St Bride's: Sermon Series

Faith in the Mission of the Church

A friend of mine tells the story of a man who was driving along a cliff road wondering about faith, God and the meaning of life: Going round a corner the man skidded and the car went off the road. As it was falling – falling - down the cliff-side he managed to get out of the window and grab a branch. Hanging on by one hand he looked towards the skies and cried “Is anybody there?”.

A voice boomed out from the heavens: “Yes, I am the Lord Your God. Let go of the branch and I will catch you”. The man shouted…..”Is anyone else there?”

Palm Sunday is often presented as a day of rejoicing. Jesus enters Jerusalem to signs of celebration. And yet, more deeply, we are present as Jesus takes his first steps towards Golgotha. It behoves us to pay close attention to the words, the terms, the symbols at play.

Is Jesus alone? Is he a lone individual? Is he out there chasing his goals and exhorting us to stand, quaking, in the winds before our maker?

Or, especially here in the City, where ideas give rise to companies, causes to charities and business is carried out across nations perhaps we see a little more in this moment?

If one reads the documents of the UK Charity Commission or Departments of State one could be left thinking that faiths in general and Christian conviction in particular is an “idea”, a mere “belief”. In this world of the statutory regulation of faith there are, according to government,  clear “ins” (the members) and clear “outs” (the excluded.)

And yet as Jesus enters Jerusalem we can uncover richer textures: He is fulfilling a prophecy and so history is upon his shoulders, present in the current narrative. He journeys, no doubt, with convinced and less convinced disciples. Around are those who acclaim him without, yet, fully grasping the significance of what is happening before them.  Jesus is not here to push an “individual belief” but, in fact, to launch a way of life.

And we can recognise some of the patterns that are present on that day, in our own lives: 71% of Britons told the last census that they were Christian believers and yet a little under 10% attend Church regularly. It has been said that we “believe without belonging” and that this contrasts with Scandinavians who “belong without believing&rdquo. Our struggle to hold on to hope, to cling to the branch of faith is worked out in a culture which is, sociologists say, a mid way point between the increasingly religious world of America, Africa and beyond, and a rapidly secularising Europe.

Hanging in a mid way place, we sometimes imbibe words that are used by those around us too. We end up accepting terms of description about ourselves that we would not use. In the process we become disoriented and forget – or omit to know – the daily witness to a way of life around us.

The research that my colleague and I undertook last year revealed Bishops who were , like many here no doubt, concerned about the mission of the Church – but they were surrounded by so many signs of life: Parishes sustaining post offices, community centres, job creation initiatives and arts centres. Cathedrals welcoming millions through their doors including thousands of schoolchildren stepping foot in a religious building for the first time.

In fact the 6 largest Cathedrals have an average of 114 (FTE) employees. They are responsible for 5.5000 jobs in regional economies making them a force at least equivalent to Ryanair in terms of its importance to the economy. All this I mention before touching on the huge community contribution that Bishops themselves make – and the quiet daily round of clergy pastoral care and lay volunteering.

Indeed, the Homes Office (2006) points out that the religiously observant are nearly 50% more likely to be regularly volunteering than their secular or unchurched counterparts.

Like Jesus’ journey in the Gospel today then , we do not set alone unless we – strangely and really quite consciously- chose to. Jesus journeys with others and, over time, the virtues to which he witnesses become increasingly embedded in institutions which give legs to their vision.

The carpenter’s son takes part in actions which have ramifications far beyond the place. We know that will be a struggle for him. But this is why it is like our own struggles - no matter how fragile - in prayer, in love and of offering hospitality to strangers. Built on sure foundations of hope the Church is a witness in today’s City in the same way that Jesus held the truth in those times.

The question we may ask, however, &is whether such an idea of “hope and hospitality” may be too easy? Might it tends towards a simple liberalism or an embrace of a bureaucratic vision of Christ?

Our answer must be a resounding “no”. For the mission of the Church is grounded in the possibility of grace to perfect our weakness, of Eucharist to teach us again what relationships might mean, and of belonging in order that all may play their part.

Journeying, perhaps even limping, towards Easter now we can look around us at the music, the spirit, and the place and look forward in sure and certain hope. A hope not of miracles from the sky but of a Church that will walk with us as we hang on to the branches of life . Like Jesus today we move forward to the fullest freedom of life – death - and resurrection shared.

For in keeping faith in mission of the Church we take the first step: We keep faith in God – who, in turn, keeps faith with us.

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