Heraclitus was a Greek philosopher who said nothing endures but change. Change is the only thing that is constant, if that’s not a contradiction! Now I don’t usually quote Greek philosophers, unless it is to point out that as Christians we don’t see things their way. For example, our understanding of life after death and resurrection has nothing to do with the Greek concept of the soul, which can sometimes slip into our thinking – but that is for another day.
Change is something we are not too keen on and that is not limited to the old, although the younger we are the easier we find it to adapt or to want to adapt. During this year, change has been thrust upon us and it was a case of sink or swim. The country has been adapting; the world has been adapting. Sadly in some situations people have not been able to adapt and jobs have been lost and are being lost, which thrusts people into another round of sudden change and uncertainty; into further anxiety and fear. Under these circumstances we look for things that remain constant and give us assurance – and in some people’s lives there is nothing that is remaining constant and solid.
During the past two weeks I have read the opening verses of John 14 at three funerals. They were spoken to the disciples who were going to go through a roller coaster of change. It would begin with the arrest and execution of Jesus. Total devastation as the bottom fell out of their world. Then came the startling news that Jesus was alive again and risen from the tomb. This they took a while to comprehend. Then comes the blessing of the Holy Spirit and they are thrust out into Jerusalem proclaiming Jesus. They lived with the threat of arrest or a knock on the door in the night, or even death.
Their understanding of faith in the one God was undergoing transformation as was their understanding of who was included in the Kingdom of God. Just think about the shock of Peter entering the house of Gentiles and eating with them, and then the Holy Spirit filling them as they believed in Jesus. The Christians back in Jerusalem were not at all happy about this change of affairs, until they spoke with Peter in person. Rituals that had once seemed important, the new Gentile churches not only didn’t relate to, but didn’t see the need for them. So in Acts you get the story of slowly evolving and developing church of Jesus Christ as he built it through his Spirit.
The pages of the New Testament don’t present a picture of normal church, but of a church growing and growing in understanding. It also presents a picture of small groups Christians making a difference in the places in which they lived with the people who had become fellow believers. They didn’t have the luxury of going to the church down the road or commuting to church because they are more biblical – they were the church. What united them? They had come to realise that they were sinners forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
There was no ‘normal’ for the first Christian churches; there was no set way of worship or even set Christian doctrines – they were pioneers. We have become very conservative in churches, but when we read Acts we realise they had to become very radical and in doing so they courted criticism, rejection, ridicule and danger.
Still, a recurring question for church is ‘When can we get back to normal?’, because we all look for stability and at least want church to be normal, since nothing else is. Then we find that church isn’t going back to normal any time soon – and I don’t know of a church leader who thinks it will be any time in the next six months. We also find that restrictions are getting tighter and they may get even tighter. However, we still work out ways to keep meeting. Can I encourage you to remain Covid safe, but within the rule of 6 and allowing for social distancing, to encourage each other.
There isn’t a church leader whom I know who isn’t thinking about the purpose and reason for church and our desire to gather together; who isn’t evaluating the time and effort that goes into Sundays,and wondering how we can be more effective as disciples. Why do we exist as church? Well I think it begins with the passage read by Adrian and links back to last week’s message, but let’s briefly think about why others outside the church think we exist.
• Some think we are just a religious club. We keep a tradition going which has been around for centuries and is all very nice, but not very relevant.
• Some recognise that we come together to worship God and follow particular rituals – we even do this as non-conformists!
• Some think we are a holy group who believe they are better than others.
• Some think we are like an amateur social service that does good things in the community, and after all isn’t that what Jesus did?
• Some think we are just too spiritually minded to be of any earthly good.
Now we may be irritated by these misunderstandings, but surely they are our fault. From where do people get their impression of church, but from those who are part of it and claim to be Christians? However, we don’t put these misconceptions right by tinkering around the edges of what we do and better marketing – although we could do with someone who would take charge of our website and is better at it than me! No, we need to come back to the basis of who we are: a forgiven people brought together by the sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world.
William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second world War, is quoted as saying,
“The Church is the only organisation that does not exist for itself, but for those who live
outside of it.”
He was writing during the war and was thinking about what post-war society should be like and how the church should be tackling issues of poverty and injustice. I don’t entirely agree with this quote, although I understand the reason for it and why it was said. Often we get wrapped up in our own internal politics and theological debates and forget that we are part of God’s mission to bring in his kingdom.
However, I do believe the church came into existence precisely for the benefit of those who are part of it so that they can then be equipped to go out and be part of bringing in the Kingdom of God – of taking the Kingdom of God to people. At the end of the day we hope people will encounter Jesus Christ in our church services whether online or in a building, but for the most part they are only going to encounter Jesus through us, because they won’t be found in any sort of service. The encounter has to be more than street preachers on a soapbox – physical or metaphorical. It is within the body of the church that we draw strength and encouragement to take the Kingdom of God, to be living examples of the Kingdom each week.
So why do we exist as church and desire to meet together?
• First and foremost because God’s Son became incarnate and lived and served and loved among us. The purpose was to reveal God to humankind and show the depths of God’s love through the sacrifice of the cross.
• We exist because Jesus rose again physically from the dead. Paul went to great lengths to explain the bodily resurrection to the Corinthian church, which had allowed the Greek understanding of the soul slipping off to heaven somewhere, to influence their understanding of Jesus’ resurrection and eternal life for believers.
• We exist because each of us has recognised the need for the forgiveness of our sins and through the sacrifice of Christ have received that forgiveness. Each of us has had to kneel before the cross and needs to kneel before the cross. We are equal as we kneel recognising our need for forgiveness. We are equal as we receive the same reward for our faith in Christ – the assurance of acceptance before God our Father and the promise of eternal life in him.
• We exist because we recognise the need for encouragement, understanding and applying the scriptures together in our lives; support when we are flagging or just holding on with our fingertips; the courage to be followers of Christ in a world that rejects him; the strength to keep on keeping on.
• We exist because Jesus commanded his followers to love each other as he had loved them, and this would be a witness to those around.
• We exist because Jesus has called the church into being through his death and resurrection and given us the task of being his ambassadors and making disciples. This requires us to respond to the needs of the day, not to prop up the structures of yesterday. The first Christians learned this as they went out into Jerusalem and beyond.
All this is founded on sacrifice and forgiveness. We share together in communion, because Jesus asked his disciples to do it in remembrance of him. Twice a month we have the opportunity to think upon the sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of the world. It is not just a ritual but a significant part of our worship and regularly reminds us that we are brought together through sacrifice and together we are forgiven because of sacrifice.
Remembering was and is an important part of Jewish faith. The word remember is often used in the Old Testament in relation to God the covenant and his people. The people were also charged to remember and a focal point was and is the Passover meal when the people were delivered through sacrifice, which the lamb symbolically represented in temple times.
We share together in communion because the blood of Jesus which cleanses from sin, unites those who put their faith and trust in him. As Paul said to the Corinthians in their disunity,
Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of
Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?
Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one
loaf. 1 Corinthians 10: 16ff
Together we declare our loyalty to Christ and each other; we declare that we belong to Christ and his church. Together we take on the yoke of Jesus. The fellowship of communion goes far deeper than friendship or camaraderie. We have entered an eternal relationship with Jesus and through that with all those who call themselves Christians. We are not just a group, club or fraternity; we are the body of Christ on earth and through communion we are identifying with Jesus and his body on earth. At the moment we can only do that virtually, but sharing across the internet does not change the fact that we come together united as brothers and sisters.
We share together in the covenant act of God for the forgiveness of the sins of the World. In Matthew Jesus tells us that his blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sins, thus bringing in the New Covenant. Paul re-states that Jesus’ blood is the blood of the New Covenant. This harks back to the first covenant made with Abraham in Genesis 15 and renewed following the exodus from Egypt.
This sacramental meal in which we are about to share, gives expression to all of this. I use the word ‘sacramental’, because it means a sign, pledge or seal. It is through these simple symbols that the Spirit speaks to us and reminds us of the covenant of which we have freely become a part. As we think upon the sacrifice of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, we realise that here is the foundation of the church. For those who love the Lord, this is a sacramental act in which we recognise the seal of Christ on our lives as the body of the church, and identify with his death and resurrection. It is a time of refreshing our relationship and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us again, so we can really live like Jesus and proclaim the gospel to those we meet.