Romans 12:1-16 & Matthew 7:24-29

Living in Love and Faith

I wonder how your family deals with difficult conversations. When you know that something needs to be discussed, but nobody really wants to, because you’re afraid that it might be painful or expose disagreements. It’s sometimes said that you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion at a dinner party, as it will just lead to arguments. This might be a particularly British cultural thing, or it might just be a human thing. Some of us avoid talking about things that we think might lead to conflict.

One way of achieving this goal is to only talk with those that we are fairly sure agree with us, and to have affirming conversations that build us up in the opinions we already hold, and never challenge us. This can be seen in virtual conversations in social media echo chambers, but also in the people we choose to talk to at the pub, at work, at school. We find like minded people and we spend time with them.

At the other end of the spectrum are people that seem to like nothing better than a fight. They actively seek out people they disagree with, so that they can bait them, shout at them, and demonstrate their own superiority and clever arguments. Again, this can be seen online, keyboard warriors, hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, but also in life in general. The office bully, the loud mouth on the train, the queen bee at the school gate.

It seems to me that neither of these approaches are particularly Christian. It’s pretty obvious that the second one isn’t – as we heard Paul write to the Christians in Rome – “honour one another … do not think you are superior”. In other places we read of the importance of humility, of gentleness and self control being the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives.

But, equally, the first isn’t what we should be aiming at as disciples of Jesus either. Keeping the peace and avoiding conflict is, at first glance, a better option, but it comes with significant problems. Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”. If we never talk about difficult things, but always submit to the opinions of those that are around us, we run the risk of being conformed to the pattern of this world.

In Matthew’s eye witness account of the good news of Jesus, he spends three chapters – chapters 5 to 7 sharing some of Jesus’ teaching. It is life changing. It gives a new way of looking at life, at living, at our relationship with God. It renews our minds as we read it, think on it, pray about it, live it. And Jesus, in the summary we read this morning, describes his words as rock. Not shifting sand, but rock that is solid, unmoving, and safe to build our lives on.

So, when it comes to difficult conversations, it seems to me that the model we find in our readings from Paul’s writings and Jesus’ life, is that we need to engage with them, to take part in them, not being afraid, but being open to God’s Holy Spirit to speak through us and to speak to us as we listen and talk carefully with each other.

Over the last several years the wider Church of England has been having a series of, sometimes difficult, conversations about identity, sexuality, relationships, and marriage. The latest conversations have led to the production of some resources under the “Living in Love and Faith” banner. There is very big book. There is an online learning resource hub with videos and stories. There is also a small group course book.

These have all been put together by a working party, at the request of the House of Bishops. The group was made up of a wide range of Anglican Christians, with a variety of different perspectives and views on these areas of life.

The aim of this material is not to advocate or persuade any one to change their minds about what they think. There is no agenda to change the church’s teaching or doctrine, or for it to be unchanged. Within the group that wrote it there are those who, like me, think that it should remain as it is, and those who think that it should change. The aim of this material is to present the different view points fairly and clearly, and to provide a framework for people to have good conversations about it. By good conversations I mean ones in which everybody feels heard, in which people come away with a deeper love for each other, and in which people gain a clearer understanding of God’s call and will for their lives.

As parishes, we have been asked to have these conversations so that we can feedback to the bishops our thoughts and reflections, as part of the discernment process of where we believe the Holy Spirit is leading us as the national church.

In this area there are going to be a number of ways to engage with this material. Beginning on the 14th of October, at 7:30 in the evening we will be meeting for 5 weeks in the parish centre to explore this material, co-hosted by me and Sarah Parsons. It will be running at the same time in East Telford Benefice, on a different evening, and there is an online only version being run by the diocese.

In this church we believe that we are called to be closer to Christ, and sent to be closer to others. Coming closer to Christ means allowing our lives to be shaped by his word, rather than shaping what we think about his word around our lives. To do this well we need to be honest with each other about our different understandings of that word, so that we can learn together to read and live it faithfully.

We see ourselves as a light on a hill; a place of worship, friendship, and service, with Jesus at the centre; a family of congregations all sharing the same vision and values. We value loving God, loving each other, loving our neighbours, exploring, and celebrating.

I believe that these values are going to be important as we take this opportunity to have these potentially difficult conversations.

Loving God – we seek to base what we think about about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage in our love for God – on God’s word to us, by seeking God’s will for us as individuals and as a community in prayer.

Loving each other – we choose to love each other, even when we disagree, and to be brave enough to speak and kind enough to listen to each other’s stories and viewpoints with gentleness and compassion. It seems to me that the church has often failed to love LGBTQ Christians, whom we have hurt and excluded. There is room here for repentance of unloving attitudes, and a need for a commitment to love each other.

Loving our neighbours – we know that much of the wider society is out of step with the church’s teaching in these areas. There is a work of discernment to be done so that we can understand if we are being conformed to the pattern of this world, or if God is renewing our minds to show us new ways of living faithfully. Whichever it is, loving our neighbours doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with them or affirming their understanding. Sometimes the loving thing to do is to stand firm and warn people, carefully and with grace, that they may be heading in a direction that is going to cause them, or others, great harm.

Exploring – it often takes courage to explore things. We go off the beaten track, we meet people who are strange to us, our perspectives and ways of seeing things are challenged. It can feel risky, but it is the only way to learn, the only way to grow, the only way to find things out.

Celebrating – I don’t think that we have been good in the church at celebrating the gifts of God in this area. I wonder what it would look like if we were more focussed on celebrating our primary identity in Christ. I wonder what it would have looked like if historically the church had spent more time celebrating sex as a gift of God and less time warning people off it. I wonder what it would look like if the church was better at celebrating singleness as a way of life, a way of life that Jesus chose. I wonder what it would look like for the church to provide people with ways of celebrating friendships and marriages.

We have this purpose, vision, and these values. We have an opportunity to put them into practice and model to the world what it means to love those we disagree with, to listen to each other, and to pursue unity in the face of things that could divide us. This October I invite you to join me in taking this opportunity, perhaps a little nervously, but nevertheless in faith, hope, and love.

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