Sermon for the United Reformed Church Golden Jubilee
Preached by the Reverend Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, October 2nd 2022
So it’s almost fifty years since October 5th 1972 when the United Reformed Church came into being, a union of the Presbyterian Church of England and the Congregational Union in England and Wales. There have been further unions, with the Churches of Christ in 1981, and with Scottish Congregationalists in 2000, but 1972 is where the URC began, fifty years ago.
2022 has been a year for jubilees. First there was the late Queen’s platinum jubilee, marking seventy years of her reign. Now it’s our denomination’s golden jubilee. The Queen’s jubilee was a jubilee as it is popularly understood: a celebration of a significant number reached, giving thanks for all the good things that have happened during that time.
And our United Reformed Church jubilee can be like that too. We’re marking the fact that different Christian traditions can come together and so become one, richer entity as a result. Back in the 1980s, when I first joined the URC as a worshipper and member, in URC congregations, people would soon inform you whether this was a former Presbyterian or former Congregational church, often with little emphasis on ‘former.’ Then, in the 1980s and early 1990s, when I visited URC congregations as a lay preacher, usually within a few minutes of arrival, you could tell what the pre-1972 situation had been, without anyone there having to tell you.
By and large, in England at least, that’s disappeared now. Yes, many people are aware of their congregation’s denominational antecedents, but it’s seldom something they feel the need to tell visitors, and in fact, in my experience, URC congregations have moved beyond their prior defining identities of fifty years ago: we’re all URC now … up to a point!
The popular understanding of ‘jubilee’ sometimes includes acknowledging the things that have not gone so well. In many a fifty-year partnership, there can be bumps along the way. We thought this union would be the first step in much larger unions; n England and Wales with the Anglican and Methodist churches. That did not come to be, however, and such a prospect seems further away than ever. In our early decades, people talked of the URC as being ‘born in order to die’ in the quest for church unity, yet here we are, inconveniently still alive, fifty years on.
This leaves us with a huge question about our identity. If the URC does not exist with the firm prospect of uniting with another Christian church, what is the United Reformed Church here for? What defines our identity? What makes us distinctive or unique compared to other denominations? English Presbyterians, and English and Welsh Congregationalists had answers to those questions; we struggle with them. We need to discover or create a new story about who we are – the United Reformed Church.
A golden jubilee might help us to do that, as long as we move beyond the popular understanding of ‘jubilee’ and embrace a richer, biblically inspired notion of ‘jubilee’, and that’s what today’s Bible readings are about.
Not many of us spend lots of time reading the Book of Leviticus. Certainly, it’s one of the less thumbed sections of my Bible. This third book in the Bible is concerned with religious rituals and social practices for the Jewish people. It is set just as a people have entered, or are just about to enter a new land. How are they to behave, and what practices will mark or define their new identity? Defining identity for a people in a new setting – maybe there are some links to be made between Leviticus and this still-new United Reformed Church. Particularly, what does Leviticus say about a ‘jubilee’ year?
Well, in Leviticus, it’s ‘jubilee,’ alright, but not as we know it! In the Bible, jubilee is about the land you live on, about ownership, about work, and family relationships, especially in the fiftieth year.
‘When you are entering the land …’ (25:2) it says in Leviticus, that’s when you need to take certain actions and to start counting. The people were to do their sowing, pruning and gathering of crops for six years, then in the seventh year the land was to get a rest. (25:2-3) The seventh year would be a ‘sabbath’ or sabbatical for the land, a sabbath for ‘the LORD.’ (25:4) This seven-year cycle would take place seven times. There would be seven sets of seven (25:8), and seven sevens gets us to forty-nine years. After the seven sevens came the fiftieth year – the year of jubilee, announced with a fanfare of trumpets. (25:9)
In that year of jubilee all land would revert to its original landholder. So if you bought a piece of land in year forty, for example, you knew you were purchasing its use for nine or ten years. Also, in that fiftieth year, as well as land returning to the original landholder, people went back to their families. Anyone who had been sold, or had sold themselves into slavery, or indentured servanthood, were redeemed from that. They went free, and they went home.
Underpinning all of this was the conviction that no person actually owned the land or another person, because all of the land and all of the people belonged to God. They took seriously what we have both said and sung today from Psalm 24: ‘The earth is the LORD’S and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it.’ (24:1) Everything belongs to God, who allows us the use of the land.
So, for our jubilee, we should be working on the basis that the United Reformed Church too belongs to God, not its members. Our jubilee should be as much like a re-set in the here and now, with implications for the future, as it is a marking of what’s past. What might that look like? Here are a couple of thoughts.
First, biblical jubilee is about a return to divine basics; going back to where things started and so being set free. For us, though, things did not start in 1972, they started with encountering God through Jesus Christ. In John’s Gospel, talking with disciples who are going through challenging times, Jesus says, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ (8:31, 32) Jesus then talks about people who are enslaved by sin being set free by him. The Son of the owner of everything, the Son of the LORD God, is the one who can make people free: ‘if the Son makes you free,’ says Jesus, ‘you will be free indeed.’ (8:36)
What’s that mean for us? Earlier this year I attended a gathering of United Reformed Church ministers from all over England, Wales and Scotland. One of the speakers was David Cornick, a former General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, and a church historian. He was talking about ministers and congregations which were ejected from the Church of England in 1662. If you want to find evidence of that event take a look at the those lists of churches and ministers displayed on the wooden boards at the back of this church.
Concerning those who were ejected from the Church of England, David Cornick said something that has stayed with me. He pointed out that those ejected were left with nothing materially. Then he said, ‘so they set about remaking the world out of their spiritual resources.’ If a United Reformed jubilee resets things, so that it sends us back to depending on our spiritual resources, sends us back to be once again set free by Jesus Christ, that will be a really good thing.
Then the one other thing about a United Reformed Church biblical jubilee is that it will make us re-consider what our spiritual faith in Jesus Christ means for material life in today’s world. These things we think we own as a church – buildings and bank accounts are not ours. God has given them to us for our use for a limited period of time. We can enjoy them, but they are there for the other people living in this land as well. So how our spiritual resource our use of the church’s material resources, which God has given to us for a season, needs to be high on our agenda.
I don’t know how things will be fifty years into the future, when the United Reformed Church marks its second jubilee, always assuming that there is a United Reformed Church around to do so. I’m not too worried, because we’ve got enough to be going on with for our first jubilee – re-setting the church to remake the world out of our spiritual resources in Jesus Christ; using well the church’s material resources for the benefit of all of the people of the land. God give us the strength, the wisdom, and the faith to get on and do it. Amen.