A Halfway House: Shaping a Community
Morning Service led by Revd Jennifer Millington to include TGIS promotions and the baptism of Zackary Murphy, son of Dean and Abigail
This sermon is taken from Romans 14, verses 8-14 and Matthew 18, verses 15-19
A Halfway House: Shaping a Community
A few months ago, my nineteen-year-old nephew was driving home, took a corner too sharply and crashed head-on into a tree. Amazingly he was not seriously hurt but the following morning he posted photos of his car on Facebook and that car was a crumpled heap of twisted metal. Yes, we all gasped in horror (ADAM! What have you done?) but this was not why he had posted the photos. Adam had a message to share with all his friends: “before you next leave the house, tell your family that you love them.” The realisation that he might never have returned home had given him a new perspective: that the most important things in life are the people you love. Make the most of them while you can.
Many of the books in the later part of our Bible are written with this sense of urgency: time is short; a crisis is coming; sort yourselves out while you can. And the reason for this urgency was partly because the first Christians believed that the world would soon be coming to an end, something we are not so sure about these days. But Jesus and his followers were also aware of the precarious nature of life at any time. They were living under a brutal regime, where you could be arrested, imprisoned and executed without warning; they were living in a time when medicine was primitive and illnesses which today can be cured with a five-day course of antibiotics could kill a person in five hours. You never knew what might happen, so be prepared. This message runs right through the stories of Jesus and the early church.
Our lives today are far more secure than theirs but we know that disasters can still strike without warning and that our lives as we know them could be irrevocably changed in a matter of minutes. Life remains precarious and while this does not mean that we live in a state of morbid anxiety, terrified to leave the house, refusing to walk down any bus routes in case this particular bus should be the one to run us over, what it does mean is that we should enjoy good and lovely things in life while we can. And, as Adam said, “tell your family that you love them.” Because love and happiness become a huge source of inner strength in you. When bad times come, you are better able to deal with them if you have been happy. And in a time of crisis the one source of comfort that everyone most appreciates is the comfort of community. Realising the value of your family, your friends, your colleagues, your neighbours, even casual strangers who happen to offer a helping hand when you need it, makes all the difference in the world between coping and not coping.
Both our Bible readings today talk about the building up of the faith community. In a volatile life, Christians desperately needed the support of other believers. And even in our secular society today, a surprising number of people still appreciate the prayers, the faith, the service offered to them by the people of God when they are going through a bad time. Our challenge today then, is how can we make and keep our faith community strong? Strong for Zachary and all our children. Strong for us. Strong for our neighbourhood and for our world.
I picked out three things from our readings that I would like to share with you: identity, purpose and regeneration. First, a strong community needs a strong identity. You need to know what it is that holds you together: what “floats your boat.” A football team comes together over football; a band comes together over music; a family comes together through creating relationships. What brings Christian believers together? Faith in God. Obvious.
Or is it? ”Faith” may sound a perfectly obvious reason for our existence but it is surprising how easy it is for us to downplay it. You see, in a secular society, with a lot of hostile publicity about the church, we do not want to frighten people off or come across as too hard-line about our beliefs. We are anxious to show that we care about the world and its people and so we think a lot about welcome, about offering friendship, about creating community groups for young parents, for children and for elderly people who might be lonely, about making our buildings available for other local groups to use with no “faith strings” attached.
And this is all really great stuff. But start to sideline God out of our identity; leave the focus on faith out of our Christian service and we are no longer a church but a community centre. There is nothing wrong with community centres but that is not all that we are about.
I was reading an article by a young mother who had been recently widowed. Left with two small children to bring up alone, trying to cope emotionally and spiritually with this terrible tragedy, she said that what she most needed from a Christian church was Jesus. Yes, it was wonderful to see churches updating and “glamourizing” their services with rock music and high-tech screens. It was great to have Mum and Toddler groups and youth clubs for she and her children to make friends. But what she needed more than anything else was simply to find Jesus: a source of love, power and spiritual strength that might just hold her together and carry her through the darkest night of her life.
I do not mind admitting that that article pulled me up quite sharply and made me realize how important it is that as a church we hold onto our identity first and foremost as people seeking God. And that we do everything we can to help our children realise that this is what church is about and that is why it is important. Yes, it is about having fun, yes, it is about making friends but they can do those things anywhere. What is most important about the church is that they are encouraged to seek God and to experience God as a living reality in their lives. And for the rest of us, yes everything we do to help and welcome and befriend others is great service, but we need, always, to hold our lives and our serving in the context of God’s grace. Day by day we are called to pray and to commend our lives and those we serve to God’s love. Week by week we are called to come together, pray together, hear God’s Word together and encourage each other in faith.
For when we become unsure of why we are here, we drift away and the community fails. A sense of identity, of being God’s people, is what keeps a faith community strong.
This leads us to the second strength: a sense of purpose. If our identity is to be people of God, then our purpose is surely to make God known to the world.
This can also be tricky in a secular and multi-cultural society, where we are encouraged to respect diversity and where religion is thought to be best kept private. Given the terrible things that are being done and have been done by religions who try to impose themselves as rulers of the world, you get the point. But looking at what we heard St Paul say to the church in Rome, there is not much there that any reasonable person would object to. It was not about theology or religious rituals but about the way you lived your life. First, he talks about the outstanding obligation we have to love one another and then he talks about self-respect. Life is short. Life can be precarious. So do not waste your time and your emotions on hatred and jealousy and bitterness. Build up strong relationships rather than wasting yourself on a series of casual sexual encounters. Celebrate festivals with joy, creating memories to make you smile rather than getting so out of your skull that you cannot remember anything. This all sounds like good advice. Only right at the end does Paul add a “religious clause”- clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, as he has said elsewhere, let the spirit of Jesus live in you.
You see, while good advice is good advice, following good advice is hard work. And when I thought about what sounds like our “obligation” to live in a spirit of love, I thought OK. If children have been brought up by loving parents and in a supportive community then you could say that it should come naturally to them to grow up as good and loving people. But what of children who have never been loved; who have grown up suffering abuse and intimidation? How can you expect them to love? How can they be said to have an obligation to love others when everyone they have known has treated them wrong? How can they be said even to have an obligation to love God, when God’s love has never been mediated to them through the people in their lives?
An obligation to love is, I think, an obligation to no-one except ourselves. No-one wants love from us that we feel obliged to offer. God does not want love that we feel obliged to give because that is not true love. But it is surely better a hundred times over for us to live in a spirit of love and mercy and compassion and generousity than it is for us to us to hate and resent and shut up ourselves within ourselves. We owe it to ourselves to grow in love.
But there are times when it is not easy. There are times when it seems impossible because we feel totally trapped by the tragedies of life, the evil in other people and the pain within ourselves. This is when we need Jesus; when we need the saving grace of someone who took on pain, evil and death and got the better of them. And, whatever our level of respect for diversity and political correctness, we cannot look around our society and our world and say that there are not people out there who need Jesus.
Yes, there are many roads to God. Yes, there are many different ways of sharing Jesus with different people. No, we are most definitely not in the business of hitting people with God when they are down. But the ultimate purpose of a church community is to know Christ and to make Christ known. Everything we do needs to be held up to this statement of purpose. Every vision and venture should be tested against it. A strong community is held by a strong and common purpose. This is why we are here and this is what we are here for.
Finally then, the strength of regeneration. Jesus knew all about human beings and human communities. He knew what a pain people could be to each other and how quickly a community could fall apart. So he offers some teaching on how to deal with people who do not agree with you. On first reading this comes across as inviting an abuse of power: the church has the authority to say not only who is “in” and who is “out” on earth but also who is in or out of heaven. Great….. But John Proctor-General Secretary of the URC, wrote that first and foremost this passage is about Christians talking to each other. If someone is behaving in a way you find distressing, don’t get all worked up about it, talk to them. Many relationships break down simply because people do not talk about what is bothering them. And if you cannot get anywhere with a one-to-one conversation, ask another person to listen. Is not this what “Relate” offers? A third party may be able to clarify what is really going on and hear what is not being said as well as what is. It may be that for the good of the community, for its strength of identity and purpose, people who are quite obviously out of sympathy with that identity and purpose need to go. Nothing has ever been gained by faith communities who keep on compromising and conciliating people who actually want to supplant Jesus Christ as the head of the church.
But effective communication is what keeps a community strong. That is why we have Church meetings; that is why we have Study groups; that is why we have teams to plan the different aspects of church life; that is why we have Pastoral Visitors- so that everyone in this community is given space and time to talk; to share what they enjoy and what they find difficult or disappointing. Communication increases commitment. As we talk to each other about our faith and about our church, so we find ourselves taking ownership. “This is about “me” and no longer just about “them.” Communication brings about regeneration- I have lost count of the number of times I have gone to meetings with no idea in my head as to the way forward with a particular situation. But through talking and bouncing ideas off each other, I have come away seeing a path through what had looked like a brick wall. The faith community has not remained strong by doing everything in exactly the same way for two thousand years. Life does not work like that. Faith communities remain strong as each generation helps and inspires another to move forward.
And just in case you are wondering, I have never seen it as my role as a Christian Minister to decide who goes to heaven and who does not. My job is to commit people to the eternal mercy of God, not to speculate on whether they deserve it or not. And I do so in the name of the Christian church who, if bearing the name of Christ, should love with the love of Christ. And as love is the one thing we do carry with us when we die, we cannot tell how much of a difference our love might make, even at the end.
Identity, purpose, regeneration are what make a faith community strong.
As I finish, let me just say that I grew up in a church where the people never went anywhere other than to church in their free time. Church was our whole life and there was a lot that was wrong about that kind of church, giving us narrow experience that in no way enabled us to cope with life in the big world. I would agree that children nowadays need sports clubs, dancing lessons, trips to Disneyland and all the rest of it. Adult members of the congregation need their work, their hobbies, their families, their social life. Just do not forget that faith is what makes us who we are and tells us why we are here. Faith will show us what we are really gaining in the long term from sport and dancing and Disneyland. Faith will be there when everything else in life is not enough to hold us safe.
As we have committed Zach to God in baptism and affirmed our children and their families in TGIS, let us renew our commitment to keep this faith community strong. I am not asking that church is always your highest priority. I am asking that it does not slip down the to-do list to be the lowest priority. Life can be wonderful. Life can hectic. And life can be precarious. Let us reach out to God to give us our identity, our purpose and the hope of regeneration. And may our children learn from this church just how strong a true faith community can be.