Holy Communion 7th July 2019
A Church for Mission
Luke 10: 1 – 11, 16 – 20
Jesus said to the 70 who were to proclaim the kingdom:
‘See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals. Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “the kingdom of God has come near to you.”’
Right now, in my old place of ministry, York Minster, much of the establishment of the Church of England is assembled for Holy Communion. I attended the service as a member of Synod for 12 years, and organised it for a further seven years. Archbishops, prolocutors, Synod staff, the Dean and Chapter, a thousand for Holy Communion…it’s all a bit grand, a bit expensive, a bit powerful. You can get caught up in it all. For one whole service I was Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, which took everyone but him (George Carey) and me by surprise. Give a man a cope and a primatial cross to carry and we will change the world.
An established, historical, grand, traditional, elaborate, cultured, moneyed, populous stately and vibrant church must needs look carefully at itself to see how its current mission compares with that of the seventy sent out by Jesus. No bag, purse, sandals, cope, primatial cross. It must consider the fact that the post-resurrection church took this passage as a blueprint for its own mission, sending people in pairs, looking for a place of welcome, taking nothing but the gospel, and moving on after the kingdom has been proclaimed.
A church which is static, which has solid buildings which are often the oldest in its communities, can embodies a type of Christianity which is the same as the wider shape of the society in which it is placed. Such a church must test itself against the mission of the church in a hostile society where to meet was to invite attack, where to pray to the one God was to be counter-cultural in a way which we can hardly imagine.
We find ourselves as the church in this country in a finely balanced position. We are not like the seventy. There are more of us for a start: more than watch football live. Millions of us go regularly to church (even if that is less frequent than it was). Millions more claim allegiance. Don’t believe the basic story that Christianity is in decline, certainly in London. A new book says the opposite: the city is being de-secularised. The church occupies a vital role in education; there are chaplaincies in almost every area of institutional life, often valued and paid for by those institutions. Our buildings are sources of national and local pride. We are part of the way the nation breathes.
But we are like the seventy. Fewer people make the unconscious assumption that they are Church of England by default. More people are happy to be seen positively as of “No religion” The church competes in a busy marketplace – in this city as across the country there is growth in attendance in other faith traditions - but washing the car, doing the garden , taking the family out and going shopping are manifestly more fun than sitting on a hard seat in a cold building. The media ignores us unless we have a good fight. Safeguarding, and equal marriage, have not been our finest hour, just as women in leadership and inclusion were awfully handled previously and can continue to be so. Our voice is compromised. We can be increasingly marginalised in a multicultural nation. Many people say they are spiritual but not religious. Now is the time for radical mission.
The 70 were called upon to strip themselves for the task at hand. A church with a thread at the heart of the tapestry of the nation should do the same – not to unpick the tapestry, but to weave a picture which is uncompromisingly that of the kingdom of God. We will fail if we think that we are more important than the message. We will collapse if we think that just because we are here, and always have been, people will come, because they know they should. If that is at the heart of our mission we will disappear.
If the heart of our mission is to preserve at all costs the things which we like and which bought us in, whether or not they remain attractive and effective, then we will fail. Some of this is at the heart of debates about language, music, furniture and visual identity. Just because it’s good enough for us, and will see us out, doesn’t mean it’s good enough for those the 70 went to call. If the heart of our mission is waiting and being welcoming without going out and inviting, then we will fail.
The work which went into our Mission Action Plan revealed the things which distinguish this part of the body of Christ. It is good to value and to celebrate what has made us who we are. But if that is not geared to proclamation, invitation, engagement and welcome then we just become baffling to people. It is the gospel which should challenge, not the bizarreness of our little worlds. We will fail if we think that our purpose is to keep the church in exactly the same shape, doing exactly the same things, and that we have to recruit people to keep things going just as they were after we’ve gone.
But we will succeed if, like the 70, we are clear in our mission, and focussed in our task. We are to say to people that in us, in this place, in our dealings with each other, in our message of healing and forgiveness, the kingdom of God has come near. Everything is geared to that task, and it may mean that the way we are the church needs to change shape. Inclusion, Community, Love. Faith. Witness. Action. These are words of the 70, not of an institiuon circling the wagons and hoping for survival.
Large or small we should be a vibrant symbol of the church’s commitment to the glory of God and the message of Good News. May we rejoice that our names are written in heaven, and do all we can to introduce, by whatever means, the King of Heaven to all with whom we have to do.
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