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The Destination changes you… 1 Peter 4:7-11

September 1, 2014

pray-love-serve-crossPreached at St Barnabas’, Jericho, on the Sunday After Ascension, Trinity Term, 1st June 2014

Suprises can be terrible things! Not knowing how to act, being caught off guard, maybe even acting instinctively, rather than with our usual polished performances. Imagine the scenario where your spouse, family-member, or friend, tell you they are taking you on a surprise trip. Questions naturally flood your mind: Should I agree or not? What shall I wear? Should I make a break for the door, or go along for the ride? When I enter the destination, persumably wearing a blindfold, will it be something terrible, or something terribly exciting? Surprises can be terrible things.

But imagine that scenario slightly changed. Imagine this time that you are still going on the same trip, but the difference being your spouse, family-member, or friend has told you all the details. They have told you where you are going, so you know what to wear. They have told you what will happen so you know what it will be like. And this time, though they still blindfold you, you know what awaits when the blindfold comes off, so you can prepare yourself and act appropriately.

The point I hope is clear: knowing the end means you know how to act now. Knowing the end means you know how to act now.

In the surprise scenario, you were nervous and unsure, but in the second scenario, you were confident and sure. In the surprise scenario you may well have acted wrongly, but in the second scenario you would act appropriately to the circumstances. For most of the world, Peter tells us, their lives are like the first scenario, the surprise scenario; they do not know how to act, they do not know how to live. But for Christian’s, our lives are meant to be more like the second scenario, because we know how the story ends. We know that Christ has triumphed in his cross and resurrection, and one day will return, and so we can now live deliberate lives. Lives which resonate well with the reality we see when the blindfold comes off. The reality of seeing the Ascended Jesus seated before us in majesty. This is what the disciples had caught a glimpse of, on that day almost 2000 years ago, as Christ ascended in to heaven. They had been given a vision of the end of the story, and told to go and share this story with others, so that they too might be prepared.

Given, I hope that those of us gathered here today, know how the story ends, we may well ask:

How then shall we then live?

That is, what difference will knowing the end of history, make to the here and now, to how we at St Barnabas’ live, in our everyday lives? Peter gives us three particular things to bear in mind. Three particular marks, if you like, of the difference knowing the end of the story should make to our lives.

These are Prayer, Love, and Service.

Knowing that Christ is ascended, sitting on the right hand of the Father, from which He will return to judge the quick and the dead, we pray. We pray, knowing that He hears us, we pray, knowing that He loves us, and we pray knowing that He will return. This intimate connection with the Father, ensures everything else which follows.

Knowing and loving the Father, we are enabled to love one another, the second of Peter’s commandments. Loving the person sat in front of us, the ones sitting behind us, and the ones we will share the peace with. Loving them, not because they are lovely, though they might be. Loving them, not because they are nice, because of course a lot of the time we aren’t. But rather loving them, as a parent loves a child, or a spouse loves his partner, despite their ugliness and imperfections, simply because we have first been loved, in all our ugliness and imperfections. And it is this love which leads us to serve. Love which does not seek for our own benefit, but rather the benefit of the other. Love which seeks to care for the one in front of us, no matter the cost. Love like that which caused God to leave the eternal bliss, and descend to our ugly and messed up world, to live among us, carry our sins, die our death, rise in glory, and finally ascend to the Father. If we are to be with God, then we must follow in His stead, loving those around us, bearing one anothers burdens, dying to self, before finally ascending to the Father.

This service is generic, in that all of us are called to love, all of us are called to reach out, all of us are called to be hospitable, and all of us are called to serve the church. And yet this service is also unique. We are all given different gifts by God, different gifts which are not for our own glory, nor something on which we should build our own identity upon. Rather each gift plays a vital part in the working of the church, and in the service of Christ. Different gifts mean different roles, some like Jonathan, and Mark, are given gifts to speak the very words of God, to remind us of the story in which we are all caught up. to remind us of the end of the story, so that we can get our bearings right, and thus use our gifts in the appropriate way. But just because we may not be called to ordination, does not mean, we cannot serve the church. Without the gifts of music, art, hospitality, prayer, children’s work, cleaning, administration, and the many other things which it takes to make a parish work, St Barnabas’ would simply cease to work. The community needs your gift, this team needs all the players it can get, if it is to fulfil its calling. To tweak the cliché: Your church needs you; in fact it is you!

At the danger of sounding profane, we unexpectedly find something of this truth articulated in the story of Watership Down.
When one of their party are caught in a trap, the sojourning rabbits, have to work together to save Bigwig:

The truth about the warren had been a grim shock. They had come closer together, relying on and valuing each other’s capacities. They knew now that it was on these and nothing else that their lives depended, and they were not going to waste anything they possessed between them. […] Without Hazel, Blackberry, Buckthorn, and Pipkin, Bigwig would have died. Without himself he would have died, for which else, of them all, would not have stopped running after such punishment? There was no more questioning of Bigwig’s strength, Fiver’s insight, Blackberry’s wits or Hazel’s authority.

It is, in that story, as in our story, only in working together that salvation is worked out using our gifts, the gifts which He has given us, in the service of His Church. Two more question remain:

How and why are we to do any of this?

How are we, just a fairly ordinary group of people, with busy lives, expected to create this loving and serving community. If we are honest, too often we find the person sitting in front of us too annoying or at least uninteresting to be able to love them as we should. In fact, given we we struggle to love our nearest and dearest in this way, how can we be expected to love those in our church in this way? Well perhaps the story of the Ascension, and today’s Gospel reading give us a clue.

When the apostles had finished watching Jesus ascending, they did what He told them to do, albeit with some encouragement, and they went to Jerusalem and waited. That’s right, they waited. They didn’t immediately go about building this community of love and service, they knew, for Jesus had told them that they would need divine help.
Today’s Gospel reading records what they are waiting for. Jesus said:

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.

This testifying in word and in loving service can only happen with the help of the Holy Spirit, that divine person who comes to dwell in us at the moment of our conversion and baptism, who leads us, guides us, and sustains us. Here again we find the reason why prayer preceeds everything else. For it is only through the Father’s help, by His gift of the Spirit, that we can possibly do any of what we have been speaking about. The Holy Spirit provides the ‘how’ of this call on our lives, and the Holy Spirit provides the ‘why’, ‘he will glorify me’ Jesus says, in John’s Gospel,or as Peter sums it up in our Epistle

so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.

This loving and serving of Christ’s body the Church, is a living testimony to the world about God. By hearing the story, and seeing it lived out in His people, God will be glorified, by the drawing of those who do not yet know Christ, to His side. Just as, Tertullian, one of the Church Fathers wrote,

Our care for the derelict and our active love have become our distinctive sign before the enemy…See, they say, how they love one another and how ready they are to die for each other.

Even the pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, acknowledged the radically counter cultural life of the early Christians saying:

The [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours as well

So, we too are to glorify God by our words and deeds. God calls on us, as the people of God in Jericho, to, in the words of Peter:

Live such good lives among the pagans that,
though they accuse you of doing wrong,
they may see your good deeds
and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Amen

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