Gently Flows The Avon River
Gently flows the Avon River
on its journey to the sea,
gently through the grieving city,
sad and anguished though it be.
Gently make your seaward journey,
touched by sorrow, loss and tears.
Flow on gently through the city,
free its people from their fears.
Gently touch our human heartstrings.
Be a healing cleansing sign,
showing God is present with us,
flowing love, God’s great design.
Gently will the streets recover;
gently people will embrace;
gently will the barriers tumble,
till we welcome ev’ry race.
Christ sheds tears for ev’ry household,
crosses ev’ry great divide,
giving life, as does the river:
Come now gently to his side.
© Norman E Brookes
Tune: Cross of Jesus WOV 72(ii)
This hymn was written following the devastating terrorist attack
on Moslem people at prayer in Christchurch.
The Marks of a Methodist
Readings: Genesis 32: 22 -
Philippians 2. 5 -
Since I was a teenager I have had an interest in John Wesley and Methodist history. It was in Bible Class, when I was about 18 that I was first introduced to Wesley. Our Bible Class leader, and this was a sign of her dedication, had painstakingly typed out for us half a dozen or so of Wesley’s sermons. She did it on an old typewriter, using carbon paper, (the younger people here may need to ask their parents what that was) to make copies, and as you can imagine the fourth and fifth copies were faint and hard to read. But what a labour of love that was, typing out those sermons. No computers in those days, no internet to download from, and no photocopiers either – it was all hard work.
I can’t say that I was all that excited by Wesley’s sermons back then. Perhaps I was a bit too young. And sermons on paper are never quite the same as sermons delivered aloud. I suspect the main reason for this was that the language was dated, 18c language. It was hard to read and make sense of it all. Now however Wesley’s best known Forty four sermons have been made available in modern 20c English. At $60. a copy they are not cheap – but they are far easier to read. If you read them you will discover as I did that some at least of Wesley’s sermons are challenging, sometimes provocative, sometimes illuminating. Now I believe that they can serve to remind us not only of our history, but of the reason why Methodism came into being in the first place, what Methodists stand for within the Christian tradition, what might be the marks of a Methodist.
The two readings I have chosen for today were chosen with this celebration of Wesley in mind. The first, Jacob wrestling with the angel of God at Peniel, reminds me that John Wesley had his own wrestling with God as he sought to find for himself a living faith. He found that faith, as many here will know, on the 24 th May 1738 just months after he returned from a year spent in the American colony of Georgia where he had gone hoping to convert the native people. He had failed utterly, and he had a broken romance into the bargain. Consequently, he returned to England not at all sure that he was a Christian.
He described his experience on the 24 th May in words that have echoed throughout Methodism to this day. He was at a Sunday night meeting in Aldersgate St in London, listening to the reading of the preface to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans when, in his words, he experienced his heart being "strangely warmed". Wesley went on to wrestle with God daily but after this experience that wrestling was much less about his own inner state and much more about the state of the church and the world. He daily sought God’s guidance as to what God wanted him to do about that. In fact, John Wesley was a man who wrestled with the Scriptures, with his Lord, with the Church, and with life – but for all that he was also calm and ordered, a well organised person – he wasn’t called a Methodist – a methodological man for nothing!
The second reading, that wonderful passage from Philippians chapter two, has one verse in it that speaks to me of John Wesley. The verse "let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus". One of the books that impressed John Wesley early in life was Thomas a Kempis’ "The Imitation of Christ". Wesley himself produced a new translation of this work while at Oxford. This book, and others, convinced Wesley that it is the calling of every Christian to be like Christ – to aspire to Christ like perfection – to be as Paul says partakers of the divine nature, to be at one with God.
John Wesley was born and bred an Anglican. His father Samuel was rector of the parish Church in the village of Epworth in the north of England. His mother, Susanna, had converted to Anglicanism in her early teens. But Wesley came to be deeply dissatisfied with the Church of his day. He believed that many people attended simply out of duty or habit. He saw many people doing good things, and many believing all the right doctrines as he understood them – the problem for Wesley was that many believed that this made them a Christian. He became convinced that Church attendance, or formal religion, or believing doctrines, does not make one a Christian. We can be orthodox on every theological point and yet says Wesley "have no religion at all". You may have been christened, you may accept the creeds of the Church, you may attend worship – but don’t be deceived if you have never experienced the love of God in your heart you are not a Christian. Formal religion, and orthodoxy of belief, are not the same as having a vital, living faith in a risen and living Lord.
So for Wesley the marks of a Methodist – and indeed of any person who is truly Christian are these:
First, they know that the love of God has been shed abroad in their heart. That is, they have experienced the healing touch of God on their lives. They have repented of whatever wrong they have done and experienced the forgiveness that God offers through Jesus Christ on the cross. They have had an inner change of heart. They have been born anew by the Holy Spirit whose purpose, Wesley says, is to give them the mind of Christ. Whether this inner change has been an instantaneous event like what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus, or a gradual growing awareness, is beside the point. What matters is the experience of God’s forgiving, healing, redemptive love and the new life that flows from it. John Wesley would have rejoiced in the sermon delivered by Bishop Michael Curry on "the power of love" at Megan and Harry’s royal wedding. To Curry’s words: "We were made by a power of love, and our lives were meant – and are meant – to be lived in that love" Wesley would say; Amen! Amen! Amen!
Second, they are people of the book, the Bible. Wesley confessed himself to be a "Bible bigot". He immersed himself in the Bible, and his knowledge of it was quite amazing. But he was very wary of those who took verses out of context. He argued strongly that the part must be seen in the light of the whole. And he was equally wary of those who were only interested in their own personal interpretation of the Bible. He argued that our interpretation must be tested against that of others – tested against the interpretation of the wider Church. And by wider Church he meant not just the Anglican tradition of his own day, but also the early Church fathers, the writers of the 2 nd and 3 rd centuries,. Tradition, reason (he taught logic at Oxford for a time), and experience, -
Third, they have a love for all people. Wesley rejects the interpretation of the Hebrew Testament which says we should love only our neighbours and friends and hate our enemies. He states quite clearly "our love should be universal", though within that we should have a special love for God’s people. And by the way , our neighbour is not simply the person next door, but says Wesley, our neighbour is every human being made in the image of God – even those who hate us. For us today it is important to note that Christian love for Wesley includes people of other religions and races, it extends, he says, to Jews, and Turks! Let me quote Bishop Curry again: "When love is the way (he says), there’s plenty of good room, for all of God’s children". Wesley, who was away ahead of his time in this, would heartily agree!
Fourth, they have an ecumenical or catholic spirit towards other Christians. They themselves are loyal to their congregation, they value their tradition, but while they praise God for their own faith and their own congregation they at the same time love all who believe in Jesus. They pray for their fellow Christians, and they offer practical help when that is appropriate. They don’t permit what Wesley describes as "opinions" – or doctrines of secondary importance, to get in the way of practical cooperation or joint ministry to the wider world. So while Wesley strongly disagreed with the Baptists in their understanding of baptism, and with the Quakers in their understanding of the sacraments, -
Fifth, they see the world as their parish, not the parish as their world as some Christians seem to do. Wesley didn’t confine himself to preaching in churches, or to meeting with Christians. Far from it, he made it his business to visit the prisoners in England’s goals, to visit people in what we today would call slums – some in the most appalling conditions, to set up almshouses and schools for the poor. He challenged those who blamed the poor for their poverty. He found that many poor people were very industrious – and were poor through no fault of their own. He challenged laws and practices which made the poor even poorer – such as the using of good productive land to simply provide pasture for horses to be sold to the rich in France when the land could provide crops for the hungry. He strongly opposed the slave trade. His last letter was written to a young man named William Wilberforce – it was a letter of encouragement to Wilberforce not to give up on combating the slave trade till that great evil was abolished.
People who have experienced the love of God in their hearts.
People of the book – the Bible – it is their touchstone, their guide in matters of faith and practice.
People who show love to all – including even their enemies.
People who are ecumenical – inclusive – in their attitude towards all other Christians.
People who see the world as their parish – and in the name of Christ seek to engage with it.
This morning I invite you to pause, to ask yourself – is that me? Have I experienced the love of God in my heart? Am I a person of the book – the Bible? Do I have a love for all people? Am I committed to working with Christians of other denominations? Do I take the good news of Christ out into the wider world?
One final word from Wesley. "I am not afraid, he said, that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist, either in Europe or America. (In other words Wesley is saying that doesn’t really matter). But, he continues, I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power", and "this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast (to) the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out."
Are we people with a living faith? Or have we become a dead sect – that would be Wesley question to us in the 21 st century.
Used at: Crossroads Methodist Church, Papakura. May 2017.
Used at: Trinity, Waiake, May 2018
Used at: The Church of the Cross, Turangi. June 2018
Sermon Lest We Forget?
Reading: Matthew 5: 1 -
In July 2015 Margaret and I were in Istanbul, a day later we sailed down through the Dardanelles and around the coast till the Queen Victoria paused about two kilometres off the shores of Anzac Cove. A large crowd gathered at the stern of the ship and stood in silence as the last post was played and a flag lowered in memory of those who died on that shore a hundred years earlier. It was a moving ceremony.
A few days ago I finished reading Rachel Billington’s well researched novel, “Glory – A Story of Gallipoli”. The novel tells the story from a British perspective but doesn’t flinch from spelling out the gruesome horrors of what happened on the Gallipoli Peninsula as the Allies sought in vain to overcome the Turks on their native soil. The enterprise was a disaster. Many good men died for a cause that was ill conceived and doomed to failure. Winston Churchill – who inspired Britain with his leadership in the next great conflict was, it seems, largely to blame for this disaster.
My childhood was spent in a country that chose to be neutral in the 2nd World War – the Irish Republic. I remember however that we had those black rubber gasmasks in the house, as kids we enjoyed playing with them. And I remember that at night we would draw wooden shutters across the windows – lest the lights of Dublin enabled German bomber pilots to get their bearings for an attack on a British city. My parents never fought in any war though I had an Irish Uncle who chose to serve with the British armed forces. Consequently, it was not until I came to New Zealand that I learnt about the ANZACS and the importance for this country of the event that happened in Gallipoli -
Today is the 11th day of the 11th month and today is exactly 100 years since the end of the 1st World War. Today is Armistice Day, today is Remembrance Sunday. At 11am we will stand for a minute’s silence in memory of those who died as a result of the 1st World War.
Today then is a good time for us to pause and to reflect not just on what happened back then but also on what might be a Christian response in the 21st century to matters of war and peace. I am well aware that this is no simple matter for as many here will know sincere Christians have taken opposing positions -
How then can we as Christians approach this matter? Are there Biblical perspectives that might be helpful as we shape out our own position? Does Jesus, does the Lord himself, offer us any guidance that might determine whether or not we might be a conscientious objector on the one hand or a soldier, sailor or member of the air force on the other. Yes, I think that there are some insights that can help us in our thinking.
But first, let us acknowledge, that the Bible as a whole appears to be somewhat ambivalent when it comes to matters of war and peace. We need to remind ourselves that there are parts of the Bible that are not only pre-
Where then might be a good place to begin in terms of shaping our attitude to war and peace? I believe, that the words that we call the beatitudes provide such a place. Here we have the words of Jesus as Matthew and Luke with slight variations record them. Our focus this morning is on Matthews version. For me three things stand out in Matthews version that can give us some guidance when we are faced with conflict, whether that conflict be local or international, personal or communal.
First: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” For us as Christians I believe that is a very good place for us to start. These words of Jesus carry the implication that for us the priority when faced with conflict, whatever the nature of that conflict, is to seek for ways in which resolve conflict and bring about peace.
Of course, you and I know that this is not always possible. When it comes to international conflicts the key decisions are seldom in our power to make. Nevertheless, I believe that as Christians we are called, challenged, to hold to this ideal. Furthermore, as responsible citizens in a democracy we have a right at least to challenge the powers that be so that when faced with possible conflict a real effort is made to find a peaceful solution.
Let me give you an example. Not many people, outside of Irish Methodism, know the story of Eric Gallagher. Gallagher was President of the Irish Methodist Church in 1967 – 68. In 1974 he was one of several Protestant church leaders who met in secret with the leaders of the Irish Republican Army in a bid to get the IRA leadership to agree to find a political way forward rather than the way of bombs and bullets in Northern Ireland. Given the situation in Norther Ireland this was a brave and costly step for those Church leaders. Unfortunately, the Special Branch of the Irish Police in the Republic got wind of the meeting which was held in the south and the meeting had to end prematurely with the hasty withdrawal of the key IRA leadership.
However, seeds were sown and it is notable that some years later when the IRA chose to decommission their weapons that it was a Methodist minister who was chosen to stand alongside a Catholic priest to witness that decommissioning.
Northern Ireland in the 1970’s was racked by sectarianism, Ian Paisley was at the height of his powers, and the Orange Order was a force to be reckoned with – It was in that context that Eric Gallagher motivated by the Gospel, took risks, opposed sectarianism and acted as a peacemaker.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God. When it comes to dealing with conflict those words of Jesus are an excellent place to begin.
But, what if no one will listen? What if there is no openness to dialogue? What if there is an undeniable evil that is determined to have its own way? What does that mean for us as Christians? Must we buckle under the tyranny, yield to the horror, refuse to defend what we know to be right?
This leads me to a second beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Here Jesus is telling us that we as Christians are called to take a stand for what is right. Jesus is not talking about self-
Peace without justice is no peace. When the peacemakers have tried and failed then what about our stand for what is right. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister 1937/38 tried to find a way to ensure peace prior to the outbreak of the second World War. He tried by making concessions to appease the Germans and was roundly condemned for it at home, but, ultimately he failed.
Was there some other way to contain Hitler and to avert the coming catastrophe without yielding to Hitler’s demands, I don’t know. But the brutality of the Nazi regime, coupled with the attempt to exterminate the Jews and others that didn’t fit with Hitler’s racist views had to be stopped. Otherwise where is the hunger and thirst for righteousness? Otherwise where is justice, where is peace with honour? These are not easy matters, for the Christian they are matters of conscience, and many Christians will have been caught between the role of peacemaker and the role of standing for what is right even if that means war.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be filled. May that too be part of our motivation, our desire, our commitment – when we are faced with conflict.
Finally, there is a third beatitude, to take into account. “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Words that remind me of the words of Jesus from the cross, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Vindictiveness has no part in the Christian approach to conflict. There was a strong element of that in the way the Allies treated Germany after the first WW and many historians now argue that this in turn led to the rise of Nazism and Hitler…and the terrible conflict that was to come. I think they are right.
Kamel Ataturk showed us a better way as he sought to re-
Mercy, forgiveness, enables us to move on, to forge a new future, to establish new relationships. Who would have thought, thirty years ago, that the Berlin wall would come down, that we could walk through the Brandenburg gate into the old East Germany, who would have thought that in this generation we could visit Vietnam as a tourist, or that people could come and go freely from Russia and China. Is it too much to think that maybe in the not too distant future from North Korea as well.
The last century has seen terrible conflicts. Millions of people, soldiers and civilians have died as a consequence. That is an immense human tragedy – and New Zealand as a nation has been deeply affected by that. It is a tragedy we must never forget.
But we must also learn from it. Let us be those who Put peace making at the heart of our hopes, let us be those who seek to stand for what is right, and when the conflicts are resolved, let us be those who offer mercy, and who receive forgiveness, and who move on.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Thanks be to God for those insights which Jesus has shared with us. He invites all of us who are called by his name to live by those insights.