Monday, 20 January 2014

The Church of God

The following sermon was preached at St. James' Church on Epiphany 2 on the 19th January 2014. The text was 1 Corinthians 1:1-9


Part of my job as Area Dean is to provide cover for services of empty parishes in the Swansea Deanery. It is also to keep things running smoothly until the new Vicar arrives. This is easier said than done sometimes as there can be those in the parishes who complain, or struggle to get their voices heard so that "when the cat is away the mice will play". So if voices were suppressed when there was a Vicar, now is their chance to maybe speak out and try and have the church the way they want it. So its not easy.

But any problems I have so far experienced is nothing beside the problems Paul had. Sure there can be the  usual moaning and complaining here at St. James. That is, as far as it goes, pretty standard if you want to change things. But for Paul it was much worse. On top of the usual moans and groans there were rival factions and bitter quarrelling (1 Cor 3:1ff) with some even taking one another to court (1 Cor 6). Some were sleeping with prostitutes and one was even sleeping with his father’s wife! At one stage things were so bad that Paul says that some of the guilty had received Communion and become “weak and sick, and a number of them had (even) fallen asleep.” i.e. died! (1 Cor 11:30) So reading Paul’s problems I give thanks for my own!

Now if you had to write a letter to the Corinthians what would you say? The temptation would be to lay into them and say how terrible they were, or even wipe your hands of them altogether. And Paul does later take them to task.
But interestingly he doesn't start like that. What does he do?

First he reminds them who is in charge
“From Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…” (verse 1)

Christian communities run differently to other organisations, social organisations or communities. They are not democracies—one person one vote - they are 'theocracies'. (Democracy wouldn't have worked in Corinth anyway—too many factions). Christian communities work differently. They are led from the front by a leader - an apostle or pastor or priest “of Jesus Christ” and who is there “by the will of God.”  This leader has been called and set apart by God to lead his people just as Paul had and others before and after him. Jesus himself is our model here. He was sent by the will of God not the will of man. It was not by virtue of a democratic vote but by the will of God. In fact if you were to take a vote among the Jews he would never have got elected!

I remember in St. Mary’s Clydach and our much loved Vicar moved. The Church had thrived under his ministry and we wanted God to send someone to build on his work. So the Parish prayed for successor. They prayed that he would be of God’s choosing but at the same time left God in no doubt about sort of person should choose. Another one exactly the same as the last please.

Now prayer is not democratic and so God exercised his sovereign will and sent us someone
who didn't fit our criteria but fitted his. The people weren't happy and started complaining in their pews. But how dare we. It was God’s choice. His calling and His will. Whether we liked it or not the person who came was “an Apostle (leader) of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” To complain against him therefore was to complain against God. And to oppose him was, in effect, to risk opposing the One who sent him. God raises up and sends leaders. We should not oppose them provided they do not teach those things which contradict or deny God and His word. Until then God is in charge through his appointed leader.

Second, he reminds them who they are.
There are two aspects to this:
First, reminds them that they are “the church of God.” 
The word ‘church’ is a secular word which means an assembly or congregation of people called together by someone. The early Christians took the word and applied it to themselves when they gathered together for teaching, worship and prayer. They had been 'summoned' together by God. The first ‘church’ in the Bible therefore is the people of Israel who were chosen and called by God. We too are therefore the people of God gathered in an assembly or church. It is an important point to remember particularly with the forthcoming changes in the Church in Wales.

I once read the following by former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey which speaks to this subject: He said:

“When...we say that we believe in the church, we do so only and always in terms of our belief in God who judges and raises up. The mistake (made)..through the ages has been to believe in the Church as a kind of thing-in-itself. The apostles never...did so. Their faith was in God, who raised Jesus from the dead.” (see "I believe in the Church: David Watson page 18)

What he is saying is that whenever we talk about church we talk about a thing - a building, an organisation, with structures, staff, administration and budgets. By doing so we make it - in Ramsey's words - into a “thing-in-itself”.  It becomes something solid and unyielding, an edifice of some kind. It loses its person-hood. Its bricks and mortar, stone and wood, management structures and financial reports. This came home to me the other day when I was asked whether I could climb any higher up the career ladder in the church? What was the next step up? No the church is personal not material. In fact according to the Bible the Church has two faces which make it so. One human and other divine.

First, it has a divine face is the face of God or Christ (Paul later calls it the “body of Christ).
Our identity therefore in the first place should be more concerned with ‘who’ we worship, not ‘where’ or even through 'what' we worship. Once we lose sight of God and fix our attention on other 'things' - whether they be a building or the maintenance of a structure or organisation or even types of service - whether Holy Communion or Morning Worship - we are in trouble. Our attention is one someTHING rather than someONE.

That may be why we in the Church in Wales are having such a hard time at moment. There is decline, financial hardship, falling numbers etc. Is it because we have lost sight of God and instead serve things -
buildings, systems etc.

It is still one of the most common criticisms made by youth today - those who care enough to think about it - is this - they" don’t believe in organised religion". What they mean is that we have made church about ‘things’ and therefore about power. Our sad, lonely, lost world needs Jesus and what do we give them but ‘appeals’,
building programs and management structures.

Second, the church has a human face. The face of people like you and me.
The early Christians never went to Church. Why? They were the church. Jesus promised “Where two or three gather in my name, there am in in their midst.” (Matthew 18:20) What he is saying is that where he is the object of people's prayers, people's worship and people's love, where he is the focus of their expectations and attention and where he is held up and esteemed and proclaimed, there is the church. Which begs the question who or what is our centre of attention every Sunday? The length of sermon? Mistakes in newsletter? No Holy Communion? Unknown hymns? Missing furniture?

Secondly Paul reminds them of how does God sees them. He calls them those who are “in Christ Jesus.” They are the "sanctified" ones or "saints".

Now we have a problem with the word 'saint' because it  has come to mean a kind Rolls Royce version of Christian as opposed to Ford Anglia with wind down windows and dubious suspension. A Saint for most people are those with a capital 'S', who sits at the top of the Christian ladder not the first rung! But Paul disagrees. He talks about Christians as those who are already “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”

To be sanctified in most cases means to be saved and made holy. Before Jesus was revealed as Saviour and you were saved by grace through faith, all God saw when he looked on you and me was sin and imperfection, people who were far away from Him. Cut off from him. But when He opened our eyes to see His Son as He is, we were saved and placed “in Christ”. So now when God looks at us, he sees you and I through the person of his son. He sees superimposed on us - as it were -the character and perfection of his Son.

Let me give you a simple explanation. Here are my sermon notes - white paper covered with black strokes, which represents the sinful me and you. Here on the other hand is my Bible - the Holy Bible - representing Jesus in all his holiness and perfection. If I take my notes and place them in the Bible the notes disappear and all you can see is the Bible. When you and I are saved we are, says Paul, now "in Christ". God no longer sees our sin and imperfection, but Jesus His son and His perfection and sinlessness. And so he accepts us "in Christ".

The Bible, talking about what has happened, says of the Christian: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3) We are saved and sanctified through and in Christ. God looks on us and no longer sees our sinful selves, he sees Jesus.

But we all know from experience that we still sin. We are still selfish, resentful sometimes, envious and angry and imperfect. So Paul adds to the fact that we are now sanctified the calling "to be saints". "Called to be" means that we now have to live up to our calling by cooperating with the Holy Spirit who wants to continue his sanctifying work, so that our character lives up to what we already are, "in Christ".

When we had our first child Sarah, I became a father for the first time. Her presence in my life forever changed my status. I was no longer just a husband I was now a father. But although my status was changed I still needed to become what I was now being called. I needed to take turns waking up in the night, to change nappies, tell bedtime stories, later take to nursery/school, doctors, help with homework, move her into college etc and all the other things expected as a father. I was - and am - a father becoming or learning to grow into being one.

Sadly there are lots of fathers who are fathers by name only. Some have the name but never grow into
what they are. Many of the Corinthians were just like that. There were Christians in terms of being saved and sanctified, but their lifestyle demonstrated that it was, in that sense, in name only. They were 'nominal' Christians just as absent or uninvolved as some of today's  nominal fathers.

So what Paul is challenging the Corinthians with is to live up to their calling. To become the Christians that they are through grace. And this is what the world expects of the Church of God with the human and the divine face. It wants to see more and more of God in us. And that should be our wish and calling.

Lastly, Paul reminds them they are Church of God, who they are/called to be and finally, reminds them who is their master. “...called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord, and ours.”

When you become a Christian you no longer belong yourself you belong to Jesus Christ. He is now your master and you are his servant. Later Paul will write (6:20): “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies. “  

You and I should serve our master in any way we can, remembering the price he paid to ransom us from slavery and sin?  Our service therefore should be one of gratitude not obligation.

There is much more I can say on this but there is not enough time. For now then lets not get side-tracked into seeing Church other than what God has meant it to be, the people of God, sanctified and called to be saints to serve Jesus Christ, and led by someone who has been sent by God for that purpose. Let us fully co-operate with the Holy Spirit as he changes us "from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Let me end with two quotes that will, I hope, give us food for thought on this matter. First Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones who was once asked what he thought of the Church. He said this:

“Jesus Christ was fantastic—but I do not like the Church. It does more harm than good.”

We should listen to those words and ask the question, what is it about the church that hides rather than shows people like Mick Jagger the Jesus he finds so winsome and attractive? Why are we hiding the One we should be showing to him and to the world we live in. What are we doing wrong?

And secondly a student when asked “what do you think of the church?’ replied
“Not much! It doesn't scratch where I itch.”

What is the itch he is referring to? The itch, I believe, is the desperate need of the world for love and forgiveness, hope and peace. Why aren't we scratching that itch?

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