On November 18 Revd Sally Thomas was our guest preacher.
This is her Reflection .
But first an introduction to the theme.
We start with a question ‘Where do you live? – (several people were asked and named the area they lived in)
If you’d asked me the same question, I’d answered with the name of the place too.
But listen to what John’s gospel says –
The next day John was standing there again with two of his disciples, when he saw Jesus walking by.
“There is the Lamb of God!” he said.
The two disciples heard him say this, and went with Jesus. Jesus turned, saw them following, him and asked, ‘What are you looking for?’
They answered “Where do you live, Rabbi?” (This word means Teacher). “Come and see,” he answered.
So if you asked someone ‘Where do you live?’ and they said, ‘Come and see’
Where would you expect them to take you?
Would you go?
What if it meant a long walk?
What if it was dark?
What if it was pouring with rain, windy and cold?
Anything that would make you say no – Thanks for asking but I’m not going.
What about when Jesus says to you ‘Come and see’
Will you go?
2 Samuel 7.1-6 Isaiah 58: 6 – 8a, 11b
Christmas lights in Pontypridd
I don’t like to be the one to break this to you, after all we’re still in November, but in supermarkets and shopping streets, Christmas displays are creeping in.
Have you noticed?
Whatever our feelings about the commercial and cultural aspects of Christmas, this is also a reminder that, for the Church, soon it will be Advent – season of preparation.
Christmas isn’t a time of celebration for everyone.
Many find it difficult – it may heighten feelings of loneliness, isolation, lives limited by illness, poverty, debt, family tensions – there are many reasons why some struggle at Christmas.
Most churches are sensitive to this and will show care and hospitality in many ways.
But then it comes to Christmas worship, there is a tendency to have a ‘soft focus’ – an ‘away in a manger’ Christmas when we look forward to the annual pageant of the nativity play, singing the familiar carols, however inappropriate some of the words, and enjoying whatever our local traditions are.
Do we sometimes through our worship, however unintentionally, project a sentimentalised Christmas – a stable that is safe, shared with sheep, cows, visitors
and not a rough and temporary shelter before the long trek to Egypt and the life of refugees?
So I thought I’d use this time pre-Advent preparing ourselves to prepare as it were.
I’ll begin with a question –
When was the first church building
erected for Christian worship?
moving forward from King David to the early church, when was the first church building erected for Christian worship?
I’ll answer in a minute but first some context-
In the New Testament the word ‘church’ or ‘churches’ is used 116 times.
4 times in Matthews Gospel, twice in Revelation and 110 times through Acts and the Epistles.
Not once is it said or even suggested that this means a church building.
The word translated Church is
Ἐκκλησία – Ecclesia
it means an assembly or gathering of people – a congregation. It refers to calling people together.
Church in the New Testament meant when people gathered for worship – to pray, sing and explore the scriptures, usually in their homes. Often this was wealthier people with large homes offering hospitality but it could be in an open space.
Church = people coming together
– no special building required.
When it comes to church buildings, several sites claim to be the world’s first Christian church including this one in Jordan,
Saint Georgeous built around 230 AD. There are several from around that period – so a long time after the days of Jesus and when the books that now make up our New Testament were first in circulation.
As it happens, Peter and I were in Jordan when it was being excavated. It’s small, rectangular and functional – as were other early church buildings.
What gives St Georgeous its claim to be THE oldest is that ten years ago . . .
. . . a cave was discovered beneath it which has been dated back to between 33 and 70 AD. It has an inscription saying it was where the early Christians: the 70 disciples of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament.” were hidden. It was, it seems primarily someone’s home as well as a place of refuge and where people gathered to worship together.
How we got from that to the huge and ornate later buildings and the practice of pouring money into furnishings, statues, vestments etc is, I confess, something I struggle with. Part of me appreciates and is awestruck by the sheer scale and beauty of buildings like St Mark’s in Venice, Notre Dame, Salisbury Cathedral, St David’s in Wales to name but few but another part of me says – is this where Jesus would want to live? Is this what worship requires?
The reading we heard from Samuel reminds us that from Solomon’s Temple to now God does not need bricks and mortar – no place of worship can in any sense contain God. As it happens, I’d written this before a URC online Daily Devotion a few days ago used the same passage from 2 Samuel. The writer, John Proctor, pointed out that what our church buildings usefully provide is a touching place. He also drew attention to the double meaning of ‘house’ which is referred to in scripture both as “a place for God to dwell [and] also a heritage, a dynasty, to continue David’s royal line [which] in the fullness of time, brings us . . . to Jesus, in whom the two kinds of ‘house’ will meet. For he was called a new David, . . . an heir of the promise. And in his flesh, John Proctor concluded, God dwelt among us.”
This Jesus who invites those who ask ‘where do you live?’ to ‘Come and see’ is a Saviour without the safety of structures. His is a journey into the heart of communities; a life lived among the tensions and demands of human need bringing hope, healing, challenge and stories to stretch our understanding. Jesus is a traveller who crossed boundaries, who welcomed and ate with people of other cultures and faith – a Christ unbound – not to be restricted by any church structure or system.
The Isaiah verse I read earlier –
“Enlarge the site of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.”
is for me an image of church as a people that has no limits it offers a a space designed to always have the capacity to expand; a space where all may be welcomed; where relationships may be formed; where people may laugh together in times of joy; weep together and comfort each other in times of sorrow and share all the in-between times.
It reflects the lifestyle of Jesus that he invites others to share – to come and see – experience.
It suggests that any space we design for worship should meet the needs of the community – stretching out in welcome – a practical, functional, warm and inviting space where everyone knows they will find hospitality and belonging – where no one is ever excluded for any reason.
The sort of place you have here.
But more is required.
John’s gospel is distinctly different from the Synoptic ones of Matthew Mark and Luke.
There we hear the more familiar stories of Jesus calling disciples – Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John to leave their fishing nets and follow him; Matthew to leave his tax booth and lucrative living.
The way John tells it, one of those who had asked Jesus ‘Where do you live?’ was Andrew. He goes on to say –
41Andrew first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which is translated Anointed*). 42He brought Simon* to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter*).
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ . . .45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’
None of the gospels go into the detail of how the first few to be called developed into the symbolic when all make it clear that many, women and men, travelled with Jesus.twelve
The point is that in John’s gospel the immediate response of the first to join with Jesus is to invite others to ‘come and see’ for themselves.
We talk about our church buildings needing to be inviting and welcoming but remember – church – ἐκκλησία – is people. It is we who are to invite others to meet Jesus for themselves to create opportunity for people to decide for themselves.
Isaiah, as we heard, described to people of his day the ‘love in action’ that is authentic worship then he went on to express God’s covenant promise in these words – “my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says God who has compassion on you.”
God, who in Jesus calls us all, is God who chooses to live in relationship with us, who invites us to be travellers together in creating societies where there is justice, generosity, freedom – where everyone from youngest to oldest, greatest to least matters equally and is always welcome and wanted.
At sometime in our lives, it is responding to that invitation that brings us here today.
At all times in our lives it is an invitation that is ours to offer others – all others.
In preparing to prepare for our celebrating God present and active within our human story maybe it is timely to ask ourselves,
When it comes to living where – and how – Jesus lives, how far will any of us go?”