Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Institutions have the capacity to make demons of us all

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
21 June 2015 11.00am

Ephesians 4:1-7  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.

John 13:33-35  Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.'  34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Listen to the sermon here:

OK, it’s confession time.

Except… are we allowed to do that here?
          Isn’t ‘confession’ more of a Roman Catholic thing?
They do it, I’m sure of it, I’ve seen the little booths
          when I’ve visited Catholic churches on holiday.
          …or was that Greek Orthodox?
Or is it the High Anglicans?
          There’s little confession booths in Anglican cathedrals, isn’t there?
Or is it the Methodists…?                                            
          Do they do ‘confession’? I have a vague feeling they do.
          I think it’s one of their ‘lesser sacraments’. Or did I dream it?

Well, anyway, here’s my confession this morning:
          There are times when I really don’t like church very much.

There, I’ve said it.
          But before I ask for absolution, perhaps I’d better explain.

I’m not talking about this particular church,
          I’m not taking about the congregation of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
I love this church, and I love it’s congregation.
          …well, most of the time.
          Just occasionally I want to shoot people. But it passes.

No, what I mean when I say that I really don’t like church very much
          is that I despair at much of what goes on in the name of the people of Christ.
I despair at the division, the arguments, the fighting,
          the judgmentalism, the superiority,
                   the condescension, the arrogance…
          and I could go on, and on, and on…
In fact, I’ve got about 20 minutes left before the next hymn,
          and it’s tempting to just do just that…

But I’ll hold off giving full vent to my frustrations for a moment,
          and we’ll see where it gets us.

Many of you will know that Bloomsbury is open to the public during the week,
          and that we have a faithful team of volunteers
                   who sit at our reception desk, welcoming everyone
                             from lost tourists trying to find the British Museum
                                      or Co-Vent-Gar-Den,
                             to famous actors on their way to a read-through
                                       of Doctor Who, Call the Midwife, or New Tricks
                                      in the Forum upstairs.

Sometimes, if I have a bit of time to spare,
          I like to go and hang out in the foyer, to see who comes through the door.
It’s not just an excuse to go star-spotting, I promise.

Anyway, sometimes I’ll end up giving some tourists a guided tour of the sanctuary,
          and almost inevitably, they’ll ask me ‘what kind of a church is this’.

Of course, when I say ‘Baptist’,
                   that can mean very different things, to different people.
          For some, it means we’re like the Southern Baptists of the USA,
                    and people assume we’re theologically fundamentalist.
          For others, it means nothing at all,
                   and I find myself having to explain something
                   about the origins of the Baptist church in the UK
          Although, at this point,
                   it’s usually fortuitous if Ruth wanders through the Foyer,
                             because she’s our tame church historian.
                   I’m just the Bible guy.
I think part of what confuses people,
          is the Normanesque front to the church:
they think they’re coming into a cathedral,
          and are then surprised by what they meet
          when they come through the doors.

A couple of times recently,
          I’ve been asked by visitors to explain the different
                   between the Methodist, Baptist and Catholic churches.

And, in Ruth’s absence,
          I’ve found myself telling the story of how, in the fourth century,
          Christianity was transformed by the Emperor Constantine
                   from a persecuted and illegal sect
                   to the official religion of the Roman Empire.

And then how, skipping forward through the division of the empire
                   into Eastern and Western Christianity,
          and on through the centuries of the Holy Roman Empire,
we come to the Protestant Reformation,
          when a period of corruption and turmoil in the official Roman Catholic Church
                   prepared the ground for Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others
                   to spearhead a breakaway movement,
                             as they sought to recover the ‘true church’
                             that they believed had been lost by the Roman Catholics.

And then we come to the UK,
          and Henry VIII making his decisive break with Rome,
          over a mixture of theological conviction
                   and an argument with the pope over whether he could get divorced.
And so we get the Church of England,
          still a national church, but not one which owed allegiance to Rome.

And then we come to the early Baptists, breaking away from the Church of England,
          believing that they had discovered the true form of church,
          and forming their first congregation here in London in 1612.

And then we come to the Methodists, whose founders, the Wesley brothers,
          never actually wanted to break away from the Church of England,
          but whose followers were forced to leave.

And then we come to the great missionary movements of the nineteenth century,
          when Baptists and Methodists and Anglicans spread throughout the world,
                    piggy-backing the British Empire
                   to spread their forms of church wherever they could.

And suddenly, in just a few minutes of very basic church history,
          we have two millennia of power-grabbing, in-fighting,
                    division, disorder, and domination.

And you wonder why I say that I don’t really like the church very much.
          And I haven’t even started on the crusades or the inquisition.

It often seems to me that,
          whilst the teachings and example of Jesus,
                   as the revelation of a God of grace and love,
          are a wonderful, life-transforming, and inspiring thing;
those who seek to follow those teachings and example,
          seem to have a persistent and proven ability
                   to take the community of Christ-followers a very long way
                   from the kind of thing Jesus was talking about and living out.

What it needs, surely, is a fresh start.
          A reboot.
Perhaps we who understand it, we who know what Jesus is about,
          need to start the true church in our generation!...

Except, of course, it’s all been done before.

Which is why we’re here, in this slightly anomalous building,
          with its Normanesque front, and unusual curved-pew sanctuary,
                    explaining to visitors why we’re not Catholic, Methodist, or Anglican,
                    and why there are no confessional booths down the side aisle.

In so many ways, I’d love to throw it all up in the air and start again,
          doing it right this time, where everyone else before has failed.
Except that won’t work,
          because no matter how much we try and learn from the mistakes of the past,
          we will always end up making new ones of our own.

The curious, diverse, and fragmented nature of Christianity,
          with its different streams and denominations,
tells us much about human nature,
          and our capacity to institutionalise the divine.

There are no easy answers to the deceptively simple question
          of how the body of Christ should order and organise itself.
There are no easy answers to issues such as baptism, eucharist, and ministry.

Each generation of Christ-followers
          encounters a changing culture,
and forms of church that took shape in previous generations
          have to adapt and transform as culture shifts,
          or else they die out, as the cultures that gave them birth pass from memory.

This has never been more true than in our own world;
          and just as the protestant reformation
                             can be traced to the rise of the printing press,
                    and the ease with which ideas could be circulated
                             through mass production of books,
          so the digital information age throws before us
                   a whole new host of challenges,
                    that would mystify those who have gone before us.

New forms of church are emerging around us,
          with virtual church becoming an ever-present reality.
More and more people are choosing to retain faith,
          but to distance themselves from the institutions of church structures.
After all, why go to church
          when you can meet like-minded fellow believers online,
and access sermons and worship material
                   on YouTube and SoundCloud?

But even here, in the supposedly egalitarian space of the internet,
          the possibilities for domination and control are ever-present.
The religious websites that attract the most hits
          are the ones with the best advertising, the slickest presentation,
                   and the best funding.
And the selling of worship is a multi-million dollar industry,
          not unlike the secular music industry,
with live shows generating album and merchandise sales throughout the year.

And where, we might legitimately ask, in all of this,
          is the son of man who had nowhere to lay his head.

Where, in all of this, is the one who said to his disciples:

34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
          Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 
35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
          if you have love for one another.

Where, in all of this, is  the simplicity of Christian living,
          where is the loving community of the body of Christ.

Honestly, sometimes, it’s enough to make me want to give up on the whole thing.

Except… as a wise man called Brian Haymes once said to me,
          ‘the saints of God are in the pews’

I might want to give up on it all,
          but God hasn’t, and won’t.

It is one of the mysteries of faith
          that God continues to call us to one another;
and that when we come together in the name of Christ,
          he is present with us by his Spirit
in ways that are transformative and life-giving.

And so we come to Paul,
          and the letter to the Ephesians.

The tendency of people towards institutionalisation,
          and the tendency of institutions towards control,
is nothing new.

And the process began in early Christianity,
          almost as soon as believers started gathering in small groups
          for worship, prayer, preaching, and mutual support.

Because someone has to keep the money,
          someone has to prepare the room,
          someone has to cook the meal,
          someone has to prepare communion,
          someone has to do the flowers,
          someone has to call the meeting to order
          someone has to decide who’s preaching next week,
          someone has to choose the hymns.

It doesn’t take very long for something that looks quite like church,
          to emerge from the Christ-centred enthusiasm
          of the earliest Christians.

And the letter to the Ephesians gives us an insight
          into some of the struggles that they were facing:

‘I … beg you’ says its author,
          ‘to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called’

Why would he say this, unless it were the case,
          that the people in the church were not doing this?

But he goes on, and it doesn’t take a lot of reading between the lines,
          for us to work out what some of the problems
          in the Ephesian church might have been.

They are told that they should live
          ‘with all humility and gentleness,
                   with patience, bearing with one another in love,
          making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’

This starts to sound a bit like a church
          on the edge of tearing itself apart.
There are people there who are the opposite of ‘humble, gentle, and patient’.
          In other words, they are arrogant, vicious, and short tempered.

It is surely enough to make you want to give up on church altogether!?

Except… the call of God is to not walk away.
          The call of God on the people of Christ is to make every effort
                   to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Because in the unity of the people of Christ,
          the body of Christ is made real in the world,
          for the good of all.

As Ephesians goes on:
          ‘There is one body and one Spirit,
                   just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 
                one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 
                                one God and Father of all,
          who is above all and through all and in all.’

And so these ancient and yet timeless words,
          echo down to us through the millennia of Christian history.

Calling us, in our time, to be the body of Christ,
          in our world, in our place.

We are called to love one another despite our differences,
          to bear with one another when we would rather walk away,
          to resist the temptations to anger, arrogance, and egotism,
          to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Of course our church isn’t perfect.
          Of course the ministers and deacons get it wrong sometimes.
Of course there are people who we disagree with,
          and there may even be those who want to shoot, occasionally.

But we are called to one another.

And in our community, the way we do it,
          we have ways of expressing our commitment to one another
                   which give rise to the institution
                   that we call Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

Baptism marks the point of entry into the body of Christ,
          as we commit ourselves to a life of discipleship.

Membership of the church is an expression of our covenant relationship,
          and our commitment to one another.

Church meetings are times of prayerful gathering,
          where members can share together in the sacred task
          of discerning the mind of Christ for this place, at this time.

Communion is a time of shared fellowship,
          as we re-member the body of Christ in our midst,
          and commit ourselves to the way of the cross.

But in all of these forms that we put around our calling to Christ
          and to his body that is the church,
we need to remember that it is Christ that we are following,
          and that he calls us to live together in love.

The danger to us here is the troubling fact that
          institutions have the capacity to make demons of us all.
They suck the loyalty of those who become part of them
          and they turn loyalty into service, and service into servitude.

Good people can do, and have done, great evil
          in the service of truly great institutions.
And this is true even, and especially, of the institutions we call church.

Those who would faithfully serve Christ
          in the company of their fellow sisters and brothers,
can, gradually and subtly, over the years, decades, and centuries,
          become servants and slaves of institutions
                   that still bear the name of their founder
                   and still espouse the ideals of their saviour
          but which ultimately demand the absolute allegiance
                   of those who set out to serve Christ alone.

As I said, institutions, even churches,
          have the capacity to make demons of us all.

Now, I love my church. Genuinely,
          I love the unique place that is Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
          I am proud of the stand it takes on justice and inclusion,
                   I am proud of its willingness to question assumptions
                             and rethink faith for each new generation.
          I am proud of the people who give unstinting and sacrificial service,
                             in and through Bloomsbury,
                   to see the world transformed in the cause of Christ.

And I assume that many of those sat here today feel the same.

Whether you've been coming here for years,
          and have made a lifetime of commitment to and love for this place.
Or whether you've recently arrived and are just starting to realise
          that this strange and wonderful church
          might just be your Christian home and family.

But we all of us need to hear the warning
          that even the best church has the capacity to make demons of us all.

If we find ourselves worshipping the church, and not Christ,
          something is going wrong.

And yes, it is possible to worship a church.
          It is possible for our allegiance to shift towards the institution we love,
                   and away from the one in whose service the institution was created.

This is why, of course, we need to keep ourselves accountable.
          This is why we need one another.
We need help, in this Christian journey of ours.
          We need fellowship, accountability, and mutual pastoral care.

Home groups, and other groups such as exchange or Tuesday lunch,
                    genuinely matter here,
          as they provide a context for this scattered congregation of ours
                   to gather for the up building of authentic relationships
                   based on trust and mutual respect.

But, perhaps most of all,
          we need to keep our worship services focused on Christ.
And so we gather on Sunday mornings in his name
          to proclaim together our devotion to him,
          and our commitment to living out his teaching and example.

We break bread and share wine in memory of Christ’s sacrifice,
          and as we do so, we re-commit ourselves
          to the path of Christ-like sacrificial living.

We are baptised in the name of Christ
          to mark the beginning of our Christian journey,
                   in public commitment and shared obedience
                   to the path of following Christ alone.

This is why the worship practices, and liturgies,
          and sacraments of the church matter so much:
                   not for their outward form,
                   but because they keep the church focused on Christ it's head,
                   who calls it into existence.

A church which becomes focused on itself, its members, or its mission,
          at the expense of its total devotion to the cause of Christ,
          is a church that has lost its way.

I do not believe that this describes Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

But those of us who are committed to Bloomsbury,
          need to know that even here, as in all churches,
          there is the capacity for deception and idolatry.

Even this place will receive our worship if we offer it.

And none of this is easy, and it never has been.
          But each of us has been ‘given grace
          according to the measure of Christ's gift.’,
          as Ephesians puts.

And each of us is called to walk the path of costly discipleship,
          committing ourselves day by day to following Christ,
          and to living in love and unity with our fellow believers.

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