We’re coming up to a big milestone in our shared history. Just under a year ago, a bunch of us stood up and committed to journey together as a congregation here. And so, over the last twelve months, we have met regularly to sing, and pray, and listen to the Scriptures, and to eat and drink together. And as we have engaged in these fundamental disciplines of the committed Christian life, we have been travelling with Jesus. For when we gather around Word and Table—bread and stories—then Jesus Christ, who is the bread of life and the Word made flesh, promises to be among us.
We know that he keeps his promise, not only because he is trustworthy, but because of the sense of Spirit that many of us feel from time to time. Perhaps you’ve felt it? Maybe on a special occasion, like when we welcomed and prayed for baby Tessa; maybe on an ordinary day, when someone wrestled with an ancient story, or described an encounter with God. Perhaps you noticed it on a day when we listened well to one another and sang with one voice; or when you saw a child lead the way; or over a conversation at dinner. Many of our visitors have felt it: “It feels like the Acts church!” said one.
This sense of Spirit, the presence of the Risen Christ among us, is an extraordinary gift—and it’s leading to growth. Some of us are reporting new depths of faith and a new awareness of God’s presence; some of us are discerning new gifts to offer the wider community; and some of us are simply growing up. So it’s been a wonderful beginning, and a wonderful first year, together.
Next week, we begin the second year. Those who are willing will be invited to stand up and commit to journey together as the body of Christ. The commitment will include some simple attitudes and practices which will help knit us together. These include promises to meet regularly; to practice hospitality; and to seek justice and reconciliation. None of this is rocket science; and, at heart, these promises are about one thing only: learning to become brothers and sisters who are walking in love with Jesus Christ.
For that is what it means to be the church. We are a people who gather around Word and Table—bread and stories—because we know that when we do these things, Christ is with us, and we are knit together in love. We become a sign of the kingdom: a place filled with the Spirit of love; a place where we practice loving not just the people like us, but each person we encounter; a place where God’s Word and God’s love are written on our hearts; a place where that love is nurtured and grows and finds all sorts of ways to express itself. The Sunday service—the ‘church’ service—is the central gathering point, and it should lead to kingdom life and kingdom love—the service of the church—throughout the week.
So what is this love like? We catch a glimpse in tonight’s story. Joseph had every reason to hate his brothers. They envied him so much that they threw him down a dry well, then drew him up and sold him to slave traders who were heading into Egypt. Because of his brothers, Joseph had been enslaved, and then was in prison for years. And although he is now a big man in Egypt, he is still in exile: he is still a very long way from his father’s home.
Now his brothers have come before him. It’s been a long time, a lot has happened, and they no longer recognise him. He even has an Egyptian name. And Joseph has a choice. Can he trust them with his true identity? If he doesn’t, they will never have even the possibility of real relationship; if he does, they might treat him with further falseness and contempt. His brothers might still be driven by old envy, old desires, old history. He doesn’t know.
Joseph takes the risk: he decides to trust. He reveals his identity: but his brothers are trapped in their history: they panic, and cannot speak. In the face of their dismay, Joseph continues. He refuses to blame his brothers. Instead, he says God arranged everything: for his brothers’ actions meant that Joseph was able to save the nations from starvation. He begs his brothers to let go of their self-hatred and distress; he offers them gifts and a place to call home. He weeps over them, and kisses them, and finally his brothers relax and are able to speak.
In this story, Joseph demonstrates great freedom. He makes no claims on his brothers, except that of love. He shows no bitterness or resentment; he doesn’t want them to be punished. In fact, he tells his brothers not to be distressed or angry with themselves. So Joseph opts out of the cycles of violence and retribution; instead, he acts on his own terms. This freedom enables him to grant forgiveness to those who hurt him; it allows him to show generosity to those who took everything he had; it lets him offer a home to those who sent him away from his own home; and it leads to reconciliation.
Joseph isn’t perfect: there’s plenty of trickery before this story, and plenty of problems afterwards. But he shows how anyone who journeys with God can act freely and generously. He demonstrates what it is to be Christlike; he shows his brothers what it is to love.
Like Joseph, not one of us is perfect, and yet, like Joseph, we too are called to the work of reconciliation. For we are the body of Christ, and his Spirit is with us: and so we are asked to be like Jesus Christ: to risk everything; to be vulnerable, trusting one another, forgiving one another, and letting go of past hurts and old wounds. But we do not do this alone. As we gather each week around Word and Table, with Christ at our centre, his Spirit moves among us, guiding us, reconciling us, and growing us in love. And as the Spirit does its slow work of transformation, we are gradually formed into a sign of the kingdom: a people who are known for their love.
So next week, let’s commit to one another freely and wholeheartedly. Let’s promise to keep gathering around bread and stories, and to keep practising hospitality and seeking justice and reconciliation, both here and wherever God calls us. The last twelve months have brought much life and much growth, but they’re just the beginning. God has a future for us in this region, a future which is starting to unfold: so next week, come on board—and let’s see what happens next! Ω
A reflection on Genesis 45:1-15 by Alison Sampson, 20 August 2017 (AP15)