A Church Manifesto

Signs of God’s wonders in the world

A sermon preached at St Mary’s Marlborough on 27th January 2019
The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany: 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a & Luke 4.14-21

body of christIt’s not easy to be in an interregnum, as I’m sure the Churchwardens and many others will agree. The extra work, the extra responsibility and the uncertainty what the future of the church in Marlborough will look like. On the other hand, there is also, I suspect, a sense of excitement: what new opportunities will lie ahead of us, and the opportunity for people to explore their gifts within in the church community.

In many ways, we, here in Marlborough in 2019, are not in a dissimilar situation from the people in Corinth in the early days of the Church. A time of excitement, but also uncertainly, a time in which people discern what their gifts are they can offer to others and to God. And, I am sure, then as now, there is the problem of our human tendency to think that we ourselves are just that bit more important or more indispensable than the people around us.

It is precisely to this kind of community that Paul is writing his letter. A letter of encouragement and admonition. A letter of love and frustration. But maybe most of all, a letter full of wisdom and advice, both for the Corinthians in the first century, and us in Marlborough now.

Paul compares the Church to a body, a body with many members. Paul is not the first one to compare a community with a physical body: it was a familiar image in the Ancient world. Most commonly it was used to explain to those lower in the social hierarchy that they had to obey those in authority; just as our feet, our legs, arms and hands are controlled by the brain.

However, Paul revolutionises the image. For him, it is not about hierarchy, but about realising that each member individually is both indispensable and completely dependent on all other members. He writes “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’. All members of the body are indispensable, just like we gathered here this morning are all vital parts of the Church. This community would be different if one of us wasn’t here.

Intuitively we know this already. When someone is no longer here, we notice it. It’s hard to put that feeling into words, the feeling that we miss something when someone isn’t here any longer. It is not only about what they did, the gap on the rota, but the absence of their presence is felt.

Just as I think most of us recognise this feeling, I also think that most of us recognise that we don’t always notice people for who they are, even when they are sitting right next to us. I’m sure many of us will recognise the feeling of sitting next to someone we don’t know that well, and we don’t really want to engage, we’re not that interested in what they may have to offer or who they are.

When I find myself in that situation, more often than not, something happens that makes me talk to the person I was, not necessarily consciously, trying to avoid. And every time I discover that they are people with a story to tell, a part of the body of Christ, just as much as I am. And it is then that we realise that indeed our lives are enriched by those around us: we are dependent on those who walk alongside us.

One could say that this applies to any community, any place where people live together, and I think that is true. But what then makes the Church the body of Christ? Is there a difference between the Church and any other community, and if so, what is it? Although I think that we should not underestimate the value of any community, what sets the Church apart is its call to follow Christ, and this morning’s Gospel reading provides us with a good model of what that means.

In this reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is reading in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town. To put the reading in perspective: this passage immediately follows Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which in itself was immediately preceded by his Baptism. Both the passage in which we read about his temptation in the desert and this passage start by stating that Jesus was filled with the power of the Spirit.

So, that is maybe the first thing that makes the Church what it is, and that is that we are a community of baptised believers. That doesn’t mean that you’re not welcome if you haven’t been baptised or christened yet. But it does mean that we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and lead us, and Baptism is a way of acknowledging that. We believe that what we do is not in our own strength, but through the blessing and power of God. Again, we acknowledge that we are dependent, not just on each other, but even more so on God.

So Jesus stands up to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. I think one could say that, at the start of his ministry, this is his manifesto. At his Baptism, people heard who he was when God spoke ‘this is my son the beloved, with him I am well pleased’. Now we hear what he is going to do:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Luke 4. 18-19

So, could we take this as our manifesto as well? Actions can often speak louder than words. In our Baptism we acknowledge that all we have is given, and here we acknowledge that we all that we have to do is share: to bring the good news to the poor.

We are here to share what we have and what we believe, to challenge when we see injustice, and to heal when we see each other’s pain. In a way, that brings us back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Because none of us can do all of this, but together we believe we can.

It is by no means a comfortable vision of what the Church looks like, but a challenging one. But once more, it is not a challenge we face on our own, but together. We all have our role to play, but we cannot always see the whole picture. However, we can trust and believe that together and with God’s help we can play our part, and each be a sign of God’s wonders in the world.

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