The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s168g16  Baptism of Jesus  Epiphany 1  10/1/2016

‘the people were filled with expectation ..’  Luke 3:15

People, ordinary people, yearn for the kingdom of God.

It seems some ‘christians’ seem to spend their lives endlessly working and worshipping to earn their way into heaven, and/or spending their lives worrying if their sins have actually been forgiven and/or that in the end they will have enough faith ..

Despite what the Alpha course and conservative evangelicals might think, few ordinary people actually aspire to a life of earning their way into heaven, worrying about their sins, or the content of their faith - for the majority this doesn’t seem good news to them personally, or for society in general.

What most ordinary people actually do yearn for is acceptance and inclusion, not just for themselves, but for all.   And ordinary people know that if there is a God, this would be God’s main aim.   And ordinary people recognise that any god worth worshipping would have this aim, and the fact that they are not worshipping means that they do not see the church proclaiming a god like this.

So the Dalai Lama wrote on September 4th 2015: ‘When we say "I love the members of my own family, the people of my own religion or country or colour" bias limits our affection.   But with proper practice, from an ordinary level of affection we can develop an unbiased universal love, in which we don't care what other people's faith is, their nationality, or social status - so long as they are human beings, they are our brothers and sisters.’  (1)   Of course, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is hardly an ordinary person, but he articulates what ordinary people think.

On the 18th of May 2015 he wrote: ‘We need to employ a secular approach to ethics, secular in the Indian sense of respecting all religious traditions and even the views of non-believers in an unbiased way.   Secular ethics rooted in scientific findings, common experience and common sense can easily be introduced into the secular education system.   If we can do that there is a real prospect of making this 21st century an era of peace and compassion.’ (2)  It is significant that he sees secularism as the way to peace, not religion.   He sees secularism as essentially democratic and inclusive as opposed to religion which is essentially hierarchical and divisive.

Earlier, on the 10th of September 2012 he wrote: ‘All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values.   But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate.   This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.’  (3)

In commenting on Romans 1:20: ‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made’, C. K. Barrett says that: ‘It is not St Paul’s intention in this or the following verses to establish a natural theology; nor does he create one unintentionally.’  (4)  But Paul later writes: ‘When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.   They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts’ (5) and later: ‘So, if those who are uncircumcised keep the requirements of the law, will not their uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?   Then those who are physically uncircumcised but keep the law will condemn you that have the written code and circumcision but break the law.’  (6)  I believe the seeds of the Dalai Lama’s conclusions can be found clearly in St Paul’s most considered theological reflection.

Of course, the same sentiments are found in John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’: ‘Imagine there's no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky / Imagine all the people / Living for today…    Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too / Imagine all the people / Living life in peace…   You may say I'm a dreamer / But I'm not the only one / I hope someday you'll join us / And the world will be as one’.  (7)

Sometimes I hear people say things which suggest that because the world-view of those of biblical times were so limited and the peasants mostly illiterate, we can dismiss their perceptions.   Yet illiterate people with a limited world view know only too well the vagaries of the ruling classes - both secular and sacred - and yearn for something better, something liberating, something which feeds their souls and the souls of all people.

A modern way of putting the younger generation down is that regular gripe the older generation have; that they are addicted to their smartphones and tablets - often those of the older generation being church-goers.   But if what I have been saying about church being a one-sided ‘conversation’ is it any wonder that young people are looking for a conversation which is at least not forever one-sided and prescriptive, albeit virtual.   The virtual person on their smartphone is a lot more real than the god to whom some people pray!   This ease of communication presents a real and ever present challenge to the church, to examine what we do and say: does it feed others by making them feel included and affirmed, or do we offer just another piece of advise about how others might live better lives or be a better church-person?  One-sided and prescriptive!

To make the point more concretely, I came across those quotations of the Dalai Lama above from looking at the Internet and Facebook!   How would I and the church ever be aware of what other ordinary people are yearning for if I am only relating to others who are dutifully listening to my endless streams of pearls of wisdom?   How will the church ever be aware of what real people yearn for, if their conversation is always and only about one’s conversion event and one’s personal relationship with Jesus?

And ordinary people have expectation - which those words of the author to the letter to the Hebrews: ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ (8) identify with faith.   And I have to ask if the exclusive church is an agent to deliver on this expectation of an inclusive and egalitarian society or to eternally filibuster and obfuscate?   Or perhaps even more damning, not yet realising the blessing we are withholding from others?  Again those words from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans seem especially appropriate: ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.   For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.’  (9)  Do we hide from the faith - just as Jonah tried to flee to Tarshish (10) - that expectation that both ancient and modern societies have had and continue to yearn for, for a more egalitarian and inclusive world?

Which leads me to ask what expectation does the church have?   Is it ‘pie in the sky when you die’. (11)   Is it something completely unverifiable, otherworldly and essentially unrelated to the welfare of anyone else?   And if so, how does this escape the charge of being selfish?  And if we worship a god who commends selfishness, how is this related to Jesus - the one who was put to death because he included others?

From the 11-16th of January the Archbishop of Canterbury will be meeting with the Primates from the rest of the Anglican Communion to try to resolve the impasse over human sexuality bedevilling not just Anglicans but every church.  (12)  It is not just the members of the Anglican Communion who wait and wonder what will the outcome be.   The world waits expectantly to see the God of affirmation and inclusion speak and the church finally join with the world in working for an inclusive and egalitarian society that 2000 years of exclusivism and division has manifestly (but hardly unsurprisingly) failed to deliver.

4.  ‘The Epistle to the Romans’  Black  p35.
5.  Romans 2:14-15
6.  Romans 2:26,27
8.  Hebrews 11:1
9.  Romans 1:18-19
10.  Jonah 4:2