John 10:1-10 Acts 2 42 -end
Today’s reading from Acts perfectly sums up the essence of a Christian community – a place where everyone rejoices in a shared belief, where people come together to worship and to break bread, where proclaiming the Gospel message of love for our neighbours is core not just through words but through actions as well.
In five relatively short verses Luke paints a picture of a group of people whose lifestyle is attractive and compelling in such a way that encourages more and more people to join them. This is not an exclusive sect with complex rules of engagement, this is not a tightly governed club whose doors are closed to those who do not meet certain requirements.
This is an open and joyful community who love to share what they have with those around them, who respond to the needs of others, who are devoted to learning more about God and to putting that which they learn to the benefit of others. This very earliest form of church is exuberant in its way of life and its encouragement to others to join them.
So what does that mean for us in these days of dispersed community when we are unable to gather together in the same place, when we are missing that very essential contact with those we love? What does being a Christian fellowship mean now? Are we still able to fulfil all that Jesus has commanded us to be when we are unable to meet together to worship and to model the Gospel values that being an inclusive Christian community requires of us?
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus reminds us that where two or three are gathered in His name He is there among them? What does that mean for those of us who are living alone or with family members who have not yet discovered the joy that a relationship with God brings. Surely the Holy Spirit is with us wherever we are, whoever we are with. If we are alone the one thing that we should be able to rely on is that God is right there, alongside us, comforting us when this strange way of life feels too much to bear, encouraging us when the burdens of the day feel overwhelming and rejoicing with us when we are able to take pleasure in the small things in life that have come to mean so much.
Today would have been our Annual Parish Meeting when we would have met together to worship and give thanks for all that God has blessed us with over this past year.
And those blessings have been very real. We have celebrated Shirley’s priesting, we have welcomed Nikki as our Children and Families Worker and Anna as she has joined us to complete her training for ordination.
Our food ministry has gone from strength to strength, both in terms of the number of people who have been able to join us to enjoy the delicious meals prepared by our fantastic kitchen team at Community Lunch and Make Lunch and also in the number of people that we have been able to bless through the provision of supplies.
We have eaten together at shared lunches, at barbecues and much cake has been consumed after services as we have enjoyed spending time together as church families.
It has been wonderful to see so many young people come along to our relaunched youth group. We have seen record numbers enjoy Messy Church. It has been a joy to welcome children from our local schools to both St Andrew’s and Holy Cross.
Beautiful music has been made in our worship and also at the afternoons in Holy Cross where we have enjoyed the talents of visiting performers as well as our own singers and musicians.
Babies have been welcomed into God’s family through the sacrament of baptism and couples have stood at the chancel steps in Holy Cross taking their marriage vows in front of their family and friends and in the presence of God.
There have been times of great sadness as well as families have gathered to say good bye to loved ones. As a parish family we have shared in that grief as we have mourned the loss of our dear sisters and brothers in Christ – Peggy Graham, Tom Hancock ,Valerie Horner, Joan Ray, and Eddie Marsh.
And now we are in a season that none of us have ever experienced before. We are learning how to be a community that may be physically separated but is still joined together by the power of God’s love and by our longing to continue to be part of His mission on earth.
I won’t pretend it’s not tough. I know many of you are finding this strange way of life really challenging for all sorts of reasons. But we are still a family, we are adapting to being a different sort of community and God continues to bless us.
I have been overwhelmed by the ways in which everyone is supporting each other in so many different ways. Through phone calls, conversations on doorsteps, gifts of chocolate and other treats, letters and pictures drawn by our younger members which I known have given great pleasure to the recipients, offers of practical help, the list goes on and the creativity with which so many of you are blessing each other is amazing.
We are still worshipping together, albeit not gathered in the same place but there have been blessings in that as we have been able to touch the lives of those who perhaps may have been reluctant to come to our buildings but have become part of our community through the wonders of technology.
And perhaps most importantly we are still praying. Because that doesn’t require any special equipment or knowledge. It simply requires us to set aside some of our day and sit quietly with God lifting to him all those people and situations that are on our hearts, asking him to place his hands on them and to bless them.
In our gospel passage, as so often, Jesus paints a picture of a scene familiar in every day Palestinian life to teach and to challenge.
Then, as today in Palestine, shepherds have an intimate relationship with their sheep, sometimes bringing them down from the hills and penning them up in a communal sheepfold overnight for protection.
There the sheep are safe from wild animals, though not always from marauding sheep thieves, as the passage implies. The shepherds sit outside guarding the gate. In fact they are the gate for the sheep.
In the morning each shepherd stands at the gate and literally calls his own sheep out to lead them to new pasture. As the passage says, “… the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.’
There is a parallel here to our own situation. At the moment many of us are penned in lockdown to protect ourselves and others from this vicious virus. But the time will come when we will be called out again to some sort of new normality.
So having looked back on the year that has passed it also seems a good time for each of us to begin to think and ask what God has been preparing us for in this time of lockdown. How has his presence been transforming us? And what will our lives be when we re-emerge?
Some of us may go back to the same jobs and community lives; some may return to a working or a community life that is somewhat different to before; while others sadly will have no work to go back to and will need to find other employment. Hardest of all, still others will face returning without the presence and support of a loved one they have lost. The lifting of restrictions will surely bring us all new challenges, emotionally, economically and spiritually.
One thing I feel sure about is that while it will be wonderful to return to some kind of normality we must not waste the experiences that this time has given us. Some of us have learnt to live more simply these last few weeks and found time for important things we had neglected. We must inhabit our new world differently and distinctively as we continue to seek God’s will for our world
Whatever the situation is for each of us , Jesus, our Shepherd, is waiting at the gate to call us out again to new pastures of service.
When the gates of return open will we discern the call of God on our lives afresh? How will we re-emerge as disciples who trust in the Lord? What will our vocation and discipleship be like then? Will it be the same old, same old way of being Christian, or will God have taught us new things and shown us new possibilities while we have been restricted?
That is the challenge and I know that is a challenge that all of us can meet in our own unique ways and as the community of love that I know us to be
The other day Nikki put a photograph of a newspaper cutting from the local paper which announced my appointment to the parish three years ago!
I continue to give thanks that I have been called to serve God in this community perhaps more than ever at this time.
As I read the words in Acts I see all of you. I see people who are hungry for God’s word, who have a dynamic faith, who wait expectantly for the Holy Spirit to fall upon them, who are joyful in their worship and who most importantly truly care for each other and for their community.
I see people who welcome all comers regardless of who they are. I see people who seek to draw others to Jesus. I see people who are living embodiments of the Gospel message.
Although I may not be able to physically see you I know that all those things remain true and at the heart of our community regardless of the situation we find ourselves , together or part, and for that I praise God for His goodness and I give thanks for you all