As well as speaking about his time in Rwanda in 2013, Dr Rob Craig mentioned visits to the Storehouse foodbank which is supported by many different denominations. He also referenced his twitter followers and the immediacy it allowed him to react to events and connect with the church.
In his formal address to the packed hall, he recalled attending the visit of President Obama to the Waterfront Hall last June. [Listen back]
Before his arrival the young people present started a Mexican wave. Political, civic and religious leaders – we all joined in. And somewhere in that moment of Transformation in my heart the words of Van Morrison echo about “days like this”.
In April of this year I found myself as a guest at the Reception in Windsor Castle – mingling with all kinds of people from our society, North and South. The visit of President Higgins mirroring the visit of the Queen to Ireland in 2011. Again, in that moment of Transformation, I hear Van Morrison singing about “days like this”.
But, in between and surrounding those two events we also experienced; over the summer, violence erupting on the streets of North Belfast; before Christmas, many of the hopes of agreement at the Haass talks evaporating over the New Year; and as the year unfolds an increase in race related attacks and stalemate over Welfare Reform. “Days like this” – The generosity of spirit, the glimpses of grace and Transformation have at times been overshadowed.
And what we may have witnessed in our public life, I suspect, will also have been true both in our personal and congregational lives together. Moments of Transformation when, with the wind in your back, you are longing for more days like this. And then, when the goodwill disappears and you feel a gale force wind in your face.
In such moments we are all confronted with two very real and powerful temptations. On the one hand, we can be tempted into that kind of individualism which is in the air that we breathe; the individualism which insists that life is just about me and what I can get out of it. On the other hand, in face of such intractable problems we can be tempted into a paralysing despair that nothing is ever going to change. That, in the words of the expression, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Throughout the past year I have been privileged to speak week by week on the theme of Transformation and in particular on the Church as a place of Transformation. For this reason, let me take you to one sentence, comprising only five words. “I am making everything new.”
In all my years as a minister I have had the foolhardy courage to read these words and the passage of Scripture in which they are found at every funeral which I conduct; standing at an open grave, immediately prior to the words of committal, like all my colleagues I affirm to the grieving family and all who grieve with them these words “I am making everything new”.
In the face of death, this word of promise and hope from the risen Lord has inspired one generation after another, transforming them, their faith and their outlook on life. As we, personally, as a church, as a society journey on through life, may these same words be our inspiration – not least in those moments when we are tempted to think only of ourselves, or when despair in face of trials would paralyse us.
Let me highlight for you briefly two facets of this word of Transformation, I am making everything new.
First, the book of the Revelation is full of colourful images and pictures which stay in the heart and mind long after we have read the book or heard the sermon. One of the most significant is the image of a throne – not just any throne and certainly not an earthly throne. It is the throne of heaven. John the Exile shared with his generation this Revelation, this picture which has sustained many subsequent generations of faithful Christian people through the darkest of days – that life, which is often out of our control, is never out of God’s control. When you and I are tempted to believe that the forces of evil are winning, when we are tempted to hide away in our own personal worlds or to give up in despair let us remind ourselves that it is the One who is seated on the Throne who is making everything new.
Every Saturday night during the football season the TV news reporter will give us the well known warning “If you don’t want to know the score, look away now.” In my experience, they never give you time to change channel or turn the TV off. Through all of its pictures and images the Revelation of John paints for us a theme found throughout the Scriptures – that God is the King; He is in charge – we know the final score.
Secondly, at the rise of sounding very pedantic, please notice the tense – what we call present continuous. The voice from the throne does not say “one day I will make everything new”. The voice says, “I am making everything new.” This making things new, this work of transformation to which we have been called is already under way.
Jesus’ first sermon was to announce that the Kingdom had come; His parables illustrate how His kingdom works, in His death he was the king crucified and by His resurrection He is the all-conquering king. The message of his words to us is to resist all temptation to turn in on ourselves, to resist all temptation to give up in despair, it is to enter his kingdom, to pray for His kingdom and to do the work of His kingdom.
Earlier this year, one of our daughters invested in a new car. Until she bought her car I don’t think I had ever noticed how many of the same make and model are on the road. I had been blind; my eyes were closed to them. Now I see them everywhere.
In that experience I have come to understand how it can be with God’s word of Transformation both in and through our lives. We can be blind to it and not recognise what He is doing and how He is working around us.
In conclusion, one final image – it is that of the BBC broadcasting to the occupied peoples of Europe during the Second World War. Their broadcasts began with a drumbeat thumping out three short beats followed by a longer beat – signalling on a drum the Morse code letter V, for Victory. Tonight I offer you not 4 drumbeats but 5 words. “I am making everything new”. They don't come from the Moderator; they come from the throne; they come from our Lord and our God. And as we leave a service like this, and return to your world and my world, to your congregation and my congregation, to our society that is still in need of transformation, let us go out with these words in heart and mind, may they be our inspiration.
“I am making everything new”.
The incoming moderator Dr Michael Barry picked up on the theme of the danger of individualism and how it overshadows the transformation in his address that outlined the denomination’s strapline for the coming 12 months: “a people of service and outreach”. [Listen back]
A few weeks ago the congregation of Sandys Street in Newry presented me with these Moderatorial robes. We had a congregation made up of members and former members and friends from across the community. There were a number of elected representatives from some of the political parties, and at the end of the service, and following a few speeches, one of the MLAs – who is neither a Presbyterian nor a unionist said, “There is one thing about you Presbyterians – you can sing and you can talk”.
I think that tonight we have proved him right. I always enjoy Opening Night at the General Assembly – I have missed very few over the years. I usually sit to the left, on the front row so that I can stretch my legs. Tonight you have provided me with an even more comfortable seat, although part of me wishes I was sitting in my usual place.
But the singing has been wonderful. Rob’s speaking has been a blessing. We are almost finished, but not quite. I have the responsibility of painting in broad strokes, and briefly, a picture of our theme for the next twelve months.
Our Church is following a five-year plan under the heading Fit for Purpose – becoming the church Christ wants us to be. This year we will think of the church as “a people of service and outreach” – people who can make all the difference in the world.”
This is a theme I am happy to endorse and throughout this year will take the opportunity to promote these twin elements of Church membership.
You will learn more about this theme during the week. At worship on Wednesday and Thursday my Chaplains will direct our thinking and on Wednesday night at the Assembly Rally. That will be a less formal occasion and those who will be taking part will give you a flavour of what we will be emphasising in the coming year.
How can the Church do what it is called to do in the best possible way? How can she be effective in her mission in the world? How can we make a difference to the world in which we live?
Tonight as we begin this theme I want to step back slightly. Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi calls on his readers, and on us - “in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
“Consider others better than yourselves.” What radical thinking that is for our day. We live in the age of the celebrity, indeed the cult of the celebrity, where we see people, some of whom have talent, others with no talent, being worshipped by their fans who ensure they are lifted up on their pedestals.
And to stay on that pedestal they have to indulge in self-promotion. These words of Paul are so alien to those who must put themselves first so as not to be overtaken by the myriad wannabes waiting in the wings.
But lest we concentrate exclusively on the cult of the celebrity, let me remind you that Paul is not writing to the celebrities of his day who are engaged in self-promotion; he is not writing to the business tycoons who trample all before them to build their empire; he is not writing to the politicians who promise the world for a boxful of votes.
Paul is writing to ordinary church members like you and me. This is a message directed to every member of the church.
But I must protest Paul. I would never act “out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”. I would never do anything by “complaining or arguing”. And yet Paul found it necessary to write those words to the believers at Philippi. Why? Because that is how they were living – ‘me first’.
Of course we shouldn’t expect anything else for that was the very attitude which led Adam and Eve into such catastrophic circumstances in the Garden of Eden. They fell for the lie of the devil: “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” What is that but self-promotion – “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
But ‘me first’ comes at the expense of someone else. It is not a neutral activity. ‘me first’ always has a victim.
Do we not see ‘me first’ all around us. When people demand their rights are they not demanding their way? There are those who demand the right to march and those who demand the right to protest. But where does such behaviour take us when there is no respect for the other person? We saw the answer to that last year in the rioting that blotted this city – behaviour that must not be repeated this year.
We see ‘me first’ in the attacks on people who are perceived to be different in some way. The Honorary Consul for Poland lives in Newry and he has expressed his concern to me about the attacks on Polish people. And of course it is not just people from Poland, and it is not just because of a person’s nationality. All such attacks are an affront to us as a democratic and civilized country. That is behaviour that must stop immediately.
It is against this ‘me first’ mentality that the apostle is writing. Of course I wouldn’t engage in such behaviour, but I wonder do I harbour any kind of superior attitude in my heart towards anyone who is different from me. Am I better than others because I am white and they are not? Am I better than others because I am Protestant and they are not? Am I better than others because I am heterosexual and they are not?
The answer is a clear ‘No’ and we must never do or say anything that would give the slightest comfort to those who would attack verbally or physically people they do not like.
One thing I have been discovering in the last few months is how difficult it is to speak – and to be understood correctly. Words can be interpreted in a way we never intended. We can be misunderstood so easily. And of course there will always be those who will deny us the right to speak if they disagree with us, claiming that our words are inflammatory.
Yes we must be careful what we say and we must be careful to say it in a clear and gracious manner. But we must also be allowed to state our case even when others disagree with us.
And that teaching is carried into the New Testament. When Jesus wanted to emphasise the standard of judgment he would use at the last great Day, he did so in terms of social justice – “’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me”.
And in case you think that we should only show kindness to other believers the Lord Jesus told his followers to love their neighbour, and showed that our neighbour is everyone, not just our own folk. He said “You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”
But why should we have any regard for other people at all? Why care for them? And why should we care about those with whom we disagree? Why care for those who are our enemies?
The Bible is very clear, and I take the Bible literally when it says, “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”. We are to treat all people with respect and dignity because they have been created in the image of God. So when I attack another person, whether physically or verbally or emotionally, I am attacking one who bears the image of God.
Rather than attacking such people we are to be their servants. Why? Because of the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what Paul is saying here in Philippians 2. This is a passage that many Christians know, but we do not always appreciate the implications of its teaching.
This is a passage which proclaims in the clearest terms that Jesus is none other than God. He is fully divine as well as being fully human. But that is not the main thrust of Paul’s teaching. What he is saying is “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”
Paul goes on in his letter to show what was behind Jesus’ love, and how we can follow his example.
The first thing we notice is that he humbled himself. Who is Jesus? The Bible tells us that he is no ordinary man and the evidence supports this claim. Many who examined his life have reached the same conclusion. Jesus is in nature God. He is eternal; he is the Creator of all things, and indeed all things were made for him. He ruled with God in glorious splendour, accepting the praise of all that he had made. Yet, says Paul, he made himself nothing. That is very difficult for us to take in. We might well show signs of humility, but so often it is not very strong, and perhaps it is even false humility.
We need to guard against false humility for it is all too easy to think of ourselves as being humble. But the humility of Jesus was not false in any way. We know it was genuine because it was not simply a verbal profession. Jesus showed his humility in the way he lived. He took the very nature of a servant.
We cannot appreciate the full significance of that statement. We think of a servant in terms of Downton Abbey with Mr Carson or Mrs Patmore or Daisy. Or some of you might just remember the hiring fairs around Ireland 70 years ago.
But the life of a servant 2000 years ago was very different. The servant may have been a slave, a person not free to do his own bidding. Or he could have been a volunteer who chose to do someone else’s bidding.
But the humility of Jesus went even further than being a servant. Although he is God, he became obedient to death. Even though he is the Creator and Ruler of the universe, he did not insist on holding on to his rights. We hear much about rights today. People are demanding their rights. If anyone had rights, it was Jesus. But he was willing to set them aside because he loved us. He became obedient even to the point of death.
That is what we should be like. That is what we must be like if we are to care deeply for other people. We can act humbly, without being humble. But true humility must begin in our minds, and the only way to live a truly humble life is to have the mind of Christ.
Do you remember what Jesus did for his disciples the night before he was crucified? Much to their chagrin he washed their feet. This was not just an example of humble service, but a picture of the cross and its cleansing power. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said “We would gladly wash the feet of our Divine Lord; but He disconcertingly insists on washing ours, and bids us wash our neighbour’s feet.”
But what does it mean for us to wash one another’s feet? It means that we are constantly watching out for the opportunity to serve other people. We should be aware of their need, and we must be willing to adopt any position in order to meet it. We must be willing to sacrifice whatever we have or whatever we are in order to help them.
To serve in this way is to care deeply for people. As the family of God that starts in the congregation. Do you care for the marginalized who seldom come? Do you care for those who hold strange ideas? Do you care for the minister and his family?
This was brought home to me just over a year ago. We were looking forward to a visit from the then Moderator Dr Roy Patton. One of our fathers was explaining to his children that the Moderator was going to be at church the next Sunday. “What is a Moderator, Daddy?” his daughter asked.
And he tried to explain to her that the Moderator is a very important minister in our church. “In fact, he’s the most important minister in the church. He’s even more important than Michael.” She thought for a minute, then with all the seriousness a seven year old could muster, she said, “Daddy don’t tell Michael that. He does his best.”
Now at first I laughed. Someone recognised my capabilities. But as I thought about her words, I wondered how many seven year olds, or seventeen year olds, or seventy year olds cared so much about their minister? I was humbled and touched that a child cared so much about me that she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Do you care about your minister as much as that?
We are to be people of service. But our theme is to be a people of service and outreach. Jesus gave us the command to go into all the world making disciples. And here Paul calls on us to “shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life”. The early church that we read about in the book of Acts was a church that held out the word of life to all those around it as it proclaimed the gospel – the good news about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Isn’t it interesting that Paul uses this phrase – ‘the word of life’. This is a message that brings life to those who are spiritually dead. We are to live lives of service in the world but that must not stop at being good neighbours.
Jesus calls on us to be salt and light. If salt and light are to be effective they must act. The light must permeate the darkness and the salt must permeate the meat. So the followers of Christ must get out into the world. We must show the people outside that we love them more than we love ourselves.
And we cannot discriminate. We must not choose who we are going to love, who we are going to reach out to. The light goes to all the darkness. The salt goes to every part of the meat. “Shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life”.
In the past our church has tended to say to the world, “Come and listen to us” whereas Jesus said “Go into all the world”. So let us reach out with the word of life to all the people who are separated from God.