Sunday, 30 October 2011

the Life of the Church

When moving to a new place, one of the things which must be considered is where to go to Church. I say must be considered, although it is arguably a symptom of our society's high estimation of "choice" that we think it necessary to "choose a church". Things to consider might be denomination, whether there's a band, the friendliness of the people, the soundness of the teaching, whether there is liturgy, I could go on...  I didn't particularly think through my choice of church when I went to university. A church was recommended, I went, I liked it, I stayed, and I had a good time there; the teaching was generally good, there were lots of people there with whom I got on very well, and I built some solid relationships with people who were willing to challenge my preconceptions and push me to really think some important questions through. Reflecting on my time there, I know that God was at work in my life, and that he used various people in the Church to carry out the work of admonition and instruction, we shared lives and pointed each other to Christ.

The one thing which I have since begun to question about this particular church's practice, was the lack of much liturgy, and the relatively infrequent celebration of the Eucharist. This is not something which is unique to that church of course; earlier today I was chatting with a Christian friend, who aged 23, has been a Christian all her life and yet has never heard the creed. I nearly dropped my LeCreuset dish, which I was in the process of washing up... Having been raised in the Church of England, I always find it slightly bewildering that church can exist without a regular proclamation of our faith. My experience has been that in churches that do not use the creed regularly, the preaching very often contains a "gospel message", so it is not as though the central beliefs are not being spoken/heard. The major difference is that the proclamation of the creed is a corporate proclamation of faith, in a way that a preached message never can be, whether because it is only from the mouth of one man, or because some of the congregation are not fully engaged. That the value of corporate proclamation is increasingly unrecognised says something about the changing way that Church is understood in certain circles. The creed gives the Church, every individual united together, an ownership of her faith, and a more radical picture of unity. The same is true of the Eucharist, because here the whole Church meets together at the table of our Lord, thus united in the taking of the bread and wine, being renewed together as we remember the presence of Christ with us.

Both the Creed and the Eucharist are acts of remembrance, but they are only properly experience if we understand what the Scriptural understanding of memory is. Modern culture seems to understand memory as thinking about something from the past, a nostalgic dwelling on things past. However, Scripture has a much higher view of the necessity of memory, using Alan Roxburgh's phrase "In Scripture, memory is what the skeleton is to the body - without it, all collapses into an insubstantial mess." (see his book "The Missional Church"). It is memories and the rehearing of those memories that gives Israel her very existence. It is clear that Israel's memory is not something confined to the past, about which to be nostalgic and get a warm fuzzy feeling, rather it lives in the present, through the act of Israel's remembrance (though also without it - they are no less God's people when they forget what he has done for them than when they remember - what grace!). The same is true of the Church. Our story is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of His life onto his people through the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is the centre of Christian worship, not because it is an act of remembrance of something which has brought us a great deal of good, but because it is a re-living of the life of Christ, it is remembering that makes the past present and allows it to influence the future. When Jesus says "do this in remembrance of me" he is not asking his disciples to be nostalgic about a time gone by, but to relive His story, and allow his life to shape and renew them once again.

As Christians we have the delight of a relationship with God, one which is made possible through the Presence of the Living Lord in our lives individually, but most truly in the Life of the Church. This is why the Church remembers Her story through the creed, through proclamation of Scripture and through the Eucharist, the story that gives her life and identity as the People of God and the Body of Christ. Church is the place where we can meet Christ united as His body, rather than as individuals. Church should be centred on the person of Christ, meeting with Him at His Table, as the Church relives the story that gives Her life.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

at home in his presence

I have been thinking a lot recently about Home. This is probably something to do with the fact that whenever someone asks me where I'm from, I usually have to pause to consider the question. Another way people ask is to say "where is home?", but this doesn't really make answering much easier. Over my 21 years I have lived in five different places, for different lengths of time and for different reasons. If by home, they mean the place I currently live, then the answer is easy; Hatfield. However, this is not what I really associate with the idea of a home. More usually people are inquiring as to my background, my roots, but again there is no simple answer. Born in Cottingley, I lived there til the age of 6, when my family moved to Bristol. Two years later we returned to Yorkshire, this time to Pudsey, and when I was eleven we changed our allegiance and crossed the border to the county of the red rose.  Usually, this is slightly more information than the casual inquirer really wants, so I usually go for the abbreviated version of "Well I was born in Yorkshire, but have lived in Lancashire for the last 10 years". Of the two I am possibly slightly more attached to Lancashire, but this is probably largely because I can remember far more of my life there! I sometimes throw my three years living in Oxford into the equation just to stop myself sounding like a stuck record (a danger when you are in a new place and meeting new people fairly frequently...).

Of course, my answer reflects something of what I assume people mean by "home". I usually refer to places, rather than people, which on reflection seems ridiculous, because actually what tends to constitute "home" is the place you feel most secure, most loved, and the place where the people you love most are. It is indisputable that we also attach a reasonable amount of significance to people, as well as to place, but it seems that I am less likely to think of home without reference to a place as well as the people there. My parents and three of my siblings recently emigrated to New Zealand, a place where I have never lived, indeed I haven't even yet been to visit them there (11,600km is not a distance that can be traveled every weekend), so although I know that I will always "have a home there", I have yet to refer to it as Home, when asked where I'm from. That said, if pushed to give a definite, short answer to where my earthly home is, I would have to say "with my family"; no matter how little I see them, or how far away they are, their home is still the place I feel most at home. I can know that without actually going there (though I am impatient for when I do!) because I know and love the people there.

Many people in our society seem unanchored and unsettled. We find it disturbing that the places we once thought of as home, can change completely after we leave, and a lot of time a energy is spent trying to create the illusive perfect home. All this suggests that the world is not how it was meant to be and that there is a, often unheeded, awareness of this; that we can attach such importance to the idea of home and yet it can still seem so elusive demonstrates its importance. One thing that I have been challenged to think more on since my family moved, is what home actually is for me, and the importance of the fact that my eternal home is not here. We can return to the places we used to live on this earth and when we do we discover that they are no longer our home, the place "remembers [us] no more" (Psalm 103:15-6) and eventually it will be as though we had never been there. There is nothing permanent about our home on this earth, yet home is a secure thing, a permanent thing. If it is not here, it must be with our eternal Father. For even though I may feel at home with my family, the home I have with them can only ever be a poor reflection of the Home, which Christ has prepared for us. Pinned on my wall, just in front of me as I write this, I have a "Green card", given to me when I left university and my previous church for "the big wide world", which is a small green piece of card with Philippians 3:20-1 on it, reminding me that my "citizenship is in heaven". This carries both great comfort and great challenge.

There is comfort, for God wants us to know that no matter how uncertain we are about where we're from, or where our earthly home is, we have the certainty of a home in heaven, indeed we are already citizens of that great country, and one day we will be brought there, to dwell forever in the presence of God.  But Heaven (the new heaven and new earth), which is so much more than a "nice feeling" or even a "sense of belonging", but is a renewed creation, is the place which will never forget, because God has promised to be with us "from everlasting to everlasting". It is a place, a city, a land, that will never change and which God's presence will never leave. There is also a challenge, for we can very easily feel very "at home" in this world, and while the homes that we have with our families are a great blessing, they are only ever a reflection of our eternal home. This world is not how God intended it to be, it is a world that has largely forgotten that God once walked in the garden in the cool of the day. It is only by His mercy that we can still experience something of what home means, experience the presence of God in the midst of our lives, in the midst of a world which does not know Him.

How then do we know that this world is not our home, and that heaven is? Just as I know that I have a home with my family, wherever they might be living, because I know them and have already tasted what home with them is like. It is just the same with our eternal home. We can be certain of it, because we have already tasted it, God by his mercy dwells in the hearts of those who believe by the Spirit, those who have become part of the Body of Christ, the children of God. So we experience the presence of God through Scripture, through fellowship with our brothers and sisters, through dining with Him at the Eucharist, through prayer and living our lives with Him, who is our life. The Church is a taste of Heaven, because it is the people of God living in the presence of God, and if she does that faithfully then she will be a light to the nations, so that all may be drawn to the throne of God, their eternal home.