Sermon for Mattins on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity, 16th November 2015, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Daniel 10:19-21, Revelation 4

At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to His disciples, ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’

People are always telling us that we’re doing rather a bad job of making disciples of all the world. Because in the UK at least, the churches are declining in numbers. According to statistics that I was reading, the Church of England is losing 1% of its members each year at present.

But Canon Giles Fraser in an article yesterday [‘Loose Canon’, The Guardian, 15th November 2014, http://gu.com/p/43bvq%5D pointed out that about a million people go to a Church of England church every week. That compares pretty well with quite a lot of other important organisations.

Compared with the total membership of the Conservative Party, which is 134,000, with the Labour Party, 190,000, and the LibDems at 44,000, as Giles Fraser says, if you add all the political parties together and even throw in UKIP, you still don’t have half the number of people who go to church. He adds, ‘More people go to church on a Sunday than go to Premier League stadiums on a Saturday.’

I bore that all in mind as I went to the St Andrew’s PCC ‘away-day’ yesterday. This was set to consider a Church of England statistical study called ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, [The Church Commissioners for England, 2014, http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk ] which had identified all the various things which made for growing churches rather than declining ones.

Incidentally, you’ll be very pleased to know that as far as I can see, St Mary’s does have ingredients identified in the study for being a successful church. There’s a emphasis on having young people and children (we’ve just had a great family service with nearly half those attending being kids or young parents); on having a clear mission and purpose; and on having strong leadership. I think that St Mary’s does meet the criteria identified.

I was intrigued because this week, now at Mattins and tonight at Evensong, there are lessons from the Book of Revelation which offer a counterpoint to the Church statistical study.

This morning there’s the vision of heaven – ‘a voice which said to me, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.’ This was a vision of a throne in heaven, and a figure on the throne surrounded by 24 elders – a vision of God.

And this evening, going backwards, the lesson is from the beginning of the Book of Revelation, introducing John’s vision, John’s ‘apocalypse’, as it’s called. Αποκάλυψις, ‘Apocalyse’, is the Greek word for ‘revelation’ – lifting the veil, revealing what is hidden underneath.

I don’t think that the Book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally, but it does contain a lot of powerful metaphorical images, covering a world which is way beyond our comprehension. We can’t know what, in Revelation, is in any sense ‘true’, but I think we can agree that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be as good a description as any other, more prosaic, description of a heavenly world there might be.

Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 – your homework before lunch today – contain the passage which I think is directly relevant to the question what makes a good, effective church. John reports that Christ appeared to him and instructed him to write letters to seven early churches. In each letter Christ, though John, identifies particular characteristics which marks out that church, and which distinguishes it in good and bad ways. It is a sort of early Ofsted report.

So the church at Ephesus is noted for its love; the church at Smyrna for being long-suffering; at Pergamum for not denying their faith; at Thyatira, there is love, faithfulness, good service and fortitude; at Philadelphia, he writes, ‘Your strength, I know, is small, yet you have observed my commands and have not disowned my name.’

He lists their faults as well. He writes to the church at Sardis, ‘though you have a name for being alive, you are dead. Wake up, and put some strength into what is left,..’; and to the church at Laodicea he writes, ‘I know all your ways; you are neither hot nor cold. How I wish that you were either hot or cold!’

Those early churches, which had been started by St Paul or by others of the Apostles, were being assessed by Jesus Christ, through the mystic seer John, for various aspects of their faith. Were they keeping fast to the true faith, or were they in error?

There’s not much about falling numbers – except perhaps the call to wake up at Sardis. There’s not much organisation theory: what the proportion of young people in the congregation is, whether they are open to new ideas and new types of worship, whether they give new people responsibility for church activities. None of those techniques seem to have worried the earliest churches.

In the church research document ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, the work is prefaced by St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:6, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’. God made it grow. I can’t help feeling that, certainly in the early history of the church, whether the church prospered or not had nothing much to do with the management skills of the early ministers.

The biggest break that the early church had, of course, was in the fourth century, when on the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of Christ telling him to paint the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields, and he would win the battle: and they did, and they won the victory. It doesn’t sound a very Christian story; but there it is.

As a result, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. All of a sudden, Christianity stopped being more or less a secret sect of small cell churches subject to persecution, and became the Catholic Church, the church throughout the world.

Huge growth; but nothing to do with management skills or growth strategies. If we look at where the church is growing in the world today – and Christianity is the fastest-growing religion of them all, today – in Africa, in South America, in China, in Russia – there is still huge growth: and I wonder what it is that is bringing that growth, at the same time as the Church of England is gently and gradually declining.

I think that a clue may be in today’s lessons. You may say that the pictures of heaven and the pictures of the Almighty which are in the Book of Revelation are too far-fetched to be anything other than picturesque stories. ‘Immediately I was in the spirit, and behold a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.’

And in the first chapter of Revelation, ‘I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lamp-stands, and in the midst of the lamp-stands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; ..’

‘Look, he is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him … “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’.

Now we may well not believe that God is a man with a big white beard in heaven, (which is above the clouds). We may well decide that that is just a picturesque metaphor: but I think we do still find great significance in ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending’.

The point about an ‘apocalypse’, a revelation, an unveiling of ultimate truth, is that we are confronted by God. Perhaps the reason that our church here at home is not growing as fast as in the other places in the world is precisely because people’s eyes are closed to God: they are not seeing the revelation; they don’t see what its immediate importance could be.

Many people, I think, would agree that there is a God, in the sense that there is somebody or something which made the world, a creator. But a lot of people, I think, today, don’t give it much more thought than that. Perhaps people no longer really worry about the story of Jesus Christ. They rule out the possibility of His resurrection from the dead.

People in England are conveniently blind to the way in which, in many other places in the world, the Good News of Jesus, the story of His life, death and resurrection, still has legs, still has huge power, because it is an indication that the God which Revelation portrays, the God, the Lamb on the throne of heaven, (however picturesque these images are) still has power, has significance, today.

These revelations are revelations that God does care for us. The fact of Jesus, the fact of His time with us, is in itself a revelation, it is an uncovering of the deepest truth.

Perhaps these days you need to be ‘strangely warmed’, like John Wesley, or to be ‘born again’ at a Billy Graham meeting. Perhaps not: but once you have ‘got it’, once you have realised what the revelation of Jesus Christ is, then your life will be changed, and there will be no danger that you will drift away from the church.

Let us pray that we will all be given that revelation: that in the church, those of us who are tasked with preaching and evangelism – as John in Revelation puts it, those of us who are ‘in the Spirit’ – surrounded by the Holy Spirit – let us pray that we will be able to bring a vision of heaven, a vision of the Son of Man, the Son of Man who was at the same time the Son of God, into our lives, so that we can no longer just take Him or leave Him.

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