October used to be the month for counting in church. If it moved we counted it, if it didn’t move we counted that as well just to be sure. The figures were sent off to Church House in London and after a few months with the number crunchers the results were published. Methodism had declined for another year.
Sadly we did not need the statistics to tell us that in the circuits, it was obvious week by week. So in the end, a couple of years ago, the Methodist Church thankfully stopped counting. However we are still obsessed by numbers.
Post lockdown I keep being asked what the congregation was like on Sunday morning. I think the person who asked wanted to know how many people were attending rather than my answer that they were ‘an ugly looking bunch but quite friendly!’.
Why do we equate success with large numbers? Over the years I have been minister to churches of many different sizes and ultimately there is no difference between a 20 member church and a 200 member church.
There are no small churches because people are in them, and the needs of people are as real in little congregations as in bigger ones. In the small churches I served, people were poised to grow. They were ready to move from membership to discipleship. In these churches people got sick, they died, they had discouraging marriages, they had wayward children, they had aging parents to look after, they had stressful work settings, etc. Potential blessings and painful problems were present in small churches just as they were in the bigger ones. Sadly small congregations believe that their problems will be solved if they become ‘bigger’.
I also learned the perception that most churches are larger ones is an illusion. It was true decades ago, and it is still true. The last time I saw a statistic I found that over 50% of Churches in this country have a membership of 75 or less. That may even more post lockdown.
But perhaps most of all, small churches are places to learn what Henri Nouwen once wrote to a friend who was discouraged because of a small response to her ministry, “In the area of spirituality, statistics do not count. Two or three people who hear you well, may be able to do miracles.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, ‘Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life’ (Convergent, 2016).
In the end there are no small churches only small vision. And without vision the church will perish despite the numbers in the pews on a Sunday morning.
As we begin to open up our churches and get back to normal (what ever that might mean!), we hope that some of the people who engaged with our churches and circuit over the Internet will want to engage with us in person. But what will that mean for our churches?
Over the years as I have gone through the stationing process and visited prospective new churches the one thing the church stewards are keen to emphasise is that ‘we are a friendly church’. To be honest I would be surprised if a church ever said it was an unfriendly church! However after a few months into an appointment I feel like saying “You know when you said you are a friendly church…”
Is your Church a friendly church or a church of friends. The two are very different and easily confused by those who are on the inside.
Most churches have some form of welcome on the door but when the visitor arrives will you cut short the deep conversation you are having with some one you spoke to just two days ago and focus all your attention on the visitors?
Do the welcomers take the visitor into the church and help them settle WHERE THEY WANT TO SIT(!) or is the welcomers role to steer them away from the ‘reserved pews’ and into the pews where no one else wants to sit. Or are the visitors simply left on their own to play ‘pew roulette’.
Even if the visitor is fortunate to land on an empty pew would members of the congregation move from their ‘spot’ to go and sit with them too make them welcome or to they twist round in their seats, give them a good stare and ask the person next to them in a loud Methodist whisper “Do you know who they are?”
Does your Church give the visitor a plethora of books and leaflets without any explanation of what they are? (Is it obvious that the black hymn numbers are from the old book and the red ones from the new book – which nobody but the minister likes). Or do you fail to tell the visitor looking for a hymn book that the words of the service will appear on the screen apart from those we know by heart so we don’t bother with those, but that’s OK because where they are sitting they can’t see it any way.
After the service are they taken to the coffee room or simply told where it is? Are they sat at the ‘spare table’ while people put table and chairs together so that they and their friends can all sit and chat ? If you do go over to talk with them do you sit or hover over them like an impatient waiter?
What of you conversation? A very Methodist thing to do is to apologies for the preacher “It’s not our own Minister, just a Local Preacher.” And to the outsider what is a Local Preacher? or the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or the offering?
Do you, in your best jokey voice tell them that we will have to get them on Church Council?
When the visitor leaves do we just ‘hope’ to see them next Sunday or do we ask questions of their experience and what we can do to help them feel more welcome?
Oh yes we’re a welcoming church, it’s just some people don’t want to be welcomed!
September is, of course, the beginning of a new Methodist year and it has become a tradition in many churches to use the first Sunday in September as their Covenant Sunday rather than the first Sunday of the calendar year.
On occasions for Covenant Sunday I have used Pauls conversion as the basis for my sermon. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–6) was dramatic and utterly life-changing. The resulting insights from this initial experience became central to all he taught for the rest of his life. While most of us have a different, less extreme experience, the result should be the same. The insights from our encounter with Jesus should be central to our lives.
Before conversion, we tend to think that God is out there. After transformation, we see that God is not out there but is in here. When we look at life we don’t look at reality, we look from reality. We’re in the middle of it now; we’re a part of it. This whole thing is what the writer Richard Rhor calls the mystery of participation. Paul is obsessed by the idea that even before we recognise Jesus we’re all already participating in something.
I’m not writing the story by myself. I’m a character inside of a story that is being written in co-operation with God and the rest of humanity. This changes everything about how we see our lives. If we’re writing the story on our own, we think we’ve got to write it right. We’ve got to be clever, we’ve got to figure it out. If anything goes wrong, we’ve only got ourselves to blame. That’s a terrible way to live, even though many Christians do. And that’s ‘bad news’.
The good news is a completely different experience of life. A participatory theology says, “I am being used, I am actively being chosen, I am being led.” It is not about joining a new denomination or having an ecstatic moment. After authentic conversion, you know that your life is not about you; you are about life! You’re an instance in this agony and ecstasy of God that is already happening inside you, and all you can do is say yes to it. That’s all. That’s conversion and it changes everything.
This idea of participating in the goodness and continual unfolding of God’s creation reminds me of the prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that begins, “Make me a channel (or instrument) of your peace.” As a follower of Jesus we recognise that we are called to be his instruments, to be the conduit through which the love of God flows into the world.
Looking back on my life, I can see that God did everything. God even used my mistakes to bring me to God and God’s wisdom to others! I hope this week will inspire you to look at what has happened when you also said yes to participating as God’s instrument in the world.
Well the summer seem to be drawing to an end and with it the start of a new Methodist year. For most people this will pass almost unnoticed but for a minister in their last appointment it is important as it means a year closer to retirement. (?!)
Time is one of those aspects of life which we have little control over, we either accept its passing or constantly rage against its unstoppable march.
As a young christian moving from a Sunday School faith to an adult understanding I was constantly told that we were in the last days and that Jesus was surely coming soon. Well 45 years later I am still waiting! Perhaps the time is still not right.
That is another facet of time, not the liner progression of hours, days, weeks, months, years, but a point in the time-space continuum for a specific event to happen. Whether planned or serendipitous.
In God’s realm the time is always right for something, God knows the when and the what. God’s activity is steady and it is also specific. As a church we have to discern and point to what God is up to and when God is working—when the timing is right and what it’s right for. It is true not only in large, cultural ways, but also in specific, personal ways.
Of course, since the first lockdown, churches have faced incessant questions and squabbles and downright fights about the time for gathering in person. Who could gather, and where they could gather, and what could happen in the gathering, what needed to be worn in gathering? If the first-century Christian was concerned about propriety, including what kinds of covering in worship, no less is the twenty-first-century church! For some, the ability to worship without gathering signalled an end of the worship gathering, at least in its current form.
Not only did COVID challenge the ability of the church to gather, but it also challenged our ability to tell time. Sure, we measure time by clocks and calendars; through hours and days, time marches on. But during lockdowns, days of the week lost their uniqueness and days as a whole lost their rhythm. I have heard more than once that the last 18 months have felt like a time warp.
We didn’t lose the ability to measure time, but perhaps we lost the ability to keep time. At the recent Tokyo Olympics, time-keeping mattered a lot particularly when Canadian Andre De Grasse edged South African sprinter Akani Simbine by four one-hundredths of a second to win the Bronze Medal in the Men’s 100-metre race.
We record how long and how fast and when and so on. But COVID has also adjusted how we keep time by our faith. Worship “gatherings” now happen at personal times and start when a button is clicked. To point out an irony, you might say that when we don’t have religion to help us keep time, rather that we will keep time religiously using other things! If measuring and keeping time is only or even mainly done for cultural accommodation and athletic competition, then we will lose not only our ability to tell the time by our faith, but we will lose the ability to recognise timing. Gathering helps us to keep time and to recognise God’s timing.
Another way we tell time is by ages. The American writer, Joseph Bottum calls the present age ‘an anxious age’, (An Anxious Age – The post-Protestant Ethic) as the religious heart of the West is replaced by something else. Social foundations that attempted to mirror the foundations of reality are upended when the foundations of reality are being reconsidered. And almost sixty years ago, sociologist Philip Rieff prophesied the therapeutic age, when individual persons would be tasked with finding their own wellbeing—designing, achieving, and living their best life with the help of some friends—and perhaps a professional or two. I think both of them are right: It is an anxious age and it is a therapeutic age.
This unique age pressures the church. First, the church is pressured to become radically convenient. Consumers don’t have time for church, so the church must be open at all times. The church is encouraged to become the 24 hr convenience store of the religious market in order not to compete with football training, IKEA, family, the park, and all the other things that compete for people’s time. Second, the church is pressured to become a place of religious coaching. There is pressure to apply knowledge of Scripture and the care of souls to give advice on marriage, employment, and so on to help others take their lives to the next level.
Now, church should be convenient inasmuch as convenience means removing unnecessary barriers for those whom Jesus is beckoning, and the church should coach inasmuch as it guides people to and through spiritual disciplines in pursuit of Christ by the power of the Spirit.
But convenience and coaching can also be detrimental to the ministry that is needed in an anxious and therapeutic age. In an anxious age, the church must present hope. And in a therapeutic age, the church must present healing. Hope and healing are about neither convenience nor coaching. Hope and healing are about the presence of Jesus Christ in the body.
As a gathering, the church is about time: First, the gathered church is about time-keeping, a rhythm that orients the rest of time. And the gathered church is about timing, sensing the unique and charged time of Christ’s presence.
So is it the right time to meet together at church – probably. Is it the right time to do away with masks – probably not. Is it time to walk with Jesus – always!
In our Old Testament studies course at college one of the most heated discussions was about how we confront the ethical question of the psalms of vengeance. Some people argued that they were in scripture so we should just accept them others worried over the ill that could come if these words are prayed from our pulpits and in our private prayers. They fear what could happen with the expression of our rage.
My concern moves in the opposite direction. I fear the cool and collected civility of church life that denies those who have experienced trauma the space for public expression of that anger, which lingers in the air as palpable discomfort for the powerful.
I have herd christians complain about those who have raised issues of racism in the church. I’ve watched as those of LGBTQI community are reprimanded for interrupting business as usual, despite decades of silencing them through many conference resolutions. People who occupy seats of power control the agenda by censuring the anger of those demanding change. Certain voices, “respectable” voices, are given space while others are shut out.
The psalms that call for God’s intervention are written as a reminder of the enormity of human suffering within systemic and sustained forms of violence that cannot always be rectified by good work, good intentions, or reasonable dialogue. They show us the way that power is structured across and within interpersonal relationships and geopolitical realities. Rather than showing resignation or reasonableness, the psalms keep before us the trauma of inequitable suffering. These psalms hold the space, and they push us all toward response.
In psalms of justice we hear the cry of those whose words mark the places of oppression and degradation in history. These are people who are acted upon, who apprehend their own helplessness before suffocating violence. These are people whose very existence hangs in the balance of political and economic forces beyond their control. There will be no negotiation or discussion, nothing to bargain with, no scheme, no outsmarting, no escape. These are the prayers of dead-ends.
And yet something else happens here. To speak this violence aloud is also to generate a hope which destruction cannot overcome. To make space for the words of those facing catastrophe, who have nowhere left to turn, who have nothing left — this is the memory preserved in the psalms.
“In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response, is to feel nothing. What must be felt is grief, rage, outrage. In their absence, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace.” (J. Clinton McCann – Introduction to the Psalms) The psalms of rage remind us that somehow, in spite of absolute defeat, someone dared to say aloud that the world is not as it should be.
In my own prayer I sense no conflict between the psalms of justice and the New Testament’s call to love our neighbours as the way to describe prayer for our persecutors. The prayers offered in the Bible include those by Zechariah, asking God to save us from the hands of all who hate us. The prayers of the Gospels encompass Mary’s Song, a call to tear the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty. Throughout his ministry Jesus is intolerant of prayers meant to look pious. He lashes out at prayers being used as a public gesture rather than as an offering to God of one’s internal orientation. I would guess that praying as we “ought to pray” falls in line with the false piety of those who pray loudly on the street corners so that “they may be seen and praised by others” (Matthew 6:2).
Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but this can only happen by stopping pretending we are something we are not.
Jesus gives a rough outline of how to pray in light of this remarkable change of perspective. We start by positioning our prayer from the place where God is in control of history, working things out in the world around us, not distant from it. God is charged with the care of creation. We can let go of outcomes, of our attempts to control history. “Our Father in heaven. Your name is holy.” We recognise that God’s kingdom is established, firmed up in our midst. Our desires, our intentions for the righting of wrong, the reign of justice — let it come to pass.
After we have established God’s reign, Jesus tells us to offer our own needs. In this prayer, Matthew slips out of Hebrew, the formal language of the Temple, and into Aramaic, the everyday language of the people. It is in this language in which people argued in the market and whispered to their children as they went to sleep. The purpose of prayer is to move ordinary life and common speech into the communal form of God’s reign.
I suspect Jesus uses this informal language because there is no point in offering up prayers about the things we ought to want. Prayer may be transformative of our desires, but it will not be so by pretending we are something we are not. Rather than putting out pious prayers for public consumption or pretending that God doesn’t already know what we desire, we come to God as we are.
The Dominican monk and writer, Herbert McCabe reminds us that “genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before your Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart — never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.” We pray for the things we want and the things we need because we can’t fool God. In the end, we only fool ourselves.
“One of the great human values of prayer is that you face the facts about yourself and admit to what you want,” McCabe tells us, “and you know you can talk about this to God because he is totally loving and accepting.” This is why Jesus tells his followers to stop babbling like the pagans. This kind of prayer is an extraction exercise; stone and wood idols are impersonal amulets that intercede to reckless deities. The prayer Jesus offers to us makes space to come face-to-face with who we are and to deal with it plainly, alongside someone who loves us absolutely and unconditionally.
I have offered forthright prayers, prayers asking God to remove, by any means necessary, the government of my country. I have asked God to cause institutions to crumble and people to lose their jobs. I prayed these prayers in honesty, placing my anger before a holy God. And more often than not my prayers were not misplaced in their earnestness and longing for a world set right. At other times, my prayers of wrath, seething with demands for punishment and revenge, revealed that my own incoherent and blistering rage would do nothing to set me and others down in the renewed order of God’s creation. What I really wanted was pain. In these prayers, I reengaged the cyclical violence of perpetual struggle, only now on behalf of victims. But until I said the words aloud, until it was held before me, I could not see another way out.
One of the most difficult aspects of pastoral ministry for me has being alongside those who live with dementia. It is a terrible disease which seems to rob a person of their essence. Not only do they forget who their family and friends are they forget who they are.
I have sat with a university lecturer who cannot button up a shirt, a brilliant cook who could not remember what a spoon was and most poignantly a minister who had no remembrance of the church, the bible or Jesus.
This loss of self identity puts me in mind of the words of Jesus when he asked his disciple `”Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)
Much of the western worlds thinking about identity has been shaped by existentialists like Soren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre. (My sisters and brothers from other parts of the wold will have a different idea of identity.) They believed that a meaningful life involves being true to yourself.
To be true to yourself, you have to know who you are. Each time we confront dilemmas or challenges, struggle with disappointments or navigate heartache, we will either be true to ourselves or betray ourselves in what we do and how we do it.
As Christians, we share a common framework. You may not be a Christian, but I hope you’ll hang in there with what I’m about to say. Not because I’m trying to convince you to take up my faith tradition, but because I think that there’s something in it that stretches across a range of spiritual expressions.
In one sense, if the dementia sufferer cannot remember who they are we will remember for them. Sure, we may never know them exhaustively. Much of who they are may remain a mystery. But our love for them helps them to continue to be who they have always been, even if they themselves can no longer remember.
When He asked his friends “Who do you say that I am?”, Jesus was not testing whether they could recite some formula of orthodoxy. He was telling them something like this. “If you can see that I am the one who loves you no matter what, you’re going to get a sense of who you truly are: the Beloved.”
When we remember that we are the Beloved, we respond to the world in love. And this is the crucial bit, we all forget. At one time or another we forget that we are the Beloved.
And so we need each other. Our love for each other reminds us who we really are. The Beloved. But more than that. Sometimes we need the love of others to carry us when we forget until somehow, by grace, we come back to being ourselves at last.
When was the last time you said ‘I love you ‘, other than in the bathroom mirror! Just think about who the person was and what was their relationship to you.
Frequently we say I love you because you agree with me, because you belong to my family/group/church, because you are my ally and support me. Sometimes we say ‘I Love you’ even when your words and actions infuriate me (in those situations maybe we need to say ‘I love you’ more!). Don’t get me wrong, saying I love you to people in your social group is important but our love for others must stretch beyond those we like.
We will overcome prejudice, racism, homophobia and all forms of injustice only when we learn to say, “I love you because you are you.” To everyone.
A commitment to justice requires a devotion to and the pursuit of the common good. And in what may seem a contradiction, the good of the whole is rooted in our recognition of the infinite worth of each individual. Conversely, the worth of each individual is actualised only by the community’s commitment to the individual’s dignity.
As it turns out, this is a basic Christian principle. It is rooted in our doctrine of creation.
Drawing on the wisdom of Scripture, Medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas and John Duns Scotus emphasised that God’s love is the power that brought everything into being. That same love sustains the whole universe at every single instant.
Duns Scotus went on to say that each and every creature has a unique ‘thisness’. He called this its haecceity. (hek-see-aty)
In other words, God doesn’t just create humans in general. Or robins or daffodils or stars in general, for that matter. God creates each person as a singularity. None of us is interchangeable. Each of us is irreplaceable.
You, O best beloved, are you. There is no other. And you were made this way by the infinite love of the author of all things. God loves you because you are you.
Scripture also teaches us that we were created in the image of God. To be fully human is to love in a way that reflects the divine way of being: to love you because you are you.
In other words, I need my neighbour in order for me to be truly me. That’s because I am my true self only by loving my neighbour as myself. Remember, Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
It should come naturally to say, “I love you” not only because you are fearfully and wonderfully made by the same God who created the stars of the universe but also because you remind me more of myself than not. Of course, God knows as well as we do that it doesn’t come so naturally.
In other words, we still have work to do. We need to see ourselves in others as well as seeing the face of Christ in all those we meet.
Well it is Monday morning and the whole nation seems a little flat (unless you are Welsh Irish or Scottish). England didn’t quite win the European Championship, but they certainly lifted the nations mood.
One thing I will not miss is the constant, and often out of tune, rendition of ‘Three Lions on a Shirt’ (I much prefer ‘Sweet Caroline’!). A complaint that I have heard from Church members has been – Why can’t we sing at church like they do at the football?
If only! I wish people would sing in church like they do at the football match! So much passion and enthusiasm. Sadly many of the churches divisions have arisen of the style of worship allowed in the church. It is nothing new, Charles Wesley was criticised for using ‘popular’ tunes as settings for his hymns.
We can go back to King David and find the same disapproving of ‘inappropriate worship’. In 2 Samuel 6 we read how the Ark of the Covenant was moved from Baalah into Jerusalem. It must have been quite a spectacle as 30,000 men were involved, with singing and loud musical instruments. At the centre of the spectacle was King David dressed in a linen Ephod (his underwear?!) dancing with all his might.
His wife Michal was horrified by her husbands behaviour (nothing in life changes!). Michal’s complaint to David doesn’t sound too different from those I hear when Sunday’s “passing of the peace” becomes something more than a begrudged murmur of acknowledgment. Should Michal be understood as the first champion of traditional, decent-and-in-good-order worship? If so, she doesn’t come out of this incident as one whom God favours.
However we have to be careful in reading too much into this passage about the kind of worship that pleases God (as opposed to Michal’s dour preference), one only need remember the highly liturgical patterns that evolve in Jerusalem’s temple worship, a worship pattern that arguably bears David’s impress. One great story of exuberance does not a theology of worship make.
So what is there in this unique story? Supremely, just one thing: it’s a pitiful thing when we’ve gotten too prim, too proper, too stuffy to make merry before God when something wonderful occurs. The fact is you don’t bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem every other month. (Just as you don’t reach a major football final every week.) This is a momentous occasion and it deserves to be celebrated with silly party hats and horns and yes, even with the king doing a jig in his boxer shorts!
Over the years I’ve attended (and even planned) my fair share of church anniversaries and celebrations. The truth is most were less than “kick up your heels and shout hallelujah” occasions. There we were with a century or so of the faithfulness of God and people to remember, but a visitor might have mistaken it for one of those solemn assemblies Isaiah was underwhelmed by. On many of those occasions I knew enough about my fellow worshipers to know that they’d go bananas over their favourite football team, but put them in a church context and all the whoopee goes out of them. Why is that?
Well, put a positive construction on it first. Maybe we are restrained in church simply because here we see things through a different filter. It’s not so much that we aren’t as joyous as at the football, as that in church we recognise that life and all its blessings are interwoven with holy purpose. A late goal to win the match is one thing; a child’s baptism is another. Joy is appropriate on both occasions, but is it not a different kind of joy when by water and word a child of God is claimed for time and eternity? Maybe it’s not that our whoopee evaporates in worship; it just has a grateful hush of reverence about it. But granted that this is the case, there still remains the awkward possibility that most of us mimic David so seldom because we’ve lost touch with the grandness of what we are doing.
We mouse around because the wonder God’s love escapes us. I know it to be true, that there are Sundays when the Minister sleepwalks through the service—even when they seem most animated. A gauzy film of the theoretical shrouds the action. But there are those moments when the awesome, absurd good news of what we are about comes crashing in like waves on our stony shores. We can no more program those epiphanies than we can count the stars. But we can be careful not to stifle them, and we can be quick to give them glad permission to soften the eye, catch the voice, and lead us to make merry before God.
When I read this story of David’s enthusiasm without contrasting it with Jesus’ story of the elder brother who would not join his father’s party. It was a time to make merry, but the elder brother didn’t live like that, he seemed fixed with life being bound up with duty. How many children have given up on ‘Church’ because they were told they had to go to church and there was nothing attractive or joyful about the experience.
Grace, those lovely moments when the unexpected holy descend upon us, is a gift we are privileged to see every now and then. That’s the time to put aside the balance sheet and even the prayer book and to kick up our heels, and with body and soul make holy fools out of ourselves, dancing an Alleluia to the giver of all good and perfect gifts.
So as they say on the Strictly Come Dancing “Keep on dancing!” but you may want to wear a little more than King David!
In the middle of this years Methodist Conference there was a report presented which I suspect most people missed, given the interest in the vote on same sex marriage which made the national news!
The report I refer to is ‘Holy Communion and Online Worship’ (Report 39). During this period of lockdown we have been effectively deprived of Holy Communion as the present standing orders of the church prevented people joining in a service of Holy Communion at home over the internet. (The get out clause was to call it a Love Feast). Given this deprivation the Faith and Order Committee have begun a period of discernment as to the experience of online communion.
The Conference adopts a period of discernment from 1 September 2021 until 31 August 2024, in which presbyters and other persons authorised to preside at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper be permitted to lead celebrations of Holy Communion in which some or all of the worshippers gather together through electronic means, and directs all who preside at such celebrationsto consider prayerfully the guidance in this report in their preparation and conduct of them and to observe the parameters set out in paragraph 7.4
At the same time this was happening unnoticed in Methodism, Bishops in the Roman Catholic Church were arguing as to whether President Joe Biden (a life long Catholic) should be prevented from receiving the Mass because of his stance on abortion. That did make the national news.
The Methodist understanding of Holy Communion reflects a broad spectrum of opinion so what I share with you are my own personal beliefs about Communion. I know there will be those who disagree with me but I am OK with that.
As a Methodist I believe Communion is God’s gift, not the church’s gift. Methodists should never debate, as the Catholic church currently is, whether some individuals should be permitted access to the Table. Deciding who deserves to receive communion is beyond the job description of the church. The origins of Communion begin with God’s gracious character revealed in Christ. It does not begin or end with the church. This means the church does not get to refuse anyone the privilege of participating in God’s gift. We did not create communion. We, therefore, do not get to limit Communion. We do not even “take” Communion. We receive Communion. And our job is to help others also receive it. The church is a recipient of grace. We do not own grace. We do not restrict grace.
As a Methodist I believe that in Communion God folds the past and future into the present. This belief begins not with the nature of time, but in the nature of God. The past, present, and future all collapse in on each other because we worship a God who transcends time and makes one community out of all of us. God’s presence has been given to the people of God in all times and places. The past, present, and future are God’s eternal now. As God was present in the Exodus, so God is present now. As Jesus is present in the future new creation, so Jesus is present now. This presence, in fact, is not a symbolic presence. It’s a real presence. The God of all time has folded all moments into this moment and given us not symbolic presence but God’s active, passionate, attentive presence. So that also means we all participate in the Exodus story, the liberation of God’s people from the bondage of Egypt, sin, and death. That past event is brought into the present. We participate in the future resurrection and redemption of all things. That is, Communion brings God’s future restoration and new creation into the present. This also means that Communion makes us present to other believers who are also presently alive and receiving Communion. We are participating in divine grace as a Communion with believers in China, Russia, Fiji , Zimbabwe, and Palestine.
As a Methodist I believe the table is open to everyone. Our language is that we have “an Open Table.” No one is restricted from the Table. No one is too unworthy because no one was worthy to begin with. Will unworthy people receive Communion if we leave it open to everyone? Well, yes. But unworthy people receive Communion even when the Table is “closed” because no one is worthy to receive Communion. I remember early in my ministry being criticised for giving communion to children as ‘they don’t understand what they are doing’. I asked the critic to explain to me what was happening when they received communion. I received no further complaints! Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with Judas, who was soon to betray him. Jesus washed Judas’s feet that same night. Jesus knew beforehand that Judas would betray him, yet he was not kept from divine grace. If Jesus can wash Judas’s feet and receive him at the Table, who are we to restrict anyone from the Table?
As a Methodist I believe Communion is a work of grace into the lives of non-Christians. Even non-Christians can participate in the Communion moment. They may not become Christians that exact moment, but they do, nevertheless, participate in grace. And that grace can lead them to conversion. When we say our Table is “open,” we mean that no one — not a Buddhist, not a Muslim, not an Atheist, no one! — is kept from the Table. Communion is the moment when all of us, undeserving as we may be, find God’s grace given to us in tangible ways. The church doesn’t own Communion, so we don’t even get to restrict it to those inside the church. The God of all creation has gifted it, through Jesus, to all of creation.
The fatal stabbing of Dea-John Reid is nothing out of the ordinary. Just one of the 46,000 knife crimes that result in 300 deaths each year. For me whoever this was different, it didn’t take place in London or Glasgow or Manchester. It didn’t even take place in another part of the city of Birmingham. It happened in the middle of our circuit amongst people who are members of our churches.
As I reflected on the violence that surrounds us, some words from Richard Rohr came to mind. “If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.” To put this another way, violence is a misguided and self-defeating strategy for dealing with our pain. To reduce the violence in our world, we will have to deal with our pain differently.
Now, we might not like to admit it, but each of us has been bruised and battered, chipped and scraped by life. By impersonal circumstances but also by other people, and let’s be honest, by our very own precious little selves. And before any one says anything about loving church fellowships I can assure you a sharp tongue can wound as effectively as any knife!
Our pain gives rise to a hunger for justice. Things should be set right. Things need to be made right. And so, many of us fervently pursue justice. And, without intending to, we make things even worse.
Many of us are convinced that justice requires punishment. You have to balance the scales. Heap a proportionate amount of pain on those who have caused pain. You just have to find the right people to blame for the mess we’re in. That’s called retributive justice. But there’s a problem. Punishment does not heal pain. On the contrary, it creates new pain. And as a result, it perpetuates the very violence we’re trying to solve.
Does that mean as humans we are stuck in a perpetual circle of pain and violence? Well, no. Two thousand years ago God sent his son, Jesus, to break the power of sin and death – and pain and violence once and for all.
On the cross Jesus did not blame or curse any one for the pain he suffered. “Father forgive” were his only words.
Instead of looking for someone to blame in our suffering, we can set our sights on healing. This is restorative justice.
Restorative justice begins when we have compassion for each other. My pain is transformed when I stand in solidarity with the pain of another. So it was good that there were members of our circuit who stood with the community alongside the family of Dea-John Reid at the vigil following his death.
Again, as Richard Rohr says, “Those who agree to carry and love what God loves—which is both the good and the bad—and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves, these are the followers of Jesus Christ. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God uses to transform the world.”
Love is the only power that will transform our pain and deliver us from violence. Love is not easy. It isn’t even safe. But it is good. And in the end, love wins.