Why bother with the Church?

Notes on the Sunday address by Rev Ric Holland, 23 April 2017

Acts 2. V 42 “They met constantly to hear the apostles teach, to share the common life, to break bread and to pray….A sense of awe was everywhere” “They held everything in common and made general distribution to those in need”

WOW. This was the beginning of the church. It was cataclysmic .We recalled last Sunday how the followers of Jesus had had their lives resurrected. Well straight away they wanted to meet, to share that joy and to discover more about what this meant for their lives and community.

This was the beginning of the church. Our church. It still applies.

And this is why today I want to consider to consider the church. Why bother…

Remember Jesus last meal with his friends. They shared a meal, broke bread and then Mk. 14. v 26 “They sang a hymn”. This was the Passover hymn and was effectively part of a liturgy that Jesus was entering into with his friends. It was Jesus reminding his followers that an important part of his future message was what we would call “Church”.

So let’s just think about that.

Firstly, what is this “church.” If you ask that in the street, or what might be called the ‘pub test’ or better still the ‘pew test’ you’d get a range of different answers.

Well to start with you’d get what is essentially the traditional view of the church. There is a clear body of opinion which holds the church’s nature is defined by her faithful development from the original apostolic community and that she derives her authority from that. They hold on to what is called “apollostic succession” i.e. that the divine authority given to the disciples from Jesus himself is physically passed down from disciple to disciple to disciple, and that when clergy are ordained they are done so as part of that succession and are therefore elevated to a higher status than the person sitting in the pew. John Wesley is amongst many who completely contradicted that with his concept of what he called “The priesthood of all believers”.

Another view of what is the church is that it is defined by a proper statement of her faith and doctrine. The prime concern must be to ensure that all Christians give assent to correct doctrinal formulas and these must be defended at all costs. Some of these formulas go back centuries. The Nicene Creed, recited weekly in many churches was formulated in 326AD at the Council of Nicea and the Apostles Creed at the Council of Milan in 390 AD. Inevitably the words and concepts of these statement are nonsense today and to most people are totally meaningless for e.g. What does “Jesus descended into hell mean”? And yet they are repeated week I week out by millions of people. These somehow what appear to be sacred holy documents are those things at all. Jesus never mentioned any of this criteria and whilst these unintelligible words are being repeated often the actual teachings and examples of his ministry are forgotten.

Then there those people who define the church by the institution. Many people just claim ownership of being a catholic, or a Presbyterian etc. They may have association with a local church; usually a building or they may simply have been told by parents that that is what they are, irrespective of any presence in or understanding of a particular denomination. I was talking to someone only last week who when they discovered I was a Minister turned to their parent and said now what am I? and Mum stutteringly said yes I think we’re Anglicans, in the same way as you might only half knowingly say ‘now what’s my blood group’ ah yes I think it’s “A rhesus positive” . Sometimes this concept of the church is directly related to a specific building. So people can point to a building and say ‘That’s my church’. I lived in a village once when a small Anglican Church building with no congregation and huge debt was closing down. There was an outcry from the village. Petitions, letters to the local MP, fund raising events. All the works. The church building was saved. Still nobody went. It was an empty building, not even used for community events. But the village still had its Church.

 Then there those who define church a bit similar to the old creedal concept, but without the trappings; The church is made up of people who claim to have had an evangelical conversion experience and who have asked Jesus into their heart to be their saviour to save them from their sins and to secure a place in heaven. It’s still pretty formulaic… you do and say certain things and then you’re OK.

As you might expect, whilst those definitions do reflect a present state of play as it presently exists, I don’t believe that any of them reflect that group of disciples who ate with Jesus and Sang a Hymn, and who only a few weeks later, as recorded in Acts, were meeting with each other, singing, praying, learning, sharing and giving back to the community.

This is the church at its best. And this is why we do what we do.

Firstly we meet together. We come from different places, with different lives, with amazing variation in our experiences, both good and bad. We enjoy each other’s company share in each other’s joy and support each other through difficult times. We console each other when we don’t get stuff right. And we don’t always get it right.

And it happens to all of us at different times. This is a great thing about belonging here. We are all equal. When we are here we are one. Whether we live in a big flash house or a more humble dwelling, whether we are highly educated or not, whether we are young, old big, small, male or female, gay or straight, black or white, whether we’ve been coming to this church for 40 years or whether it’s your first time whether you’ve transferred from another church like Peter, and Joan or whether you have had no church background. All are equal here. And we meet together just like those first disciples who were also very different from each other but one when they came together.

When we meet together we do stuff. We sing. Why? Well the church has been doing it for centuries. Yes and in so doing we identify with many before us. We enjoy it. And it’s very very good for us.

Singing lowers stress levels. It releases stored muscle tension and decreases the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol in the blood stream. Singing improves mental alertness, improved blood circulation and an oxygenated blood stream allows more oxygen to reach the brain.

Music is and will always be an important and vital part of our church. We are very fortunate to have the quality of music that we have here week on week. We’ve already thanked our fabulous musician today and I don’t often have the opportunity to publicly do so for our organist. It’s a privilege to have Rhys as part of our worship team.

The power of music to reduce stress is well attested. The soothing power of music is well established. It has a unique link to our emotions, so it can be an extremely effective stress management tool. It has a tremendously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies. Music has been used for hundreds of years to treat illnesses and restore harmony between mind and body.  I discovered recently the work of a music therapist, Andrew Schuman who plays classical guitar in hospital to critically ill patients with quite remarkable results. He uses the phrase ‘music penicillin’ and has experiences time and time again of people coming out of comas, and people who seemed to be totally unrecoverable, beginning a pathway to recovery. (His 3 best music styles have proven to be Gershwin, the Beetles and way out front Bach, which we of course experienced today).

So singing and music central to what we do hear, in line with the original disciples. Nothing there about formulaic creeds, or strict religious observance, just coming together with music and yes “teaching”.

Learning about our faith, its history, where it came from, where it’s going and its relevance for the now. That’s why when Jesus read the old scriptures he “interpreted’ them. That’s what we have to do.

These writings have been put together over thousands of years by hundreds of different people for a whole range of purposes, with a massive number of styles and methods. They are really important to our faith but it’s totally impossible to understand them if we don’t consider their history, purpose and style. Much of them are not to be taken literally but they are to be taken seriously and that’s another thing we do in our church.

Then, of course, like those early disciples we pray.  Prayer is pretty central to most religions. It is here too. But I believe that there is a huge difference between prayers and asking god for favours, or even expecting that if we say the right words and do the right thing then god will reward us. To me prayer is a force which flows through us, is transformed into meditation and can then become a call to action.

I believe it’s corporate; we do it together and we have the opportunity to reflect on our lives and the world around us and in so doing it naturally leads on to commitment. It’s an act of commitment to address in whatever way we can the issues that are around us. I know I’ve mentioned this to you before but to me it’s a wonderful and simple commentary on prayer” Naval memorial in Plymouth “Pray to god little sailor, but swim for the shore”.

All these are important things we do to be ‘church’.

But WHY do we do these? Why do we bother and why do we want other people to join us?

  1. Because we are continually looking for a place to connect spiritually in the communities we live and where the church is.
  2. Because we want to engage ourselves and our families in meaningful mission and service.
  3. Because we want collectively to learn about the art and practices of love, peace, joy, forgiveness and generosity in the world.
  4. Because we value inclusivity and mystery above a rigid set of prescribed beliefs.
  5. Because we still love the example that Jesus set, but will no longer accept the ancient texts as literal, inerrant, infallible or universally authoritative.

I believe there are many people out there who would want to share that with us. We’ll address that next week as we consider the second half of the text “They sang a hymn….and went out into the Mount of Olives”.

I believe St M’s is very special in being flexible enough to embrace all comers and for me that is a vital part of being church.

Of course the other churches around us are different, but as we demonstrated on Good Friday when more than 15 churches walked the Way of the Cross around Melbourne, we can be alongside each other in our faltering attempts to follow the of Christ.

As I described those young ministers hundreds of them in the early part of the 19th century who died in remote parts of the world proclaiming the gospel, I’m sure I wouldn’t agree with them on theology or on their understanding of the Bible but who am I in comfort my home and here today in this church to deny them my strong colleagueship and fellow discipleship. More recently in the 60’s and 70’s when rebellion and violence was burning its way through parts of West Africa many Christian Missionaries were martyred and whether they died clutching crucifixes, leather bound reference bibles, or tattered copies of Paul Tillech’s existentialist The New Being, they died for the same Lord and the same church.

I am humbled to be part of it and will for ever grasp the opportunity to be with fellow followers breaking bread and singing hymns, but never forgetting to go out into the Mount of Olives.

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