A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 4th August 2019
During this service a child called Florence was baptised.
Here’s a question you probably weren’t expecting to be asked this morning: why on earth have you bothered to turn up? I mean, it’s a lovely day, the shops are open, a walk in the park or a weekend in the country are appealing alternatives, if not a leisurely brunch with friends. There are a hundred and one other things to be doing. Why have you turned up?
Could it be from habit? Have you been coming to church for as long as you remember and this is just what you do? Could it be because you like the people who you meet here? After all, churchgoers are generally pretty likeable people and we all need a little company from time to time. Could it be you’re here because you’ve been invited today by Dan and Rosie, joining them in this rite of passage for Florence? That’s a pretty good reason to be here. It would be rude to refuse, and she is very cute.
And why am I here? Is it like the old joke, “Mum, I don’t want to go to church today.” “You have to dear, you’re the vicar.” Am I here because I just have to be?
Why are we here?
Truth be told, we all have a multitude of reasons for being here this morning. And we can be honest about that.
But listen to these words of the Pulitzer Prize winning author and novelist Annie Dillard, “On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
Isn’t that great? Imagine the person sitting next to you for Morning Service dressed as though the roof were to fall in, or the Thames rise up and overwhelm us.
What Dillard is saying of course is that what we do here matters. It’s not safe at all. The church is a far bigger deal than we realise.
That’s one of the themes of this next section of Ephesians, through which we are reading this summer. Why does the church matter? All this time, effort and cash we spend, why do we bother? Ephesians 3 has some startling things to say about that.
One thing it says is that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for everyone. What God has done in Jesus and what he’s doing is for all. This letter to the Ephesians was written by (or in the spirit of) a man named Paul, an enemy of Jesus Christ and the early church. But one day he met Jesus, and everything changed, so much so that he couldn’t stop talking about it. So far in Ephesians he’s been talking about this change that Jesus brings. Listen to a little bit of Ephesians 2, just to get an idea: But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Jesus Christ. For by grace you have been saved. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians:2:4-10).
This is what Jesus Christ has done – not started a new religion or anything as boring and unnecessary as that – he has raised humanity from the dead to new life. Or, to use a bit of jargon, we have been saved, and all of this God’s work, not ours. All we can do is simply receive this gift by trusting in Jesus Christ, by having faith. It’s the declaration that Florence’s parents and godparents will make. If you have not really understood why we talk about faith in Jesus Christ (not just ‘believing in God’ like I believe there’s a city called Cape Town, even though I’ve never been there), then this moment of baptism is a moment to ponder it.
But Paul goes on; it’s not just good news, it’s good news for everyone.
It hasn’t always been the case. The story of the Bible is the story of a good world created, and gone awry. But instead of writing us all off, God chose to save the world from itself. He did that by choosing a people, a small nation called Israel. He told them that through their faith and allegiance, he would use them to bless the whole world. But Israel mostly missed the theme; for them this blessing was tied in with being Jewish – something that leaves most people out of the picture.
But now says Paul, things have changed. He uses the word ‘mystery’ a lot in these verses. We use that word to mean a puzzle, or something difficult to understand. But in Paul’s day a mystery was a secret known to the initiated. And the word used in Ephesians 3 tells us that we’ve been let in on this mystery, we’re in on the secret, which has been the original purpose of God to save the world from itself. And verse 6 tells us what the mystery is: “The mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” Through the Gospel, it has become possible for all people to be part of this rescue plan, by becoming part of his body. In other words, the gospel is for everyone.
But you might have missed the main thing there, which is how God does it. Because God does it by bringing the church into being, by uniting Jew and Gentile. That’s why were here, because God has chosen the church to be the means through which all people come to know this great mystery. There are about 15000 people who live in this parish, and if you count the number of people we all know through our networks, the number would be an order of magnitude bigger. The gospel is for each one of those 15000 plus, because the good news is that Jesus saves not just one kind of person, but everyone. The church is a bigger deal than we realise because it’s the means through which God seeks to bring everyone into the knowledge of his love.
But that’s not all. Listen to Paul talk about what the church is for, it’s mind-boggling, crash-helmet, life-jacket wearing purpose. In verses 10-12 he says this, “…so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realised in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.’
We have a much higher purpose than we realise. There is something in what we do here when we gather that has a spiritual as well as a physical reality. We need not today get into the meaning of what Paul talks about when he talks of “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” We will return to that in in Ephesians 6 I’m sure. But let us think instead, not of spiritual powers, but of the powers and forces in the world. We all know how difficult it is to change the world. Many of us think we are pretty powerless in the face of the way the world is, and the way it protects the interests of some and not all.
But, reading “rulers and authorities” in one way, what we can say is that the purpose of God is that through the church God wants to change this way of the world. If the church is for everyone, and if the church is the means through which God is making one new humanity for all (another of Paul’s themes in Ephesians) then the church is a pretty big deal after all. Certainly crash-helmet territory. This is the mission of the church – to be a new way of being human which transcends divides that separate human beings from one another and then to bear witness to those with power and authority that this is what God wants for all people. God does not accept the way the world is, God does not shrug his shoulders at the way the world is and say “well there’s not much I can do about that.” He get’s stuck in, first in Jesus, then through the body of Jesus Christ in the world, the church. The church is God’s pilot scheme for the reconciled universe of the future.
So belonging to the church is a pretty big deal as far as God is concerned. When a child or adult is baptised, we are not just welcoming a new life into the world, we are celebrating a new recruit to the cause of universal reconciliation. No pressure there then, Rosie, Dan and the godparents. I bet you didn’t think that was what you were taking on.
But the truth is, not many of us do. As Dillard says, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” The church is a bigger deal than we realise. It displays God’s ultimate purpose and power to the world. And coming to church, about which this sermon is not primarily about, is the gathering of the recruits, they place and the people among whom we acknowledge how far we fall short of the call and the privilege we have been given to be part of this purpose, and the community in which we return to the source of this power and purpose, the risen Lord Jesus.
So, friends, after we have finished worshipping, don your life jackets, put on your crash helmets, assemble at your muster stations, and be the church, not just for an hour on a Sunday, and not just out of habit, love of the people around you, or because you happen to be the Vicar, but because in and through us God wishes to work his purpose out, not just for the in-crowd or the elect, but for everyone.