and difficulty, remembering too before you the countless thousands of others, known to us and unknown, who today need to hear your word of love. May our time tonight play some small part in bringing your light to the world. So we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
So how can we commit more fully to letting God’s light shine? I’d like to build on what Roy Crowne said at this event last year about faith, love and hope, and link them with the passage about the Vine from John 15 that Diz was using in the opening worship, and with the idea of a stained glass window – and I’ve got one here; well, on a slide.
Ah. (Slide is still black) We seem to have a problem. Oh yes – I nearly forgot, we need to let the light shine.
That’s better. It’s a wonderful window by the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, in Brampton Church in Cumbria which I used to visit regularly as an archdeacon, and it shows of course three figures representing hope, love and faith, in case the Latin is foxing you.
I know I’ve got three balls in the air if I’m running with these three virtues, the Vine and the stained glass too. But they actually work very well together, and one of them might just work for you.
Faith is the root of our Christian lives. Everything begins by our being grafted into Christ. His light needs to shine on us or nothing will show.
Love is the greatest of the virtues that grows in us like shoots, as the picture takes shape.
And Hope is the fruit we bear that shines out as a gift to a world in need.
And they are all works of the Spirit, the one Spirit, bringing us to faith, growing us in gifts, enabling us to bear fruit, each in our own way.
So the first and crucial thing we have to do if we are going to help God’s light shine is to let it shine strongly on us. What’s going to help with that? I want to take you back to the basics for a bit of root treatment. So in 2015, what is going to be your regular pattern of prayer and bible reading? What is going to be your regular way in sharing in the life of your local church – and I would say, from the tradition I come from – of regularly sharing in the Lord’s Supper too. But deeper than that, is 2015 going to be not just a new year but a renewal year when you are going to be open once again to the converting and transforming work of the Spirit.
I am sometimes shocked by my own dilatoriness and lack of discipline even as a senior Christian leader when it comes to the basics like this. And I am shocked too when I realise how easy it is for others to fall into the same trap, and not have the underpinning of these holy habits if I can call them that in their lives. So if you find yourself thinking you’re so spiritual now that you don’t need them, or frankly living off the capital of faith from long ago, beware, and seek the renewal of your faith today. As Paul said to the Romans, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Even our faith is a gift from God and work of his Spirit in us as Paul says to the Ephesians: it is by grace that we are saved through faith; it is the gift of God.
So now the light God willing is falling on the glass. And we’re working towards the outward shining of the light from the glass, or the fruit of the Vine in love and service to the world God loves. But in between is the glass, or in terms of the Vine, all the complexity of the shoots and branches.
Imagine for a moment that some vandal has thrown a brick through the window. Its picture, its message would be lost. And you or I would really struggle to put it back together again.
We can’t shine out God’s message on our own. And it’s not what Jesus seems to have intended. He called his disciples into a fellowship. He taught about the need for them to love one another, and used metaphors like a house, a vine, a kingdom, a flock to shoe the way they belonged together. When he uses the word “you”, it tends to be plural. Paul and the other New Testament writers pick up on this, and those “one another” words crop up nearly 60 times. To name just a few, we are also called to
Be at peace with each other (Mark 9:50)
Be devoted to one (Romans 12:10)
Live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16)
Stop passing judgment on one another (Romans 14:13)
Accept one another (Romans 15:7)
Instruct one another (Romans 15:14)
Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
Bear with one another (Ephesians 4:2)
Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
Pray for one another (James 5:16)
And the list goes on.
When St Paul teaches on the Body of Christ he explains one of the deep reasons why this one-anotherness matters. Just as the stained glass window is made up of many fragments, each ablaze with its own colour and showing its own part of the design, but only able together to show the whole picture and reveal its purpose, so in the body of Christ every member is wonderfully gifted, but even the most insignificant or least honoured parts are indispensable if the whole is to fulfil Christ’s purpose and function well.
Behind this is another deep purpose: the body, the fellowship, the church is indeed God-given and God-purposed. To our considerable surprise, it is how God has chosen to continue his work in the world. Why on earth should God choose to do it that way? Jesus said, A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. To cease to love is to cease to be able to witness to the love of God. To show love to one another is to accept the reconciling work of Christ and to start to build a new way of being the world, the world the right way up we might say, that becomes light and salt and yeast so that he whole world can start to live as God always meant it to.
In this sense I can buy in to the otherwise rather arrogant–sounding and indeed implausible Willow Creek claim that the local church is the hope of the world. It can offer that hope not because it is in itself anything special, but because it has let the light of God’s love shine on it and started to shine with that same light, letting itself go through the furnace of learning to love. And for the same reason that’s why it’s so dangerous and damaging when a church falls out inside itself or with others: it stops shining in the darkness; it becomes part of the dark, instead of a school for becoming a new sort of society, the sort of world God wants us to be.
So the sort of time together that we are spending tonight really matters: not just as a means of mobilising our offer of hope, but because without it there won’t be any hope there to offer. We need to pray earnestly, as we say in our ordination service, for the gift of the Spirit, that we might love another, and truly be the children of God.
We’ve got onto the third of our great virtues, Hope. The roots and the shoots lead to fruits. The light that has shone onto the glass and been refracted through it is now ready to shine out of it and reveal its glory. The same Spirit that has helped us be renewed in faith and restored in love, is now at work to re-energise us in offering hope to the world.
And that’s exciting! It’s great to see so many projects being showcased tonight. It’s great to realise the profound contribution that so many of you are making to help the light shine. It’s great to be able to pray with and for you that we will see God’s will be done and kingdom come more and more in this town of Ipswich, not for our sakes but to God’s glory and for the shalom peace of his people.
And if once again we ask, how is that going to happen, we are taken back to our spiritual agenda. Plans need careful preparation, and projects need proper management: but I want to suggest that the most important factor in all our plans and projects is in fact the character of the people who are engaged in them. If our hearts are full of the fruits of the Spirit, of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and all the rest, then our work will bear fruit for God.
So we are back to praying for the work of the Spirit in ourselves and in our churches, this time that not only will we be full of faith, and full of the gifts that mean we are working well together as the body of Christ, but that we will be seeing the Spirit transforming us to have the character of Christ, growing in his stature, stamped with his image so that when people meet us, they meet Christ in us too. And when those others come to their own faith, and realise that they too have a vital role to play in our fellowships, and that they too can shine with the light of Christ in the world, we have set a chain reaction going that is the coming of the kingdom of God.
Christ in us, the hope of glory. Let’s pray that his light that will shine on us, in and us through us, and shine brightly, all over Ipswich and the area around, – and the darkness will never overcome it.