Readings: Acts 16:9–15, Revelation 21:10–14, 21:22–22:5 & John 14:23–29
Earlier this week I attended the clergy conference of the Marmingatha Episcopate, which is the region which Bishop Genieve Blackwell is responsible for. The theme of the conference was “Leading Change”.
I doubt there are many people who would argue against the need for change in the church at this point in its history. I think it’s fair to say that the “institution” of Church, has lost relevance for a lot of people today, particularly among younger people.
As I’ve said on a number of occasions previously, there are obviously a number of reasons for this, but one reason in particular, would have to be the fact that we have become a very comfortable society here in Australia. Now I know that it’s not true for everyone, but generally speaking, most people live reasonably comfortable lives. And as a result, a lot of people just don’t see the need for God in their lives.
Having said that though, we know that social isolation is a growing problem in Australian society. Research undertaken by the Brotherhood of St Laurence, which is an agency with strong ties to the Anglican Church, has found that more than one million Australians deal with what is known as “deep social exclusion”. This means that they experience at least four different sorts of disadvantage in their lives, such as being on a low income, having little work experience, not being involved in community clubs or associations and not being socially active.
We often associate disadvantage with poverty, but poverty itself is not just having too little money to live on. It can also mean being shut out from many other aspects of social and economic life that people commonly take for granted: a job, a home, being connected to community. While poverty is sometimes measured only by a person’s income, it has long been recognised as more complex than this. Living in poverty often involves missing out on resources or opportunities which are available to many or most Australians, such as being connected socially.
And that is where I think the church can still have a role to play: in creating connections between people within the community. If we were to go back in time some 50 or 60 years, we would find that the church was basically a “community hub” – a place where people came together to socialise; a place where lifelong friendships and relationships were created. The various changes in society that we have witnessed in the decades since then; changes such as the advent of 7 day and 24 hour trading, and the associated impact on working days and working hours, and the demise of the so called “nuclear family”, not to mention the rapid changes we have witnessed in technology, have dramatically altered people’s lives, and their relationships with one another. A lot of people feel isolated within the communities in which they live.
The church can play a role in connecting people within the community. That is certainly what we have been trying to do here at St Andrew’s through activities such as Mainly Music, the monthly Family Service, the Garrett Kato concerts we have put on, the Neighbour Day event, and more recently the Playgroup. And through the review of our Parish Mission Action Plan, which is currently being undertaken by our Mission & Ministry Committee, we are being more intentional in looking at ways in which we can become more connected with our local community.
Bishop Genieve commented at the conference that she is often asked by parishes what the “strategy” of the Marmingatha Episcopate is. She then went on to provide a number of examples, including that of our own “Cooperating Parish Arrangement” with St Aidan’s Strathmore, of parishes that are in the midst of trialling different approaches to ministry and mission. There is no “one size fits all” strategy. Each parish is trying something different that fits with its own situation and circumstances. The one thing they all have in common is that they are experiencing change. And change is not, by definition, a bad thing.
The earliest Christians, whether they were of Jewish or Gentile origins, experienced significant change in their lives, when they became followers of Jesus and formed the very first churches. We have an example of one such church in our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles. The passage in question describes the foundation of the church in Philippi.
Philippi had been named in honour of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, but in 31 BCE the city was re-founded by Emperor Augustus as a Roman colony. Augustus settled many veterans of the Roman army in the colony, and citizens of the city shared many of the same rights and privileges as citizens of Rome. The population was almost exclusively Gentile, with very few people of Jewish origin living there. We are given a clue to this when Luke writes in Acts, “On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there.”
According to the tradition of the day, there needed to be at least ten Jewish men living in a city before a synagogue could be built for people to worship in. Given that Luke tells us that on the sabbath day, when we would have expected to find people in the synagogue, we instead find people (who seems to be exclusively women) gathered in prayer outside the gate by the river, that suggests there were very few Jewish people living in Philippi.
Luke also tells us that one of these women (Lydia) was a worshiper of the Jewish God; and that she was a wealthy and prominent woman. We know that she was wealthy because she was a dealer in purple cloth. Only someone of wealth could afford to buy the purple dyes that were used to colour cloth that was sold to people of royal and noble position. Lydia was the first convert of the Apostle Paul in Europe, and the first meetings of the church in Phillip no doubt took place in the home of Lydia. We know from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians that the church in Philippi experienced opposition and suffering because of their faith in Jesus, so that was a significant change in their lives.
Our second reading this morning, from the Book of Revelation, also talks of change. It highlights the change in the covenant between God and the people of Israel, that is brought about through Jesus Christ. As he describes the appearance of the “new Jerusalem” coming down from heaven, which he has seen in a vision, the author of Revelation writes, “It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites. And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
The ‘old’ covenant, represented by the 12 tribes of Israel, and the ‘new’ covenant, represented by the 12 apostles of Jesus, are united in the coming of the new ‘Holy City’. And whereas under the ‘old’ covenant people would worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, because that was where God’s presence was believed to be, there is no longer need of a Temple because God is present in Jesus (the Lamb). Jesus is the revelation of God in the world. He is one with God.
And from this oneness with God, comes the gift of peace that Jesus leaves with his disciples, which we heard about in our passage from John’s Gospel this morning. It is a peace that the world cannot give. The peace Jesus offers is his peace (εἰρήνην τὴν ἐμὴν) and it is this qualification that makes it something the world can never match. The peace of Jesus flows from his oneness with his Father, and from the authority he has with the Father, so that whatever is asked in his name will be given.
The gift of peace is closely associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit or Paraclete, which is the ongoing presence of Jesus in his physical absence. It is the source of the love for the disciples that comes from Father and the Son, and it is the agent for the ongoing revelation of both Jesus and the Father to all (including you and I) who love Jesus and keeps his commandments.
So as we refresh and refine our Mission Action Plan, in order to enable our parish to make the necessary change that is needed for us to connect with the people of our local community, let us pray for the continued presence and guidance of the Spirit in all that we say and do.