Good News – A sermon preached by the Archdeacon of Winchester at St Mary’s Fordingbridge on the First Sunday of Lent

Archdeacon Richard Brand, February 18th, 2018

Mark 1:9-15

Come Holy Spirit: what we know not, teach us; what we have not, grant us; what we are not, make us; for your love’s sake. Amen.

You may have come across articles this week stating that the Church of England is encouraging a reduction in plastic use through Lent. I only heard about this on Thursday but found I had ‘fallen into righteousness’ as it were, because my wife had already committed to a plastic free Lent. In the success column: we have bamboo tooth brushes; we’re back using the milkman; we’re taking our own bags to fill with fruit and veg at the grocer’s; in the failure list there’s: washing up liquid, medicine containers and bleach, and I’m sure there will be others; but we’re doing our best and it’s an eye-opening exploration at times; for example, I’m still to be convinced by the bars of shampoo!

I’m also aware that there’s a real danger of Lenten practices being self-defeating in many ways. For example, how often does the keeping of our Lenten commitment result in pride and boasting rather than deeper holiness? I’m not against anyone using Lent to help with a long intended detox or diet that will do them physical and mental good; but the main plan surely is something about holiness? I don’t mean holiness in some kind of otherworldly nirvana, but in terms of ending Lent walking more closely with God, living lives nearer to how we think God wants us to live them, becoming more the people we believe God wants us to be. Which leads us to this morning’s gospel.

If you enjoy a good bit or narrative and story then our 1st Sunday of Lent gospel this year will have disappointed you. Mark’s version of both the baptism of Jesus and Jesus’ time in the wilderness is pretty perfunctory; we don’t have John the Baptist protesting that he should be baptised by Jesus and there are no locusts or sandals; and Satan is robbed of his leading part in the various temptations of Jesus. All this is because Mark isn’t particularly interested in all that, what Mark wants to tell us is that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And with these two short paragraphs Mark brings his prologue, his introduction to an end.

Mark then moves straight into the ministry of Jesus; and he tells us Jesus’ first words; words with which Jesus tells us why he has come:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’

The word for ‘good news’ will be familiar to many of you, the Greek word for ‘gospel’: ‘Euangelion’. In his book Meeting God in Mark our former archbishop, Rowan Williams explains something of the background to this word and how it would be understood in Jesus’ time. It was a word to do with official pronouncements of news so significant that it would have the effect of changing the status quo. Williams writes this:

‘A euangelion, a ‘gospel’, a good message, is a message about something that alters the climate in which people live, changing the politics and the possibilities; it transforms the landscape of social life.’ [rpt]

If this is what Jesus came to do, to bring us good news about something that alters the climate in which people live, transforming the social landscape for the good, then it’s a little hard to argue that the Church should stay out of politics or any other realm of life. If the good news of God in Christ has nothing to say to the whole of our lives then it isn’t good news.

This year St Mary’s, along with the rest of this benefice of the Avon Valley Partnership, is setting out as one of the three diocesan pilots involved in what we’re calling ‘Benefice of the Future’. With the help of extra Church Commissioners resourcing we’re wanting to prove that multi-parish rural benefices can be as powerful a place to proclaim the good news of the gospel as any other part of the church. With the help of God we pray we’ll discover better ways of working far more closely together as churches, sharing gifts, strengths and resources; and be churches which better serve our communities, grow in strength and be generous in giving away resources to places of greater need. As such we can be part of fulfilling the vision +Tim has introduced for all that we’re looking to do as a diocese which is ‘Sustainable growth for the common good’. And as such we can change the status quo.

Earlier I spoke of how our Lenten discipline can sometimes become all about us and a form of opportunity for self-improvement rather than holiness, and I wonder whether there’s not something rather similar that we can end up doing as churches? At their best our churches help us discover more of God’s transforming love, help deepen our discipleship and help strengthen us in our engagement with the world, so that we daily live out what we believe in.

But there can also be a tendency for our Christian faith to be too closely tied up with the particular church we go to. We especially discover the limits of this whenever there’s suggestions of changing anything to do with the building, or suggestions of joining more closely with another parish. We end up back in that position of being all for change, so long as it doesn’t make a difference.

Part of what the project of Benefice of the Future is encouraging is to take seriously ‘sustainable growth for the common good’ and trying to find what might we do differently in our rural benefices and churches that could make this happen? What do we need to develop to make this more likely? And to me some of the most important questions are ‘What are the particular, perhaps unique, gifts our church can contribute both to our neighbouring churches and our community? And ‘Can we recognise and thank God for the particular gifts our neighbouring churches can offer?’

There’s an account of Mother Teresa meeting Bob Geldof. It stems back to that time when Mother Teresa’s work in the slums of Calcutta, working with those suffering from leprosy was at its height, and Bob Geldof was at his loudest in working for change for Africa’s starving and dying populations. When they met Geldof said to Mother Teresa “What you do is incredible, there’s no way I could do what you do.” And her reply was, “No, you couldn’t do what I do; and I couldn’t do what you do.”

Coming to church, saying our prayers, reading our bibles, keeping a good Lent: surely it’s all about what the Psalmist describes as ‘the beauty of holiness’. It’s all about God and the kingdom of God. For the church to better serve God and God’s kingdom we believe in this diocese that this is something to do with aiming for sustainable growth for the common good. Not just about us, but ‘a good message …that alters the climate in which people live, changing the politics and the possibilities; it transforms the landscape of social life’.

I’m delighted that the Avon Valley Partnership is part of the Benefice of the Future initiative. If you want to know why you were chosen, invited, it’s because we see in Gary, your leadership and in you, the kind of people, the kind of benefice that already has so much of the outlook and vision we’re wanting to grow; people, Christians, seeking faithfully to live out what you believe in; not just for yourselves but for the world.

So may it be,