Sermons from St Faith's

Body Language

Fred Nye: 18 November, 2007

In the Eucharist this morning we are trying once again to express the inexpressible. All worship tries to do just that. And most Christian traditions use a rich variety of human experiences, symbols and sensations to try to convey the majesty, the otherness and yet the nearness and the involvement of God. And so our worship here at St. Faith’s takes us closer to God by way of words, music, silence, light, colour, incense and movement.

But I often forget another important element in worship, and that is what we do with our bodies – our body language. During the service we sit, kneel or stand. We shake hands with one another at the Peace. Depending on the strength of our knees, or our theological convictions, we either stand or kneel to receive communion. Some of us might genuflect or use the sign of the Cross. And when I’m on full Anglo-Catholic autopilot I might even find myself making that odd triple gesture at the Gospel, making the sign of the cross on forehead lips and shoulders to show that we must think, speak and work for Christ. What we do with our bodies reflects for us, in a way that is unmistakeably human, the mystery of God and of our relationship with him.

During the Conques pilgrimage Fr. Neil encouraged us to do something a little different whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer – to pray with our arms and hands open in front of us. I’ve found that simple posture of prayer so valuable that I’d like to share with you this morning something of what it means to me, and particularly what it says to me about Mission.

To stand or kneel with hands held out in prayer is to be open with God, if you like to bare our souls. God loves us, and knows us far better than we know ourselves. Opening up to our heavenly Father, we acknowledge our failures and vulnerability, and our total dependence upon his love and mercy. We bring nothing into this world and we will take nothing out of it. To me, the gesture is also a way of making space for God, an invitation for him to come to us and change us into his likeness. But make no mistake, this is scary stuff, because most of us don’t really want to be changed.

And our hands – what are we doing with them? Aren’t we holding them out to receive and accept God’s gifts? Those of us on the Mission Shaped Ministry Course have been encouraged to think about the blessings and gifts and values we enjoy in our two churches. We tend to think first of prayer and worship – and rightly so. But so often we are thankful for what we do, rather than thanking God for one other. For what God gives us in the church community is people, people who pray, people who worship. And not only people who pray and worship, but people who are penitent, who know their need for God, people who are on a pilgrimage of faith with Christ as guide and Saviour. And amongst those pilgrims from our churches, thank God, he has given us men and women of conscience – those who care for the vulnerable, the young, the aging, the sick and the dying, and others who strive for peace and justice in the world. As we hold out our hands in prayer we acknowledge both our emptiness as human beings, and at the same time God’s power to fill that emptiness, through those around us, with the gifts of his Spirit.

Our hands are held out, in the one gesture, both to receive and to give. I can think of no better image for Mission. For we can only give what we receive, from God and from our fellow travellers. In Mission we share with others the excitement of finding God, or being found by him, in a new way. I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with the buzz phrase ‘Fresh expressions of church,’ perhaps ‘Fresh expressions of Gods love in renewing the church’  is nearer the truth. Because what happens in Mission is that we allow God’s Spirit to come to life, in the meeting of an established group of Christians with a new group. If St. Mary’s and St. Faith’s ever do find the courage for Mission it will not be us who will do all the giving.  It is not St. Faith’s or St. Mary’s who will be the leaven in the lump, the yeast in the dough – it will be God himself. For if a new congregation does spring up amongst us, it will be the Holy Spirit who will tranorm and give life to both Christian communities, the old and the new. Both will be renewed together, both will grow together and will be nourished by each other. As we hold out our hands in prayer, and in Mission, the giving and the receiving are all one.

But we end where we began, with that gesture of openness. We have to examine ourselves to see whether we really have within us the spark that could grow to a flame of Mission. If we do not see mission as part of God’s plan for us, if we don’t see it as his way of renewing us, then we cannot do Mission – it simply won’t happen. And if we are not open to change it won’t happen either – because the Kingdom of God depends upon the Cross, it hangs on the Cross. If we don’t want to give to the point of being changed, then we shouldn’t even use the word ‘Mission’. Suppose, just suppose, that the Holy Spirit called us to provide a sort of mini children’s Holiday Club one afternoon a month, with an opportunity for worship for the kids and their parents. If that particular movement of the Spirit were to succeed it would have to be a number one priority for us, not just an add-on. We would have to find many new resources of time, money and talents. We could not expect our core group of saintly dedicated helpers to take on the task, while the rest of us just prayed for them. We would need everyone to get to work, we would all have to change our values to see Mission as being just as important as worship, to see Mission as part of worship. As Father Neil has so often told us the word Mass means ‘mission’, and when the service is over the service starts.

Of course, the posture of prayer is not the only body language we could adopt. We could fold our arms in front of us, give ourselves a comforting little hug, and just enjoy church as we have always done. Or we could be so embarrassed by Mission that we put our hands behind our backs because we don’t know what to do with them. But I hope and pray that we will adopt the posture of prayer, that we will be open with God and with ourselves, that we will be open to change, and that we will be willing both to give and receive the gifts of the Spirit. As you say the Lord’s Prayer this morning may I invite you to use the posture and the body language of prayer, so that we may all be changed and made fit to do the Lord’s work.

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