Sunday, January 8, 2012

We belong to the church world-wide

The following sermon was preached in a Baptism service, when Ruth and Matt brought Jessica to share with us in baptism.

In all sorts of ways it is very special to come together here today at Highbury to share in Jessica’s baptism.   Little Jessica and Matt and Ruth have been very much in our thoughts and prayers since we heard of the condition she has and of the hospital treatment she would need.  It was wonderful welcoming Jessica to church the Sunday after she returned from hospital, full of beans and full of bounce!

It seems but yesterday that family and friends met with church family here too and we were celebrating Ruth and Matt’s marriage.

At one level it’s just good to be together again and in our service celebrate Jessica’s arrival.  Family is so important.

And family works at all sorts of levels.  It’s great to see Matt and Ruth and Jessica as a family together … but it’s also great to see Matt and Ruth’s wider family getting together as well.  Here at Highbury we know Ruth’s family – and it’s great to welcome Matt’s family.  Together they make up Ruth, Matt and Jessica’s extended family.

And I guess it’s good to know that Jessica belongs as much to that extended family as to her immediate family – and can find real support from that extended family too.

Something else is going on too in our baptism service today.  Ruth and Matt have chosen to share in a baptism service today because they want to share with Jessica what was shared with both of them when they were little, a sense of belonging not only to their own family but to a church family too.

There is something special about belonging to a church family.  When you stop and think about it it is one of those rare places where people of all ages come together to share in learning together in a setting where they offer support to each other.  We all of us look out for each other, supporting youngsters as they grow up, supporting older people as the needs of advancing years become more apparent.

We are convinced that a church family here at Highbury is something very special.  At our church Meeting last Thursday we asked people to think of five words or phrases to describe what makes Highbury special and then together in groups share their findings and try to come up with a set of words together.  We are going to look through all the words people came up with and try to put together something that goes to the heart of what makes this church family special.  We think we have something special we want others to share.

Let me share one set of words that one of those groups came up with.   It came out first from the pile.

Relevant Preaching to Today.  At the heart of our Church services on a Sunday we share in reflections on the Christian faith and seek to make connections with our real lives – in a very troubled time it’s a very real way of getting your bearings and sensing what it is we should be doing in this world of ours.

Friendly – it’s great to see friendships growing in a church family – and we hope the kind of friendliness that can draw others in too.

Caring - our hope is that Highbury is a church family where everyone looks out for each other and offers care and support literally from the cradle to the grave.

Embracing to all – that’s another thing we seek to build on here.  We want to include everyone, give a welcome to people of all shapes and sizes, backgrounds and thinking.

Outward looking – At our church meeting it was great to hear that we heard that our Christmas collection for County Community Projects and its work among the most vulnerable families and young people in the county has  reached £1,150 – but great also to know that three of Ruth’s contemporaries growing up at church here are now working for CCP  - Matt, Al and our Dave.

Belonging to a church family seems to me to be much the same as belonging to your own close family.

But to belong to a church family here in one locality is to belong to a church family that reaches out much more widely.  It is to belong to a church family that is all over the world.

One of the great things about the Baptism certificate we use today is that it is recognised by so many churches – Church of England, Roman Catholic, Methodist – across the board.  We differ in our thinking with Baptist friends but have just as much fellowship with them too.

The great thing about being part of a church family is that that makes you part of the world-wide family of the Church wherever you are.

We have links with the world wide church through the Council for World Mission.  We are hoping to meet up with some of the team that went over to Malawi at the end of last year later in the Spring, and then make contacts with some of those over here for the Olympics in the summer.

And we have a great partnership with Stefan and Birgit teaching at a theological seminary in Brazil and all those volunteers who spent a year with us from Germany and Poland.

I contacted Stefan and Birgit, letting them know about today’s service.  And they sent the following email letter for Ruth, Matt and Jessica …

Dear Ruth and Matt, dear little Jessica,

we are so delighted to hear that you three are forming a little family. As each child shows God's continuing hope for his world - this is very good news!

Here in Brazil children are very much part of everything. They are cuddled by complete strangers on the road and everyone is commenting about how wonderful they are. This is certainly true for your baby daughter as well: What a beautiful child! What a blessing for us all to know her in the loving arms of her parents!

We know from our own experience that there will be quite some hours if not days of exhaustion ahead. This is normal and belongs to our limited resources.

There are a couple of verses that we would like to pass on to you for reflection:

Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:30-31)

All of our faith is basically relationship - relationship with God. It is knowing that Jesus is close and celebrating with us in same way that he is suffering with us. To hope for this is "waiting for the Lord". This is something we begin to learn here from our Brazilian brothers and sisters. 
May the knowledge of God's closeness be always present  - today and all the days to come.

With lots of love and a Brazilian hug,
Stefan & Birgit with Marit, Simeon and Jakob

I almost forgot the prayer... (as it is a baptism I thought something trinitarian appropriate)

Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
set up your kingdom in our midst 
and show your love for all this world through this new family.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God,
have mercy on us as sinners,
who often fall short to wait for you,
to love you and the people close and valuable to us.

Holy Spirit, breath of the living God,
renew us, our families, our church and all the world.

Belonging to one church is to belong to a world wide church.

What does that world wide church family look like – what should be at its heart?

I think there are some wonderful words from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus that say it all.  It’s a prayer that echoes down through the ages and is a prayer for us all today.

Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. 
Belonging to that world wide church – we seek a strengthening in our inner being with power through his Spirit.  That’s a recognition that stuff happens in all our lives that on our own we cannot cope with.  That’s when being part of a wider family locks in and becomes all important.

In the wider church family we have a very real strength from beyond ourselves that can be a source of strength in our inner being.  A strength from beyond ourselves in the unseen but very real power of God.  IT was great when Jessica was on hospital to be able to pick up the phone chat to someone I had never met before who was on the chaplaincy team there and know that they were able to call in to see you later that same day with love from us here.  Sharing prayer, and that sense of power and strength in your inner being that we wanted to share with Jessica that day.  And that’s all because we are part of that extended church family that seeks a source of strength in God’s power, in God’s spirit.

The next thing about belonging to that world-wide church wherever it may be is that we may find a focus in our lives.   Churches all over the world come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.  They have all sorts of traditions.  All sorts of different ways of doing things.  Some familiar to us.  Some very different from what we are used to.

One thing all those churches have in common – is the importance of Christ.  What is it about Jesus Christ that is so important – paul’s prayer puts it in a nutshell.

That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love.

Christ dwells in our hearts through faith as we are rooted and grounded in love.  That’s the love we are to have for each other.

It has caught my imagination from as far back as I can remember – having Christ in our hearts involves being a people committed to love and concern and care.  Another of those international links we have through Judi Marsh, one of our children’s leaders is with Moffatt, a prisoner in Zambia, awaiting the outcome of a trial.  Links with churches – expressed in love for one person in need.

Churches are made up of people and there will always be shortcomings.  But when a church abandons the love of Christ that’s the point at which I begin to feel not part of that.  It is the love of Christ that marks out what it means to belong to the world-wide family of the church.

The love of Christ is then something that is all encompassing.  Paul’s prayer is that we knows the breadth and length and height and depth of that love of Christ that surpasses knowledge so that we may be filled with all the fullness of God.

That’s the thing about the love of Christ.  It is higher than the heights we can climb, lower than the depths we plumb and so wide you can’t get round it.  It’s at this point that no end of songs come to mind to share with a Primary School teacher with responsibility for music in school.

This is one of those precious thoughts at the heart of our faith that Paul comes back to time and again –

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Belonging to the church world wide means that we are being filled with the very fullness of God so much that there is nothing that can happen that is outside of the protection and the strength that God in Christ can give us in all his love.

Paul rounds off his prayer with a a wonderful conclusion – that gives all the power all the glory to God –

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. 

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