Sunday, January 23, 2011

Stepping outside the security of a closed system

A sermon preached at St Luke's during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

At the close of our service today we are going to do something very special as we remember someone who has had a very strong involvement both in St Luke’s Church and in Highbury. It was good to join together with friends from St Luke’s on Thursday in a service of thanksgiving celebrating Pauline Bewsher’s life. With a Christian faith that meant the world to her and as we learned on Thursday had seen her through some difficult times, Pauline Bewsher treasured her church family here at St Luke’s and was so looking forward to celebrating her 90th birthday with a tea party, which we shared in anyway in the hall on Thursday afternoon. For 28 years from 1945 Pauline Bewsher was the Guide Captain at Highbury. It was moving to hear of the way in which she throughout that period had shown a very real loyalty both to her own church, St Luke’s and to Highbury as well. After the service Robert and I will lead those who want to join us to the Rose Garden where we will scatter Pauline’s ashes. If you would prefer not to share in that part of our service it may be best to stay in the church, or to leave by the side door; that’s something, perhaps, for parents particularly to take note of with their children.

I have to confess that I did not know that St Luke’s had a rose garden. Go down the steps, turn left and it’s on your left, I was told. And indeed it is there … though be it said this is not the best of times to admire a rose garden!!!

I want to make some connections between Pauline, that Rose Garden and what we are doing today as we come together in a united service on the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian unity.

Pauline was staunch in her commitment to her church, the church of England, to her church here at St Luke’s. She knew the kind of church it should be, what you should do at church. And as in their own way each of those giving those wonderful tributes to her on Thursday observed, she didn’t mind letting you know.

I pricked my ears up, however, at one thing that was said in one of those tributes about that long period of time she was the Guide Captain at Highbury. In the whole of that period, it was said, she had a loyalty to Highbury and what it did as a church, while at the same time remaining firmly rooted here in the church at St Luke’s.

That ability Pauline displayed throughout those years of being clear about where she stood in her commitment to church but at the same time honouring, respecting and being loyal to a different way of being church is the thing I want to hold on to.

The readings for our service were taken from the leaflet published for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. What prompted me to choose the readings from that leaflet was the fact that the reading plan, though not the notes, had been put together by the churches of Jerusalem. I sat up and took notice when I saw that. It’s only eighteen months or so since a good number of us from St Luke’s and from Highbury joined together in our Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and we visited some of those churches.

Our readings invite us to go back to the church that came together in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, described in those powerful and moving words of Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Were signs and wonders were done by the apostles, where those who believed were together and had all things in common. It was a people of praise, and day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This is but the start of many descriptions the New Testament gives us of what the first followers of Jesus did as the church came into being. It wasn’t long before people began to think of them as people of The Way. It was a little later that opponents insulted them as the Christ-ians, and the name Christian stuck. Read on in the New Testament and you catch glimpses of the church as it takes root in Judea, in Samaria and then as it spreads to Antioch, through Cyprus to Galatia, beyond to Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Rome. At breath taking speed the church is coming into being in so many different places.

Some of those who played a key part as church was being formed have left their thoughts for posterity – Matthew with a Jewish perspective on things, Mark, down to earth, influenced maybe by Peter, Peter himself, Paul, one of his travelling companions, Luke, James the brother of Jesus, another profound thinker behind Hebrews himself steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. And John and his followers with a reflective view.

One thing you do not find in the New Testament is one single definition of what church is like. There is no single tradition, established as the one way of being church. No single creedal statement.

That should come as no surprise because the people whose stories are told in those early days of the church are a mixed bunch of people – scholarly thinkers like Paul, thinking fishermen like Peter. They live in a very varied world. The Jewish world of Jerusalem has within it many different ways of being Jewish. The Roman world is a world of very mixed cultures. The Pax Romana is a peace won at the cost of considerable violence and bloodshed as Rome asserts its power.

Two words come to mind to describe the Scriptures, the people whose stories are told there, the Jewish world and the Roman world they live in. Those two words are ‘variety’ and ‘hybrid’. There is a rich variety of ways of thinking reflected in the great range of people whose stories are told in the Scriptures, and as the church begins. More than that, each individual is the person they are because of all the different strands that have shaped and influenced them. Each is a hybrid.

And yet for all that rich variety and rich hybridity as you read through the pages of the New Testament you sense the arrival of something recognisable. You see the church growing. There is something that holds those who are following the way together, there is something that holds together those who bear that nick name Christians.

It is not a fixed and rigid system. It is not the building up of a single tradition. They look to Jesus Christ, they share in some way that they do not define a faith, they sense the presence of the forgiving love of God as Father, made real in Christ and let loose in their lives with an unseen yet ver real strengthening power they think of as in some way the Spirit of God. They seek to put into action the faith they profess by taking seriously the way of life mapped out for them by Jesus.

“the early Christians lived and thrived without the secure closure of a system.”

Do we need to go one better than those early followers of Jesus and create a system, to standardise the Christian faith and so achieve a single structure, a single tradition, a single way of thinking. Constantine was one who thought so. As Roman Emperor he wanted a systematic Christianity to cement his empire together – so he summoned the bishops together to create a systematic creedal statement. It wasn’t long before he had built a church over the caves where in all likelihood the animals were kept in the houses of Bethlehem, and where in all likelihood Jesus was born. A monastic community served that church of the nativity. And among there number was Jerome. It wasn’t enough to have a variety of translations and texts of the Scriptures – he wanted to produce a definitive translation in the language of the Empire. And so it was that Jerome produced his translation, eliminating all the errors of previous copyists and translators. Wonderful translation though it was it could become an instrument of power used by the state.

When James 6th of Scotland became James the first of England he wanted to standardise the church – what better way to do it than to get a group of scholars together and produce a single translation to replace the variety of earlier translations of the Bible into English. And so it was that the King James Bible was produced and an Authorised version established.

Again, wonderful language. But indicative of the attempt by a state power to standardise and shoe horn the variety of Christians into a single system.

I wonder whether there is a vision for unity that we can capture that doesn’t hanker after a single system, but instead rejoices in variety and even in hybridity.

“The early Christians lived and thrived without the secure closure of a system; there is no reason why we cannot do the same.”[1]

Interestingly those words come from a thinker called Miroslav Volf who in a book called Exclusion and Embrace grappled with the challenge of being a Christian in the Balkans in the wake of the Kosovo war and the Balkan conflicts of the 90’s. I was reminded of the book at the launch of Graham Adams’ book Christ and the Other in Manchester. It challenges us to reflect on the way we respond to ‘the other’.

In place of a closed system, the pursuit of a single tradition, he urges us to join together in affirming our rich variety and then getting stuck into the things we can share in doing.

Pauline was committed to her own faith and a very clear picture she had of what kind of church she was called to belong to. As we heard on Thursday a whole mass of influences, cultures, experiences came together to make Pauline the one-off individual whose life we celebrated on Thursday.

Each of us is the product of an immensely rich blend of influences, cultures. And we will each be different. Something has brought us to this church and to this place.

The important thing is not to get us all doing the same thing, thinking the same way in how we express our faith, do our worship or structure our church.

Let’s join with those who look to Jesus Christ, share a faith in him even when we don’t put it into exactly the same words, and sense the presence of that forgiving love of God in the unseen strength of God’s spirit, and seek to follow this Jesus by putting our faith into action.

We are called seriously to take the pattern of loving mapped out by Christ in Matthew 5, the commitment to justice there in Isaiah 58 and seek to share in the way Acts 2 challenges us to do.

I have a hunch that’s what Pauline was doing. She stood firm in what she believed in the church that meant the world to her, but joined with an equal loyalty with another church in the shared commitment of working for children through Guiding.

Maybe that’s what we need to build on as we seek to build up Transformers together, and so build on the wonderful work we have shared in doing in Holiday Clubs through the year.

It is what the churches of Cheltenham are doing through Street Pastors, through the hospital chaplaincy teams, as the clergy and ministers will come together in a month to see how we can develop our support of and involvement in hospital chaplaincy.

That brings me back to the rose garden.

Roses go back along way to Ancient Crete, to Ancient Egypt, to Ancient Greece, to Ancient Rome. They figure large in Shakespeare and come into their own in Vicrtorian days, and as my Rose Expert book informs me in 1867 comes the moment when the rose so many think of as a rose was grown – and it was a Hybrid Tea rose.

There is a wonderfully rich variety of roses. Maybe even in a single rose garden.

More than that each rose is the product of many strands that have come down through the years, a hybrid.

For all that rich variety, for all that hybridity we all know what a rose is.

There was in the days of these very first followers of Jesus.

There is in our day … a rich variety of Christians and a rich variety of ways of being the church. Within each of us there is a rich hybridity. We are each the product of a remarkable number of strands that go to make us the individual we are.

And yet there is something about all of us that enables us to see in each other the fact that we are followers of Jesus, we are followers of the Way he has mapped out for us, we bear the name Christian.
[1] Volf, 210

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