Sunday, May 23, 2010

A Church that knows how to party!

We’ve reached the end of the road.

And it’s not such a bad place to reach on Pentecost Sunday.

When Felicity pointed out John Pritchard’s little book, Going to Church, a User’s Guide, she commented that she thought it might contribute to a series of sermons.

The blurb on the back was promising.

The book sets out to be a ‘route-finder through the mess, the mystery and magic of the church, written by someone who fully understands the problems but is confident about the value.”

John Pritchard, the Bishop of Reading, looks at the Church as it is, the Church as it is meant to be and the Church as it might become.

It is in the second part of the book that he asks the question, What’s the Church for?

That’s not a bad question to think about this Pentecost Sunday as we celebrate the birthday of the church.

Without apology he says at the outset that he is going to set the bar quite high in answering that question.

“The primary taks of the Church is to worship. We come to church for all sorts of reaons, some of which hardly bear repeating in respectable company, but the Church itself, the Church as a whole, the Church in its pure, uncut form is there to worship God.”

“If the Church’s first task is to worship God, its second task is to join in God’s mission. The last five words are important. The mission is God’s and it’s something we join in rather than construct for ourselves. God’s very nature is to be missionary because mission is the outpouring of God’s love into the world. We are simply called to join in with What God is doing. It follows that the God of mission has a Church, not the Church of God has a mission!”

What’s the church for?

The third answer John Pritchard gives is ‘Community’

Again, how important it is for us to think of Church as ‘community’ on Pentecost Sunday.

John Pritchard speaks of the growing frustration with our fragmented, individualitic, consumer-oriented ways of living at the start fo the twenty-first century.

“It has been the genius of the Christian faith to emphasise the importance of local congregations, wherever ‘church’ has sprung up. When people become Christians they very rarely do so on their own; they have been known, loved, accompanied and encouraged by a community of faithful people – the local church.

“Community is the Church’s mode of existence. Communities are the human expression of divine love, showing us what God wants for us and valuing us for who we are. It’s in a community that people know our name.”

Worship – Mission – Community: these are the three strands that are woven through the fabric of our church life.

It is in the third part of his book that Bishop John looks to The Church as it might become, and outlines ten things he would go to the stake for in any church.

As I run through the themes we have explored about church over the last few weeks, can you work out what you think the tenth and final thing is that John Pritchard would go to the stake for in any church?

Ten things to go to the stake for in any church …

A church that takes God seriously
A church that takes our humanity seriously
A church that takes the world seriously
A church that prays
A church that sees itself as a learning community
a church with a sense of humour where they laugh a lot – mostly at themselves
A church where love is all around
A church where everybody participates
A church that looks to the future

So what could the tenth thing be?

The first clue is today Pentecost.

The close friends of Jesus had dwindled in number and were literally holed up in an upper room in Jerusalem fearful of what happened in the crucifixion of Christ, in awe at his resurrection, and now fearful of what lay in store. The doors were locked for good cause.

What happened that fiftieth day after resurrection day defies description. There was a sound like the rush of a violent wind, that filled the entire house where they were sitting. There were divided tongues ‘as of fire’ that appeared among them.

All of them were filled with this unseen yet very real strength, power, of God. The helper, the advocate, the counsellor, the strengtener, the comforter promised by Jesus had come upon them. They had a strength from beyond themselves and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Beginning to speak in other languages, they rushed from that place … and they made quite an impression.

Bewilderment, amazement, astonishment are just three words Luke uses to describe the reaction of the crowdx. Some were perplexed and some simply sneered and poked fun – they are filled with new wine!

But it’s only 9-00 in the morning, said Peter.

What was it about those people who that day saw the birth of the church in its worship, as it joins with God in mission, and supremely as community?

Something special.

And another clue in that passage we read from Luke 15.

We’ve told the story so often to children, it’s so firmly fixed in our minds that it is easy to lose the point of the story as Luke records it in Luke 15.

Jesus was on a journey.

And on his journey he ate.

With lots of unexpected people.

There was a joy in that table fellowship that prompted him to tell stories about the banquet they would share in heaven.

As he journeyed towards Jerusalem he spoke a lot about banquets. He ate a lot in the company of all sorts.

And not everyone approved.

For some of the Pharisees and Scribes this was the last straw. Tax-collectors of all people. And sinners – that’s an all-embracing word for you – wre coming near to him and listening to him.

Shock, horror.

And the grumbling began. This fellw welcomes sinners and – this is the worst horror of all – This fellow welcomes sinners and … eats with them.

So and that little word ‘so’ is important.

It is in response to the sneers at the company Jesus kept not least in those meals and banquets that Jesus told them this parable.

Notice the point of the parable.

‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.

How many sermons have you heard preached on that wonderful parable.

Isn’t it a glorious picture of the Good Shepherd’s love for his lost sheep.

There’s a wonderful animation of it on the church web site!

But is that the point of Jesus’ parable as Luke records it here?

Or is there something more?

That something more is the clue to the tenth thing John Pritchard would go to the stake for in any church.

6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

It’s the shared joy of that shepherd who cannot keep his joy to himself but wants to share it with all his friends and neighbours.

In at number 10 comes A church that knows how to party.

Bishoip Jack Nicholls is quoted by John Pritichard as having a simple formula for a successful church – prayer and parties. That takes a lot of beating.

Prayer was in at number 4.

John Pritchard confesses that parties are an unlikely tailpiece. And yet, he asks, why should the be?

Jesus often paints his picture –parables of the end of time in terms of a heavenly party, a banquet where the most unlikely people are sitting at top table, but the food is great (and just maybe the speeches are short!!)

Partying together is a subconscious way of echoing this image in the present as we do in communion.

Parties say: it’s good to be alive, life is for celebrating, and this is a group of people I want to be with.

So … it’s good to party just for a few moments after church over coffee maybe.

It was good to party last week at Brunel Manor, not least with our very own version of Highbury’s Got Talent.

We’ve got another party coming up in a month’s time on 4th July when we are going to have a church picnic in Pittville park.

And maybe there are other parties to come to along the way …

As John Pritchard says, Our Local church, believe it or not, is the place where we’re given an appetizer for the Banquet at the End of Time. We might as well get in the party mood!

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