What a roller-coaster we’ve been on this month! We began with the Transfiguration, on August 6th. This coincided with the great services of the Morland Choristers’ Camp.
The Feast of the Transfiguration recalls the events when Jesus went to the mountaintop with Peter, James and John. The point that I wanted to stress was that at the end of this stunning experience, there was Jesus, back, as it were, ‘down to earth’, with Peter, James and John.
Similarly, after Choir Camp, the choristers and all the rest of us have to come back ‘down to earth’ and get on with our ‘normal’ lives.
So that sermon was called ‘Back to Normal’.
However, it wasn’t to be. The news in the next week was filled with terror attacks and storms, floods and mudslides. That sermon, for those old enough to remember the term, was headed ‘TW3’.
But the point of that one was that, despite all the bad news, and the amazing ability of the media these days to present it to us as it happens, overall, many things are getting better. You don’t have to study much history to conclude that for the ordinary bod in most parts of the world, now is a good time to be alive. Better than most other times, one way and another. Of course there’s a long way to go. What I was trying to say was that we must not give up in our attempts to bring betterment here and elsewhere.
We pray ‘Thy kingdom come’, but we find it difficult to recognise that at times. And a point that I was trying to make last week was that so much of the progress towards the kingdom has come from grassroots movements, from ordinary people saying that ‘this is wrong’, ‘this won’t do’, and persuading a few friends to join them in a campaign. It might seem at times that we can only see the benefit with hindsight, perhaps the hindsight of a generation or two, but if those people hadn’t believed it could be done, nothing would have happened and we would still be in the Dark Ages.
Where did those people find the strength to stand up and say that ‘this is wrong’. I won’t claim that all came from Christian roots, but we know many that did. Where are those roots? We heard Isaiah just now:
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness
and who seek the Lord
Look to the rock….
Look to Abraham….
When I called him he was but one
and I blessed him and made him many
The Lord will make Zion’s deserts like Eden
Listen to me, my people;
hear me, my nation
The law will go out from me
my justice will become a light to the nations.
My salvation will last for ever
my righteousness will never fail
This is powerful encouragement, and the fact of it being recorded like this tells us, among other things, that such encouragement has always been needed. There have always been setbacks. But look back, as I said just now, and see what progress has been made.
This is not a message to say that we can now sit back and rest on our collective laurels. Quite the reverse. Much has been achieved: much is yet to be achieved.
Which leads us on to our reading from the Epistle to the Romans. Much of St Paul’s writing can be difficult to follow. He is so often ‘thinking aloud’ – which makes sense, when you realise that he was speaking and an amanuensis was writing it all down.
But this famous passage is remarkably clear and straightforward.
Paul urges us, in response to God’s love, to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world’. I think it is the J B Phillips translation that has: ‘Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mould’. I remember a powerful sermon I heard in my youth on that text. The world will try to squeeze us. It is often so much easier just to go along with it.
Just think of the cases I mentioned last week. Those who led the campaign to abolish the slave trade and then slavery itself would have had a much easier time if they hadn’t bothered. They probably had a slave or two themselves! And surely slavery was accepted if not endorsed by the church for many centuries as a fact of life. We know the name of William Wilberforce, but many others were involved. In 1772, Lord Mansfield emancipated a slave in England, and from that grew a great movement. The slave trade and then slavery itself was abolished. Even then, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 included compensation for ‘the persons hitherto entitled to the services of slaves’.
This all entailed huge sacrifice. Wilberforce died 3 days after the Act had had its Third Reading in the Commons.
I mentioned last week also the Peace Movement in Northern Ireland in the ‘70s. There must have been 100s, if not 1000s of housewives there who bemoaned what was going on. But only two of them put their heads over the parapet and started the Peace Movement. Peace did not come immediately. It took another 20 years to get as far as the Good Friday Agreement. Those two women must have wondered many times whether it was worth carrying on – but they did.
My other example was the emancipation of women: still very much a work-in-progress. But the same argument applies: without the determination and courage of people (men as well as women) around the world, we would not have got as far as we have.
All these people were determined that ‘something must be done’. I suspect that they would all say that they couldn’t live with their consciences if they had not carried on.
For by the grace given to me I say to every one of you: do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.
I like that line: in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. How easy it is to feel discouraged. How easy it is to feel that you have no contact with your Creator. Life gets you down and you get buried in your own worries and fears.
There’s a very close analogy here with music teaching. All music has an underlying pulse – a tactus – it is called. Without an awareness of that, it is hard to make the music flow. But when you are bogged down in working on details and notes, it’s easy to lose touch with the tactus.
A good performance can only come when you are on top of the details and able to consider all the different levels at once.
Sometimes, the music we are trying to sing or play is just too difficult for our particular level of competence, and we can never get beyond the ‘bogged down’ stage.
So it is with our faith. We must start where we are, the measure of faith God has given you, and work from there. If we let Him work in us, that faith will grow and will move mountains.
Paul goes on with the well-known passage about the body being made of different parts, all with their own function. To be fully functional, we need all parts to be working in harmony.
We have different gifts: prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, showing mercy.
Within the body of the church, all these gifts and abilities are to be found. We all need to recognise them in each other and encourage each other in our use of them.
William Wilberforce, and thousands of others down the ages, have done exactly that. None of us is without gifts. Nobody is too young or too old, too rich or too poor, too well or too ill.
I urge you, brothers (Paul might have added ‘sisters’) to offer your bodies as living sacrifices.