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Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: 2 Sam. 5:1–5, 9–10, 2. Cor. 12:2–10 & Mk. 6:1–13

I wanted to start this morning by talking about the parish Bible Study group, which meets every second Thursday night in the John Steele Room. The group has been following a program called Pilgrim, which has been developed by the Church of England. The program consists of two stages: the first is called ‘Follow’, which is designed for people who have only just come to the Christian faith and who want to learn more about its fundamental principles and teaching. The second stage is ‘Grow’, which is designed for people who have been followers of the Christian faith for some time, but who would like to deepen their faith, and grow in their spiritual life. 

Our group has been engaged in the ‘Grow’ stage, which consists of four modules, each of six sessions. For each module there is a book that we work through, which guides our study and conversation. The first book, which we’ve already completed, was on the Creeds of the Church. This looked at the various statements of faith, such as the Nicene Creed, that the Church uses to express what it believes in. The second book, which we completed last Thursday night, was on the Eucharist. It looked at the way we worship in the Anglican Church, particularly around the service of Eucharist, which we obviously celebrate each Sunday morning.

Our session of study last Thursday was centred around the sacraments of the Anglican Church. Does anyone know how many sacraments the Anglican Church recognises?

A sacrament is defined as an ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’.

During our conversation last Thursday, we talked about how nature can sometimes take on a sacramental reality, that it is an ‘outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’. The English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, once wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees, takes off his shoes”. In other words, when a person, action or thing come together, and the observer or participant is aware of this and recognises it, that object or action becomes sacramental. 

We have an example of this in our second reading this morning, which was from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In this passage we hear Paul talk of a man he knows, who was taken up to the third heaven, and who was also taken up to Paradise. And Paul also talks of receiving a ‘thorn in the flesh’.

Well, the man Paul was talking about is himself. Exactly what Paul meant by the term ‘third heaven’ is unclear, but William Barclay believes that it “simply means that Paul’s spirit rose to an unsurpassable ecstasy in its nearness to God”. But when Paul spoke of Paradise, we know that the word Paradise comes from a Persian word which means a walled garden. When a Persian king wanted to bestow a special honour on someone that he was very close to, he made him a companion of the garden and allowed him to walk in the garden with him as his close companion. So what Paul was really saying, is that in this experience that he’d had, he had been the companion of God.

Now, as far as the meaning of the ‘thorn in the flesh’ that Paul referred to is concerned, there have been many different theories floated, which in the interest of time, we won’t explore at length here. William Barclay believes that the most likely theory is that Paul suffered from chronically recurring attacks of a certain virulent malarial fever, whose symptoms included a burning fever, and incredibly painful headaches which pushed one to the brink of human endurance.

Paul prayed to God for relief from his affliction, but God answered Paul’s prayer in the same way that He answers so many prayers–he did not take the affliction away, but he gave Paul the strength to bear it. Paul received God’s grace, for Paul wrote that the Lord told him, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ Paul recognised that although God had not removed his affliction from him, God had given him the strength to cope with it.

If we think about the definition of a sacrament as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, then Paul’s life following his conversion on the Road to Damascus, could be described as a sacramental experience. For his missionary work to the Gentiles was definitely an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that he had received from God.

Paul accepted both his pain, and his glory, and in doing so he continued to grow in his spiritual life. And to quote Brendan Byrne (well known contemporary Roman Catholic Theologian and priest), “Progress in the spiritual life–growth in the Spirit–almost always shows itself in the ability to recognise God more and more in the ordinary, the everyday.” This was something that Paul was clearly able to do, recognise God in the everyday. 

This was not the case though with the people in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. For as we heard in today’s gospel passage from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was unable to perform any miracles there, apart from laying his hands on a few sick people and curing them. The Nazarenes had failed (or refused) to see God’s presence in Jesus. They could not accept that this presence could come in such a familiar form as the carpenter, Mary’s son. 

‘This example shows us that the greatest enemy to faith can simply be “familiarity”: a refusal to believe that God’s presence–and prophetic agents of that presence–could come to us in so familiar a form as the person next door.’

It’s probably a good lesson for us to always be open and alert to the possibility of God revealing Himself to us through something or someone. As our Bible Study group noted last Thursday, God is present in the world around us. We need only look at nature to see how He reveals something of Himself to us through its beauty and wonder. 

And in seeing that, we know that we are growing in our own spiritual life. For to quote Brendan Byrne once more, “Progress in the spiritual life–growth in the Spirit–almost always shows itself in the ability to recognise God more and more in the ordinary, the everyday.”

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