Sunday 3rd January 2021. Duddington and Zoom
“God chose us…. that we might be holy” Eph. 1.4.
Why are we here, gathered as a Christian Community? There will be many good but varied answers to that question but all of us here today will be more committed to that purpose than we were 12 months ago. The pandemic presents extra challenges to churchgoing today. It might just be the case that the most powerful answer to why we are gathered is to be found in our reading today: we have been called, chosen. ‘God chose us’ – and he chose us that we might be holy.
Holiness is a tricky concept. It tricked me. My ordination training took place in a monastic community, tucked away in a vast Victorian mansion deep, to the west of Newark. It was here that we learned Greek for the Bible, struggle for prayer, gardening for discipline and washing-up for community life. But all of this was set behind a high wall with definite times for returning back from the world. Holiness seemed to be about being set apart, separate. This has more to do with the Old Testament idea of Israel being God’s chosen people: set apart, distant.
With the coming of Jesus, the emphasis shifts from being separate to being distinctive. This reflects the whole movement of the Incarnation: from God being ‘out there’, separate, to God in Christ coming among us yet retaining that distinctiveness. He exhorts us to be salt, yeast. So we are called by God to be holy but distinctive rather than set apart.
Many of us will have watched BBC’s Christmas block-buster, ‘Black Narcissus’. It told the story of a community of Anglican nuns who were sent to a remote castle high up in the Himalaya in order to set up a school for the local children. They were certainly set apart but much of the allure in the programme revolved around the sexual, emotional and temptations of ambition which swirled around the nuns. They found this Old Testament interpretation of holiness difficult to defend. It was impossible to keep themselves separate from the locals or indeed from one another. We all salivated as sin set in.
Whatever the merits of the programme, those nuns were called to be holy, just like us. They were baptised, re-generated and set on a new course with Christ as their end. We were all christened but that does not make our journey to and with Christ much easier. We may not be set apart in a religious community but we are called to be distinctive as we live out our lives in this particular religious community. Indeed, I am constantly amazed to find how many committed Christians are at the forefront of those serving community networks throughout the benefice.
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, says St. Paul. We have much in common with those nuns in the Himalaya. But what do they do? They remove themselves from the problem and retreat to Calcutta in order to continue their lives, set apart. That luxury is not open to most of us though, like Jesus, we can withdraw for twenty minutes to say our prayers.
However, that other route to holiness is available to us: being distinctive. Our reading this morning is taken from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. It’s emphasis is on unity: unity with God and unity between humankind. Paul wrote it from prison in Rome. Rome, the centre of the civilized world! It must have struck Paul that – although Rome was powerful and all roads lead to it – Christ was even more powerful as a unifying force. It is in this letter that Paul struck that amazing phrase of unity, ‘The Body of Christ’.
In any situation – however bleak – we are part of that body. The sinews of unity are already present but we must feed them. There is a lesson here for all our churches – and our PCC’s. We must feed the sinews which bid us together in ways both practical and spiritual. Eating together would be a start and once this pandemic is over, perhaps we should do just that to build back our strength.
But we have responsibilities as an individual too. We can’t run away from our temptations, like the nuns. We have to battle through them, knowing that Christ is our focus and those sinews of the body all lead to our fulfilment.
In the 3rd verse of our next hymn we will sing about the darkness of sin hiding Christ, whose glory we cannot see because of it. This is where faith steps forward and we need to rely on those spiritual compass-bearings to see us through.
But further help is at hand. If praying alone is impossible for you, then join zoom Morning Prayer! If you want to know more about the bible, then Bible Studies re-commence on 9 February. Lent begins on 17 February which is always an excellent laboratory for spiritual experimentation. However, Cardinal Newman warns us, “Holiness is always easier now.” Make up your mind today about the steps you will take tomorrow to live a holy life,
‘to see Christ more clearly,
love him more dearly,
follow him more nearly,
day by day.” (St. Richard of Chichester).