Revd Louise Williams shares her occasional thoughts with us.
What sort of church does God want us to be? I wonder if we ask ourselves that sufficiently often. We ask about what we like. We think about what people ‘out there’ might like. But surely as God’s people, our first point of reference is to be the people God wants us to be.
In English the words for church and church are the same!! In some languages they are different. We have to distinguish between the building, the institution and the community of the church. At present we have a great opportunity to think about our church family or community as we are in exile in the church hall. As exiles go it’s rather pleasant. Warm, sunny, spacious. Loos close at hand. (The work in St Andrew’s is going well and should be finished by the end of the month!)
But I remind us of the question: what sort of church community does God want us to be?
Surely above all he wants us to be people who both collectively and individually are getting to know him better and are seeking to live more closely to him every day. To be disciples of Jesus means that we are faithful followers. People who are consistent. Consistent in worship, prayer and Bible study, in service and generosity. People who are growing to see the world as God sees it. People who want to share the hope we have with others and to make the world a better place.
Not long after the resurrection the disciples were walking to Emmaus when they were startled by Jesus’ presence as they discussed the Scriptures and shared in a meal. As they broke bread together they recognised his presence. So, what about us?
Do we make every effort to learn, to understand, to have our minds stretched? Do we make ANY effort to learn?! And how do we come to Communion? With loving penitent hearts? With minds and hands open to receive all that Jesus is and will be in our lives. Or do we come unthinking, gossiping on the way back to our seats and then glaring at anyone who has the temerity to interrupt our peace and quiet!
It seems to me that our first priority as a church is to be people who make scripture and communion our priority and the food which powers us along.
In Romans 16 Paul writes with great affection to the church in Rome. He thanks them for their hard work and commends their courage and faithfulness. But he doesn’t give a great list of the things they do. He just commends them for their sharing in the life of the church. His friendship with them was more important than their actual productivity!
What does God want our church to be like? Well surely this is part of his answer. A church where people care for each other, not just their friends. Where people care for the strangers who walk in and who look after visitors who aren’t sure what to do and who need help with the service book. I still see people struggling and no one helping them! A church where we actively take steps to befriend one another and take responsibility to see if people are all right if they miss a few weeks. A church where we involve others by sharing the work. Where we don’t see things as OUR job. We just naturally share the work of God.
Churches should be communities of people who are seeking God in word and sacrament, faithful, committed, determined. Communities of people who work hard and love one another. Communities which are warm and attractive irrespective of the building; people who are outward looking, generous, kindly and full of God’s love.
People like to visit St Andrew’s because it is a very beautiful grade 2* listed building. But when it’s closed, and if St Peter’s were closed, why would they visit? Surely they will only visit because we are people who love God and one another and who extend that love to our neighbours and wider community. It should be that when we come together in worship they glimpse the presence of God among us.
If that is what we believe God wants our churches to be like. And if it isn’t quite there yet, what can you and I do to make it happen?
On what do you rely as you go through life? Family? Friends? Your bank balance? Your pension? Health? Education? Your respectable life style? The recent threat of a storm surge reminded us that our beautiful coastal location can bring with it threat and danger. The food we tuck into to keep us alive is sometimes exposed as causing heart disease. The hospital we turn to in time of need can become overwhelmed: A&E departments have struggled to cope with demand over the past couple of months. And the pension we had so pinned our futures on, turns out to be less than we had hoped.
When the ancient pilgrims made their way up to Jerusalem they would sing songs to encourage them and help them remember their journey would end in worship at the Temple. It would have been a long, hard journey. They would have been footsore, dusty and parched. Robbery and violence were no doubt commonplace and they must have wondered who and what they could trust. They must surely have looked around at the rocks and hills and wondered if they would survive the journey.
There must have been times when they stood on a rocky cliff edge to admire the view and found their footing was insecure and they fell. Even the rocks and the mountains were less firm than they seemed. Perhaps companions bickered on the way, hot and weary from the journey. Perhaps the cloud covered the sun so they couldn’t get their bearings and they felt lost and confused. Perhaps their behaviour on the journey showed them they were not as good and religious as they had thought.
Our lives can feel insecure and uncertain. Changes in our families, in the world; periods of ill-health or financial difficulty are common to all of us. And maybe we have moments when the things and people we have relied on seem to be shaky and uncertain. We feel disorientated and disappointed.
In the well-known part of the Bible that we know as Psalm 121, we hear the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem encouraging one another in the heat of the day. I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? Well, the mountains and hills aren’t helping. But the answer comes: My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
In our pilgrimage as Christians we can be tempted to look around for security and safety in the world, in our families, in our health. Others have lucky charms, rituals, routines to guarantee that life will go well. But we simply cannot control the world in that way. As Christians we have a security and a confidence in God. In God who is unshakeable and certain. A God who isn’t diminished or distracted by hunger or thirst, exhaustion or fear. A God who can walk with us every day of our lives. A God on whom we can rely. Not a lucky charm. Not a guarantee against hard times. But a God who, in Jesus, promised never to leave or forsake us. A God who offers to guide, encourage and walk with us throughout our lives and into the life to come. Perhaps if you have never asked God to be your companion and friend throughout your life, these words from another Psalm may be helpful…
You are my rock and my fortress…lead me and guide me.
Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O Lord, the God of truth. (Psalm 31.3,5)