2.50pm on Thursday 13 June 2024

Sermon preached at All Saints Gosforth on 23rd January 2011

'Breathing in and Breathing Out'

Readings 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 and Matthew 4:12-23

Can I first of all like to thank you for inviting me to join you this morning. I have greatly enjoyed working with a number of you over the last year during the Lent courses, the Parish Away Day and with those who have been exploring their callings in Have you seen a Burning Bush course.  Today is part of a discernment process to see how we might build on this work.  Our hope is that we can explore some fresh ways to support and encourage each other in our everyday discipleship

When I was ordained as a deacon nearly 10 years ago, I served as a curate at St Cuthbert’s Church in Darlington.  The building has accessibility problems in that to get in by the main door you have to navigate three steps down.  I quickly learned that at the end of the service the most helpful thing I could do was to stand on the middle step as people left the building.  That way I could greet people by the hand and should they need it, help them up the steps.  I was then in a good position to give them a gentle push out into the world where God was waiting to join up with them to begin their work of service together during the rest of the week.  As we have discussed earlier the church exists in its gathered form and also in its dispersed form –breathing in and breathing out.  The dismissal is the hinge point which marks the sending out just as the greeting marks the gathering.  It is a cyclical process and one phase cannot exist without the other.  Church is the whole process and not just the gathering part.  Most of us spend at least 98% of our lives as the dispersed community so what happens there seems pretty important really.  We must never trivialise the dispersed life – being a good neighbour can be dangerous.  Faithful dispersed church living has a cutting edge that brings us into contact with real pain and fear.  Our gathering reminds us that we meet not as isolated individuals but as part of community and that community exists even though we may not physically be together for some time.  We always are the church - members together of the body of Christ. 

Sometimes it can feel in this cycle of gathering and dispersing, that the gathering takes more of our attention and mental energy.  This was certainly the case in the Church in Corinth as we heard in Paul’s letter today.  The Church in Corinth was in an unholy mess.  It is full of division and quarrelsome personalities who all wanted things there way.  Paul makes it clear that a divided church invalidates the gospel and it is as though Christ himself is being torn apart as the church is being torn apart.  Whether gathered or dispersed, the church exists only to focus on Jesus Christ and his power to save.  Now I am not in any way suggesting that you are like the church in Corinth, I can see already that you are a model of unity and agreement, but Paul does remind us of the constant struggle in the church throughout the ages to believe in Jesus and not to believe in the Church. At the end of this week of prayer for Christian Unity it is helpful to keep focused on the truth that binds us together in our diversity as we pray for unity within the whole church body.

We do run the risk that the gathering can seem as an end in itself.  I think of the story of the vicar who proudly introduces George to the visiting Bishop as someone who has been a faithful server in the church Sunday by Sunday for 25 years.  Yet the vicar fails to mention to the Bishop that George happens to be the Chief Executive of a Health Authority.  It was as though this had nothing to do with his Christian life. Or the teacher who is regularly brought out and prayed for and commissioned for her work as a Sunday School teacher but her work as a special needs teacher in a tough school is never mentioned on a Sunday morning.  People who work, and there is so much more to work than just a paid job, so that include people who are retired if you ever get there- are sometimes given the impression that what they do during the week is less valued than ‘proper’ Christian jobs.  Their work is seen as secular and somehow less spiritual.  This reinforces the sense of division that Alan Ecclestone who is quoted on the pew sheet, and After Sunday seeks to heal.  That is even if we know what each other does in the other 6 days of the week.  It’s good that you have started to learn more through about each others dispersed church contexts with its challenges and joys. 

And even when the church does encourage people to make more of a connection between Sunday and Monday, its all too easy to induce a sense of guilt that somehow what you need to do is to bring a bit of Sunday into your already stretched or busy everyday life or be doing some subtle evangelising around the coffee machine. 

I was speaking with a GP recently who explained that from the time she arrived at work till the time she finished her day there just was no time to sit and pray or read her Bible or contemplate with other like minded workers about God and his goodness.  She just couldn’t fit any more God bits into her day.  It seems that she had never been encouraged to think that the very work she was doing was a fitting expression of her Christian life in itself and that through her work she and God were already working hand in hand for the wider good.  We have to learn to see our dispersed life as a legitimate expression of our life in Christ – after all that is where we mostly encounter him.  God’s church falters from exhaustion because Christians erroneously think that God has given them a mission to perform in the world. Rather, the God of mission has given his church to the world. It is not the church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world. Our task is to join in with what God is up to in the very ordinariness of daily life.  But that means we have to learn to recognise his movement in life and be prepared to respond. What difference might it make to us as disciples and to the life of the world if we could refocus the value we place on our dispersed church lives?                         

One of the ways that God works in the world is to call each of us.  Today’s Gospel reading helps us to explore this part of our discipleship.  Jesus has now focused his unfolding prophetic ministry in Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee.  He begins the process of calling his disciples.  It seems that Jesus calls very ordinary people doing ordinary work.  No-one must think that ‘people like me just don’t get called.’  You clearly don’t have to know lots of stuff and meet any required level of competence. You just have to be willing to follow.  Interestingly Jesus encounters his disciples whilst they are getting on with the daily work so that gives us a hint as to where we are likely to discover our call too.   He calls them to become fishers of people.  He doesn’t invalidate their craft and their identity as fishermen.  Instead he wants them to be disciples who will approach their calling as disciples just like fishermen approach their craft. There are lesson here for us about how we engage with others we meet.  To be a good fisherman you need endless patience.  You need to be willing to take the risks and get into deep water.  You need to go where the fish are as they will never come to you.  You need to be quiet and not splash about too much.  You need to have an eye for the moment –discern the right time and place to caste your net.  You need to be able to cope with endless disappointment.

Our dispersed church living requires us to adopt these qualities in the way we engage with those we meet in daily work and life.  On writer puts it like this: ‘Your Christian service begins quite modestly with listening to the questions of others, talking them over and holding your peace. They all have questions, the neighbour and the colleague at work, the head of a firm and the employee, the merchant, the public official, the farmer, the union official, the politician, and the atheist. Whether or not they address their questions to us depends on whether we take them seriously with their problems, or whether we merely push our own questions and answers in front of us like a bulldozer that levels everything to ‘Christian dimensions’. We should allow their questions to confront us, and listen attentively to them. Our answers must have a solid foundation and must never be proposed on the basis of presumption or superficial views. The New Testament admonishes us; “Always be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you concerning the ground of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).’ 

Here at All Saints I sense you want to grow as a vibrant outward looking community which engages with the world in ways that are disarmingly human and leads to the possibility of new life to spring out of the ground of the hope that is in you. 

If we are to be effective partners with God in his kingdom building work in the world then we must feel that we are both called for some specific purpose, and also feel confident and empowered to help the world to address its questions and make sense of itself.   We need to learn how to do that together when we gather as church so that when we disperse we can be effective catalysts of God’s transforming work begun anew in Jesus Christ.

To help us to build up our life in the dispersed church there are two invitations open to you today. 

You are invited to explore the question of your own calling.  This is about affirming what you are doing already in your Christian living and offering you some way to focus on that, discover more about yourself and how best to respond to any new promptings or beginnings that God is calling you towards. Please speak to those who have attended the last ‘Have you seen a Burning Bush’ course if you have any questions.

Secondly you are invited to indicate whether you might value some stimulating discussion, fellowship and mutual encouragement to explore issues and questions that are real to you and arise from your everyday life and experience.  It is planned to offer a way of exploring such issues in small groups drawing on the resources of our faith and to discover how the God of life might lead us into fresh perspectives and a new sense of hope.  You are invited to identify any possible topics or questions on this sheet. During the offertory there will be space for you to jot down some ideas and you are encouraged to hand that in before you disperse.

Today, as every day, Jesus invites us to turn in a new direction, to open our lives to fresh possibilities of renewal and in so doing bring his kingdom reign every closer - not in some far distant land but in all the places that we will be dispersed to in the next week. 

The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned. Let us follow this light all the days of our life.  Amen

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