I’m at Elton Church tonight to license Richard as we give a huge welcome to him and Sue, Emily and Ellis, Anna and Isabel, as they come to live and minister among us.
Many many thanks to the wardens, retired clergy, ALMs and so many more who have helped keep the worshipping and serving life of the churches in fine fettle during the gap between ministers. But now …It’s time to look to the future.
Philippians 3:7-14 says:
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own;but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
The title of this reading in my Bible is “Pressing toward the Goal” – so what’s the goal? What are we praying for? What would success, if we dare use that word, look like? Or perhaps better, what would our villages and our churches be like if God’s kingdom started to break in more obviously and his will be done more fully; if in fact the Lord’s Prayer that we pray so often was starting to visibly come true?
Well a starting point has to be the Mission statement that you as a group of churches together have adopted. If you mean what you’ve said and said your prayers, that should be a succinct summary of how you believe God wants things to be for you – and I think it is. And what you said was that the future you are praying for is one in which you are “Growing Together in Worship; and Reaching out with Christian Love”. Which is of course happily close to our diocesan strategy of growing, deepening and engaging. Thank you!
But how do we press forward towards that goal? The image at the end of tonight’s reading is taken from athletics I suppose, and the picture in my own mind as I hear the phrase is of someone like Usain Bolt lunging forward to make sure he is the first to break the tape and win the prize.
By contrast, the imagery in the first part of our reading is taken from the world of banking, of gains and losses, profit and added value. That can make it very easy to focus not just on the effort we need to put into making the future happen, like the athlete in a race, but on the finance and organisation that happening things involves this side of heaven. And thank goodness that there are people here tonight and in your parishes who can take on those tasks in a way that I would find challenging.
But Paul actually introduces the financial image in order to spin it in a quite different way. He says 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
He is asking the hard-headed Philippians to be as determined and forward-pressing about their spiritual agenda as they are likely to have been about their business one. What does the latest statement look like on our account in heaven?
Now any group of five churches presents significant challenges for leadership and management. You used the language of business yourself in your description of the sort of priest you were looking for: “a strong leader, innovator and risk-taker” came top of the list. And in Richard you have someone who can I think deliver on that front for you.
But very significantly you went on to say that you saw your key areas for innovation to be in the growth and development of your spiritual life – in things like mission, pastoral care, Christian teaching and prayer. So Richard, that is my charge to you tonight. To – like Paul – so stir up the great gifts that so many people here tonight have been given, that they will produce winning spiritual results for the kingdom of heaven right here and right now, in Stilton and in Elton, in Folksworth and in Morborne, in Haddon and in Denton and in Caldecote.
And my charge to those of you who belong here – would you lift a hand to help me know who you are? – is to let yourselves be stirred to share in this work and be generous and visible diciples of our Lord. For heaven’s sake, as a fellow bishop said in a big service in London this week, it’s Ascensiontide. We are celebrating the goodness and power of God who so massively vindicated the ministry and teaching of Jesus that he raised him, really raised him from the dead. Not unbelievably but in the sight of all the people; and through the power of the Spirit sent at Pentecost started to raise us up too into the new sort of spiritual lives that fill us with the energy and gifts we need to press forward to the tape and make a difference for good wherever we go.
Now all this is slightly in danger of being fine words but buttering no parsnips. So I want to leave you with one real-life example of someone who I think has really stepped up to this plate and can inspire us all; and one practical way to engage with the spiritual agenda during the rest of this week, so you can know you’ve got going.
The example is of course Her Majesty the Queen. I’ve brought along a pile of copies of a wonderful new book about her called “The Servant Queen and the King She Serves” that’s really moved me and a lot of other people as well. Do take one home with you: you’ll find them near the food… They are full of quotes from her Christmas messages in particular, which are often better sermons than this bishop could ever manage, and these words from 2002 seem particularly apposite for tonight:
‘I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God!’
Perhaps that can be the nudge so many of us need to look up from the pressures of daily life and the false promises of so much of our material culture and be ready to drink deep of the Spirit of God and make a new start with him.
And a practical thing to do? Our Archbishops love tradition so much that have founded a new one this year. The nine days between Ascension Day – last Thursday – and Pentecost – this coming Sunday – are a traditional time of prayer for Christians worldwide but not one we have made much of in the good old C of E so far. So as of this year we are being invited and encouraged to pray for those olds words of the Lord Prayer – Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be Done – to really come true.
So the practical thing is that at bedtime tonight and each night for the rest of the week, pray the Lord’s Prayer, slowly and with attention. And then let God by his Spirit not only guard you waking and sleeping but guide you too, as he uses you to bring new resurrection to a world in need, and leads you personally towards the prize of heaven.