Is it all over for the Church?
Short sermon at St James, Colwall, Easter 7, 2015
1 John 5.9-13; John 17.6-19
When we think about the diminishing numbers of church attenders in our country, and we see how the Church does not have the same influence it had when I and most of you were young, it is easy to become worried about the future of English Christianity. Priests and ministers notice that they can no longer take for granted some basic Christian education or knowledge of the Bible or of how to navigate our orders of service. Are we the last gasp of a dying breed? Is it all over for the Church? And, if so, are we as deluded as the new atheists would have us believe?
Well, you wouldn’t expect me, as a Christian priest, to say yes to any of that. I grant that church and congregational life as we know it is helpful to a diminishing number of people. But you must know as I do that there is a great spiritual hunger in our society. When people stop believing in God or the Church, they don’t believe in nothing: they are more likely to believe in anything.
So what account can we give of our faith to people who do not share it? What is at the heart of the gospel, the testimony that Jesus gave about God’s purpose for the world? We cannot begin to answer that by demanding that everyone should have learned the basics at school and Sunday school. We cannot, in my opinion, expect that they should begin by coming to church without any preparation because, though they would be given a warm and sincere welcome by our congregations, they would be entering a world of ritual and language and shared assumptions which is foreign to them. It would seem either overwhelming or meaningless.
What is at the heart of our faith that we could take to them? This is not a question about theology or creeds – that’s about belief in the mind. I suggest that the heart of our faith (and remember that the word faith and the word trust are closely linked in our English language as it is in the Greek language of the New Testament) – the heart of our faith is about what God does for us and promises us. As the author of our epistle pointed out, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” We do not simply believe – as some non-Christians think we believe – in some heavenly reward when we die. No, our hunch, our trust, our hope, our faith is that God has entered into human history and invites anyone who is willing, to a new, a powerful, a joyful God-given way of living. It brings joy to its recipients; it gives hope to the hopeless; it offers healing to the sick in body and mind; it gives direction to the lost and opens our eyes to see the world as God sees it. And that life is ours here and now, while we are living. Of course, we are not unrealistic. We know there is sin – cruelty, greed, corruption and wilful wickedness of every sort – and there is sickness and disaster too. But we have God’s promise that the victory will be God’s, for God’s Son and for the Body of Christ, his Church. In the strength that God supplies, we together are already in God’s unfolding vision for humanity and for the world.
It is this that we have to share with people who do not know about God’s love and purpose. It is the quality of our relationships with everyone we encounter that will give away what we have found. We may not inspire other people to come to our church, but we can go to them and see what God is doing and wanting them and us to do and to be. The Church as we know it now, may not exist in a hundred years’ time. If that proves to be the case, we can be sure that the God, who gives life to us all, will have led our successors into new ways of being together and of worshipping. As the angels at Jesus’ tomb remarked, why would we look for the living among the dead? God’s purpose moves on and invites and inspires God’s children in every generation. Perhaps our task now is to discern where God is already at work in ways we have not yet spotted, and to give thanks for all the signs of new life that are to be found. Only our fear holds us back, and we have no need to be afraid. As Jesus told his disciples: “I am with you to the end of time.”