“This is love for God: to obey his commands”. 1 John 5:3
A colleague complained last week that the best part of travelling to General Synod in the North was the road winding through Carrickdale forest and that even that had now gone, being replaced by a dull motorway. The synod was as prosaic as the road that took us there; no poetry or vision for the Church of Ireland, just bureaucracy and bigotry
Sometimes events can be redeemed by journeys. I remember travelling in the 1990s, from Larne down to Dublin one bright May morning to attend an afternoon at the General Synod. I was only there for the afternoon business, which was stifling and navel-gazing for the most part, but that didn’t matter. The train journey was a time to think and a time to reflect, a time to be quiet and to hear what God might be saying.
I have always loved trains; they give you the feeling of order and organization in the world, the feeling that you are part of something bigger. I can just lean against the window and look out.
It was a good morning for looking out. It was mild and dry and clear, there was no more than a gentle breeze.
As the train moved out of Larne Town station, heading along the lough shore towards Glynn, there were black-headed gulls circling around looking for food. Then as we went along the old quays where, in times past, there would have been great activity as the coal boats unloaded, I caught sight of a cormorant.
The cormorant was standing contentedly in the gentle breeze, with its wings outstretched. No-one really knows why cormorants do this, but if you drive up the Antrim Coast road, towards Glenarm and Carnlough, you will often see cormorants standing on the rocks with their wings spread; no agitation, no movement, just standing peacefully in the sea breeze.
I remember thinking that maybe there was a lesson to be learned through watching the cormorant; a lesson in being quiet, setting aside all the agitation and all the things going around in our heads, and being still. Perhaps as the cormorant stood there on a May morning, receiving the gentle breeze, so there was a lesson in being open to the gentle breath of the Holy Spirit.
It was a picture that was so simple: if we want to hear what God is saying, then we have to stop and be still and listen. The very thing that God tells his people to do in Psalm 46 is to be still and know that he is God—simple enough.
Isn’t most of what being a Christian is about fairly simple? “This is love for God: to obey his commands” writes John in the Epistle this morning. What could be more straightforward? We show our love and our respect for our parents when we are young by listening to what they say and obeying what they tell us. All John is asking of us in order for us to show our love for God is to obey his commands; no more complicated than a cormorant standing on the shore on a fine spring morning.
Where do we go wrong? Why is the Church so complicated? If all that is required is that we obey God’s commands, then how do the churches get into such arguments?
I keep reading people who try to explain the decline of the Church by saying that we are living in a secular age, that people aren’t interested in spiritual things anymore. I think this is nonsense. We are no more secular now than we were in the past; there is a spiritual element in all of us. There is huge interest in “spiritual” things, the bookshops have whole sections on “mind, body and spirit”; there’s even a ’Mind, Body and Spirit’ festival at the RDS every year. There is currently a fascination with angels; there’s an angel shop in Dun Laoghaire shopping centre.. Within more traditional religion, pilgrimages to places like Saint Patrick’s Purgatory and Croagh Patrick have never been more popular. RTE television’s coverage of the climbing of The Reek last summer attracted 185,000 viewers, a huge audience for a Sunday morning and three times as many as any other religious programme. People like spiritual things. I haven’t read any of Dan Brown’s books and I have no intention of going to see Angels and Demons, but what it has shown us is that there is a huge interest for such stuff.
I have read no survey anywhere that shows Irish people have turned against God. There is no evidence that against Jesus does not command the same interest he always did. What surveys have shown is that what people find hard is the Church. We no longer accept its authority and we no longer really understand what it is talking about, sometimes I wonder how much we ever did understand.
The problem with last week’s synod was not that it was not serious or sincere; the problem was that it was loveless and that it was abstract. “This is love for God: to obey his commands”, not to depart so much into the realms of philosophical language that we completely lose touch with the world Jesus came to save.
If the Church of Ireland is to have a future, it will be one rooted in simplicity: simplicity in our worship; simplicity in our teaching; simplicity in the words we use. it will be rooted in doing well the old things, the core things, the important things. Read and re-read the Gospels and we will not find anywhere Jesus departing into the abstract world of church debate; he can take the most profound, most serious, most important questions in our human lives, and he can give answers in words understood by people who have had no formal education.
In the wider church and here in our own parish, we have to ask some serious questions about what we do and why we do it, and if there are things we don’t understand, or things that don’t have any meaning for us, then we have to ask ourselves what sense they make to someone who comes into church for the first time. We have lots of people who come along for family services who are not from our tradition—does what we do make sense for them?
Like the cormorant standing on the shore of Larne Lough, perhaps we need to stand still for a while and listen. What is God saying to Saint Matthias’ church?
“This is love for God: to obey his commands”. How are we going to show our love for God?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 17th May