General Synod: Come for all now is ready

I’ve commented before that you can tell almost all you need to know about a Christian community by the way that they invite people to communion.

Yesterday, General Synod started to meet in Edinburgh and by some distance the most significant theological statement came, not in the debates about how we will talk about same-sex couples and marriage, not in the considerable theological reports that we had but in a tiny little exchange used in the liturgy.

Come all people: this is Christ’s table to which all are invited.
Come, for all is ready.
Thanks be to God.

Now, the reason this is significant is that this isn’t what we usually say in church. This isn’t what is part of the regular liturgy.  So far as I could tell, it was used yesterday at the Synod Eucharist simply by the sanction of the nodding of seven bemitred heads gathered around the altar.

It was a joy to me to find such a thing said.  I’ve believed this way for quite some time.

In St Mary’s we say, ‘everyone is welcome to Communion in this church’. Occasionally I get people asking whether we really mean it and I always say ‘You bet we do!’

Now the thing is, it is uncommon. Some churches make theological demands – all those who are trinitarian Christians are welcome to receive the bread and wine.  For others, one sacrament acts as both a barrier and a key to another – all those who have been baptised are welcome to receive communion. Still others make Church membership the key.  And for others still it is good behaviour,  for example, the terrifying – all who are in good standing with their church are welcome…

Yesterday at our set piece Eucharist when we are all on show and amongst ecumenical and interfaith friends, we said that it was for all people. It was hugely significant and hugely welcome.

But the thing is, liturgy changes us.  That’s part of the idea.

If we say things like this then it will change what we do.

The church is currently debating whether to change what we do with regards to marriage.  Is it open to straight couples or in fact something that is open to any couple?  Are gay people fully accepted as God’s children, whose relationships God will bless or not?

We’ve got to the stage of discussing that seriously at last.  This isn’t my conversation any more.  It felt like that for years. Now it is the church’s conversation.

If we start to behave in the Eucharist as though the gifts of God are for everyone then there must be rising hope that we will apply the same to all our sacramental thinking.

The debate is happening.  Real change is possible.  It started most particularly in that little exchange at the mass.

Come all people. Yes, come all people.

That’s the kind of church I want to belong to.
Thanks be to God.

Sermon preached on 7 June 2015

St Mary’s is a special place for all kinds of reasons.

This place is a joy and a wonder and it is a place where I really enjoy preaching.

I almost never come away from a Sunday or a feast day without feeling moved, inspired and thankful for the worship that we manage offer here together. And that’s a wonderful thing for a priest. Too many clergy, I suspect, conduct worship which doesn’t really excite them and which they wouldn’t go to if they didn’t have to.

But not me. This is a special place.

Just occasionally, Sunday’s can be a bit more stressful than you hope they will be. And what I have in mind this morning is the very occasional times when someone has taken ill during the course of the service.

Now, the thing is, different churches deal with that in different ways. The best organised churches have someone at the door all ready to call an ambulance if one is needed.

Here in St Mary’s, what usually happens is that a perfectly formed medical team seems to instantaneously form around the person who is laid low.

I remember on one occasion someone leaning over to me and asking whether they should call 999 and my response was that they could do but there was much more chance of the person seeing an A and E doctor quickly here than actually at A and E.

On one Sunday someone rather dramatically told me that someone in the congregation had died in church and asked me to bring the holy oil to anoint them. I sent for the oils and rather tentatively approached. As I did so, I found the “corpse” sitting up and fighting people off with the words, “Will someone get all these doctors away from me”.

Not only is there suddenly a bunch of medics all set to do what they can but right behind them there seems to come a team of trained counsellors all ready to step in to offer comfort and concern to anyone who needs it.

It is all very St Mary’s.

I feel as though this morning’s gospel is a bit of an accident and emergency this morning.

• Jesus’s family thinking he has completely lost the plot and needing saving from himself.

• This line about the sin against the holy ghost that can never be forgiven.

• And then Jesus comprehensively rejecting his mother and siblings.

It is a tricky piece for any preacher.

And if we had all the time in the world, I’d tell you to get into groups and try to sort it all out. And you know what I’d do, I’d have a group of medics trying to work out what was wrong with Jesus over here. And a bunch of psychiatrists over there trying to work out whether his issues with the devil were psychological ones.

And the team of trained therapists could move in on the business with him rejecting his family. Some might want to spend time with Mary and his siblings trying to help them deal with his rejection and some might want to give Jesus himself a good listening to.

And I think we could probably manage a team of theologians in another corner to try to work out the stuff about blasphemy against the holy ghost and to say what all that was about.

And when they fell out about what that means, as I think it is probably inevitable that they would do because (trust me on this) no-one really knows what it means, we could send the counsellors over to that corner to help them listen more effectively to one another and do a little emergency pouring of oil on troubled waters.

And then those who are in management might raise the question of problem solving in multi-disciplinary teams and suggest a significant reorganisation of resources.

But by this stage we might have the justice and aid network forming themselves over in one coffee corner to remind us that blasphemy is a serious business in some parts of the world and people can be killed simply for being accused of blasphemy and asking whether or not we can have a forum speaker about this very important issue and reminding us that some in this very congregation come from those very countries and that all local issues are global issues and all global issues are local ones.

And then you might get the lesbian and group having a subversive bible study group in another corner and having a very long conversation about the idea of first tying up the strong man in order to plunder his house and asking whether or not that is a prophecy of the overthrow of hetero-normative sexist homophobic society and whether or not we are about to usher in the commonwealth of God where all it justice and joy. And peace and light will appear to break out until someone suggests that this means we need to change from speaking about the kingdom of God to speaking about the queendom of God.

And then we’ll need the team of trained counsellors and therapists all over again. And the musicians could come up with a chant on the important text, “Blessed are the peacemakers”.

And pretty soon the God Factor people zoom into action to gather the questions that the congregation might have about the gospel of the day. And they’d be busily putting them all up on a sticky label wall so we can all see one another’s questions and then we would add more questions on top of the first questions. And it would never be too late to ask another question because accepting the questions is what it is all about.

And then, this being St Mary’s, you’ll get some smart alec preacher in the pulpit going on and on about Jesus rejecting his mother and siblings and wondering whether this means that it is time for single people to remind those who live in couples and families that Jesus seemed pretty decisively to reject their way of life. And thanking God we don’t have family services here in St Mary’s because we’re a church for everyone.

And on hearing this, the therapists decide they will work most effectively running a triage system and employing their talents to those who are most in need. And they split themselves into teams that quickly get to work here, here, here and here.

And all the while, the poor gospel is lying there gasping for breath and saying, “All I wanted to do for you people was to bring you a bit of life”.

So.

What will we really take away from hearing it today?

Can I suggest three little things.

Firstly,

That God’s compassion is so exciting that when it is found in Jesus it draws a crowd.

And as a congregation we need to be ready for that to happen.

Secondly, that God’s compassion is disruptive of our expectations and of our identities. And as the people of God we’d better be ready to be able to learn more about the expansive love of God than we already know. (And if we can’t do that we’re not the people God wants us to be).

And finally – that God’s compassion comes to us as individuals. The love of God doesn’t come because of who we think we are – neither by profession nor, as this gospel teaches us via family or friends. This is not the news that Jesus regards his mother and siblings as unimportant. It is the better news that he regards every one of us as being just as close and loved by himself as as all of them.

Because God loves us each, utterly and forever. And in God’s world, no-one comes first and we all belong to another.

And after the service you can get into your teams and discuss the sermon.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.