St Michael’s, Saturday 17th October 2009
Well, thank you for joining in our celebrations today. It’s good to have the opportunity to catch up with friends past and present, but I think it is important, as we gather, to stop and ask what exactly we are celebrating? Are we simply celebrating the completion of a building project? Are we here to remember and to reminisce? Or is there some deeper reason why so many people set aside a Saturday afternoon, and made the effort to gather in praise and worship?
Maybe we can begin to answer the question by looking back briefly at the very origins of this church. As you may know (if you’ve read the website!), the church is called St Michael’s because the foundation stone of the first church was laid on St Michael’s Day, 29th September 1843, and it was consecrated as a place of worship on 1st August 1845 to meet the spiritual needs of the many dockyard families who were moving into the area. And this very simple historical fact reminds us that right from the beginning the church was designed to be a place where local people could meet with God and hear the good news of Jesus Christ. St Michael’s never has been, or ever will be, a civic church with lots of special services for the great and the good. Nor was it ever meant to be place to which people commute to receive their own special brand of Christianity. No, the soul, the DNA of St Michael’s has always been to serve the local area and proclaim the gospel to the local community. And that is an important point which is as relevant to us today as it was over 160 years ago.
Now the importance of place is something that comes out particularly clearly from our Old Testament reading. We tend to think of Jacob as one of the great heroes of the Bible, a towering giant who gave us the twelve tribes of Israel, and who ultimately was one of the ancestors of Jesus. But at this stage of the story he is anything but. He is a man on the run. He has stolen his brother’s birthright and he has tricked his father into blessing him. He is a fugitive with a bad conscience and a bad track record. Yet the amazing thing about this passage is that the Lord nonetheless meets with him in a special place and promises to bless not only him, but also his descendants. Shouldn’t it also be our prayer that the lost, the fugitive, the outcast discover this place to be none other than the house of God and discover the amazing grace He offers?
But if this is to happen, then we have to realise that there is more to church than simply place. There is near where I live a lovely bus shelter in Wingfield Road. It was painted a few years ago, and it sits right at the heart of the community. I walk past it every day and sometimes I shelter in it from the rain. There is however just one problem. There aren’t actually any buses that stop there! And if I might put it this way, there are too many churches which are like that – standing right at the heart of the local community, no doubt looking very smart and fine but singularly failing to the connect with the needs of the area around them.
And as St Michael’s has been on this long, long journey towards redevelopment – I think it must be well over 20 years – the one thing that we have learnt afresh is the importance of church as people. After all, while the church was crumbling into a rather damp, smelly mess around us – despite the best efforts of the congregation – St Michael’s nonetheless continued as an effective presence in the local community. Why? Because it was a church centred on people, indeed it was the people who made the church.
We can see the importance of people from our gospel reading this afternoon. It begins with Jesus finding Philip and saying, “Follow me”. And it goes on to relate how in response Philip obeys Jesus’ words and follows Him. A very simple, straightforward encounter but one that takes us right to the heart of the Christian faith. Because, you see, we must never make the mistake of confusing the outward trappings of buildings, services, and all the paraphernalia of the Church of England with the inward reality, that to be a Christian means nothing more and nothing less than giving your life to Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, and following Him. So if there is anyone reading this who has not yet made this step, then you too need to realise that Jesus is looking for you, that He wants you to follow Philip’s example and place your faith and trust in Him. Buildings, services, structures may help you live out your Christian faith, but being involved in them does not automatically make you a Christian. It is at the end of the day the personal response to Jesus that counts.
Which is all very well, but if you talk to folk who live round here they will still think church is essentially a building, and a Christian is one of the strange folk who darkens St Michael’s doors on a Sunday morning. (Not that I’m saying folk at St Michael’s are strange, I hasten to add). So how do we change people’s perception of what church is really all about? Well, I think we could worse follow the example of Philip. For having heard Jesus’ voice and having decided to follow Him, what did he do? He went off and found his mate Nathanael. And what did he say? “Well, umm, something rather amazing has happened to me, and I was wondering, like, if you might, er, possibly be interested”. Or “I have discovered the incarnational representation of the Godhead, and penetrated the essence of the divine mystery”. No, he went straight to the point, We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.
Because that in the end is how the church really grows. Not just by having a new building which might for a while attract some interested spectators. Nor by holding lots of social events which might draw a crowd until a better offer comes along. But by people going out and sharing in very simple and direct language their own experience of meeting with Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. After all, that is what happened to all of us here today who call ourselves Christians. Someone, maybe at one moment, maybe over a period of time, shared with us something of the wonder and the joy of knowing Jesus. It may have been the Sunday School teacher here at St Michael’s, or the vicar. Or more likely it may have been a member of our family, or a good friend. Whoever it was exactly, the chances are it was someone we knew well, someone in whom we could see something of Christ, someone who quite naturally and without embarrassment spoke of the Lord to us. And because we saw that their experience of the Lord was true and genuine we like Nathanael went to find out more about Jesus, only to discover He already knew all about us and was calling us to Himself. Isn’t that so?
It’s for this reason I believe that if St Michael’s is to stay true to its origins and be the local church for the local area, then the example of Philip and Nathanael is one that we are still called to emulate today. Because if St Michael’s is really going to serve the local community and reach its neighbours with the good news of Jesus Christ, the way it’s going to do this is not by high-pressure campaigns, or by button-holing strangers and reluctant listeners, but by simply sharing the wonder, the joy, the amazing good news of Jesus Christ. Not only by words – although words are supremely important – but also by acts of loving, gentle caring service which show something of Christ and help those we serve realise Jesus is also looking for them.
Put that way, it all sounds rather easy, doesn’t it!? But you know as well as I do that quite often our efforts to share the good news of Jesus Christ seem to run up against the proverbial brick wall, to meet apathy, indifference or even hostility. Why should this be? Well, this is where we come on to our third reading which reminds us that, when we are serious about being the people God wants us to be, we will run into the spiritual warfare that is raging all around us. And we don’t need to simply rely on the words of John the Divine to believe there is spiritual warfare happening nearby as we speak. There is the open spiritual warfare represented by the spiritualist and occult gatherings that take place not too far from here. There are the social problems – which may well have a spiritual side to them – that blight the lives of folk in our parish: alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment, poor housing, to name but a few. There is the widespread breakdown of relationships which lead to people being unsure of who they are and fearful of anyone else. I say all this not to make any value judgements on any one person, but to be utterly real about the situation which we face.
And this is why, if St Michael’s is to be the church the Lord calls it to be, that we need to support both the place and the people who worship here in prayer. Not that there is any doubt that in Christ ultimately the spiritual victory is ours. But we need to pray that we have the confidence and the boldness to claim that victory and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to open hearts that are closed to the gospel, and to heal lives that have been broken and damaged. So if you are reading today as a visitor to the website, can I ask you to really pray for the life of this church and to support the efforts that we are making to transform lives and the local community with the gospel? And if you are a member of St Michael’s can I ask you to make a fresh commitment to pray for this parish, for the people you meet each day, and for your brothers and sisters in Christ? The first time I ever came to this church seven years ago there was a huge Day-Glow poster outside saying, “This church is prayer-conditioned”. How much with all the new opportunities and challenges that we face do we need to make this church once again thoroughly prayer-conditioned, individually and corporately. It is only by relying totally on Jesus Christ who died and rose again for us that we will make an impact for the gospel and see people saved.
But, to return to a rather more positive note, if we do simply rely on Jesus Christ, then that will be enough, won’t it? After all, to return to that opening question, what are celebrating? In the end the simple answer is the grace and goodness of our risen Lord and Saviour. The Lord who for the past 164 years has given us a place where we can meet in His name. The Lord who has through the generations has called people to follow Him and to faithfully share the good news with others. The Lord who has heard, and goes on hearing our prayers, and who watches over us with Michael and angels in attendance. It is Him who in the end we are really celebrating. Just as He was outrageously merciful and kind and generous to Jacob and Philip and Nathanael, so has He been so merciful and kind and generous to us. So today, tomorrow, and for always, let us make sure that the praise and honour and glory goes to Him, our Creator, our Sustainer, our Redeemer, and let us worship Him not only with our mouth, but with our hearts, our minds, and our very lives.
Now to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever. Amen!