Sermon - 13th October 2019
Scripture - 1 Timothy 2:1-7
If it had not been for “mission”, we would not be here today. If we think about our own faith journeys, each of us will remember specific people whose actions, words or example have through time ultimately led us here.
Speaking personally, I went to church every Sunday through my childhood. Going to church and all that it includes - like singing, praying, reading the Bible – were part of life. Then one day, something happened, and it is a day which remains forever in my memory: 13 October 1988, exactly 31 years ago today, when I was 16 years old!
Early that morning, about half an hour before school started, my friend Paul came into the classroom where I registered, walked over to me and said: “God loves you.” He then left the room. I knew Paul called himself a “born-again Christian” and he was part of the school’s Christian Fellowship, but he had never previously spoken about God or his faith. I could not recall ever hearing those words. This was a new concept to me. And from that moment on, something strange began to happen to me: my thoughts were pre-occupied with these words – “God loves you” – and I began to reflect on my life, to the point when I was distracted from my studies.
For me, I began a realisation that faith is not just those routines which Christians have: faith is about a relationship with the Living God.
My friend Paul was a missionary to me. Throughout history, there have been literally millions of ordinary folk whose words, actions and examples have led others to a relationship with God. And there are some people whose faith journey’s have had a higher profile. Many churches would call such people saints.
Each Sunday, we make our way here, to Wilbraham St Ninian’s United Reformed Church. But who was our St Ninian, and why this church building is (partly) named after him?
St Ninian is believed to have lived between the years 360 and 432 CE, and he is documented to be among the first to bring the Christian message to the Southern Picts, who were home in an area which today we call the Scottish Lowlands. In short, St Ninian is considered to be the one who first brought Christianity to Scotland.
There are written records about him by the Northumbrian monk, Bede, in the 8th century CE, and Aelred in the 12th century. Also, Abbot Rievaux wrote “A life of Saint Ninian.” There is also some archaeological evidence from the small, stone church at Whithorn, near Galloway, in South-West Scotland.
Ninian was the son of a chieftain. He travelled to Rome to study and became a priest, before returning to Northern Britain to be a missionary. The journey from Scotland to Rome then was hard and long, around 1,500 miles and would have taken around 6 months on foot. Without Ninian’s faithfulness and zeal to proclaim the Gospel, the history of our church, the church in this place, might be very different indeed.
Aelred’s history of Ninian’s life mentions a number of miracles. Whatever we may think about miracles, their common theme is restoring wholeness to the poor, the sick and the needy. Ninian’s part in bringing the Good News of the Gospel to the Southern Scottish tribes is his enduring legacy, a part of which is our church community here.
What has a Scottish saint got to do with South Manchester? This church opened in 1903 by the large Scottish Presbyterian community living in Manchester. It merged with the Whalley Range church after WW2, and a new church building was built in 1951, and this is the one we are in today!
Where does the “Wilbraham” bit come in? In 1972, the URC came into being following a merger of the Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches. Just along the road, where the Hindu temple is today, was Wilbraham Road church. They merged with St Ninian’s in 1985 to form the church we are part of today.
The Christian congregation here is no stranger to change, having joined twice with other congregations in 1941 and 1985, and a third time in 2015, when this congregation, as the Metropolitan Church, joined Wilbraham St Ninian’s. That service took place 4 years ago on 18 October, so today would be the closest Sunday to mark that occasion.
At its heart is a worshipping Christian community with a proud heritage, a distinguished history, and a vision of the Good News of Jesus, which have all resulted in the love and respect in which Wilbraham St Ninian's is held by all who are associated with it.
What is it that we can learn from Ninian’s life? Today’s set New Testament reading from St Paul’s first letter to Timothy in many ways echoes Ninian’s life and calling. The world in Paul and Timothy’s time was dominated by Roman and Greek beliefs; Ninian’s world was heathen; and our 21st Century Britain is no different, where we, devout Christians, are very much in the minority, despite the UK being nominally Christian at least. Yet for Paul, Timothy, Ninian and us, the calling to make the Good News of Jesus known is the same in times and places with the same level of challenge.
Let us look again at the advice St Paul gave to Timothy and to us:
Firstly, that we should pray for all people and all those in authority. That may sound easy on the face of it, but how much more difficult is it to pray for those people who wish us harm, maybe because of our gender or sexual identity? It can also be difficult to pray for those leaders whose politics are different to ours. But by praying for everyone, we are mirroring God’s own desires and love for all humankind, and in doing so, prayer will change us.
Secondly, St Paul tells us that God our Saviour wants everyone to be saved! For Paul, Timothy and Ninian, the task of bringing that message must have seemed almost impossible, particularly with the difficulties of travel and communication they faced. It takes us very little effort to post something about Christian faith on social media for our friends and family, or even the whole world, to see. How challenged are we to speak up and bring Jesus’ true message of unconditional love and acceptance?
Thirdly, and perhaps quite uncomfortably for some of us, St Paul wrote about the exclusive nature of Jesus: that there is but one God, and it is Jesus alone who reconciles, that is, “brings God and human beings together”. How do we feel about Jesus’ statement: “I am THE way, THE truth and THE life”? Paul words support the theological views of both exclusivism and inclusivism but not pluralism.
While the message of Jesus being “THE way” may seem exclusive, excluding those of a different mind-set or cultural identity, we must remember that the very nature of Jesus’ way is one that is fully inclusive. In St Paul’s words, Jesus gave Himself to save the whole human race.
What would Paul, Timothy and Ninian have made of Christians today who shy away from the definite – “THE way” – and speak of “A way”? Would their ministry have been as effective and nation-changing? Ninian returned from Rome and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus, bringing Christianity to Scotland: his legacy lives on some 1600 years later here in this church.
Those whom Jesus first called, His Twelve Disciples, as the Gospels and the Book of the Acts of the Apostles report, did not find it within themselves to carry out God’s great missionary task: if they had, it would not have been God’s work. It took God’s gift of His Holy Spirit to inspire and fire them up to this work. If you read the Book of the Act of the Apostles, you will read that it did not always go smoothly: they were arrested many times, Stephen was martyred and there were disagreements between them. Yet even among the Jewish council of high priests, the Sanhedrin, one of their number, Gamaliel, recognised that the work which Jesus had begun could not be stopped because the movement is of God.
Matthew’s Gospel ends with the Great Commission. Ninian took this commission to heart. Jesus said, “Go to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples.” Ninian went to those around him, the early Scottish tribes, and preached the Good News of Jesus. To whom should we go? Who are the people in our lives to whom we should bring the Good News? Many LGBT people are deeply distrustful of the church and Christianity. The LGBT community in the UK has been hurt deeply by the un-loving, hateful nature of many who call themselves Christians. Let us go to them!
The work of St Ninian goes on, here in this place named after him, here in this congregation on a Sunday afternoon, through First Wednesday and throughout the week as we meet with those in our lives. Ninian was inspired by God and motivated by God’s love for the Scottish people, and some 1600 years later, their descendants, having come to Manchester, among others, made our LGBT congregation welcome: and now, we are part of that church family.
May we be inspired and have the courage to speak to others of our relationship with the Living God: Source, Guide and Goal of all that is. To God be eternal glory: