Welcoming James Neal as the new Associate Vicar at St Barnabas, Cambridge

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We are delighted to welcome the
Rev. James Neal as the new
Associate Vicar at St Barnabas, Cambridge.
James and his wife Emily have
moved from South Manchester
where James was the curate at St
Mary Magdalene church in Sale.
James is originally from Derbyshire
and Emily is from Stockport and
prior to curacy they lived in Bristolwhere James trained for ordination at Trinity College. They have been married for five years and are excited for this next season in Cambridge with St Barnabas.

James was licensed by me last night and the script for my talk at that very special service is below the fold.

Romans 8.1-17

1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. 12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

James and Emily: you’ve made it! You are now legally part of the St Barnabas family that has already been welcoming you to Cambridge in style, and we’re all thrilled that you’re here. It may be a church service but, three cheers for James and Emily please …

If only all of life was so encouraging… James kindly picked our bible reading for tonight, and it begins with the fantastic news that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. Now in one sense, let’s be honest, this is a bit of a straw man for us today. Very few of us are either committed to a full keeping of the Jewish Law, or feeling condemned because we can’t manage it, or even as sure as our forebears were about there been any overarching rules to keep at all. That’s why the old-style preacher’s approach of first convicting people of their sin and guilt and then offering them freedom and forgiveness in Christ is rarely heard now and often passes people by.

But actually, we still know the frustration, and desire the freedom from it, and can find it wonderfully in Christ: it’s just that it hits us in other ways. Seriously brainy students come here to Cambridge and find their self-esteem shattered as they encounter academic standards that seem to be beyond them. Those same students graduate and discover that the old promises of a great job for life have given way to a marketplace that is more like a jungle, and finding their way through the thickets can easily defeat them. Those that do find jobs have to keep on competing to stay in them, and just one slip of illness, or less than perfect competence, or troubles at home can be curtains for a career. Advertising continually leads us on to make purchases that fail to deliver on their promises. Bishops and other senior people often feel a sort of imposter syndrome, as we try to inhabit roles with impossible expectations on them. And that’s before we all reckon with the shadier edges of our actions, which meant that when Mark Twain sent a dozen of his friends a telegram saying ‘flee at once – all is discovered,’ they all left town immediately.” We have become a society whose prosperity in the world of the flesh is matched by its poverty in the world of the Spirit, and we are more anxious, more addicted, more out of our depth than we have ever been before.

Well I’m letting myself get carried away a bit, but actually – I suspect that there isn’t anyone here this evening who doesn’t in their own way find themselves “minding the gap” as we could put it, the gap between aspiration and actuality. And we mind it particularly because most of us realise that we are not just the victims of others, of the undifferentiated and mythical “them”, but we are “them” too. Whether the issue is one of environmental sustainability, fairness in trade, ethical standards in relationships, use and misuse of substances, or one of the other big issues of our day, we are all too aware of how we fall short of the very standards that we ourselves want to set.

And now we have got back in modern terms to the battle that Paul sees is waging within us between what God’s Spirit wants and what out our human spirit wants, embodied as it is in the fallenness of enfleshed life. It’s not that embodied life itself is evil – it was after all made good by God, but that life as we know it has systemically and deliberately gone away from God – and that is the cause of the gap.

So we long, I long for transformation, in ourselves, in our churches, and in our world: but we find frustration. And that is why Paul, as we wonder where we can turn to save us from such a predicament, takes us back to the crown jewels of our faith in Christ. To whom else can we turn but the one who has the words, who is the word, of eternal life?

So as you seek as a church to be the followers of Jesus Christ, sharing the goodness of God with everyone, I want to call you back to Christ himself and to the life in Him and the life of His Spirit in you which are the only bridge over these troubled waters, and the only way in which you will both have that goodness from God to share, and have the passion, the productivity and the persistence to share it in a way that will make a real and continuing difference in this real world, that God loves so much.

I want you to be passionate, productive and persistent in your following of Christ.

Passionate, with your hearts are rooted in Christ Jesus through whose passion for you the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. Because of what was done on the cross the downward pull of our old corrupted passions has been crossed out, and we have been set free to have our minds set on what the Spirit desires, passionate still but now with the pure passions of Christ’s Spirit, fully alive in a way we could never have been before, alive in Christ. We let Christ take the lead, and all our life flows from him. As Paul Harcourt the new leader of New Wine put it in his recent newsletter, “The principle that, above everything else, we believe in is seeking the presence of God. It is, I believe, one of the things that defines us in New Wine – we want to make space for what God is doing.”

Productive, because the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, and you through that same Spirit are empowered now to become raising agents in the world, bringing little resurrections, little outposts of the kingdom and foretastes of heaven, wherever you go. Let me remind you of a story from the past this time, rather than a pronouncement from yesterday, one that has stood the test of time and shows how Christ in us can change the world. Holy Trinity Church was built in the smart new suburb of Clapham in the 1790s and could easily have just been a fashionable watering hole for faith. But Henry and John Venn and a whole group of evangelical Christians, not least William Wilberforce, joined forces as what we now know as the Clapham Sect to change society significantly for the better, succeeding in seeing slavery abolished throughout the empire and much more too, changing the whole spirit of the age. And the movement they built had continuing influence too, as Jean and I know because her three greats grandmother Isabella moved to Clapham, caught the vision, and passed it on though six generations of faithful women and a actively Christian families, now reaching our own daughter who will ordained next year to a parish in Doncaster.

Passionate, productive and also Persistent, making a difference structurally and long term to the world around us, because we are being built into a new sort of family and a new sort of society that to the world’s bemusement is God’s chosen way of spreading salvation to that world. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” That new sort of family and new sort of society is what we have come to call church, and understood like this church is not an obstacle to the Spirit but an opportunity for it, not a nuisance but in fact a necessity, the meeting place, as John Wimber put it, which is the learning place for the market place. Or as Bill Hybels so daringly claimed, the local church is the hope of the world.

So, James and Emily, welcome not just to the family of St Barnabas, but the great family of God, extending out through space and time, co-workers with God to see his kingdom come. Be passionate, be productive, be persistent, not just as James and Emily with all your wonderful natural gifts, but as James and Emily the children of God, filled with his Spirit and able in that Spirit to do far more than our human capacities can accomplish. And all you St Barnabasites, desire the deep presence of the Spirit of Christ with a passion, make tonight the night you clearly commit to renewed life in Him. Let the Spirit of Christ put you to productive work for the coming of his kingdom, and engage without fear with the world into which he so wonderfully came. Do not be ashamed to confess Christ together in the church, in this church, persisting in meeting together and growing together as the body of Christ, praying to be generous and visible as the people of Jesus, following him and sharing God’s goodness with everyone you encounter. Desire for them and for you the deep presence of the Spirit of Christ. Amen.

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