Thursday, 23 January 2014

Light of the World: Apostolic Witness

Matthew 5: 14-16
14"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

In the last two blogs I have looked at how the nature of the church, at its most simple, is to love. Firstly it responds in love to God, becoming a holy, worshipping church relating intimately to God as the Bride of Christ. Secondly the Church, as the group of people who love God, love one another. This relationship is equally intimate, as one body made up of members bringing different gifts and taking on different roles. And so the church is one, a unity of people whose shared commitment is to love God and to love one another.

Now we consider the nature of the church in relationship with the whole of God’s world. God made all things and loves all that he has made. When Jesus summarised the commandments he asked us to love God, to love ourselves (and as an instruction to a community that includes the love of the Body of Christ) and to love our neighbour. This love for neighbour must be as strong as the love for self. Thus we are commanded to look to the people who share our world and to love them as actively and caringly as we love each other within the church.

Jesus became human to show us how to love in the fullest possible way. His love was not reserved for the Jews, though his own people were his first priority. Rather, he demonstrated love for all people, and then he sent out his disciples to share the message of love too. When he prayed for his followers on the night before he died, Jesus said: As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.’ John 17:18.
We are a people who are not only called to God, but sent by him. In sending us, God does not send us away from his presence, for he promises to be with us always. In Psalm 72 the psalmist writes:
23 Yet I am always with you;
       you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
       and afterward you will take me into glory.

As disciples of Christ we share an imperative to tell the whole world about God’s love, loving the world ourselves as best we can according to the example Christ set for us. He sends us into the world as his agents of love. In this we become witnesses to all that Christ is. In other words we are apostles, and we express the apostolic nature of the church. An apostle, quite simply, is a witness – one who sees Christ and tells others about him. Sometimes the definition of apostle is limited by certain theologians to those who witness the risen Christ, which allows them to name St. Mary Magdalene as the first apostle. Others prefer to include all who witnessed Christ throughout his incarnate life – which would make the shepherds the first apostles. Wherever you see the starting point of this apostolic calling, there is no doubt that the calling remains. Jesus sends us as witnesses of his love and the Father’s love for all of the world.

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matthew 28: 16-20

Some churches use the name ‘Mass’ for the Eucharistic celebration. This name comes from the last act of the service, the dismissal. Both words come form the Latin missa which means sending. By giving the service a name which prioritises our sending we are given an important priority. In attending Sunday worship we engage in an activity which strengthens and resources our relationship with God and with the wider church. But this is not a completion of the task. We can’t draw a sigh of relief at the end of the service and think that our Christian duty is done for the week. Rather, in going to church we equip ourselves for the main thing, which is the sending out. The task begins when we leave the church, not when we arrive.

Small groups – transforming communities – within the church are very important in resourcing us for this sending. Ideally it is the small group which is the sending heart of the church rather than the Sunday community. In a small group each member can share stories, experiences, concerns about the people they are sent to and the things they are trying to achieve. The group members can support each other in the task and share the burden. Ideally, the group works together, sharing in apostolic activity together. Jesus always sent his apostles out in pairs, and he encouraged them to be together as a larger group to support each other and to pray for each other. In the security of the small group, members can enable and resource each other in a way that cannot be done in Sunday worship.

The image used in this session is ‘Light’. Usually we think of the image of light as being connected to Christ, the Light of the World. Simeon proclaimed Jesus as a light long before Jesus was able to speak for himself:

"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
      you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
      and for glory to your people Israel." Luke 2: 29-32

In the book of Revelation Jesus is also referred to as the light of the world, an image that many churchgoers find difficult to separate from the painting by William Holman Hunt. As the nature of the church is to be like Christ, imitating his love and living out his commands, so we find that we must also take up the lamp and become lights for the world. This is what it means to be an apostolic church. In the first of the scripture passages used on our course evenings, Jesus tells us that we (the Body of Christ) are the light of the world. So now the task is not only Christ’s, it is ours. We are the light of the world. We should be as visible to the world as a city built on a hill, Jesus tells us. We take up this challenge in baptism: the candle given to a newly baptised person at the end of the service is the sign that they are sent out to ‘Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’. It isn’t only a sign of Christ in them, but a sign of them accepting the call to shine Christ’s light out to others, to join the apostolic witness of all the baptised. And now the challenge sets in. This sending to shine as lights in the world asks us to make ourselves very visible – and thus also very vulnerable.

It is tempting as Christians to live out our faith in such a way that we reserve our talk of Christ and our living according to his commands for those who share our point of view. We can live full lives as holy people, very much part of the unity of the church, and looking for the Catholic, universal future of a people who are to come into Christ’s presence at the end of days. But if we do not also live out the calling to be apostolic – to shine out the news of Christ’s love to the world, then we are missing a vital aspect of the life and nature of the church. The fourfold nature of the church is like a four legged table. Lose any one of them and the table is no longer stable. Give undue emphasis to one aspect of the church over another and the table becomes wobbly.

So often when churches neglect one part of the nature of the church, it is this apostolic calling. We hope that the Bishops or other clergy will do it for us. We feel shy or embarrassed. We don’t want to risk losing friends or becoming unpopular within the community in which we live by saying things which makes others feel uncomfortable. And so we keep quiet about our faith. We reason that this is just for us, it’s about what we do on a Sunday, and we have no reason to impose it on anyone else. And so we hide the light. Jesus pointed out that no-one who is trying to light up a room would put a light under a bowl. Of course they wouldn’t. That would not only mean a dark room, but it would put the light out. A light placed under a bowl will be starved of oxygen and will quickly fade. But we do this all the time. We are the light of the world, people who because of Christ’s love for us are filled with his light – we are called to shine this light out so that others will come to the light. But we allow our embarrassment or our introversion or sometimes our laziness to become an excuse for not shining that light out to others. And we risk putting our own lights out.

We live in a liberal and tolerant society, in which multi-culturalism is celebrated and we are encouraged to allow that all people have the right to their own beliefs. What is not tolerated, indeed, is imposing our beliefs on other people. You’re ok, I’m ok, we say; and you don’t have to be ok my way – don’t expect me to be ok your way. Faith is private and sharing it is almost taboo. We see regular items in the news about employees in major companies who lose their jobs because they wear a cross or have offered to pray for people. The temptation – which the attitude of parts of the media, and of legal processes biased to a secular idea of equality, risks making an obligation – is to avoid ever showing faith in any way.  And so we place the light firmly under the bowl and add some extra weight on top to ensure we don’t risk the light dazzling anyone or getting in their eyes.

We need to decide that the call to be sent, to be apostolic lights in the world, is something that is so essential that we will find the courage to shine despite the prevailing culture in which we live. We should want, with all of our hearts, to shine out the love of Christ, however hard it may seem. The room is dark and we want to light it up – that is why we do not hide the light or allow it to go out. As a church, we need to cultivate our desire to shine, to make it the deepest desire of our hearts – that as we respond in love to God we share his love not only with fellow lovers of God but also with those who God would have love him – that is, everyone else!

As we consider this challenge, Steven Croft reminds us that there is more than one aspect to our calling to share God’s love in the world. [1] Croft calls this ‘The Two Ways’:
firstly, we are called to love by looking for social justice and peace for all of the world, a calling which would include care for the environment within stewardship for the whole of creation (the first task given to humankind). This task, which might seem overwhelming when expressed in this way, works out in small groups and local churches both through the hands on work we can do ourselves in the community – collecting for a Food Bank, perhaps, or running a toddler group or a soup kitchen, or establishing a community shop. Our concern for the wider world is important too, and is usually worked out as we find ways to support agencies which are able to work on our behalf, perhaps by fundraising, publicising campaigns or even encouraging individual church members to consider vocations to working for social justice or even in politics.

Secondly, we are called to proclaim the word of God. It is our task to name the God who motivates our lives and shows us how to love. If we are active in the first area, this will go a long way towards helping us in our proclamation. The principal attributed to St. Francis of Assisi applies: "Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words."
Sometimes we do need to use words though.  This is perhaps the hardest part of the calling for some Christians. We are not all called to be evangelists, and we are not all articulate. Within the body of Christ we are therefore called to help each other shine – the light is a shared light, not one that individuals are expected to keep kindled by themselves. So faced with difficult questions, one church member might refer to another for help. Knowing each other within a small group helps in knowing which of your friends in the church community you can call on to help in this way.

In shying away from this part of the calling, some Christians are confusing the apostolic calling, which is an essential aspect of the nature of the church and therefore something to which we are all called, together and individually, with the evangelical gift. We must support and call evangelists within the membership. Every church needs evangelists – people equipped to proclaim the gospel. But they are not to be left to do the whole of the apostolic witnessing of the church by themselves. We all shine, and because we all shine together the light is so much brighter. Each of us is sent by Christ to witness to him, to shine in the world, using the gifts which he has given us. For example, if our witness is a witness of love through an ability to bake delicious cakes and supply one every week to a homeless shelter, then that is wonderful. One day, the good baker might be asked what motivates him/her to make those cakes. And the baker may well call in the preacher to help with the long answer, but it is important that every one of us is equipped to give an immediate answer. It is not a difficult answer, but it is one which needs courage to speak out because our culture does not approve of religious talk in public. But the simple answer is this – I love you, and God loves you. And I want to show you God’s love in the best way I can – in this case, by making cakes.

The Two Ways are also expressed through the Five Marks of Mission set out by the 1988 Lambeth Conference as a resource to help churches consider how they understand their call to apostolic witness. Churches should be seeking to have all five marks of mission clearly seen within the life and work of the church community.

The Five Marks of Mission
§  to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom.
§  the teach, baptise and nurture new believers.
§  to respond to human need by loving service.
§  to seek to transform unjust structures of society.
  • to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the earth.

Can our churches and small groups support each other and learn together in such a way that every church member has the four table legs equally balanced – including the apostolic leg? Of course, we can. Archbishop Rowan’s words[2] are encouraging:

And it is as we perform this apostolic task that of course we are drawn back again and again and again to where we started. The one Christ, the one source of divine life and power. Because you see the apostles in the New Testament are not heroes; they are saints and martyrs but they are not heroes. They struggle, they fail, they repent, they return. Peter himself betrays his lord and is called afresh. Paul speaks of how he's not even worthy to be called an apostle because he persecuted the church of God. And Paul in 2 Corinthians with great irony spells out just what it is to be an apostle; a series of stressful heart-breaking, body-breaking experiences and humiliation, failure and struggle, yet sustained always by the one Lord.

[1] Croft, Steven, Transforming communities: Re-imagining the Church for the 21st Century. London: DLT, 2002, p 138.

[2] Williams, Rowan, Friday 28 October 2005 Archbishop's Address to the 3rd Global South to South Encounter Ain al Sukhna, Egypt to be found at (retrieved by the author 21st December 2009)

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Body of Christ: the Church is One

The Body of Christ: the Church is One

The Church: Right Here, Right Now! course explores the theme of oneness in its second week. It’s a highly appropriate theme for preaching and considering during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

The Scripture passages chosen for this session are familiar, especially from their regular appearances during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. If you would like to study them yourself, they are John 17: 20-23 and 1 Corinthians 12: 14-30. In this session the image of the body of Christ (taken from the writing of St Paul) illustrates the unity of the church. But do not limit the vision of unity to the hopes often expressed at ecumenical meetings for shared mission or worship or even structures. While Christian unity between Christians of different traditions is an extremely important area of work, the unity for which Christ prayed went much deeper, to the heart of the relationship between every follower of Jesus and his brothers and sisters wherever they may be in time or space.

In the Creed we profess a belief in one holy, catholic and apostolic church. It is easy to take the word ‘one’ in this sentence to mean that there is no alternative church, that only one church exists. And in one sense that is correct. But the oneness in which we believe tells us more than that. Not just that there is ultimately only one corporate body of believers standing around Jesus our Saviour, but also that the nature of that corporate body is to be one people united in worshipping and witnessing to our risen Lord. And it goes deeper.

Archbishop Rowan Williams, in his address on this theme[1], spoke of the unique nature of Jesus in his close relationship to the Father.

At the beginning of John's Gospel, we read 'No-one has seen God at any time, but the only God who is next to the Father's heart has made him known'. In the best manuscripts of John's Gospel, that is what is said; 'the only God', not 'the only Son' monogenis theos; the unique God who stands next to the Father, in the bosom of the Father. So from the very first chapter of John's Gospel, we have before us the image of the only one who is in eternal intimacy with God the Father; the only one who is next to the Father's heart. Making God the Father Known. So the oneness of the church is about how the church is the community of those who are led to the one place at the Father's heart where he can be known, where he can be seen. St John's Gospel is indeed about the unity of believers but I think we misunderstand it if we treat that just on a lateral level; unity between believers. It is about the unity of the community as it exists standing in that one place where the only God, the menogenis theos of chapter one of John's Gospel, stands. And so I believe that one of the external signs of the unity of the church in a sense more basic than the universal Episcopal order, more basic than the creed, more basic than the instruments of unity of the Anglican Communion, even, more basic than Holy Scripture, is that Christians are called and enabled by the Holy Spirit to say 'Our Father' because they stand in the one Christ and are brought next to the Father's heart, by Christ. 'When you pray say "Our Father"', and when we pray our Lord's prayer, we affirm we stand with the one Christ, the one eternal son, the one word in the Father's bosom.

The kind of unity that Archbishop Rowan describes goes beyond any understanding of fellowship that the world comprehends. The implications of it are immense for the church as an organisation. We can not behave like any other human organisation because the depth of our relationship goes far beyond the depth of relationship that would be considered reasonable in any other setting.

Jesus’ prayer for those of us who came after him was that we would have amongst ourselves the unity that he shares with his Father. This is a unity created out of the love of God the Father for God the Son, our co-creators.  Our unity is not, then, about structures – whether or not we all serve the same bishops or agree to the same set of instructions about what robes to wear or what kind of wine to use at a communion service. It is not about agreements, documents or canons. All those things will pass, as traditions and canons have come and gone before. Ultimately, our unity as Christ’s prayed for people is about love. As the Father and the Son are one in their loving and binding relationship with one another, so Jesus wants us to be one with each other.

As we consider the nature of the church at this time and in this place, we need to ask ourselves whether the church where we are enables us to live as a people in this kind of unity. It is not enough to share together in worship on a Sunday and all agree that we liked what happened. The unity we share needs to go much deeper than agreeing that in this church we all like to do things in a particular way. Our church family needs to be ordered in such a way that we can develop relationships with the people who are part of our immediate church community that reflect the commitment of love between the Father and the Son.

It simply is not possible on this side of heaven for humans to relate in that way to every single member of a Sunday community. We would exhaust ourselves trying to give the time and effort that would be needed to know so many people that well. Only God can love every person with that kind of depth. However, it is possible to live out deep unity with a small group of people. It takes time and commitment to get to know a group of people that well, but within a small group, whether it is a home group or the choir or the ringers or Knit and Natter or some other church group, relationships can be developed to a high degree.

And while we can not actually relate to every other Christian in depth, we need always to bear in mind the specialness of relationship that we have with every other person who is called to pray ‘Our Father’ with us. The nature of our oneness as church gives us a connection with Christians across the globe, no matter what tradition they belong to, and across time. As a church our oneness is best expressed in the baptism we all share and which is recognised almost universally. The pouring of water unites us with Jesus, baptised by St. John. Jesus later broke bread, telling the disciples ‘this is my body, broken for you’. The theological implications of considering ourselves as Christ’s body and yet holding in our hands bread which Jesus asked us also to see as his body are profound.

During the Common Worship communion service the president breaks the consecrated bread and says:
We break this bread
to share in the body of Christ.

We reply:
Though we are many, we are one body,
because we all share in one bread.

Our unity as the Body of Christ flows from Christ’s loving gift to us of his own life. He entered into our mortality and endured suffering and death, and then showed us the way to eternal life in which we are united in him, a body beyond death.

Archbishop Rowan in his address to the leaders of the Global South spoke of unity between Christians in relationship to the sacraments.
So our unity is, at its deepest, the unity which the spirit gives in enabling us to call God 'Father'; it is the unity given in baptism, in which the spirit is given to us so that we may pray like this; so that we may pray the prayer of Jesus. It is the unity expressed in Holy Communion, not as the result of what we share as human beings, but because in Holy Communion we are drawn into praying the prayer of Jesus, standing where he stands, by the Holy Spirit, alive with his life.

This is one reason why Christians are – or should be – quick to respond to emergencies in other parts of the world. Our connectedness to our brothers and sisters in Christ will make us share in their pain when times are hard, and it is part of our imperative to take action to support them.

As so many preachers at ecumenical services have said, ‘unity does not mean uniformity’. St. Paul gives us the image of the body which is used to illustrate this session. It is an image which has inspired ideas of human co-operation way beyond the Christian context. A group of people working together are a ‘corporation’. This is not a corruption of the word co-operation, but a word meaning body, from the Latin ‘corpus’. A body is a unity. There is only one BBC, for example, however many people work there, however many programmes, podcasts, books and websites they produce. There is only one Church, the Body of Christ.  A body is made up of ‘members’ – the collective phrase for body parts. Though we are familiar with the word member in its proper usage, for body parts, on a daily basis we use it more often to refer to people as a part of a corporate grouping of some sort, whether they are ‘members’ of a football team, a political party or indeed a church. The members are the different limbs of the corporation, and as such are likely to have different functions.

St. Paul writes at length in his epistles of the different gifts and talents to be found amongst the members of the body. Universally, as we consider the one body of Christ across time and space, we might see different members of the body in terms of particular church institutions – the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Baptist expressions of church, for example. Locally we apply the image to seeing ourselves as having our own particular role within a church community. Some of us are evangelists, some prophets, some preachers, some healers. Equally, you might say that some of us are church secretaries, some are organists, some bellringers, some toddler group helpers. While it is important to value such roles, we need to balance this with remembering that the roles are functions of the body as a whole. Whether we are considering the Anglican communion, or Mrs. Jones from no. 7, as a ‘member’ of the Body of Christ, each is both a gifted member and part of the one body. Each is unified with it, one with the church, one with Jesus and with our Father. And so each member must take his or her place within the body as a whole, and make an effort to relate in full love to the body. At the level of the Anglican communion that may be about ecumenical relationships between Anglicans or with other ecclesial communities. At the local level that will also be about how each of us is valued and enabled to express full membership of the body within a small group and within the Sunday worship.

[1] Friday 28 October 2005 Archbishop's Address to the 3rd Global South to South Encounter Ain al Sukhna, Egypt to be found at (retrieved by the author 21st December 2009)

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Bride of Christ: a holy people

The image of God’s people as a bride – specifically God’s bride – appears in a number of places in Holy Scripture. This study is informed particularly by two scripture readings:

Jeremiah 2: 1-7
1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 "Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem:
       " 'I remember the devotion of your youth,
       how as a bride you loved me
       and followed me through the desert,
       through a land not sown.
3 Israel was holy to the LORD,
       the first-fruits of his harvest;
       all who devoured her were held guilty,
       and disaster overtook them,' "
       declares the LORD.
 4 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob,
               all you clans of the house of Israel.
 5 This is what the LORD says:
       "What fault did your fathers find in me,
       that they strayed so far from me?
       They followed worthless idols
       and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, 'Where is the LORD,
       who brought us up out of Egypt
       and led us through the barren wilderness,
       through a land of deserts and rifts,
       a land of drought and darkness,
       a land where no one travels and no one lives?'
 7 I brought you into a fertile land
                 to eat its fruit and rich produce.
            But you came and defiled my land
               and made my inheritance detestable.

Revelation 21: 1-4 
1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, God remembers how he had a loving and devoted relationship with Israel, which is likened to the relationship between a bride and her husband. This is an image which is not only about love, but also about commitment – the lifelong promise to remain together and to support one another which is unique to a marriage relationship over any other; and to a degree it is about ownership. In the culture in which Jeremiah was writing, the bride was the property of the groom, and he therefore carried not only certain authority over her but also responsibility for her care and protection. This relationship did not remove a bride’s ability to act and think for herself – her choice to love and serve her husband was her own and she could choose not to do so.  And this is precisely what we see in Jeremiah’s prophecy. Israel was the bride, the beloved of God. Indeed, some writers compare the passionate love poem we find in Song of Solomon to this relationship between God and Israel. Whether this was the poet’s intention or not, the quality of devotion is the same. God loves Israel, and as bride Israel loved God just as much. But her attention has wandered. She has busied herself with other things, been distracted by the interests of other friends. She no longer shows that level of devotion and commitment that is expected from a wife. The marriage is damaged.

It would be easy to give up hope. The relationship between humankind and God is changed and that special closeness is lost for ever. We humans don’t stay focussed, we don’t stick with God when times are tough and other options are easier. However good our relationship with God might be, the joy of having a relationship with the quality of married love and commitment has been lost to us. But then, almost as the scriptural story comes to an end we are presented with a stunning image of the future. Revelation climaxes with the image of a great celebration at which ‘the Holy City, the new Jerusalem’ is recognised as the bride. Now the wedding is happening and ‘the Spirit and the bride say, "Come!"’ (Revelation 22:17). The new Jerusalem is not merely those people who are part of Israel, but a much bigger group of people who have entered into relationship with the Lamb – that is, the Christ – and who together have a relationship which once again can be likened to the devotion and commitment of a marriage.  

In the Living Brook Benefice the parishes are studying a course which I wrote, and which I call ‘Church: Right Here, Right Now!’ (Some parishes in the Oxford Diocese experienced the same course under the name ‘the Nature of the Church’). In the first session of the course we look at the church as the Bride of Christ. This is an ancient image, and one which is easily tangled with sexual imagery. Perhaps this is why we hear so little preaching on the subject. Then again, for men in the church there is some challenge in associating oneself with the image of a bride! As with all the images which we will look at in the course, they are meant to help with discussion, to help us take to heart aspects of our calling to love, but if the image becomes an obstacle to relating to God then it may need to be quietly set aside.

The bride is the lover of the groom. She is in the closest relationship there can be between two people. In this image the groom is the Lamb of God (Revelation 21: 9), whom we identify as Jesus Christ. Some people will find it difficult to identify with an image of the Church which in human terms has such a strong sexual aspect.  But the marriage relationship is more than merely a sexual arrangement. It is primarily a relationship of strong commitment, of growing understanding and knowledge between two people, of obedience, service and care, all motivated by love. This devoted relationship is the image which help us to understand the nature of the church as holy.

We proclaim Jesus as holy in every Eucharist as we say or sing the Sanctus during the Eucharistic prayer, and we often enjoy singing of his holiness. We refer to certain outstanding historic Christians as holy in calling them ‘saint’, a word rooted in the Latin sancte, which means holy.  It is significant that the groom in our marriage image is described as the Lamb, the one who was sacrificed for us. We associate holiness with sacrifice, with the Cross. The Lamb, the one real sacrifice for us all to end all other sacrifices, is truly holy. The Rt. Revd Rowan Williams writes[1] that in John 17:19 Jesus says:

 'for their sake, I am making myself holy, so that they may be made holy in truth'. And that gives us, I would say, a very important clue as to what Christian holiness is about; here is Jesus, the night before his crucifixion, saying 'I am making myself Holy'. He is going forward to his crucifixion, where by the shedding of his blood, he makes peace between Heaven and earth.

As bride and groom come together in a shared life, that act of peace made by Jesus unites heaven and earth in a relationship which becomes holy.

The question that follows for us is: how then does our being a holy lover of Jesus affect the way that we live out our life as a church community now? We can see the picture of how it will be in the future in the book of Revelation – the new heaven, the new earth, the wedding banquet of the Lamb and his bride to which we invite all people to come and never be thirsty. But how do we live this out in England today?

We already have a settled way of being church. There is great value in much of this. The eucharistic gathering of the family looks forward to the wedding feast and backwards to the moment when the world first saw what holiness really is – when Jesus went to the cross and allowed his body to be broken, his blood to be shed, in order to restore a peaceful and loving relationship between God and his people for all time. He didn’t have to die to achieve that goal. He could have preached and healed and called, and that would have attracted enough people to change the world. But in dying for us he came alongside the suffering in a more real way than he ever could in living. Some Christians speak of the message of incarnation and the message of the passion and resurrection of Christ as though they are somehow separated.  But they are facets of the same stunning story – that Emmanuel, God with us, brought heaven and earth back together; and that he didn’t stop at that – as if that was not enough – he went to the darkest, most difficult and humiliating place to which a man could go and stayed there to the bitter end. Our loving husband Jesus has shown us how to be holy in a world of suffering and pain.

As he did this he instituted the Eucharist, saying ‘whenever you gather and share bread and wine, remember me’. And so it is right and proper that we place the celebration of the Eucharist at the centre of our life as a church. But his action was far more than a ritual involving bread and wine. He gathered people around him and went with them into the hard places of the world he loved; ultimately he went to be God’s presence with us in death and then showed us what God’s eternal life looks like.  This too informs our calling to be church. It is not enough to gather on a Sunday for a ritual service. We need to be the holy lovers of Christ, making peace between heaven and earth as he does.

So in this study we need to consider how we relate to the world around us as holy lovers. How do we relate to each other in such a way that we continue to encourage each other in holiness and learn together how to bring that holiness into the world?

 9But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 1 Peter 2:9-10

As a bride is chosen and called by her groom, in a relationship of mutual love, so each of us – and we all together – are chosen and called by God to be his people. We can choose to respond to this call positively and if we do so we live in relationship with God, and it is a relationship we need to nurture just as a marriage must be nurtured.

We must give the best of ourselves to God. The best of our time, the best of our thought. That can’t be restricted to a slot or two on a Sunday.  It is a full-time calling and may well involve joining with other Christians on other days of the week for worship, fellowship, service and mission, as well as praying and studying on your own or with family members on a daily basis.

And as a marriage relationship can’t be done on our behalf by somebody else, neither can a relationship with God.  The clergy are not there to do our holiness, our loving or our relating for us. It is easy to become mentally and spiritually dependent on the clergy to ‘do church’ for us, but they are merely fellow servants – and servants who are as fallible and needy as all the rest of the church. They will not be standing in for us when we die and come face to face with our Saviour. If at that stage we find that we don’t have a great relationship with God because we’ve done nothing about nurturing it, the clergy won’t be there to help. They will not be any use to us when we are asked whether we acted as holy lovers to the rest of the church and the world. However much we each may have supported our clergy in their endeavours, we cannot use their work as an excuse to take no interest in living out our calling ourselves. When we meet Jesus he will want to know what you did, not what your vicar did.

[1]  Friday 28 October 2005 Archbishop's Address to the 3rd Global South to South Encounter Ain al Sukhna, Egypt to be found at (retrieved by the author 21st December 2009)