Is going to church like train spotting – Only for Anoraks? Do you ever feel coy or embarrassed admitting that you go to church? If so, why do you feel like that? Is it because others may think you’re a weirdo who hasn’t got a life and only sad people go to church? Is it because of the stereotypes that exist about the church and are often exaggerated by the media?
Perhaps we think people will avoid us because they assume we are going to quote the Bible at them, or give them the religious third degree. Or is it that we’re not sure how to properly express our idea that a church is a place of ordinary people who share basic beliefs that make a difference to how we live our lives -- beliefs that have a positive impact in the world at large?
What is the church?
Is it a building? Yes, we have a building, and the building is important for a number of reasons. It stands out in the local community as a landmark that speaks of the Christian presence in the Hyde Park and Paddington area. It links us into the past and gives hope for the future. It speaks of stability and continuity. It is a place of safety and refuge, not only for us but also for any who pass by.
And yet, the church is much more than a building. Church is not just the Church of England, but also Roman Catholic and Orthodox and Lutheran and Baptist and Methodist. You may well ask: when it is apparent that there are disagreements about what constitutes the Church, can all of them be truly Church, or is one pre-eminently so? I would say that all the mainstream churches are the Church. Differences reflect the diversity of Christian understanding -- which in this life is incomplete -- and we should acknowledge diversity as healthy and not seek to make everyone narrowly conformist.
My reasons for saying this come from the gospels and from St Paul. In the gospels there no such thing as Church. Jesus is portrayed as being in conflict with the rulers of the synagogue, mainly because they are so rule bound. In contrast to the Scribes and Pharisees who insist on strict adherence to the rule book (which gets updated regularly and becomes more difficult to follow by the week) Jesus lays down only two conditions: the first is that we should love God beyond anything else, and the second that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.
If these are the only conditions, then why bother about Church at all? The answer is that it is not possible to love in isolation -- we must have other people and other people means being in a community. To take the first command of Jesus, it means to love God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- three persons in one being. God is three persons in relation and hence a community. Jesus in his earthly life belonged to a number of communities: family and friends, Nazareth, the disciples (to mention the ones we know about).
It was St Paul who developed the embryonic notion of Church as community, particularly in his use of the Body of Christ metaphor: ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’ (1 Corinthians 12). If we think of Church as community and not just as a building we begin to have a stronger sense of belonging and commitment. The building, though important, is not the thing that binds us together; it is our coming together as the people of God with a common purpose, to love God and our neighbours.
At St John’s we have a lively and gifted community, although sometimes it looks as though only a few of us are sharing our gifts. St Paul encourages the Corinthians to use their talents for the benefit of their community; I would encourage all of you to do the same for St John’s. As St Paul says ‘… there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord... . Being part of a community means being involved. If you’re not sure what is needed or what you have to offer just speak to the clergy or a person who does something that might interest you.
We began with the question: what is Church? It IS a building, but most importantly it is a community of people who share common beliefs about life and their responsibilities towards their fellow humans. Church as the body of Christ is a very powerful image that binds us to Christ as the head who forms part of the communion of God with the Father and Spirit. The Church is about being in relation to God and to each other. The potential for the triumph of good over evil in the world lies in the transforming power of the Spirit working in our lives and in our community. The Church is us, you and me. Don’t be shy about telling people that Church is not something you do, but something you are.
And you don’t need an anorak.