When is the Church not the Church?? A sermon

Sermon for Sunday 27th September 2015

Numbers 11 in the background?
James 5:13-end
Mark 9:38-end

When is the Church not the Church?

‘We’re not inviting people to join us for a game of Scrabble, but for a journey to Mordor’
Bishop Justin Duckworth

This has not been an easy week – firstly and perhaps necessarily, I haven’t been well. I say necessarily because when you’re not well, you are not caught up in the business of your normal occupation. You have time to think and reflect – and more time than usual to wrestle with the words of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And that is the more significant reason why it has been a hard week – leaving me to ask some very tough questions, questions to which I haven’t as yet got ANY answers. Questions which come from what is most important to me – that which I live for, that which I sense my life is about. It is a commonplace to call such things ‘Passions’, but as I said to a chapel surface at St Hilda’s in a week when they’d been ‘celebrating their ‘passions’’ the word ‘Passion’ has lost its deeper meaning – which is ‘that for which one suffers. And my Passion is The Church of Jesus Christ – a burning desire that she might be all that she is meant to be – that is a body brought into a perfect conformation to the Life of her Lord, Jesus Christ. As St Paul puts it in Colossians and Ephesians – ‘holy and blameless in His sight . . . without spot or wrinkle’ Which has lead me this week to questions such as ‘do my priestly orders actually do more harm than good to the life of the Church?’ Put another way – is my life as a priest actively supporting an understanding of Church which is not in conformity to Her Lord, but actually in radical conflict? For it is hard if not impossible to make a connection between the life of the Church as we know it, and the words of Jesus in and through the Gospels, perhaps no more or less so than today’s.

Last Saturday I sat through the committee stage of Statute 3 at our Diocesan Synod. Of course, Jesus didn’t get a mention there. Statute 3 – the former parish statute – now the parish, regional deanery and local church statute is about ‘ordering our common life as the church’. Two things came to mind. Firstly the words of Joseph Tainter, a social historian – who said, and I paraphrase ‘Civilisations in a state of terminal collapse are marked by ever increasing attempts at bureaucratic control, leading to ever diminishing returns’ In other words Statute 3 and its revision is the symptom of an institution in its death throes.

But that wasn’t my main problem – I’ve long said that considering the fragility of the church in this Diocese, our structures insofar as people cannot let goof them should be so light and maneuverable as to be ephemeral. No, my big problem was as it always is for all of us, the words of Jesus.
One of the neatest and thus most dangerous ways of getting around the words of Jesus is to work with the assumption that Jesus is addressing us as individuals. This is so common that I guess those who do attempt to speak on the gospel today may well do this without recognising that they are avoiding Jesus in so doing. So wealthy are we to have our own bibles that we are trained to read the Word as if it were primarily addressed to ‘me personally’, rather than what it is the Living Word of the Living God to the community of those who ‘bear the name of Christ’. And here is the real problem – the problem that has me wondering about my orders as a priest, and wrestling with God. Because on the One hand we have Jesus’ words to the Church – and on the Other we have the Church and it seems, to quote Father Abraham ‘between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ Put another way – I cannot find a connection between the words of Jesus to the Church and the reality of the Church which we know and are so familiar with. And for someone who has a Passion for the Church of Jesus Christ – that is no small problem . . .

I could take the easy way out, renounce the church as so many have done and taken off on some self centered fantasy to do with ‘Churchless Christianity’. Or take another familiar way out – or more truthfully a familiar ‘deceit’ and say – well the Church needs to change her language – we need to get rid of words like ‘Hell’ and ‘Sin’ and ‘Demons’ – we need a different language to the words of Jesus. Indeed avoid any mention of Jesus at all! A practice which is so commonplace to us in the Western Church that even the Pope does it, managing to speak to the US Congress earlier in the week without a mention of Jesus. And hardly anyone noticed . . . the speech being met with wild acclaim from almost all quarters. (Interestingly also, the only passage to be cut from his speech when he delivered it concluded ‘If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance’ . . .) – yet an earlier bishop of Rome may well rebuke us saying – but Christ has the words of eternal life . . . How can we speak to power as Christians except with Reference to the Only Life we have, Jesus Christ. To think we have better words than Jesus is to renounce Jesus. ‘Whoever is ashamed of me and my words . . .’ I can neither renounce the church nor the Word of Life which was from the beginning. My Baptism irrevocably connects me to Jesus, the words of Jesus, and therefore also to the people of Jesus, and therein is an at times almost unbearable tension, not least as I look at my own life and my own place in the Church.

When Jesus’ words make no sense to us, it is for one reason and one only, that we have strayed far far from Him, and thus from the Reality of the Church. The Identification of Jesus with His Church is so total, that when we do not understand his words, do not hear them, do not live out of them, in truth we are not the Church.
Look at the Church Jesus addresses John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40Whoever is not against us is for us. 41For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. Whoever gives YOU a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ . . . Don’t try and push those away who are engaging in Kingdom work – YOU are going to need every friend you can get. If they’re not persecuting you, count them as on your side! As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ If you are following me, you are going to find yourself without a home . . .

It is perhaps no surprise at all that the most frequent lament heard in the circles of those who care about the Church is ‘but where are the disciples?’ when the life of a disciple of Jesus bears so little relation to the experience of any of us of what it means to be part of the church. For as Jesus addresses the infant church in the community of this motley band of disciples – he is speaking to those who have left everything to follow him and so find themselves marginal and poor – seeking as their Lord, hospitality in an often harsh world – grateful when they are not persecuted, Rejoicing to receive ‘even a cup of water’

And so it is as the marginal and impoverished – the Church is not welcomed by the powers that be, but rather dragged before them, their to bear witness to Jesus . . . I wonder how the news media would have covered the confrontation of Jesus Christ with the US Congress, or the apostle Paul – or Peter – all of whom face the powers that be in chains . . . a people bound to Jesus Christ – finding their Only Life in Him – utterly dependent on him and thus utterly dependent on one another.
Their Life in Jesus a Life Together – to be cut off from one another – to be cut off from Jesus . . . no life outside of the community of those who ‘bear the name of Christ’. It is in THIS context that the words of Jesus about Sin – about stumbling blocks – about Hell – make perfect Sense. Finding themselves on the margins of society, the disciple community is utterly dependent upon one another – for few outside will welcome or feed them or give them a bed for the night – some, yes, and for these they give thanks, even for a glass of water – but not many – therefore Anything that causes Offense within the community MUST be cut off! Their Life is so tenuous, nothing must threaten their Life Together, and those who seek to must be cut off. Jesus here uses the same body language as Paul employs. Here he is not speaking of a ‘personal morality’, rather of that which threatens the Life of the community. Those who scandalise (the literal meaning of ‘set a stumbling block’) these the little ones (in their vulnerability the disciples are like children living on the streets) – their Offense is so great that it is better were they never born than face the consequences of this action – of acting is such a way that someone left the fellowship of the Church. Jesus here uses a figure of speech he does when he speaks of Judas’ betrayal of him. It is because they are a community on the edge – utterly dependent on the mercy of others, utterly dependent upon Jesus Christ, that they have no choice but to radically confront anything which gets in the way of this their very Life blood

So so much of the words of Jesus, and indeed the rest of the New Testament makes obvious sense when we view the Church as a community living on the margins of society . .  as it did for the first three hundred years of its existence, until Constantine – when all of a sudden to be Christian was no longer to be marginal, but central – was no longer to be utterly dependent on Christ, but to wield the levers of power . . . and power is what it is all about. For those early Christians were powerless – apart from the LIfe of Christ amongst them, in the Holy Spirit. But we then became those who set about ruling – dispensing to the poor, rather than being largely the recipients of acts of mercy. In the community of the marginal – those with much were faced with a stark choice – to give up what they had for those amongst them who were hungry. They were brothers and sisters – Christendom effectively raised the Church from the gutter, and placed it on the throne, and so it found itself more or less welcome in the courts of Kings Princes and indeed Presidents. That is why for so many the idea that our shared fellowship in Jesus is more significant than for example our blood family ties is so odd . . . And it is not only this language of kinship which is odd

Thus also, as James reminds us, Confession . . . in a community on the margins, knowing life only in each other and thus in Jesus – unable to separate out being those ‘who bear the name of Christ’ from the community of those who ‘bear the name of Christ’ – mutual confession was not just a nice idea, but a day by day necessity . . .Christendom in elevating Christians to positions where they could begin to get along perfectly well without other Christians relegated Confession first to the Religious sphere of life – namely you confessed to a Priest – and then finally when the Individualism latent in Protestantism combined with a critique of the Church as waning powerful institution turned people away from Priests, one confessed ‘privately’ and to quote the Beetles ‘No one was saved’.

In a culture of radical individualism such as we inhabit – where we fail to see how dependent we are on myriad others, where we live with the deceit that our lives are our own – and that in the realm of the ‘spiritual’ we are all on our own personal journey – the idea of confessing our sins one to another, if not the very idea of sin itself has pretty much evaporated. The idea, as James seems to suggest that it is both necessary and radically connected to Sin and Sickness, Forgiveness and healing – seems absurd when our lives are so remote from one another. And in such a culture – bound together by little more than Statutes and shifting social convention, things fall apart. I am only too aware of how a church community bound together only by social politeness and a shared religiosity cannot stand even the smallest conflict – the idea of a shared mutually disciplined life where one watches over the soul of another in the terms James speaks of seems utterly alien. My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

We have on the one hand the reality of the Church which Jesus addresses – and on the other the reality of Church as we have experienced it. I found this partly and powerfully expressed recently by the words of Bishop Justin Duckworth when speaking to a group of young Anglicans about mission. He said ‘We’re not inviting people to join us for a game of Scrabble, we’re inviting them onto a journey to Mordor’ It is that Gulf which I live with – I trust I’m not the only one, and I hope that more and more of us might come to live with it too – and to face it.

As we consider the future of the Church, as the Christendom church wrestles with Statute 3, struggling for breath at the end of its days – we are left with the age old joke – How do we get from where we are to where we should be? Or more precisely back to Jesus as Our Life? The chasm – the gulf between the Church Jesus addresses and our own context seems so wide that the answer at present can only be as the joke says, ‘I don’t know, but I wouldn’t start from here . . .’ but we are starting from here . . . and I as a priest can only say – well we have Jesus present to us in Word and in Sacrament, if we can allow that to be our all, to be enough, then perhaps we might make this journey together.

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