Philippians 1:21-end; Matthew 5:43-48
14th Sunday after Trinity: Dedication Sunday
24.9.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
86 years ago this week this church was consecrated for worship. Today we celebrate that for all those years worship has been offered to God in this place, that people have been coming through the doors of this building to pray, to open up their hearts before God, to seek his blessing and his guidance, his comfort and his hope, to praise him at times of wonderful joy – the birth of a child, the beginning of a marriage – and at times of desolation and despair – the loss of a loved one, the suffering of another. In this place, generations have affirmed their faith in God and found God to be faithful. They have shared with one another in communion, and have found God to be present in their midst.
But indeed, we need not stop at 86 years ago. We could go back to when the first mission church was built on the corner of Palmerston Road in 1913, or back to the early 1890s when mission services and a Sunday school were started in the Board School on Earlsdon Avenue North. Ever since Earlsdon began to develop and grow as a community, there has been a worshipping community here, of which we are the inheritors.
Those 120 years have not been easy ones. This church was built in the lull between two world wars that killed many residents of this area and caused such destruction. The 1930s, when this church was built, was a time of appalling economic hardship. One gets just a small indication of it in the minutes of the PCC in 1932 when a Mr Clements “kindly promised a gift of leather for the repair of boots at the Church’s club for the unemployed.” Earlsdon experienced the post-war austerity, the boom of the car industry and then its collapse.
But today we can stand to affirm the faithfulness of God, to look back with gratitude at all that God has done, and to look forward with hope to all that God may do through us and future generations.
And so it is fitting that our Beatitude series should coincide with this Sunday of thanksgiving. For as we have been seeing throughout this month, the Beatitudes are our guidelines for Christian living, they are Jesus’ summary of what it means to follow him, to live like him. For generations, Christians in this place have been trying to do just that. Whether you have been coming here for just 2 weeks or for 86 years, I wonder who are the people who have inspired you, who are the people who have lived out the Beatitudes for you?
Who are the people who have shown you what it means to be poor in spirit – to be totally dependent on God? Who are those who have shown you what it means to truly mourn – to truly lament the suffering and pain in the world? Who has shown you what it means to be meek, gentle, not asserting their own rights but choosing to serve others? Who has hungered and thirsted for righteousness – standing up for justice? Or been merciful and forgiving? Or been a peacemaker?
And what changes will it take in our lives for us to be those people for others?
As I said last week, our last two Beatitudes touch on our motivations for living the Christian life, and the likely outcomes of doing so.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
The word “pure” here has a variety of uses. It can mean something that has been washed clean; or it can refer to wheat that has been sifted and rid from all the chaff; or it can refer to something that is unadulterated – wine or milk that hasn’t been watered down. In other words, pure is something clean, unmixed – it is what it is. In today’s language we might choose to rephrase the beatitude, blessed, happy, you are in a good place, when you are utterly sincere, when you live a life of honesty and integrity.
What does such a life look like? Again, our starting point must be to look at Jesus. After Jesus was filled with the Spirit, he went into the wilderness and there was tempted by the devil. He was tempted with seemingly good things – food for his hungry body; fame that his message could be spread more easily; power that he could command all people to follow God’s will. At this moment, for Jesus there is an inner conflict, a wrestling with doing what is right, and for the right reasons and in the right way, when an easier way, a shorter way is offered, which involves just a little bit of compromise, of watering down God’s values. Jesus each time rejects the temptation, holding on to the ways of God.
Jesus was alone throughout these temptations so how do we know about them? Presumably because he told his disciples about them afterwards. There is an integrity in facing temptation head on and resisting it, and an honesty in acknowledging to others the pressures being faced.
Christians in this place have lived out lives of integrity and honesty over the years. It is our challenge too. It is tempting at times to put on a show, to deceive others, to pretend to be things we are not in order to be liked or popular or to get our way. But as Christians a key characteristic of how we live our lives should be honesty and integrity.
God loves us for who we are, not for who we pretend to be, and we will come to see him more clearly as we come before him humbly acknowledging that.
Our final beatitude is perhaps the most uncomfortable and challenging of all: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed, happy, you are in a good place, when people choose to persecute you, oppose you, insult you, bring false claims against you, attack you and undermine you because of standing for what is right, because of your faith in Christ, because when that happens you can take comfort and hope in knowing that you will experience great joy in heaven.
Jesus did not go out of his way to court persecution and yet his love prompted him to stand up for those on the margins, to oppose power where it was being used to oppress others. This man of love was killed violently on a cross by those who opposed him. The early church too experienced strong opposition. Peter and Paul were in and out of prison, the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered, and in Nero’s time, Christians were not only thrown to the lions, but sewn up in wild animal skins and torn to pieces by wild dogs, and placed on spits and set alight to act as human torches. Living the life of the Beatitudes leads to opposition.
We can go one of two ways with this. We can say that this was a different age, and that people are much more tolerant now. However, the number of those killed for their Christian faith around the world in the last century exceeded the number of martyrs in the previous 19 centuries combined. There is not a diminishment of persecution. And though we are fortunate to live in a country where we are protected by the law, I know that many people even in this congregation have experienced verbal attacks and intimidation, whether for speaking about their faith or for standing up for the rights of others, whether in the community where they live or in the workplace.
The other way that Christians can sometimes be tempted to go with these words is to allow them to justify obnoxious behaviour. Sometimes we may be opposed and criticised, not because of righteousness, but because of our lack of it. Because we have failed to be peace-makers, to treat others with grace and love and respect, because we have been strident about our rights rather than meek and gentle. Persecution is not a badge that we can stick on to justify un-Christian behaviour.
For this is the one beatitude that we do not have to pursue or work at. It will come to us. And when it does, we are to be encouraged and to take courage. For it is a sign that we are living the Christian life, that we are following in the footsteps of the prophets and all those who have gone before us. Its a sign that we are closer to the kingdom of heaven.
Only one person has ever lived the Beatitudes perfectly, but it is he who promises to give us strength and to be our guide as we follow him. So let us pray to him now:
Lord Jesus, we thank you for the Christians who in this place have followed you over the years, and we pray that we too may be counted in their number. Help us to acknowledge our need of you, to mourn our failings and the suffering of this world, to be gentle and to seek the rights and justice of others before ourselves, to delight in mercy and active in building peace, and to live lives of integrity and courage. Amen.