“Master, it is good for us to be here” Luke 9:33
I was at theological college from 1983 to 1986. It was a time when the Church of Ireland seemed deeply committed to building programmes and to organisations. The parish in which I lived, and in which I trained, was very much in the Church of Ireland mould. There were numerous organisations using the parish facilities morning, noon and night and there was a building programme in hand to extend the parish hall. The parish seemed to be thriving. Similarly, when it came to applying for a position as a curate, the attractive parishes were those with a great list of activities. Busyness was seen as a sign of success and, presumably, faithfulness.
Most churches at the time were trying to provide a complete culture in which their people would live. Churches provided a community. They provided education. They provided social and sports activities. They provided welfare and health facilities. People, in turn, played their part by coming along on a Sunday.
This way of doing things worked well until the last decade when the whole thing started falling apart. The abuse scandals rocked the Roman Catholic church, but the roots of the slide in church attendance are much more material. People became wealthier and they became much more secular.
People could find their own sense of community without belonging to a church. They would use church schools where these fitted in with their approach to life, but they would shop around for the best ones. If they wanted sports or social activities they would go to the best available, not to what the church had to offer. When people need welfare and health care, we now have a range of state services. The whole structure to which we had devoted so much time and resources began to fall apart. The Church of Ireland has been caught in this downward slide.
What response do we make? We cannot compete with secular attractions, even if it was right to do so. The only response to a society that no longer needs the church for material things is for the church to do the things it is meant to do. The church’s task is to share the story of Jesus Christ.
Maybe, we drifted from that role because we lost confidence in the story, we no longer believed in the way we had believed in the past. We sought to hold on to our members by doing all sorts of things that weren’t our concern because we thought that people were no longer interested in the story of Jesus. Our efforts to hold on were in vain because as soon as people found a better option than what we were offering, they disappeared.
The problem lay not in the story of Jesus, but in our way of telling the story. We have presented people with a dry and formal religion instead of a sense of the holy, a sense of mystery, a sense of wonder, and even a sense of fear, in the face of the most high God.
The Scripture readings this morning present us with this God in unmistakable terms. Moses meets with the most high God at Mount Sinai, a God who is shrouded in mist and whose presence is terrifying. A God whose presence appears to people as being a consuming fire.
Paul realises how this sense of God can transform people. He writes in his second letter to the church at Corinth, ‘we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.’ This transforming power sends people out to change the world, Paul says ‘by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God’.
The task of the Church today is not to try to compete with the material world but to confront the world in which we live with this story of this Jesus. It is to confront the world with awe and wonder and amazement and fear.
When people come to church it should not to be a weekly gathering of a community or association, it should be to encounter this God who met Moses at Sinai, this God who was present with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. If we do not meet with this God, if we do not meet with holiness and wonder, then the church is failing.
The times we live in are not new times. The Church has been here before. At the beginning of the 18th century the Church was dry and formal and dying and there emerged the Methodist movement with its emphasis on personal faith and lively worship. At the beginning of the 19th century the Church had again sunk into a trough and there emerged the Oxford Movement with its concern for holiness and beauty in worship and a sense of the greatness of God.
We don’t need new movements, what we do need is to recover what has always been there, the story of Jesus in all its fullness. The story of God breaking into our world and walking among us and being with us now. All we have to offer the world is this story. If we have not the confidence to tell it, then we have nothing, and we are poor indeed.
“Master, it is good for us to be here” says Peter. To be filled with a sense of that presence is to be filled with the courage to go out to face the world, to face a hostile world, with the story of Jesus.
We need to meet with the God whom they met, in order to go out and meet with our world. When we meet with that God, like them, our lives will be changed.