Over the past few years I have written a number of prayers for various special occasions and moments when something specific has been needed – moments of celebration, moments of public grief, anniversaries and to accompany events or reflect significant moments of life. Until now I hadn’t actually written a prayer for here and on Tuesday I decided to put that right. So with your orders of service this morning you have been given the result. I thought I would spend a few moments going through it. It aims to capture the essence of who we are and what we aim to do here in our unique setting right in the heart of the city centre, in the public square. It reflects my key passions for the church’s witness today, what we are called to be. Writing prayers like this reminds me why I knelt in front of the bishop 25 years ago to be ordained as a priest into Christ’s church. So there is an element of me marking a silver jubilee of priesthood with this too.
It begins with a reminder that even when we celebrate a church that is now over 600 years old, God is older. All of our history sits within the eternity of God who is our beginning and our end. The world, the whole created order, is the result of his love and we see this supremely in the person of Jesus Christ. His life, death and resurrection is the source of our hope – hope for now and hope to come. When we seek to live this hope, to show it in who we are, what we do, what we say and how we love, we do not act in our own strength but in the grace of God, the outpouring of his love to guide, shape and direct us.
This grace pours out to welcome, to be open and hospitable to friend and stranger. There are so many occasions in the bible when hospitality is extended and in it and through it people are blessed – both giver and receiver. By oak trees for Abraham, on a beach after the resurrection, on hillsides and plains, with leaders and those of questionable virtue, the bible brings us time and again hearts being opened by this transforming loving embrace which comes through meals shared and a place set for even the most unlikely guest. A welcome for all is one of our core values and we will display it after the service with an open invitation to the party. That is a challenge for churches today to remember that all are welcome and we are not just a club for those we know. That clubbyness is language that can creep up on us and we have to remember that this is not just our church, but belongs to the city.
There are many occasions when we have the opportunity to reach out to friend and stranger, to those who will find their way in with relative ease and those who may need help. Later this afternoon I have accepted an invitation to speak to the Peterborough Pride Parade outside the Town Hall. Given the history and sometimes rejecting narrative that comes from others in the church, it is important to send out a different, more open and welcoming, message. Last year, when we invited the campaigner Jayne Ozanne to speak here, one person said to me that she didn’t realize there was a place for someone like her in a church. A sad comment for what she had heard elsewhere, but it was good for us to offer it.
The love which overflows with grace changes us and calls on us to change the world. We strive for justice and the good of all. We had a bit of a conversation at the PCC on Wednesday about this and whether there are times when protest and demonstration are required. If we pray for justice we have to be prepared to make a stand for it because it is truth in action, it is how God calls on us to live. There may come a moment when this choice confronts us. If we commemorate the D-Day landings, these are a form of protest against oppression and an aggressor. If we remember Suffragettes, they were far from silent and compliant in their advancing of equal votes. If we remember John the Baptist, after whom this church is named, he was not exactly the placid do-gooder some try to reduce sanctity to, calling leaders a brood of vipers, demanding Herod sharpen up his moral standards. The cry for justice can mean rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty.
In the power of the Holy Spirit, for there is no other power we can advance anything in, we aim to worship God but to do so in the high street as at the altar. In other words, prayers at the altar have to be lived. How we trade, how we relate, how we use our purchasing power are linked to the prayers we say. Our lives are to have integrity. It is also a reference to our setting, that the high street is around us. The altar is the place of thanksgiving so with thankful hearts we seek to bless the world.
John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the Christ. ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ and he announced him. John did not want people to be his followers, for he knew that there was another who was greater than him. It is Christ’s kingdom that we seek to build, that we work for, not our own. And again we have no monopoly on God in Christ, but he is Lord of all the world, so when we point to him we do not just share our own belief but God who is the hope of the world. It is in that faith and trust that we pray the world will rejoice in his salvation. The call is to share faith, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, to give an account of the hope inside us, that the world may know the story to rejoice in, the hope.
The prayer is made through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. The heart of our faith is Easter, Jesus Christ risen from the dead. It is the bursting of death, the transcending it, that gives us hope that connects with the eternal, not just some passing relevance. And that takes us back to where we started, with the eternal God who is our source and our goal, our beginning and our end. This is the faith which caused this church to be built and which has inspired it and held it through the passing centuries. It is the faith which fires and directs us today.
you reveal your love for your creation
in Jesus Christ.
Give us grace to live this hope
in the welcome we show
to friend and stranger,
in our commitment
to justice and the good of all.
Send us in the power of your Holy Spirit
to worship you
in the high street as at the altar.
May we, after John the Baptist,
point others to their Lord and ours
as we announce him
in faith and trust,
that the world may rejoice
in your salvation;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord.
Ian Black © 2019
Patronal Festival Sermon for Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 30th June 2019