Vicar's Sermon - 2nd August 2015

Ephesians 4.1-16

‘Everything that we need to be the church of God in this place is here, in this place.’ I wonder whether you think that this statement is true?  ‘Everything that we need to be the church of God in this place is here, in this place.’

Over these last few months a lot of my thinking and reading has been around community and hospitality. What builds up a community – a church community (yes) or the wider community in the town - what things help?  ...and what things hinder?  One book has led to another, one thought has sparked another thought and slowly a number of connections have been made. So much of what I have been reading traces its origins to the West Coast of America and then, (surprise surprise) a number of authors have explicitly referenced our former Bishop Tom’s theology in their work – he, at one point, taught on the West Coast.  One key message has been that our Christian faith needs to be ‘incarnated’ in the local. The Church of England tries to do this through its parish system but in America this is increasingly falling foul of mega-churches which suck Christian life and energy out of ‘downtown’ areas to the suburbs, to the Mall where there is plenty of parking and where the church can build a brand new ‘all singing and dancing’ facility.

For all of us the temptation is to see our faith as being something that resides primarily in our thinking and feeling – but, in the end, it must be lived, it must be seen. Faith must be seen to make a difference to how we live and the way that we live and the things that we do. So getting to know a place, becoming part of the life of the town, committing one’s time and energy to the neighbourhood, playing a part in establishing friendships and networks of people who (knowingly or not) support the things of the Kingdom of God...all these things have been highlighted in my reading as being important marks of Christian discipleship.  The Benedictines called this ‘stabilitas’: all of us are tempted to think that ‘the grass is greener on the other side’ (at another church, that if only we had this or that type of person – a youth worker, a  children’s worker, a young Vicar with all the characteristics of the Archangel Gabriel ,  onside we would be a much better ‘church’). Stabilitas says ‘if you can’t find God here you won’t find Him there: look for the Kingdom of God in this place, with this people and you will find the pearl of Great price, the Treasure buried in a field.

Commitment to place and commitment to a people – to a community. These things matter. But then, serendipitously in my thinking and reading, there has been a link to living with a sense of generosity and abundance rather than seeing life through the lens of  austerity and scarcity. Currently I am on the rather grandly entitled ‘Delivery Team’ for a Diocesan wide scheme called Partners for Missional Church. Fifteen churches (large, small and struggling, evangelical, high church, wealthy, less wealthy) across the Diocese have been chosen to set off on a three year journey of growth and discovery under the guidance of a team from the USA, supported by partners in Nottingham and Oxford Dioceses and with a few folk like myself watching over how things go. There’s not enough time to explain the process now but at its heart, each of the churches involved will be helped to recognise ‘where they are’ as a church: to get to know one another as the congregation and then to get to know the area in which they are set before setting about discerning what God’s Mission for them might be. A key premise of the scheme is that ‘all that we need to be the church of God in this place is here, has been given to us by God.’ What follows from this belief is the challenge to actually understand, appreciate and celebrate the gifts that a church has been given. I wonder whether we, here, might benefit from doing something similar?

In another context –  as we see in what is taking place in Bishop Auckland around the Bishop’s Palace and the Zurburan pictures and the 11 arches projects for example-  much of the latest thinking about wider community development is based around something called ‘Asset Based Community Development’.  Again, this resists the temptation to look outside an area for experts to come in and ‘solve’ a problem or to ‘fix’ things or people: the end result of that approach (say the social scientists) has been to de-skill local people and to create a dependency that is even more costly to address. It would be far better (say those who promote Asset Based Community Development) to build on what is present. It would be far better to focus on gifts and abundance rather than need and scarcity.

All of which is very interesting but weren’t we meant to having a sermon this morning on the epistle to the Ephesians, the next part of our sermon series: Ephesians 4. Well take another look at the passage and see if you can make the connections.

Our passage begins with a desperate appeal by Paul for the Christian congregation to work at building up their common life. Church life is hard and it takes work and effort: I said this last week and I’ll say it again.  ‘One church, one faith, one Lord’ sounds great when sung accompanied by a full organ but this unity (albeit a divine reality) takes immense effort on our part to maintain: just look - it requires humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance – it needs us to learn how to love. Paul makes the appeal for church unity so despearately precisely because he knows it doesn’t come at all easily.

But then the passage moves on to speak about ‘gifts’.  It is about the importance of recognising the giver and their gift, the absolute necessity of each person being able to contribute their gift – because until a gift is given (offered and used) then we are all impoverished. Initially I was excited about this passage and its reference to gifts but then I got plain annoyed because the list of gifts that Paul gives here is so narrow – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers – we’ve professionalised all of these, when we hear them we think of Church Leaders, of people with clerical collars. So I want to add a whole host of other gifts (which to be honest Paul does elsewhere in his writing) and to give three cheers for the person who can play the saxophone and the member of the congregation who comes along and clears the church gutters. I want to thank God for the ladies (and gents) who bake and cater for church do’s: and those who shift tables and hoover and clean. And then there are all the gifts that I don’t know about (shame on me): gifts of mind and hand – those who paint or write, who sew and stitch, who think ‘out of the box’ but feel the church restricts and confines them. And those who sit and pray, and visit and notice who needs visiting. And those who give time freely to others to help and encourage and who nurture and teach. And those who heal and those who tend and care. Those who can make something beautiful out of very little and those who can think strategically and manage and plan.

All these gifts are here, in this place, and the thing is I cannot grow into maturity in Christ unless and until your gift is used. Modern life encourages us to think of ourselves as wholly autonomous, separate, omni-competent individuals. But this image of the Body of Christ says that none of us can be independent of everyone else – my growth in the faith rests on your growth in the faith – we are to be inter-dependant. Our lives are bound together in community whether we recognise it or not: our faith and our growth in the faith takes place alongside others and we stand more chance of growing as we find ways of working together, being together, receiving from one another.

God has blessed us with so much in this place. He has blessed us with one another. As we , continue our Christian journey may we learn to see Christ more and more in each other – for He fills all things (even the person next to you) – and may we grow up in every way into Christ, built up in love and celebrating His grace as each of us offers their gift for the work of ministry here.