“As servants of God, we commend ourselves in every way”. 2 Corinthians 6:4
It is twenty years ago this week that I became Rector of my first parish—it was a different world and a different time.
Three country churches in a triangle, each about three miles from the other two. There were 250 people who belonged to the parish; I knew all of them in a short time. Sunday by Sunday, most of them came to church. We had Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer on three Sundays of the month and Prayer Book Holy Communion on the other Sunday. We sang all three canticles at Morning Prayer. One of my churchwardens needed no prayer book; he had been at the services so often, he knew them by heart.
We had a very structured church year. In January, on the Sunday after the Epiphany, it was plough Sunday. We brought a plough into church and asked for God’s blessing on the farming year to come. During Lent, we had a midweek service every week. We kept every night of Holy Week. The Easter congregations were always the biggest of the year. On Rogation Sunday, we went out to one of the farms for an open air service and prayers for God’s blessing on the crops. On the last Saturday in June, we had the Sunday School excursion. On the first Sunday in September, we had the Sunday School prizegiving and on the first Sunday in October, the Harvest Festival. Christmas was busy, but Christmas congregations were only a fraction of those at Easter.
It was all very settled. Each year unfolded as the previous one had. It could have been the 1990s and it could have been the 1950s.
At the first meeting with the parochial nominators, I asked, “What do you see as the work of your Rector?”
One of them, a farmer, answered very succinctly, “We want a Rector who will teach our children, who will visit our sick, and who will bury our dead””.
Ministry in that community was very simple. We worked hard with the Sunday School. The sick and housebound were a priority and the loss of one of our members was a major event in the life of the community.
There wasn’t much to be explained. People knew their Bible; they knew the Commandments and the Creeds and the Lord’s Prayer. Much of the ministry was about drinking tea from china cups and discussing the news in that week’s edition of the local newspaper.
The challenges faced by Saint Paul as he wrote to the church at Corinth didn’t really figure very prominently in the life of that parish twenty years ago. Paul talks about the hardships he faced in the passage we read from his Second Letter to the Corinthians; hardships he faced for telling people the good news about Jesus Christ.
In a community where the story of Jesus is part of the culture, where belief comes as second nature, there are no great hardships to be faced by Christian people. But the world has changed in twenty years.
Most of us have probably grown up with faith and the church being part of our life. It wouldn’t have occurred to us to ask what it was we believed, or whether, indeed, we believed at all: everyone did.
Dublin in 2009 is a very different society from what it was. The political scandals; the collapse of the economy; the evils of child abuse, have created a place very different from the past. A culture has grown in which the beliefs of the past are no longer accepted, in which many people no longer even care about such things.
The church continues as if we were living twenty years ago. We keep the parish going and we minister to the faithful, because we don’t know what else to do. Being a clergyman now is like being a mechanic who has spent all his days on traditional machinery and who is suddenly confronted with computer technology; we simply don’t know how to fix things anymore.
So far no-one has discovered an answer as to how to respond to the new society. Various ‘evangelical’ churches have worked on the philosophy that you call together people who share your beliefs and you form a church by yourself—it’s a way of doing things that falls very far short of Saint Paul’s example of taking the Gospel to the very centre of the life of the world around.
There were various sects at the time of Paul who thought that the only way in which to be faithful was to withdraw from ordinary life, to have nothing to do with the world around that they saw as evil. They formed closed communities in remote places where they believed they were living ‘pure’ lives.
Saint Paul knew this was not Jesus’ way of doing things. Jesus went out and engaged directly with the world, and so Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “As servants of God, we commend ourselves in every way”.
Paul was building a church from scratch. There were no resources; no organizations; no buildings for worship; no tradition to which to refer; no memories of former generations to encourage those who felt despondent. All Paul had to offer to people was the story of Jesus.
Paul realizes that nothing should get in the way of this message, “ We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited”, he writes to his readers in Corinth.
Perhaps the church is ill-equipped to respond to the changes we are facing, but in the experience of Saint Paul, we have the story of someone facing a non-Christian world with a Christian message.
“As servants of God, we commend ourselves in every way”, says Paul, and our first step in following the example of his ministry is to look at ourselves: what does the way we live, the way we think, the way we speak, say to others about what we believe?
We profess a faith in a man who, in this morning’s Gospel reading, has the power to calm a storm, does the life of our church reflect the power and the personality of Jesus?
“As servants of God, we commend ourselves in every way”. Is our faith such that we commend ourselves in every way? And, if it’s not, what is it that we do believe? In twenty years time, what church will we have built?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 21st June 2009