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Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Authentic Church?

INTRODUCTION TO THIS SERIES

What Kind of Christian Are You?

It's another new year (2014), and today we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany.  The word 'Epiphany' means to 'make manifest' or 'to show'.  For Christians, it marks the moment when, through the arrival of Magi from the East, Jesus was 'shown' or 'made manifest' to the wider world.  By offering symbolic gifts for royalty, priesthood and death (gold, frankincense and myrrh), the purpose of Jesus' earthly life was first recognised by those wise men.  They summarised and 'made manifest' who Jesus was, for the whole world.

Most of my sermons on this day, like many preachers, have focused, essentially, on how we also need to be wise men and women.  Like them, we need to look to Jesus to lead us, as our King, our High Priest and our Redeemer.  But as I've begun to think about today's sermon, I've come to realise that being a follower of Jesus - a 'Christ-ian' - is tricky thing to get your head around.

There are many kinds of Christ-ians, throughout the world.  There are, of course, the main divisions of the church - Catholic, Reformed, Orthodox, and all the thousands of sub-sects of these - charismatics, pentecostals, evangelicals, traditionalists, baptists, house-churches, and all the rest.  Even within each sub-set there are Christ-ians who focus on different aspects of Jesus. For some, it is his work as 'Redeemer' which is paramount - he is, for them, the one who pays the price for human sin.  For others, its the kind of Kingdom that he wants to establish - he is, for them, the one who leads them to build a new kind of world order. For others, its Jesus the 'High Priest' who is the primary focus of attention - the one who leads them personally to a relationship with the living God.

This got me thinking.  What kind of Christian am I?  What kind of Christian are you?  Of all the different emphases that are open to us, which aspect of the Epiphany of Jesus is the one which calls most deeply to us?

In many ways, we should not be overly worried that there are so many different emphases. God is infinite - and infinitely able to work with us messy humans in the widest possible ways.  He is more than capable of drawing some people to work with him on one project (say, building the Kingdom) while encouraging others to work on another (say, building relationships with God).  But along the way, I would argue, there are some churches which have managed to get the balance between these issues a little out of kilter.  There are some churches, frankly, which I personally struggle to recognise as Christ-ian at all. Churches, for example, where a single idea has become such a driving thought that it blocks out the full range of experience of God that is available to them.

So, I want to begin a sermon series today, as we enter this new year.  Over the next several weeks, I want to explore with you what I believe to be the 'Marks of an Authentic Church'.  There will be gaps along the way - not least as we hit major festivals, or spend time thinking about our Mission as we will do on the first Sunday of February.  But, over the coming weeks, I want to explore what it means, or what it would mean, for us to be an authentic Church.

What do I mean by 'authentic'?  Well, I guess I'm saying that if our church, and our parish, shows these marks of authenticity, then I'll be content that we are at least 'Christ-ian'.  All I'm going to do today is give you a list - a list of what I think are reasonable and accurate marks of an Authentic Church.  I've currently got nine headings on that list (though - I warn you - it is possible that the list may grow!).  As each week passes, I'm going to invite you to think about each one in some depth.  My hope, and prayer, is that as we explore these nine 'marks' of an authentic church we will be prompted to think about how we personally, and together, measure up to them.  Are we people who can claim with confidence to truly be Christ-ians?  Are we authentic?  Does our faith - and our practice of faith - measure up?

Here then, are the ten headings I currently have in mind.  For me, an Authentic Church, should be:

1a) Reflecting Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.

2) Having a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met.  Are we the same?

3) Understanding Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin?  Breaking Rules?  Who decides what is Sin anyway?

4) Encouraging Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us ‘consume’ Christianity?

5) Having an intelligent understanding of Scripture - How do we approach the Bible?  A hand-written text from God?

6) Blending the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days?  How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!

7) Being tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?

8) Embracing tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?

9) Understanding that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?

10) Being a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?

(Web-note: I am greatly indebted to an American theologian, Dr April Love-Fordham, who has helped me to frame these nine 'marks' of authenticity.  If you would like to read her very helpful summary of a very similar list, please click here )

One final thought.  You would be entirely right to ask me the question 'What kind of Christian are you?'.  Every preacher brings to the task of preaching something of who he is, and of what he (or she) personally believes.  I am no exception.  So, let me lay my cards on the table.  I generally tend to avoid labels, for myself or anyone else, because people often assume they understand what such a label means.  But I acknowledge that labels do help us to get a sense of where someone is coming from.  So, if you forced me to choose a label for myself, I would say that I am a 'liberal'.  Let me break that down!

What it doesn't mean is that you could instantly pigeon-hole me as a supporter of the Liberal party!  Neither, as some people assume, does it mean that I believe that 'anything goes'.  I take the meaning of the word liberal from the Latin 'liberalis' - which means someone who is generous, munificent or gracious.  It also has, for me, a shade of the way the French use the word 'liberte', meaning 'freedom'.  In other words, by using the term 'liberal' I strive to be someone who is generous about the beliefs of others.  I believe that everyone is free to pursue truth as they wish, and I will be as generous as I can is listening to their insights along the way.  I believe there should be freedom to explore ideas for all, and that anyone who tries to close down discussion with a strict set of rules is probably in error, and probably ends up, ultimately, closing themselves off from all the depth and complexity of Real Truth.  I try to remain open, and generous-of-spirit to new ideas and new insights, from wherever they may come.

So, I invite you, over the coming months, to journey with me into my weird liberal world.  More than that, I invite you to think deeply about what it means for us to be an 'authentic church' - a church which is authentically 'Christ-like', 'Christ-ian' and which honours and proclaims Christ to the world.

Amen.

_________________________________________________________________________________
Sermons in this series:

1) Introduction

1a) Reflecting Jesus' priority for the poor and the sick.

2) Having a wide and generous understanding of God's grace - Jesus poured out grace and forgiveness to everyone he met.  Are we the same?

3) Understanding Sin as the absence of Love - How should we understand Sin?  Breaking Rules?  Who decides what is Sin anyway?

4) Encouraging Christ-ians to be producers, not consumers - We live in a consumer society. Is there a danger that some of us ‘consume’ Christianity?

5) Having an intelligent understanding of Scripture - How do we approach the Bible?  A hand-written text from God?

6) Blending the scientific with the mystical - Was the world created in six days?  How did Noah get all those animals onto the Ark?!

7) Being tolerant and open to all - How do we connect with other human beings?

8) Embracing tradition while being open to the contemporary - How can we honour the old and embrace the new?

9) Understanding that forgiveness is How the World is Set Right - Is forgiveness the answer to the World’s problems?

10) Being a Eucharistic Community - How does taking Jesus into ourselves help us?

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