Worship was led by the Revd.Fleur Houston and the service focussed on C0mmitment for Life, a scheme of giving which supports the work of Christian Aid. The Revd. Houston preached on what commitment for life means – seeking to change the world for good. It means committed giving, and commitment to consume less and polute less, at a personal and political level. It means following in the way of Jesus and not wavering in our efforts to change the world for the better. We are sustained in this by the knowledge that God, through Jesus, has committed himself to us and is always present, loving and upholding us.
Rejoice and Sing 600 Christ is the world’s Light
Rejoice and Sing 691 God is our refuge and our strength
Rejoice and Sing 277 How sweet the sound of Jesus sounds
Rejoice and Sing 360 Come Thou font of every blessing
Rejoice and sing 345 Guide me, O thou great Jehovah
Psalm 31 verses 1 – 5 and 15 – 16
Acts chapter 7 verses 55 – 60
John chapter 14 verses 1 – 14
So the count-down has begun. The candidates names are registered, leaflets are being printed, hustings are being arranged, electoral officers are working long hours,. Soon the official manifestos of the main political parties will be published for all to see and party leaders will be interrogated. All will say that they want to change the world although they will certainly disagree about how to do it. That seems to be a feature of party politics.
But one thing is sure. And it took not a politician but Pope Francis to nail it on the head. This is what he said: “True statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good”.
This is something that politicians do not always find very easy. But it is our distinctive calling as Christians. For we too are seeking to change the world, to change it for good. We are committed for life. What you may ask, does this require of us? It involves three things, mainly.
First of all, commitment for life involves committed giving. Today as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the URC project, and give thanks for the gifts of life which we enjoy, and as we remember the many ways in which God blesses us, we are challenged to dig deep into our pockets. The sums of money we offer may be large or small, but we can rest assured that our gifts will change life for the better in Bangladesh, Central America, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory and Zimbabwe. So, Ethel Mumpande and countless others like her can be helped to feed her family, can earn a living, can live with dignity.
Commitment for life involves committed financial giving that the poor might have a life. Then, secondly, it involves commitment for life. We are in for the long haul. We are called to follow in the way of Jesus. Now following Jesus is not a soft option. It takes vision, guts and tenacity. We are called to be unwavering in our determination to do what we can to make the world a better place. We will stay the course, whatever. And that takes commitment. In fact, not to put too fine a point upon it, such commitment takes our whole lives. Now you may be thinking, hold on, Fleur, you are exaggerating, this is beginning to sound a little extreme. Commitment for a day we can take, especially if the sun is shining, and the wind’s in the right direction, but commitment for life? If this is what you are thinking, then remember this: Jesus gave his life for us and asks us to give ours for him.
So let’s consider this in a little more depth. Where better to start than these verses from John 14. Jesus and the disciples are having supper together. Judas has just left. It is night. The disciples clearly sense that something is wrong; they are uncertain and anxious; they don’t understand what is going on. But how does Jesus respond? He says to them “do not let your hearts be troubled”. Don’t worry, everything will be all right. If under these circumstances, anything is more calculated to increase the anxiety of his hearers, it is to be told not to worry. And Jesus continues, “You know the way to the place where I am going!” Thomas can take it no longer. “Lord, he protests, we do not know were you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds with the magisterial statement: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And he adds “whoever has seen me has seen the Father”.
Does this seem to you a trifle arrogant? Over exclusive? Faced today with so much that is holy, good and true in other faiths, can we be justified in making such exclusive claims for Christianity? But this statement by Jesus is not an indication of superiority, it is a call to commitment, a summons to his followers to follow Jesus wherever it takes. It must have been so important to the people for whom John was writing. The people of the way as the early Christians were known. They were at the time being expelled by Jewish authorities from the synagogue. Take Stephen. He was a deacon in the church at Jerusalem. He aroused the anger of the synagogue leaders because of his teachings. So they lynched him. The account of Stephen’s murder is terse and violent. His only crime had been to proclaim in public that Jesus is Lord. His executioners are deaf to all reason. Their rabid violence thirsts only for blood. Their twisted and hate-poisoned hearts are closed to what God had done and was doing. Stephen’s vision, in contrast, is of beauty and joy; his speech is forgiving, his prayer for mercy for his attackers reminds us of the words of Jesus on the cross. His vision of glory displays the certainty that God is victorious over all that distorts human life and robs it of joy. Stephen’s commitment to follow Jesus whatever it took did not go unnoticed by his persecutors. That very Saul who persecuted Stephen with such zeal was himself under the name of Paul, to become the great apostle to the Gentiles. And he in his turn was to die a martyr’s death as he followed Jesus on the way. In a very literal sense, this is commitment for life.
There never has been a time in Christian history when some-one, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief. Stephen was one of a long line of Christians who continue to be martyred for their faith. Virtually every month, it seems, we hear reports of the persecution of Christians somewhere in the world, here in the UK, commitment to Jesus for life may not necessarily lead to martyrdom, but it will certainly involve a certain amount of self-denial. Living simply, as the slogan goes, that others might simply live.
This is personal and it is political.
Each of us buys and consumes too much. I am as guilty of this as anyone else. I have in my wardrobe three winter coats, pink, brown and black. The styles are different, indeed, and I might persuade myself that they are suitable for different occasions, but do I really need three winter coats? Likewise, I have on a shelf in the wardrobe a large bag of pashminas and pretty scarves – different colours, yes, and they match different outfits – but do I really need so many?
And then we do all of us, to different degrees do our bit to pollute the atmosphere. We may not all of us have large diesel fuelled cars, but we may regularly choose to fly on holiday rather than go by train or bus; we may buy out of season fruits that have had to be flown in from foreign parts to satisfy demand for strawberries in mid-winter.
We all of us do it – but if we are seriously committed to life we will make a serious effort to consume less and pollute less. Today’s readings are a wake-up call – they remind us that, in order to change the world, and to change it for good, we must ourselves change. And for that to happen, we must think of the world differently. Not as a place where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, nor as a place where men and women are treated like cogs in a bureaucratic machine but a place where all people flourish in a vision of the common good. And how is that achieved? By long-term commitment to following the way of Jesus.
I did suggest that the issue is not only personal but also political. The cry of the poor is inextricably tied up with the cry of the earth. Thanks to the efforts of many individuals, environmental questions have increasingly found a place on public agendas – we know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be replaced without delay. But we must ensure that the poor do not end up paying the price. The countries which have benefitted from a high degree of industrialisation, at the cost of enormous emissions of greenhouse gases, have a greater responsibility for providing a solution to the problems they have caused. It is to be hoped that politicians can learn from their mistakes and find some sort of interaction directed to the common good of all.
So first, commitment for life involves generous giving that others may live; secondly it involves commitment for life with a habitual exercise of self-denial at personal and political levels. And then, thirdly, and most joyfully, God, through Jesus, has committed himself to us. And God’s commitment to us is for life. “I am with you always, says Jesus, even to the ends of the earth.” In 2015, pope Francis wrote an encyclical letter to all followers of Jesus. I quoted from it at the beginning of this sermon. It was entitled Laudato Si’ the words in Italian mean ‘Praise be” an allusion to the beautiful canticle of the creatures by of St Francis of Assisi. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs.” And pope Francis concludes with these words:
“May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope. God, who calls us to generous commitment and to give him our all, offers us the light and the strength needed to continue on our way. In the heart of this world, the Lord of life, who loves us so much, is always present. He does not abandon us, he does not leave us alone, for he has united himself definitively to our earth, and his love constantly impels us to find new ways forward. Praise be to him!”