Readings: Acts 9:36-end, Revelation 7:9-end, John 10:22-30
The contemporary Greek Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas wrote in his masterly work, Being as Communion, “ The most important question for ecumenical activity and theology in the twentieth century was ‘What is the Church’ but the most important question in the twenty-first century will be ‘What is the human Person’? I believe this to be profoundly true, and would like to speak about the Church and the Human Person as we prepare to renew our Mission Action Plan next month. This is also an invitation to any who wish to join us in that important exercise.
Firstly, What is the Church? For ecumenical work, that’s to say Christian churches working together, the twentieth century was a mixed bag. The 1960’s to the 1990’s saw rapid progress in formal ecumenical agreements between churches at official level, and increasing co-operation at the local level. The 1990’s onwards saw an equally rapid retrenchment of positions in many areas, so that we find ourselves now in what has been called the ecumenical winter. Previous high hopes of formal progression in agreement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches in some formal senses did not achieve the high hopes which were held for it, but there also signs of much more close working agreements. A recent meeting of those of us who work in the ecumenical field, was asked to identify one positive and lasting contribution that the ecumenical movement had made to the life of the churches in the twentieth century. We identified one - the recovery of the sense of baptism as the foundational sacrament from which all else flows. So in the liturgical re-ordering which we did here at St John’s, one of the features that has inspired outside expert advisers is the relocation of the Font. This relocation was its third position in St John’s, a Church that was known in the past for the boldness of its liturgical re-arranging, and for its ecumenical work. The Font is equidistant between the two porches as the first and most striking liturgical and architectural feature of this church. This speaks of the centrality of baptism, and baptism as the source of all ministry in the church and the world, as well as making the obvious point that coming into the Church is by way of the Font. It speaks too of the inclusion of all, through baptism, in the vision of heavenly worship, as we heard in the reading from the Revelation to John. So here, in the twenty first century, the twentieth century rediscovery of the centrality of baptism as our answer to the question “ What is the Church? “
This leads to the urgent and burning question, “What is the Human Person?” A Christian anthropology answers that the human person is built for both community and worship in order to be truly human. It was the second century church father Irenaeus who said “ The glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” This Christian anthropology would identify that to be fully human and fully alive is to be connected to others, through worship of God and love of neighbour. Again the readings of the Easter season all demonstrate this joined up new life of the Resurrection community. Today, we heard the account of Peter’s raising of Tabitha from the dead demonstrating this, as well as the reading from John’s Gospel that the sheep hear Christ and follow him in this new life. The Resurrected Christ says to his community – as we have shared the resurrection experience together, so now you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue my work. In other words – it’s now down to you, it’s now down to me, it’s now down to us, to get on with the job in hand. This is faithfulness. If as a Church we do not believe that the Holy Spirit is leading us into all truth, and that the Spirit is present in our doings, than we may as well pack up and go home. Every believer and every church needs to believe this, that the Holy Spirit is living and active in each one of us and corporately leading us into the future. The emphasis in this Easter season is the new life of Resurrection making us fully human, empowering us to worship, and connecting us to each other. This is the answer to the question of Zizioulas, “ What is the human person.”
It is these two questions, what is the Church, and what is the Human Person, which churches have expressed since earliest times through their architectural and liturgical arrangements. They have certainly been the motivating force of the early radical re-arrangements of the interior of this church, St John’s. In the late nineteenth century, under the influence of the Tractarian movement, which was answering both questions, what is the church, what is the human person, the interior of this Church was dramatically re-ordered in the 1880’s. The organ was moved from the western gallery to accompany worship led by a robed choir behind me in the chancel, and an eastward facing celebration of Holy Communion with vested Eucharistic ministers. These were very significant changes with very different theological emphases. In the 1960’s, roughly 80 years later, further dramatic liturgical re-arrangement was carried out under the influence of the Parish Communion movement. Through good liturgy, we connect with each other and with God better. So this is part of our answer to the question of Zizioulas in the twenty-fist century that the human person is a connected person – connected to each other, and connected to God. The early church Fathers said, “ Your life and your death is with your neighbour.” This must be the central driving force of all theological and pastoral work in the twenty first century as we rediscover our connectedness with God and with each other through high quality, inspiring, uplifting and transforming worship. This is the vision which leads, and without vision, as we know, the people perish.
As a Church, we make choices, and we plan for the future in faithfulness. Nothing else will sustain us. We believe that it is the Spirit of God who accompanies us in the journey forwards – this strengthens and comforts us, especially when times are hard. What is the New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles which we read in this Easter period, but a record of that? And when the Spirit is living and active, the Church changes. We have experienced this particularly in this Church of St John in recent years, when the Church has changed rapidly so that in many senses, it is a totally different Church from the one it was. How could it be otherwise? For us, this has been accentuated by the structural and demographic changes in the make up of London, especially this bit of it. So I salute the faithfulness of people who have stuck with these many changes in the character and make up of who and what we are. I salute too, those who make up what we now are. One of the many encouraging signs for us right now is not only our growth, but also the fact that we are more reflective of the rich diversity of London, especially this cosmopolitan, diverse, and mobile part of it. Through it all, remains the faithfulness of the people of God, day in day out, as we go about our work often unseen and unsung.
I thank you, brothers and sisters in Christ, for being part of the ongoing story of faith in this place. The contribution to the life of this Church, which every person makes in good faith, is hugely valued. Each and every one of us is valued by God as we answer the questions, “ What is the Church? What is the human person?” All of us together are given the mandate to get on with showing the answer to these questions, empowered by the Holy Spirit, in the new life of the Resurrection. We answer the question, what is the Church and what is the Human Person, by the quality of our life together as a worshipping community, as we say Thank God for the past, and “Yes” to God’s present and future.