This weekend past, I preached at the induction of the new incumbent at Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson. Below I give the sermon text - partly because time does not permit me to post something “original to the blog”; partly because what I am trying to say, from passages chosen by Graham, with a request that I emphasise Philippians 2, lines up with some recent themes in posts: that we move beyond a conception of Christianity as “sin management” to a conception of Christianity as … well, why not read on …
INDUCTION SERMON: GRAHAM O’BRIEN, Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Nelson and Vicar of Christ Church Parish, Nelson, Sunday 11 JULY 2021
Readings: Ps 24; Phil 2:1-11; John 1:1-14.
In my introduction I greeted a number of people and said some (nice) things about Graham. I also asked the congregation to permit me to talk about Graham as Dean through the sermon rather than as Dean and Vicar.
What is the one thing Graham could best do as Dean?
I imagine there are some views here today among the congregation.
The new Dean should improve things around here. (Don’t worry; I am not picking on the Cathedral here; in every church, things could be improved.)
The new Dean should lead a fundraising campaign. I have never met a Cathedral that is not short of funds.
No, others will say, The one thing the new Dean should do is some systematic pastoral visitation.
And there may be that view which – to be fair – clergy quite like to hear, that being seen among the people, sitting in the outside tables of a popular café in Trafalgar Street, lingering purposefully is that one thing the new Dean should do.
To be sure, Deans do improve things in their Cathedrals, raise funds, make pastoral visits and, when there is a spare moment or two, enjoy café life.
But what is the one thing Graham should do because it is critical to the Christian life, because it is primary to the life of the church, because it is the thing which if we get it right everything flows from it?
John 1 and Philippians 2
Our readings today give us the answer.
Both readings speak to us of the big picture of our faith.
Both speak of the movement of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, from the heart of God and the privilege of the divine life to sharing and embracing the vulnerability and humility of humanity.
And both readings speak of the consequence of that movement for humanity – for you and me.
John speaks about how we can become “children of God.”
Paul in Philippians speaks about how we are “in Christ”.
- “in Christ” meaning that Christ lives in us and we live in Christ,
- in a union which enables us to share all the privileges and blessings of Christ.
What Christ comes to achieve in sharing our humanity is the possibility of transforming us, of actually changing our lives so that we become new people living through the power of God working in us.
Unfortunately, we who call ourselves Christians often settle for second best.
We worry about whether our children are learning Christian values.
We bewail the loss of Christian morality in a society accelerating away from its Christian foundations.
We speak about God’s love for us all and reduce that love to a kind of nice comforting message which will somehow encourage the world at large through the travails of life.
But “values”, “morality” and a “comforting message” are not the limits of what God in Christ came into the world to achieve.
The reality of God’s work in Christ is the possibility of a new way of life – a new way of being, as God’s children, as those who are “in Christ”
That’s the first best: Christian life as new life, as much more than values, morals or comforting message.
And Paul, writing in Philippians, is asking his readers to understand what this means for their life together as the church.
His plea is that in their common life together they might be united in love, setting rivalry aside and putting each other first.
This is not a plea using the word “should” which asks for more effort:
- you should be better at being one body of Christ,
- you should be less antagonistic to each other,
- you should work harder at being better Christians.
No, no, no! Paul’s plea, beginning in the first verse is:
“if you who are in Christ, who are united with Christ grasp what this means, then you will act accordingly, you will be what you are, a people motivated by God’s own love to look out for one another, and to live in common purpose and common commitment to Christ’s mission in the world.”
Then in verses 5-11, Paul underwrites what he has just said by saying,
“What you are called to do and be in Christ as children of God is modelled by Christ himself.”
But, again, Paul doesn’t tell his readers,
“You ought to be better at imitating Christ; you should work harder on being more like Jesus.”
What he says is again an appeal to a careful understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Verse 5: “τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ”
“Let this kind of thinking be in you which is also in Christ Jesus.”
You are in Christ, think Christ thoughts, think the way Christ does – let Christ’s thinking be your thinking, Christ’s attiude be your attitude.
Paul then sets out the distinctive thinking and attitudes of Christ Jesus:
- Christ was equal to God yet did not cling to the privilege of that equality;
- Christ emptied himself of all divine privilege in order to share our human life,
- Christ shared our human life with utmost humility and obedience which led to execution by crucifixion.
That is the Christ whose life is our life, whose mind is our mind, whose attitude is our attitude:
That means, it is possible to love others, to have the humility to treat them as better than ourselves, to look out for their interests ahead of our own, because Christ himself is united to us and motivates us to be Christ to others.
George Hunsinger, in his commentary on Philippians says,
“The mindset which is already theirs in Christ Jesus needs to be reclaimed ever anew. It encounters them not as an ideal possibility but as a concrete reality – one in which they already participate. It is not something to be constructed but something to be appropriated. It is a gift before it is a task. It means becoming what they already are. … They are to appropriate in practice what is already theirs by grace.” [Philippians, p. 36]
What is the one thing Graham could best do as Dean of this Cathedral?
To nurture the life of the congregation in Christ.
Through teaching, through the eucharist, through your own life in Christ.
To be who we are meant to be in Christ we need teaching – like Paul is giving in Philippians – about the grace which is ours and needs appropriation.
We need feeding with the precious body and blood of Christ.
We need to see life in Christ lived out in inspiring example.
Graham, your role as Dean is a privilege and it comes with responsibility.
The primary responsibility is to nurture the life of the congregation in Christ.
A congregation fully alive in Christ, living in the way of Christ set out in Philippians 2, will be a witness to the gospel of transformation in the city of Nelson.
From life in Christ the mission of Christ will flow.
The greatest privilege of your role, Graham, will be to see God at work in the people you have been called to serve.
May God bless you and Leeann and the people of God in this place.