Thursday, October 30, 2008

The End is Nigh?

Matthew 24:1-14: For St Mark's Church, Northend, Portsmouth: on 2nd November (All Souls)

I was watching a movie the other day. I honestly forget which movie - it was one of those many disaster epics, where the world is about to end thanks to a meteorite, or aliens, or the raising of the water levels, or some such thing. What I remember most about the movie was a tiny little scene - just a bit a humour to lighten the apocalyptic mood. The camera showed us one of those slightly barmy folks with a sandwich-board...the kind that normally says "The End of the World is Nigh!". But instead of that message, in the middle of all the panic and chaos, his sign had its normal slogan crossed out - and instead he had written: "Told you so!"

We find such people amusing because people have been predicting the end of the world practically since the world began. Every few years we hear of another religious sect which has walled itself into a cave, or climbed to the top of a mountain, to await the end of the confidently predicted by their leaders. The internet, and certain types of bookshops, are full of the writings of people who claim to be able to interpret the numerology of the Bible...and who reckon that God has shown them that the End is nearly upon us.

A lot of this apocalyptic doom-saying comes, of course, from the example of the Bible. It was clearly something that was exercising the minds of those around the writer of Matthew's Gospel - as we've just heard. According to most scholars, Matthew's Gospel was written after the year AD70 - when the Romans had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, after yet another uprising against their rule by those 'troublesome Jews'. Life for the early Christians was proving to be very hard. They were being persecuted for their faith, thrown out of the synagogues and the Temple, as well as coming up against the might of Roman Emperor-worship. Now, after the Temple has been destroyed, Matthew records a tradition, handed on through the years, that Jesus himself had predicted the Temple's destruction.

What else had Jesus predicted? Well according to Matthew, he had predicted the very persecution that people found themselves going through. It must have been comforting for them to know that their persecution was predicted, and somehow accounted for, in God's plan. Of still more comfort was the promise (in verse 14) that once the Gospel had been preached to the four corners of the Earth, then the end would come, and all the persecution would stop.

These were messages of hope - messages designed to help the newly established 'followers of The Way' (as early Christians were called) to hold onto their faith, and to keep on persevering. Matthew wanted to offer comfort and encouragement to people who were doubting that Jesus was ever going to return as he had promised.

But of course the problem with Jesus words, as Matthew recorded them, is that they are deliberately ambiguous...and they relate to all of human history. Famines, earthquakes and wars are a repeated phenomenon, throughout history. Did you know that according to one recent historical survey, there have only been seven years, in the last 2000, that a war has not been going on somewhere in the world? Seven years, out of 2000. Persecution and suffering by Christians is a common theme of the last 2000 years as well. Even now, as we meet in safety and peace here in England, our brothers and sisters in certain parts of India and Afghanistan are in fear of their very lives. One of the worst effects of the War in Iraq has been that Christians are now fleeing the country - whereas under Saddam, they at least had the freedom to worship.

Perhaps the end is coming soon. Many Christians talk about these as the 'Last Days' - but then that is a phrase that was used by St Paul as well - nearly 2000 years ago. We would be wise not to imagine that the world is going to end tomorrow. The lesson of history is that we should be very suspicious of anyone who tells us that the end is nigh.

On the other hand, we are encouraged to live as though the end was nigh. Jesus told many stories which encourage us to live as if the end was upon us. We can boil all those stories down into one question: "If Jesus came today, what would you like him to find you doing?" (I have a rather facetious fridge magnet at home which captures that thought rather comically. It says: 'Jesus is coming...look busy!'). Would we want to be caught gambling, or giving to charity? Would we want to be caught fighting, or reconciling? Would we want to be caught praising or cursing? Would we want to be caught shopping, or sharing?

So there is a challenge for us in Jesus words - but there is also promise. There is promise that history is His Story. There is promise that God holds all of human history in the palm of his hands. Famine, war, earthquake, persecution, false Messiahs, God is big enough to cope with them all. Jesus' words, recorded by Matthew, help us to understand that God is so much bigger than human history and human events. He stands outside of history, and yet he contains it. He is before human history, and after it. Whether and when the world will be transformed by God into 'heaven on earth' is not really the issue. The issue is whether or not we trust God when he says that he loves us - and how we respond to that love. That's all that ultimately matters: how much do we let the love of God overwhelm us. How much are we willing to let his love flow through us - transforming the world into a new heaven and a new earth? How much are we willing to let the Son of Man rule in our hearts?

A final thought - on a related theme. Today is All Souls Day - and we shall be remembering those we have loved later on, at our 3o'clock Service of Memories. Some people get rather anxious when they think about their loved ones who have died - especially those who died without obviously expressing a Christian belief. It is a question - sometimes an unspoken one - which often hovers between a priest and a grieving family: "where do you think our loved one is now?". The easy thing for any priest to do would be to offer meaningless words of go along easily with statements which assume the loved one is now in heaven. But that would, I think, be dishonest.

The truth is, we cannot know the ultimate destination of any human being. When the end is nigh for us as individuals, no-one else is able to judge the state of the human other than God alone. But we can have confidence in one thing - and perhaps one thing alone. We can have confidence that God is good...and God holds all of human history in his hands. We can have confidence that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten that the world, through him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)

In other words, we know that every fibre of God's being is bent on our salvation, not on our destruction. God wants 'the world' to be saved...and that surely means everyone in it, or who has ever lived in it. God never stops reaching out for us, loving us, drawing us to the Divine Life. None of us can judge to what extent that process has been sucessful in the life of any individual. We can only trust that God will have done, and has done, and continues to do all that God can do to save everyone.

And so we celebrate All Souls Day with real hope. Whatever the life of the people we pray for today, we hope and trust in God. "All our hope on God is founded"...and we trust that he who holds all of human history in his hands will hold our loved ones too.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

Matthew 24:30-35 - For St Mark's Church on Sunday 26th October

"Is this is real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide; no escape from reality". With those words, Freddie Mercury began one of the most famous Rock anthems of all time - the Bohemian Rhapsody. He asks a question which haunts most of us from time to time. Is this it? Is this 'landslide' how it was supposed to be?

Let me ask you. How do you feel about the world? Is it getting better, or worse? For all our technology, and all our wisdom, and all our does the world seem to you? How is it that there can be so much beauty, so much good, and yet also so much pain, and so much hurt?

According to book of Genesis, when God created the earth, he planted a garden. The story goes that in that garden, God planted a tree...the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And God said to human beings, 'I'm giving you a choice. Either you can live as I created you to live, or you can live how you want. You can live 'in the garden' for ever, with me; or you can do your own thing, and die. That tree...the one over the symbol of what you'll choose. Eat of the tree...and you'll choose your way, not mine. Good or evil. Life or death. It's your choice.

Lots of people get very steamed up about whether or not the Genesis story is true - whether it's actual history, or whether its a fable, like Aesop's fables; a story which points to a greater truth.

I think perhaps I had better pause there for a moment - just to let that idea sink in. It might come as a bit of a shock for some of you.

I believe, you see, that we have to be very careful how we treat the Scriptures. If we read them literally - believing that every image, every picture, every story literally happened - then we can quickly find ourselves in very difficult water. We have to use our minds, apply our knowledge and our common sense, and learn to discern what is factual history in the Bible; and what is story, myth, and fable. Now - please understand me. Just because a story is a fable doesn't mean that it isn't true. There is always truth underlying fables - just as there was truth underlying the fables - the parables - that Jesus himself taught. No-one believes that there really was a Good Samaritan. That story is obviously a fable - a parable - designed to help us understand who our neighbour is. Why then should we get hung up on questions about Adam and Eve. Instead of trying to do battle against Science - and arguing that the world is only 6,000 years old - why not look for the truth which underlies the story...the essential truth at the heart of it?

Perhaps the truest thing that can be said about the Genesis story is not whether or not it actually happened...but that it still happens. It is still happening. Just like our ancestors, we are still faced with the same choice...good or evil. Life or death.

At the other end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, there is another tree. That tree is depicted on the sculpture at the back our church - thanks to the vision of one of my predecessors here, Bill Sargeant.

Let me invite you to stand up, or turn around now in your seats...and have a look at it. It's called the Tree of Life - and it has 12 kinds of fruit, so that it produces fruit all through the year. The writer of Revelation, in characteristic fable-talk, says that the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations.

So there's a tree at the beginning of human history, and a tree at the end. And we live between the trees. The trees act like markers. Before the first tree, God went on for ever, back into eternity. After the second tree, God will go on for ever, into eterntity. But for a brief, momentary blip in eterntity...we live between the trees.

In today's Gospel reading, we hear part of a much longer description, by Jesus, of the end of time - when the sign of Son of Man (maybe the Cross?) will appear in the sky, and history will be brought to its dramatic end. Now, again, we must be careful not to put too much faith in the precise images he uses. Jesus quite normally spoke in riddles and parables - again the language of fable... challenging us to go beyond the words, deep into the inner meaning of the text. In verse 35, Jesus says, 'Heaven and Earth will pass away - but my words will not pass away'. This period we are living in - here between the trees - this will end. But is that it? Is that what Christianity is ultimately about - waiting for the world to end? To meet some people of faith, you would indeed think that is all it is about.

Some Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on my door a few weeks ago. I leave you to imagine the shock on their faces when the door was opened by someone wearing a clerical collar. "Oh," they said, pointing to the sign on my door, "this really is a Rectory then!". I invited them in - because I always enjoy a good theological debate. And at the end of our time together, I concluded regretfully, that life for a Jehovah's Witness must be a very sad one. They are so focused on the end of the story, so caught up with the details about who will be saved, and when the end will come, that they forget the life that is now. They seem not to understand the real truth of the Genesis story - that we can choose life now, instead of death. They don't see the underlying truth of all the stories and fables about the end of history...the promise that God is Good...and that God will keep on inviting us to choose life, not death.

And that for now, we live between the trees.

I don't know about you, but I want a God who is interested in The Now. I want a God who helps me to choose life now. I want a God who inspires me to help others choose life now. I want a God who gives me a garden of eden to live in, and look after, now. And fortunately, I believe, the real God is precisely like that. Jesus - the man whose connection with God was undoubtedly stronger, deeper, more real than anyone else who has ever lived - Jesus points us to that God. When Jesus says that 'the Kingdom of God is among you' he shows us that eternal life is not something that happens after we die...eternal life starts now! We, his brothers and sisters, are 'inheritors of that promise'. We can choose life now, and begin to never, ever, ever, stop living. We can choose life now. Here, between the trees, is the promise of life. In Jesus words, "life to the full" is available to us now.

May you trust Jesus when he says that death has been taken care of; that you can live forever with God, and that you are never, ever, going to stop living. May you believe that you can be a partner with God in taking care of the world - in redeeming and restoring what has been broken in the world - in bringing healing and life to the places of darkness. May you believe that God calls you to join forces with God - to help make this earth the kind of place is was always meant to be...a garden of life.

Too many people live our their lives in deserts - deserts of arid consumerism, deserts of hatred and enmity, deserts of shattered relationships, war and poverty. May you be the kind of person who plants trees of life...trees of the desert.

(I wish to gratefully acknowledge the work of Rob Bell, upon whose thinking much of this sermon is based - especially his DVD called 'Trees'. Go to for more details.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Thoughts of Tom

Here's a little news from the Kennar Desk...

I've decided to create a secondary blog-site, so that I've got somewhere to pour out any random thoughts which I feel like communicating to the world at large. (Go to )

That means I can leave this main site for what it has largely become - somewhere to give my sermons a second airing, and a chance for parishioners and other readers to argue or comment.

Did you know that you can subscribe to both my blogs? Click on the button marked "subscribe" on the left. If you subscribe, you will receive notification of whenever I leave a new message on either you can choose whether or not to read it!

Oh yes, and I've also changed the design of this blog (using the handy template facility offered by Google). Obviously, I need to find something more like work to be getting on with...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Render unto Caesar

Preached at St Mark's Church, North End, Portsmouth, on 19th October 2008

Render unto Caesar... Matthew 22.15-22

I have a dog. Her name is Imogen. Don't ask me how she got that name...she arrived with it, from a rescue centre. Sometimes I feel a bit of a berk, standing in the park calling out such a fancy name. But that's not why I'm telling you about Imogen. Anyone who has a dog will know exactly how they tend to behave around the dinner table. Even though Imogen has just eaten an enormous bowl of dog-food, she will still sit, with hunger oozing from every whisker, watching every mouthful that we eat from our plate. You can hear her thoughts...telepathically transmitted through her hungry eyes, and her panting mouth...."Do you really want that last bit of chicken? I could eat that for you, you know...if you need some help. The gravy...yes, that last little smear of gravy on the bottom of your you need some help with that. I don't mind...really."

And then, when you're washing up, "Do you want that bit of baked-bean juice...on that dishcloth. Chuck it here...I'll sort that out for you." And later, over coffee and biscuits..."I could eat a biscuit...actually a whole packet of, a whole lorry-load of biscuits. Just one biscuit...please!.

Martin Luther had a dog. He used to say, "If only I could pray the way this dog watches the meat! All his thoughts are concentrated on the piece of meat. Otherwise he has no thought, no wish, no hope"

But we mustn't give in. The vet has told us that Imogen mustn't have more food than has been carefully weighed out for her. Otherwise she'll get all fat and lumpy - and the old adage that dogs look like their owners will come true! So we have a rule in our house now: render unto Imogen that which is Imogen's, and unto humans that which is humans'.

Of course, when Jesus said the original of that saying - "render to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's" - he was thinking of some rather grander concepts than canine diets! But what was he, in fact, saying? Many scholars have debated for centuries the meaning of his words - as indeed they have debated many of Jesus' words. Some say that Jesus was advocating a separation between church and state - that he believed in disestablishing the Church of England, for example. Caesar and God are separate - and so the Church of England and the Government of England should go their separate ways.

Others, however, have argued that this wasn't in Jesus' mind at all. Those others are the owners of the longest word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism - they are 'anti' the idea of 'disestablishing' the church. They are antidisestablishmentarianists! (Just thought you might like to know that!)

Taken as part of Matthew's Gospel as a whole, it seems that Jesus was not really all that interested in those kinds of questions. For Jesus, the concept of the Kingdom was an all embracing one. The Kingdom has the power, and the potential to touch every part of life...from the humblest interaction between two people in a family, to the great summits of world leaders. Jesus' claim is that the Kingdom, and it's principles, must (and will) infuse all life.

Jesus talks about the Kingdom (and Kingdom people) as being like salt, which flavours; or light which illuminates; or yeast which causes dough to rise. The Kingdom will spread, Jesus promises, like a sort of holy virus... transforming everything it touches... from religious institutions to whole Governments.

I have to confess to being somewhat of a fan of our Archbishop of Canterbury - Rowan Williams. Like Marvin the Parnoid Android in Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Rowan really does have a brain the size of a planet. I have to run at his books in very small chunks...because his thinking is SO complex (and his sentences SO long!) that it takes me quite a while to begin to catch up to what he is saying. On the subject of the Kingdom, Rowan offers a particularly fascinating thought. He says "there is a provisionality about the Kingdom...a sort of 'now but not yet' quality." I think I know what he means...

He means, I think, that the Kingdom is truly among us (as Jesus proclaimed)...but it is not yet completely established. We see the Kingdom among us everytime a child is saved from hunger, or an AIDS sufferer is welcomed as a member of the family of God. We see the Kingdom every time that human beings reach out with generosity to one another...and every time that love, justice and mercy are shown.

But we all know, don't we, that there are many places where the Kingdom is yet to come. So many place of darkness. So many places where the light of Christ does not yet shine.

We are called to live in this 'duality'. We live as people with one foot in heaven, and one foot on the earth. We must deal with the world as it is...and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. We must pay our taxes, and comply with all the laws that society has erected around our individual freedom. But we are also citizens of another Kingdom. We pray 'thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven' precisely because we have caught sight of what the Kingdom is like...and because we want to bring it closer. We know how good it feels to find goodness, love, generosity, and mercy. And we long for more of it. And so, we render to God that which is God's...we give him of our time, and our money, precisely because we long for the Kingdom to be fully established 'on earth as it is in heaven'.

And let's make no bones about it. The more we give, of our time and our money, the sooner that day will come. Our money is oil on the wheels of the Kingdom. Just a few weeks ago I said, from this pulpit, that God doesn't need our money...he is God, after all. He can do whatever he wants. But, God has chosen to work with humans, and through humans. He doesn't want to impose his Kingdom on the earth - he wants us to want it. He wants us to do our part to usher it in. He wants a relationship of love with us in which we give, sacrificially, in the same way as he has also given sacrificially.

And Folks...we do have to think about our giving. Did you hear the story about the £10 note who met his old friend the 50p piece in the street one day? "Where have you been?" asked the 50p piece. "I haven't seen you for ages". "Oh," said the £10 note, "I've been really busy. I've been down the pub, out to a football match, then to the cinema, and then out for a meal. Busy busy busy. What about you? Where have you been?". "Oh," replied the 50p piece. "The same old drudgery for me, I'm afraid. Church, church, and church again!".

Ouch. But there is a germ of truth in it, isn't there?

Enough said, on the topic of money. There are many other ways of being part of the great call to usher in the Kingdom. "Thy kingdom come" is something we all need to pray...if we are at all serious about this thing that we do together each Sunday. And prayer is not always done with words...often its done with actions too. St Francis, one of our patron saints in this parish, said: "Pray always...with words if necessary". We can all of us give time, and energy, and expertise to the task of ushering in the Kingdom - as of course many of you already do...and for which I am very grateful. But that's the task that Jesus give us...that's the privilege he calls us to. That's the honour he bestows on rely upon us, little us, to be his co-workers in bringing his Kingdom of love, and mercy, and justice and peace into this community of North End...and around the world.

Jesus calls us to give to Caesar that which is Caesar...but to God that which is God's. He calls us to live as people who hunger after the Kingdom, as a dog hungers after her master's sausages. He calls us be people who understand that the Kingdom is both 'now' and 'not yet' - and that we are the ones who have been called to be salt and light to the world.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Many are Called...Few are Chosen

Many are called...few are chosen: Matthew 21:1-14. Preached at St Nicholas' Church, Battenburg Ave, on Sunday 12th October.

When I was at school, my P.E. teacher seemed to take pleasure in appointing captains for football teams, and then getting the captains to pick their own players from the rest of the class. He was a sadist. The result, as far as I was concerned was that I was always the last to be chosen. Sad really. But then, despite the achievements of Peter Crouch down at Fratton Park, great tall lanky individuals like me are rarely good football players. In my case, I was such a useless football player, that the captain of the team who was forced to have me would inevitably turn to our sadistic PE teacher and complain "Do we have to have Kennar? It's not fair. He's rubbish!" If there were more than 22 of us boys available to play a match, you could guarantee that I would spend the whole time sitting on the bench.

We had all been called out onto the football pitch. But we were not all chosen to play. Or in Jesus' rather pithy statement..."many are called...but few are chosen".

But of course, Jesus wasn't talking about football matches. Jesus makes his rather strange statement at the end of the parable we've just heard. It's a parable about a wedding feast - in which lots of different people are invited to attend, but only some get to actually stay for the meal...either because they refuse the invitation, or because they get themselves thrown out.

With this particular parable, Jesus is compressing the story of salvation history into just a few short sentences. The Wedding Feast is an allegory for the salvation of the world - right from the initial sending of the prophets to Israel, through the renewed invitation by Christian missionaries, concluding at the last judgment, when the good are separated from the bad.

But this is not just a simple historical survey. This is not a story designed to make Christians feel nice and smug about being invited to the Wedding Feast, while the poor old Jews, or other older religions are consigned to some sort of hell. No, its actually a much more troubling story than that. Consider the last part of the story...from verse 11:

"...when the King came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the King said to his attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'. For many are called but few are chosen."

In early Christianity, the new life of a Christian was often pictured as being like putting on a new set of clothes. It's like changing a dirty shirt for a clean one. We are encouraged to change our old ways of life, and to put on our new Christian identity. (Blog readers might like to compare this idea with Rom 13:12-14; Gal 3:27; Eph 6:11; Col 3:12;) But this man, whom the King discovers sitting at the feast, has not put on his 'wedding robe'. He is among the guests at the wedding...but he has not actually changed his clothes. And so, he finds himself excluded from the party.

This rather troubling man is held up for all of us to consider. He represents the kind of church-goer, the kind of believer, who attends the ceremonies, and sings the songs, and stands up and sits down in all the right places...but who never lets the words of Jesus take root in his life. He is the person who never takes up the invitation to put on the wedding robes.

"Many are called...but few are chosen." It might help us if we dig a little deeper in the meaning of those words. The word that is translated for us as 'chosen' is the Greek word ekletos (in anglicised Greek!). It's the word from which we get the english word 'elected' - and in biblical terms, in means, essentially, 'those who are accepted at the last judgment'. Those who have elected to follow God. Those who have been elected by God to spend eternity with him.

The point of this statement is to say that many many people - in fact, the whole earth - is called by God to put on the new clothes of the wedding feast. But only some will respond to the call. Only some will be elected, or will elect themselves, to respond to the call.

And crucially, as far as Jesus is concerned, some of those who will and do refuse the offer of new life are among us the church...sitting alongside us in the pews.

How are we to respond to this startling idea? Should we start a witch-hunt perhaps...a new Spanish root out the unelected in our midst? Perhaps I should conduct interviews with everyone in the parish to determine who is in, and who is out?(!).

Perhaps not! This statement of Jesus' is not intended as some kind of invitation for the church to start making decisions about who is and who is not 'in'. It's important to note from the story that it is not the other guests who throw out the intruder. Only the King himself has that authority. But sadly, that is not always the case within the church. Unfortunately, there are some people in the church who think that they have got a monopoly on the truth. They are SO certain that their understanding of Truth is the only one. 

So how are we to discern? How are we to tell whether even we ourselves are those whom the King will invite to the wedding feast, or those whom the King will throw out? Well, fortunately, the King has already given us just the information we need to discern whether or not we are wearing the right wedding robes. But to understand what the King has taught us, we need to switch metaphor for a moment...

In chapter seven of Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying that it is 'by their fruit' that we will be able to tell false believers from true ones. "A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit", says Jesus in Matthew 7:17. St. Paul picks up the same metaphor when he talks about the Fruit of the Spirit, in his letter to the Christians in Galatia. "The fruit of the Spirit" he says, "is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control".

This parable is a challenge to us, just as it was a challenge to Jesus' hearers, and Matthew's readers. It's a challenge for us to re-examine the very heart of what it means to be a follower of God - a guest at the wedding feast. The follower of God is the one in whom the fruit of the spirit is displayed. The follower of God is the one in whom love conquers hate, in whom generosity conquers greed, in whom justice for the poor and the oppressed burns as it burns in the heart of God. Consider, if you will, the words of God through the prophet Micah...the clearest, most unambiguous test of the follower of God that there has ever been..."And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.". That's it. That's the challenge. Understand that central calling to justice, mercy, and the humbling of oneself before the Creator - and you've understood the heart of the Christian faith.

And as we consider that challenge, we could do far worse than contemplate the last lines of this morning's New Testament reading. Let's hear again Paul's words to the Philippians (4:8-9):

"Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."


Saturday, October 04, 2008

God the Coach Driver (Philippians 3)

God the Coach Driver (Philippians 3.4b-14). Preached at St Mark's on Sunday 5th October

I'm going to depart from my normal practice of focusing on the Gospel reading this morning - because the set New Testament reading for today, from Philippians, is just bang-on to where I think we are heading as a congregation. In that reading, we heard Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, saying that he is pressing on towards the goal...for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Paul uses the metaphor of a journey to talk about his ongoing faith and trust in God.

In another existence, (while I was training to be a minister) I used to be a part-time Coach Driver. And I know that when my passengers put themselves in my hands, they were are content to leave the journey entirely up to me. They trusted that the coach driver knew where he was going – and that I wouldn’t get them stuck up some country lane! They trusted that my entire purpose, while they were on my coach, was to make the journey as enjoyable as possible for them.

Following God is a bit like that. When we say 'yes' to having faith in God, we give over control of the journey to God. We trust that God knows where he is going, and that the journey will be the most thrilling, the most fulfilling, the most meaningful journey that it can be...simply because it is God's journey, not ours.

And I think that we can look at our own life together, here in St Mark's as, somewhat of a journey too. But let's look at Paul's description of his own journey, first - and see how it might compare to ours...

Paul starts by reflecting on where he has come from. In the early verses of the reading, (verses 4 to 6) he describes how, in his younger days, he was the most religious Jew of his time. He had been circumcised on the correct day, he was a member of the people of Israel, a 'Hebrew born of Hebrews'. On top of that, he had become a Pharisee - a religious teacher - so he understood the Law of God in great detail, and as far as the law was concerned, considered himself blameless. And as for his commitment, well, he claimed, no-one had more religious zeal than him. He was a persecutor of the Church, who went around seeking out those he considered heretics, and having them stoned.

But let's see what happens next on Paul's journey of life. Paul describes how he encountered Christ - how he found that all his achievements as a religious leader counted for nothing compared to knowing Jesus. In verse 8, he describes all his previous achievements as 'rubbish'. At least, that’s what it says in our translation...although actually, the Greek word he used here was much fruitier than simple 'rubbish'. A direct translation would be something closer to dung...or a certain word beginning with 'sh' and ending in 't'!!

In other words, along his life's journey, Paul discovered that all his rules, regulations, assumptions, laws and religious practices didn't matter at all. All that religious stuff was just muck, dung, sshhhh…. Compared to the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord” (verse 8)

Here's something that must give us pause...something to make us wonder.

I'm sure that all of you, by now, have worked out that I do things a little differently than some of my priestly colleagues - especially up here in the Sanctuary. You might have noticed that I don't kiss the altar at the start of the service, like some people do. I don't wear a Cotta, or a cope - and I'm even happy to celebrate communion dressed only in a jacket and clerical collar, as I did during last month's baptism service. I'm sure that there are lots of little religious details that I don't do 'correctly'...and which, perhaps, some of you might have been a little perturbed by. Partly, that's because I come from a different tradition of the church...for many years I worshipped in churches where even wearing a cassock was highly suspect! So sometimes I do things differently simply because I don't know any better!

But the other reason that I don't do many of these things, is that I want to send a message...a clear message...that whether or not I bow at the right time, or kiss the altar, or wear the right clothes...all these things are just traditions, religious practices. They have nothing to do with the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Nothing at all.

They may, of course, be helpful for some people. For some people - perhaps some of you - the drama of worship is very important. It helps people to move beyond the day-to-day ordinariness of life, and to gain a glimpse of a different reality...the reality of heaven. And that's great. If it helps you for me to do some of these things from time to time...then I'm delighted to do them. We will, for example, probably use incense during major festivals of the church's year. I don't mind wearing robes during most services - if it helps you to put aside questions of fashion, and to be able to focus instead on worshipping God.

But I do ask you to remember, that none of these religious practices are what Christianity is ultimately about.

I honestly believe that Jesus doesn't care one jot about whether we bow, or raise our hands at the right places. Jesus doesn't care whether we are wearing the right colour for the season, or whether we light candles, ring bells, or swing incense - or whether we don't. Jesus doesn't care whether we stand or sit at the right places.

No, what Jesus cares about is whether, like Paul, we are journeying towards his heart. Jesus cares about whether we are discovering more and more of what it means to live 'in Him' (as Paul says in verse 9) - letting his love and compassion, his mercy and forgiveness, his heart for the poor and the oppressed flow through us, and into our neighbours and friends. Jesus cares about whether we are willing to engage with his radical message of love and generosity. Jesus cares about whether we are willing to die to self, and be raised to the new life - the resurrection life - that God offers to all of humanity.

What does that mean in practice? Well, for a start, as we sang in our opening hymn, it means counting our richest earthly gains as loss – or rubbish, or dung (in St Paul’s words!) It means surrendering our human perspective on life to the Divine perspective. And that's a radical idea...

It means ceasing to regard ourselves as consumers, whose only purpose in life is to get up, work, make money, spend money, and go back to bed. It means ceasing to regard ourselves as individuals who have the right to exploit others just so that we can pursue our own narrow definition of happiness. It means instead learning to see ourselves as God sees us - as members of a people who are inextricably linked to one people whose actions have consequences for all those around us. It means seeing ourselves as people who are called to love our neighbour, and to let the love of Jesus flow through us. It means seeing ourselves as those who are called to be salt and light to the community around us...calling others into our common life with God, inviting them, with us, to learn to live life to the full. (John 10:10)

I'm sure that all of you are ready, in theory, to embrace this radical call. But, I imagine, many of you are wondering what that means in practice. And do you know what...? I don't know! I can't answer that for you.

Perhaps God will call you to do more within the life of the serve in the community cafe, or the monthly table top sale, or to get involved with flower rotas, or singing in the choir, or serving on the PCC, or writing for the parish magazine, or wielding a paint-brush - all activities that help us all to be effective in reaching out the community. Perhaps, if you are already horribly busy with work and family it might mean God calling you to give more money to sustain our oil the wheels so that we can truly tell God's story beyond these walls. Perhaps God might call you to radically change the path of your embrace a change in career, or perhaps even a calling to a new vocation within the church. Perhaps God will call you to a renewed commitment to prayer and study - like those he has called to take part in the Journey of Life group starting in November.

I don't know. I can't tell you - because God will call each of us to something that is unique, and yet which is vital for the life of the whole community.

What I encourage you to do, however, is precisely what St Paul did. Never give up “straining forward to what lies ahead” (verse 13). Let God be your coach-driver…let him safely steer you on as you learn to rely on his driving skills. God is the blueprint from which we were all made - in his image. God knows how we as human beings were built. He knows how to help us to suck the very marrow out of life…to ‘live life to the full’ (John 10:10). All we have to do is let him take the wheel!