Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Proclaiming the Kingdom - Being the Church

Trinity 3 - Year C – Eucharist – 7.vii.2019

(Isaiah 66.10-14; Galatians 6.7-16; Luke 10.1-11,16-20)

When I read today’s Gospel passage - Jesus sending out 70 disciples in pairs to go ahead of him - I find myself thinking of some words of Alfred Loisy, a French priest who lived at the end of the 19th and into the middle of the 20th Century. They’re words that translate roughly:

Jesus appeared proclaiming the Kingdom of God, but what came about was the Church.

Go proclaiming God’s Kingdom - and what do you get? - the Church! Is that supposed to be some sort of let-down? - a big anti-climax following on from the mission Jesus had set himself? Does it tell us that we’re simply not up to the task which Jesus gave his followers? It certainly says something about the original urgency in what Jesus sought and a process of institutionalisation which followed. So was the mission of Jesus - proclaiming the Kingdom of God - in the end a failure?

From the outset I want to say, No! Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is good - it’s the calling of the followers of Jesus. And being the Church is good - that’s how we continue the work of Jesus. The two go together. We need to remind ourselves that this is a situation of not one or the other, but both / and. We need continually to be reminded of our initial calling - to proclaim the Kingdom and recognise the urgency of the task; but also to see how its message may be consolidated and made real in people’s lives - and that requires urgency.

I don’t think Alfred Loisy was being cynical when he made his observation. His thinking took him into conclusions which saw his writings banned, and eventually he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. He had problems early in his ministry with the authorship of the Scriptures, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and doubted that God was revealing the reality of his being and nature in Jesus. After his excommunication he continued as a lay intellectual and taught a humanist system of ethics separate from any divine revelation. Yet nevertheless I think we owe him a lot for his single sentence observation that Jesus’ mission was to preach the Kingdom of God, but what we find ourselves dealing with is the reality of the Church.

Jesus himself makes only one direct reference to an institution which might be called the Church, when he tells Peter and his disciples: “You are Peter, and on this rock will I build my Church.” And scholars have asked whether Jesus really had any sense of such an institution in mind - couldn’t this simply be Matthew in his Gospel writing with hindsight? Would Jesus be disappointed with what his followers have become?

The answer is, I think, Yes and No.

Yes, because we always fail to live up to our calling. The life of the Church is far from perfect. Jesus calls his first disciples to leave their fishing nets or their tax desk - to walk away from their comfortable ways of life for the sake of proclaiming Good News to any who will hear: to bring justice to the oppressed, healing to the sick, hope for the poor.

Go on your way,” he tells the people he sends out ahead of him. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.”

But we can so often feel stuck in the doldrums of faith. We haven’t the energy for the urgency. We have responsibilities which we don’t feel we can shirk. We need money, clothes, footwear - and homes to live in. So we simply can’t respond in the way Jesus asks.

Yes, Jesus would find there are very few who these days can live up to the urgency he asked of his first followers. But there’s also a No.  “The kingdom of God has come near.” That’s what Jesus wants people to know. But the task is to bring it near to people where they are. After preaching the Good News of the Kingdom we have to get on with the task of living it. And that’s what it is to be “the Church.” That’s something we have to do in the here and now, in the places where we live, with the structures we need to enable that way of life - and when it comes to being the Church, that means the structures of buildings and the structures of organisation,… each of which can get us down, but at the same time necessary to enable us in our mission.

In the last eight days, our diocese has celebrated the ordination of eight new deacons and eleven new priests. This is the time of year that makes me look at my own ministry - the response I made to my own calling nearly 40 years ago. I make the time to read again the Ordinal - the words spoken by the Bishop to those he is about to ordain - and feel the enormity of the task: “to proclaim the word of the Lord, to call his (or her) hearers to repentance, and in Christ’s name to absolve and declare the forgiveness of sins.” The Bishop tells the priest: “Remember the greatness of the trust now to be committed to your charge… Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure… entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought through the shedding of his blood on the cross.” Am I really up to it? - I ask myself.

This year I’ve been moved to be with a number of those who have in the last few days been ordained - some of them very young, they seem (though in fact none of them as young as I was!). So much that many of them are giving up, and I’m in many ways daunted on their behalf at the thought of what they may go through and have to deal with in the Church over the coming years and decades. But as I’ve been reminded myself, we pray to God, “you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.” And the Bishop reminds those who are to be ordained:

Because you cannot bear the weight of this ministry in your own strength but only by the grace and power of God, pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit. Pray that he will each day enlarge and enlighten your understanding…

Jesus tells his followers to go out proclaiming the Kingdom without purse, bag or sandals - we need to be equipped only by his grace. But then we will need to build on the fruits of that task. Baptise people of every nation - he will tell his disciples before he leaves them. Take bread and wine, he tells them at the Last Supper, and they will be for you my Body and my Blood - do this in remembrance of me, and I will be with you.

This is how we build the Church - not in bricks and stone, not in man-made organisational structures; but by celebrating the sacraments, by faithfulness in prayer and study, in service of others and sharing of the Good News. Jesus himself is the Word made flesh. Proclaim the Kingdom - and pray that what we will get is the Church, which is truly his Body, living out his ways.

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