+ May I speak in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
Here we are once again – our third time back worshipping face to face in one of our 12 churches; our second time back here in St. Mary’s; and for some people, this may well be their first time coming back into a church for 4 months. It is a strange experience still. Something which was perhaps very familiar, something we took for granted, is now something we can only do tentatively.
It may be quite a mixed experience being back – it may not be our usual church, as we come together across the benefice. There may be people who we are missing, who we were used to seeing regularly. And there are strange new rules to abide by – probably many of us are not quite sure what those rules are or whether we are doing them right. Am I far enough away from other people? Did I touch my face? Have I got my mask on the right way round? Will someone notice if I get something wrong? Have I put someone else at risk? It’s difficult isn’t it? We want to greet people, we are so pleased to see each other, so pleased to be back, and yet it is different and restricted.
It isn’t surprising that church services have seemed so timeless and like fixtures of furniture. They have been part of an almost unbroken Tradition going back century upon century. That sense of routine, of reliability, may have been
something that gave us comfort through life’s ups, downs, and uncertainties. As it says in the Book of Common Prayer service of Compline or Night Prayer – “Be present, O merciful God…so that …we who are wearied by the changes and
chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness”. The word ‘unprecedented’ has been used so often in these last months, but this 4 month break in public worship has never happened in this way before. Where does that leave us? How has that affected our faith and relationship with church, with worship, with God? Does it feel like things have been thrown up into the air – does it feel challenged and undermined for us, or inspired and renewed?
As we have been reflecting these last few Sundays, on the New Testament readings taking us through chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, I have been thinking about the world within which Paul was writing. In our
uncertainty, with the regular pattern of things so disrupted and thrown up into the air, I see more connections with what the Christians in Rome were living through at that time. When Paul wrote this letter, Christianity was only about 25 years old. For us, 25 years ago, Barings bank was brought to collapse by the rogue trader Nick Leason, and the headmaster Philip Lawrence was murdered outside his school in London. I remember these things, you may remember other things – but these events don’t seem that long ago, to me at least! Paul’s conversion had thrown everything up in the air for him, from being a diligently trained pharisee who clearly felt so certain about the religious rules he was practising that he was prepared to have a role persecuting this new Christian sect. With his profound conversion experience on the road to Damascus, everything was thrown up into the air for him. It was also an unpredictable world, under Roman rule and oppression. 6 years before this letter, the Christians in Rome had been expelled by the emperor
Claudius. And only 7 years after this letter, they would be blamed by Nero for the fire of Rome and persecuted and expelled again. They were living in times of great threat, risk and upheaval.
Paul had not been to Rome before and so was not the founder of this Christian community, unlike the other communities he wrote to in Greek Corinth, or Turkish Galatia. He was expressing his intention to visit and this was his letter of introduction. But he was speaking from his situation, of having preached the Gospel on the move around the Mediterranean through much uncertainty and challenge. And he was speaking to their situation. This letter was one of the later ones he wrote, and is less focussed on specific difficulties arising in that community. It is often considered to be something of a manifesto, the most coherent account of Paul’s Christian theology to that point. It can also seem dense and wordy, with many lengthy, complex or unusual words and abstract ideas. Just in this passage are the words: intercedes, predestined and justified. It seems to me a striking contrast with how Christian theology is expressed in the reading we had from Matthew’s Gospel (ch.13:31-33, 44-52), with its vivid images of the earthy everyday – mustard seeds, yeast, fields, nets, baskets – it’s almost like a picture book by contrast.
But I think part of what Paul is saying in this passage is that when life around is very difficult, we can still feel close to God. Paul always wants to emphasise that anything we try to do in our own strength to earn God’s favour, is never
enough, because we are all fallible human beings. We are saved – or justified – because we have God’s Love, shown to us through Jesus, and alive with us today through the Holy Spirit. Here, he suggests we aren’t always very good at praying, and we don’t know what we should be praying for, or how to go about it. But he tells us that the Holy Spirit can hear us, in our lack of the right words, and in our confusion and helplessness. Paul is very clear that believing in God does not mean an end to difficulty. On the contrary he emphasises all the troubles around – hardship, distress,
persecution, famine; nakedness, peril and sword. And many of these experiences would have been very close to the Roman congregation; and have perhaps been closer to us of late, with the whole world gripped by this pandemic and other troubles. But then he so beautifully and eloquently reaches his conclusion to this part of his letter – none of this can separate us from the Love of God.
Oddly, it has occurred to me, that it can also be during the difficult times, that we feel closest to God – this might be when we seek Him, call Him, and then feel Him near us. It seems sometimes more natural to pray at those times of
crisis. We may be more in touch with our inadequacy at those times; and our lack of knowing what to do, leads us to call out, almost as a last resort. I wonder if anyone else finds that the hardest times to pray are sometimes when everything is going ok in life? It is easy then to become comfortable, cosy, to stop thinking about the deeper questions, to feel more confident or complacent in our own resources – I’m in control, I’m competent. Maybe we are at risk of losing our curiosity and openness. It’s one of the privileges I’ve had in my job in mental health, that what trouble
and distress does to people is to open them up so they are asking the deeper questions about life. That is a very interesting place to meet people. When everything is going ok, it’s easy not to bother with those questions. It
might even make us less open to other people because we want to defend that comfortable position.
The national ‘Corona Virus, Church and You’ survey, has explored feelings about faith, religion and church during the pandemic and it has revealed some interesting findings. Over 40% of people reported feeling more prayerful, and
closer to God, during this pandemic. Paul’s other phrase which stands out to me is that ‘all things work together for
good for those who love God’. This might sound like a contradiction, with Paul’s acknowledgment that there is no end of challenge and threat for these believers. But what he is saying is that God works for good through these
Haven’t we seen that through this time? Along with an upsurge in anxiety, heartbreak and hardship, there has also been the kindness of neighbours and strangers, and a great and rapid creativity in responding to the difficult times
which came so fast. We probably had no idea we could change so much and so quickly – the Church of England, as much as my workplace the NHS, have never been known for their pace of change! God is working for the good through these times. We just have to remember that we can bring our inarticulate, uncertain selves to Him, and that is the
deepest prayer we can offer. And in doing that we can let God work through us, to be present in these difficult times; which by this, can be transformed for the good.
Lay Reader in Training