A FEW DAYS AGO, one of my lovely sisters sent me a parcel containing two little books that had belonged to my mother, who died twenty four years ago, neither off which I had every seen before. This is one of them
The title on the front cover reads: My Prayer Book: For Women and Girls (though, having looked through it, I still have absolutely no idea what it is about the content makes it quite so gender specific). Originally written in the 1920s, it contains and opening endorsement by Archbishops of Canterbury, one them Cosmo Gordon Lang (after whom, coincidentally, one of my cars, Cosmo is named).
And inside the front cover is written this dedication:
Heather Lane (that was my mum’s name), and it continues:
In memory of her Confirmation at Trowbridge Parish Church on 9th May 1943, after which it is signed by the Rector. (I hadn’t know before that my mum was confirmed in the middle of the Second World War.)
Why am I telling you all of this? Because in the introductory section of this little book, I discovered something really interesting. It is a double page spread, headed (rather curiously) ‘My Society’. What on earth is this? I wondered. It turns out to be a rather nifty summary of what it means to be part of the Church, the Body of Christ. Let me read you what it says:
My Society: The Church
Its date of starting: Whit-Sunday circa AD 30.
(In other words, the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples after the Ascension of the Risen Christ, which is traditionally recognised as the day on which the Church came into being.)
Its members: All the baptised – old people and infants; good and bad; living and departed. (Yep! That inclusiveness is incredibly important. We are NOT a holy huddle. All are welcome, old and young, good and bad, and our membership extends into the life beyond this one.)
Its adult members: All confirmed Christians. (Yep!)
Its ministers: Bishops, Priests, Deacons; called inwardly by God, appointed outwardly by the Laying on of Hands. (Can’t argue with that!)
Its only Head: Jesus Christ, its Founder. (Absolutely!)
Its purpose: (Let’s see what it says here …)
By Service: to make this world a better place according to God’s will. And
By Salvation – to save man from sin and to make his life good and therefore eternal. (It is really important that it recognises the importance of service as well as salvation. How we live is as integral to our life of faith as what we believe.)
Some of its Benefits: – here there are three sub-headings: Fellowship, Food, and Forgiveness.
Fellowship: by which Christians stand together as one body in Christ, that as men affect each other by their faults, so here they may help each other by their faith. (That’s why we are all here together, folks!)
Food: The body and blood of Christ is given for the strengthening and refreshing of ourselves, as bread and wine is refreshment to our bodies.
(That is what we shall be doing here this morning, when we share in communion.)
Forgiveness: This is given through Christ after every failure, to any member who repents.
(Yes! – we are here because of the promise and the reality of forgiveness not because of the burden of guilt. We are here because Jesus promised us ‘Life in all its fullness’.)
Obligations: (There are three of these, too)
The first is to: Continually turn our back on all that is unworthy, on all sham, on all vice – that is, never to consent to evil, even when we do it.
(I suspect we all need to be reminded of that occasionally.)
The second: To believe in (that is to trust myself to)
God the Father, Who sent me here and knows me;
God the Son, Who came and bought me back from sin to service;
God the Holy Spirit, Who still inspires his Church, and guides the individual life.
(How interesting to see our need to trust in God being described as an ‘Obligation’ of our Church membership.)
And the third: To live in obedience to an Unseen and Unfailing Friend.
(I love the idea of God as our ‘unfailing friend’. We can so easily underestimate the value of friendship, and overlook the fact that God relates to us in that kind of way.
And the final two headings:
Contributions: (that means dosh, folks!) – Voluntary but due.
Length of Membership: For ever.
Sums it all up really. And knowing my mum, I can imagine her, as a sixteen year old, reading those words and taking them to heart. Because although she wasn’t one to talk about her Christian faith much, she certainly lived it, and a lot of that rings true.
As it happens, all three of our biblical readings this morning touch on related themes, because they are all to do with our calling by God, and our discipleship.
In our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, we are reminded that God knows us better than we know ourselves; he formed us in the womb, and he calls us to his service. (There is that word again, that appears in this little book: service.)
In our second reading, from 1 Corinthians, St Paul addresses the ordinary Christians of the church in Corinth, addressing them as ‘saints’: that is what they are called to be. That is what we are all called to be: sanctified: set apart from the world, as part of Christ’s Body on earth, dedicated to his service in the world.
And in our Gospel reading from John’s Gospel, we heard that fascinating but rather strange sequence of events surrounding the call of the first disciples. This is the first time that Jesus appears in person in John’s Gospel. John the Baptist realises who he is, simply by seeing him walk towards him. The following day, he points out Jesus to two of his own followers: ‘Look: here is the Lamb of God’, he says to them. Without hesitating, the two men follow Jesus. What follows then is one of those weird dialogues that are a feature of John’s Gospel, which don’t seem to follow the normal rules of conversation. When John does this, by the way, it is always a sign that there more going on under the surface than meets the eye.
Jesus says to the two men: ‘What are you looking for?’ They answer (rather bizarrely), ‘Where are you staying?’ He says to them, ‘Come and see.’ So, they spend the day with him, after which one of them, Andrew, goes and finds his brother and says to him ‘We have found the Messiah’. Andrew takes Simon to see Jesus, and Jesus looks at him and says: ‘You are Simon, son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ – Peter – the Rock.
What on earth is going on here? It seems to me that we have a strange, but extraordinarily insightful illustration of what it means to hear God’s call to discipleship.
First, there are those strange moments of recognition that can strike us when we least expect. Suddenly, perhaps just for a fleeting second, something touches our heart; makes a connection we hadn’t previously seen; in a person, or in something we have read, or seen, or heard. We may not understand it; we may be unsure what it is asking of us; but we know that we need to find out more. And sometimes it is another person who opens our eyes to that new reality, just as John the Baptist does to those two followers of his: ‘Look!’
And the minute that we take that first step, the question is turned back to us: ‘What are you looking for? What are we looking for? It may be that we haven’t got a clue; we have no idea how to answer that question – so we say the first thing that comes into our heads …I’ve got to think of something … errr… ‘Where are you staying?’
And yet, to our utter astonishment, Christ takes that unclear, half-formed request profoundly seriously. ‘Come and see,’ he says. He invites us to come and spend some time with him. What we are shown here is … Friendship. Nothing more threatening, or demanding than that. Christ wants us to get to know him, and he does so by offering us hospitality. And we don’t need to go alone either – the two disciples went together – that is what it means to be a community of faith, as we are. But we respond to that invitation: ‘Come and spend some time with me’.
And if we do, we return from that encounter with our lives richer and more fulfilled than we could possibly have imagined. It may be that we find that we struggle to put into words the truth that we have glimpsed.
But what we can say, with Andrew, the disciple in our story, is ‘We have found the Messiah.’ It is a simple and as life-changing as that. And here, and in other churches throughout the globe, in obedience to his call, we continue to explore what it means to follow him. We discover both the benefits, and the obligations of discipleship. And, of course, as Simon discovers in his own first encounter with Jesus, Christ knows us far, far better than we know ourselves.
I shall leave you with two very short quotations, both taken from this wonderful little book. The first is a question posed by William Inge, who was Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral from 1911 – 1934, who wrote this: ‘Do we know of any who have sought after the knowledge of God as diligently as other men seek after wealth and honour, and have come away empty handed?’
And finally, the marvellous and pithy inscription on the bell of Lambeth Church, that bears the date, 1520:
‘Rise, heart; thy Lord is risen.’