A sermon preached by Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is stuff about the Church of England which is easier to explain, and stuff which is harder. There are lots of things which I think wider society, and certainly my non-churchgoing friends and family find it quite easy to understand and accept about the role and the nature of the Church of England even in today’s world. One of the most obvious is our ministry to those who are bereaved. Our ministry also to those getting married, and to a certain extent as well our presence, still, in the structures of the wider life of our community, things like membership of school governing bodies, the Church of England’s profound commitment to education, to things like healthcare chaplaincy and indeed ministry to those in prison. Then there are things which are harder to explain or justify, particularly after a bottle or two of wine at a meal. The apparent tortoise-like decision-making systems of the church, the frustratingly slow progress that I think most of wider society believes the church to be making around certain ethical and equality issues, the consistently appalling access that our buildings provide for the disabled, the infirm, and so on. Those lead me, and I’m sure many of you too, to have to do some quite hard thinking about this church to which I have committed my life and my ministry.
To my memory, no one has ever put down their glass wine on the dining room table, settled back in their chair and said to me, “now look Tom, why does the church seemingly randomly have endless Sundays after Trinity, and then at the end of October do a kind of handbrake turn, have a Last Sunday after Trinity, and then start counting down towards Advent?” That would be a refreshingly lightweight conversation compared to some of those deeper ethical issues, and maybe people just don’t notice or care why or how we number our Sundays. But here we are, on what is apparently, 20 Sundays after we began counting them, the Last Sunday after Trinity. And isn’t it exciting! Next Sunday will be the Fourth Sunday before Advent. And can you feel your life of faith deepening because of it?!
It’s not helped by the fact that the Book of Common Prayer strides confidently on, numbering its Sundays after Trinity all the way to Advent, so for those of us who come to modern language and prayerbook services each day, life becomes a little schizophrenic from this point on.
But actually, there is a connection between what the church tries to do in these last few weeks of the year, and those bigger questions with which I started this sermon, questions about the presence of Christian people in all of those spheres of life which are the places where our lives intersect with the issues, the moments and the challenges of being human. Schools, hospitals, crematoria, the sports club, the moments where we fall in love, the moments where our hearts are broken, the moments when to say goodbye. The moments where we come face-to-face with our failings, our faults, and, recognising that “there is no health in us”, we look for help and meaning. We look for a bigger story to be part of.
These last few weeks of every Christian year are an opportunity to try to put all of the pieces of the jigsaw together. We spend from Advent to Trinity every year re-membering, putting back together again, the story of Jesus’ life. Again we tell each other the old, old story of an angel and a girl, of a stable and a star, of a man in the desert, of a meal with friends, of a hill and cross, of the garden of fear and wonder, of tongues of fire and languages, of hearts burning within the people who would become the very first Christians. Then all the way through the summer, in these endless Sundays after Trinity, we try to apply those stories, those truths to our own lives. How is this story my story? How is my story known, and owned, and precious to Christ?
And here, in these last weeks of a dying Christian year, we find the answer. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is family. Our story and his story, the struggles and trials and joys of my life, marriage, sickness, triumph and disaster, moments of great clarity and moments of abject failure, when my heart bursts with joy or breaks in sorrow, - those moments are his moments, because we are family.
Saint Paul carries a reputation with him for being forthright, complicated and often fairly conservative. And there are big chunks of his writings where that is undoubtedly true. Here though, this morning, in one of the very earliest pieces of his writing, indeed one of the very earliest fragments of Christian text we have, what we find is remarkably tender and loving. “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” The language that Paul wants to use here to this very, very early Christian community, these excited but confused men, women and children, just beginning to set out on the exploration, the adventure, of being Jesus’s people, is the language of the family. And in one of the most exquisitely beautiful lines of St Paul, he says this: “so deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” You have become very dear to us.
The model set out for the church is not an Army, or a Navy. It is not a multinational corporation, as desperately as it appears that some of the bishops are in love with that kind of model. We are not in the business of managers, and operators, of staff. There is very little language of line management in the Bible. The model is a family. And you know as well as I do that decisions have to be made in families, but I think the families that are successful don’t run themselves like businesses, they run themselves with love.
Paul’s motivation for committing himself to the life of those Thessalonians Christians was not trying to hit his target of scalps for Jesus: it was because they had become very dear to him. That is also, of course, why it hurt so badly when those relationships break down. Re-read the letter to the Galatians if you haven’t done it recently. Paul is furious. But again, it reads like a hurt mother or father, or a falling out between siblings. It doesn’t read like an appraisal or a performance review.
The more I think and pray about the church, and the more I read about the way in which we currently navigate our way through the challenges of our day, and they are great challenges, the more worried I become that we have forgotten that we are a family, and we have become seduced by the language of the boardroom. Some of the documents and the noises coming out of Church House Westminster really frighten me. And I struggle to reconcile them with passages like those of today, and with the tradition which talks about us being brothers and sisters, with mothers and fathers in God. I don’t know whether you are praying regularly for our new Dean? I hope you are, and if nothing else might I suggest to you that you pray for a brother or sister? Pray that God will raise up for us a member of our family, someone who will feel the call upon their hearts that says to them “Salisbury has become very dear to you.”
And pray for the church where we engage in the parts of life where above all else people cry out for family. There are people here this morning who carry that promise of a family into prisons, into hospitals, into schools, out into the dark streets of our midnight city as street pastors. There are people here this morning whose hearts are breaking. There are people here
whose joy and excitement is infectious and overflowing. Here, and in all those other places, God longs to make family. God longs for the world to recognise his people, his church, as brothers and sisters, as children of the Holy Trinity which exists in perpetual and everlasting love.
I am a head of Department in this Cathedral. I am a line manager. I do my appraisals because that is my job. But every time I forget that those other roles are deeply, deeply inferior to my calling to be God’s child and your brother, I repent. The Pharisees got it badly wrong when they tried to find cause against Jesus in semantic trap. When we look at the gospel we recognise that all that he wanted to talk about was family.