Revd Alex Pease led our service of Parish Communion this morning and spoke on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. You can listen here or read below.
What are you (what am I) rooted in? What are you (and I) rooted in?
We all know how difficult it is to be a Christian. Not only are we expected by Jesus….to do the surface stuff, to do the stuff that others can see, such as, follow the 10 commandments:
- Have no other gods than God
- Not worship other things
- Not misuse Gods name
- Keep the Sabbath
- Honour your father and mother
- Not murder
- Not commit adultery
- Not steal
- Not give false witness
- Not covet your neighbour’s ox or donkey
(That last one is a bit easier these days, I can be clear in my mind that I have never coveted Judy Bishop’s donkey known as ‘Nuisance’ or any of Michael Gray’s bullocks.. which I encounter on walks round the Valley and most of the others are relatively easy to stick to..
But Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 5 of Matthew ratchets up the whole standard even more…that even speaking words of anger, is as sinful as murder; even thinking lustfully about someone, other than your wife or husband, is as sinful as adultery.
One of my contemporaries at theological college said to me that he felt he could keep clear of breaching most of the 10 commandments themselves, most of the time, but the ‘thought sins’ of the sermon on the mount, were quite another matter….
How can we possibly manage our often instant reaction to things? How can we not be angry when we are crossed? How can we not gossip about the neighbours when they annoy us? How can we not be cynical about the motivations of others? How can we not envy someone else’s house lifestyle, children, spouse…..not to mention their donkeys and oxen?
And here is a really difficult one, how can we possibly forgive, as Jesus requires us to do in Matthew 6, when someone has done something, really ‘unforgivable’ to us? Our anger, gossip, cynicism, envy and lack of forgiveness seem to just bubble up inside us, and sometimes, unfortunately, find their outlet in our speech, actions, or in the emails or social media posts we write…
You may feel, as I sometimes do as well, when I think I have let myself down, let Jesus down in some way, through this sort of speech or thought sin, that I may never change at all, that I seem to be hardwired to unpleasantness or a desire to control everyone and everything around me, that my heart is permanently corrupted and always has been….How can we possibly solve this conundrum of contamination in the human heart?
Paul in his letter to the Ephesians provides the answer. He prays for his gentile converts in Ephesus that, Father God may grant [them] that [they] may be strengthened in [their] inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in [their] hearts through faith, as [they] are being rooted and grounded in love.
In our garden in Martyr Worthy, we have a lawn half of which is flourishing in this wet and then very sunny weather… that we have been having but the other half started the year in the cold, as moss, but, although it has more or less recovered now in this sun and rain, as soon as it is dry it turns rather yellow and patchy, whereas the south side of the lawn is more robust and keeps its deep green colour. We have discovered that although both sides of the lawn have had (obviously) the same rain and sunshine, that the subsoil of each side of the lawn is different. Whereas the south side of the lawn has a deep layer of top soil, it doesn’t take much digging to find that on the north side of the lawn that there are rocks or the abandoned foundation stones of old farm buildings. The grass doesn’t prosper as well when the subsoil is of poor quality. And I understand that viticulturists say that the quality and taste of the wine is as much the product of the quality of the soil as it is of the sunshine and rain.
The question that God is interested in, is what is going on under the surface of our lives. What are we rooted in?
You see we can become quite adept at behaving well on the surface at seeming to be one thing but actually being something quite different underneath. A lot of the time, to continue the analogy of our lawn, when the sun is shining and the rain is sufficiently frequent, we are indistinguishable from the people we want to present to everyone. But as the saying goes in the Army, ’When the going gets tough, the tough get going’.
This is not just a matter of hypocrisy, although Jesus criticised that as well, it is a question of what we are growing our roots towards which is the cause of this hypocrisy, that inconsistency between how we want to appear, our curated self if you like, to use a social media expression, and the way that we actually are which bursts out from time to time. And here the analogy tends to break down, because of course plants will always grow, if they can where they are placed, to what sustains them, whereas we can, and often do, choose to root ourselves in stuff that cripples us,rather than making us flourish.
If we reflect on our average day, how much time do we spend on what helps us flourish? And how much on what cripples us? What do we spend our time thinking about? What do we spend our time viewing and reading?
I am going to take a shocking and extreme example now…How is it that a married man with two young children,a policeman of all people, ends up raping and murdering a complete stranger innocently walking home one evening? How is it that colleagues and comrades, even his wife, failed to identify this terrible man as a threat? Perhaps, because only recently did his surface behaviour reveal what was going on beneath, what his roots had been growing towards…
Whilst the IT revolution has brought many benefits for society, it has also enabled all kinds of horrors to be available at the touch of a button. If we allow our roots to start growing towards these horrors, if we fill our mind and heart with these things, eventually, there will be an effect on the surface, even if not in such an extreme way as in this terrible case, but damaging to us and to those we are close to nonetheless. And its not just those dark desires but an insistence on everything around me being the way that I want it to be which can be the subsoil in which our roots are growing.
But Paul says that we should grow our roots towards love.
As I have so often pointed out from this pulpit before, (please if there is one thing that you remember from the nine years of my ministry please remember this), the word which is used for love in the Ancient Greek in which Paul’s letter was written is Agape, which does not mean the passion of erotic love, the affection of parental love or the fellowship of friendship, but rather the sort of love that Jesus showed for us ultimately on the Cross: self sacrificial love.
It is sometimes said that St Paul had to invent or repurpose this word ‘Agape’ to describe the depth of Jesus love for his disciples, perhaps because it is so alien to our nature. It was then and it is now.
Self sacrificial love. Are you am I rooted in self sacrificial love? Is our first instinct to shake our fist at the person who has cut us up at the roundabout? Do we insist upon justice in dealing with our neighbours or in having everything around us the way I want it? Do we refuse to talk to our relations because of what they have done? Do we harbour grudges for years and years? Do we fantasise about the woman or man next door, or the film star on Netflix? Do we abuse people, politicians or people we disagree with on social media under the cloak of anonymity? Where are we, in the dark recesses of our consciousness, where are we are putting down roots?
You see in all these cases Jesus example tells us to show self sacrifice: fight for justice, but for others not for ourselves; show grace to those who offend us (The whole point about grace is that it is not deserved!); show consideration to those who damage our pride; forgive those who do us down; To behave with excessive decency to neighbours; and to encourage, others to do things the way that God is calling them to do them.
Agape demands that we show grace, not stand on our own rights. As Jesus said on the cross, ’Lord forgive them, they do not know what they are doing’.
You see Christianity is very simple really….We humans have had a tendency from the beginning of time since Eden…to want to make little tin pot gods of ourselves and our wishes. The fact, in Genesis, that the apple looked good to eat was no reason to disobey God…..despite what Adam and Eve thought.
Its so easy to make little gods of:
What we want
And to use our power to achieve this
But God by coming to earth as nothing, even though as the Son, he had been the instrument – the logos by which all creation happened. He came to us as: the poorest, the most rejected, the most unloved, the least powerful. He showed us the way to live: the way to the Father. He revealed his character, the character of the Father and that is his humility, His selflessness…His self sacrifice, He pointed the way to how we should be, What to root ourselves in: We are to be rooted in self sacrificial love, like him….
I often speculate that the Lord has given us neighbours, and for those so blessed, spouses and children, to help us to learn about self sacrificial love. Unfortunately, some of us don’t learn that lesson, even when the objects of our love are right there living alongside us, or perhaps because they are, and so some of us continue to root ourselves in the little gods of our own personal self interest.
But if we do root ourselves in self sacrificial love, then we will flourish, then we will finally find the happiness that everyone is seeking
On the other hand, if we root ourselves in our own dark or self-centered wants and desires, eventually our true nature corrupted by those desires will come to the surface. And even if we are not as damaging to others as that awful policeman, our relationship with others will be cooled or disrupted and we will, like the grass on the north side of our lawn, reveal ourselves for what we really are….and there will be pain for us and all those around us.
But how can we do this?
We can’t do it overnight. It’s going to take time but it’s a question of what our roots are growing towards. Are we growing towards Self sacrifice and imitating Christ? It’s a journey and we are all still travelling on it. Including me, or as Lucy might say, especially me…
But how do we do it? I know that I keep repeating this, but we cannot expect to know what self sacrificial love looks like, unless we are daily marvelling at God’s character revealed to us in the Bible and spending some time reading the Bible and asking God to show us what to do in the myriad of different challenges that we face every day.
Its difficult because it involves putting to one side our selfish nature. And we cannot do this by ourselves because for one thing we may not even see how self centered we are, without the Lord revealing this to us. And then we need to pray that God will give us the power to put this self love to one side. And it takes faith to do this – to see that we are not mugs for being selfless, as the modern world with its Darwinian philosophy of survival of the fittest and its focus on self-fulfilment may imply to us.
It takes faith to see that we are on the right path, the Way, as Jesus described it, and that our self sacrificial lives are significant in eternity, and this faith is given by the Holy Spirit living in us.
So stretch your roots towards the good soil of agape love in all your dealings with everyone who crosses your path, following in the example of Jesus, following the Way that he has set before us.
A moment of prayer.
Lord we ask the Holy Spirit to enable us to know the breadth, the length and height and depth of the love of Christ, so that we may be rooted in agape love and be filled with all the fulness of God.
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Eph 3:14–21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.