A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, 26th May 2019
It’s the vision thing! We are in dire need of the vision thing.
‘During the night Paul had a vision.’ (16:9) Wasn’t he the lucky one. O, that we could all be like Saint Paul, at least in terms of receiving a helpful vision when we need one. Following a frustrating period, when wherever Paul and his travelling companions tried to go in order to spread the gospel, it seemed to be the wrong place, Paul then had a vision.
And this vision of ‘a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, Come over to Macedonia and help us”.’ (16:9) was just what was needed. Now the way ahead was clear; a hop, skip and a jump by boat, from Troas to Samothrace; then a landing at Neapolis, with Paul finally setting foot in Europe. From there, it was a stiff climb up the hill from the port to join the Via Egnatia, and a stroll down that Roman road, to the premier city of the region: Philippi. Would that it was so straightforward for us today to be in Europe, as it seems to have been for Paul.
Jesus, we are told in John’s Gospel, promised the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, who, he said, ‘will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.’ (14:26) Oh that God’s Holy Spirit, this Advocate, given to us in Christ’s name (14:26), would provide us with as clear a vision as Paul received during that night he spent in Troas so long ago. If only the Advocate would teach us as a church how to view the present, to see into the future, and to know how to make all of the right decisions. Yes, we really need this vision thing.
Now, of course, we’re considering complex situations here. This is not just a question about which place to visit next on a missionary journey. It’s not so simple as to be solved and resolved for us by a vision in the night. That’s little surprise, for, as we all know, things are seldom so simple. That’s certainly true about the complex challenges facing us as a church today. It’s not to say that Jesus was telling fibs to comfort worried disciples; this Advocate, God’s – Christ’s – Holy Spirit is promised to us, and, I believe, is available to us, but it takes a bit of work to hear what’s being said.
And it’s not easy to see God’s vision when the future seems set anyway. It’s not easy to see God’s vision when there are competing visions about the future, or when what had seemed to be visions turn out to be false starts.
I may have said before that one of my favourite sayings is, “the future is uncertain, best eat dessert first.” In this country, though, with regard to the church in general and perhaps the United Reformed Church in particular, the future seems set. We are in decline. I am talking about numbers here, about decline in the quantity of Christians, not decline in the quality. Don’t be fooled into thinking that those who preceded us in the faith in this church were spiritual giants besides which we are pygmies, just because there were more of them. We are all Jesus’s disciples, doing our best, but in different circumstances.
And this numerical decline has been around for a very long time now. Despite a good run in the early years of that century, from the middle of the nineteenth century, Christian churches in England, although they continued to grow in numbers, did so at a slower pace than the rise of population. From the mid twentieth century, if not before, churches in Western Europe have been shrinking in numbers. The congregation in which I grew up is smaller now than it was when I was a child. I’d guess that the same is true for most or all of the churches in which any of you grew up. This decline has been partially masked for this congregation by a series of mergers that have refreshed the numbers every so often, but there’s no prospect of that happening again any time soon. It looks like it’s downhill all the way, so how do you have a vision for the future when the future seems set?
And how do you collectively have a vision when there are strong competing visions about where to go next? Our political class, for example, has come in for a load of flak over Brexit, or the lack of it, but’s it’s hard to deliver, or not, when there are strong competing visions. And I don’t just mean opinions but visions for our nation.
One vision sees a Britain characterised by co-operation with its closer neighbouring nations, in pursuit of peace and prosperity, leading it to increasingly close relationships with them. Those who hold to this vision are prepared to set aside some aspects of our traditional national identity in pursuit of a greater good. The alternative vision celebrates all that is good in being a distinctive, free and independent nation, actively seeking good relationships with other, equally free and distinctive peoples throughout the world, but not allowing some of our near neighbours to constrain Britain from living out all of the best qualities that are reflected in our particular history and culture; not allowing them to decide upon the life to which we aspire.
And there are different visions of what it means to be Church in our twenty first century situation. Here are a couple. One vision says, everything in society around us is changing. In such a situation the Church needs to be constantly changing as well, so that it can most effectively share the Christian good news: becoming all things to all people so that at least some can be saved. (1 Cor. 9:22) An alternative vision also says, everything in society around us is changing, so in such a situation the Church must remain unchanging; a beacon of consistency in the midst of life’s contradictions, thus proclaiming the Christian good news about an unchanging God’s unchanging love: Jesus the same, yesterday, today and forever! (Heb. 13:8)
Now I have my views and preferences concerning these alternative visions, both the political ones and the religious ones. And today, I’m happy to to tell you all what these are … if you come and see me for conversation after the service. But, whatever vision I hold, be it political or religious, I will not begin to appreciate the reality of the overall situation unless I make the imaginative leap of contemplating these other visions in the best form in which they are understood by those who hold them.
Those who call for change in church are not hostages to the spirit of the age, they are seeking to share the gospel in relevant ways. Those who call for the Church to stand fast are not mindless stuck-in-the-muds, betraying the gospel, but are trying to make sure we do not change or misdescribe the gospel itself.
I wonder then, where does the scenario set out in Acts 16 fit in with such visions? On their first sabbath day in Philippi, Paul and his companions went looking for the nearest thing they could find to Jewish worship. It was taking place outside the city gates, presumably because worship inside the gates was limited to the gods acceptable in a Macedonian city, which still had the reputation and bore the stamp of having been re-founded as a Roman colony. It was an informal prayer gathering, presumably because the minimum of ten Jewish men required to form a synagogue were not resident in Philippi.
Lydia, a reasonably well-off businesswoman (she dealt in luxury goods, after all, and was head of a household, which would have included workers, servants or slaves). She was not even Jewish herself but was a god-fearer; one of those who attended Jewish worship because they were drawn to the idea of one God who demanded a distinctive ethical lifestyle. There was a conversation, where she listened eagerly, was baptised, and she then invited Paul and his companions to stay with her (which was a socially daring).
In this scenario, a movement, like ours, looking to share its message and increase its numbers might take notice of the following:
• The fertile ground for conversation was a little bit outside society’s mainstream
• Those who wanted to have the conversation went to those with whom they wished to speak, rather than expecting the others to come to them
• They had experience and beliefs they wanted to share
• There were people sitting just on the edge of “traditional organised religion” who were open to having spiritual conversations
• They talked about God and Jesus, not the weather
• There was an action (baptism) by which a change of belief could publicly be marked
• The one who had just joined the movement was the one who then brought others into the movement (her household)
What sort of vision might that give us for today’s Church in today’s situation?
• A vision of a Church that is not too socially respectable, especially where respectability can substitute for faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. This era of marginalisation of the Church, leading to decreased numbers might turn out not be an entirely bad thing in the end.
• Coming to people rather than expecting them to come us suggests a Church that is clever with its use of its buildings; looking to give real opportunities for those who enter the building to have a spiritual conversation; making sure to include going out of the building to meet with others a component of our church life and witness
• A church where members are encouraged to re-visit, re-experience, and re-rehearse their faith on a regular basis so that we feel more confident to say something to and share with others
• So, a church where we find the courage to talk with others about spiritual issues. By the way being fully prepared before starting to do this is a bit like saying we will learn to ride a bike by only getting on it once we have totally mastered the theory – we learn by doing.
• A church that offers spiritually inspired activities as well as words
• A church that respects those who joined more recently and/or those on the edge of congregational life, in part because they are often the ones with most potential to draw others into its life
So, a possible vision for a church for today: socially slightly off-centre, spiritual conversationalists, resourced by but not serving a building, knowing what we believe, braver about talking about it, putting the spiritual into activity, and being porous at our edges. What do you make of a vision like that? Discuss!