Last Sunday after Trinity, Stewardship Sunday

1 Chronicles 29:1-9; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; Luke 18:18-25

 

And so we have come to that time of year again

in which as a church we review our financial giving,

and decide if we should increase, decrease, begin, or cease,

donating money to the work of St Mary’s,

 

It is a conversation that British people in general,

and members of the Church of England in particular, I think, find awkward

and best avoided if at all possible.

Simon assures me that that is not why he asked me to preach this morning.

 

So, face it we must. And we begin as usual with our readings.

Which, on the face of it, would seem to be easily interpreted.

The Old Testament reading [which the 11 o’clock service will hear]

focusses on the newly conceived Temple of Solomon,

and all the gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and precious stones

that were necessary to beautify its interior,

and support the ministry of the priesthood within it.

It is tempting to see the Jewish Temple

as the equivalent of our building here.

Which has itself been getting beautified over the last few months.

 

Just as the Israelites were asked to bring offerings

of money and materials for the Temple,

so we are being asked to review our financial giving to the work of St Mary’s.

Well, yes, we are being asked to do that.

But there’s a much deeper,

and much more important message to be heard in our readings as well.

 

You may remember an oft quoted line

from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

in which he tells us that our bodies are Temples of the Holy Spirit,

and that they are members, or limbs, of Christ.

Based on that, the Church at St Mary’s

is you, and you, and you, and me, and all of us here,

and many besides who cannot be here this morning.

This “Georgian preaching box”, as a bishop has described it to me,

is our church building,

and undoubtedly deserves due care and respect and upkeep,

because of the way it serves us in our worship so well,

but it is not the church.

The church is the collection of warm bodies

who gather together here each week,

forming the body of Christ in this place.

 

Ancient Jewish religion was based on purity codes.

Certain people were considered pure and others less so.

Certain behaviours made one unclean, and others clean.

So, the Temple precinct was a strictly boundaried and delineated place.

 

The first, outer court was the court of women,

the second outer court was for ritually pure Jewish men,

and then the Temple Court proper,

where the sacrifices were made

was where only priests could go.

Within the Temple itself there were two main areas

the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies.

Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies,

and even then only once a year.

The sanctuary and the Holy Holies were separated by a curtain,

and the High Priest would enter with a rope tied around his ankle

in case he did not survive his encounter with God,

and could be pulled out by a fellow priest

who would not have enter and face the same fate.

 

For the early church, who were all practicing Jews,

all of this changed with the coming of Christ.

A key symbolic event occurred as Jesus was hanging on the cross.

At the moment he breathed his last and died,

the curtain in the Temple

which separated the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies

was torn, as if by the hand of God, from top to bottom,

opening, as it were, the way to God, for everyone.

 

For the early Christians then,

our very bodies replaced the idea of the Temple.

This idea became central with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost,

when the Spirit of God,

– once said to reside only within the Holy of Holies –

spread freely like wildfire among the early Christians,

who were set on fire with the love and life of God,

giving birth to the church proper.

And the amazing news of this outbreak divine presence

from the prison of human religious culture,

spread rapidly around the known world.

 

But what did it mean to the first Christians

to have God reside in the heart through the Holy Spirit?
What can it mean for us?

 

Our Gospel reading gives us a profound and important insight into this.

It concerns the story of the rich young ruler.

A man who was not only a very observant and religious Jew,

but also wealthy and of high status.

This was a young man who had found success in life.

It seems to me he fitted exactly the image of virtue and worthiness

held up by his society.

But being secretly unsure, in his heart of hearts,

whether or not all his many accomplishments were really sufficient,

he seeks out this new wise teacher on the scene, Jesus of Nazareth,

to ask for his reassurance.

 

His doubts were, it turns out, well founded.

Because Jesus puts his finger on the one thing this man lacked,

the one thing, in fact, he really needed.

Freedom from the love of money.

Freedom from his need to accrue and bank a wealth of material possessions.

His body was a temple,

but it was not one dedicated to God.

And in that sense, the rich young man, was a slave.

He was not free, but in chains of gold.

 

Jesus advice is to cast it all off,

and to set his heart elsewhere

– on the Kingdom of God.

 

True freedom is found in true worship.

God is not a jealous and arrogant God

who demands that we worship him.

He is a gentle and profoundly humble God,

who sees us in our chains

and offers us the freedom of devotion.

 

Let’s bring this full circle now, and consider our baptism.

The symbolic sprinkling of water on the head of the candidate for baptism,

recalls the early church practice of full immersion baptism.

Where the candidate would be lowered bodily below the water

and ceremonially speaking, drowned,

so as to arise, spiritually speaking, to new life.

There is even some historical evidence

that the candidates would be held under for quite a long time,

so that in fact they came quite close to physical death!

This would have heightened the experience

of passing from one chapter of life

to a whole new chapter in which our false self

– that part of us that puts its trust in money, status and success –

has died, and our true self is liberated,

enabling us to find a deep, spiritual, freedom of the heart.

This is dying before we die.

And it is the only way to truly live.

In fact, it represents eternal life.

 

The hardest thing is giving up that which you believe your life depends on.

But unless that thing is God,

it can be taken away from you.

Therefore the rich young man knew that he was vulnerable,

that he hadn’t found true freedom and lasting peace,

because his security was in something as ephemeral as money,

which could be lost or stolen,

and which he couldn’t take with him when he died.

 

But to willingly give up his money, and his wealth,

that which he believed his life depended on,

was beyond his ability at that time, and he went away sad.

I like to think that he lived a while with this new knowledge

of how he could gain his true freedom,

and that it, and the Holy Spirit, worked on him

so that eventually he was able to take that leap of faith,

and find new life and true freedom.

 

When you find the true freedom offered to us by God,

the joy and gratitude in your heart will well up and overflow

into various acts of worship and gratitude.

Perhaps you do have plenty of money and enough to give some away.

But perhaps your wealth is elsewhere – in your time, your talents, your love.

Whatever you have to give, God will receive it,

no matter how humble.

And remember, we worship a God who is great in his humility.

 

The case of money is just one example,

of something that seems to promise security,

which in reality it cannot deliver.

God looks on us in deep compassion, not judgement,

because he sees that while money, status, success, or whatever,

has a controlling influence on our lives

we are not free, but are in fact slaves.

The Good News, my friends, is that we worship a God of love,

who is grieved to see us – like the rich young ruler, in chains

because he made us to be free,

and his whole agenda, throughout all of history

has been to help us re-discover that freedom,

a freedom which is in fact eternal life itself.

 

May we be given the grace this day

to die before we die,

to make our bodies a temple to the Holy Spirit,

and put our trust in God – who alone is worthy of it,

so that we might have eternal life,

so that we can have that freedom and easiness of heart,

and the deep assurance which the rich young ruler lacked.

 

AMEN.