Sunday, 11 May 2008

A Sermon for Pentecost

Year A Pentecost (2008) RCL Principal
Jesus Loves the Church

I recently found myself in a conversation with a minister who is Chaplain to an Anglican Church in Paris. There were lots of good things that came out of that conversation, but quite early on in the process he came out with something that really made me think. He said ‘I love Church, Church is why I get up in the morning.’

It’s not a sentence I hear very much. Not even for those of us whose life and ministry is lived around the Church…
Actually perhaps for those of us who are involved in the Church to a greater degree we are more likely to criticise and complain – to be honest – because we have invested so much in the life of our Churches.

I promise you, you never want to spend any great length of time in a room full of Clergy. Except our own Team Clergy, of course, who seem to have the gift of laughter and support to an unnatural degree…

But back to this who idea of loving the Church. What does it mean?

Well, for some people it is a love of the building and the history of these wonderful treasures which are the Parish Churches of England. And I don’t mean that with any sense of irony. I believe that the physical plant, the buildings, the bricks and mortar, or stone, or whatever, are a gift – they are visible signs of devotion to God throughout our land, they are places of prayer, they are sacred spaces, they say to the communities around us that faith endures. These buildings offer us great mission opportunities, they offer us potential for hospitality, they offer the chance for people to be rooted in the community through the good and bad times of life. I can see why people love these buildings.

But it’s not enough.

Some people love the traditions of worship, both ancient and modern, that are a part of the life of the Church. For many ‘Church’ is what you do on a Sunday, usually with a bit of music, a bit of Bible, a bit of a sermon (and/or a snooze depending on how good the preacher is), a bit of prayer, and with luck a bit of coffee at the end and nice biscuits – or even cake (hooray!).

And there’s lots to love – we have hundreds of years of heritage in our prayer books, with the services that we use now in Common Worship stretching back with a 2000 year heritage. Our Sunday worship can lift us to the heights of heaven and – at its best – can draw us to the throne of God where worship is offered eternally to the great ‘I AM’. The beauty of words and music, the depth of the liturgy, the opportunity for stillness and silence, the sense of being in God’s presence and of encountering our living and active God can inspire a great amount of devotion and affection in us.

But it’s not enough!

And others would point to the fellowship of the Church, to the feeling of family and togetherness that is a part of the life of our Parish Churches. I am constantly bowled over by the sense of welcome and care in our Churches, and believe our genuine openness and hospitality is a manifestation of God’s grace in our congregations and beyond.

In fellowship we can find a sense of identity, of being loved and forgiven, of sharing and healing and compassion and love.

And together we find strength, supporting one another and encouraging one another to grow and to act to change the world as Jesus calls us to. Together we can speak out against injustice, against those things which harm or destroy. We can change the world, together.

But it’s not enough…

Loving our building, no matter how wonderful it is. Loving the services on Sunday, no matter how uplifting and enjoyable they are. Loving the fellowship, no matter how welcoming, embracing and inspiring it is. None of this is enough to live and die for.

Yet that’s what Jesus did.

Jesus lived and died for the Church. He is Lord of the Church. The Church, the Bible tells us, is his bride, that is how much Christ loves the Church. We are told in St Paul’s letter to the Corinithians that we are the body, we are Christ to this world, and Jesus is our living head.

Now, that’s the reason I get up in the morning.

But what does this mean? Well our reading from Acts for today stops short of giving us the whole Chapter. If we were to carry on we would hear in verse 41 of Chapter 2 that three thousand were added to the Church after that amazing experience – but if we read through from the next verse, verse 42 to the end of the Chapter we would hear this
42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
What set the first Church apart at birth was not just the wonderful experience of Pentecost – of the great signs and wonders of that outpouring of the Spirit – but the everyday lives they led. These were people dedicated to lives of prayer, of worship, of sharing together. They were generous hearted, and open in a faith which was part of their homes, their work, their whole lives.

There was no part of their lives that they didn’t allow the Spirit to touch or to change. In many ways after the show of Pentecost, they settled down to lives of everyday devotion. There is that ongoing touch of the Spirit that changes everything they are a part of.

It is that touch of the Spirit that makes the Church the body of Christ, that binds us together like sinews and tendons and muscles and bone and flesh bind us each together. It’s that absolute devotion to God and to one another that should be the hallmark of Christ’s body, of our Church.

And it is that which is our calling today, and in our time that same Spirit is still on offer, we all have the Spirit in us, but we have to ask if we are really allowing God to work in us. Perhaps even more challenging is asking whether we are I excited about being a part of the body of Christ in this place. It’s a question I have to ask of myself every day – I so often try to carry on in my own strength and then realise that it is only with God that any of this is possible.

This Pentecost we have the opportunity, as we do every day, of allowing God to work in us and to allow God’s Spirit to strengthen us, to embolden us, to free us from the fear that can come when we think about how people might react to our Christian faith. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to the Church in order that we might be built up together and that together we might change the world.

I believe that if we can trust in the Spirit, if we can be bold in our proclamation of Jesus Christ, if we are true to our calling as Christians to make Jesus known then we too can change the world. Rather than our concerns about our building, or services, or even the sense of fellowship that we share, if we were absolutely committed, in partnership with God through His Holy Spirt, then perhaps when the history books are written about the Church of this generation then it may say about us - And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Pray God it might be so. Come Holy Spirit. Amen.


Quilldancer said...

I try to share this same message on a daily basis. Excellent sermon. I pray it is well received.

Dr.John said...

As usual excellent sermon. You do think like a Lutheran.

Naomi said...

Great post Alastair. If everybody had faith, the world would be a much better place

Tomas Karkalas said...

'Church is why I get up in the morning.’ ... wow! ... THANK YOU.
Your sermon brought me to the wonderland and I recognized the prodigal son in myself.
Thus the "Church is why I get up in the morning." awaken me and lighted my candle. I felt myself the baby who was in desperate need for the growth and the gratitude to our Lord filled me up... thank you for the so uplifting sermon.

Marion said...

This is such a great message. Well said, Alastair, very uplifting and succinct.