16th June 2024

Size Matters

Size matters

Sunday 16th June 2024

A sermon by Kenneth Padley

From Romans 9


Size matters. Or so we are told. But which size is best?

Much marketing emphasises magnitude. For example, when Debenhams relaunched as an online retailer, it used the slogan ‘bigger, better, bolder’. Even though it had ditched its high street stores, Debenhams thought it had greater potential through a global internet audience. By contrast, some advertisers deploy the opposite strategy, stressing the benefits of a product which is petite and perfectly formed. Those whose memory stretches to the 1990s may have the irritating jingle for Outspan oranges indelibly imprinted on your memory, quote ‘cos the small ones are more juicy naturally’.


There is a tension within the Judaeo-Christian tradition about the size of God’s people. Is the Church big or small? The answer that we give to this question is likely to shape our understanding of the purpose of the Church and our own role within it.


Within the Hebrew Scriptures some passages affirm a confident, expansive identification of the whole Jewish nation with God’s people. We see this in the divine promise that the descendants of Sarah and Abraham will be like the stars of heaven and the sand of the seashore (Genesis 22.17). We see this in the determination of Moses, Miriam and Aaron to lead each and every Hebrew out of Egypt, no one left behind (Exodus 10). And we see this in the consecration by Solomon of the entire state to divine service (I Kings 8). This tradition is rearticulated in the New Testament through the evangelistic impetus of Jesus when he says that his followers should baptise disciples of all nations (Matthew 28.19). And in the vision of Revelation that there are innumerable saints gathered around God’s throne (Revelation 7.9).


However, alongside this grand-scale correspondence of Church and nation, another strand of biblical thought paints a picture of God’s people as small and besieged. Jeremiah in his lament over Jerusalem grumbles about the diminishment of the faithful. Just a small rump are left. Elijah in conversation with God on Mount Horeb complains that ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord … [but] the Israelites have forsaken your covenant… I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ (I Kings 19.10).


This image of a beleaguered Church also finds resonance in the New Testament. We see it in the vulnerability of the disciples after Jesus’ ascension. And we see it in today’s second lesson, as Paul struggles with the fact that not many of his fellow Jews get Jesus. He goes on to quote the prophet Isaiah in Romans 9.27 when he writes ‘Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved.’


In subsequent centuries, remnant theology and its vision of the Church as a narrow elite has proven a useful bastion for Christian communities operating under fear, oppression or decline. It has given strength at times of persecution and bolstered minority sects in their fissiparous distinctiveness.


However, alongside this, Christians have also adopted those bold ideas of a much larger godly community. While some today deride the notion of ‘Christendom’ as medieval history, others keep re-presenting it in new ways. We see it in the sense of some Russians that they are descendants of the Holy Roman Empire, and in the American pledge to their flag as ‘one nation under God’.


These two contrasting visions of the Church – global empire versus holy huddle – can, ironically, coexist alongside each other. We have a local example of this, right here in Salisbury. In the early fourteenth century, our Cathedral expanded to include its magnificent, unmissable spire, beckoning the faithful from miles around. But what did pilgrims find when they arrived? At exactly the time the spire was being raised, the Cathedral was also hemming itself away behind a sturdy wall, a privileged community shut off from the great unwashed.


These competing images, big Church versus small Church, have theoretical and practical implications. The theoretical question is about how many are going to be saved. Our answer to this will shape our views about the Church’s mission.


We heard in tonight’s excerpt from Romans an inference that the atonement will be small. It flows from Paul’s frustration at the perceived failure of his preaching. ‘Though the number of the children of Israel were like the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved.’ But Paul counters himself two chapters later when he recounts God’s response to Elijah in that conversation on mount Horeb. Paul knows that God denies the prophet is alone and insists that he has kept for himself thousands who have not bowed the knee to Baal (Rom 11.4).


It is tempting, when under pressure, to identify only with those who are like us and sceptically to suggest that God’s chosen are few. However, such tallies are a matter for the almighty, not for us. He is boss and will decide such things. What we are told is that those who have faith will be saved, such that it is the task of the Christian to take the news of Christ to the nations (Matthew 28.19).


This brings me neatly to practical implications. The model of a small Church as a disciplined spiritual elite leads to a community which draws strength from the known and familiar. It is safe and reliable – and perhaps the right model in a context of persecution.


By contrast, a Church which has a more open outlook and fuzzy understanding of its edges will be more outward in mission. And because we are fortunate to live in a country which is free from war, pestilence and intimidation, I believe it is this latter model to which you and I are called. This is the missiology of the Church of England, which for centuries has operated a national, territorial ecclesiology based on parishes, a Christian presence in every community.


So are we for people like us or for all nations? When we think of this Cathedral, are we motivated by its wall or its spire?


One of the joys of cathedrals like this is that they are arenas for godly yearning and engagement on a massive scale. They are not narrow, simplistic, nor privatised. They are outward, welcoming, and diverse.


So size does matter. Our vision of the generous embrace of God should influence our approach to new things and new people. And it should do this whatever our role within this holy community, whether we are staff, volunteers, or worshippers – old or young – online as much as onsite. Each has a stake in the mission and ministry of God through this place into our weekday communities. And, crucially, this is a model with a positive feedback cycle – because a culture of strong welcome to us should nurture habits of deep commitment from us. And I’d be so bold as to suggest that St Paul, when he recalled his summons to evangelise the Gentiles, would have known this even more than we.