Paul of Tarsus; the one time persecutor of followers of Jesus; the man who had his life changing moment on the road to Damascus. Paul called to take the Gospel – the good news of Jesus – to places outside of Galilee and Judea; taking the news not only to Jews but also to Gentiles. Perhaps he had been influenced by his reading of today’s verses in Isaiah 49: “ Listen to me, you islands; hear this you distant nations…I will also make you a light for the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”.
Paul travelled widely around the eastern Mediterranean establishing groups of Christians in many places. He called himself an apostle – the one who is sent – and the groups of believers became known as churches – from the Greek/Latin word ‘ecclesia’ which originally meant an assembly for debating, a council, and became used for a congregation of Christians – who must have got recognised as those who spent time debating their new faith! Paul kept in touch with the ecclesia by writing letters to them – writing letters? – now there’s a fading skill in these days of e-mail, mobile phones, text messages, tweets and instagram! I’d like to give Paul all the credit but there is talk of Paul using a scribe (a secretary) to do the actual writing so let’s leave that one for now!
You’re not on your own
Our reading this morning is from the opening of one of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth which was a major city in Greece not far from Athens. By all accounts the church there was not large – perhaps only a few dozen members in a city which had an established Jewish community but which was essentially pagan. You could almost say it was not too dis-similar to our churches on Walmersley Road today.
Paul was writing to encourage the Corinthian Christians and to remind them that they were not on their own. If you read on into the letter Paul instructs them in terms of belief and behaviour and reprimands them where he feels they were falling short. So, you could, maybe, compare it to an appraisal; a review of how they were getting on; how much, or not, they were reflecting what Paul had taught them about Jesus and what was expected of them as followers of the way of Jesus.
If you had annual staff appraisal procedures at work you will have some idea what this would be like if you were on the receiving end. You could even compare it to the school report. In both cases sometimes you could get words of praise or the well-known phrase “could do better”!
When I was at work and I was about to be summoned to my boss for my annual appraisal, I was expected to prepare by doing a self-appraisal – to review my own performance and present my findings to my boss. The thing about self-appraisal, of course, is the need to be honest with yourself. To consider your strengths and weakness in an open and honest way. It is very easy to let one’s good points overshadow the weaker ones. Waxing lyrical about the good bits is fine but often admitting the short-comings is rather more uncomfortable.
Do we measure up?
I wonder how Paul would rate our churches here on Walmersley Road if he were to review/appraise our performance as a group of followers of Jesus. How do you think we would fare? What would Paul expect of us? Would we measure up?
And if we’re looking for something to be measured against we need look no further than this month’s issue of Crux, the diocesan magazine which sets out a vision and a strategy for 2020 – 2030. Each of you have got a copy of this so you can read it at home but let me just give you a flavour of it.
Read sections of the strategy.
A gear change
This is challenging stuff. It is clear that ticking-over is not an option. To achieve the Vision we do need to change gear from just maintaining what we have and to move into mission mode. That means that as church we need to do more than turn up for worship on a Sunday. It means, among other things, telling people outside of here about God’s love; it means finding opportunities to recruit new Christians and to help them grow in the faith – and it means doing our bit to change the world!
Because we are all aware of how numbers at our churches here are falling. Over the diocese as a whole attendances at church have fallen by 20% over the last 6 years. It is a trend that we need to do something about if our churches are not to become empty in 10 years.
Welcome people in
In our reading from John we heard how the first disciples came to Jesus – “The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him we have found the Messiah. And he brought him to Jesus”. We are called to follow in their footsteps and bring people to Jesus; to extend the invitation and welcome new people in; to build the kingdom.
So, please take home these copies of the Diocesan Vision. Read it; think about it; pray about it and talk about it. We need to become ‘ecclesia’ again and talk to each other, debate, about our faith like those early churches.
We are all in this together so please make your views known to our church leaders through PCC and the ministry team.
Let’s be honest
We know, don’t we, that our community and our world need to hear the good news of Jesus. It is the same news Paul took out to Corinth, to Galatia, to Ephesus, to Rome. We will be up against the same world views but as Paul reminds the Corinthians – and us today – the followers of Jesus really are called to share the good news. And Paul tells us we are not without help and support; we do have the tools for the job; we are not empty handed. You and I have received grace from God; we have the gifts given from God; we have the Spirit from God which strengthens us for service.
Paul was passionate about Jesus and he wanted everyone else to be the same. He set a standard which is challenging and yes it can sound all a bit daunting. But let’s not be afraid to look at ourselves, our church. Let’s have some honest discussion. Let’s just read again the encouraging words of Paul.
Read 1 Corinthians 1: 2- 9.
“God , who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus, is faithful”. He will be with us. We need to be faithful; to trust in the word of the Lord; to live in the hope and promise of God; and in the love that God has shown us in Jesus.
Paul’s words were inspirational to the early churches – the ecclesia – and they should inspire us today. Maybe we can become inspirational to today’s world? Amen.
Nigel Silvester delivered ‘Ecclesia’ at St John with St Mark’s Bury on Sunday 19th January 2020. He based it on 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9, John 1: 29-42 and Isaiah 49: 1-7. If you’d like to see more by Nigel then please go to the archive.