My sermon for this week.
Going on a journey abroad is a complicated and stressful business. It doesn’t matter how much you want to get to where you are going, sometimes sorting out the journey can seem more trouble than it’s worth. You might be going somewhere near enough to travel by train or ferry, but travel further afield and you need flights. Tickets need to be booked – and that is a task in itself. Nothing so simple as a flat rate for air tickets – prices go up and down from month to month and picking the right time to buy them when they are at their cheapest is an art. And then you have to make sure you’ve booked and paid for the essentials that some airlines now think are extras – like luggage. You’ve got the accommodation to sort out and book as well. Or perhaps you’re going on a conference so that’s all sorted. You’ve still got to find your way from the airport to where you’re staying, negotiating public transport in a foreign country or trusting a taxi driver.
Then there’s all the stuff you need to take with you. Is the passort up to date. Can you actually find it? Have you got your travel insurance sorted? Do you know what phone numbers to ring if you lose your bank cards? Have you got your European health card just in case? Are you taking cash or travellers cheques or relying on local bank machines? Just to add to all the worries at the moment the experts seem to be saying take cash in case the Euro finally collapses and all the bank machines stop working.
Staying at home is so much easier. Going on a journey can be so stressful.
And going abroad carries with it that extra problem of what to do if something goes completely wrong. The baggage handlers go on strike at the airport, or as is more likely the French air traffic controllers. Funny how when they go on strike every aircraft, no matter where it’s going, seems to have to fly over France! And what do you do if you get stranded abroad because the holiday company or airline goes bust! This happened to us a few years ago – a few days before the end of the holiday came the news that our airline – together with the holiday companies in the same group – had gone bankrupt. We were stranded and had no idea for a few days how or when we would get home. I have to say that it’s at times like that that what we call the spirit of the Blitz, so often seen in the British when the chips are down, comes to the fore. On that occasion most of the people where we were staying were affected and everyone rallied round to encourage and support one another as we tried to get news and find out what was happening.
Going on a journey entails a lot of preparation, and even once you’ve set off the journey can still present you with pitfalls and snares. The Christian life, of course, has often been likened to a journey, and it’s not surprising, for it can be just as complicated and confusing as we make our way through life to our eternal home. As we try to get there from here!
“They do not belong to the world,” says Jesus as he prays to the Father.
We are on a journey. We may still be in the world but we are no longer of the world. We have embarked upon a journey that is taking us away from the home that we have had, and that is taking us toward our real home. We are travellers. “For there is no permanent city for us here on earth,” says the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, “we are looking for the city which is to come” Heb. 1314 GNB. Our true home is not here, it is with Jesus in the City of God. Like a holidaymaker excited at the prospect of reaching their holiday destination, as Christians it is the prospect of reaching our true home that excites us – or at least it should. And the Christian journey is a journey that every believer must make for themselves. No-one else can do it for you. You can’t rely on someone else to get to the destination and send you a postcard or a text message saying, “Wish you were here.” And fell that somehow you’ve been there if only in spirit. You have to make the journey for yourself. But at least we do it in the company of others.
And what happens in this personal journey that each and every Christian has to make has sometimes been compared to four place-related words – from and to, in and out. From, to, in, out.
Let’s think about each of those four words in turn.
Our first place word – From: when you become a Christian you come from the world. You leave behind the way life used to be. You are still in the world, but as Jesus puts it, no longer of it, no longer belonging to it because you now belong to the kingdom of Jesus.
Our second place word – To: having come from the world you are drawn to God and to the community of the church. The church community is now your new home. And Jesus prays to his Father that in this new home we may be one, as he and his Father are one. This is a supremely important aspect of our Christian life, because it so often appears not to be the case.
You remember how I said that when things go wrong on holiday people tend to rally around and support one another? That’s how it should be in this new community of love to which we have come and of which we are now a part. And yet too often what we see is not mutual love and support and service but people complaining about each, people running each other down, people wanting their own way instead of working together to discover Jesus’ way. Jesus prays for a community in which all contribute and work together for the sake of the gospel.
As our offertory hymn today puts it:
We are pilgrims on a journey,
fellow travellers on the road,
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.
Our third place word – In: in this community of Jesus, the Church, each Christian finds if they will look for it and receive it the nurture that they need to grow and the gifts they need, the equipping, to carry out the will of Jesus for them and for the community. And I cannot stress too much how important this concept of community is – there is no such thing as a solitary Christian and the New Testament has no understanding of such a thing. “May they be one,” prayed Jesus. There may be times when Christians are called to do things in a solitary situation, but everything we do is as part of and on behalf of the Christian community. And when people look at our Church they should see a community, not a collection of individuals each doing their own thing.
And our fourth place word – Out: strengthened by the Holy Spirit we go out into the world to spread the good news of Jesus, to serve people in the name of God. The problem is that this is the bit that is often seen as an optional extra for those Christians who are good at that sort of thing, or for those professionals who are paid to do it. Let me be clear about this – it isn’t an optional extra. Going out into the world is something every Christian must do. Jesus prays, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” All of them, not just some of them.
So let me just recap. Four words – From, To, In, Out. We come from the world though we are still a part of it. We are drawn to God and the community of the Church. In the Church community we grow and are equipped for service. We then go out into the world to serve and to witness.
From the world to the Church to be in the Church and to go out into the world again.
All of us who have been baptised have gone through a ceremony that draws these themes together. For in baptism we recognise that the primary claim upon our lives is the claim that Jesus has. Not ourselves, not our parents, not our children, not the government nor the Queen – Jesus claims us for himself, and in baptism we say “Amen” to that. And in baptism we receive the sign of the cross. That sign is a bit like a passport. When we travel around the world we carry a passport that marks us out as citizens of the United Kingdom. The sign of the cross we receive at our baptism marks us out as citizens of the heavenly kingdom who recognise Jesus as our King.
Now, being Anglicans many of you will have been baptised as children and will have been too young to have taken an active part in your baptism. The fact we can’t remember it happening doesn’t negate Jesus’ claim, and you may have acknowledged that claim over your life for yourself at confirmation, or at some other point in your life. But accepting that claim that Jesus has over us is an important part of our Christian journey, whether we were able to make it for ourselves at baptism or whether we affirm the promises made on our behalf. As we celebrate Jesus’ claim over us in baptism, our determination to serve him in life and to put him before all else, we proclaim the love of God to our world and we celebrate the call of Jesus to serve him as his community in the world.
We’re going to finish today by recalling our baptism and acknowledging that claim that Jesus has upon our lives. In a moment I’m going to ask you to trace a cross upon your forehead – recalling that sign of the cross made upon you at baptism – and say to yourself the words from the baptism service that are on your sheet.
But before we do that I just want to say that you can do this every time you come into or leave the church. For it’s a good way to remember that when we come in to worship, or when we leave worship to go out into the world, that we are now a part of this new community of love overseen by Jesus. Just go to the font, which always has water in it – dip in a finger, and make the sign of the cross, recalling your baptism and celebrating that claim that Jesus has on your life.
Now, taking your service sheet in your left hand so that you can read the words, trace the sign of the cross on your forehead along with me as together we say to ourselves: “Christ claims you for his own: receive the sign of the cross.”
Now just think about those words. Christ claims you for his own! What do those words mean to you? And how do they change your life? What difference do they make to your life’s journey, you who have been claimed by Christ to be his own.
I am indebted to Paul Ferguson in his book “Great is the Mystery of Faith” published by Canterbury Press who mentions the idea of the Christian journey being related to the four place words – from, to, in, out.