With credit to my good friend Simon for the original idea, my good friend Marjorie for reminding me what a great word ‘bionic’ is, and God for general inspiration, here’s what I said this morning on the passage in chapter 3 of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is baptised:
Baptism…beginnings… becoming… being
Jesus baptism marks the beginning of his active ministry, a change in his life and role.
The meeting between Peter and Cornelius marks the beginning of the Gospel becoming preached to those outside the Jewish community.
When we think about beginning the Christian life, it’s really helpful to consider what that actually entails- what are the normal parts of the Christian life- the things that its reasonable for us to expect of each other as Christians, the things we’re ‘signing up for’ when we join a church. What does it mean for me to be a Christian…
What things are the basics of the Christian life?
Two of the foundations are prayer and reading the Bible- often thought of as how we speak to and hear from God. We do these when we’re together, but it’s a normal part of the Christian life to spend time alone in prayer and reading the Bible each day, and that’s something we can each aim for. Depending on your life you may prefer to have a time in the morning, or the evening, or in the middle of the night. There are really very few circumstances in our life when this isn’t possible, and if we’re feeling that we just couldn’t do it, then that’s probably a sign of our need!
Prayer is the most important, and possibly the least understood aspect of our relationship with God… but then, there are many things in our lives that we take for granted without fully understanding- the way that sight works is beyond most of us, but we simply see rather than struggle with the concepts. Prayer is something we do by ourselves, and also together. When we’re praying with others we’re encouraged when we might be distracted… similarly by looking at Scripture with someone else we not only gain their insight but also the discipline to continue when we might otherwise stop.
As a church, we could benefit from praying more and from committing to read the Bible more- on our own and in groups…prayer morning and bible reading… they’re both crucial for us to move forward- if you want to, you can liken them to your feet- it doesn’t matter which one you start with, if you want to get very far you need both. The New Year is a bit of a time for resolutions- some of us may love that, others loath the idea. Here’s a simple suggestion for us all to take to heart- find a way of praying more with other people. You might like to come to the weekly prayer meeting on Thursday mornings, or to come along to the prayer morning next Saturday, or you might prefer to meet to pray with one or two others at a time convenient to you- as prayer partners. If that’s something you like the idea of, then look around you- ‘would you like to meet up every fortnight to pray together?’ is an ok thing for us to say to each other…
Being part of a community of faith- a church, holds these other things together and prevents us from ending up in an individualistic faith- we learn to be with others, to live alongside others, by being with and living alongside others. A church is part of the body of Christ, the people of God. We aren’t isolated individuals or lone rangers. The plural of Christian should really be church. When Cornelius and his household heard the message of the Gospel- of Christ crucified and his resurrection, as the Son of God in whose name we receive forgiveness, healing and eternal life- when they believed that they became a part of something bigger. We come together as a group of people to help us to grow as Christians. When I hear of someone who has faith but no need of church, I feel a mixture of admiration and sorrow- I admire someone who can continue to have faith and follow Jesus with no help or encouragement from anyone else, but I’m also sorry that they’ve allowed their faith to be limited by remaining in isolation. Its rather like a pot plant that needs to be repotted to grow and produce fruit- It might carry on living, but it rarely reaches its full potential. And the more fully we engage in the corporate life of our church, the more we benefit from being a part of it.
But what things do we do when we come together? We join together to worship- to praise God through songs, hymns and prayers, to give thanks for all He has done both in our own lives and in the life of the church- and on days when you may not feel worshipful, then you need the encouragement of others even more. We also come together to learn- from Scripture and from being together. We read God’s word, we hear it applied to our lives, we talk with each other about our lives. Fellowship isn’t just an optional bonus, it’s an essential part of the life of our church, one that’s become much easier for us to do since the improvements to the building.
There are also certain things that are much more between us and God- that we might talk about with others, but that we practice, that we do, ourselves- When we give of the gifts that God has given us, as we do in our offering- some use the envelopes, some give by direct debit, some prefer to put money in the plate… it doesn’t matter how we do it really (though there is a pragmatic truth that its simpler to sort it out if we all give by direct debit). The Christian tradition has been to tithe- to give a tenth to God. That’s how we churches have over time supported and brought transformation to communities near and far from here. The more generous we are with our finances, the less we are controlled by them. But the amount, the manner, the proportion of what we have- that is between us and God. Similarly fasting is something that is between us and God- though Jesus, the disciples and the church throughout history has assumed that Christians would fast periodically. Fasting isn’t simply going without food or self-denial (it’s not what we commonly associate with Lent), but actually its about giving time to be with God- if I’m not having to gather wood or prepare food for a meal, I can spend that time in prayer. If I’m not watching TV or using Facebook for a week, I can spend that time listening to God. It’s for a purpose- rarely is fasting just done for fun. These things are at the core, like our internal organs…
Then there are the things that we do as Christians- on one hand we serve the poor and those around us who are in need, and on the other we bear witness to God’s love. Some of us find one easier, and some the other, just as some of us prefer to pray and others to read Scripture. Both are a part of the normal Christian life- the ministry that each of us shares, that Cornelius and all those who came to faith in the early years of Christianity took on board. There are times when we find that through serving others we’re invited to give an answer for the faith we have, and there are times when we’re trying to share our faith and the most obvious way seems to be through our actions. But one thing is clear from the traditions of our church and from reading Scripture, these things aren’t an optional extra or simply for the elite, and we don’t have to be perfect or even to know what we’re doing to start- Cornelius asked Peter to come and speak with his household in full knowledge that it would be wrong for Peter to accept the invitation, and yet trusting God…
And at the top of it is Jesus, and our relationship with him. We worship him, we follow him, we are being transformed into his likeness. If we look to him, we are inspired by him. If we receive his Spirit, we are empowered to follow him. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be considering more about what it means for us to grow in these things- we’ll be thinking about discipleship, our gifts as individuals and a church, and how God is calling us to move forward together, in step with his will.
And animating all of this, making the difference between a mannequin and a living creature? Well that lifeblood, that anima, that… spirit of life, would be the Holy Spirit.