Dying We Live

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Revd Dr Jonathan Pye

At the Bristol District Representatives Synod in September 2017, Revd Dr Jonathan Pye, Chair of the Bristol District, delivered a sermon reflecting on the present state of the church, and with the title 'Dying we Live' (a quotation from the Bible and sometimes used in connection with Christians in Germany during the 2nd World War).

"In the summer of 1975, as a young theology student, I attended the bi-annual German Kirchentäg in the city of Frankfurt-am-Main. The Kirchentäg was an event that had begun in Germany in the early years after the Second World War as a way of drawing together Protestant Christians in Germany following the isolation of the church from the state during the Nazi era. Its purpose was, 'to strengthen them in their faith, to prepare them for responsibility in their churches, to encourage them in witnessing in the world; and to have solidarity with those in the world-wide community of Christendom '. Initially, it had met every year and it has always been an event that has had a bias towards drawing together theological, social and political issues, and it has never shied away from addressing sensitive issues. It was there, as a student, that I first met and sat at the feet of a controversial Swiss Catholic theologian, then the Professor of Theology in the University of Tubingen — his name was Hans Küng but that, as they say, is another story...

The Germany of the early-mid 1970s was one in which the Cold War nuclear tensions of the post-war period were still very much in evidence. American and British troops were to be seen moving in long convoys along most of the major roads and motorways and there was very much a sense that if tensions boiled over, then Europe would be the theatre in which any ensuing conflict would be played out. In many ways, the political scenario then, was not dissimilar from that which we are experiencing emerging again today in terms of the nuclear posturing in parts of the international community. People were nervous and apprehensive, if not fearful, about the future and about what it might bring.

And yet, despite all of this, the underlying feeling of this gathering of, mostly young, Christians was nonetheless predominantly one of hope and its theme that year reflected this — 'In Ängsten und siehe wir leben...' — 'dying, behold we live...' — those words of Paul written to the Corinthian Christians in the second of his letters to the Church in Corinth, words that we have listened to in our worship this morning.

Corinth lies as the South-Western tip of the strip of land that connects Greece with the Peloponnese. Its ancient city had been razed to the ground by the Romans and later re-built along Roman lines and the city that Paul knew and visited was an occupied city, a melting pot of Greek and Roman cultures and ideas, ideologies and religious beliefs.

The embryonic Christian community that had been established there in the first half of the first century CE, not always, it must be said, the happiest of communities, were struggling with what it meant to be a Christian presence in a changing world of competing views, attitudes and behaviours in which they were very much a minority. Does that sound familiar...?

Those of you who listened to the Conference debates or have read the Conference Digest will know that one of the things that we were engaged with in Conference this year was consideration of the three-yearly cycle of statistics. To be blunt, they did not make happy reading — a three and a half percent, year on year decline, with membership of the Methodist Church now standing at 188,000. That, of course is not the whole story, and statistics alone, cannot paint the total picture. Over against the bare membership figures we have to set the witness exercised in many other ways in local churches, through cafes, clubs, and other organisations, and other forms of worship which reach another half a million people each and every week. You need to think about the foodbanks and the credit unions, based in church halls or on church premises. To that you need to add the work done through the 20 independent and 66 state sector schools which the Methodist Church oversees or is a partner in, 9 of which are in our District, and the contacts made through the work of Chaplains or lay, in a whole variety of sectors — hospitals and hospices, universities and colleges, prisons, the armed forces and in industry, the retail sector and other workplace settings. You need to think of the work done with children, families and young people though Action for Children — and indeed through many of our local church family centres; our work with the frail elderly or those with dementia in the only mainstream church-based organisation working with older people in the UK. We need to think of the many Fresh Expression of Church, and Alt Church worship, across the Connexion, the rising number of Pioneer Ministers and the list could go on...

Now, is it true that formal membership of the church, all the mainstream Churches, at least in the Western world, is declining and has been declining for decades. We considered it again in the Methodist Conference, our Anglican colleagues debated it in their General Synod, with headlines in the Church Times like 'church attendance reaches all time low'. Yes, of course it is, and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. But this has to be set in the wider context of the enormous changes that have been experienced in society in the same period — a population that is ageing, the development of the internet, new patterns of living and working in a plural world that have followed on from this, the development of new communities based less on geography than on common interest, in which 'belonging' is now expressed in different ways.

In many ways, what the Corinthian church did, as is clear from the end of this epistle (which may be a fragment of a third or even fourth letter...) was to turn in on itself, they became more concerned with their internal struggles than spreading the Good News about Jesus, they had become inward facing rather than outward facing and, like so many, in similar situations they started the 'blame game'; they alone had got it right, it was others who were wrong or out of step. In a plural, and sometimes confusing and even frightening world, the embryonic church already ran the risk of becoming a ghetto.

But let's go back in in this letter, Paul, no stranger to suffering himself, establishes his credentials as an apostle. And despite the frailty and the suffering, look at the language that Paul uses in this letter time and time again — 'We don't lose heart...' (ch.3), 'we don't proclaim ourselves but Jesus...' (ch.4), 'we are always confident...' (ch.5), 'we are a new creation...' (ch.6), 'we are ambassadors for Christ...' and it goes on and on...

And why does he do this... Well we get a big clue towards the end of the first Corinthian epistle. When Paul preaches, it is never just 'Jesus', but 'Jesus and the resurrection...'

And if God raised Jesus from the dead then we are a resurrection community and while I am all in favour of 'growth plans' (just as long as they don't just remain plans but get translated into action); and while I see the need, in some cases, for 'end of life plans' (because we don't always handle endings well...), I want to see much more, much more (!) said about resurrection, not least because, as Paul writes in that earlier letter to Corinth, if we're not about resurrection, we're not about anything (that's a paraphrase I know...) and we become a 'hope-less' people, a people without hope. And if we become a people without hope then we become a people without a future.

When Paul speaks to the Corinthian Christians, he points them, time and again, back to first principles, to what it means to live Christ-like, Christ-centred, lives, to be ambassadors for Christ, to recognise the treasure we contain, albeit, as Paul says, 'in earthen vessels'.

And again, if you want to know what that looks like, go back, first, to that earlier letter to Corinth, to the passage so beloved of couples getting married, 1 Corinthians 13, that speaks about the gift of love. You know how it starts: 'I may speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels... I may have prophetic powers or all the knowledge in the world... I might have enough faith to move mountains... but if I don't have love, I am nothing!'

And when, in that great commandment in John's Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they are to 'love one another', he makes it clear why this must be so — it is 'so that the world might believe...', so that others are attracted to Christ because they see the authenticity of the Good News, of the gospel, in the way that the followers of Jesus live, because the reality is that 'people meet Christ through meeting Christians...' At least, that is what ought to be the case.

But it's not always the case and there are many people 'out there' who not only don't feel loved or welcomed but who feel just the opposite, who feel ex-cluded rather than in-cluded; who feel judged rather than loved; who feel un-wanted rather than wanted; who feel they have no place in the Church because, frankly, that is what we are telling them; because all too often we have developed the kind of 'fortress mentality' that is more concerned with our own righteousness, than it is with the righteousness of God, who longs to embrace in love, all those who are made in 'the image and the likeness of God'.

So if you want to see churches that are growing, look first to see churches that are loving and inclusive and which, because they are loving, are 'hope-ful', hope-filled, churches. But remember, that hope is something robust, it's not 'whistling in the dark' but living in the light of the Kingdom.

It was St. Augustine who said, 'Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage — anger at the way things are, courage to see that they do not remain as they are...'.

Hope moves us from being inward-facing and self-absorbed to being outward-facing and missional/engaged... And the time for this is now! This is Kingdom Time, it is God's time, now is the time, as Paul says, 'to wake up' because the time 'is already later than when we first believed...' now is the time when all this needs to become reality in the way we live.

'We are treated as imposters, and yet we are true; as unknown, and yet we are well known; as dying, and see we are alive...'


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