Sunday, 18 October 2015

Luke: story is why we have churches

Window in north aisle
This week a report was published on how we care for ourchurch buildings.  The Church of England is responsible for nearly 16,000 buildings covering every community in the country.  Of these 78% are listed grade I or II, the remaining 22% are not.  Around 57% of our buildings are in rural areas, though only 17% of the population lives there; 31% are in suburban areas catering for 58% of the total population. Urban areas only account for 12% of the church buildings covering 25% of the population.  It doesn’t take much thinking to realize that we have a mismatch between where people are and where the church buildings are.  Given the number of listed buildings there is a burden many communities are struggling with.  The report offered all sorts of suggestions which will no doubt be studied and assessed.

Church buildings have a number of purposes.  Their primary one is to provide a place for the congregation that gathers to meet to pray, worship and retell the story of Jesus Christ.  That is something to hold on to and be clear about.  Without that all we have is a shell, which may carry a long story of a locality’s history and hold many associations deeply held, but is just an elaborate shed.  Having a role in various churches, which vary from a world-ranking cathedral, a grade 1 listed parish church and a simple brick built mission hall, I can clearly see great potential for them and am very fond of them.  What matters here, though, is not the grandeur of the place, but what takes place inside it.  We are not an ecclesiastical version of the National Trust.  For me the most important question is how does gathering here, or there, help us to worship, reimagine the story of Jesus Christ and share that story in what we say and do?  How does it provide a place of hospitality so that those who visit or call in, for whatever purpose, are touched by grace and the loving embrace of God?  If it doesn’t help with these things, then it is an expensive distraction and fosters delusion.

Today we are celebrating St Luke, after whom one of the gospels is named and so is one of the churches in this parish.  You can see his image around the church, in the windows and around the pulpit.  Luke was a physician, described by Paul as the beloved physician.  There are passages in Acts when he is present and this is shown by the style suddenly changing from the third person to that of an eye witness; the ‘we’ passages, where he says ‘we did this’ or ‘we went to this place’.  A bit of biblical detective work led to Luke being identified as the author of Acts and given the similarities with Luke’s gospel, he was identified as the author of that one too.  There are writings from early centuries that name him as the author.  Apart from that, we don’t know much more about him.

What we do have is his gospel and this comes from the pen of a storyteller.  Luke tells stories and uses them to excite our imaginations and expand our horizons.  Like a modern biographer, he knows that he needs to give some back story, so he creates an elaborate introduction telling the story of John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth, and the bizarre journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth to satisfy a weird Roman poll tax.  It’s an unlikely story but it carries so many layers.  We cannot know how much he made up to reflect Old Testament stories, using metaphor to tell his central story, and how much happened like that.  But the metaphor is powerful and insightful.  We are given homeless travellers refused hospitality but shown mercy by an innkeeper.  The first to recognize Jesus are not the powerful and wise, but humble shepherds in a field.  Luke gives us Candlemas and that wonderful tale of two elderly people waxing lyrical about this child, how he will be the light for all people.  When we want to know who our neighbour is Luke tells a story about that Good Samaritan that not only expands our charity to embrace anyone in need, it also challenges us with who the most caring is, the hero of the piece being a despised Samaritan.

In a pictorial age, Luke is the gospel that is probably the easiest to access.  It provides the subjects for many of the illustrations in [our] windows: Pentecost in the vestry, The Annunciation and Mary visiting Elizabeth by the font, Angels on the hillside announcing to shepherds and the lost child in the temple in the Lady Chapel.  The Easter scene in the East window in the Lady Chapel reflects the version in Luke.  Our windows are not exclusively based on Luke, but Luke tells stories that expand in the mind and we see them around us.

In my radical moments I wonder what the church would be like if we didn’t have our 16,000 buildings, 78% of them listed.  If we came to that day, we would be left with the stories that inspire faith.  Like all good stories, those in Luke enable us to place ourselves in the story itself and imagine what it means to follow Jesus today.  But what is that story?

The story that Luke tells is that God has a purpose in creating and that the coming of Jesus Christ is the fullest revealing of that purpose.  God has been at work before him and in him.  He sets this story in the Roman world and rather than the rich and powerful, he moves the focus to a poor outpost of the empire, known for breeding troublemakers.  It is a story of wonderful deeds, powerful teaching and there is intrigue with plots and betrayal.  Reading it for the first time it is not clear how this will end.  Guiding the teaching and the deeds is the unshakable faith that this is God’s world, we are his and life only has meaning when lived to his praise and glory; nothing else is to have priority for us.   The plot to kill Jesus leads to his execution by crucifixion, a shameful humiliation, surely a sign of rejection and defeat.  But the twist in the tale is the resurrection and this becomes its validation.  Luke gives us the journey to Emmaus, where how this had to be is explained and Jesus is recognized in the breaking of the bread.  The journey of faith is an accompanied journey and it is gathered round the table together that Jesus shows himself to us and his presence is made known.

The story continues in Acts where Luke tells of how this good news story spread.  Boundaries were expanded from being a faith for Jews to one for all people.  Missionary journeys showed how it captured imaginations around the world and a movement began.  Martyrdoms, self-giving, opposition and the struggle to convert hearts are set forth.  But through it all Luke carries a deep hope and faith that this gospel is from God and of God.  It will therefore prevail, whatever difficulties come, even persecution and death.  Because it is founded on such a strong foundation we do not need to rely on stone buildings for fortification.  This faith sets hearts ablaze and that is what changes the world.  It is the reason these church buildings were put in place and so it alone is the reason they continue – without it they have no purpose.

Celebrating Luke reminds us that the only way for our church buildings to continue, indeed to have a reason to continue, is for them to be houses of storytelling.  It is only by telling and retelling the story of God in Jesus Christ and igniting imaginations with this life changing good news that there is any hope for ancient stones and more recent ones.  His gospel sets out for us the life changing good news of Jesus Christ which is the purpose behind everything we aim to do.

Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 18th October 2015 

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