Part 4: The Church
Sermon by The Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on readings: Exodus 34:29-35; 2Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”
“I have a dream… that one day right here in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
It’s striking that most of the really hair-raising speeches, are built around the sentiment of communion. Whether it’s a small group facing the odds — like Russel Crowe shouting “as one!” Or times of national peril that require common cause — or the call for reform, to acknowledge those whom society has neglected; what stirs the hearts of men and women is common identity, cause, and solidarity; the call to communion.
These last four weeks I have been thinking through the creed, the foundation of our faith. What I hope I’ve communicated is that the Christian faith is not about propositional assent. Jesus did not walk around saying “Well guys, if you can sign up to these four statements you’re golden.” The creed, like Jesus, wants you to see the world in a particular way. It’s about vision.
So when we say I believe in God the Father we’re looking at the world as a creation; everything matters, has purpose and meaning.
Our belief in God the Son is our ability to see this purpose, the hidden meaning of creation, as compassion. I’m using the word compassion partly because Love can be understood as a bit fluffy and emotional, like a millennial safe-space. In past weeks I’ve used the words “solidarity” and “service”. Compassion comes from the Latin, meaning literally ‘to suffer with.’ So through ‘com’ we get that sense of being alongside, and passion reminds us of the events of Holy Week which are now fast approaching. ‘Compassion’ conveys that sense of solidarity and reminds us of the cost of service and care. The cross makes visible this fullest expression of putting others before yourself. And the resurrection shows this compassion to be honoured eternally by God.
Last week I described the Spirit as the transforming power of compassion in creation and ourselves. That we can find in ourselves and the world something bringing people together, enabling us to give more and forge the common good. And that as we are able to embody this self-giving-love in thought, word and deed, we are becoming the person we are meant to be — discovering that meaning in our lives. You might say that as we become more and more human — able to embrace a wider circle of people as those we’d treat as brothers and sisters — we become more divine. Closer to God.
So what I’ve tried to do in these last 3 weeks is to outline what it means to believe in God. That we should banish from our minds thoughts of Gandalf, or stars, or even some great rushing wind or force. God is not a thing. And instead take an awkward sideways glance at the person next to you, or think back on your strongest memories. God is there in the places you love and where you’ve been loved. Those times in your life you’ve sensed the greatest meaning and connectedness. And at times of your greatest need, God can be very clear in the face and actions of your brother or sister. But actually God is there even in those most desolate places, woven in the fabric of the universe, sometimes hidden, but waiting to be revealed. God is in the vision that it takes to look at that difficult place and still know compassion.
The final part of the creed deals with the Church. Despite the visible fractures, we believe in one church, which reminds me of the classic church joke, where the bloke’s being show round heaven and asks the angel why there’s a walled off section with some dodgy music coming — and he says” shhhhh — that’s the charismatics — they think they’re the only ones here.” As Jesus says, ‘In My Father’s House there are many rooms’ and for now it’s sometimes best some people are kept apart.
The Church is also holy, which means set apart. For my recent birthday I was delighted to receive a play mobile Noah’s Ark. Noah’s Ark, presumably because of the animals, remains an enduring favourite, and this will hopefully serve us through a number of bath times. But less commonly known is that Noah’s Ark gives us the blueprint for Church architecture. The nave, such as you’re now sitting in, derives from the shape of a ship, an ark of salvation, and shelter from the storm. The greek for church is ecclesia - which literally means ‘called out’, as we’re called out from the world into this gentle vessel.
The Church is also catholic which means ‘universal — for everyone’, as in “her taste in men was truly catholic.” Rhiannon’s favourite story is shocking her mother that she was dating a priest. When Rhiannon tried to reassure her that Anglican priests can marry, her mother could not hide her disappointment: because sure it’d be scandalous but at least he’d be Catholic. That’s not the sort of Catholic we’re talking about here.
Finally the Church is apostolic, which means there’s continuity from Jesus, through the apostles and the centuries of bishops to today. To be clear, when we say Church here we are not talking just about the Church of England. Rather that we believe the Church of England to be part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. There are other churches, though they don’t have such colourful orders of service.
The point of entry into the church is baptism, which is why it’s specifically mentioned in the creed. Baptism marks a turning point, a change of direction. It’s the declaration that you’ve turned to look at the world through the eyes of compassion.
At my ordination at St Paul’s I don’t remember the sermon, but I do remember something that Lucy Winkett said to us as we were taking our oaths in St Vedast next door. She said sacraments are the public demonstration of things that are already the case. The visible sign of an invisible grace. This was no doubt intended to calm some nerves, but what we’re doing here each week, in rehearsing the same words, is testifying to our common cause, which is our belief in a thing called love — making visible that invisible grace. And the point of liturgy, of these words that have been repeated in every language for centuries, is to allow us to come together and support one another in maintaining this vision and ethic of compassion. And in the words, in singing together but most of all in sharing one bread and one cup there is that call to communion; a solidarity between us here and now, an act that connects us with the past and the church to come; and with Christians across the world.
But while the great speeches evoke solidarity by reminding us of the greatness of the victory that is to come, the history of our nation, the truths universally acknowledged, the solidarity of the church is based on an admission of weakness. Baptism is a turning from failure. The body to which we belong as we come to communion, is not perfect; it’s not a strong body — it’s a broken body. When the priest declares in communion we are one body, it’s at that moment the bread is broken, because the body in which we share is one broken by the demands of compassion.
So being part of the church is not a question of qualifying or passing some test or criteria — like joining a church school. It’s by the admission of weakness, of need for healing. And that should be the enduring image of the church as a people who come together not as strong individuals who together make an even stronger body — but as imperfect, fragile people who by serving each other can become whole.
The image of heaven and hell that sticks with me was one described to me as a child. Hell it was said was a great meal in a banqueting hall, where everyone was trying to eat with metre long chopsticks. The impossibility of getting food to your mouth was an enormous and impossible frustration. And everyone was starving and dreadful. Hangry.
Heaven is the same situation. Only in this banqueting hall the guests are using their chopsticks to feed the person sitting across the table from them. All are eating and having a lovely time.
So if belief in God is about seeing the world as created, and in that seeing the meaning and ethic as being rooted in compassion, and a presence with us that is moving us to greater service; then the church is the community that believes that by embodying this ethic and faith in compassion we can become more like God and the people we are called to be. And as a church built on solidarity, amid the turbulent waves of pressure and distraction of this life, we’re learning to serve better the needs of our church and community. And as these great speeches which have brought out the best in humanity have advanced the idea of solidarity and called us to communion, we might paraphrase another great speech of the twentieth century and ask not what the church and Christianity can do for us, but what can we do for our neighbour?