Building the Church 3: A Sent Community
Alison Cook Christ Church Stannington 17/09/2016
John Chapter 17: 20-23
20 “I pray not only for them, but also for those who believe in me because of their message. 21 I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I gave them the same glory you gave me, so that they may be one, just as you and I are one: 23 I in them and you in me, so that they may be completely one, in order that the world may know that you sent me and that you love them as you love me.”
This is the gospel of Christ
Lord Jesus, please give to your church your Spirit of love and unity that the world may believe and all your children come to live in your glory with you and with the Father. Amen.
This morning we are considering the third aspect of building the church. We have looked at being a called community and being a loving community. Today our focus is being ‘a Sent community’
I have a confession to make. When I was at school I may not have listened to my teachers all the time. And there may have been times when I sat doodling across the page instead of taking notes. I used to sit and draw a series of loops, like a sideways number 8 that spread down across the page. A bit like Celtic knot work, but not so elaborate. It was fun you could build up shapes and patterns as the loops grew wider or narrower and I would happily get lost in the flow of my pen as it meandered from one side of the page to another. It is the same dynamic feeling you get when dancing a reel or figure of 8 in a barn dance; three or four people weaving together to make one figure. Here in our Gospel reading there is that same feeling of the Father and the Son weaving together and building a community. Jesus prays, “Just as you are in me and I am in you” The Father and Son being drawn together through the power of the Spirit to build the community of the Trinity, the original community and our perfect example of what community is about. The Father and the Son one in each other in a relationship built on love. But then as Jesus prays he opens outwardly this intimate relationship with the Father to include us. Verse 23 says “I in them and you in me”. And the dance becomes more complex as disciples and followers of Jesus join the community of the Godhead from across the ages.
And our way to this complete Unity is though our Love for Jesus. When Jesus wanted to test Peter after Peter’s denial, he doesn’t ask Peter about his understanding of atonement, although Peter is clearly struggling with the idea, nor does Jesus criticise Peter’s lack of belief in the resurrection. No Jesus asks “Do you love me”? Nothing absolutely nothing is more important for our Christian unity than our personal love for Jesus. This is what the church in Ephesus is criticised for in Revelation. They have worked hard they have been patient, they have endured much. But they have abandoned the love they first had, and they are warned that if they don’t recover it their church will fall apart and disappear. The whole Church depends upon our personal love for Jesus; because it is our love for Jesus which draws us into the Trinity. Our Love for Jesus enables us to receive the love of the Father and empowers us with the Holy Spirit to love others. It is our love through the Spirit which binds us together as a community so that the world can see and know who Jesus is and then the world can receive the love of the Father. That is why this is so important. And why Paul urges the Ephesians in the first reading to preserve their unity, because this is where our Mission to the world springs from. Through the incarnation God sent Jesus. John 3: 16 tells us “For God so Loved the world that he gave his only Son”. From the heart of the Godhead the Father sent his gift of the Son to bring the Father’s love into the world. Until the birth of Jesus God had sent his word though the prophets but the world needed more, the world needed to see what the life of God was like. By becoming fully human Jesus was able to be part of a particular culture and build relationships with people by entering into their lives. In the gospel of John there are 4 examples of Jesus meeting and entering the lives of people though conversations. (They are?) Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind and the family of Lazarus. They are very different people. Nicodemus was wealthy and clever, the woman at the well was not just a woman but a Samaritan, totally rejected by all Jewish men on account of her gender and race, the man born blind was a social outcaste because of his blindness and reduced to begging and the family of Lazarus were torn apart by grief. In all four cases Jesus begins with a conversation so he can meet the person at their point of need whether it is physical or spiritual, from there they are able to move onto a point of faith from where they can enter the kingdom.
So this is our model for mission. As the Father sent Jesus so Jesus sends his Church and his approach stands the test of time it can be transfer from one culture to another. It is about building trusting relationships with people, providing them with a safe place where they can ask questions, it is about meeting people’s needs whoever they are and giving them the opportunity to move to a position of seeking God and entering into the kingdom. The Church’s mission in our time is huge, because of population expansion there are more people now who have never heard the Gospel than ever before, and most of them live in the poorest parts of the world. And our mission, like God’s, is to the whole world, the whole created order, so it includes being aware of the needs of the natural world as well as the people. In Jesus’ time people didn’t need to be reminded about their dependence on the earth, whereas now we are much more detached. But again the physical problems in the world caused by the rich are felt most by those who live in the poorest parts of the world. So we need to have a global awareness of mission as well as a local one.
This all sounds so straight forward, when we are one in Christ the world will see us as a unique loving community and know the love of God. The problem is the world does not have a vision of a single loving body. When the world looks at the church it sees division. How can we persuade others of the uniqueness of Jesus with a torn and divided church? As the hymn goes:
‘Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God.
Our fellowship is treading where we’ve always trod.
We are all divided, many bodies we,
Very strong in doctrine, weak in charity.’
Denominationalism tells the world how much we hate each other. And the world rejects what we stand for because we have lost our authenticity. So why does division happen. Like so much we get wrong, instead of loving others we fear, we fear those who think differently to us, we fear those with a different culture to us, we fear those whose traditions are different to ours. So there is a tendency to cling to the minor details which give us our distinctions and group identity. We fear the worst instead of believing the best in people. And we look inwardly to preserve ourselves instead of outwardly towards the world that needs to hear our message of love and reconciliation. Our disunity grieves the Father who longs for a united family and ignores the Son whose death broke down the barriers that divide and impedes the work of the Spirit.
So where can we regain our unity? The unity of the Church depends upon the unity of the Godhead the cross of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. When we come to the cross we come aware of our own failings not as Protestants or Catholics, evangelicals or Baptists, at the cross there is no division, we all come in need of mercy and forgiveness.
Christian unity is not a dream of the future it was inaugurated at the cross. At the cross all human distinctions are gone; there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female. OR in today’s language, there is no division by race or culture, social or economic status, or by any form of gender. At the foot of the cross we are one and from there we begin a journey of unity through forgiveness, where we can celebrate our diversity as we begin to combine our different views to gain a fuller understanding of God. And it is possible. One of the highlights of Greenbelt this year was the Archbishop Justin Welby being interviewed by Kate Bottley. Now you don’t get much more difference than that, and not surprisingly the question of unity came up. The Archbishop said the world will know that we are one with God when we love one another. We need to start with the opinion that Jesus made us one, it is not our place to tell Jesus he is wrong. (By the way The Archbishop also said we should have fewer meetings and more parties) So instead of focusing on division we need to celebrate our diversity.
In the first century there was a multiplicity of churches divided by geography but all expressions of the one true church of Jesus Christ. There were regional churches in Judea, Galatia, Samaria, Macedonia and Asia, but they were all still part of the one true church. There were cultural differences between the Hellenistic Greek churches and the Judeo Christian churches. There was a high church in Jerusalem and a Pentecostal church in Corinth with different styles, and who knows maybe even different hymns, but they weren’t in conflict with the unity of the whole church. Instead they existed in different places, expressed different styles, but were clearly one in Christ.
So what David Watson wrote in the 70’s is still true today, “No single Christian denomination has the monopoly on the whole counsel of God” Instead different churches see clearly certain aspects of God’s truth, for example, the Calvinists may have a strong emphasis on the sovereignty and holiness of God, while the Pentecostals give joyful enthusiasm and a new insights into the doctrine and experience of the Holy Spirit, The evangelicals give through biblical foundations, while radical Christians disturbed and challenge injustice through politics and social reform and the Roman Catholics give an understanding of community and the corporate nature of the church. And more. As we learn to love each other for the differences we bring and value each other’s contribution then we will show our unity in love to the world and begin to turn ourselves into outward thinking communities with a mission. The Archbishop was asked “what gives you hope?” He took a while to think before replying “When I see churches engaging with people outside the church.”
So the challenge to Christ Church is that in order to build our church, we need to be one; One with Christ, one with each other, one with the wider Church and one with the church across history, so that those outside will see the uniqueness of the love of Jesus which holds a group of totally diverse individuals together regardless of age, race, culture, economic status or gender. In this way those outside the church will be curious about what we are doing and be drawn to us so we can begin to build relationships with them. In this way our love for each other turns us round from being inward looking to being sent outward as we find ways of engaging with the needs of the world around us.
Yesterday I was at a conference led by Krish Kandiah, founder of Homes for good an, organisation which is encouraging families to provide homes for children in care and for churches to offer welcoming communities for them. They are particularly well known for the work they have done encouraging our government to accept unaccompanied refugee children into our country. Krish spoke about a conversation with a social worker who said, “If this is what the Church is about then I want to know more.” People see the way in which we behave and react accordingly.
So what links do we have already and where can we start to build. We only need to look as far as the notice sheet. There is the pastoral care course, where we can learn how to lovingly engage with the needs of people in our own church. There is the prayer meeting at St Polycarp’s next week where we can be one with our neighbouring churches. It was a privilege to join in with the previous meeting at Wadsley Bridge to support them in their work and be inspired for ourselves. And further ahead is harvest where we can show our love for the wider church and the world by supporting Christian Aid financially or bringing food for those in need nearer to us. These are the relationships we have started and we have a responsibility to build on them to give people the opportunity to see and know the love of God.
But, in the end we love each other not for our own sakes, not just for the church’s sake, not even so the world will believe, but because this is how we share the life of God and how we come to be with God and in God and how we share his glory.
What experiences do you have of belonging to another denomination?
How should we handle sincere differences of belief between Christians?
In what way should Christians be different from the people around them?
In what ways can Christ Church engage with people outside the church and meet their needs?