When churches, like St Barnabas, enter a period of transition, there is a process of self-evaluation and discernment of future needs. During this process you are likely to be asked questions about yourselves, to determine your strengths and weaknesses, what you do well and what you could do better. I would say that these questions can be boiled down into one single question, which is, “how do you see yourselves as a church?”
Now, if you have been in a church with the same rector for 25 years, this question doesn’t come up too often. If it does, it usually means the congregation is either growing or declining in numbers. A little introspection can be good for a church, and no doubt you have been down this road before. My impression – which is only based on a week’s observations – is that you know who you are and are quite confident in who you are and so would have no difficulty in answering that question.
So rather than ask the question again, I will talk about what we mean by church, and I’ll begin by offering three definitions: one prosaic, one poetic, and one personal.
First, the prosaic definition of church. It is that of an assembly of people who gather for a religious purpose. The purpose of coming to church is to worship God, and to grow in faith, love and understanding.
The second definition is poetic.
The Church is a cultivated field, the tillage of God (1 Cor. 3:9). On that land…the true vine is Christ who gives life and fruitfulness to the branches, that is, to us, who through the Church remain in Christ without whom we can do nothing (Jn. 15:1-5).
The third definition is personal: that is, “personal” to God. It is that the Church is the bride of Christ. As such Christ will love and cherish his bride and together the two will be bound in a covenant of love forever.
So I offer these three definitions to add to your own. The Feast of Pentecost is a good day to celebrate the Church. What amazes me about the Church, apart from its resilience, is how it welcomes so many different people with so many different histories. I sometimes think the Church is like a tapestry with many threads woven through it which, when combined, create this larger picture. I see families of mothers, fathers, children whose stories are blended into the story of the church, where lives are marked by baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and, at the end, by funerals.
God blesses the Church and God blesses you and me. In Church we are taught through the gospel how to live right, to be mindful of God and how to treat our neighbors. In some ways, a Church is a school for service – if we follow Jesus Christ then we are servants to one another and to the world at large. A world which often treats us with distrust or hostility, which calls Christians deluded or even dangerous. Opposition to the Church will get stronger in the coming years. The Church may be for everyone, but not everyone wants the Church.
But we have confidence in God through Jesus Christ our Lord. What gave growth to the Church in its early years were the ways in which Christians behaved towards each other and brought social and spiritual benefits to the wider community. Today, we see this first hand in the outreach St Barnabas does at Emmanuel Dining Room, Friendship House, Meals on Wheels and in the work of Eucharistic Ministers who visit our brothers and sisters who are unable to join us in church. We experience the benefits of Christian discipleship in the small and unrecorded acts of care and love that we do for one another.
God gave the Holy Spirit to the Church as an expression of his deep trust and love for her. For it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us for the work of the kingdom. Now in speaking of the Spirit, I would usually use the metaphor of fire or wind, but I noticed something in Peter’s speech in the Acts of the Apostles which is leading me to bring up another metaphor, which is that of water. Listen again to Peter’s words,
“In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
When I heard those words, “I will pour out my Spirit”, I had a visual image of water being poured into the font at a baptism, and the spirit is there. I thought of the river Jordan and the baptism of Jesus, and the spirit is there. I thought of the boundless generosity of God pouring out his Spirit upon us as a Church, empowering us, inspiring us, blessing us beyond measure. And, with the ewer being emptied of water at baptism, I thought of the letter to the Philippians and the words about Jesus emptying himself for us, giving up his spirit so that we might live, a life poured out so that we might have life in abundance, in the living water that is eternal.
As Christians we are a people and a church upon whom God has poured out his Spirit. Through God’s Holy Spirit we are made ready to serve, to heal and to give light to the world. None of this is possible without the Church.
A month ago I was at a conference with a number of other clergy and one of them was telling me about his church – above the doors to the church are written the words “Servants’ entrance”. However, these words are written on the inside of the church, so that you see them every time you leave the church.
Ask God to pour out his Spirit upon you and upon the Church. Then you will be ready to serve the Church and the world as Christ has served you.
Father David Beresford