13th Sunday after Trinity

Phil 1:1-11; Mt 18:15-20

St Barbara’s 06.9.2020

Rev Tulo Raistrick

The beginning of September often marks the beginning of a new phase. For children, its the beginning of a new school year. For adults, it often marks the end of the slightly more relaxed summer months at work, and the beginning of new initiatives. For retirees, often clubs and activities slow down in the summer and then pick up with renewed momentum and enthusiasm. The beginning of September marks a change of pace, a girding of the loins, a firing of the starting gun.

But this year, September feels different. The government is very keen for us all to get back to busy activity: for children to get back to schools, for adults to get back to the workplace, for us all to be out and about spending money. For some of us it may feel that after several months of relative quiet things have suddenly gone crazily busy. In the last 24 hours I’ve heard at least two families describe their weeks as “manic”. But for others of us we may be feeling not quite ready to throw ourselves back into the hubbub of life. We remain unsure as to how safe it is to do so. And none of us have much certainty about where we will be in even just a couple of months time – will we be back in lockdown or will social distancing restrictions have been lifted? We just don’t know.

In such times, it strikes me, we need some direction, some sense of purpose, some sense that whether we are throwing ourselves fully into the busyness of life or choosing to hold back, there is a greater purpose, a greater meaning that we can all participate in.

For us all here at St Barbara’s I would like to suggest we take forward a simple focus for our lives over the coming months: that we grow in love – for God, each other, our community and the world.

Love is the very centre of our Christian faith. It is the quality that most truly describes God, and it is the quality that most fully defines what it is to be a Christian. Daily, we need to be growing in love, not stagnating, but finding new ways to express and live out our love.

Growing in our love for God. How can I grow in my love for God today/ this week? Maybe its to put aside some time to pray. Maybe its to take time to join in the daily devotion series on Philippians. Maybe it to take some time to stop and breathe in the beauty of creation and praise the God who creates it. Maybe its to be more conscious of God in the small, inconsequential moments of our day – as we boil the kettle, as we tend the garden, as we walk down the street. What a tremendous purpose, amidst all the uncertainties, how can I grow in love for God today?

Growing in our love for each other. As we will see in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, one of the hallmarks of Christian living is the love that we have for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. A simple question for us is: how am I growing in love for my fellow Christians here at St Barbara’s? What can | do today/ this week to express my love, my care, my appreciation, my commitment to others in this church? Maybe its by praying for them, maybe its by keeping in touch, by phone, email, zoom, letter? What can I learn from those who do this so well? I remember last year how you gave me such a wonderful gift for my 50th birthday. A year on, especially when things are occasionally discouraging or difficult, I take great heart from knowing the love that was expressed in that way. How can I love others here in St Barbara’s this week?

And then, looking beyond the church, how can I grow in my love for our community. What can I do to express God’s love for my neighbours, for friends? Can I invite them round for a socially distanced chat? Can I drop off a meal or home-made cake on their doorstep? Have I told them about our online church services? And how about our local institutions – the library, the school, the shops, the community groups? What ways can I support them at this challenging time? And can I support those struggling with loneliness or with financial difficulties – maybe getting involved in Good Neighbours or CAP? Our faith is an outward looking faith. We are called to reach out to those beyond the church with God’s love, to be part of the transformation God longs to bring to our community, this community that we are privileged to be part of.

And looking still further afield, how can I grow in my love for the world. That seems a rather grand phrase, but it simply means, beyond the immediate community within which I live, how can I live out God’s love? What can I do to stand up for justice? What ways can I support charities and organisations working alongside those in poverty around the world? Can I make a difference for the environment? How can I support the work of God’s church in other parts of the world – in Kapsabet in Kenya, for example, where we have a link?

What a wonderful focus and purpose for our lives at this time of uncertainty: to grow in love for God, each other, our community and the world.

This is the theme that Paul keeps returning to in his wonderful letter to the church in Philippi in northern Greece. We are going to begin briefly today, but over the next few weeks, through our daily devotions, sermons and some home groups we will be taking our time to truly immerse ourselves in what God may have to say to us through this letter.

Paul writes the letter from a prison cell in Rome to the church in Philippi, over ten years after he had helped to establish it. Throughout the letter it is clear how much he loves the Christians there. He views them as friends, brothers and sisters. He delights in them. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he writes. “In all my prayers for you, I always pray with joy.” He goes on: “I have you in my heart… God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” Paul has not seen the Philippian Christians for a number of years, and in prison, that is not likely to change for sometime. His only means of communication is by letter. But those do not form barriers to his expressing love to the church. Some of us may still feel in some form of lockdown; all of us may feel that communication with one another is restricted; but none of us face the challenges that Paul faced. And yet he found ways to express his love in the most profound and wonderful ways. Let us not use our current circumstances as an excuse for not showing love to one another.

Not only that, but Paul points us to something else too: how we can grow in our love for God. His greeting: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” captures the very heart of the Christian faith. Grace – God’s abundant and undeserved gift of life and love to us in Christ, his reaching out to us before we reach out to him – is freely ours. And from receiving that gift of grace follows peace (not simply an absence of trouble and strife, but wholeness, well-being, contentment, hope). Keep returning to God’s gift of grace, and you will know peace.

And he prays that their love “may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight”. Paul prays that their love should be a matter of the heart – it should be emotional, it should move us – and that it should be a matter of the mind as well, that it should be rooted in knowledge, rooted in the God we encounter through his word in the Bible and through prayer. Such love shapes our character. Malcolm Muggeridge, on meeting Mother Teresa, described her as having the “beauty of holiness… she had a special beauty, amounting to a kind of pervasive luminosity generated by a life dedicated wholly to loving God and his creation.” In other words, as we grow in our love for God, we will find our love for others grows too.

Paul told the Christians in Philippi that he “was confident of this: that he who began a good work in you will carry it out to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” God has begun a good work in each one of us – calling us to grow in love for him, each other, our community and the world. We can be confident that he who has begun this work will complete it. So let us take heart. This September may feel different from any other, but God has not finished with us yet. The work he has begun, he will complete.