Let us pray:
Faithful God, you gather us into fellowship through Jesus Christ. Strengthen us with every spiritual gift, that we may be transformed in love together with all who call upon the name of the Lord in every place. Amen.
It’s a long time since I was in Sunday School here at St. Martin’s. When I was young, all the children who were not yet confirmed were expected to leave the service to attend classes in the parish hall or downstairs in the former nursery. The hope then, as now, was that through Bible stories, teaching, and socialization, we would learn how to be good Christians. Apart from a few familiar hymns and the inevitable flannel boards, I don’t remember much of this early training. What does stand out in memory is the time I was asked to leave the table of my class for being cheeky. In the midst of a lesson on the days of Creation, I had asked what day God made the dinosaurs. I didn’t get an adequate answer, and knowing what a brat I was, I probably pressed the point. Back then, children didn’t have much of a choice until they reached the age when they could decide whether to be confirmed in the faith. After that, many of my peers left.
There are many good and kind people who probably benefited from their exposure to Christian teaching as children. How many of them are now regular attenders in a faith community? We can mourn the loss of the “glory days” when Sunday schools were full, but there are some factors that we need to remember. One is that there was much more societal pressure to attend church in past generations, in a culture that identified Christianity with being a good citizen and neighbour. A second is that families were much larger then than now: a few families with four or six kids could populate a parish in a way that is much more numerically difficult when families have one or perhaps two. But a third reason, and one I think doesn’t get enough consideration, is that we have been remiss about Christian formation for adults. A model that relies on education for children with confirmation as a graduation rite misses the richness of the Christian community. We all belong to a school for transformation.
This morning when the bell rang for the service, it was a school-bell calling you back again to Sunday School. Our baptism is the doorway, and when we enter in we become part of a place of higher learning. Through what we do together as a gathered community, we become more fully human. It takes practice; we are not perfect. But each time we pray and praise and are renewed through God’s presence among us, we are strengthened to go back out into the world to love again.
Perhaps for some people it is possible to perfect what they learned as a child so that they can live out their lives in compassion and justice without the support and encouragement of other people of faith. I am certainly not that person. I need to know the love of God through engagement with others to keep me honest and humble. I need to be reminded that there is always something that I don’t know, that God uses others to teach me, and that I am not alone in suffering and persistence for the kingdom.
The early Church had the same struggles as we face today. They were small communities, divided by understandings of the gospel, pressured by the culture around them, trying to hold onto what was good and finding ways to draw others to the faith. Paul, in his letter to the followers of Jesus Christ in the Greek city of Corinth, opens by reassuring them that God is transforming them when they gather together. In verses 5-7, he is speaking just as much to us here today:
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind- just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Now wait a minute, you may be thinking. What does that letter written long ago have anything to do with St. Martin’s? Paul, that early Church leader, is pointing out that the very act of Christians gathering together opens the way for the Spirit to work through them. He calls them saints! He says that they are being sanctified- made holy- in Christ Jesus as the Church. So what is happening in their communal lives that is transforming them? The rest of his letter goes on to outline the ways that a healthy community stays at school together.
The same sources of transformation that the early Church discovered still help with living fully human lives. I want to share some of them with you, taken from a model used by many Anglicans that comes from the Diocesan School for Parish Development.
One way of describing the primary task of a Christian community is to point to our work as disciples. Together we are to GATHER as those called by God into Christ’s body, we are to BE TRANSFORMED in mind, heart and action by our experience in community, and we are SENT out into the world to act as God’s loving and transforming presence.
This is the work of the whole community. Ordained and lay leaders can coordinate and encourage, but every person is involved in God’s plan. Not only are we to gather, be transformed, and sent; we are engaged in the ministry of gathering others, practising what it means to be part of the body of Christ, and equipping and partnering with others so that we engage in the world’s renewal. The congregation grows towards God’s realm of reconciliation, forgiveness, courage, justice, peace, and hope as individuals live out their baptismal purpose.
Demonstration of mobile with assistance from parishioners