I was over at Warboys last night for the Institution of Garry Dawson-Jones as Rector of the 4Parishes of Bury, Warboys, Wistow and Broughton. I’ve enjoyed many visits there in the past and it was good to join them again on this happy occasion. Our prayers are with them and Garry and his family (Dawn, Joel and Mikey) for a wonderfully vibrant future together. Garry chose a passage from Romans 12 as our reading, and here is what I had to say about it.
Romans 12 1-16, 21
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Well, I have to say that it’s very good indeed to be back in the 4 parishes. I’ve been missing all the good times I’ve had with you in them – on the beach with the seniors, on the stage with the youngsters, celebrating the Jubilee, writing a history of one of your churches, going into school… and now I’m here to welcome Garry with you into his new ministry here, which is real privilege – and I’m sure it’s going to be great for you and great for him too, even if I do wonder what you’ll be asking me to get up to next.
The more important question though is what is God asking us to get up to next. Obviously the focus on an occasion like this is on the person starting out in their ministry and all the other people involved. But step back for a moment and it’s blindingly obvious that even when the new Rector is a spirit—filled servant, sure of God’s call, sensitive to your diversity, full of prayer and vision and all the other things you said in your profile and that I’m sure Garry fulfils in spades – actually, this is the church of Jesus Christ not Garry Dawson-Jones, or David Thomson, or Hugh McCurdy, or anyone else you care to name. And if we are to be the visible and generous people of Jesus Christ, it is with his life that we must be alive, and in the immortal words of a former prime minister, There Is No Alternative.
And that takes us to very famous Bible passage from Romans chapter 12 that Garry has chosen as tonight’s reading, about the body of Christ. St Paul has just spent 11 chapters sorting out the doctrine of salvation – and now he changes gear. Suddenly, it’s about “you” – about the Christians in Rome, about the people of Jesus Christ in Bury and Warboys, Wistow and Broughton. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
It’s up close and personal. It’s not just about a nice idea or a piece of doctrine or an intellectual assent. It’s about our bodies, about sacrifice. About how very practically we are going to respond to respond to God’s amazing offer of grace, without which we are dead meat, but in which we are genuinely made at one with God and given back our lives and futures not through the old sacrifices of the Temple but through the simple self-giving once-for-all done-it-for-us sacrifice of God himself. Jesus really lives, really dies – in a real body – and really rises to a life that death cannot end; and invites us to join in – in body, mind and spirit though, or not at all. We are to turn away from being shaped by, conformed to the world around us with all its sordid ways, and put on Christ, take on his shape, be thoroughly infected if you like by his DNA, so that with him we start to live out the Lord’s Prayer, doing God’s will, and seeing his kingdom come.
That’s the what of our passage from Romans. That’s the substance of what Paul’s trying to say. But he add some so what as well; some application; because I don’t imagine he would have started to tell the Roman Christians not to think too highly of themselves if humility had been their most obvious trait. The “so what” is that they and we need to ask ourselves whether we have really grasped just how radically it matters that we depend on Christ for our salvation not ourselves, that we are lost without him.
An old picture story helps me understand it. Imagine that you and your friends are on a walk in the countryside, and look out over a valley to see what your route home is going to be like, and see a long wall, some miles away, that you’ll have to get past. It’s so long that you can’t get round it, but no matter, you think, it doesn’t look too high, we’ll go over it instead. Well, distances can be deceptive, and when you actually get to the wall, you’re dwarfed by it. It’s fifty foot high if it’s an inch. You notice some footholds, but they only go some way up, The tallest of you feel a bit smug and think they’ll be able to make it at least, but in fact they’re still yards short of the top when the holds run out. Any difference in height you have or in climbing ability is just irrelevant. It’s just plain beyond you. As you take this in board you are surprised to see a rope, or one end of it anyway, come over the wall. Now here’s the question: are you going to trust the rope, and whoever threw it, or not? You can’t see them, though there must be someone there. You can’t be sure what’s going on and what you’ll find waiting for you on the other side. But there is no alternative. It’s climb the rope, or never see home again.
I don’t think I need to tell you how to apply the story. But I do need to suggest that “so what” leads to now what. It might just be a story, but the underlying message is in deadly earnest. It is about how we are going to live our lives, about what we are making of them now, and what we will make of ourselves for the future. Paul has something to say about this as well. He sees that every person, made in God’s image, is blessed by God with gifts, and in a surprisingly modern way sees the diversity of those people and those gifts as a huge advantage to us all, building a body that no one sort of people ever could on their own. But it only works if every part of the body really uses the gifts it has been given, otherwise it’s all goalies and no strikers. Or whatever.
Paul also underlines three features of this gift economy, that are valuable for us now too. First, it must be authentic: adventurous goalies sometimes score goals too, but more often a well-timed lob will catch them off their own line. It matters that all of us listen carefully to God and one another as well our own ideas to discern just what our gifts are. And then it matter that we use them well – giving the best not the left-overs in God’s service.
Second it must be harmonious. You may be an ace organist of the old school. Your neighbour may never have put away his guitar. At a licensing service last week we had both and there was a terrific warm feel to the whole thing. But a church I once looked after had both too, until the back row of the choir took umbrage at sharing the space. Not such a good feel, because just about everyone wanted both.
Third, it must be good, and by good Paul means staying so rooted in God that faced with evil we overcome it with goodness not more evil in return. It’s a no-brainer really, but in practice it can be really hard not to give like for like, and lose the whole game as a result.
And that is perhaps the big challenge this whole amazing picture of what life in Christ and the life of the church can be is facing. Us. Our human nature. It’s just so hard sometimes not to let ourselves down. I remember as boy, in the days when milk came with cream on the top, doing my best to be the one who got to the start the bottle, and have it all to myself. I am still much more likely to be caught up in my own predicament than that of others, and often look sheepish when Jean asks me how the family of the person I’ve just met is, or how their health is going, which I completely forgot to ask about because I was worried about my computer or something later that day. Oh dear. But how about you? I rather suspect we are all in the same boat.
It all comes back to God’s Amazing Grace. We need it. Otherwise we are like the rather pretty solar-powered lights we have in our garden after a day with no sun. Pretty – feeble. But give them a good summer’s say and wow, they’re amazing.
If we want the Lord’s Prayer to come true and see the wow of God’s kingdom come on earth as well heaven, we know the how: we just need to get on with it now, and not faff around at the bottom of that wall, waiting in vain for an even taller chap to come along or pigs to fly. The people we admire most, let’s be honest, are already up the rope, over the wall, and on the way into God’s good future. It’s time to join them. It’s time to join the company of Christ and stop being embarrassed by being a Christian, but to show society around us by word and deed that good faith in a good God is not the problem but the solution.
The world around us is in a pickle. It has more and more knowledge and less and less wisdom, and desperately needs to rediscover a deeper Truth. It wants to believe that any dream will do, that we just have to do it our Way and everything will be fine, but then just a few take the prize. It has become amazingly clever at supporting us in this life, but has lost its grasp on what Life is actually all about. Thank goodness, and thank God, that here in Bury and Broughton, Wistow and Warboys, we with Garry are in the business together of offering oldies on the beach and youngsters on the stage, newbies at the barbecue and locals at the tea-party a life-giving introduction to the Way, the Truth and the Life, to Jesus the Christ, our rope up the wall and our ladder to heaven.