It’s great to have Florence here as a visual aid this morning…for her presence here reminds that the church is not the building but about relationships. Her parents, Richard and Claire, are responsible for her – feeding changing getting up in the night when she needs it, comforting through emerging teeth stage, cleaning up projectile vomiting, helping her to go to school, walking with her through the challenge of the teenage years as she perhaps worries about who she is and how others see her, and then when she becomes an adult still being there for them – you will never stop being her parents.
The church is the people and with those relationships comes responsibility…for helping one another as Paul puts it to “stand firm”, and for working out our differences especially among leaders. So how can we continue to be committed to one another? What responsibilities do we have?
Let’s take each of those in turn…
- We are called to be there for each other
When I was a Curate and Katrina was the Team Ministry Youth Adviser, we used to go away for a week with young people from the church and surrounding area, along with other leaders including the Rector. We planned all sorts of fun activities during the day, and then spent time in the evening worshipping and reflecting on God’s word together. One day we were using a zip wire. I was asked to stand at the end of the zip wire, because the wire directed those who used it towards the pole at the end – of course that was a fault. So I was placed there to catch those who came down. And then this rather large boy came, zipping down the wire straight at me. Yes I was in place, and yes I knew what I had to do. But without thinking, just as he reached me, I carefully stepped out the way and he hit the wooden end pole with a thump. I simply wasn’t there for him, and he has the bruises to prove it! As church we are called to be there for each other.
The key says Paul is to remember what Christ has done: he has given us new life through the cross, he has made us citizens of heaven even now and one day he will transform our frail bodies ready for life in his presence face to face. Or as he put it in chapter 2, Jesus left heaven, lived died, rose again, ascended into heaven and now sits in the seat of power at God’s right hand. And one day he will call all peoples to kneel at his feet and recognise him as King of kings, and Lord of lords. Powerful stuff! And this is not just for me, for us together – we are called to be there for one another.
Paul is writing to people whom he loves dearly and he wants them keep on keeping on. So he says, here are some ways to help one another stand firm together: and amid all his guidance in chapter 4, he says, do it gently. Yes he has other advice:
- Rejoice: celebrate all that Christ has done and is doing by his Holy Spirit through the church. In this time of vacancy God is still very much at work – there is much to give thanks for.
- Don’t worry: there are always things to worry about – be concerned, as Jesus said, with seeing his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. In this life there will always be things that challenge us – lift up your eyes to what God is doing.
- Fill your mind with good things: make meeting together, and learning together a priority. Stick together.
- Keep on living out your faith, says Paul: or as our Bishop would say, keep on living the mission of Jesus
But above all, he says, let your gentleness be evident to all: if we realise how carefully and gently Christ has loved us, we will show that same gentleness and love to others.
Is there someone downcast in the church family? Pray for them, and find ways to gently include and encourage them. Is someone suffering? Pray for them first, don’t use information as gossip – turn it into prayer for them. Is someone missing? Go round and see them – be gentle, see what’s happening in their life. In this time of vacancy it’s all our responsibilities to ensure no one is excluded – but even when a new Rector arrives, it will remain our task, our job, not his/hers.
We also need to remember that in the Church of England today, those under 35, the so-called missing generations, are less and less visible in our church families. Work with them must be a priority, and Florence is a visual aid for that. It’s not about the last Rector, it’s about the future of the Church. Unless we intentionally prioritise work with these missing generations, the Church will not exist, and there won’t be anyone to be there for anyone else. We need to be there for them too!
- We are called to work out our differences.
The murder of Alan Henning the aid worker taking supplies to Syrian refugees is a salutary event. It is devastating for the rest of his family who have to live with the consequences of this ongoing ideological war. The reaction to what happened to him around the world shows that you cannot solve differences through violence and bloodshed. There has to be a deeper solution.
Too often the church focuses on what separates us rather than what we have in common. This is especially true of denominations – we do/don’t do adult baptism, and so on. But we do have so much in common – we follow the same Lord and Master, we want to see society transformed, we want to care for the needy and so on. But there is deep suspicion when we meet others from other churches, even Anglican ones.
Eudoia and Syntyche were key members of Paul’s leadership team if you like. They would have been on the PCC, or the vacancy committee, if they were members of the church community today. They supported Paul in his work and were alongside him as he preached, argued and engaged in his ministry. They were 2 of his dependable co-workers, and yet they were clearly forcing people to choose for them or against them. Remember Paul writing to the church at Corinth? I’m for Paul, I’m for Apollos? Paul planted , Apollos watered, but God made it grow, Paul reminds them. E and S have so much in common, yet they are causing a rift in the church family.
As followers of Christ we have a responsibility to keep short accounts with one another, even if it is costly to our pride and we get verbally attacked for doing so.
Jesus said, if someone has a problem with you (notice the way round he says this!), then you go and seek that person out before you worship (Matthew 5:24). If someone hurts you go and see them – privately, punctually and personally (Matthew 18). Live at peace with one another, as far it is down to you (Romans 12:18). We can get a bit worldly it seems to me – and we then stand on our rights: it was them, it’s their problem. But no, where there is division, it’s a problem for us all. No, I’m not saying we need to agree with one another over every issue – we won’t manage that. But first let’s seek to understand the other person’s view, and then if we do still not agree, let’s live gently together with one another. Let’s agree to love another but disagree over that one issue.
I was driving through the Leisure Centre car park at River Park. There was some hold up and after waiting I pressed on through a gap. There was someone coming the other way, and we ended up nose to nose. It was my priority but I sympathised and as I went past, tried to mouth that to the other driver. I pressed on and parked, and then suddenly that same car came and parked alongside me, with a squeal of rubber and door slamming. The driver got out angrily and asked me what I had said to them – I explained and gradually they calmed down. They had assumed the worst that I was berating them.
Especially in this time of vacancy, we need to assume the best of one another. We need to live out our unity in practice not just theoretically!
Paul’s letter to these people whom he clearly loves deeply begins and ends with grace – grace: God’s riches at Christ’s expense. Grace, undeserved favour poured out on you and me. These are the book ends of this letter – these should be the book ends of our relationships i.e. we should begin and end with grace, reminding ourselves we have received undeserved favour, and so we should offer that same undeserved favour to one another.