Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
Last Sunday we presented the Order of St. Ethelbert Awards. This scheme was started by the previous Dean, Michael Tavinor, as a way of marking distinguished service in our parishes. Around 20 people, nominated by their parishes, received awards amounting collectively to hundreds of years of voluntary service. Church Wardens in post for nearly as long as I’ve been alive probably deserve the Victoria Cross rather than our humble award, but our collective appreciation was heartfelt.
A common response when I invited them to be recipients was humility. For them, this was just a normal outworking of their Christian discipleship. They were embarrassed by the fuss.
When we use the word discipleship, or emphasise the value of Christlikeness as we do in our diocesan strategy, it can produce a fearful response. It sounds such a technical and even super spiritual word or idea. It can be associated with cultural manifestations in some traditions of the church that make us uncomfortable. It could be associated with especially deep knowledge of the scriptures or highly extraverted patterns of faith sharing. All of those things are part of it for some people, but I want to focus on the manifestation of these things that the recipients of the Order of St. Ethelbert exemplify so powerfully.
St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, Chapter 5 talks about the fruit of the Spirit, i.e. the visual and behavioural evidence of what being a follower of Jesus, or disciple looks like. He lists love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are not particularly spiritual sounding words. They are the manifestation of a character slowly but surely being changed into the likeness of Jesus. We know when we have experienced them or seen them in action. Those who nominated our friends on Sunday have seen and valued them in the recipients.
One of the distinguishing values of the evangelical tradition in the church is the stress on conversion – a radical turning of the whole life over to Christ. In fact, its expressed very clearly in our baptismal and confirmation liturgies. If the questions, do you turn to Christ, do you repent of your sins, and do you renounce evil don’t imply a fairly radical change in outlook, I don’t know what does. However, the emphasis on this radical turning can be difficult to square with the experience of many Christians blessed with a christian family upbringing and regular worship for as long as they can remember. It can place too much emphasis on our human decision rather than the action of God grace. And in the practice of pastoral ministry it can sow seeds of doubt about the validity of personal faith for those who can’t point to a time when they didn’t know Christ, or a radical moment when they passed from darkness into light. By all account that’s 80% of the people who follow Jesus. I spent quite a lot of one to one time as a parish priest reassuring people who hadn’t had that sort of, ‘once I was an axe murderer and now I look after fluffy bunnies’ experience that they really were proper Christians. Ask them whether they could answer the baptismal questions positively and were seeking to live after the example of Christ, the answer was of course yes. More importantly the marks of the Spirit in their lives, those fruits that Paul talked about were plain for people to see.
So, when we talk in our strategy about the values we hope will grow and be evident of Christlikeness, engagement and prayerfulness, the intention is not to make people feel inadequate about where their faith journey finds them. We are all growing into these values however long we have been following Jesus, and whatever tradition of church we find most comfortable. A wise priest once said to me that in parochial ministry you do much better warming the core than policing the boundary.
At the end of CS Lewis’, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the boat draws closer to a boundary that is meant to represent the horizon of earth and eternity. The valiant mouse, Reepercheep, as ever more courageous than the rest, strains at the prow and repeats a phrase from throughout their journey to date: ‘further up and further in’. Because with God there is no end to the journey. There is always more to discover, new depths of love and grace to plumb; new gifts to be received, new wonder at the providential working of love in a broken and hurting world as the kingdom grows moment by moment towards the Lord’s destination. I would love us to grow deeper in Christ likeness, prayerfulness and engagement. We are all on that voyage, together – further up and further in.