A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

On the reopening of the Church for Public Worship

after the Coronavirus Lockdown

Sunday 5th July 2020

Come to [the Lord Jesus], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is good, Lord, to be here. So the hymn goes, quoting the Gospels.

It is good to be here because we have not seen each other physically since mid-March or even earlier. Now we have to learn how to be with one another physically with the restrictions placed upon us.

It is good to be here because, as Scripture says, it is not good to be alone. We are made to be people-in-community. I don’t know about you but my sense of my mental health and wellbeing has yo-yoed in recent months. Don’t be surprised if it takes a while to adjust to being back with others. Be gentle with yourselves.

And it’s good to be here, in the Lord’s house, with the Lord’s people, at the Lord’s table, because Christian faith is always lived out in community. It’s been wonderful being able to connect with people through Facebook and Zoom, and we’re not going to abandon that now even as we stream this service to people in their homes. But, wonderful though it has been, without question a Godsend, it’s not quite the same is it? Some of you may remember I had a period out of ministry just over five years ago. The day I returned one of our Welcomers, who was the first person to see me on my first Sunday back, said to me, “Welcome home, Simon.” I don’t think he knew how much that meant to me. So let me say the same to you this morning. Welcome home.

There’s been a lively, and occasionally acrimonious, debate while we’ve been away, about the place of church buildings in the Christian faith. For some, the physical building is simply a gathering place for the saints of God; for others, far much more than that, a sacramental sign of the grace of God. Today is not the day for rehearsing any of that again. But it does give me pause to consider what both sides have in common: that we, the people of God, are the church. What we have missed, most of all, is one another.

For me, and I’m sure many others of us, it was having to miss Holy Week and Easter that was the biggest challenge. It’s partly why I’ve chosen an Easter reading this morning and why we’re lighting the Paschal Candle for the first time. A text that was critical in the life of the Early Church on Easter Day was Psalm 118 and especially verse 22, which is quoted in our first reading from 1 Peter: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” It’s saying something about Jesus as the one who was denied and destroyed by the Jewish religious leaders of his day, who yet becomes the one on whom God builds his new temple, the church. Jesus is the cornerstone, the stone on whom the building rests and grows, but the church – the people – are those who go to build the great new building. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ..” Building first on the rejected-but-risen Jesus, God builds his church, each one of us a key part of the building.

It’s an image that has remained with me for a while during lockdown. God building us up. For a while, it may have seemed like the church had been torn down, along with so much else, by Covid-19, but we have found new ways of being and doing church. We have been forced to innovate by disruption, and yet God has continued to do his work.

Now we are back together again and God continues to build his church. We would be foolish to ignore what we have learned, of course. Foolish to ignore those who, as yet, cannot be with us in person. Foolish to ignore those who we have touched in recent months, through online worship, Coronavirus Angels and other pieces of ministry and service. But a wise builder uses both old and new building methods to build his church, and God is the master builder.

So let me offer three very simple ways of allowing this image of God building his church to influence us as we begin to gather again.

First, let’s start with God. He is the builder, building on Jesus Christ. It would be easy to rush back to our programmes and projects, to try and carry on as if nothing had happened. That would be my natural option, rushing back into church life as though its future depended upon me, or you. No, let’s start with Jesus. Let’s use his example and his presence in the Church to be the basis on which we build.

Second, let’s focus on people. We’ve had time apart, and it’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well if it does, let’s invest our time in relationship one with another. We may have to do that from a safe distance for a while, but the church of God is built on people sharing the life of faith together. Let’s pray together more, let’s eat together more, let’s be more aware of the sadness and challenge of one another’s lives  and, in due course, let’s celebrate together as well. We’re about to approve a Mission Action Plan, an exciting set of ambitions and goals for the next five years. We’ll be sharing that with you in the coming weeks and months. But, at its heart must be having a heart for people, just as God does.

And finally, let’s pace ourselves. I don’t know about you but many of us are pretty tired out after a really demanding few months. We’ve come to appreciate the simpler things in life, I’m sure, and many of us are wondering what normal will look like after this pandemic. I think the normal we return to will need to be more generously and kindly paced than life was before it. We should consider more, reflect more on our actions, take time to make decisions, time to listen to one another. God is building his church, slowly and carefully, by changing us and the hearts of others. Let’s tune in to God’s pace, being kind and gentle with one another as we do so.

It is good, Lord, to be here. By heck, it’s good to see all of you as well. Let’s be thankful that God has brought us back together again and, even as we remember those who aren’t here right now, or maybe who will never come back, let us journey on as God builds us into the spiritual house he wants us to be.