8th August 2021

Fragments of God

Fragments of God

Summer sermon series on the Five Marks of Mission – Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

Sunday 8 August 2021

Readings Acts 1: 1-4, Mark 1:1-15

In the gospel reading Jesus begins his mission, and he does it in an infected society. Here is how one writer describes this sullen corner of the Roman empire. Think about the similarities and the differences compared with us now.

This is not how the world is supposed to be…The empire and its filthy gods encroach…The empire’s money with its blasphemous pictures has to be used for buying innocent, ordinary bread. It’s as if the people…are being kept forcibly dirty, all the time…The province simmers. Low level terrorism flourishes. Preachers and would-be prophets are everywhere, prominent for a season and then gone. Some say you should abandon everything and go into the clean desert. Some people say you need to be washed in the province’s one river. A lot of people think the world will end soon; fear it will end soon; hope it will end soon, because then a more than human justice may put things right.  (Francis Spufford, Unapologetic)

Into all this comes Jesus. He is washed in the river; he does spiritual quarantine in the desert. Then he begins his mission to proclaim good news: the arrival of what he calls God’s kingdom. Here, in the empire of Rome, a Galilean peasant announces the empire of God.

Nowadays, if you claim the name of Christian, then whatever it is you do – whether it’s choral evensong or pasting up ‘The End Is Nigh’ posters at railway stations – it must connect with Jesus’ mission. Since 1996 the Church of England been using The Five Marks of Mission to help churches see how they measure up. The Five Marks are

  1. To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  2. To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  3. To respond to human need by loving service
  4. To seek to transform unjust structures of society
  5. To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation

Or, more pithily – Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure. We are going to look at one a week in our sermons for the rest of this summer.  

It’s a very Jesus list. Today we hear Jesus proclaim the Kingdom (Mark No. 1). In the next verse after our reading he begins Mark 2, calling people to join his mission, and then Mark 3, as he responds to human need by healing the sick. Turn to Matthew’s gospel and you’ll hear Jesus calling out injustice in the sermon on the mount (Mark 4). As for Mark 5, you won’t hear Jesus warning about climate breakdown, but you will often find him using word pictures from the natural world to show how God works among us. There’s a hint here that the earth is not a commodity to be exploited but sacred space in which to know and obey God.

Today then, Mark 1 – Tell: proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. Jesus’ good news is that, though the world isn’t as it should be, God has got involved in that world. The other Marks all flow from that: it is only because of God’s active presence among us that the church has anything to say or to do – or any reason to exist.

As we hear Jesus’ proclamation, we too are in an infected society. We are not oppressed by a foreign power; rather, it is creation itself that is oppressing us (perhaps with some human help); but (like the Roman occupation) it oppresses some more than others. Ten days ago, the pilgrims of the Young Christian Climate Network arrived in Salisbury on their way to November’s UN climate conference in Glasgow. What they say about the effects of climate breakdown is also true of the pandemic, ‘We are all in the same storm but we are not in the same boat.’ Some vessels are proving better than others at weathering the storm of pandemic. Listen to the theologian, Katie Cross. In an article called ‘Fragments from within the pandemic’ she describes a phone call with her atheist father.

‘You know what this pandemic is?’ he asks me (rhetorically, of course – he’s about to tell me). ‘I don’t believe in God…but it’s the Universe, Mother Nature, whatever you want to call it…forcing us to think about how we’ve hurt each other. How we’ve hurt the world. This is a reckoning. It’s a punishment.’ Maybe, I press – but why are some people suffering more than others? Why are people of colour, poor people, immigrants, and disabled people suffering the most? He’s silent for a moment. ‘I don’t know, but that’s part of your job, isn’t it? To think about that?’ After we hang up, I stare out of the window and don’t move much or speak for the best part of an hour.

Proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom has to begin here, with the virus. What can we say? Anything we do say is bound to be inadequate, but we can’t say nothing. When would-be prophets like the atheist dad are reaching for religious language we cannot duck the conversation. So here are three inadequate thoughts that occur to me.

First, we may need to begin not with words of obvious good news, but with words of lament. There is no good news to be had by ignoring the bad. In conversations during these days of lost health, lost livelihoods, lost lives, you and I can dare to use the language of grief that others shy away from. We can (for instance) talk about someone’s death rather than their ‘passing’. We can tell the truth. Lament, acknowledging that this is not how the world is supposed to be, is part of proclaiming God’s Kingdom, like Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus his friend.

Second, like Katie Cross after her phone call, we may need to pause. We need space to look around and ask, ‘Where is the good news? Are there any signs that God is involved?’ There is space in this service to do just that. And if the inkling of an answer comes to you, what then? Well, there is coffee after the service – that’s a cupful of caffeinated good news right there, and a good opportunity to compare notes.

And that’s the third thing. We need to tell. And it really is ‘we’: when the atheist dad says, ‘That’s part of your job,’ it is your job as well as mine to think – and talk – about these things. Proclaiming the good news of the kingdom is OK in the ritualised context of a sermon but it carries more weight in conversation.

Telling the good news, though, does not mean giving a comprehensive account of God, the virus and the future. It’s more a case of saying, ‘I see real hope in this,’ or ‘I’m really encouraged by that,’ wherever it is that you catch a glimpse of the Kingdom: faith being nurtured, need met with love, power challenged truthfully or creation cared for; wherever you see marks of the active presence of God. 

Jesus in his parables of the Kingdom does something similar. ‘What’s the Kingdom of God like?’ he asks (rhetorically, of course – he’s about to tell us). It’s like – seed growing; or yeast in bread; it’s like blowing all your cash on a gorgeous necklace (or wherever you want to put your pearl of great price). You might call this fragmented speech: not a lecture on the Creator’s complex relationship with creation, but a fragment: an image, a phrase, that doesn’t explain the world but teases you into seeing how God is there at work in it.

Here and now, there are fragments of God’s future scattered in our present. And God gives us eyes to see them and lips that we might tell.