Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on 9th March 2008
“Whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”John 11:27
Last month I got a letter saying I had passed the degree for which I had studied between 2004 and 2007. The letter was a damp squib really, the course had not been about gaining any qualification, it had been about trying to understand how to be the church in a world that had turned its back. I’m not sure I got definite answers, but what I did get was lots of clues.
I think my abiding memory of the course will be the lectures of the Anabaptist writer, Stuart Murray, Murray tells numerous stories about the about the world we are moving into. He begins his book, ‘Post-Christendom’ with two anecdotes:
‘In a London school a teenager with no church connections hears the Christmas story for the first time. His teacher tells it well and he is fascinated by this amazing story. Risking his friends’ mockery, after the lesson he thanks her for the story. One thing had disturbed him, so he asks: ‘Why did they give the baby a swear word for his name?’
‘One Sunday in Oxford a man visits a church building to collect something for his partner who works during the week in a creative-arts project the church runs. He arrives as the morning congregation is leaving and recognizes the minister, whom he knows. Surprised, he asks: ‘What are all these people doing here? I didn’t know churches were open on Sundays!’
Stuart Murray would suggest that we have a lot of work to do, that we can no longer assume things anymore. We have to ask ourselves what it is that we believe, what it is that we are trying to tell to other people, how we are going to persuade people that coming to church is important to their lives.
“Whoever lives and believes in me will never die”, says Jesus. Isn’t this what coming to church is about? Isn’t this the very heart of what we believe? We join together in worship Sunday by Sunday because we believe that this life is not the end. We believe that through Jesus from Nazareth, we have a hope of a life beyond this one. We believe that through believing we will be reunited with our loved ones in a life beyond all our imagination. Isn’t that why we come here? Isn’t it because that through living and believing we will have eternal life?
I hope it is.
‘Whoever lives and believes’, says Jesus. But how will people live and believe in the new Ireland we live in? Things have changed beyond recognition—the old values, the old beliefs, the old ways have been thrown out. ‘Whoever lives and believes in me’, says Jesus; but how will anyone have a chance to believe unless someone tells them, and who is there to tell them, except us? Stuart Murray would challenge us, what are you doing to tell people about Jesus?
The story is being forgotten, not just in England. Fewer and fewer people here in Ireland know anything about their faith. Taking Sixth Class on a Friday morning in the National School, young people who have had eight years of Church of Ireland education, I find most of them have scant idea of the Christian story.
Where do we start? One thing’s for sure, in twenty years’ time the scenery will have changed completely. The church will have disappeared in many places, the average age of the priests in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Dublin at the moment is 63. How will people have a chance to live and believe in Jesus, if there is no church to tell them?
We have to be creative, we have to use our imagination, we have to be able to care for our own people and to reach out to the people around. I like Australians and my favourite Stuart Murray story is about ‘The Water-Ski Church’.
There was a man who belonged to an Australian church, but he suffered ADHD, so trying to read words on paper, or trying to sit and listen to someone speaking was very difficult. Sunday by Sunday he went to church, but it got to the point where he couldn’t stand it anymore. He ran a water ski school and decided one Sunday morning to go water skiing instead.
He met up with a group of guys down on the beach, but was feeling bad about not being in church. As he was providing the equipment he decided it was right that he should suggest they have a prayer. ‘Hey guys’, he said, ‘it’s Sunday. Is it OK if we have a prayer before we begin?’. But what were they going to pray about? He asked for suggestions. One man said he was unemployed and needed a job, another said his grandmother wasn’t well—so they prayed.
The following Sunday they met down on the beach. The unemployed guy had got a job and the other guy’s grandmother had improved. They decided that praying was an OK thing to do.
The Sunday water ski-ing group has grew to sixty Australian men. They met for prayer and bible study at the beginning of the day. They broke bread at a barbecue at lunchtime and spent the rest of the day as a community water skiing.
They were people who hadn’t gone near traditional churches, but someone had used their imagination to reach out to them. ‘Whoever lives and believes in me’, says Jesus’. Whoever. Jesus doesn’t say that church has to be done in a certain way.
How will people believe if they don’t hear? How will they hear unless we tell them? How do we reach out to the people we are not reaching?
It’s a question for each of us because each of us is the church. We need commitment—maybe commitment to giving time; maybe commitment to digging deep in our pockets; maybe commitment to moving out from things that are familiar and comfortable, in order that we can tell the story of Jesus to a new generation of people.
“Whoever lives and believes in me”, says Jesus. It is our responsibility to ensure that whoever is out there has a chance to live and believe in Jesus.