St Barnabas 28th April 2013
Reading – Romans 12:1-8
Who, or what do you think of, when you hear the word “church”? If someone asked you who or what is St Barnabas, how would you reply? Would anyone like to make some suggestions…
Thank you. I think the answers have shown that actually the question is not as simple as it first appears. Because, as we have just seen, the word “church” can actually mean different things in different situations.
For example, sometimes it can refer to the actual church building. So when someone asks you, “Where is your church?” you direct them here to this particular place off Stuart Road. You talk about the features like the stained glass windows or the ceiling, or perhaps you explain the history of the redevelopment.
But on other occasions, the word “church” refers not to the building, but to the people who come here to worship. So when you are at some large gathering of different groups across the city and you are asked, “Which is your church?” your first response is probably to point out all the people who have come from St Barnabas.
And then there are times when the word refers not so much to the building or to the people, but the institution to which St Barnabas belongs. So again if you are asked, “What church are you?” the answer is, of course, “Church of England”. And if you are asked to explain what that means you tell them that St Barnabas is part of a united benefice with St Michael’s in the Deanery of Devonport, within the Diocese of Exeter, served by a local bishop in Plymouth and a diocesan bishop based in Exeter.
It’s worth thinking about the meaning of the word “church” as we come to our Annual Church Meeting this morning. Because in all the reports and all the discussions that follow this service we will be thinking a lot about the building, and the people, and we may also spend some time thinking about the institution. And it is only right and proper that we do so, since each represents an important aspect of our life here at St Barnabas.
But, and this is the key point I want to get across this morning, none of these definitions of church actually address the key issue of what St Barnabas is actually all about. Why not? Because they all look at St Barnabas from a human point of view. In fact, if you’ve been listening really closely so far to this sermon, you will notice I haven’t even talked about God yet. And I can tell you, from all my years of meetings, one thing I have learnt is that it’s so very easy to end up talking about church and discussing church business without asking the most important question of all, “How does God see St Barnabas?”
You see, if today we are to effectively plan and prepare and pray for the year ahead, then we need to stop and answer this question. After all, there are plenty of organisations which own buildings, which have members, which are part of a larger institution. You don’t have to be a church to hold an annual meeting, or elect members to a position of leadership. We could, if we chose, quite simply act like just another well-meaning charity seeking to bring good to the local community.
But we are the body of Christ. That’s what Paul tells us quite clearly in our reading from Romans this morning. Verse 5: in Christ we who are many form one body. It’s the same truth that we declare every time we come forward to receive Holy Communion. I say: We break this bread to share in the body of Christ and we all reply: Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread. The thing that makes St Barnabas different from any other organisation or charity is that we are the body of Christ. It is how God sees us. It is the reason why we exist. It is the calling we have been given to follow. And everything we are or do flows from this one essential fact.
So what does it mean to say, “We are the body of Christ?”
First of all, it means that we belong to God. Think about that for a moment. For reasons we will never fathom this side of eternity, God, the creator of Heaven and Earth, the maker and judge of all things, has called us into a living relationship with Him through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. And when I mean “us”, I don’t simply mean the people at the front, or the people who take on key roles here at St Barnabas. Because God doesn’t grade people according to their position or how much they do in His service.
After all, none of us are worthy of His love. As Paul wrote earlier in this letter to the Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet that hasn’t stopped God offering each and every one of us the gift of eternal life by sending His Son Jesus Christ in our place. And when we say, “Yes” to Jesus, when we believe and trust in His death on the cross, then we belong to God forever. We become part of the body of Christ.
So how does this affect our life as a church? Quite simply that everything we do should be a response to the love of God. Now today we are starting a new sermon series at the beginning of Romans 12, and in the previous 11 chapters Paul has set out the full wonder and mystery of God’s saving grace. It’s not too surprising that when He turns His attention to our life together as a church He begins with these words: Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy…
God’s grace and mercy should shape everything we do as a church. It should shape what we do on a Sunday morning. Not simply the songs that we sing or the theme of the sermon, but the way we welcome the newcomer and the outsider, or the conversations we hold over a cup of coffee. It should shape the business of our annual meeting, as we look to see how God has blessed and kept us over the past twelve months. It should shape how we think about our building, as a wonderful gift from a generous God to be used and maintained to His glory and service. We are the body of Christ, united at the very deepest level with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and there is no part of our church life where that truth should not penetrate.
You see, the wonderful truth is that God has a very special plan and purpose for St Barnabas. But, and please note this carefully, if we are thinking about the church only from a human point of view the chances are, we will miss that plan. Our energies and our efforts will be spent, so to speak, on keeping the show on the road, on making sure that our life carries on as best it can, even with limited resources of money and time and people. And while in the short term we can carry on like this and maybe even grow a little, in the end I believe we will only end up declining like so many other institutions.
On the other hand if we are doing as Paul suggests and looking to God’s grace and mercy, then the wonderful truth is that we can test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. That’s why the beginning and end of every meeting should be covered by prayer. That’s why we should have a hunger and desire for God to reveal His plans and purposes. That’s why we should constantly be reading His word together and asking for more of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and hearts to His guidance.
The trouble is, none of this comes naturally to us. All of us are part of a society and culture which does not acknowledge the Lord, which lives by very different standards and values. So if we are serious about discovering God’s plans and purposes then we need to allow God to reshape our values and attitudes. For, despite the message some in the wider church seem to give, we cannot ask God to bless and renew us if we are living in the same way as other people.
That’s why we need to take serious Paul’s command to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – not because God is some kind of killjoy who does not like us having pleasure, but because we believe we have been saved by the blood of Jesus and therefore we aim to please God above all else. We are the body of Christ, and so we use our bodies to please God.
After how else can we say that God changes lives unless there is evidence that at the very deepest level our hearts and our minds have been renewed and transformed? That, when people look at us, they see that Jesus is alive and at work in us? Being open to God’s grace and mercy has direct, practical consequences, and we must not talk the talk without also being willing to walk the walk.
There is much, much more that I could say about belonging to God. For now, I just want you to grasp how important it is to understand St Barnabas from the Lord’s point of view. We are a community called by God’s grace to follow Jesus, to seek His will and to live lives which glorify Him. That is the basic bottom line in being a church, and it is a matter of fundamental importance we all understand what He wants us to be.
And of course God’s grace also means that we belong to each other. Because, you see, believing in Jesus isn’t just about a new relationship with God. It’s also about a new relationship with your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s why the old saying, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian” is so wrong. It comes from a faulty understanding of the gospel which says faith is something personal and private to me, that it’s primarily about me and my relationship with God. And as such it is profoundly and deeply contrary to the word of God. Listen to what Jesus says in John 13:34-35:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
This doesn’t mean that as a church we will always like everyone, or always agree with one another. If our dream church is a church full of people who are just like us, the chances we have not understood what it means to be the body of Christ. God’s plan and purpose is to bring together people who perhaps would never meet regularly in other circumstances, to show how God’s grace cuts across all divisions of class and age and race and education.
We are the body of Christ. We have been united to one another by the death of Jesus, through the gift of the Holy Spirit. So what does all this mean in practice?
Let me note three important principles which come out from verses 3-8:
First of all, no-one person is more important than anyone else. Paul writes in verse 3: For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. Because again, if we have truly grasped the nature of God’s grace we will see there can be no room for egos or big personalities. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
And no one person is more important or more special in God’s sight. That means there is no place for that kind of peculiar Anglican clericalism which puts the priest on a special pedestal above his people. That means there is no place for the person who will only allow for things to be done his or her way or not at all. That means there is no place for little groupings who are on the inside, with others left on the outside. In God’s view of the church all are equal, all are precious, and we really must do all we can to avoid sending out a different message.
Secondly, we all belong to each other. As Paul says in verse 5: so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. And I don’t think he wrote those words for us to approve as some kind of theoretical ideal. We are called to get to know one another, to help one another, to bear each other’s burdens. Now in a long established church like St Barnabas we may quite rightly say this is what we do already. I know that a lot of burden sharing and helping goes on, often in small, unnoticed but vitally important ways.
Yet as Paul reminds us in today’s reading there is no place for complacency. Just because we know someone for a long time does not always mean we will have a healthy relationship with them. We can set limits to how much we really love and serve them, because we have found them difficult in the past. We can hold onto grievances and allow them to colour how we treat people in the present. We can make excuses for someone else’s behaviour on the basis that’s just the way they are.
That’s why I would encourage all of us to reflect carefully on Paul’s words in Romans 12:9-12. Because this sense of belonging only comes about when there are genuinely healthy relationships, when we keep on allowing the Holy Spirit to change and challenge our attitudes to each other. Let me read them to you again slowly:
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.
12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
Because it’s only when our relationships with each other are healthy and sound that, thirdly, people come forward with their gifts and abilities. It is no accident that Paul addresses the question of belonging before moving on in verse 6 to remind us: We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. And by the way, did you notice that little word grace again? I hope by now you are starting to realise that being the body of Christ is about grace, grace and yet more grace. Grace is God’s generous gift of eternal life. Grace is God’s generous revelation of His plan and will for us. Grace is God’s equipping for the tasks we face as a church. And if we are part of the body of Christ, we all have a gift.
Some of these gifts will be up front and public, like leadership or teaching. Some will be quiet and less obvious, but just as valuable, such as faithful service, doing a small but vital task no-one else notices. Some of these gifts will be more obviously of the Spirit, such as prophesying or speaking tongues. Some will be just as Spirit-filled, but less supernatural, such as the gift of administration or generous giving. The point is, God knows and loves you just as you are, and He has a gift He wants you to use in His service. So, let me ask you, when was the last time, you asked God to show you what was your gift and how you might use it?
Now I realise this has been a long sermon, but I make no apologies for it. In fact I would encourage you all to read it later online, or ask me for a paper copy. Because what Paul says here is fundamental to our understanding of who or what St Barnabas is, and my ministry is based on the fact we are the body of Christ. We belong to God. We are a community called by God’s grace to follow Jesus, to seek His will and to live lives which glorify Him. We belong to each other. No-one person is more important than any other. We all belong to each other. We each have gifts and abilities given by God’s grace.
So as we come to the Annual Church Meeting, please don’t fall into the trap that somehow this is a business meeting, and all this stuff from God’s word is less relevant. God makes no distinction between business meetings and fellowship meeting, as if one was more spiritual than the other. We are not another institution, with a building to look after and members who sign up. We are the body of Christ and it is by grace from first to last.
Which leads to one fundamental question that underpins everything I have been saying: Have you grasped the grace of God for yourself? If today all I’ve said about grace is a revelation or something you have long forgotten, then there is something you need to do. Speak to me afterwards; come to Christianity Explored; above all allow Jesus to show you the mercy He revealed to you by His death on a cross. And may all of us go forward as the body of Christ in accordance with God’s will – His good, pleasing and perfect will. Amen.