Come and See
A sermon preached by the Revd. Dr. James Heard, on 18th January 2015
One of the most memorable sermons I have ever heard, and one of the few sermons that I can actually remember, was by a man called J. John. He’s very well known in Evangelical circles. He preached a 40 minute sermon, and as an object lesson, he included, right in the middle of the platform a mannequin and it had been clothed with a while bridal dress. It was symbolic of the church, the bride of Christ. He then proceeded to recount the sad and sorry story of the church throughout the last 2000 years: the Monophysite split of the c.5; the East-West Schism in the c.11; the Reformation, which started with the Mainstream Reformers (like Lutherans and Anglicans), but was soon followed by the radical reformers. It has now brought radical fragmentation with the splintering of the Protestant church into over 38,000 denominations.
As J. John described this, with each split of the church, he took a pair of scissors to the dress and made a cut. As you might imagine, by the end of the sermon the bridal dress was simply a pile of rags. It had been completely ripped beyond recognition. It was incredibly moving, if not thoroughly depressing. This is what has been done to Christ’s church.
Added to this picture is the steady decline in church attendance in the West, although it’s worth noting that this is something that has not just afflicted the church but other institutions, from political parties to trade unions. In our culture, there is often a profound feeling of suspicion about institutions, that institutions can’t be trusted. If you ever watch The Simpsons, the two big themes come through in almost every episode are: don’t trust institutions and big corporations don’t have your best interest at heart.
So, there has been a massive rupture of the church throughout history, and in the West the church has been rapidly declining in a culture suspicious of institutions. And then there’s the clergy! There was an advertisement in a church newspaper, which went like this: ‘Are you 45 and getting nowhere? Why not consider Christian ministry?' This makes it sounds as though being a priest is the kind of job that you did if you were incapable of doing anything else. [And you might well agree… so I’m not going to ask you!]
But there is another story to be told about the church. Right now, around the world, it's in excess of 18 hundred million people — nearly a third of the world's population. It's growing at the rate of tens of thousands of new people every single day. Rather surprisingly, church attendance in the Diocese of London has been increasing over the last ten years, as has attendance at Cathedrals throughout the country. The story it more complicated than one of simple decline. And there are many other ways to assess the health of the Christian faith. For example, in the UK, by far the greatest proportion of charity groups working in the voluntary sector are Christians. There are literally thousands of Christians throughout the country, unsung heroes, quietly getting on with helping those in need. Someone from this community spent five days over Christmas volunteering to help homeless guests in the CRISIS centre in Hammersmith.
There is also the story of the ecumenical movement over the last 100 years or so. There has been a huge amount of very fruitful theological dialogue between different church traditions. Most extraordinary was discussions, in 1999, between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. They produced The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In it they resolved the conflict over the nature of justification, a doctrine that was at the very heart of the Reformation. And following dialogue there is now broad agreement.
Of course, unity isn’t simply about discussing theology. There has also been a working together in worship and mission. In 1947, as a result of ecumenical dialogue, the Church of South India united most of the Protestant Churches in India – including churches from the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed tradition, the Anglican church, Methodist Church, and in the 1990s some Baptist and Pentecostal churches joined. They were inspired by the words of Christ in John’s Gospel:
John 17:21 ‘…that they [the Christian community] may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’
Christians from different traditions come together this week every year to worship together. It’s the inspiration behind tomorrow’s service at the Convent of the Assumption on Kensington Square. It’s an expression that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. The theme of tomorrow’s service is ‘The Well is Deep’ – a theme that comes from the churches of Brazil where there is strong competition between the various Christian traditions. The Brazilian churches have begun to recognise that intolerance should be dealt with in a positive way – and the way to do that is by respecting diversity and promoting dialogue as a permanent path of reconciliation and peace. This is what it means to be faithful to the gospel. Although the competition between churches is less obvious in our context, we are well aware that competition and discrimination lie beneath the surface of our lives together. Jesus challenges us to acknowledge that diversity is part of God's design. We are encouraged to approach one another in trust and to see the face of God in the face of all men and women. That’s our vocation as Christians.
And we express this unity in diversity at our yearly service. There has been an amazingly positive progress between churches over the last century: it’s a story of mutual respect, of a willingness to carefully listen, and of the sort of dialogue that doesn’t pretend there aren’t significant differences that need to be engaged with. The qualities of respect, tolerance, and acceptance can no longer be assumed to happen by default, but must be pursued and promoted actively.
Following the events in Paris over the last week, its clear that we need greater dialogue with those of other faiths. One suggestion in this week’s Church Times is that we instigate a week of prayer for peace and unity with and among Muslims.
2,000 years on, what sort of vision of the church do we have? As we start putting together our church’s Mission Action Plan, what is it that inspires us? What sort of church do we want to be? Like the early church, we’ll never be perfect. But what about this for a vision of church, described by Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham:
‘…a place of welcome and laughter, of healing and hope, of friends and family and justice and new life. It’s where the homeless drop in for a bowl of soup, and the elderly for someone to chat to. It’s where one group is working to help drug addicts, and another to campaign for global justice. It’s where you’ll find people learning to pray, coming to faith…it’s where people bring their own small faith and discover that when they get together with others to worship the true God, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.’ (N. T. Wright)
The Gospel passage this morning has Philip, who has just met Jesus, and he asks Nathanael to ‘come and see’. I shall leave you with a question: I wonder whether we might be so inspired by a vision of what we could be, that we couldn’t help ourselves asking our friends, family, work colleagues, neighbours to ‘come and see’?