This week I have had two funerals, and both of those people had long connections with this church, although not recently. Dealing with grief on the eve of Christmas somehow tends to emphasise the loss because Christmas is so often a time when families gather together, and now there will be an empty chair in those families.
Each year at this time I send out a letter to those who have lost loved ones in the year that has passed. It’s so easy to gloss over loss in a letter like that and when we do it probably compounds grief rather than offering a sense of solidarity. Being able to acknowledge the very real sense of loss, and at the same time to offer support in that loss makes what we say match with what we want to do for those in grief – support them!
Whenever the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches he planted he never avoided responding to the very real and vital issues that his congregations faced. He was not a ‘systematic theologian’ in the way we understand it today, rather he was pastoral, responding to each community and situation as issues arose. His most comprehensive letter was written to the small Christian churches established in the great city of Rome, a place he was hoping to go to. They were small communities and some of the leaders were people that Paul knew personally and so he was aware of the issues they were facing. His primary concern was to build unity and deal with the tensions that had arisen between those who had come to faith from a Jewish background and those who came from Greek or Roman backgrounds.
He urges them to respect their differences, to learn to see things by standing in each other’s shoes (seeing things from the perspective of the other), and to refrain from judging. He wanted to shape their will toward reconciliation, and lead them to be a community that welcomed and valued each other, learning from the richness of each other’s cultural and religious background. At the end he prays, ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope…’ Always Paul’s intention is to build up his communities in faith and hope, binding them together in Christ.
This week in the Friendship Club one of the members asked ‘Do you think there will ever be peace in our world?’ We had been talking about Jesus’ coming at Christmas as the prince of peace. Her question revealed both a longing for harmony and goodwill in the world, but also a sense of disillusionment about the state of the world. I said that we always have to start where we are and seek to build peace in our relationships. But later that day in another conversation about those we have elected to parliament, we spoke about what it means to support and encourage our political leaders. Their task is so complex and challenging, and they have so much pressure on them from many powerful lobby groups. I firmly believe that any true support, any real friendship is two edged. On one had we need to encourage and support whenever we can, and on the other we have a responsibility to challenge our friends and be challenged by them whenever we act inappropriately or beyond our station. Christianity is not just about my personal relationship with God, it’s also about living together as a community working and praying for God’s kingdom to come.
The powerful example we have is that of the prophets, of Jesus and Paul, who found the courage to challenge those in leadership whenever they acted without mercy or compassion, and whenever they overstepped their authority, and tried to avoid being accountable. In offering support and encouragement our motive always needs to be to serve God’s purpose of reconciling the world, and building one another up in faith and love.