21.01.24 Talk – Engaging with Community
This Sunday we are continuing to think about our Vision here at St Paul’s. Over the last two weeks we have considered how we want St Paul’s to be a place where people can Experience God and Explore Discipleship. Today we are going to think about the third part of our vision statement, which is to do with how we want St Paul’s to be a place where people can Engage with Community.
But before we get to that, I want to ask you a question. Yes – another question! Two weeks ago on Sunday I asked everyone if they could remember what marked the very start of their own faith journey. In other words; what lay at the very root of their faith? Last week I was asking everyone when the first time was that they can remember thinking of themselves as a Christian. Two rather similar questions perhaps. So this week, I want to ask you something completely different. Which is this:
Have you ever run out of fuel in a car?
Now – you may think I’ve completely lost the plot by asking you this, but stay with me. I’ll explain in a short while. Apart from anything else, in my experience there are usually some interesting stories associated with this question. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps we don’t run out of fuel as much as we used to when driving. In my own experience, I seem to remember (as a child in the 1980s) many a moment on a family trip or holiday when Dad would start kicking in the clutch going downhill, or not driving faster than about 30mph in order to save fuel. Us children in the back of the car would then start feeling nervous that we were going to run out, break down, and get stranded in the middle of nowhere. I even seem to remember one occasion where that is pretty much what did happen, and we had to wait in the car for what felt like hours whilst Dad walked off to find a petrol station somewhere! (This was, of course, long before mobile phones and 24hr breakdown recovery). However, I’m thrilled to say that in my own adult life, I have never run a car out of fuel. Perhaps I’ve been scarred by those childhood memories, and thus always been cautious!
But I wonder have you ever run out of fuel in a vehicle? And if so, how you got out of the situation?
The reason I am asking you this is, believe it or not, because today I want to talk about community. And also because of our Gospel reading. But I’ll come to that later…
You see, Community is a word which carries a weight of associations. I expect it feels slightly different to most of us. To some of us, it may sound like a wonderful word, full of the promise of companionship, full of hope and vibrancy and the knowledge that you don’t have to go it alone. To others, it might feel like the opposite. Something draining, or stifling. And imagine meeting someone new in a social setting and then discovering that they lived ‘in community’, or even ‘in a commune’; I wonder how that would shape your opinion of them?
And yet, when we turn to the Bible, we find that somehow the great vision or goal of the Church of Christ is all caught up in the idea of community. We are to be ‘The Body of Christ’ (see 1 Corinthians 12.12!) where ‘though we are many, we are one body’ (words you may even recognise from the Communion service) and where if one suffers, we all suffer, and if one is honoured we all are honoured. Where no one member is more important than any other and each has their place and name.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is remembered as saying ‘By your love for each other will people know you are mine’ or words to that effect! (John 13.35). God clearly intends the church, and that means our Church too, to be a place where people love, care and support each other. And this of course means a lot more than just middle-class politeness and courtesy. Even a casual glance at the book of Acts will show us that the first churches were places where there was a radical equality and where people shared and supported each other; a community where people were given to ‘as each had need’ (see Acts 2.45!).
This great Biblical vision of the church united in love for Christ and for each other culminates in the mystical vision of the book of Revelation, where in our reading today, we see ‘a great multitude’ speaking and praising God with one voice, and prepared to be symbolically (or perhaps we should say spiritually) united with Jesus in marriage.
There is no doubt that our faith calls us together to be a community. We, the church of Christ, are not called to be ‘islands’ of individual or familial security and independence, tolerating each other and making polite conversation after an uplifting service on a Sunday morning. No! We are called to be so much more than that – we are called to be the Body of Christ, where each is supported and affirmed by the others. Where needs (real needs, not just ‘spiritual’ needs) are met, and where love, help and support are found for all (not just the people whom we prefer!).
This, of course, is challenging (and I’ll explore how and why in a moment). But it is also something else. It is also exactly – and I do mean exactly – what the world around us is crying out for. It is exactly what the world needs. It is exactly what West Bridgford needs.
We hear so much these days, do we not, of an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ in our society. We see how elderly and frail people are increasingly isolated from family members and neighbours (and this even before Coronavirus). We know that our young people are more anxious than ever, as they struggle to define themselves and to find a safe place in an increasingly competitive and ruthless society. Young people these days seem to know instinctively (I see this is my own children) that unless they can out-compete others in tests and exams and scores and appraisals and interviews that they will not be able to get a secure job, or a secure home, or a clear vision of a future.
This sort of loneliness and anxiety surely would be unknown in an authentic community such as we see in the early church described in Acts! A community that cares for and supports each other, and which provides for needs to be met, is the opposite of a world where competition and self-centredness is the norm. It may not be easy to imagine how we can be such a community, but we can certainly see that it is needed.
As a church, if we can find a way to move towards being a community like this; if we can find a way to embody these values and to engage with each other in a way that reflects the vision of Acts and Revelation then we know we are getting something right. And I believe that if we can be an authentic community of mutual support and care then we will grow. Because who wouldn’t want to be part of something like that?
Well, who indeed! Let’s pause there for a moment, because there actually may be many for whom the idea of that sort of community does not sound appealing. As I said a moment ago, community such as this is certainly challenging.
It is challenging, I think, partly because it might sound exhausting. And I mean that in its fullest sense!
Earlier I asked you if you had ever run out of fuel in a car; and you may have been wondering why I asked! Well, imagine this, if you will. Imagine that you are driving through a town somewhere, desperately looking for somewhere to fill up as you have just realised that you are soon to run out of fuel. Maybe you have an important meeting to attend or appointment to keep and you absolutely cannot miss it. As you drive, wondering when the next petrol station will appear in front of you, you can feel your anxiety rising. All of a sudden, you see a petrol station in front of you. Hoorah, you think, I am going to be alright. But just before you pull in, you realise that this is no ordinary petrol station. This is a ‘reverse petrol station’ which actually sucks the fuel out of cars! And yes, I know that no such place really exists!
But imagine it did – what would you do? Well, you certainly would not drive in and let it suck the fuel out of your vehicle! You need a petrol station that actually gives you fuel – that replenishes you, that fills you up – that allows you to carry on with your incredibly important journey… A petrol station that sucked the fuel out of your vehicle would leave you, literally, exhausted. Unable to carry on.
Do you see where I am going with this?
Sadly, that is what ‘community’ can look like to a lot of tired and almost-exhausted people. It can look like a place where the needs are so great and so deep and so unlimited, that any time, money, energy or ‘fuel’ that they have will be sucked out of them and they will be left exhausted.
For some, this is what Family can be like. For some this is what Church can be like. Some people can find that they give and give and give until they have very little left and then they are asked to give some more. If that is how you feel about Church (or even Family) then please hear that this is no what God intends for you or for the community that you serve! And if that is how you feel, even in a small way, then I would suggest that you need to pay attention to our Gospel reading today.
In fact I would say that if St Paul’s is to be a vibrant and growing example of the Body of Christ where people engage with an authentic and supportive community, and not an exhausting community where a few people give in a way that is unsustainable, then we all need to pay attention to the Gospel reading today.
In John 2.1-11, we find Jesus performing his first miracle (actually the Gospel of John uses the word ‘sign’) at a wedding in Cana in Galilee. In this famous story, water is turned into wine, Jesus reveals his glory to his disciples, and a major and embarrassing catering disaster is avoided.
What is often missed in this ‘sign’ is the message that the writer of the Gospel (quite possibly not called John – the gospel itself is anonymous) seems to be intending, which is to do with abundance.
Jesus does not just ‘make some wine’, he creates a colossal amount of wine - gallons and gallons of it! Depending upon how you translate the amounts mentioned in the text, there is easily as much as 1000 bottles of wine. Can you imagine what 1000 bottles of wine even looks like? Can you imagine how you would ever get round to drinking that much wine? (Perhaps some of us would be willing to give it a go!).
The point seems to be that Jesus brings abundance. Many scholars see this miracle of abundant wine in the context of the Eucharist (or communion), where a community gathers together and becomes ‘one body’ – the Body of Christ, in a shared meal of bread and wine, and one where there is enough for all. The point that this story seems to make is actually very similar to the point St Luke makes in Acts 2 – which is that when the community of Jesus really becomes the body of Christ, abundance is released and everybody – absolutely everybody, has all they need. As we know, In the wine miracle in our reading today, there was enough for all and then more to spare.
A real, authentic community needs more than just good intentions, it needs us to be resourced by the God of abundance. We want St Paul’s to be a place where people can ‘fill-up’, not a place where people are exhausted and tired out by meeting endless needs. If we are to enter into the great biblical vision of the Body of Christ, and the Bride of Christ that we read about today, we need to pray that God’s abundance is released. We need to pray that Jesus turns the water of our efforts and intentions into the wine of his provision and kingdom. And we all need to be able to play our part.
Finally, there is one more thing that both our reading from Revelation and our Gospel reading today agree on. Which is to do with celebration! What we see in both readings is joy – joy and celebration, a party – basically. In the earthly marriage in John 2 it is the joy of abundance, and the joy of provision, where water for purification (speaking of un-cleaness and ‘sin’) is turned into wine for celebration! In the heavenly marriage scene in Revelation we find the joy of worship, the joy of being united with Jesus in victory and glory.
God wants St Paul’s to be a place where celebration and joy are possible. Where we can rejoice with each in and share with a generosity that reflects God’s abundance, without fear of running out.
So today I will finish with a challenge. What can you do this week, that acts (like in the Gospel of John) as a sign of God’s abundance and even celebration? How can you support and encourage someone else in our (or your) community this week? Who can you get together with to celebrate God’s provision and care this week? This week, can you choose to celebrate God’s goodness with someone? Why not even open a bottle of wine, for unlike fuel in a car, God’s goodness will never run out.
Our vision is that St Paul’s can be a place where people can:
Experience the presence and vision of God in their lives, through worship, prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Explore what it means for them to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Engage with an authentic and loving community, where divisions and differences are overcome.
Or to put it more succinctly:
Engage with community.