The Greater Part?

Bishop Edward King Chapel

Luke 10: 42

Our gospel tonight gives us a standard domestic discussion: is it my turn to wash up, or yours, and who is cooking supper?  These are lockdown questions. Yes, this is a gospel passage – set around a kitchen – yet asking rather more fundamental questions about our attention and gaze. Are we looking at Jesus, and being fed by his word? Or, are we busy in our heads and with our hands, anxious about the many tasks that have to be done before the next episode of Bake Off?

Whatever you are doing in the kitchen, Jesus is about his business, working as always with people and places that are common and base. These are the ingredients that Jesus chose to work with to advance the message of the Kingdom of God, and begin the initiative we now refer to as the church. God’s wisdom does create things with the ingredients that the world discounts, disregards and despises. As Paul reminds us (1 Corinthians 1: 27-29), “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly and despised things of the world, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast in God’s presence…”.

Taking on the vocation of humility – being ‘clothed’ with humility, indeed – through prayer and community ought to lead the church to freedom, openness and discovery. Yet there is nothing new about the church. It is always being reformed from within and without, and for this reason alone, it needs to be a receptive body – the social skin of the world – that is both communicate and receptive, responsive, and resilient, firm, yet supple. Like any body-politic in society, it must breathe and eat, and listen and learn, as well as speak and teach. The radical nature of the church lies in following the example of its founder, Jesus, who was both receptive and responsive. To be the body of Christ today means the church being more of a field hospital than a customs house: we are here to tend and care, not to tax and control.

The paradox of fullness and emptiness simultaneously is rooted in the person of Jesus. On the one hand Jesus is, “full of grace and truth” (John 1), and on the other “emptied of all” (Philippians 2). As W. H. Vanstone noted, the church today requires “divestment” to be embodied. We want it to be filled, because our security so often lies in fullness. Who wants an emptiness that leaves us feeling small, vulnerable and humble? Yet it is at this moment that we are enveloped, enfolded in love and filled. Vanstone reminds us, the measureless voids are the spaces where the Spirit broods; the wilderness and desert are where God finds us; and it is beyond the margins where there is seemingly nothing and no-one, that Jesus seeks and finds the lost. As Vanstone notes, this is the calling of the church for today:

The Church is not ‘the cause the which the Church serves’ or ‘the spirit in which the Church lives’; the Church is the service of that cause and the actualisation of that spirit in words spoken, in bodies in a certain place or posture…Here, at this level of concrete actuality is the response of recognition to the love of God… (Vanstone, 1977)

To be sure, our present age is not for the faint-hearted.  Our churches, for the most part, remain remarkably resilient communities of grace in these demanding times. Some days, it is not easy to plan for tomorrow, never mind outline a strategy or vision that might inspire us (and even work?) for the next ten years.  Too often, such talk in the recent past has turned out to be mere chimera.  We need new purpose and direction, not based on survival, but service; not rooted in preserving social status, but in spiritual wisdom to enrich the world. 

It is tempting to anticipate the future, and many leaders try and ‘get ahead of the curve’ (or use other clichés that infer they can see around the corner, or over the horizon).  The recovery of our humility – grounded in Jesus who humbled himself – is a core calling for Susan Beaumont’s intriguing remarkable essay, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You are Going: Leading in a Liminal Season (2019). 

Her book speaks to our time, and asks how we might lead bodies when the old way of doing things no longer works, but a way forward is not yet clear? Beaumont suggests that these liminal moments in our communal evolution are ‘seasonal-threshold times’, when the continuity of tradition disintegrates, and uncertainty about the future fuels fears, doubts and disorder. She argues that it is not helpful to pretend we understand what needs to happen next. But leaders can still lead, provided they are humble, and learn from the present as well as the past. 

One of the key tests of our church leadership in the present and the future must rest with restoring the concept of faithfulness and fruitfulness, which are quite different from the concepts of success and results that the world around us may value. What is needed now is prophetic action, but also strategic patience; resolve and renewal, but also reflection and reformation. One key root in this is humility, and the development of a humble church that understands its core duties and obligations are first and foremost to God and to society, not to loyal paid-up members of some religious Supporters’ Club.

Christianity is a faith of conscription, not subscription. We don’t elect to donate or contribute to the church in order to receive something back. When you decide to follow Christ, you are adopted in to a new kinship, and asked to surrender yourself.  You have not bought into a faith that comes with some kind of reward-card benefits scheme that offers bonuses for loyal customers.

In our time, and for this era, our churches need a serious reset.  Frideswide knew that, and that’s why she came here. She was conscripted. So was Mary, and Martha. Stop what you are doing, and look to the Lord.

The Greater Part? Frideswide Patronal Service 2020