7 April 2019 - APCM Sunday
You know how it is in families; how when they get together they recount the same old stories, rehearse the same phrases, laugh at the joke that has been told a thousand times before. It’s how families build and nurture a culture, a shared sense of identity and of belonging. And while every family has an identity, every family is also uniquely itself.
And churches are like families. Churches also need a shared sense of identity. And all churches share things in common - every churches identity is based on Scripture, on the person of Jesus Christ, on bread and wine at communion, the shared experience of prayer, worship and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and in service to the local community. That’s true for every church - because every church does these things. That’s what it is to be a church.
But just as every family culture is unique, so each church has it’s own particular way of being church. Each church has it’s own identity; that’s what makes us this church not just a theoretical church. Because God’s church is never a theory. God deals in real churches, made up of real people, with real gifts, serving in real communities. He doesn’t call us to be some kind of text book church that we can put together from a manual, he wants us to be this church, in this place, doing the particular work he has called us to do.
And that means discerning who we are called to be, and it means re-telling that call over and over again.
And I want to tell you, as I have done on APCM Sunday for the last couple of years, what I understand to be the core call that God is making to us here in St Mary’s. It’s not a list of priorities or things we’re going to do, although there are things we have to do as a result, it’s a description of our DNA, it’s who we are called to be. It’s our identity.
And it’s in five parts. Hopefully, if you’ve been around the church for a while, you’ll recognise them. And if you’re here for the first time, you can tell me whether you think some of this stuff shows!
5 strands of who we are and who we’re called to become.
First, we want to welcome everyone and anyone; all are welcome. We want to be known for the quality of our welcome. Not just for our welcome of people who look like us, who behave like us or who value the same things as us, but of everyone. On our new website, which we are working on at the moment, it will say, big and bold on the front page - ‘Come as you are’. Come as you are, whatever is going on in your life, whatever you believe or don’t believe, whether you’re in church every Sunday, haven’t been for some time or are here for the first time ever.
And that means more than a smile on the door - important as that is. It means being welcomed into a community, it means being invited to join in, to come round for a meal. It means being able to play your part. It means getting to know each other, supporting each other in tough times and celebrating together when things go wrong. Everyone is welcome. Come as you are.
Second, Jesus is at the centre of everything that we do. ‘God is the interesting thing about religion’, the author Evelyn Underhill wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1930, ‘and people are thirsty for God’. What makes church, ‘church’ is that we proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. And so our beating heart is prayer, our every breath is worship, our mind is shaped by Scripture, our desire is to be more like Jesus tomorrow than we are today. Jesus is the centre of everything that we are and everything that we do.
Third, we will give priority to serving children, young people and families. There is wisdom in the phrase ‘do a few things and do them well.’ Don’t try to be everything or to do everything; do a few things and do them well. Of course we will do all the things that churches do, and we are here for everyone of all ages, but the priority for us is to support children and teenagers to grow in faith, which also means supporting families to grow in faith. So when we have a choice about where to spend extra money, or where to give more time, or where to pay most attention, it will be to young people; both those who are part of the church, and those who aren’t yet. That’s why we have invested in Blend, Cafe Toddlers, the Sunday groups, Youth Group and the Weald Family Hub. And we will continue to do that.
And, as we’ve been exploring together in our Raising faith series, that focus is for all of us. The children and young people in this church belong to us all - we are all responsible for them.
I want to show you a photo - it was taken recently by Emma-Lou. It captures clearly for me what kind of church we’re called to be. It includes parents with their children, a Grandad (Antony) with his grand daughter and two adults with children that aren’t theirs on their laps - and everyone looks joyful; not just superficially happy, but joyful; in the way that you are when you are at home, when you belong, when you know that you’re loved. Kids and adults of all generations all together, and all at home. That’s who we are. That’s who we need to be.
And one quick and specific call - our Sunday groups are at the very heart of our church life; they are the foundation of our flourishing. From September a number of very long serving Sunday group leaders are stepping down, and we actively need new people to step into their roles. If you’d like to be part of this crucial ministry, please speak to me or Caroline.
All are welcome, Jesus at the centre, children and families as our priority
And fourth, we want to help people grow in a seven day faith. Sunday church is great - I love being here together like this; worshipping, learning together, sharing bread and wine, hanging out with each other - but the purpose of all of this is to enable us to be followers of Jesus in the school playground, in our families, when we’re at work and while we’re out and about in our communities. We go to church on Sunday in order to better be church from Monday to Saturday.
And fifth, we want to be generous with everything we’ve been given. In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus sends his disciples out to share the good news that he has been teaching them, he says this: ‘As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.’ We know, individually and as a church, that we have been given so much and in every way, and we want to be generous with it all.
And that means encouragement to be generous with our time, our gifts and our money. It also means encouragement to be generous with the faith that we have received. That greatest of gifts - the gift of a relationship with God - isn’t something for us to store away inside, just for me - it is a gift that is meant to be given away. To know that we are loved by God, not for what we do, whether we’re successful or how much money we’ve got in the bank, but simply for who we are, is a gift that everyone needs - and we are the ones who have to pass on what we have come to know.
And we want to be generous with our brothers and sisters in other churches, especially those in the local area. To offer our resources for their benefit - and we are seriously looking at enabling Caroline to have time to support local churches that want to plant Blend in their own villages to do that this year.
We want to be generous with everything we have been given.
All are welcome, Jesus at the centre, children and families as our priority, a 7-day faith, generous with all we have.
That’s who we are. That’s who we want to be. That’s who God calls us to become. Amen