There is a very telling scene in a new TV series called “The Young Pope”. A young (that’s 50 something), conniving, emotionally malnourished and yet purportedly saintly Pope Jude Law is in conversation with one of his mentors. He insists that the church needs to become more mysterious again, closed-off, distant and demanding. This Pope believes that mystery, discipline and detachment will provoke curiosity and desire for God. This will bring people back to orthodox Christian belief. His wise mentor responds that belief in God is no longer the problem. The relevance of God, in other words “Do we really need God?”, is much more the challenge for the contemporary Church.
Despite the many challenges for Christianity in post-secular societies such as our own - the rise of a very vocal fundamentalist atheist movement; the numerical decline in all mainline denominations, unchecked individualism and conspicuous consumption - belief in the supernatural has not diminished but rather grown. Simply shepherding people into a tried and tested formula of belief about God and Jesus Christ will not serve us now and I would argue has never been the true calling of the church.
Are post-secular people, particularly those living in a global city such as London, lying awake at night worried about their personal sin and the eternal safety of their souls? Perhaps, but I suspect that most, if not all of us, have sat awake wondering what the point of all this is? If we allow the 10 o’clock news to break through our well-guarded consciousness and prick the soft underbelly of our delicate consciences, we may find ourselves deeply troubled with thoughts like: Why do some have so little and others, and I, so much? Why must some suffer such terrible pain, terror and loss while the only potential threat to others, to me, is the loss of wifi access?
The terror of meaninglessness and insignificance looms large for all of us in the West. Add to that the anxiety about our part in global inequality, economic upheaval begun in recent memory with the 2008 financial crisis and now crystallising around Brexit, social upheaval manifested in new waves of immigrants and asylum seekers, political upheavals seen in the threat of terrorism, conservative reactions to all of the foregoing and embodied in the election of President Donald Trump and ecological upheaval in the form of the devastating effects of climate change and the possibility that it may be too late to reverse the damage.
If God is simply an idea about the divine what use is that? Or more telling, if access to the divine is only possible via a compulsory, narrow and bigoted religious system, surely this is a fraud. No one in a post-secular society is going to buy that, if that is what we are selling.
We all yearn for something more than just the perfect artisan coffee and an annual ski holiday. We yearn for substance, identity, purpose and solidarity in ways that are accessible and life shaping. In other words, we long for meaning that reveals something fundamental and beautiful about who we are; that can be felt and shared. The installation by the artist Tracey Emin on the west wall of Liverpool Cathedral gives expression to this deep human longing and hunger in very contemporary terms. The words “I felt you and I knew that you loved me” written in bright blue neon script across a wall in a significant place of worship.
You see, we are led to believe by our scriptures that we are all created by God in love and that all of us, yes all of us share in the dignity of his image. If the divine thumbprint is the heart of our being then Christ is in you and in me. Certainly, we may turn our back on this gift or like Peter deny it completely. This is the sanctity of free will given to us by the God of love and is of course the basis of what we call sin. But the role of the Christian community is to be a mystical family in which we are living reminders to each other and our neighbours that Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again in you and me. That is what it means to be a priestly people. The kind of people Peter is talking in our first reading – “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light." Together we are trying to live from within the deeper mystery of God’s love – reflecting this to each other and the world.
The stirrings of faith are not to be found in monolithic adherence to a system of well-formulated religious beliefs but in the felt presence of love incarnate in our daily lived experience. It is encounter with humanity made divine - “I felt you and I knew you loved me”. That is what moves human hearts and lives. That is promise of Christ - “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
The Mission Action Plan you have in your hands is the product of over a year’s reflection, consultation and prayer. It is also the convergence of the many lives, perspectives and faith experiences of the people of St Barnabas. The more the PCC and I reflected and listened to you, the broader community, each other and hopefully the Holy Spirit, the more it became clear that our mission needed to be rooted in the human experience of God’s love. That is why we are here. That is why we believe.
How then is love incarnate being felt or to be felt? Through what we have come to call “unexpected hospitality”. We were all moved by the story of one parishioner who had little or no contact with the church. That is, until someone arrived on her doorstep from St Barnabas with a parcel of food and simple condolences when her mother had died. Nothing was expected in return. A gift freely given and freely received. Basic generosity in human form. In and through that act of simple hospitality the presence of God was felt and that person knew they where loved. It is the very same unexpected hospitality that we share at the Eucharist, the meal of Christ, in which we are fed irrespective of who we are, what we have done and where we have come from?
It is to this that Christ is pointing in the Nazarene Declaration that was read in the Gospel of Luke this morning. Unexpected hospitality is not a tame platitude, it is a movement of transforming love incarnated in, and facilitated by, the ordinary people of God. Whenever we share our resources and our selves hospitably, we embody that declaration of good news to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom for the prisoner and the oppressed. In our common life, today, this is being fulfilled. Today.
And yet we have asked in what specific ways should this happen? In other words, to what are we committing our limited time, resources and energy? Three clear categories emerged through the consultations: worship, grow and serve. In our worship we seek to make communion with God, each other and the stranger through prayer, praise and adoration. We are very serious about being inclusive, welcoming and tolerant in this sacred place and in our sacred actions.
We are consciously looking to grow both spiritually and numerically. That means we want to deepen in our faith and share the gifts it offers with others.
We have a particular passion to serve each other and our local community. Surveys and consultations with congregation made it overwhelming clear that we don’t want to be just a felt presence in the community, we want to make a tangible difference in it. You will note then, that each of these three categories have specific actions listed against them for this year. And on the reverse, you have the full three year action plan.
A final thought. This Mission Plan is not meant to be a rigid grid but rather a living document much like a living faith. It will change and adapt as we move into the future. The fact that we have placed “the unexpected hospitality of Christ” at the very heart of what we believe God is calling us to, means that rather like the congregation in synagogue that morning Jesus stood up to read from prophet Isaiah - we should expect to be surprised, confused, shocked and delighted by the one who comes to us as abundant life. Amen.