Sermon for Third Sunday of Lent – Choral Evensong Sunday 8 March 2015
LENT 3, 2015 EVENSONG
At this Lenten series of sermons at Evensong, we are engaging in a corporate act of self-examination, with the help of a series of questions in the Common Worship Baptism service’s Commission. These will be addressed to us when we renew our baptismal vows at Easter.
Tonight we come to the third question: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News in Jesus Christ?
To which the response of many of in the Church of England, perhaps of many here tonight, especially to that “proclaim by word” bit, might well be: “No fear!”
(Most of us would, I suppose, feel some obligation to behave in a recognisably Christian way so as not to bring disgrace on our Lord’s name.)
Churches of the old lands of Christendom are in something of a panic about the future. Some bishops tell us their dioceses will have almost ceased to exist in a six or ten years’ time. This kind of gloom used to be associated with urban dioceses where the acids of secularism were thought to have bitten more deeply into the fabric of the church. Now it’s rural bishops who are in a state of panic.
In the Church of England, we have had the Decade of Evangelism, which by the end seemed to have “decayed” away. The Roman Catholic Church has the “New Evangelization.” This seems to consist largely of trying to get lapsed Roman Catholics back to church. An article in the Catholic Herald recently suggested that the whole exercise should be suspended while they worked out why people had left and were still leaving in the first place! We might profitably ask the same question about churches in the Catholic tradition in the Church of England.
Pope Francis has issued his exhortation to the Church called Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel. (Some of us studied it during Lent a couple of years ago). Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a lecture at Lambeth Palace on the same theme.
He began with two statements about the Church. It exists to:
1. Worship God in Jesus Christ.
2. Make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be necessary, useful or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration. (Discuss!)
In a parish like this, we can cheerfully applaud the first. We invest time, energy, and money into our worship. The second, if we are honest, – and we are in self-examination mode, – has been much less of a priority – certainly in terms of investment. Whatever we might think of their content, we have no equivalent – in scale or seriousness – to the Alpha Course or Christianity Explored.
Archbishop Justin recalled that he began his new ministry with 3 priorities:
1. Prayer and the renewal of the Religious Life (nods of assent and interest but hardly surprise);
2. Reconciliation (a good thing, but someone was going to have their work cut out)
3. Evangelism and Witness (Some would be excited and others saying,
“here we go again”).
It was this last that he focussed his attention on in the lecture: the specific proclamation of the Good News.
And that is the bit many of us find difficult. Perhaps, we feel ill-equipped to do it. Or we have grown up in a culture where it was not polite to talk about religion. We may have had a negative experience of evangelicalism and evangelism. He recognises the problems many of us have with the “e” word. Does it mean we have to be like the Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out pamphlets at Oxford Circus? (Fr. Julian is just back from Hong Kong. He told me that the first time he emerged from the Metro there he met JWs handing out pamphlets – clearly a worldwide campaign!)
The Archbishop recognizes that he is talking about a seismic change in the collective consciousness of the Church as a whole – not just places like this. This is not going to happen overnight; nor is it going to be achieved simply by learning a few techniques. We have to look at our motives for doing this – or failing to do it.
The purpose of self-examination is not to make ourselves wallow in guilt. That’s spiritually unhelpful and unhealthy. It is so that we might repent, change direction, amend our lives, be changed.
Both Archbishop and Pope Francis speak of what is not a motive for proclaiming the Gospel. It is not, they say, institutional survival. It is not about getting bottoms on seats so the Church in Western Europe or England or London or Margaret Street can survive.
“Our motive driving this priority for the Church is not, not, not – never, never, never – that numbers are looking fairly low and the future is looking bleak…This is not a survival strategy…evangelism is not a growth strategy. Of course we want to see full churches. But this is not anxiety for an institution, or worse still, self-survival.”
Here I think they perhaps protest a little too much. I think it is about the survival of institutions which, for all their faults, have made an inestimable contribution to the life of nation and community. Even now, many of the voluntary organisations in this country would simply collapse if the Christians were not there running them. This is true not only of long-established charities from a more religious era, but of many of the pioneering new ones: think of the hospice movement, food banks, work against trafficking. That’s before we get to the work of parish and other Christian communities and schools.
But that said, there must be a deeper motivation than social usefulness. Without one the kind of seismic change we are thinking of is not going to happen.
Archbishop and Pope are at one in setting out the foundational motive for proclaiming the Gospel. When these two are singing from the same hymn sheet, then it behoves us to listen.
Pope Francis writes:
“The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him.
What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?
If we do not feel an intense desire to share his love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts.
We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence…..
How good it is to stand before a crucifix, or on knees before the Blessed sacrament, and simply to be in his presence! How much good it does us when he once more touches our lives and impels us to share his new life!
Here we are at Benediction – let’s start now. The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us.
But if this is to come about, we need to recover a contemplative spirit which can help us to realise ever anew that we have been trusted with a treasure which makes us more human and helps us to lead a new life. There is nothing more precious which we can give to others.’
‘Jesus’ whole life, his way of dealing with the poor, his actions, his integrity, his simple daily acts of generosity, and finally his complete self-giving, is precious and reveals the mystery of his divine life. Whenever we encounter this anew, we become convinced that it is exactly what others need, even though they may not recognize it.
As St. Paul says, it is the love of Christ that compels us. So we are called to a deeper relationship with Christ.
“We must open ourselves and the Church to the continual conversion which the Spirit works in us. The Church must continually be converted from the reduction of the Gospel into its fullness.” This is true of communities as much as individuals.
Archbishop Justin cites Luther’s definition of sin as a heart “curved in on itself” as instructive for us. A Church concerned primarily for its own life or survival, a church that is curved in on itself, is signing its own death warrant. Bp. Lesslie Newbigin: “A church that exists only for itself and its own enlargement is a witness against the gospel.”
At Mass this morning, we heard John’s account of the cleansing of the Temple. Fr.Julian preached about the way in which we can make of the churches we love fortress- prisons in which we immure ourselves; walls behind which we hide from the threatening forces outside and which prevent us from relating to those beyond them/
Pope Francis speaks instead of a church with open doors and open hearts; unafraid to go out in the street and get a bit dirty as it meets real people; a church which welcomes people as they are rather than as we might like them to be; a church which accepts that it too will be changed by that encounter.
In a memorable phrase, he says evangelists should not look as if they have just come from a funeral. I know what he means, but Archbishop Rowan once said that you see the Church at its best at a good funeral. We had an example of that here the other day at Robert Streit’s funeral. The church was full of family, friends, former colleagues. There was beautiful music and words, reverent but unfussy ceremony. There were tears and there was laughter, sorrow and joy. The mass began at 2.15pm but the last people were leaving the courtyard at 5pm. They stayed and talked, many of them about what the service had meant to them. For some it was a refreshment of their faith. For others, it was a glimpse of something they had never known or had forgotten. It showed them faith which could be at once serious and playful, joyful yet taking sorrow seriously. Both in church and in the courtyard afterwards, they met people whose faith issued in kindness and compassion.
If the love of God in Christ is the motive which compels us, what about methods; where do they come in? Do we need special skills and training? Do we need to go on a course? Do we need to be a special kind of person?
Well there are people whose gifts are to be evangelists but this does not mean that evangelism is their monopoly – something we can safely leave to them – while we get on with the flower rota or the restoration appeal. Isn’t it alright just to quietly get on with good works and leave the speaking to others?
All of us are called to mature in work as evangelizers. We want to have better training, a deepening love, a clearer witness to the Gospel. In this sense, we need to let others be constantly evangelizing us. But this does not mean that we should postpone the evangelizing mission. Rather, each of us should find ways to communicate Jesus wherever we are. All of us are called to offer explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In our hearts we know that is would not be the same to live without him; what we have come to realize, what has helped us to live and given us hope, is what we also need to communicate to others. Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing
The Archbishop quotes those words attributed to St. Francis, quoted too often by reluctant preachers: “Preach the gospel at all times, where necessary use words.” In fact, Francis probably didn’t say it and if he did he was wrong!
There is no escaping the need for words if we have something to say. If we love someone, we have to say, “I love you.” This is not to dismiss or downgrade actions – these are what give credibility to out words. But we do have to speak.
Those who would speak must first listen. We need to hear the questions people are asking, before we start answering the ones they are not. Listening is not easy. I’m having a lesson in this at the moment, visiting a parishioner whose motor neurone disease has reached the stage where he can only communicate by typing out words on an electronic pad. The temptation is to finish his sentences for him, to guess what he is wanting to say – this is an irritating habit at the best of times – but in this case runs the risk of taking away what is left of someone’s dignity.
Listening – a faculty strengthened by our prayer, our contemplation, our listening to God in silence – is not something we must graduate from before we can speak. It must always accompany our speaking. But speaking does not have to wait until we are word perfect; any more than it does for a child learning their first words. Evangelism is not memorising formulae and techniques to use on unsuspecting victims.
Anyone who has ever had to teach anything knows that the moment inevitably comes when you have to make the leap from theory to practice. The surprising thing can be that it is in trying to teach that we learn to teach. That is true of evangelism too. We don’t have to be word perfect but we do have to try to find the right words. The Spirit often provides them or can make do with the stumbling and inadequate ones we have. But like riding a bike or leaning to swim, we just have to get on with it. Only then do we find that we can actually do it.
The same Spirit who prays within us will also help us find the right words and gestures: ones worthy of the love of God. And having found those words, we will find that the gossip and ecclesiastical in-crowd stuff which can make our speech trivial and unintelligible to real people, falls away because we have found something worth saying and the words to say it.