Thursday, 13 February 2014

Transforming love

The Collects of the Church of England are beautiful, insightful and often deeply helpful. Many have come from the Book of Common Prayer, and of those some find roots in older liturgies, like the Sarum Missal. Alongside them, we now have a collection of Additional Collects, designed to be suitable for a contemporary setting, speaking clearly and simply into the theme of the day in a way that is accessible to a mixed congregation. Both variants are designed to begin a reflection in prayer on the themes of the lectionary readings or the liturgical season, helping worshippers to see into the readings, and to pray into both readings and the preaching. Sometimes the collect, thoughtfully and prayerfully written, will spark a thought which is as powerful as what emerges from the readings themselves.

The Living Brook benefice is focussing this year on considering our vision for growth and development as a new benefice that includes parishes that have all faced a great deal of change, one of them a new parish created only a year ago. We are looking forward together in our parishes and considering what kind of churches God is calling us to be. We know that Jesus offers us life in all its fullness (John 10:10), and that he looks for us to be conduits of that life: in John 7: 38 he says 'as scripture says, 'out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water' '. In the Living Brook benefice that is description fits our name well, and perhaps also the developing vision. The three parishes have been studying together the 'Church: Right Here, Right Now' course, and two of the parishes have now finished the course, while one has three session still to do. During Lent we'll think more about mission and vision together on our Lent course, and on April 5th as many people from the benefice as possible will consider together what our shared learning has helped us discover, We will write Growth Action Plans for the parishes and for the Benefice, and then go forward to make our vision for growth and an outpouring of God's living water of life in our community a reality.

The additional collect for the third Sunday before Lent is helpful for us as parishes wanting to grow and share the good news of God's love with others.

Eternal God,
whose Son went among the crowds
and brought healing with his touch:
help us to show his love,
in your Church as we gather together,
and by our lives as they are transformed 
into the image of Christ our Lord.

Our worship together (whatever day of the week or time we worship) mattes enormously. Worshipping our God is at the heart of our faith, responding in love to the God who by His grace saves us from sin and brings us to eternal life. We want very much to be able to show God's love fully to each other and to all who have joined us when we worship together. In today's readings we are reminded that Christian communities can easily be distracted from worship by human squabbles. Paul speaks of competitive disputes among Christians who think that their way of doing things, or their preference of leader (Paul or Apollos) is more important than the quality of their relationship with each other. Far from it, Paul reminds them. All the while they are disputing and prioritising their human feelings, they are not only damaging their relationships and the reputation of the church (who wants to join a group who are divided and disputatious?) but also forgetting what and who they are in the church for. It isn't about leaders or who is more important, it is about worshipping God. Meanwhile, Jesus insists that disagreements within the church are such a distraction from real worship and fellowship that they must be settled before those involved in disagreements can come before God in worship. In the Eucharistic liturgy we symbolically deal with disputes by sharing the peace before bringing our offerings to God: this is worse than a wasted gesture if we have real disputes that remain unresolved. We are to show our love for one another in our churches as we gather, and it matters that this love is real. If it isn't, our worship is undermined. So the Collect reminds us to show love to one another in the church - and the readings remind us that sometimes that love must be shown by seeking forgiveness or reconciliation, and by putting God ahead of human ideals.

The Collect goes on to pray that we will also show Jesus's love by our lives and we are transformed into the image of Christ. This is quite an ask!  We don't want to remain frail, squabbling, humans, but to be as like Christ as is possible, a reflection of Him. We want to change. And if we change, and our lives reflect the image of Christ, then others will see Christ in us and turn to him. For Christians, it is not enough to be a people who get together sometimes to worship God in a special building. We must be witnessing to Christ all of them time in all that we do. Being the image of Christ in the supermarket or the workplace, the classroom, or the playground, the home or the leisure centre, it all matters. God has given us something magnificent: life in all its fullness, love so deep that no love touches it. That is not a gift to be kept to ourselves, to be hoarded like the precious ring of the Tolkien novels, but to be shown and shared. God's love, like living water, is so abundant that we can share it and still have more than enough for ourselves. So we should be compelled by our own loving response to live in a way that takes out God's love and offers it to those who have yet to experience real grace, real love, real forgiveness. 

How about making this collect your prayer this week, and taking the risk of letting God really transform you?

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Pilgrim People: the catholic church looks ahead

In my last three blogs I have considered the church in relationship to God, a holy church symbolised as the bride; the church in relationship to herself, a church in unity symbolised as the body; and the church in relationship to God’s world, an apostolic church symbolised as the light of the world. In this final session we consider the church in relation to time, a catholic church which will be symbolised as a pilgrim people.

The four marks of the church, the marks which indicate the nature of the church are like the four legs of a table; each must be even if the table is not to be wobbly. However, some of the language and concepts surrounding this session’s mark have become mired in unhelpful meaning or historical associations which can lead us to neglect it. But we need to learn to be a catholic church as much as any other kind of church if we are to be a church with a future. So let us begin with some definitions.

As a student I had a friend from a New Church background who worshipped in the lively Anglican church in the town. He explained one day that he had a problem with the phrase at the end of the Creed that we have been working with, but overcame it by saying ‘one holy apostolic church’. He had misunderstood thoroughly what the word Catholic meant, associating it only with the name of one Christian tradition (which he felt no sense of belonging to). Let us be clear. Using the word catholic when reciting the Creed no more makes every one a Roman Catholic than referring to St. John as ‘the Baptist’ means he has membership of the Baptist Union. The word Catholic applies to the Roman Catholic Church which uses the word in its name, and it applies to every ecclesial community which does not use the word as a name.

The word catholic is often defined as meaning ‘universal’. This definition is helpful, but not quite adequate. The universal nature of the church across time and space is a powerful image, but perhaps a confusing one. A better definition of catholic is ‘whole’, in the sense of fullness and completion. The church is a community of followers of God who are made complete in Him. God’s business in loving us is in healing us, and fulfilling all that we can be in relationship to him and others. Each of us, as individuals and the church as a body, is made whole by Christ as he loves us and leads us into a fully loving relationship with the Father.

If we can understand this, then we can debunk a great myth – one which was behind the misunderstanding my student friend had. To be a catholic church does not mean that it is a church which is the same wherever it is found. By defining the word merely as universal we have created the possibility of there being one way of doing things. We say ‘this is what the church is like’ and so we expect all churches to say the same prayers, use the same robes, follow the same rituals, and we hold this up as the ideal way of being church. Look more closely at the Roman Catholic Church, the one which we most often think is modelling this kind of universal nature across the globe, and we will soon see that such a model cannot work. For while there are strong threads which bind the church together and make it recognisable, it is not absolutely uniform in every regard. Each church building has its own decorations, its own colour scheme; each congregation has its own favourite hymns or songs to sing; each liturgy is in the language of the nation where it is found; each church is recognisably Roman Catholic but also distinct and individual. So not, in fact, universal. It is worth quoting at length from Archbishop Rowan’s address[1]:

In other words, a catholic church is not a church that seeks a uniform global culture. The unity of the church is not cultural; it is in Christ – one Lord, one faith, one baptism – and any number of languages and costumes. It's been said recently by one theologian that the catholicity of the church is really a kind of great protest against globalisation; the really catholic is the opposite of the globalised, because the catholic is about wholeness, about the wholeness of the person, the wholeness of local culture and language, therefore it's not simply opening the same fast-food shop in every village on the globe, and it's not like the global economy, in which people are drawn into somebody's story and somebody's interests which in fact makes others poor and excluded. The catholic is the opposite of the globalised because the catholic is about everyone's welfare, everyone's growth and justice. And particularly in our globalised world this witness to what I would call the truly catholic is perhaps more important than ever. The affirmation, the rights and liberties of local persons, but 'rights and liberties' is a weak and perhaps misleading phrase; the language of rights has not stood us in good stead in the church. Let's say rather the Christ-touched dignity of every person and every culture. That is what the catholic church honours in its fullness and that is why the catholic church protests about a globalised system that works in the interests of a minority, whether in the church or in the world.

The catholic church is all those lovers of God made whole in Him. This is a vision as well as a reality; anyone will be able to affirm that the church at this time and in this place is not yet whole – and so perhaps not yet catholic. Is that why we have erred towards the more easily achieved universalist understanding of the word? We may well believe that in the perfection of a time yet to come the church will achieve a wholeness of self, a fullness of being which can truly be described as catholic, but perhaps we can not claim to be there yet.

So why do we say that this is what we believe the nature of the church is? For the same reason that we claim the church is one, holy and apostolic. Critics of the church can easily show that we are not what we claim to be because we are all human, all sinful and all very capable of failure. We do not manage at all times to be holy, to live in unity, to proclaim the word of God. And we are not yet whole, either individually or as a body. But we strive to become such a church. Indeed that is the purpose of our existence as a church – to become one, holy, catholic and apostolic – indeed, to be like Christ. As we grow together and work together towards these goals we make progress together, believing that one day we will be that perfect church. In the meantime, we call ourselves one, holy, catholic and apostolic as the sign of all that we are striving to be. At the beginning of a GCSE course a student might only be capable of getting an E grade if entered that day. But the teacher sees the potential in the student and what the student is likely to achieve if she does the exam at the correct time after two years of study, and so the student may well be referred to as an A* student even though she would not get an A* today. In this sense we too are A* students – we are one holy catholic and apostolic church because this is our destination.

The image of God’s people as a pilgrim people is deeply routed in the story of the faith. The story of the Exodus, told again on a frequent basis in the course of the Christian year as well as the Jewish one, reminds us that we are a people on the move, dependent on God for direction, sustenance and protection. We are a travelling people and we are not yet at the end of our journey. The church we see today is not the final outcome of Christ’s work on earth. We are part of something bigger, of a movement towards achieving the final fulfilment of Christ’s mission. As the Hebrews in the desert relied on the pillar of cloud and fire to lead them, so we too are dependent on God’s leadership. Today that leadership comes through the involvement in our lives of the Holy Spirit.

The modern church sometimes behaves as though it knows where it is going and how it is going to get there without needing any help from God. We may have two thousand years of experience to inform us, so that when faced with a hill to climb we can assess it and consider the experience of our forefathers before choosing the appropriate equipment for hill climbing and finding the right page on the map book. But that does not mean we know which hill God wants us to climb today! Or whether this particular hill has new problems surrounding it which our forefathers did not have to deal with. We will not make progress, then, without the guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit. As churches we should pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit whenever we gather for worship and whenever we are sent out from worship to do God’s work in the world. In our small group meetings we can pray specifically, sharing our need with the Holy Spirit and listening to each other as we seek to understand together just what the Holy Spirit’s guidance really is.

The people of Israel did not know from day to day where the pillar of fire and cloud would lead them, but they knew the eventual destination – the Promised Land, Canaan. We too travel each day not knowing what the route is by which we are to travel, but able as God’s children to be sure of the destination. In session one we looked at a passage from Revelation 21 in which St. John the Divine wrote of seeing a new heaven and a new earth, in which the church came down to the side of Christ arrayed like a bride ready to be fully committed and connected to her Lord. This is our destiny.

In scripture we are often reminded to prepare ourselves for this coming time, when Jesus will return and all things will be made new and whole in Him. In Jesus’ parables those who are waiting for the day of return are expected to be vigilant and ready, but they are also expected to get on with their work, whether it is trading, running a palace household or ensuring that there is oil in the lamps in case Jesus comes at night-time. They are aware of the future but also of the present. Steven Croft calls this living in the ‘now and not yet’. [2]

The Church therefore lives in the time of ‘now and not yet’. The kingdom has been established but not yet fulfilled. For individual Christians, the journey ends with death and resurrection to eternal life. For the Church as a whole, however, the task of ‘keeping watch’ continues until the Lord returns. The fulfilment of the kingdom embraces not only the community of the Church but the whole of creation.

Living in the now and not yet for us at this time and in this place means that we are not static but people on the move, people travelling towards Jesus even as Jesus comes towards us. We do not wait passively, keeping the gifts he has given us buried in the ground to return to him intact when he arrives. Rather we travel together hopefully, using the gifts and growing them and ourselves so that we are closer to becoming the people who Jesus intends us to be at the end of days. We are a pilgrim people.

Being pilgrims has a number of implications. It suggests that at any time we are a people who are passing through on our way to a holy destination. We may be in a place, we may spend some length of time there, but we do not belong to it. However much we enjoy the places we pass through on the journey – and we may enjoy them very much indeed – our heart’s desire is always to be in another place.

Pilgrims rarely travel alone. Jesus always sent his disciples out in pairs and the early church followed this pattern, sending out apostles in pairs (we see Peter and John travelling together to visit new groups of followers of the Way) or in bigger groups (Paul and Barnabus took various different young leaders with them on their missionary journeys). Travelling alone is not Christ’s way. The Christian pilgrimage means travelling with a group of companions, fellow followers of the Way who learn to love God and live in his ways together. As we journey we will sometimes be called to move at a different pace from one set of companions. If this happens, perhaps because we are moving home, or taking up studying, or we find that our pattern of life has changed because of a new job, the birth of a child, retirement or illness, we should seek new companions to travel with. Ideally there will be a small group of close companions, if possible in a transforming community. Whatever the case, we should not travel alone. If a church has reason to believe that one of the pilgrims in membership is travelling alone, then the community must take responsibility for finding companions in the journey: housebound church members should have visitors, for example.

The Synoptic gospels show us a picture of Christ on a pilgrimage which brought him to the holy city of Jerusalem. He travelled at all times with companions – his first action after baptism was to call people to travel with him: ‘Follow me’.  As they travelled they supported one another and shared their lives. They entertained each other and strengthened each other. They challenged each other and together they changed – both as individuals and as a group. Like that first group of disciples we too are called by Jesus to follow him. Jesus, for the disciples, took the place of the pillar of fire and cloud that had guided the Israelites in the wilderness. For us the Holy Spirit supplies the guidance that we need to travel safely, and the courage that we need to face the adversity and suffering that inevitably comes from travelling in the footsteps of Jesus.

When we look at the apostles in the gospels and Acts we see how they change. Peter especially made himself vulnerable when he shared his story with the early church, which leaves us with a good picture of an ordinary man full of doubts and fears who nevertheless followed Jesus even when it meant changing – sometimes changing his attitudes to others (allowing Gentiles to join the Way) and sometimes his self understanding (most notably as he wept after denying Jesus). We too are called to change as we grow closer to being made whole.

A common accusation made against Christians is that we do not like change. Churchgoers like to keep things as they are, to treasure the old things, to do things the way we always have, because it works after all. Looking at the Christian church immediately shows that this is not true. Nevertheless there are those amongst us who find change painful or difficult, something they will only do if there is really no alternative. Often we fear change because we fear loss. Change from pews to chairs and you have lost beautiful pews and all the history that came with them. Change from traditional styles of service to modern and you have a sense of loss of connection with people who have gone before, or a loss of the poetry of those particular words which are familiar and friendly because you have known them and spoken them weekly all your life. And then there is the fear of throwing out the baby with the bathwater- change too much and we might lose the loving relationship that is at the heart of it all. And yet we are a pilgrim people, and journeying implies change: the change of landscape that comes with every step forward.

Perhaps our fears suggest a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit, who will protect the church, God’s love, and keep her safe throughout times of change. Wanting to hold on to one kind of liturgy or furniture suggests that we somehow believe that we have arrived at the final answer, that using these words rather than any others indicates that we have reached the place where Jesus wants us to be. But until he comes this can never be the case. We are on a journey and that means that the landscape around us will change.

When we make a journey we leave places behind, but this does not imply that the places we have left are lost to us. Their value remains. The lessons we learned in those places remain to make us better travellers, better able to appreciate the new vistas opening up before us. So we do not lose in changing, rather we add the new things to our existing experience. We grow and we come closer to being made whole. This is true for us in our individual journeys as Christians travelling with companions towards our place at the table at the wedding banquet in heaven. It is also true for us corporately as we travel together, full of hope, towards the place where we will be united with our first love and made complete in him.

[1] Friday 28 October 2005 Archbishop's Address to the 3rd Global South to South Encounter Ain al Sukhna, Egypt to be found at (retrieved by the author 21st December 2009)
[2] Croft, Steven, Transforming communities: Re-imagining the Church for the 21st Century. London: DLT, 2002, p 150.