July 1, 2012

 

ON MAINTENANCE AND MISSION

                                                       Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                                at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 1 July 2012
 
                                                          Reading for the Epistle: II Corinthians 8: 7-15

 

We are so used to “going to Church”, by which we mean going to a special building furnished in a particular way, that we forget that for the first three or four centuries of its existence the Church possessed not one church building.  And, moreover, it got on very well without such buildings.  Indeed, it did so well that it grew from a small sect in a small corner of the Roman Empire into the practised religion of the Emperor himself.  The focus of Christians in those days, when they spoke of building the Church, was on adding members to the Body of Christ.

Mark you, in those days congregations were small, perhaps ten or twenty people only, and they met in one another’s houses.  What came to be called the Eucharist or Holy Communion was little more than a pot-luck supper, for which the members of the congregation offered joyful thanks – the meaning of the Greek word, Eucharist – and then shared together – the meaning of the Latin word that gives us our word “Communion”. 

As there was no church building, there was no need for such things as building funds and building committees.  Any funds collected were put in a common pool to meet the needs of poorer members of the fellowship and of any Christians who were passing through the town where the congregation met.  That sounds something like our modern-day Rector’s Discretionary Fund.  Sometimes news would arrive of some sort of disaster in another community, and then the local congregation would have a special collection just for that purpose. 

As we read the epistles in the New Testament, especially those ascribed to Paul and John, we see there were no paid clergy as we know them, although the writer of I Timothy thought that there should be.  There were individuals who took responsibility for organizing things, and seeing to it that the sick and the shut-ins were not neglected.  Paul refers to such people as diakonoi, which is a Greek word that gives us our word, “Deacons”.  There were recognized leaders in these congregations, variously called episkopoi, our word “Bishops”, or presbyteroi, our word “Presbyters” and the origin of the English word, “Priests”.  The two terms appear to be interchangeable to describe these people.  Episkopoi is the Greek word for “Overseers”, while presbyteroi is the Greek word for “Elder” or “Senior”, even “Senator”.  If Paul’s descriptions of the congregations in Rome are anything to go by, bishops, priests and deacons could be of either gender.  So too with the congregations with which the person we call John was associated.  His second letter is addressed to a woman who headed up a congregation of believers, while her sister did the same in another town.  His third letter is addressed to a man, Gaius, who headed up another congregation. 

Not every congregation had its own preacher or teacher.  If a person was passing through the community he or she might be invited to give a testimony, as we might call it, and we see frequent occurrences of this in Acts of the Apostles when men like Paul and Barnabas were invited to address the members of the community.  Instead of sermons there were corporate Bible studies when someone would read something out of the Greek version of the Old Testament – in those early days there was no such thing as the New Testament.  Then everybody would be given a chance to comment on the passage read.

No one wore special garments and there were no such things as liturgical colours for the different seasons.  Indeed it is doubtful that there were specific seasons as we have come to know them.  These arose in the fifth century and later.  So there were no such groups as altar guilds or florist guilds worrying about what colour should be used on any given occasion. 

Given the smallness of the groups, there was no need for choirs and organists – well, organs had not yet been invented – and there were no hymnals as there were no Christian hymns.  Instead they used the Psalter and some of the other poetic-like material in the Old Testament.  Someone might write a poem and then read it to the others and someone else might come up with a song-like verse or two. It was only in a much later era that the hymns that we know today came to be written.

Without a church building there were no church grounds, and so no one had to maintain those grounds.  We read of baptisms, but these took place once a year, at the Easter season, and in secret in a river or the sea.  There were no Christian weddings and funerals, and so no elaborate affairs associated with such ceremonies.  In any case weddings and funerals were civil affairs, and so did not need the presence of a Christian minister, bishop, priest or deacon.

And if that sounds all very different from the way in which we do things, then perhaps it is about time to ask why we do things in the way that we do.  And perhaps just as important to ask where our focus is today.  

We had an interesting exchange of opinions in our most recent Vestry meeting.  It just cropped up as the meeting went along, but it is a debate that is carried out in every Vestry in every parish that I have ever known, and talking to my colleagues, Episcopalian and otherwise, it is a debate that goes on whenever and wherever the business of the Church is discussed.

All too often we get bogged down in maintenance issues concerning property and its management, that we forget what is the mission of the church as we read about it in the New Testament.  Indeed, it is my experience that vestries find it almost impossible to come up with a mission statement, let alone a vision statement, for their parishes.  We get bogged down in buildings and what goes on in those buildings, forgetting that Jesus and the Apostles never once built a church building.  When they spoke and wrote about building the Church it was in terms of mission to fulfil the vision of a Universe, let alone just the World, singing the praises of God because everyone knew in their own lives the freedom, the liberty of the children of God.  The New Testament writers talk about God dwelling in the hearts of believers, and Jesus speaks of dwelling in the midst of those who believe.  The Temple was not something made by the hands of men, but by the Spirit of God within believers, men and women.           

Let me close with a comment on vision and mission.  We have been given a vision, of a World won for Christ, a World which will be filled with the Glory of God as the waters cover the Sea.  We have been given a mission to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel.  All our endeavours, then, need to be focussed on that God-given Vision and that Christ-given Mission.  As Jesus once said very plainly, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and everything you need will be provided.”  Let me suggest that it is more than time that we took him at his Word, for, after all is said and done, he is the Word of God.

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