Year A Proper 18
I don’t know what your perfect Church would look like! A lot of people who call me about baptisms and weddings in the team mention how much they want their service to take place in this building or that building because it is such a lovely Church. And their concern in many ways is about the building…
I think many of those who visit our churches, though, are pleasantly surprised that what makes our Churches such good places to be a part of is not how well kept they are, or whether they are architecturally wonderful, or even if they look like Churches are meant to look. It’s the warmth of the welcome, the genuine love that many of our congregations have for each other, and a desire to follow Jesus that makes our Churches special.
I am sure there are still many things we could do to make our Churches better – both the buildings and in growing together in faith and love to strengthen our Christian community. I know of some churches who have radically re-ordered their whole church, who have added various technological aids to worship, from video projectors and computers to variable lighting and sound systems. For some of our Churches the addition of heating has been a radical move forward!
Some Churches have taken on more of what is known as a ‘café church’ style, both in adding comfortable chairs and good coffee – a real plus in any Church in my opinion! They have also considered what makes people feel comfortable and uncomfortable with coming to Church and are willing to take risks with the shape and content of services in order to give people a place to explore faith and where they feel welcome in Church.
Until a couple of years ago I used to spend the bank Holiday weekend every August in the wonderful surroundings of Cheltenham racecourse. Don’t worry, though, there is no need to concern yourself that your Clergy are either being paid too much and like to spend it on gambling, or that we have way too much time on our hands and like to waste it with frivolous trips to dens of iniquity…
I spent the weekend, along with about 20, 000 or so other Christians, praying, worshipping, listening to various seminars, enjoying music from a variety of Christian Artists, chatting to various theologians, speaking to some very influential Christian writers and speakers, and seeing some very powerful art. This was at an Arts festival, one of the Christian festivals that has been very much a way of reconsidering what it means to be Church, over the past thirty years and its called Greenbelt. Greenbelt was part of my spiritual landscape for nearly 20 years, and perhaps had more influence on my own Christian journey than any other thing except the great privilege of being ordained to serve the Church of God. It is enjoyable, often stimulating, usually challenging and provides an opportunity for many Christians to consider the real meaning of their faith and to think about how to apply their faith to their everyday lives.
Because Greenbelt is so enjoyable and so profound, and because there is very little quite like it even in the Church there is a fair amount of idealisation about it. People describe it as the ideal way of being Church – one writer said that heaven will be like Greenbelt, but with better loos.
But it is not. Greenbelt is a great place to be, but it is not Church. It is a wonderful mix of idealism and pragmatism, of hope and frustration, of faith and questioning.
Which brings me on to our reading for this morning. Of course, as you know, our Bibles are a fascinating, disturbing, sometimes confusing but always exciting mix of the idealistic and the pragmatic. And our selection of verses for this Sunday is a wonderful example of how this can be the case even within one passage. The danger, of course it that is easy to fall into a false distinction of what is ‘spiritual’ and what is realistic when we look at the Bible – as what might seem very idealistic, is actually something we have to take very seriously for our daily walk with Christ.
We see this clearly in St Paul’s writings. Paul is probably the greatest pastoral theologian the Church has ever had or will ever have. He is writing without boundaries, without anything to work from except his Jewish faith and the inspiration of the Spirit. For him there was no bible, just the Jewish Scriptures and the teachings and stories of Jesus passed on through the early Christians. St Paul sets out exactly what the Church is and should be, but is quick to address the very real situations that people are writing to him about, unafraid to tackle difficult issues and yet setting out what God is calling the early Christians to be.
Today’s reading is a wonderful mix of the pragmatic and the idealistic – from the idea of not being indebted except to owe each other the debt of love, to the admonishment to avoid revelling and drunkenness, debaucher and licentiousness, quarrelling and jealousy and instead to allow Jesus to be as close as the clothing you wear.
But Paul doesn’t separate the practical and pastoral from the ideal and spiritual – they are all one. As Christians, someone said, we live with our head in the clouds and our feet on the ground – a good image of what it means to be seeking to live as Christ’s followers – and particularly as the Church of God.
Likewise in Jesus words today we have very clear instructions as to how to deal with wrongdoing in the Church – it is to be dealt with face to face, then between a small group in the fellowship and if necessary to the whole body. Then he goes on to talk about the immense power Christians are given to bind and loose – terms to do with the spiritual battle with evil that all Christians are engaged in. Finally Jesus reminds us that as his body, where only two or three are gathered he is there, that is what makes the Church what it is – the presence of Christ. This is, of course, not to say that Jesus is not with us individually in the whole of our lives but to remind us that there is something special about gathering together, and that Christ is at the very centre of our meetings as Christians.
As an aside, I must say though that though we are promised that even if only two or three are gathered Christ is with us, that is not an excuse for us not turning up to Church because the numbers don’t matter!
But in these two relatively short readings for today we are given a challenge – a challenge not to set our sights too low as a Church. It is easy to focus on the struggles we have as a Church community, on our attendance or financial difficulties or building needs and become distracted from the core of our role to be the body of Christ and to share the Gospel in this village and in the whole of our lives.
We are called as a Church to be realistic – about our shortcomings, the things that need to change, the difficulties we face. We’re called too to be realistic about the good things, our place in the heart of this community, the pastoral work that is undertaken not only by clergy but by many members of this congregation, our family ministry, our building development.
At the same time our realism shouldn’t make us forget our dreams as a Church. We are called to seek God’s vision and to live up to the ideals that Christ has called us to. We may not do terribly well, we may fail continually, but God’s Spirit calls us to be open to the ideal as well as being rooted in the practical. We are called to strive to bring Christ into every area of our lives, and to make our faith a part of everything we do and say.
As a Church we are called to bear with one another, to love, to care. We are called also to, as Paul says. ‘wake from sleep’ and to work together for the proclamation of the Gospel. Often the possibility of Church growth may seem far away, but we are called to persevere, to trust in God and to support one another as part of this fellowship.
And in the end it all comes down to one thing. Everything we do as individual Christians and as a Church must come down to this.
“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ or as it says in another translation ‘Let the Lord Jesus Christ be as close as the clothes you wear’. When we allow Jesus to be that close to us then our dreams of faith can become reality.