Last Sunday's Sermon
Paul speaks to us this morning from his letter to the Ephesians about God working through us and that we can be more with God than we can ever be by ourselves. That God works through community showing the extravagant love of Christ. I completely agree with Paul that the point of church is to be part of a community that supports and affirms those who are called to be members.
So today I want to talk about Community. I am going to use the lens of three trees that occur in the Bible. I am going to use these trees to explore how we might wish to realise our desire to reaching out and welcoming in.
The first tree I will be talking about is in Genesis 2. Here is what it says:
8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
This is the famous tree that later Adam and Eve ate from. The eating the fruit is seen as the folly that saw humanity banished from paradise, but I want to look at it in another way – that it was a choice that allowed us to define good and evil by our terms rather than God’s.
Of course, this was a mistake, the original intention for the two humans in the garden was that they would tend it for a beneficent God, presumably forever. As childlike and innocents they had no idea of evil, sin or shame. After their choice, they were condemned to a harsh life and eventual death because of their actions. As their heirs, we are still living with their sentence and the knowledge to choose between good or evil.
But we did not just learn how to do and recognise evil- we also learnt how to do and recognise good. And sometimes I think that we forget this. That we are not inherently evil creatures but rather we are people who can also choose good. Indeed, I believe in the goodness and decency of people rather than we are all irredeemable sinners. I believe that Community can encourage and support us in making us choose and understand good choices that bring life to ourselves and other people.
Indeed, the more people committed to doing good together, the more likely we are to get it right. And I think this is where community comes in. It is by us all collectively discerning what is best under the guidance of that benevolent God that allows us to come up with what is best for ourselves and the world.
Later this morning we will be discussing things in church meeting as a way of discerning the way forward for ourselves. And I think this is a recognition of a wider truth - that God works through humanity to choose good. And that might mean that at times we also need to understand that we haven’t always chosen the best. Sometimes it hurts to realise this. And it also means sometimes we have to take a step back and listen- not with defensiveness or looking to find fault but with gentle understanding.
Indeed, the tragedy of the Church in the last century has been that we have not listened. Rather we’ve talked, bullied, and sometimes shouted. As such we have seen an almost universal experience of church become a minority experience of just 4.7% of the English population and heavily skewed to the over 70’s. And we have been aggrieved when people do not agree with us. And the shriller we have become the less attractive we are to those seeking goodness.
But if we look back at the account of our first tree, we see that we can all judge what is good and evil. That means it is not just the province of the church. So, if we are really interested in reaching out and welcoming in we have to listen and also recognise that the concerns and opinions of those people around us have validity and need to be addressed- even if we are uncomfortable and feeling threatened by what they are saying.
So let’s look at the Second tree. The second tree is the cross. We hear from John 19
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. 17 Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
This tree is the central tree- and on it is the supreme act of loving God selfless sacrifice. While there are many theories about the meaning of the cross, I am going to stick to just one. That it is in forgetting ourselves and sacrificially loving others we find new life and resurrection.
There is much that is good within the Church, and I believe we are at our best when we are showing God’s love through our collective actions. But what actions? I would observe that we need to look at what we are doing and the why of it. As I said the other week, I believe that we should show love because we were loved first. Anything that we do for others is merely reflecting the love that God has for us. And while God doesn’t ask for repayment, the best way we can show our own gratitude is by serving others. And just like God gives freely so should we.
One of the reputations that early Christian communities has was that they were gullible- that people took advantage of them. I think some of us still have that fear- if we let down our guard people will walk all over us to which my answer is- so what if they are? Provided that we have good boundaries and clear what we can do and what we don’t do does it matter?
In Judaism there is the concept of Mitzvah – a commandment or religious duty to carry out. One of the greatest Mitzvahs is to show kindness. And the best type of Mitzvah are the ones that can’t be repaid like burying the dead. What would it look like if we inherited this concept and carried it out in our daily lives? What would it look like if the worst someone could say about us is- they are just too nice?
And finally, let us look at the final tree, the Tree in Revelation 22
22 Then the angel[a] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life[b] with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.
So our last tree is a tree of healing rooted in the waters of life that flow directly from the throne of God. A miraculous tree with many kinds of fruit and miraculous leaves for the healing of the nations.
This brings me to my final idea- that we are peacemakers within and outside our faith communities. That we seek to add to the quality of life in the area that we live in. that we strive to unite everyone to live lives that matter and advocate for the dignity of each person. That rooted in Christ we provide healing and wholeness to all who enter our doors and those that walk past.
And to do this there needs to be peace amongst ourselves first. That we see each other as beloved Children of God. It is important that we understand a simple fact reflected in all Church growth literature- that churches that experience conflict do not attract people seeking a church. That we can only be effective if we resolve any issues, we have amongst ourselves.
And the positive impact of having a community dedicated to creating harmony cannot be underestimated. One of the analogies used for the monastic movement in the past was a bee hive- of a group dedicated to working together and creating sweetness.
So, there we have it our three trees- recognising and committing to goodness, sacrificial kindness and peace-making amongst ourselves. The things we need to be community. On this special day of return let us consider and commit to being community – of working, laughing and resting in the shade of our biblical trees committed to our reaching out and welcoming in.