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Sermon – 2nd June

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    Readings: 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12 and Mark 2: 23 – 3:6

    The gospel for today centres on Jesus’ response to questions about the observance of the Sabbath day. I guess 40 years ago preachers might have taken the opportunity to speak out against the growing trend towards Sunday trading and the impact of the increasing number of sporting and leisure activities taking place on the first day of the week, and their effect on church attendance. I remember about 25 years ago the Bishop of Rochester suggested that church schools should not make their playing fields available for Sunday sports fixtures. As you can imagine, that caused some controversy. On the one hand, you could see his point that this was an opportunity for Christians to make a stand against the proliferation of Sunday activities, but on the other hand one could also appreciate the damage in community relations that might result. But, also, it was a moment to pause and consider what was the point of Sabbath observance.

    The book of Genesis – chapter 1 in fact – tells us that God rested from all his work on the Sabbath. The concept of God resting is an interesting one when compared with other texts that tell us that God is always active, such as the verse in Psalm 121: “Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” It is, of course, one of the Ten Commandments that ‘thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day; six days shalt thou labour and do all that thou hast to do; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God.”

    It was only in preparing for today that I realised that one of the reasons for the introduction of the day of rest was that when the Israelites were in Egypt, they were made to work seven days a week. So when they experienced freedom under Moses, they were to live a different kind of existence. When under slavery, their lives had been used as commodities to achieve wealth for others – Sunday employers, take note! The Israelites under Egypt were given no care, no day off, no rest.

    So the Sabbath became an important day – to take rest, yes, but also to remember what their forebears had experienced. Their society was different now: they lived in freedom and with a renewed sense of what fruitful community life might involve. So on the seventh day the Israelites rested; the working animals rested, the land rested. It created space to reflect, to care for others, and to worship.

    The principles of Sabbath observance were therefore based on something very positive; not negative. I doubt a Bishop of Rochester today would try to ban use of church schools’ sports fields on Sundays, with all the anxiety now about young peoples’ physical and mental health. The battle over Sunday trading is well and truly lost, if ‘battle’ we may call it, but perhaps not the battle over the positive interpretation of the Sabbath rest. I rather liked the idea of the campaign to ‘Keep Sunday Special’ that followed in the wake of increased Sunday trading hours.

    Now in the account of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees, reported in today’s gospel, we see Jesus cutting through some of the absurdities of the law, and highlighting the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who enforced it. Jesus here becomes a radical activist: the challenger and disturber of tradition. Strictly speaking, plucking heads of grain from the corn would be counted as work, and therefore banned on the Sabbath. But Jesus sees no sense in a rule that prevented the disciples from satisfying their hunger. He even pointed to the example of King David, who acted similarly when he and his companions were hungry; he entered the house of God and ate the bread which only priests were permitted to eat. Jesus’ action seemed designed to shock and annoy. The arguments he put forward for his actions couldn’t be refuted, which made him a nuisance to the authorities. The annoyance grew during his ministry. Someone has suggested that Jesus would not be ‘an easy, passive member of your average congregation.’ I wonder how he would disturb us were he to walk into our service today? It’s often been said that the Church, and the ministers of the Church, should aim ‘to comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.’

    Jesus came to announce God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness, and he wasn’t going to be able to do that without ruffling more than a few feathers. Generations of Christian ministers ever since have got into hot water by challenging what they consider to be wrong or unworthy, but very often the controversy they generate is really because they have dared to rock the boat; to challenge the status quo.

    Now St. Paul, similarly, did not have an easy ride. In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, he launches an eloquent self-defence. In the verses beginning the chapter, he claims to have renounced shameful behaviour, duplicity and false teaching in favour of the open statement of the truth. But he doesn’t pursue his vocation with any personal goals or ambition in mind; it is purely to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. But any worthwhile Christian ministry will be costly, as there will be hard graft, opposition, and maybe persecution. In fact, as he says, ‘while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake’ – death figuratively speaking maybe, but actual death for many, including Paul himself. Paul saw his sufferings as part of the point of it all – a sign of the message he had to speak.

    I’m sure he echoes the experiences of many Christian communities, and individuals, when he says, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” Nevertheless, his ministry and that of his companions has brought life and light to many. Paul’s life brings others into the life of God.

    He has been able to accomplish this, he says, through an extraordinary power that comes from God, through the light of Jesus shining into human hearts. What the Christian has is real treasure, but it seems as if we have it in ‘clay jars.’ Now Jane Williams enlarges on that. She says that by ourselves, we are ‘clay jars’, just as Adam was a clay figure until God breathed life into him. The life is God’s not ours. And so, she says, much of the myth about modern life – that being properly alive means being well, rich and happy, has to be relinquished. People so often see immediate gratification as the goal of human life. But St Paul doesn’t. He says we must look to Jesus to see a human being fully alive: living the life that flows from God. Jesus’ brief life ended in a horrible death and apparent failure, but, continues Jane Williams with insightful words, Jesus was so fully alive and vital with God’s own life that even death could not extinguish him, and his resurrection became the source of life for the world.

    On those days when we feel distinctly more ‘clay jars’ than ‘treasure’, may we remember that being open to God’s life-giving presence in experiences of brokenness brings discovery of treasure – the ‘life in you’ that Paul talks of. We seem to have come a long way from Sunday trading that started off this address ten minutes ago. But maybe we can detect a train of thought. Jesus pointed to the uselessness of much of the Jewish tradition. Any law which prevented a man from being healed on the Sabbath had lost the plot. Sometimes there are more important things to be concerned about than what people do with their time on a Sunday. Reading the obituary of a Vice-Admiral in The Times this week, I was struck by the comment that he was never one to waste time on frivolous pursuits. I sometimes wish I could say the same.

    So maybe the challenge this week could be : Am I making the most of my clay jar? Am I allowing the light from God to enthuse me to cut through all that is unworthy, unnecessary, and petty? Do I have Jesus Christ and him crucified at the centre of my thoughts and actions? Can my life, like that of St. Paul, bring others into the life of God?

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