Sermon Series on the Church, No.2

This time last week I was in blissful ignorance of the tsunami of press coverage that was about to descend. I knew the Bristol local would run a story about the wedding owl who failed to deliver the rings, but I was astonished at how quickly the news spread. Reporters were phoning me up every ten minutes, there were interviews not just on local radio, but Radio 2, 4 and 5 as well. It seems as if every UK newspaper has told the story – and some in Australia, Canada and America too! It’s crazy!

You might say Owling mad.

 

It reminded me of two things: firstly that people are interested in the church – surely part of the impact of this story is the picture of the little barn owl perched up in the rafters, the combination of tradition and contemporary creativity. Secondly that it really mattered to me that listeners got the right message. Lots of the reporters wanted to make a joke of it – and it is hilarious, I don’t have problem with that. But I also wanted to say: God has made each of us unique, a wedding is the union of two special people who matter to him, so why not do something imaginative that reflects their interests? I really wanted that story to draw people just a little bit closer to Christ through his church.

 

For Jesus is at the heart of the church, and the church is pointless if it’s not about him. That’s what our reading from 1 Peter 2:4-12 says. In v.4 ‘come to him, a living stone’. The Methodist church where I grew up had been paid for by public subscription. All round the base of the building, as part of its structure, were fine stones, engraved with donors names. The largest donors got the biggest blocks, the foundation stones, holding the building up.

 

Peter says that Jesus is the foundation of his church. Or in v. 7: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’. When you build an arch the most important stone is the keystone at the top – all the weight presses on this and it keeps the arch up. Jesus is like that, he is the rock on which we depend, he gives meaning to everything we do.

But how is that? Verses 4 to 8 explain. Jesus was chosen by God, he is the divine Son of God who perfectly shows us what God is like. However, his goodness and sense of justice was a challenge to those in authority who rejected and killed him. His death was not in vain, though, because God gave it an amazing loving purpose –Jesus took upon himself the punishment which should be ours for the wrong we have done. Christianity speaks of Jesus dying in our place so that, in v.6 ‘whoever believes in him will never be put to shame’. We can know forgiveness, cleansing and acceptance through the mystery of the cross.

 

And if we respond to that, we become part of God’s family, the church. If Jesus is the cornerstone, then you and I are like the other bricks built up around it, rough moulded, oddly shaped, different colours but all precious and valuable in God’s sight. In effect then, the church is not so much a physical place – this building, but a spiritual group – the people who are responding to God’s self-giving love.

 

Sometimes when I’m heading off to take a service, someone calls out: ‘Say one for me!’ Be warned, my reply is: ‘Come with me and we’ll say one together!’ Yet there is a real insight behind ‘Say one for me’. As v.9 tells us, the church is meant to be a royal ‘priesthood’, that means holding other people before God, praying for them, showing his love. Being light in a dark world, telling what God has done for us.

 

That’s why our members are here on a Sunday morning. Have you ever wondered why people come to church? Not for another social club – we’re all too different for that, nor for a special interest activity. No, we’re here because in some way v.9 describes our experience. God has turned our darkness into light. Maybe we’ve stumbled in moral darkness and God’s light has shown the right way. It may have been a darkness of uncertainty into which God has brought meaning, or a darkness of pain healed by God’s love. Maybe you’re very aware of darkness still, in which case do please keep the space open for God, keep seeking him, for he rewards those who earnestly look for him.

At its best, the church is a wonderful thing. I’ve belonged to many over the years and they’ve really helped me. I have learnt a lot, been drawn close to God and made friends that will last for ever. When my family has been through difficult times, the church has been incredibly supportive. When it works well, the church can be brilliant.

 

But let’s be honest, we also know the church isn’t always like that. One of the really sad things about my work is meeting people who’ve given up on God’s church, for a whole variety of reasons. Maybe they got ill and no one seemed to notice; they never got used to a new service; maybe life changed or they got busy; some fell out with the vicar or something hurtful happened. That is so sad to hear. And it can be very hard for those people to find their way back through the doors.

 

I apologise to anyone here today who’s been hurt by the church. Those things should not happen – the church is meant to follow Christ’s teaching. Yet it is made up of flawed human beings. Sometimes I hear people say ‘I’m not good enough to go to church’. But the church is not a club for the perfect – if so it would be empty!

 

Welby and Wonga is a good illustration of that. It was a great idea, the Archbishop didn’t whinge about payday lenders. Instead he offered practical help to credit unions. Justin Welby didn’t seek government regulation, instead he wanted to outcompete Wonga and make their business model redundant.

 

Just the thing the church should be doing, making a difference in society. Inevitably though some clever journalist found that the Church of England pension board had invested in a company which itself had shares in Wonga. It was a tiny sum of money but it risked undermining the whole campaign. Sometimes the ideals and the reality of living in a complicated world collide! The church does a great deal of good, but nothing’s perfect. And I think we need to be realistic about that.

For the church is both a hospital and a school. A hospital where our hurts are healed and a school where we slowly become what God wants us to be. Here we recognise our frailties. We accept God’s forgiveness, and God gives us his Holy Spirit who can transform us, step by step.

 

So remember, we are all human. If the church has hurt you, please give us a second chance. Allow us to try again. And within the church, let us do our best to be forgiving and charitable to one another. For how we handle our brokenness can allow God’s light to shine. That is at least as much an example as how moral any of us are.

 

I’ll end with a final thought: the church is the only society which exists for the benefit of those who are not yet its members. Yes we do sometimes get it wrong, and I apologise for the times when that has happened. But ultimately our aim is to serve our community and point to the love of Christ. As the words at the end of the communion service

Owling mad

I write this at the end of a deeply surreal week during which a humorous story and grainy photo went from being a Facebook post to a genuinely international news item. It was a very bizarre experience, seeing the story about the owl who failed to the deliver the rings at a Sherston wedding turn into a feature in virtually every British newspaper. Then there were the interviews on local radio, Radio 5 Drivetime, Radio 2 and, oddly, Radio Ulster.

What have I learnt?

1)      The media love photos, humour, animals, weddings and interestingly, the church.

2)      That when the media take an interest in something, it is good to be as helpful as possible. If you do that, you can engage positively with the story and even shape the way it is reported. This was really important to me as I wanted to put over a message about God valuing our creativity and personality, about weddings being able to be individual as well as part of an institution, and the church being welcoming.

3)      That a story like this develops very quickly and also fades very quickly. You have to be ready to respond to enquiries as soon as possible to keep on top of it.

Much of the power of this media circus has been due to the internet, which can spread the word instantly. It is easy for me to forget that when I was first ordained 13 years ago, the internet did not really register in most people’s lives. When the Rev’d John Morgan was ordained 50 years ago, the world and the church were very different, and I look forward to hearing his stories about ministry over the years. He and Marjorie have been a great blessing to us in the Gauzebrook Group, and we pray for them. I for one know that, if God grants me another 37 years in active ministry, I will consider myself blessed if I have anything like the same faith, energy, humility and grace as John.

What am I here for?

I enjoyed a wonderful retreat in August, a chance to get some time to reflect and pray. I’d recommend it to anyone, it’s particularly good to stand back so you can see the wood for the trees.

One thing which occurred to me as I read a book about ministry, is that I have particular beliefs and assumptions about my role – what I think a priest is for and does. Parishes likewise have beliefs and assumptions about the role of a Vicar, formed in part by the models given them by previous clergy. And as the Church of England is a wide church, it’s quite possible that our assumptions may be different. It’s worth reflecting on what a priest is for.

The traditional Anglican English model is the priest as a religious or holy person. Someone who represents the people before God, in offering worship and prayer, and who represents the things of God to the people. The pastoral care the priest offers demonstrates the love of God, the teaching mediates His Word, visibility and presence at village events symbolises the interest of God in everyday affairs. People want to know their priest, because in doing so there is a symbolism that God knows them and cares for them.

In this model the role of lay people, such as the PCC, is clear: the lay members of the church undertake mainly practical tasks which relieve the clergy of burdens, setting them free to concentrate on the spiritual.

It’s very important to recognise that lots of people, perhaps subconsciously, hold this idea of the priest, or one similar to it. The wider community, in particular, may hold these expectations, which creates opportunities for mission and mean that unexpected doors may be open to someone in a clerical collar. So we need to respect what is good in this traditional Anglican model and work with it where possible. This model has at times been very effective, it has a strong grasp on our imagination and it is probably true that many, like me, were deeply inspired by it when they first explored ordination.

Nonetheless it has its flaws. It tends to push ‘doing God’ onto one person, perhaps relieving the rest of us of responsibility for our spiritual growth. It was a model for an era where there was one priest per village, easily accessible, and who would know every one of the three or four hundred souls on his patch. The visibility and accessibility is hard to maintain in an age of multi-parish benefices.

Perhaps most significantly though, it is not a strong model in the New Testament, nor is it the practice of the Early Church. As we heard in our reading from Ephesians Chapter 4:1-13, we are all part of the body of Christ, and Jesus has given us various gifts so that we might build up one another. So ministry is the possession of all, not just the priesthood. We share in different roles by virtue of our baptism.

What has sometimes been seen as the role of priest – representing God to the rest of the world, is actually the role of the church. Lay members of the church are at the cutting edge of God’s mission. You are out there in the world, in the workplace, school and home. You have opportunities to serve and witness that the clergy never get, and what you do and say can have an immense impact.

So what then is the role of the ordained? I see the priest as a theological resource: teaching, training, pastoring and discipling God’s people so they may be closer to him; helping discern the will of God. The priest gathers the community and leads us in worship, resourcing us by word and sacrament for the week ahead. And the priest is a collaborative leader – one who works with others to further the Kingdom of God.

This has several implications for the work of a PCC. The church exists to worship God and witness to him in the world – to know Christ and make him known. Fundamentally therefore our task is not about the preservation of the church, but God’s mission. As the governing body of the parish church, the PCC works together with the clergy to decide priorities, vision and activities for our church, and coordinates the doing of them. The PCC aims to widen ministry, not just by involving others, but by developing them.

In all of this the emphasis is on working together as a ministry team, sharing God’s work and dividing up tasks according to our respective gifts. Whatever our role, as disciples of Christ we are called to follow him, and make him known in the world.

The following is the first sermon in our series on the church. At Sherston we had an All Age talk at the baptism on the 8th September, so this paper script aims to give the background to the series – Christopher Bryan

Over the past few years we’ve had a lot of baptisms and weddings here. They’re great occasions and I always look forward to them – it’s a lovely celebration as people make their promises before God in a beautiful historic building such as this. It’s an important part of our ministry.

At those occasions, the church is the building where we go, isn’t it? Well, actually, the reading we had today from Ephesians turns that idea on its head. In the reading, the church is not a place or a building. In Ephesians 5, the church is the bride!

 

We’re beginning a sermon series today on the church. Over the next few weeks several of our sermons will be on the church. What is it? What is it for? How do we serve our village today? Our epistle reading tells us that the church is people – those who have faith in Jesus, everywhere and throughout eternity, and that the church exists for Christ and because of Christ.

 

It’s a complex reading, because St Paul is speaking about two things at once. He’s talking about marriage. And he’s also talking about the church: ‘Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church.’ He’s using one to illustrate the other, he’s saying the two things are similar. A marriage should be built on love, just as Christ loves the Church. Any marriage will involve give and take, self sacrifice, just as Christ gave himself up for the church – he loves us so much that he was willing to die on the cross to set us free from sin. The church exists for Christ, similar to the partners in marriage being there for one another.

 

But it doesn’t stop at the cross. Our Christian life is a journey. In v.26. Jesus makes the church holy by washing her with water and the word – this probably means baptism and Christian teaching. What that means for us is recognising we don’t stand still in our faith. We need to keep on growing, which is why we do things like the Foundations course, so we can answer questions and develop in our faith.

Giving some thought to how we grow in our faith helps us to become ready for Jesus, more what he wants us to be. Any bride wants to be ready for her husband; she wants to look her best. The morning before a wedding is a busy event – woe betide any man who gets in the way at the bride’s house! Full attention is given to getting everything right.

 

In a similar way the church is devoted to Christ. Now this marriage imagery can be difficult. Paul’s ideas about marriage may sound old fashioned, even patriarchal by our standards and passages like this can be problematic for some. Do remember however that the Christian approach was radical and showed equality for its time.

 

In Roman society, marriages were arranged for status or financial reasons. The wife’s role was to manage the household and to bear children who would be the official heirs. That did not stop the husband fathering children outside of marriage, but the wife was expected to be faithful.  Slaves were just seen as property and were used and abused at will. So the Pauline emphasis on equal love faithfulness and respect, and a husband caring for his wife is truly revolutionary, and with the spread of Christianity it changed the Roman world. The Christian teaching on equality in Christ sowed the seeds for future reform.

 

Christianity transformed marriage, based on the idea that the church is the bride of Christ. That is why the church exists – Jesus gave himself for her and now she is in relationship with him. The focal point of the church is Jesus himself. We meet here together to praise God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

That fundamentally is why the church exists. We’re not part of the heritage industry, existing to keep up old buildings. Although these wonderful hallowed places of prayer can minister to many, they are not the church nor the point of the church. The church is the people – if the building wasn’t here we would meet in the village hall. Nor is the church a community club, although growing community and serving our village is important.

 

 

We are here to build the Kingdom of God, by loving and serving and sharing the good news. But even that’s not the ultimate point of the church – the ultimate purpose of the church is to be, to be the bride of Christ, to know and love him. We look forward to the day when that relationship is complete.

 

That fulfilment is the final part of St. Paul’s overview. Jesus gave himself for the church, he gets her ready for him, and one day they shall be united. What we see here, the church here on earth, is only half the story. One day in heaven, the church will be complete, all Christ’s followers from around the world and across time.

 

I find that an amazing thought. People meeting in banana thatched huts in Africa, ancient cathedrals in Rome, threatened house churches in Syria are all part of the same family. And through time too. If you go to the Ashmolean Museum, there is an ancient Anglo Saxon artefact called the Alfred Jewel. It portrays Christ in majesty. When I first saw it I was struck by how different life was for the person who made it – and yet he and I share the same fundamental beliefs. That artist is now in glory, and you and I will one day be there. We will meet again those we have loved who have trusted in Christ. It’s wonderful!

 

Yet we’re also all too aware that the church we see now on earth is very different from the church in heaven. Heaven is perfect but on earth the church is affected by the brokenness of our world. Here the church is imperfect, incomplete. In some places it appears strong, in others it is weak or persecuted. Sometimes the church is united, but sadly often we see the church divided into denominations, squabbling groups or parishes that have no sense of life beyond their borders. 

 

Christ loves that church, he loves us as we are, and we must love the church too. Jesus does not give up on the church, neither should we. If you are ever frustrated by a Christian community, if you’re ever tempted to walk away, remember that Jesus loves the church, gave himself for her, and call us to love her too. Yet he also loves the church too much to allow it to stay that way. He gives his Spirit to lead us on.

Jesus calls us closer to one another, and one day those barriers will no longer exist. One day in heaven the divisions will be healed and God’s church will be one. That should give us hope – if people in a church have let you down in the past or if the church doesn’t meet the standards you would hope for, remember we are all human, forgive. And be encouraged that one day the church will be completely as God wants it to be, that we shall be with Christ forever.

 

We have a sense of that already. Even here ‘we are members of Christ’s body’, in v.30. Being spiritually united with Christ, we share in his life, and this has lots of implications we shall explore later in our sermon series. But at the moment, our foundation is this: that the church is the people; that the church exists for Christ; that the Church will be one in heaven. Let us see the Church as Christ sees her, and let us love him and one another. Amen.