Who are we as a church?

PATRONAL FESTIVAL SERMON: THE FEAST OF ST PETER AND ST PAUL

SUNDAY 2 JULY 2017
Sermon preached by Rev David Walsh

2 Timothy 4:6-8,17-18
Matthew 16: 13-19

Patronal Festivals are a time for churches to look at themselves in the mirror and ask: who are we as a church?

As it happens, our Patronal Festival falls in the very week our Parochial Church Council, the PCC, has decided to spend the whole of the autumn asking this very question and listening carefully to the answers.

We’re not just asking questions for the sake of asking questions.  The questions and the answers they provoke will lead to action, to action which could have a profound affect on every part of our church’s life and on the parish which we share with St Michael’s.

But all the action and energy we can summon up is worthless unless we’re heading in the right direction.  And so it’s worth taking time properly to listen.  And the autumn is going to be all about listening.

Firstly, listening to each other here in the church.  Listening out especially for the voices that perhaps don’t normally get heard.  We’ll be listening for example to our children as well as our adults.  We’ll be listening to those who’ve only just arrived, and asking them what the experience was like. Listening to those who used to be members and have now left and asking them: why?  We want to have honest and frank answers.  That’s the best way to help the church.

So we’ll be listening to each other.

But secondly, we’ll be listening to the people of Kettering, to our parish with its 19.000 parishioners.  Does this medieval building, Kettering’s oldest and most prominent landmark, stand for anything of any significance now to the town at large?  Who do they think we are?  Is that different from what we used to be?  What would they like us to be, for the town and people of Kettering?  Are we relevant to their deepest needs and aspirations?  Do we know what those are?

And third, as well as listening to each other and listening to the people of Kettering, it is above all important that we should be listening to God.  I want prayer to be at the heart of what we do in the autumn.  I was talking yesterday to a member of the church I hope might end up hosting a regular prayer group focusing on the church and parish as we ask these questions and as we work out how to respond to the answers we hear.

And this means that one of the most crucial and powerful roles in our time of listening might be played by members of our extended church family who are largely housebound.  But they can still pray.

Understanding who we are as a church means even more than this listening exercise.

At a time when the church nationally faces huge challenges, it’s becoming increasingly clear that whilst many churches are in decline, others are thriving.  This is true across different church traditions.  Growth and life are not confined to just one part of the Church of England.  Neither is decline.  I have known many liberal catholic churches which are thriving and full of energy.  And I have known evangelical churches in rapid decline.

Evidence is beginning to emerge which tells us what the thriving churches have in common.  It suggests to me key clues about what it means to be a church, a church which experiences new life.  So part of what we as a church need to do before taking big decisions about our future is learn what it means to be a church with a future in challenging times.

But that doesn’t mean we simply want to become like other churches, with no distinctive identity of our own.  Quite the opposite.  I believe passionately that when God calls us as individuals, as churches, as communities, to change, to be transformed, he wants us to become more fully ourselves, not less so.

So we also need to ask what is distinctive about this church.  As we change and grow, how will we do so in a way that is different to other churches?  That takes seriously our setting here in the middle of Kettering?  That builds on our centuries of faithful worship and service based on this building?  That reflects the things which matter to us as we express our faith: rhythm and colour in our worship; intelligent questioning as we work through our faith; generous open hearted acceptance of those who are different from us, especially the marginalised.

One small part of what makes us distinctive is our dedication to Peter and Paul.  What can we learn from them as we ask ourselves who we are as a church?

Peter is told by Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading from Matthew that he will build his church on this rock.  The wordplay in the original Greek is lost in the English translation.  To recapture the original meaning we would have to imagine something like:

‘You are Rocky, and on this rock I will build my church’

In this image, the church is a building.  And that gives all kinds of clues to us as we work out how to grow the church and revive it.

So from Peter we gain some clues about what we are as a church.  And our other patron, Paul, repeats this insight when he writes to the young church at Corinth: ‘you are God’s building’.

But Paul adds another image. What he actually writes to the Corinthians is ‘You are God’s field, God’s building.’

And what you need to do if you are a farmer, or a gardener, and you want your field to flourish, want it to be full of growth and life, is rather different from what you need to do to plan and construct a building.

Paul uses both images and so it’s probably true that our churches need both understandings and need leaders who can work with both understandings.

But it might be useful for you as a church – as we head into whatever the coming years might bring – to know what kind of leader I am.  I think I know myself reasonably well and I know that the image with which I’m most comfortable is that of a field.

Why is that?  It suggests that the role of Christian leaders – and that’s not just the Rector of a parish, it’s anyone who exercises any kind of influence in the life of the church – it suggests that their role isn’t so much to do things themselves, as to create the right conditions in which things will grow naturally.

Farmers and gardeners know there are things you can do which will lead to growth, and mistakes you can make which will choke growth off.

It’s interesting how often Jesus himself used these kinds of images when talking about the kingdom of God.  We think of the Parable of the Sower.  And it’s no coincidence that at my Service of Institution and Induction ten months ago, one of the readings I chose the following words from Mark’s Gospel:

‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

The natural thing to happen in the Kingdom, suggests Jesus himself, is growth.  But we can stifle that – leaders in particular can stifle this –  if we fail to understand that our role is like farmers and gardeners.  We need to create the conditions in which things flourish and blossom naturally, of their own accord.

It means of course to some extent that leaders have to give up control.  That we leaders need to expect to be surprised by what happens in our own churches, to be delighted when unexpected new things happen.  Our role is to create the conditions which make such new and unexpected things more likely.

As Paul writes to the Corinthians:

‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’

There are clearly moments in a church’s life when it needs to become more like a building.  Times when groups of people need to sit down and plan in detail how they are going to work together to create something they’ve all agreed on.  But if that’s the only way we work as a church, I fear we are not fully living out what being church means.

So both Peter and Paul can help us as we try to understand who we are as a church.  Paul has another way of describing the church which would I think be shocking to us if we weren’t so used to the image from his writings.  We might almost think it bordered on the blasphemous if it wasn’t so firmly embedded in the New Testament.  The Church, says Paul, is the Body of Christ.

It is a remarkable image.  If we want to know where Christ is now, it suggests, one of the best places to look is towards this group of not always impressive, deeply flawed humans who find themselves drawn together week by week in what we call ‘church’.

As Paul writes to the Church at Corinth: ‘You collectively are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.’

Christ’s presence is in the mix.   In the variety of people in our churches, the way we contrast with each other and yet at the same time work together.  That’s what makes it possible for us to be ‘the body of Christ’.  That’s when Jesus can be seen in us.

It is, again, no coincidence that the second reading I chose for my service of Induction and Institution was this very passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where Paul explores in some details what it means for a church to be the body of Christ.

Because a church can’t properly be a church until it understands what Paul is talking about in this letter.

As Paul writes:

‘The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?’

What this means is that for a church properly to be a church every single member has to be playing their own unique part, the part which no one else can play.  And if they are not encouraged to do so, are not allowed to do so, if the culture of the church focuses on just a small number of people rather than on every member, then we cannot properly be the body of Christ and anyone who looks at us cannot properly see Christ in us, because something is missing.

And that’s one reason why today, we’re asking ourselves what our gifts and talents are, what part we might play in the church, in the body of Christ.  So that each of us can play our part in allowing Jesus to become visible in and through our church.

Fortunately we are all different.  No two people here today have the same gifts, talents and experience to offer.

And this is one more thing we can learn from our two Patron Saints, Peter and Paul.

Both in their own way rocks on which the early church was built.  And yet they could not be more different.

Which is one reason why the church celebrates them both together on the same day.  It’s important to know that right from the very beginning there was not just one model of being a Christian, one model of being a Christian leader.

It’s hard to think of two more different characters.  Paul was a Roman citizen, a Pharisee educated at the feet of one of the most respected Jewish scholars of all time.  In many ways he was an ‘insider’.

And Peter was a fisherman.  Quite a prosperous fisherman, quite a successful businessman, it would appear. But still a very different person from Paul.  Much more of an outsider.

You get the feeling, reading the New Testament, that these two huge figures in the early church circled rather warily around each other.  Yet think what together they made possible.  We wouldn’t be here today without them.

Paul writes quite a lot about Peter, who he calls by his Greek name ‘Cephas’.  He acknowledges that already, in the early days of the Christian church, members are dividing themselves up depending on whether they feel they are ‘Peter’ type Christians or ‘Paul’ type Christians.

Although in the wider world Paul was something of an establishment figure, within the church itself he was more of an outsider, less an acknowledged figure of authority.  And at times a degree of mild resentment appears to creep into Paul’s letters as he compares his lot with that of Peter:

‘Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?  Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?’

And occasionally they openly clashed about the future of the church:

‘When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face’  (Galatians 2:11)

And yet the church was big enough to contain two such very different characters.  Indeed, this may well have been part of what led it to thrive.

So our church too needs to be a place which admits diversity and difference.  It’s a huge shame that no women appear in this story, that instead of Peter and Paul, we don’t have Peter and Pauline.  But our task, now, is to allow a church to grow and flourish which allows as much diversity and difference as possible.

Who are we as a church?

Such a deceptively simple question.  Yet it opens up such rich and promising territory.  Let’s address it with relish over the coming months.  As we try to work what our church might look like if it were to experience new life; what it would mean for this to be a place where individuals experienced personal renewal; and what our distinctive contribution as a church might be towards the renewal of this town of ours.

As we ask these questions, let’s keep coming back to what we can learn from our two Patrons, from Peter and from Paul.

Today we give thanks for them and for all who have made our life together as a church possible.

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