Monday, 2 November 2015

Why Bloomsbury?

Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church 
1/11/15 11.00am

You can listen to this sermon here

Ephesians 4.1-16  I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,  5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. 

8 Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people."  9 (When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?  10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 

11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,  12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,  13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 

14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,  16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

Exodus 19:20-25  When the LORD descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the LORD summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.  21 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go down and warn the people not to break through to the LORD to look; otherwise many of them will perish.  22 Even the priests who approach the LORD must consecrate themselves or the LORD will break out against them."  23 Moses said to the LORD, "The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, 'Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'"  24 The LORD said to him, "Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you; but do not let either the priests or the people break through to come up to the LORD; otherwise he will break out against them."  25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.

Revelation 21.1-6a  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."  5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true."  6 Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

Do you ever wonder what the point of church is?
            I mean church in general,
            not specifically the congregation that meets at 235 Shaftesbury Avenue.
Although, of course, for those of us here this morning,
            our general commitment to the church universal
                        takes specific shape in the here-and-now
            in terms of our commitment to be here, in this place, on this day.

But whether we normally attend church here, or somewhere else,
            whether we attend regularly or irregularly,
doesn’t really answer my question of what the point is of attending church?
            Why are we here?

One of the questions I’ve been asking a few people recently
            is why they come to Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church?
And, as you might expect, I’ve received a wide variety of replies.

I thought it might be interesting if I shared some of these this morning,
            all suitably anonymized of course, to protect the innocent;
            although it’s quite likely that some of us here will recognize our own opinions.

It turns out that one of the main reasons people attend Bloomsbury
            is because of our liberal, open, inclusive theology.
Certainly this is one of the things that drew me to want to come
            and be part of this church.
We have a long and proud history of being a church where awkward questions
            are not merely allowed, but are actively welcomed.
We are a church which rejects the easy answer, the superficial certainty,
            in favour or exploring with integrity the complex nuances
            of what it means to be human before God.
So we are liberal, open, and inclusive, and always have been.

We are also politically and socially aware.
            It’s well known that William Brock, the Victorian founding Minister of Bloomsbury,
                        remarked that the best tools for the preacher
                        are the Bible and the Times newspaper,
            and we still seek to bring the issues of the world around us
                        before God in a way that transforms both us and the world.

Which brings me to the next reason people gave for coming to Bloomsbury:
            our culture of service to the world.
We may not be the kind of church
                        where people put their hands in the air for Jesus,
            but we certainly are the kind of church
                        where people get their hands dirty for Jesus.

From the night shelter to the Tuesday lunch club,
            to the Sunday homeless lunch, to the evening service,
            to Open Doors where we welcome and care
                        for anyone who comes in through the door,
            to our Communities ministry,
            to the Soup Kitchen that will be starting next year,
            to the campaigning for the living wage,
                        the cancellation of third world debt,
                        and for the inclusion of those excluded elsewhere
                                    because of their ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.
I could go on and on and on,
            about our hands-on engagement
            with the social and political issues of our city and our world.

Maybe this is why you come to Bloomsbury,
            because you want to be part of this kind of church?

Or maybe you come for the worship?
            Certainly, this was a factor for me,
                        when Liz and I used to come and sit anonymously at the back
                                    whenever we were in London,
                        never dreaming that one day we would come to call this place home…
            Well, the worship and the preaching, perhaps.

In those days, the minister was a man called Brian,
                        who is in my view one of the best preachers we have in the Baptist family.
            Although, to my eternal disappointment,
                        I never heard Howard Williams preach.
                        So I may need to reserve my judgment.
Anyway, Brian had been my College Principal,
            and I attended his preaching class.
So I’d like to say that he taught me all I know;
            but I’m not sure it would be fair to saddle him
            with that level of responsibility.

But, nonetheless, the combination of reverent worship and thoughtful preaching
            certainly keeps many of us coming back.
We have some wonderful musicians, and a fine pipe organ,
            and a willingness to sing the great hymns of the faith
            alongside the best of the more contemporary worship material.
We have, thankfully, avoided the ‘worship wars’
            which have blighted so many other congregations,
            and it is my hope that the music we use and the words we sing
                        will continue to offer a reverent and engaging path
                        to the presence of the Living God;
            who is reaching out to us in love,
                        to draw from us psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of praise.

We will continue to learn new material,
            just as we will continue to sing the old favourites.
                        After all, it was all new once!
However, and I’m going to sound a slight note of warning here,
            nothing lasts forever,
            and certainly not the cultural forms of our worship services.
And whilst evolution rather than revolution is the order of the day,
            nonetheless, change is here to stay.
And if the main reason we come to church is the worship,
            we will need to learn grace and patience
            with those who worship differently to us.

I wonder, are we any closer to puzzling out what the point of church is?

Well, here’s another thing:
            some of us keep coming here because it’s where our friends are.
For some of us, Bloomsbury is like our family,
            and we love the community, we love the fellowship,
and even when we disagree and fall out,
            we do so knowing that there is a bond of love
            that ties us to one another at a deep and unfathomable level.
It’s like we couldn’t leave if we wanted to,
            any more than we could cut ourselves off from those we love.

But of course, this can have its problems too,
            and we need to make sure that the way we include others
                        in ‘our Bloomsbury family’
            is more than a warm welcome on their first day.
What I mean by this, is:
            Do we allow new people to come and belong as they are,
                        and not how we would like them to be?
            As with all churches, we need to guard against cliques.
But the reality for many of us is that it is the friendship and fellowship we meet here
            that keeps us coming.

Is this the point of church?

Of maybe you come here because of our location.
            In London terms, we are at the centre of the wheel,
                        with all the spokes leading to our local tube station.
The strategic and symbolic location of Bloomsbury is no accident,
            and it is only set to increase with the local development
            associated with projects such as Crossrail and Crossrail 2.

This church was built here, in this spot,
            as the outworking of a vision for a Baptist church
            for the centre of the city.
In a world where most Baptist congregations are rural or suburban,
            we remain something of an anomaly,
and so our distinctive ministry to the city,
            whether it be that corner of it on our own doorstep
                        or to the wider city where we live and work,
            is something unique and to be treasured.

Where else would we get the diversity of congregation that we get here in Bloomsbury?
            I’m sometimes asked to describe the make-up of our congregation,
                        and my response is usually that if you were to go into the street
                                    and grab the first seventy people who wandered by,
                        you’d have a fair representation.

Of course, the thing about Bloomsbury
            is that no-one ever comes here twice by accident.
Once, yes.
            It’s quite possible to be wandering by at 10.55 on a Sunday
                        and to decide to pop in.
            It may even be that we have some here this morning who fit just that category.
But you won’t be back next week by accident.
            If you come back, it’s because something about this unique expression of church
                        has drawn you back.

Of course, most of the people who visit us for the first time
            haven’t done so by accident either.
Most of the new people, week by week, when I ask them,
            say that they checked out our website,
            or our Facebook page or Twitter feed, before coming.

And so we do need to take very seriously
            he ways in which we represent and communicate who we are.
We will be a lifeline for those seeking
            a liberal, open, inclusive,
                        servant-hearted, politically-aware, socially-engaged,
            reverent, thoughtful, creative,
                        friendly, city-centre church.

And, by the same token,
            knowing who we are and what we stand for
            will allow those who need something else from their church to go elsewhere,
            rather than staying here and making themselves and others unhappy.

The thing is, there’s lots of churches out there.
            We stand as just one among many.
And the others, the conservative evangelical Baptists, the Anglicans,
            the Catholics, the Methodists,
                        the Swiss, the French, the American,
                                    the United Reformed, the Quaker,
                                                and –I-could-go-on-and-on;
            all these others – they aren’t our competitors.
                        They are our friends.
                        They are our wider family.
                        They are our cousins, uncles, aunts,
                                    great-uncles, and second-cousins-once-removed.

There is more than one right way to be a church,
            just as there’s more than one right way to be a family.
We wouldn’t dismiss our friend’s family as invalid,
            because they have different traditions or beliefs
                        about how to celebrate birthdays and Christmas,
and we should dismiss our friends in other churches
            on the basis of their differences to us.

And so, at last, and I should think some of you were wondering when I’d get to it,
            we find ourselves at the letter to the Ephesians.
And we find ourselves back at the question
            of what the point of church is?

Here, in Ephesians, the author implores his readers:
            ‘I beg you, lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.’

And here he takes us right to the heart of the issue of what it is to be a church.
            We are here, because we have been called to be here.
And we are called to behave with humility, gentleness, and patience.
            We are called to bear with one another in love.

Our behaviour towards one another, and to all those we encounter,
            is to be that of mature Christian disciples.
In all of our dealings, whether with friends or strangers,
            we are to live out the love of Christ that has called us to one another.
The writer goes on:
            ‘Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’

But, we might well reply,
            ‘How are we to do this?
            What does this look like in practice?
                        How do we live this out?
                        How do we know what behaviour is acceptable, and what is not?
Simply saying ‘love one another’, and ‘live in peace’, is all very well,
            but how is that going to work in the real world?

Well, if we are asking these sorts of questions, we aren’t the first.
            The question of how high ideals work out in reality
                        has plagued religious philosophers for millennia.
It’s the question that the Israelites put to Moses
            when he led them from Egyptian slavery to freedom:

‘Being free is great’, they said, ‘in theory.
            ‘But, in practice, how do we actually live it out?’

So Moses went up the mountain at Sinai to ask God,
            and he came down from the mountain with two stone tablets
            on which were carved the ten commandments.

‘You want to know how to live in freedom?’ said God,
            ‘then try these on for size. There’s only ten,
                        ‘so it shouldn’t be that hard to remember them and put them into practice.’

And so the Israelites tried to live by the ten commandments.
            But they soon discovered that ten wasn’t enough.
And as with all those who seek to live by rules,
            fairly soon a situation emerged
            that wasn’t covered by the ten original commandments,
and so another was needed, and then another, and then another,
            and before very long you have the whole Deuteronomic and Levitical law codes
            spelling out exactly who could do what with whom,
                        when, where, and what they could and couldn’t wear or eat whilst doing it.

But then even that wasn’t enough,
            and the Jewish legal and scribal tradition arose
            to help flesh out the many, many laws with many, many more.
And then, into this, came Jesus,
            stripping away the layers to get back to the key question:
            What is all this really for?

How are we to live as humans before God and in relation to one another?

And so we come to those strange few verses
            from the middle of our reading in Ephesians,
            where the author quotes from Psalm 68.18.

8 Therefore it is said,
            "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive;
                        he gave gifts to his people." 
9 (When it says, "He ascended,"
            what does it mean but that he had also descended
                        into the lower parts of the earth? 
10 He who descended is the same one who ascended
            far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 

Here, we have a picture of Jesus as the new Moses:
            going up on high at his ascension,
                        just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai in the desert.
But what Jesus returns with is not tablets of stone
            and a New Revised Standard Law Code.
Rather, Jesus, ever the unconventionalist, returns from on high bearing gifts.
            Almost certainly what’s in view here
                        is the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost,
                        when the Spirit fell from above onto the gathered disciples,
                                    bringing them spiritual gifts.
The one who ascends is Jesus the new Moses,
            and he descends back to his people
                        in all the corners of the earth
                        by the power of his Spirit,
            bringing gifts for them,
                        to teach them how to live as his people and as his disciples.

The rather radical implication of this
            is that the gifts of the Spirit have replaced and supplanted the law of Moses
                        and all that was built on it.
Even the ten commandments themselves
            cease to be binding for those who receive the Spirit of Christ,
            because the Christ-given guide to moral and ethical behaviour
                        is no longer words carved on tablets of stone,
                        but the living word of Jesus
                                    carved in their hearts and minds and souls by the Spirit of Christ
                                    who comes bringing gifts.

I always get a bit worried when I hear people speaking of the Bible
            as if it is a guidebook to Christian living,
            a kind of Christian version of the Jewish law.
That’s not it at all – the scriptures bear testimony to Christ,
            who comes to us by his Spirit, bringing gifts for faithful living.

Elsewhere in the New Testament are various lists of gifts that the Spirit brings,
            and some of those lists have led to no small amount of disagreement
                        between the followers of Jesus.
Which is a travesty and a tragedy really,
            because Ephesians makes it clear
            that the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit
                        is to enable the followers of Christ to live Christ-like lives,
                        in unity and peace, and in maturity of faith and knowledge.

The fact that this so often doesn’t happen
            is taken as an indication of immaturity on the part of believers,
and in verses 14-16, the writer of Ephesians effectively tells his readers
            to grow up, stop being babies,
            and to act their age not their shoe size!
I paraphrase, you understand, but not much!

But the point is clear.
            Just as a child must grow to become an adult,
                        leaving childish temper tantrums and juvenile behaviour behind,
            so those who are born again by the Spirit of Christ
                                    must grow into peace and stability
                        if they are to learn to live by the law of the Spirit that brings life,
                        rather than forever hankering back
                                    after the law of stone that leads to death.

And so we get to Ephesians’ own list of the gifts of the Spirit,
            and what we meet is a list of ministry gifts:
                        Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.

Some have sought to make this a proscriptive description of orders of ministry,
            but that is surely to miss the point.
What we have here are gifts given to some
            for the building up of the many.
As with all the spiritual gifts, they are corporate in intent, not personal.
            These are gifts given for the growth into maturity
                        of the whole body of Christ,
            which is nourished as it shares the holy food of bread and wine,
                        and shepherded into maturity and unity
                        by the gifts that come from above.

This, then, is the point of the church.

It is that ‘all of us come to the unity of faith,
            and of the knowledge of the son of God,
                        to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

This, ultimately, is why we are here.

So, as Ephesians says:
            ‘I beg you to lead a life
            worthy of the calling to which you have been called.’

1 comment:

Veronica Zundel said...

Excellent sermon, Simon. And one to think about as my own church considers its future.