Sermon - 19th May 2013
Scripture - Acts 2:1-8
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
A French Catholic priest, the Abbé Loisy, famously wrote: “Jesus Christ proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of God – what arrived was the Church.” Whilst he had a point, the Pope wasn't amused and he was excommunicated in 1908. Today, as we mark the festival of Pentecost together, we reflect on the birth of the Church and it's mission.
In our reading from Acts we heard that the disciples were huddled together in one place. St John's Gospel implies that this was because they were afraid of the authorities. The last major festival had been Passover and the authorities had acted decisively against Jesus. Now with Pentecost coming up they were, no doubt, on edge again in case Jesus' followers caused a stir or in case other would-be Messiahs came on the scene.
Gathered there in fear, the disciples had this amazing religious experience which filled them with power and drove them out into the market place to proclaim the mighty deeds of God. The experience of the Holy Spirit coming upon them transformed them, allowing them to be bold in their proclamation and to set aside their fears in order to achieve their mission. In doing so the writer of Acts holds that around 3,000 were added to their number and, if you read the rest of Acts, you will see it is a record of various missions of Peter and, later, Paul as they proclaimed the Gospel – first to Jews and then to Gentiles.
Jesus had gone so now the work passed to the disciples: if you like, to the Church. Abbe Loisy wasn't wrong in his assertion.
We can be rather jaded about the Church – after all it's hardly an institution in our society which is at the forefront of social change. Recently I was discussing with Juan my surprise that a country as strongly Catholic as Spain was one of the first in Europe to legalise gay marriage. Juan explained that Spanish society is very divided and the Catholics were out of power when marriage for lesbian and gay people was introduced!
For me it was interesting to think of a political party seeing itself as representing the interests of Catholicism. We have seen in France and the UK how the Catholic Church, alongside others, argues against moves for gay marriage – a few years ago they were arguing against Civil Partnerships. Many of us may have experienced rejection in other churches. Many of us may have rejected other churches because we can't be ourselves, the people that God created us to be, in them.
Added to this there is the dreadful history of the Church. Very early on, the religion of the simple carpenter from Galilee concerned with God and justice became adopted as the official Roman religion. Compromises were made – wars had to be fought, political expediency trumped the radical message of Jesus, and soon bishops were made into imperial civil servants and took on the trappings of power.
As the Roman Empire crumbled the Church was the only institution that functioned on a Europe-wide basis. As the Church was now legal, and popular, people increasingly left it money and land when they died, and the Church which followed a man who only owned the clothes that he wore, became unspeakably wealthy. The persecuted Jewish sect, as it gained power, soon became a persecutor of Jews and other minorities. Yet, at the same time, it understood it was one of the agencies God used for the welfare of humanity.
It's a strange paradox - and it is this that disturbed Loisy. He believed Jesus intended to found a church but not that this should ape the state in its organisation, its pursuit of power and its ability to amass wealth. Most Christians now are uncomfortable with this close association of Church and State – yet here the Prime Minister still has a role in appointing Anglican bishops, and in Russia a resurgent Orthodox Church is very close to the State and legitimises much of what the government does. So we need to think more deeply about what the mission of the Church is – after all, we are part of the Church.
Proclaiming the Kingdom
Jesus' central task was the proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God. He told parables which tried to explain this Kingdom – the place where God's rule was dominant. He said it would come unexpectedly – like a burglar in the night – he showed through works of power and healing that he not only had authority but that this Kingdom was breaking through. He railed against religious hypocrisy and had a special concern for the poor and the marginalized. As he prepared to leave at the end of his earthly ministry he told his disciples, as we heard in the reading from St John's Gospel, that He was sending them just as the Father had sent Him. The disciples, and those who came after, were to continue Jesus' mission. The task of the Church, therefore, is to do the things that Jesus did. In other words, we have to proclaim the coming Kingdom. For me this breaks down into three distinct areas:
Proclaim by Word, Deed and Prophecy
Jesus' main task was that of a preacher. He proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God and tried to show through his sermons, parables and actions what that Kingdom was all about. His stories are about justice and inclusion, about the first being last and the weak being strong. He worked very much in the prophetic tradition of Israel – he held up a mirror so people could see themselves more clearly – and this never makes us popular.
The Church, at its best, does this same work of prophetic proclamation. The recent work by the Baptists, Methodists and United Reformed Church on the use of drones in warfare and the rising poverty in the UK are good examples of the Church being prophetic – saying that this isn't how the world should be. Desmond Tutu's involvement in the Peace and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa showed a new way of coming to terms with a troubled history, the black churches in America were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement there.
This hasn't been about a pursuit of power and is in contrast to other churches in America which seek to exercise political power by having conservative evangelical social agendas dominate politics. It is about standing with Christ on the margins and proclaiming God's truth to the rest of society. It is about recognising that God is found on the margins, never in the centre, of our social order.
We proclaim that the coming Kingdom is different to our world: different values, different priorities and a different sense of justice. We do more, however, than proclaim. If all we did was to tell the story of the future we would be like an empty vessel. We don't just proclaim the kingdom we embody it and work for it's coming.
Justice is at the heart of who we are as a congregation as it is the heart of the coming Kingdom. Simply being a congregation which allows everyone the opportunity to worship without fear is about justice. Our campaigns for marriage rights, our submissions to Parliament about Civil Partnerships and the Gender Recognition Bill were about justice; the work many of us do as individuals both as volunteers and in our careers are also about justice. Welcoming and making room for those who are on the edge of our society reminds us that, not so long ago, we ourselves were on the edge. Ensuring that the hungry are fed is a Gospel command. As we seek to live as a justice-seeking people we make God's will dominant in our lives, in our church and in our bit of the world and so give expression to the coming Kingdom.
Much of Jesus' ministry was concerned with healing. He lived in an age before there was anything approaching the medical knowledge and care we have now. His age confused illness with divine punishment. Long term illness and disability had huge implications for one's ability to survive in an age before the Welfare State. Healing, therefore, needed to be key to any one who proclaimed God's new age of justice, peace and equality. The earliest Church seemed to put a high stress on healing – indeed in the ancient world healing was a sign of an authentic religious teacher.
The work of healing continued throughout the history of the Church – even when everything else seemed to be so different to what Jesus intended. Religious orders often devoted themselves to healing – using the best knowledge they had. Convents and monasteries had sisters and brothers who knew some of the properties of herbs and who could treat the sick. Even into contemporary times, some of the hospitals that were subsumed into the National Health Service were institutions run by the Church. Many of us enjoyed watching Call the Midwife where an order of Anglican nuns worked in the East End managing a team of midwives, just as the new National Health Service was being instituted.
Churches now think about healing in a range of ways. Some, on the charismatic end of things, still pray for, and expect, people to be physically healed of illness. At the other end of the scale there are still pilgrimage sites around the world where the sick go with the hope of being healed. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Lourdes in South West France where the sick go to be bathed into pools fed by a spring on a site of a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
For most of us, however, the miraculous healing is something very much out of the ordinary. We still, however, see healing as a key hallmark of the Church – and of our church. Of course we pray for people to be healed, we pray for strength in adversity but our sense of healing is deeper than that. We see people here being changed.
That change is about two things – coming to terms with ourselves, and coming to terms with God: they go hand in hand. As we become comfortable with our gender and with our sexuality we feel better about ourselves, the world and each other. Recently I was talking with a man who has only just started to come out. His religious and cultural background means he was brought up with a huge sense of shame about his sexuality – and he lived in mortal fear of discovery. He now lives in the UK with very different attitudes to his country of origin, but despite having had a couple of relationships still feels bad about his desires.
I am reminded of so many people that have come along to MCC and become more and more comfortable with who they are and, at the same time, become reconciled to God. This is deep healing – healing of emotional wounds and mental scars and no less dramatic than the healings that Jesus performed in Palestine all those years ago.
An Embodied Spirituality
And Jesus' ministry was concerned with spirituality, with knowing God. He had a radical, and deep understanding of God's purposes as revealed in the Old Testament but seemed impatient with those who were the established religious leaders. He stressed God in all that he did – Jesus didn't talk about justice for the sake of a political ideology but because justice is a defining attribute of God.
As a church we talk about justice – many churches do this and get politicians annoyed. We do this because justice is a key component of our spirituality. We pray, we worship, we sit in silence, we feed the hungry, we sign petitions, we campaign. These are all aspects of the Gospel and we seek to embody the Gospel in our life together.
The Church was given birth at Pentecost and, despite all the things that are wrong and have been wrong with the Church, it is still one of the agencies that God provides for our welfare. As a church we are called to continue the work of Jesus – to proclaim, embody and signify His coming kingdom, to be a place of healing and to express a spirituality which is real, which brings us close to God and which inspires us to show God, and his justice, to our world. The Holy Spirit which inspired those first disciples continues to inspire us, continues to give us energy and continues to drive out our fear.