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Be blameless, be blessed 2 March 2015

Posted by Dr Moose in Chaplaincy, Church, Faith, Sermons, Sermons, Theology, University.
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Every so often I am asked & able to cover services in local churches, and I won’t deny that it’s nice to keep my hand in. Every so often I also wish to blog, which leads to something of a “quick win” by the inclusion of the text of yesterday’s sermon (the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary). Despite the fact that there is always some degree of deviation from the script, and that sermon context matters, in this case being addressed to a congregation on their first Sunday after their vicar has left to take up a new post, there may be some of you with enough interest (or time on their hands) to read it.

Be blameless, be blessed.

OT Reading: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16

NT Reading: Romans 4: 13-25     Gospel: Mark 8: 31-38

Welcome etc. Who I am, what I do, and how I know J.

Entering Interregnum: J moving on after a sustained ministry. It can be a bit like a bereavement. Themes may include regret, uncertainty, bereavement, fear, even anger, as well as more positive ones such as gratitude, hope and expectation (whether that is for improvement, or even a reset!)

At the moment though, I suspect, doubt, uncertainty and nervousness might be the primary themes. Looking to a journey that will take a deal longer than the traditional 40 days challenge of Lent, or even the slog that will take us through to the General Election In fact, you might feel a little like Abram. Not the physical age, (unless there is someone here very close to their century!) but in terms of place and future. Abram’s position didn’t appear very promising. He had set out on a journey in faith, not really knowing where he was meant to go. Yes, he knew that God was with him, and had done some great things, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was old, and childless by his primary wife. He was faithful, but perhaps beginning to worry a little about quite what, and how, God was going to sort things out. After all the previous chapter of Genesis saw Abram and his household defeat some serious warlords in the shape of some local kings. They were defeated, but still lived and had the power to make his life very difficult.

It’s into this context that God makes this tremendous promise. From this slender start God will build a nation and bring forth kings. In fact not just one nation, but the plural, nations, more than one! And it’s sealed in two ways.

The most obvious to us is the change of name. In the Ancient Near East names were hugely important. They are not mere labels, but instead are understood as holding something of the nature of the owner. To change the name was also to change the person, or a sign of change. In God’s changing of the name he is changing the destiny. Abram (“exalted father”) becomes Abraham (“father of many”). The shades of meaning with Sarah’s name are somewhat lost to us, but the name probably means “princess”, so there are royal connotations, befitting the mother of kings.

The second is the sealing of a covenant. A treaty between God and Abraham. God makes his promises in the expectation that Abraham will do his part. The compilers of the lectionary have rather cheekily chopped out one of God’s promises, the gift of land, and the details of Abraham’s compliance (instituting circumcision, marking the covenant in the flesh).

In short Abraham is told to be blameless, and in being so, be blessed. No huge code of laws. No rules to check his behaviour against or to restrict him and his descendants. Pretty simple really.

This is what Paul (another example of a man with a changed name to match a changed nature) is picking up upon in his letter to the church in Rome that we heard in our second reading. The Jews of Jesus’ day were proud to identify as “sons of Abraham”, but their grounds for confidence and being right in God’s sight were not based on the simplicity of the covenant between God and Abraham, but through obedience to the Torah, the Law with a capital L as given through Moses.

Being blessed by being blameless had been replaced by a righteousness rooted in a rigidity of law and practice.

The promise to Abraham simply depended on following a simple physical process, circumcision in the flesh. The Law revealed later to Moses, made the whole thing much more complicated. It took the command to be blameless and augmented it with the expectation of being obedient. There’s a big difference. Law gives us conditions upon which to judge, diagnostics if you like. The simple command to be blameless is much harder to call.

Abram who became Abraham, and the sons who came after him, Paul tells us, didn’t receive the inheritance God promised because they obeyed any rules to the letter. Instead they received because the faith they lived out resulted in right actions.

How often do we complicate things? I love the saying attributed to Spike Milligan, “we don’t have a plan, so nothing can go wrong.” If there’s no yardstick for success you can’t fail. Yes, it’s silly, but it’s also quite profound. Instead of reducing faith to a string of tick boxes it becomes an exercise in trust and response. We don’t always get it right, just as Abraham and all who followed after him didn’t always get it quite right, but God is rather bigger, and far more gracious and generous than any external examiner.

The simplicity of Abraham should also free us from the tyranny of expectations. The reason why Peter in our Gospel reading comes unstuck is because of expectations. Not in this case because of the Law, but of the time. Jesus speaks to his disciples of that which will be, with full knowledge. It is how it “must” be, he says. But Peter can’t cope with this. He can’t accept it, he can’t believe it. It’s a sign of his complete misunderstanding that he even takes Jesus aside and tries to tell him that he’s wrong! What makes this outburst even more extraordinary is that he’s only just acknowledged recently Jesus to be the Messiah, the Christ, the one sent by God to his long-suffering people of Israel to sort it all out!

Why should this be so? Because Jesus’ outline of the future, his knowledge of the way it was to happen simply didn’t fit with Peter’s way of thinking. The contemporary understanding of the role of the Messiah was a politicised one where the Christ would come and aid the people to throw off the Roman yoke and restore them to a new level of faith, holiness and prestige. The only problem was that Jesus, if I can put it this way, refused to play by the rules!

I said earlier that I am a University Chaplain. I work full-time seeking to show the love of Jesus to some 15,000 students and hundreds of staff across the two campuses of the University of Northampton and beyond. And it is, for the vast majority of time, a joy. It is by turns life-enhancing and exhausting, challenging and comforting. It is where God has called me to be, and where I flourish. I can’t think of anything better to be doing (as nice as it is to help out elsewhere every so often).

And one very important reason is that it forces me to trust God, and trust in a way that is free from so many of the rigid expectations. It forces me, or perhaps more truly it frees me, to be more like Abraham than Moses. To seek to be blameless, and become a channel for blessing, rather than regulated in seeking righteousness. Most students will be present in town for somewhat under three calendar years, and although staff stay longer sometimes the turnover is very rapid too. I cannot be like Peter, who wants to see the Kingdom of God NOW and in the terms his culture and people expect. Instead I have to be more like Abraham, and take the longer view. I may see, in some of my students, tremendous changes, but I also have to trust that for so many others the seeds that I sow will come to fruition in God’s time, not mine. And I will most likely never see it.

In God’s time. We live in a culture, that like Peter, wants answers now. It’s a culture of short-termism, and it permeates everything, unless we conciously resist it. Short term goals trump long term reality.

Jesus wasn’t willing to play the political games expected of his time, just as the church should resist doing the same in our days. The latest (rather large) pastoral letter, encouraging Christians to use their vote, is a good example of seeking a long term view. It doesn’t tell us how to vote, but about what should inform our vote. You might like to ask yourself, what might being blameless look like in how you use your vote in the spring?

But looking at matters in God’s time, of blessing rather than rules could apply here, rather than just “out there”. Are you worried about the next months without a vicar? How will you cope? Well, certainly better by seeking to be faithful and blameless than by fretting over “the rules”. And dont’ forget that the God who calls out to us, like he did to Abraham, doesn’t just call us to move away, to leave for that next place, but also to come. Jonathan may have been called elsewhere, but this is someone else’s next place. They won’t be J, they will be themselves, and by being themselves they will bring a blessing.

Or maybe, simplest of all, are you worried that you aren’t good enough? Are you busy trying to reach the standard, to win approval? The bad news is, you can;t do it. Give up now and stop torturing yourself. The good news for Abraham, the good news for each one of us in Christ, is that we don’t have to reach the standard. The seal of God’s approval has already been given in the New Covenant through Jesus Christ. We can’t earn it, all we can do is live in it, to be blameless, and to be blessed.

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