One Parish, Three Churches

Age of Marmite: The challenge of unity in this age
Imagine a time, maybe thirty, forty….a hundred years from now, when children will be sat in history lessons.  The teacher patiently takes them through a timeline of how the the world developed.  
Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age…….20th Century……Marmite Age.

Yes, I am decreeing the time we are currently living in, as the Marmite Age.

Marmite is usually used as an example of things people either really dislike, or utterly adore.  

People are rarely ambivalent about it.  

Why the age of Marmite?  Well I don’t meant that Marmite is our new way of developing and building things, as in previous historical eras.  No….the Age of Marmite is to do with the Age of Opinion.

Last year we saw people on both sides of the Atlantic make big decisions.  We have elections regularly – we live in a democracy, so no surprise there.  But this year the decisions made – the voting outcomes – seem to have provoked results which you really do, either love or loathe.  It is very hard to maintain a neutral position.

Whether we are talking about Brexit or the election of President Trump…..it tends to be a Marmite response.  Love it or loathe it.

Now we live in a democracy,  so no matter which opinion you hold…we are now living with the outcome…and we have to live together.

On Wednesday we began to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  It is an initiative run by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.  I think we might be in a time when this has never been more important.  

The introduction on their website says this:

There are fifty million Christians in Germany who, traditionally, have mostly belonged to the Roman Catholic Church or one of the Protestant State Churches. Recent developments, particularly the reception of refugees and asylum seekers, have begun to change this balance and other Christian traditions are finding expression. Whilst that which unites the churches is stronger than that which divides, there are still areas of difference in which the churches remain self-absorbed or construct new walls.

(The text from 2 Corinthians) We know from scripture (announces) that God has, in Christ, reconciled the world to himself. The love of Christ compels us to be ambassadors of this reconciliation, which is enacted by dismantling the walls. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany experienced how a seemingly insurmountable wall could be brought down. The fall of this wall is a symbol of hope that, with the love of God, nothing is impossible.

Important words for us today.  You may have seen in the news on Friday, groups of people unfurling banners around the world which read #bridgesnotwalls as a response to the inauguration of President Trump.  Impressive, quiet resistance, and a powerful message for us as Christians.

In the reading from 1 Corinthians we hear Paul’s concern that the Christians in Corinth are disagreeing and divisions are being created between them.  We know that a woman of some standing in the community – Chloe – has alerted Paul to the problems, and he has written to them imploring them to banish their differences.  It seems they have begun to take sides and claim allegiance to different groups or leaders within the church.  

Paul reminds them that it was Christ who was crucified for them, Christ in whose name they are baptised.  Not the leader of whichever group or opinion they have decided to align themselves with.  Paul says that Jesus’ focus was not on baptism but spreading the good news and preaching.  Something reflected in our gospel today.

We are still good at creating “sides” but Paul is saying that these differences of opinion really do not matter – what matters – what we as the body of Christ are called to do – is to tell people the Good News of grace, hope and love.

It doesn’t matter if we hold different opinions about same-sex marriage, or women bishops.  Whether you think all services should have a choir, worship group, or should contain no music at all.  Where you stand on transubstantiation, the virgin birth or even messy church.  We are called to be one body in the unity of Christ and our job is not to take sides but to stand as one and show God’s love to all.  Yep.  All.  And that includes each other.

For many years I worked for BBC Radio.  I was privileged to work with some great people, and among them the late England football manager Graham Taylor.  I hope you have all been fortunate enough to work with people who when they turn up, you just know it’s going to be ok.  You can trust them with the job.  Graham was like that.  I usually dealt with Graham down the line, as we say, rather than face to face.  But on the odd occasion I met him, he was straight forward, down to earth, and warm.  There are two quotes associated with him which have struck me this week.

One was a comment he made to fans who were abusing the player John Barnes.  He said, “You’re talking about another human being, so just watch your language, alright?”

Such a simple statement, but so true.  And something the world needs reminding of.

The other quote is about Graham Taylor, which emerged in the tributes to him after he died.  We regularly hear of players or managers “bringing the game into disrepute”.  One commentator suggested Taylor should be…..charged with bringing the game into repute.”

Bringing the game into repute.  Can we be charged with bringing our faith into repute?  We need to be.

There are Christian internet bloggers claiming Donald Trump is a sign from God based on a translation from 1 Thessalonians 4.16, which reads :

“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God.”

My hunch is that most of us would at least raise an eyebrow at that.  How do we find unity with people who, while proclaiming they believe in the same God, hold such different opinions to our own?  (I’m not here to say which I think is right by the way)

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby came to Greenbelt (where I now work) last August, and was interviewed by the lovely Rev Kate Bottley. She asked him how he copes with the tougher moments and he went on to explain how important WE the church are in people’s darker moments…

The Archbishop said that BEING the church is so important.  Archbishop Justin continued “people say : You’re always stressing unity over truth, as if you can divide the two : – which you can’t…..the church being Christ to one another is what makes us a distinctive body in the world – it’s the only thing that matters.  If we’re not that, nothing else counts at all.”

He says we show God by learning to disagree well, and love each other.  He acknowledges that we fail – we are human – but we have to keep trying because that is what Jesus tells us to do….and today it is also what Paul is telling us to do.  Division – according to Welby – is sin.

Incidentally….What frustrates Welby?  He says – himself – and that he has to not send an awful lot of emails.  His wisdom: “The best friend of Christian Unity is the draftbox.”

So perhaps you’re listening to this, thinking it is all terribly obvious.  Love one another.  But at times like this, when division is so rife, and so clear we need reminding of what our job, as the body of Christ is.  This morning we have heard from Paul that our focus should be on Christ and proclaiming his saving grace.  In the gospel, Jesus called his disciples – ordinary folk like us – to become fishers of men.  Not to become academics, not to get into arguments about ethics and doctrine, however important that may be, but to become preachers of the message and lovers of the people.  Because that is how we BE church, and that is how right now we can show hope, Christian Unity and God among us.

So now, in this Age of Marmite, my prayer is that we follow the words of Paul & the commands of Jesus, showing love and unity, so that we might bring hope…and be charged with bringing the Christian Faith in Repute.    Amen

PS: I don’t believe this means that we cannot challenge issues, and just accept the status quo, but we must live well alongside each other, and despite differences of opinions what counts is BEING the body of Christ.  Showing love. Preaching the good news.  Standing up for the marginalised and seeking justice and peace for all.


Rachel Wakefield

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Choose wisely, choose love
St Nicholas Church – Sunday June 19th 2016 – 9.30am

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I know I’m supposed to start a sermon off with a joke.  But I just don’t have one.  Just the fact that Dennis in his wisdom asked me to preach my first sermon at a 9.30 service, on the Sunday before the European Referendum is frankly, hilarious enough.   

And then, just when I thought the focus of this morning was going to be the EU referendum, the shootings in Orlando happened last weekend.  

And then, just as I thought I had a plan for this morning……the MP Jo Cox was shot and killed.  

So I hope you’ll forgive me for the lack of jokes.  I’m just not finding things very funny right now.

My original focus was going to be Europe.  So let’s start there.  I’m not going to tell you how to vote and will try my hardest to remain impartial.  If you are seeking theological argument and opinion on how to vote you can find it elsewhere, but as a helpful guide, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says Leave…..the present Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby says Remain.  As does our own Bishop here in St Albans.  And while I don’t intend on telling you how I think you should vote, what I can talk about this morning is what I believe our reading from Galatians might be saying to us.  But I will come to that later.  

So while we are probably all becoming quite weary of the In/Out debate….while economics, law and sovereignty are being bandied about as reasons to vote one way or the other, and while the issue of immigration was merrily being thrown around for our benefit, a man went into a nightclub in Orlando last weekend and shot people because of who they are.  Not because of what they believe or any opinions they hold, not because of any life decision they had made, but because of who they fall in love with, and the person they were created as.

Many have spoken out in solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bi and transgender community.  Myself included.  Many also raised concerns about the gun laws in America.  Over there.  In America.  

But then on Thursday one of our own MP’s was shot.  We don’t really know all the facts, but it seems that the man who killed Jo Cox disagreed with her opinions.  Opinions which supported each person, regardless of who they are or where they are from.  

Suddenly, shootings are not just “over there”.  They are here.  The stretch of water between us makes no difference.  They have guns.  We have guns.  People on both sides of the Atlantic are being shot simply for who they are. Let’s be honest, we know these things don’t just happen in Britain and the United States.  It’s just that those are the incidents we hear about.  People are being killed and victimised for who they are and loving people for who they are.  Different countries.  Different continents.  Same planet.  Same space.   It isn’t them and us.  It is us.  

Who are we to decide who owns which bits of land anyway?  It’s all one world.  Is that too simplistic?  Too idealistic?  To just suggest that we are one world, regardless of our differences?  No, I don’t think it is.  I don’t think that it can be.

Many of you will know that I spent some time in Palestine after Easter this year with the Amos Trust.  I visited many of the holy sites, ran a half marathon in Bethlehem – as you do – that may be the closest you do get to a joke this morning….but I also visited refugee camps and spoke to Palestinian Christians and Muslims about how they were developing what they describe as Beautiful Resistance.  A way to peacefully protest at the occupation of their land.  This is not the time or the place to discuss the Israeli Occupation, but one of the phrases which stuck with me was during a meeting with Zoughbi Zoughbi of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Reconciliation Centre.  He simply said….  

“God is not racist”.  

There are many complex arguments about the Occupied Territories – Palestine – but this one sentence really stuck, and cuts through all the politics.  God is not racist.  

Wi’am is situated by one of the main checkpoints in Bethlehem, under the shadow of the wall, accompanied by a couple of Banksy murals outside.  When I say in the shadow – that’s exactly what I mean.  They wanted a place children could go and play, a place with a garden.  And they put it by the checkpoint as a point of peaceful resistance…..just like the motivation of the communion services – like ours today’s – in the fields of the Cremison Valley.  Peaceful resistance.  The centre gets tear-gassed.  The garden furniture is burnt out.  The children’s play stuff damaged.  The garden is decorated with empty tear gas canisters which have been thrown over from the other side of the wall.  

Zoughbi says this, “dwelling in victimhood is suicidal, enhancing the guilt will paralyse others, blaming is toxic…so a collective responsibility is the most important thing…..and the challenge is how to transform the garbage of anger, the garbage of hate, and to flower in the tree of compassion.”   “We are committed to the non-violent struggle, against the occupation through the popular struggle, because we would like to deprive the Israeli government from an enemy”  

I have so much more I could tell you about how the people I met strive peacefully towards the goal of peace for all.  But now is not the time.  Just remember their statement – God is not racist.

Which brings me so neatly to this morning’s reading from Galatians.  In a week where the world seems – in my opinion and that of many others I know – to be a dark and scary place….Paul reminds us in our lectionary reading today that God sees no division.  However we see others, however we vote, whatever our differences are…..to God they are invisible.  There is no East nor West, no Jew nor Greek, no man no woman….and in the light of the shootings in Orlando – no gay nor straight.  We are all the same.

This building we worship in is old.  It has a great history, lovely stained glass, and a beautiful font.  And yet it divides us.  It separates us out into those with small children in the back corner.  Children who attend Sunday Club at the front.  The choir in their stalls, the clergy and assistants at the front, with everyone else occupying their usual seat everywhere else.  We are divided.  Some can see, other are stuck behind a pillar.  We are in our place.  If I had the courage this morning I would ask you all to stand up and swap seats.  For the choir to sit down the side, the toddlers to move to the front, the children can come and sit here and the rest of you find a different view.  Mix.  Be as one.  Don’t separate.

When writing this, the words of a song by U2 were stuck in my head.  The song is called Walk On and was written for Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest in Burma.  
And love is not the easy thing

The only baggage you can bring

Is all that you can’t leave behind

Bono, U2’s singer, said it was based on a passage from Corinthians about a house which suffers a fire.  Like us on judgement day, what will be left after all the material things are removed?  If we take away law, money and sovereignty?  What is left?  The only thing you cannot leave behind.  Love.

So however we chose to vote this week, think on today’s reading.  We have a choice to make on Thursday, but we also have daily choices to make.  We can choose anger and hate and aggression.  Or we can choose and grab hold of love.  We can choose love as a peaceful resistance to the problems in our lives.

The only thing which is left at the end of the day is love….love for each other and God’s love.  

Jo Cox MP said “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

St Paul in his letter to the Galatians said,

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We are all the same.  To quote Bono again.  We are one.  Choose wisely, choose love.  


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Choose wisely, choose love
St Nicholas Church – Sunday June 19th 2016 – 9.30am

May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I know I’m supposed to start a sermon off with a joke.  But I just don’t have one.  Just the fact that Dennis in his wisdom asked me to preach my first sermon at a 9.30 service, on the Sunday before the European Referendum is frankly, hilarious enough.   

And then, just when I thought the focus of this morning was going to be the EU referendum, the shootings in Orlando happened last weekend.  

And then, just as I thought I had a plan for this morning……the MP Jo Cox was shot and killed.  

So I hope you’ll forgive me for the lack of jokes.  I’m just not finding things very funny right now.

My original focus was going to be Europe.  So let’s start there.  I’m not going to tell you how to vote and will try my hardest to remain impartial.  If you are seeking theological argument and opinion on how to vote you can find it elsewhere, but as a helpful guide, the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says Leave…..the present Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby says Remain.  As does our own Bishop here in St Albans.  And while I don’t intend on telling you how I think you should vote, what I can talk about this morning is what I believe our reading from Galatians might be saying to us.  But I will come to that later.  

So while we are probably all becoming quite weary of the In/Out debate….while economics, law and sovereignty are being bandied about as reasons to vote one way or the other, and while the issue of immigration was merrily being thrown around for our benefit, a man went into a nightclub in Orlando last weekend and shot people because of who they are.  Not because of what they believe or any opinions they hold, not because of any life decision they had made, but because of who they fall in love with, and the person they were created as.

Many have spoken out in solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bi and transgender community.  Myself included.  Many also raised concerns about the gun laws in America.  Over there.  In America.  

But then on Thursday one of our own MP’s was shot.  We don’t really know all the facts, but it seems that the man who killed Jo Cox disagreed with her opinions.  Opinions which supported each person, regardless of who they are or where they are from.  

Suddenly, shootings are not just “over there”.  They are here.  The stretch of water between us makes no difference.  They have guns.  We have guns.  People on both sides of the Atlantic are being shot simply for who they are. Let’s be honest, we know these things don’t just happen in Britain and the United States.  It’s just that those are the incidents we hear about.  People are being killed and victimised for who they are and loving people for who they are.  Different countries.  Different continents.  Same planet.  Same space.   It isn’t them and us.  It is us.  

Who are we to decide who owns which bits of land anyway?  It’s all one world.  Is that too simplistic?  Too idealistic?  To just suggest that we are one world, regardless of our differences?  No, I don’t think it is.  I don’t think that it can be.

Many of you will know that I spent some time in Palestine after Easter this year with the Amos Trust.  I visited many of the holy sites, ran a half marathon in Bethlehem – as you do – that may be the closest you do get to a joke this morning….but I also visited refugee camps and spoke to Palestinian Christians and Muslims about how they were developing what they describe as Beautiful Resistance.  A way to peacefully protest at the occupation of their land.  This is not the time or the place to discuss the Israeli Occupation, but one of the phrases which stuck with me was during a meeting with Zoughbi Zoughbi of the Wi’am Palestinian Conflict Reconciliation Centre.  He simply said….  

“God is not racist”.  

There are many complex arguments about the Occupied Territories – Palestine – but this one sentence really stuck, and cuts through all the politics.  God is not racist.  

Wi’am is situated by one of the main checkpoints in Bethlehem, under the shadow of the wall, accompanied by a couple of Banksy murals outside.  When I say in the shadow – that’s exactly what I mean.  They wanted a place children could go and play, a place with a garden.  And they put it by the checkpoint as a point of peaceful resistance…..just like the motivation of the communion services – like ours today’s – in the fields of the Cremison Valley.  Peaceful resistance.  The centre gets tear-gassed.  The garden furniture is burnt out.  The children’s play stuff damaged.  The garden is decorated with empty tear gas canisters which have been thrown over from the other side of the wall.  

Zoughbi says this, “dwelling in victimhood is suicidal, enhancing the guilt will paralyse others, blaming is toxic…so a collective responsibility is the most important thing…..and the challenge is how to transform the garbage of anger, the garbage of hate, and to flower in the tree of compassion.”   “We are committed to the non-violent struggle, against the occupation through the popular struggle, because we would like to deprive the Israeli government from an enemy”  

I have so much more I could tell you about how the people I met strive peacefully towards the goal of peace for all.  But now is not the time.  Just remember their statement – God is not racist.

Which brings me so neatly to this morning’s reading from Galatians.  In a week where the world seems – in my opinion and that of many others I know – to be a dark and scary place….Paul reminds us in our lectionary reading today that God sees no division.  However we see others, however we vote, whatever our differences are…..to God they are invisible.  There is no East nor West, no Jew nor Greek, no man no woman….and in the light of the shootings in Orlando – no gay nor straight.  We are all the same.

This building we worship in is old.  It has a great history, lovely stained glass, and a beautiful font.  And yet it divides us.  It separates us out into those with small children in the back corner.  Children who attend Sunday Club at the front.  The choir in their stalls, the clergy and assistants at the front, with everyone else occupying their usual seat everywhere else.  We are divided.  Some can see, other are stuck behind a pillar.  We are in our place.  If I had the courage this morning I would ask you all to stand up and swap seats.  For the choir to sit down the side, the toddlers to move to the front, the children can come and sit here and the rest of you find a different view.  Mix.  Be as one.  Don’t separate.

When writing this, the words of a song by U2 were stuck in my head.  The song is called Walk On and was written for Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest in Burma.  
And love is not the easy thing

The only baggage you can bring

Is all that you can’t leave behind

Bono, U2’s singer, said it was based on a passage from Corinthians about a house which suffers a fire.  Like us on judgement day, what will be left after all the material things are removed?  If we take away law, money and sovereignty?  What is left?  The only thing you cannot leave behind.  Love.

So however we chose to vote this week, think on today’s reading.  We have a choice to make on Thursday, but we also have daily choices to make.  We can choose anger and hate and aggression.  Or we can choose and grab hold of love.  We can choose love as a peaceful resistance to the problems in our lives.

The only thing which is left at the end of the day is love….love for each other and God’s love.  

Jo Cox MP said “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

St Paul in his letter to the Galatians said,

“But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

We are all the same.  To quote Bono again.  We are one.  Choose wisely, choose love.  


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St Paul’s Spiritual Fitness Programm (Phil 3:7-14)

     Being overweight and usually wishing I wasn’t, I occasionally take note of exercise programmes that guarantee weight loss and trim figures.  I must admit, I was intrigued but never really fooled by those exercise methods which promised firm muscles and instant fat loss without any sweat or physical exertion.  You’ve seen it advertised I’m sure.  Where you lay on some comfortable bed and these rollers and levers bend and stimulate your muscles without you having to do anything.  Or where you lay on some comfortable bed and very mild electric current shock various muscles making them contract and supposedly exercise.  These methods are not entirely painless, from what I hear, I have never tried them. But they are as it were, effort free.  Don’t you just wish it was true?

          Sometimes we view our spirituality this way.  Why can’t being spiritual be a natural outcome of daily life?  It shouldn’t be something we have to work at.  We should just be who we are; just be ourselves, and we will grow into spiritual maturity.  It is a myth of effortless spirituality.  Just lie back on the comfortable bed of life and God will make you spiritual.

          Well this passage from Philippians blows-up that whole idea.  It uses words like: loss, gain, know, share, attain, press on, straining.  These actions words are complimented with pictures of throwing things away, grasping, running a race, straining toward the finish line.  All things which you and I are supposed to be doing as we eagerly await a Saviour from heaven who is coming to finish our spiritual fitness programme.

          Let’s look at St. Paul’s three-step programme to spiritual fitness.  Unfortunately, I the workout video is not available, so we will have to concentrate on the biblical text.

          STEP ONE: SET A GOAL.  You know the expression, ‘aim at nothing and you are sure to hit it’.  To achieve spiritual maturity you have to have a vision of the goal, a vision of what is meant to be at the end of the process.  Paul states the goal in rather stark terms: the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord; that I may gain Christ; I want to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.  To sum it up, the goal is to know Christ, and to know him fully. 

          One of the great themes of Paul’s theology is that through faith, through our baptism, and through the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’.  For Paul, the Christian life is a process of becoming more and more identified with Christ, of being transformed into the image of Christ.  Knowledge or to knowas it is used in this context means to have a living understanding and experience of.  So when Paul speaks of knowing Christ he is talking about growing into a deeper personal relationship with Christ.  It is experiential knowledge, not just head knowledge.

          Let me illustrate.  I have lived with my wife Helen for thirty-six years.  After all these years of marriage, I know almost everything there is to know about her.  My knowledge of her comes through hours upon hours of talking and sharing our thoughts and feelings, our shared experiences, and our daily lives.  But after 30 some years there is still more to know and to learn to love.  When Paul speaks of knowing Christ, he means a knowledge that is deeper and more personal than my knowledge of my wife.

          The first step in spiritual fitness is to set a goal.  For St. Paul that goal is to be so identified with Christ, to be so in Christ, that we become Christ like.  Paul’s spiritual fitness programme challenges us to evaluate all our spiritual goals into that one goal of KNOWING CHRIST.

          STEP TWO: REALIZE THE RESOURCES.

          I watched this programme about building the Shard, the tallest building in Europe.  They had to organize a way to have all that steel and glass on site ready to use as the building got underway.  We can dream all the dreams we want about what we would like to do, but those dreams have to be balanced by the resources available.  It is the same for our spiritual fitness programme.  We have to realize the resources that we have at our disposal so we can realize the goal of knowing Christ.  One of the resources St. Paul says we have received is righteousness(read v9).  But we usually object, don’t we, if anyone implies that we are righteous.  After all we know ourselves only too well to know that we are hardly righteous.  We know that we are not morally and ethically pure.  But that’s just the problem; our understanding of righteousness is too limited.  We envisage it only in moral and ethical terms.  PAUL sees righteousness something more.  This kind of righteousness is nothingwe can attain.  Righteousness is what we have received through our faith in Christ.  Righteousness is how God sees us on account of the love of Christ for us and on account of the saving passion and atonement of Christ on our behalf.  Righteousness is our standing before God based on Christ’s work.  It is how God sees us on account of Christ.

          OK so how is this righteousness a resource in our spiritual fitness programme?  It sounds a bit too abstract.  What it means is that we have direct access to God.  Righteousness must be understood in relational terms.  To be righteous means we have permission to enter God’s presence freely.  God dwells in pure light and holiness.  Because we are seen as righteous, you and I have a pass-card which allows us directly inside the courts of heaven, the inner sanctuary where God dwells. 

          Direct access to God comes in several ways.  Prayer is the most obvious.  In prayer we tap into spiritual power and forces to help us in facing temptation, for healing and wholeness, for discovering we are loved by God, for discerning God’s will and ways.  Prayer is not just asking, it is also sitting quietly in God’s presence and letting his blessed presence transform me.  We also come into God’s presence through worship.  God also comes to us as we read and study his word.  God comes to us in our conversations and encounters with others.  We have the resources we need through the gift of righteousness.  We have God’s presence opened up to us in all of our life—unlimited, unfettered access to the holy, awesome God.

          STEP THREE: RUN THE RACE.  In St. Paul’s words, ‘straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me’.  Spiritual fitness is not an easy programme.  It is not lying on a comfortable bed and letting it happen to you.  It requires some effort on our part. 

          In running the race, we need to reorient our value system.  Our new value system means we look at life differently.  Paul says, ‘Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ’.  Paul looks at his credentials, human credentials, and says, in the big scheme of things what are these things worth.  It is important that WE take stock.  What is it that we put in our assets column?  At the end of the day the royal family and the president of the USA will have to stand before God and be judged on the same criteria as you and I.  At the end of the day, graduates from Cambridge and Oxford will have to stand before God and be asked the same questions as the man or woman or child who never set a day inside a school room.   

          In order to run the race we have to weigh up carefully the opportunities which come our way in life.  There is nothing wrong with working hard to earn a promotion and better pay.  But if that goal gets in the way of my knowing Christ, is it worth it? 

          In order to run the race, we not only need a Christ-like value system, we have to bring our spirituality under discipline.  Paul gives us these images:  I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me; This one thing I do, forgetting what is behind, I strain towards what is ahead; I press on toward the goal.  Richard Foster in his book, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, lists the great spiritual disciplines as these: meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity of life, solitude, submission to authority, service, confession, worship, guidance and celebration.  Read that list again.  Some of these disciplines are private inner practices which no one will ever see.  Some are outward disciplines which are evident in the way we live our daily lives, some are corporate disciplines which we do as part of the body of Christ. 

          These disciplines do not just happen.  It takes an act of our will to make them happen.  The image of pushing ourselves, of straining, provokes us to realize we have to do our best to become spiritually fit, to know Christ.  But spiritual discipline is like a diet.  Sometimes we blow it, but then we get back to eating right.  The great saints of the past learned and passed on to us disciplines we can practice.  We have to make the effort to make them work in our lives.

          In conclusion, for now, we live in the present.  The reading from Philippians calls us all to follow St. Paul’s steps to spiritual fitness.  First, our goal is to come to know Christ fully.  Second, we need to realize the resource of having free access to God through the righteousness Christ has clothed us with.  Third, we must try to run the race, to reorient our personal values under the goal of knowing Christ and to discipline our spiritual life into the right patterns which produce authentic spiritual growth.  This spiritual fitness programme is harder than any weight loss and exercise routine one might try.  But the rewards are much greater.  Let us join with St Paul and commit ourselves to these words: I WANT TO KNOW CHRIST.

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