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5th June 2022

Rest, Re-set and Rejoice

Passage: 1 Corinthians 12; 1-2, 4-12


OK- what is a Jubilee? Let’s open our party books and find out:
“Jubilee is a word from the Bible. Every 50 years is a Jubilee year. It is a year when things are put right again. All property is returned to its original owner, all slaves are freed, even the land is given a year off growing crops.” This comes from the ancient book of Leviticus.
It sounds wonderful but I struggle to get my head round it? Surely, In that kind of society, as a fiftieth-year approaches, everything will shut down, won’t it? No-one is going to lend money during year 46 because they know that in year 50 they will have to cancel the debt. No-one is going to buy land during year 48 if the original owner can claim it back from them two years later. And if you have a whole year when no food is grown, how will the farmers make a living and what will the people eat? I am really not sure just how this worked out in ancient Jewish civilisation.

But what I can see clearly is a powerful message that economic structures alone do not create good community. There is nothing wrong with a person who has surplus money lending to someone who is struggling and yes, that person has a right to expect their money back. But we know about loan sharks persuading vulnerable people to borrow and making them liable for ruinous rates of interest. We know about money rich nations lent to poorer ones and that the interest we charge on those debts is greater than all the money going out in aid. We know about people smugglers who enslave those they traffic. We know the dangers of devastating fertile land until it can no longer produce food.

Economics says- if the national figures balance, we have a strong community. Legality says, if the law is maintained, we have a strong community. Politics says, if most people are voting for us, we have a strong community. The Bible says, love justice, do goodness and walk humbly with God. Jubilee is about God’s vision for community. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

The Pentecost story in the Bible is often placed alongside the ancient tale of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. The human race, we are told, had become very strong, very capable, and very arrogant. They decided to build a tower that would reach right up to the sky. This tower had no useful purpose. It was simply about showing off. And, although the people constructing the tower were working together, speaking the same language, this community, like the tower, was fired only by pride. See how great we are…

The story goes that God deliberately destroyed that tower and scattered the builders over the world, causing them to speak different languages so that they could not work together again. Certainly, there was catastrophe. And is there not always, when a community is shaped by pride, arrogance, and a desire to control? Have we not seen this in certain families, schools, churches, businesses, nations, empires? We stand together to be superior to others. We want to rule the world and take control. Such groups do end up falling apart and generally, not until they have destroyed half the world and themselves in the process.

Pentecost, by contrast, is about people coming together to serve. Jesus promised his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit so that they could continue his ministry of peace with God, love for the world and saving grace to all. Those disciples had no great opinion of themselves. They were still confused by the past and scared of the future. The gift of the Holy Spirit filled them with power, but it was not power to set themselves up as superior, with a view to taking control of their society. Their power lay in creating a new community of people who wanted to worship God and to follow Jesus. And this new community would have no barriers of race or culture or class or wealth or gender or IQ. It would not exist to exploit or to tread others underfoot. The early Christian community set out to serve the purposes of God as revealed in Jesus: love justice, do goodness, walk humbly with God. From Babel to Pentecost, we come full circle.

When St Paul, later took the Christian message to Corinth, Corinth was a large, prosperous, cosmopolitan city within the mighty Roman Empire. It would have been no good Paul trying to promote the Christian church as some kind of fluffy-bunny, other-worldly, cosy little club which would crumple the moment it came into contact with the world of economics, politics and science. Nor would it have been in keeping with the teachings of Jesus Christ to try to stage a political take-over bid. In our reading, then, Paul sets out to explain just what the gift of the Holy Spirit means.

The Holy Spirit is God’s power in us. We all have a gift of the Spirit.
But the Holy Spirit will show itself in different ways. Some people will be academic and some practical; some will be artists, others will be healers; some will have the gift of preaching; some will have the gift of teaching; some will be very energetic and dramatic in their faith and worship; others will be still and unobtrusive. But every gift will be an expression of God’s power and God’s nature. Which means that every gift can and should be used for the common good and not simply for our own satisfaction. Like a human body, says Paul, where each single part must work in harmony with the rest or make the whole body sick, say good-bye to your partial and piecemeal lives.

There are huge implications for this understanding. In the first place, we may feel a whole lot better about ourselves. “This makes you more significant, not less,” writes Paul. We have a gift which is divine. We count for something in this world
But in the second place, this also has social, national, and global implications. If we count for something then so does everyone else. And if every life counts, then neither economics, nor legality, nor politics, nor even science alone are going to make life work. Only by living in justice, goodness and humility before God can a strong and lasting community be created. The recent Pandemic has brought this home to so many of us- we are a “unity” whether we like it or not. And the gifts we have must be used as a unity and not as personal privileges. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

There have been times over the past few months when holding a Jubilee year for the URC at the same time as the Platinum Jubilee for the Queen has made life complicated.
But now, for me, it is falling into place. A lot of our celebrations over the past few days have not only been about the Queen herself but also about our nation and the qualities we treasure. We have a lot to be bitterly ashamed of in our history of colonisation, slavery, religious and political wars. But there are also many values we treasure: respect for diversity, care for the most vulnerable, opportunities for all to live their lives to the full, loyalty and patriotism along with a sense of responsibility to the rest of the world. Yes, our economic prosperity, our system of law and order and our largely educated population make our lives far more comfortable than they might have been, but that is not all it is about. It was a privilege on Thursday evening to lead a congregation, many of whom professed faith and many of whom did not, coming together in gratitude to celebrate those qualities of justice, goodness and humility which our Queen has embodied.

And, as we celebrate the United Reformed Church, we celebrate that deep desire for church unity which brought our denominations together 50 years ago. A willingness for both groups to set aside their own “power” and territory in order to be able to serve the world together. The vision then was that other Christian denominations would also join so that we would end up with one united church and that has not happened, but that basic longing for unity has kept the URC inspired in huge projects for social justice and inclusivity, such as Commitment for Life. It has kept us a “broad” church in terms of what we believe, what we teach, how we worship and who we welcome. It has kept us humble before God because we have no hierarchy but only our own individual conscience and corporate prayer to lead us forward. The URC has got a lot of things wrong in its 50 year history and its future, purely in terms of numbers, is looking shaky. But it is not only about numbers- we have already learned that. 12 nervous disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, began a church which is now two thousand years old and still alive to tell the tale.

We are told on the first page of our party booklet that Jubilee is a time to Rest, Re-Set, Rejoice. So just stop for a moment now and rest in the joy of being part of a Christian community which followed the call of God to unity 50 years ago…….
And ask God to re-set the vision and purpose of the URC in the hearts of each of its members. ………..
Then we shall rejoice as we sing “Thy hand, O God has guided thy flock from age to age…..”