Walking, Working and Worshipping
In a previous parish it was my custom to walk to church during January; normally I had two services to take in the morning, but in summer there was only one. As I walked this Sunday, I passed a car in which the two occupants had just come back from church; there was a Bible or prayer book on the back seat. I passed a group of walkers striding briskly along. I heard as I walked the sounds of a chain saw or weed eater. For some inexplicable reason, when I got to church I began it with a question: who were doing the will of God? The walkers? The workers? The worshippers? To my shock and horror the congregation insisted it was the workers - without a dissenting voice. I’ve thought about that moment quite often since then. If it happened to me now, I would stop the service, tell the congregation to go home, mow their lawns, chop their wood, paint their house, scrub the kitchen floor and only come back when they decided to give priority to worship.
I’m too scared to put the question to you, for more than likely you, too, would say workers rather than worshippers. It’s a bug, a religious virus which seems to have infected most Methodist congregations; we downplay worship and matters of the soul. We would rather save whales than nourish our souls, we would rather protest at the Free Trade Agreement with China than pray for our neighbour. In other words we have tended to let go of the distinctiveness of the church. We have allowed the edges of the church to become so blurred that church and world have merged together and church has become for us more like a Lions or Rotary Club. Of course we should be concerned about global warming, but it is the outcome of our Christian faith rather than the primary expression of Christianity. Over the years we would have done better if we had held more tightly to the principle of the catechism: what is our chief purpose? Our chief purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. That’s why I go for the worshippers, and that’s why I want to claim for the church a mark of distinctiveness that sets it apart from all other human groups. We are in the world but not of it. For me the human priority is worship.
You are the first congregation that I have ever told my experience of walkers, workers and worshippers, because when I read the readings for today this is where my train of thought ended up. Here is Stephen the leading deacon, distributor of the church’s aid to the poor so that he is well versed in social work. He is arrested, tried, condemned and taken to be stoned. Stoning is a painful, slow and cruel death; though it would be so easy to recant he does not let go of his belief. He prays: Lord Jesus, receive my soul, and finally, like Jesus, he prays: Lord, do not hold this sin against them. For me, that’s distinctive because it’s not what I would want to do, it doesn’t come easily or naturally. When people are put to death they are not normally forgiving unless they be Christian. The church from the outset was on a path of being distinctive; in the world but not of it.
I’ve always had a soft spot for First Peter - and the reading this morning is one of its highlights. On the whole Paul wrote to specific congregations - for example in Galatia, Rome, Phillipi. The letter of Peter is written to a range of churches and in it the writer is talking about broad Christian principles. One of the factors that the writer has in mind is that Christians are going through hard times. The government is against them, and not only this, most Christians are slaves at the bottom of the social scale. Christians are in the great heap of undistinguished, uneducated, unwashed humanity. The writer of First Peter sets himself to revision the universe so that all Christians everywhere can look at themselves in a new light. Carefully he writes it out: you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Carefully he bolds it on his word processor - and it leaps out at you - the distinctiveness of the church. Slaves, labourers, shopkeepers, teachers, nurses in everyday life, but distinctive because they are chosen; distinctive because they are a royal priesthood, distinctive because they are holy, that is to say, God’s own people. In these words God cuddles his people in their sorrow and hardship, in their fears and difficulties, in their times of uncertainty and trial, and God says, holding them tight: you are my own people, you are special, you are distinctive; you may be in the world but you are not of it.
John’s gospel is very familiar; often we read it at funerals. Do not let your hearts be troubled. But it’s more than comfort in the time of death, its about taking a direction in life that brings us to the dwelling places of the Father’s house, to the place where Jesus himself will be. So Jesus says, you know the way to the place where I am going... He then goes on to say, I am the way and the truth and the life. Words of hope and comfort to reassure us that we are on the right track. But at the same time these have been words that disturb and trouble. How come Jesus is the way the truth and the life? What about the Buddha? What about the prophet Mohammed? What about Jews who find that Torah is their way and truth and life? Again, you see, John is marking out a line to show the church is distinctive. People in the church do not have any old belief that suits them; they have belief in Jesus who is for them an example - the way; whose words hold special meaning - the truth; and whose life of closeness to God and unchallenged goodness sets him apart. Here are bold claims to a distinctiveness that is easily challenged. If Jesus were not the way how easy for people to find a better. If Jesus were not the truth how easy to find a better. If Jesus were not the life how easy to find a better. When Christians make this claim for Jesus they set him up to be a sitting duck. Yet after 2000 years we are still making the claim that Jesus is distinctive and there is no one quite like him. This very distinctiveness of Jesus is also our distinctiveness. No one comes to the Father except through me. As Jesus was so we must be - in the world yet not of it. Only so will our path lead in the direction of the dwelling places of the Father’s house.
Two weeks ago in my first sermon with you I talked about the way that the resurrection makes sojourners of us all. It puts our father’s house beyond an earthly habitation. Those two disciples of the Emmaus road found the risen Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life, and with hearts renewed they turned back to Jerusalem to become sojourners on the road. So it is with us all. Our place of belonging is not on this earth, our destiny is with God in a dwelling place in the Father’s house. Many things of this world claim our attention and we lose track of the significance of being sojourners. In their emphasis on distinctiveness, on a line of demarcation between the way of the world and the way of the church today’s readings call us again to take our place as sojourners. There’s Stephen forgiving the people who stoned him as if it doesn’t matter. And indeed, it didn’t matter for Stephen was praying the final prayer of a sojourner: Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. He’s a sojourner because his home is in Christ. There’s the writer of First Peter setting before the lowly Christians of the church their high standing: you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. They are none of those things as far as this world is concerned. They have no privilege, no power, no status, no importance; yet they are sojourners on their way to a destiny more exalted than the Emperor of Rome. And John: if I prepare a place for you I will come again and take you to myself. What else but an invitation to be sojourners!
I’ve been cutting up - and not for the first time - pallets for firewood this week. Without a bit of work we will be cold and miserable in winter. I know the value of work. I’ve been managing an occasional walk, and given all the walking I’ve ever done and enjoyed, I know the value of walking. But there is nothing quite to compare with being a sojourner in a far country and being given the chance to ring home and talk to your family. That’s what we do in worship.