King's Acre, 3 December 2000
Abound in Love
1 Thessalonians 3:12: "And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you."
"And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you."
Do you remember what people found so attractive about the very first Christians? "See how they love one another!" was what they said about them.
And someone reminded me, in a conversation the other day, that when people start to look for Jesus, the first place they look is in a Church. Perhaps people have looked in this Church. Do you think they would find Jesus here?
2. Answering "No"
Not a nice question, is it?
It's one of those guilt-producers, like the word "Witness". One only has to mention that word, and people start blushing and wriggling, and looking at the floor. People always seem to feel that they are a really bad witness to Jesus, even when they aren't. And similarly, we tend to feel that our Church is particularly unChrist-like, even if it were to be a place where people found Jesus without really trying.
Partly, of course, it's because we can't see ourselves in the same way that other people see us. Which is no bad thing; after all, if we thought we were brilliant witnesses to Christ, we wouldn't be; similarly, if we thought we were really good at loving people into the Kingdom, and showing them Jesus in our corporate life, we probably wouldn't be nearly as good as we thought we were, and would be guilty of the sin of pride, as well!
Nevertheless, some of us aren't as good witnesses to Jesus as we could be. Some churches aren't places where people could find Jesus, aren't loving and welcoming and accepting places. I don't know which category I as a person, or we as a Church, fall into, and I don't particularly want to know - if it's bad news, I'd really rather not know, and if it's good news, well, it would only make me self-conscious.
And, of course, if you thought you were doing well, you would become complacent. At least, I would. You would think, "Oh, I can do this!" and stop trying so hard.
But the trouble with assuming you aren't very good at it is that it's apt to produce guilt. We start thinking, oh dear, oh dear, this is all my fault, I ought to be better at it. Or, worse, we start blaming other people. "If it weren't for my family, I'd be able to spend more time on the Lord's work." "If it weren't for that dreadful man, or that horrible woman, our Church would be a more Christ-like place". And so on and so forth.
3. Changing the Subject
Now, this may seem like changing the subject, but you'll see why in a minute. I expect you've seen on the News about this huge Cross they've erected outside Westminster Cathedral to mark the Millennium? Well, I work up by the Cathedral, and the other day I walked past the Cross shortly before it was to be dedicated. It's pretty impressive, and looks rather like those crosses that people draw, with steps at the bottom of it.
Now, I don't know if you know the Piazza outside Westminster Cathedral where this cross has been erected, but if so, you will know that it is home to a great many people who have nowhere better to go, and can, on occasion be a bit - how shall I put this delicately? A bit whiffy! And I regret to say that my first thought on seeing the Cross was "Oh dear, those steps are going to provide a good place for homeless people to sit, and I do hope they don't use them as a lavatory!"
Then I had another thought. Yes, those steps would be the perfect place for those people to sit - and do more than sit, if they wanted to. What better place could there be than at the foot of the Cross? What better place to dump all the crap, whether literal or metaphorical, than on the Cross?
Because that, don't you see, was what the Cross was for. To take all our failures, all our disasters, the results of our neglect, our greed, our selfishness, our pride, our stupidity. I hope the homeless ones do sit at the foot of the Cross, as it will be such picture for the world of what the Gospel is all about.
4. Back to Ourselves
But what has that image to do with our witness, whether as individuals or as a Church?
Well, it depends on how we react. If we blame others for our failure, we aren't going to get anywhere. And we probably won't get anywhere if we just wallow in guilt. We may not even get very far if we start striving and trying to be better witnesses. We've all met people who try very hard to tell passers-by about Jesus, and we wish they wouldn't! And, probably, when most of us try, those to whom we are speaking wish we wouldn't!
On the other hand, my friend Liz, who was staying with us during October and November, tells me that she works with someone whose faith is so real, so vivid, that when he talks about God she listens; she doesn't want to tell him to shut up! Such people exist, but they are rare.
So what to do? Do we just wallow in a feeling of helplessness: we don't know how to do this, so we won't even try? Do we go on blaming other people for our failure, whether individually or corporately? Do we assume we are doing okay, and not really bother? Do we wallow in guilt?
Of course, ideally we do none of these things. Ideally we come, like the homeless people in Westminster Cathedral Piazza, to the foot of the Cross. We bring our failures, our lack of love, our lack of faith, our lack of willingness to admit we are wrong, we bring all that to the Cross - and we leave it there. That, after all, is what the Cross was for.
So why am I talking about all this today? Basically, because today is Advent Sunday. Advent, as we were talking about earlier, is the time when we prepare for Christmas, and that preparation shouldn't only be about writing cards and signing presents and stuffing the turkey and thinking about mince pies and Christmas cake and Robert's birthday, and all the other things one thinks about at this time of year. Of course, we must think about these things, they need to be dealt with. But the whole point of Advent is to prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas. The colour, as I mentioned at the beginning of the service, is purple, which we associate with penitence, as much as with preparation. We need to spend time coming to Jesus, just as we are, and receiving his forgiveness and wholeness and healing. Not only as individuals, but also as a Church. And we need to pray, in St Paul's words: "That the Lord make us increase and abound in love for one another and for all." So that those who realise, however dimly, that Christmas has something to do with Jesus, might find Him here among us, at King's Acre, this year. Amen.
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