as a Church
"I recently preached at both Christ Church and St Leonard’s about how we express our purpose, what we are about, as a Church. This is a practical question as much as anything, what are we supposed to be doing? Below is an edited version of my sermon from June 2020" - Peter
There’s an old story about a Vicar who was showing a young boy around his church and he came to one of the side chapels where there was a Roll of Honour of those who lost their lives in the armed forces during the Second World War. The Vicar pointed this out to the young boy and explained, “these are all the people who died in the services.” The boy inspected the Roll very seriously and then turned to the Vicar and asked, “Do you think it was the 8am or 9.30 service that done them in?”
What we do in our Sunday services is important, but if our understanding of what the Church is about is limited to what takes place in an hour on a Sunday morning then we are missing out. When we open up the New Testament we see that the Church, this movement initiated by Jesus and formed by the coming of the Holy Spirit, goes beyond only being about a place of prayer and praise. It is also a vessel for mission, for reconciliation and healing, for the building of God’s kingdom, the transforming of his people, and for presence and the love of God.
How might we describe this?
There are a lot of different ways in which churches can express not so much their vision but their purpose. Earlier this year Vestry went out to Leigh for an Away Day to talk about how the Parish is going and during that time I shared with them my understanding of what being a Church means to us as a Parish. It is a framework if you will for understanding what we are about. Some of you may remember reading about it in the In Touch, and I referred to it again in my report to the AGM.
And what I suggested was this, that as a Church we might understand our purpose, what we are about in four ways:
we are a place of faith;
we are a place of belonging;
we are a place of growing; and
we are a place of going.
A place of faith, of belonging, of growing and of going.
What do I mean by this? Well for me those are ways of describing four key aspects of what it means to be a Church.
A place of Faith
So first, as a Church we are a place of faith. We are a community drawn together for a specific purpose and by a shared belief, a shared faith. We haven’t come together to discuss gardening tips. People come here, even people who don’t believe, because they have an expectation that this will be a place that talks about the Christian faith.
This is important. It’s not to say that we all share exactly the same belief, in any congregation there will be a divergence of views. But as a community we hold a particular faith, we confess it - and we are the only ones who will do so. The Church is the only place that will tell our story: for example, we are the only ones who will tell the story of Easter, who will speak of the resurrection and the hope that we have in Jesus. No one else will do that for us. The government won’t, the Warehouse won’t, other religions aren’t going to. But we do because we are a Church.
But to be a place of faith is more than saying that we express or confess a particular set of beliefs. It is also because it is in this community that we live out our faith. Here we practice our faith, by worshipping the God we believe in, by praying, by forgiving, by sharing, by listening to God’s word - by living out what we confess. Here we take our faith and we knead it into the reality of our lives.
A place of Belonging
We are also a place of belonging. As I’ve said before, the Christian life is not meant to be something we do alone. John Wesley put it like this, “The New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion.” The New Testament knows nothing of a private, individual faith. In fact, the original word for Church, ekklesia, was the Greek word for an assembly or gathering. We are a Church because we gather, because we come together.
This is why for me it was so wonderful that during lockdown so many of us were still gathering together, as best we could, in our home prayer or online services. Because to come together is an absolutely fundamental part of what it means to be a Church - and what it means to be part of a Church.
Of course to be a place of belonging is much more than just a group of people who happen to meet in a building every week. It is to say that we are a community, a family even. We look after and care for one another. Our fellowship then is an absolutely essential part of our ministry. And it is ministry. The care and love which we offer one another, in whatever form it takes – whether phoning, buying groceries for, praying for, or just being a friend - is a Christian ministry which we offer to one another.
But we are also a place of belonging because we don’t just hold onto this community for ourselves, we don’t just say oh we have a nice Church family - we also offer it to others. Our invitation, our welcome to others is (or should be) to say: you can belong here. This can be your community.
And actually I should probably say that we are a place of belonging before we are a place of faith - because you don’t need to believe all that we believe to be a part of this community. But our hope is that as part of this place you will encounter God in our midst as we have.
A place of Growing
To be a Church is also to be a place of growing. For that is discipleship, and it is what following Jesus means. Jesus taught and discipled his followers, he encouraged them to grow in faith and spiritual maturity - and then he told them to help others do the same.
One of the key purposes of the Church therefore is to be the place where we grow in our knowledge of and love for God. As Ephesians 4 puts it, we “grow in the knowledge of Jesus, becoming spiritually mature and so attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”. The fullness - the incredible depth and riches - of Christ.
Here we can listen to God’s Word and learn from it, we can practice our prayer and worship, we can explore and grow in our faith, and we can let the Holy Spirit be at work within us to draw his fruit out of our lives. Here we can be growing into the fullness of Christ.
A place of Going
Finally, to be a Church is to be a place of going. Because again and again we see that mission, going out, is part and parcel of following Jesus. As we heard only a couple of weeks ago, Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim his Gospel and build his kingdom - and he never stops sending them.
In fact, some of his last words to his disciples before the ascension is to commission them, and to commission the Church, to that very task. To the ongoing, going out to be his hands and feet in the world. This is what we do every week, when we leave our services we are going out into the world to be part of God’s mission. That is why we finish with the dismissal that says, “Go now to love and serve the Lord!” We go!
The English evangelist J John tells a story about being on a plane and talking with the woman sitting next to him. When she asked him what he did he said, “Well I work for a global enterprise. We have outlets in every country of the world. We run hospitals, hospices, homeless shelters, orphanages; we do marriage work, we do reconciliation and justice programs, basically we look after people from birth to death.”
“Wow,” said the woman “What’s it called?” His answer: the Church.
We are a part of that incredible global enterprise and I hope that in our corner of the world, our church will be a place of faith, of belonging, of going and of growing.