Adversity builds Community


Acts 16:16-34 & John 17:20-26
Sunday after Ascension

One of those ‘busy’ weeks for news: the three women found imprisoned in Cleveland, Syria with Israel’s increasing involvement, Church of England statement re numbers, the opening of parliament, Queen not going to the Commonwealth meeting in Sri Lanka, Alex Ferguson retiring, the woman found alive in the ruins of the Bangladeshi earthquake 17 days later, the Bevin boys memorial. The latter was of great significance to me because most of the hundreds of funerals I’ve conducted have been for Bevin boys.

Many of you will know, and probably be fed-up with me recounting, about the friendliness, warmth and community spirit in my last parish. Never-the-less it is a fact and probably true of most mining communities for they have much to bind them together: the axing of the railways, the closure of the pits, mining disasters and the stigma associated with being a ‘Bevin Boy’. In effect its true that adversity builds a stronger community.

Here in Willingham as a result of the diocese requiring us to have a Mission Action Plan the PCC have requested that this year we seek to develop a sense of community within our church fellowship.

Perhaps the Church, like coal mining villages, needs an element of adversity? If so I’d say that in fact, the Church in general has adversity-a-plenty, whether we might appreciate it or not is another matter! Things like Bible believing Christian’s problems with gay marriage – and the mistaken attacks on us. The knocking of Christianity, cost of running a church, building problems etc.

The demise, and belittling, of the Christian faith with resultant increases in persecution against us might well make us angry, upset or annoyed. Some may choose to ignore it but the reality is that we should, really, expect it. We are in a phase now, I believe, where we are moving from over-riding apathy about our faith to distinct antagonism.

We would do well to think on the fact that if Jesus had to put up with it why do we think we can escape it? Maybe we should embrace it even as a sign of our authenticity? People’s apathy to our faith hasn’t got us anywhere, maybe some antagonism is what we need? Churches that have suffered great persecution in countries such as Russia, China etc have seen their greatest growth spring from the resultant strength coming from underground churches. It has been a necessary evil.

The problems springing from another underground activity, coalmining, definitely produced much good in the strength of the community standing together when under attack.

Jesus, in this morning’s gospel passage prays a great prayer at that last meal He had with his friends the disciples. He prays they will be one in Him as He is one with the Father. BUT, did you notice He wasn’t just praying for that group of disciples then, he was also praying for all future disciples – for us too. Jesus prays to His Father that we may be united in Him. Its a great truth that ‘united we stand, divided we fall’. The Church, at large, divided today is an example of this truth.

Jesus, as a member of the Trinity, knew the importance of community. There is within the Godhead a community, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God made us to be in a relationship with Him and with other people. The Christian faith IS, like it or not, relational. Strength comes from it.

And, oh boy, do we need strength when we have to withstand attacks from the devil. Again, I say, don’t switch off when I talk about the devil. I usually see eyes glazing over at his mention. Many think it is stuff and nonsense. Trust me. It isn’t.

I can tell you from experience that our reading from Acts was a good example of the reality of the devil. Paul and Silas silenced a woman speaking with a power and gift that came from the devil.

The immediate effect was their beating and imprisoning but the follow-on effect was of a whole family coming to faith and being baptised. This happened because the jailor was amazed that, despite the earthquake breaking the prisoner’s chains and knocking down the prison walls, they hadn’t made an attempt to escape. It is pretty amazing isn’t it? Think about it.

Why didn’t they escape? Because they were in Christ. Nothing, neither beatings or imprisonment, could take away their surety that IN Christ they have eternal life. Eternal life. Something which isn’t wholly in the future, it begins in the here and now and goes on forever. Something which isn’t just about length of life but is about quality of life. Life, Jesus said, in ALL its fullness and worth more than anything else.

I’m immensely pleased that the Bevin Boys have at last gained public recognition of their wartime service under-ground. But this pleasure is a VERY mixed one because I am also immensely saddened that, for most of the Bevin Boys I buried, they neither knew nor know anything of this Eternal Life. They knew the horrors of working underground but because of the church’s apathy, and divisions (e.g. church versus chapel, mine’s owners privileged seats in church etc) they knew / know nothing of the new and eternal life they could have in Christ. They died without the assurance of heaven which is the right of every Christian.

We need a stronger church. We need to be a community united against the works of the devil. We need to be a community united in standing for Christ and His teachings. We need to be a community united IN Christ in order to stop more people from dying an eternal death but of living an Eternal Life in all its glory.

One of the early Church Fathers, Iraneus said ‘the glory of God is a human being fully alive’. This is quite a well-known statement. It is a wonderfully true statement IF you understand it correctly! It isn’t about some kind of glorious personal and selfish self-fulfillment. It is about the divine grace that comes from our being ‘IN’ the living Christ who is the only way to salvation. The only true self-fulfillment is to be sought in obedience to the lordship of, and communion with, the living Christ. Genuine fulfillment of self is expressed in forgetfulness of self and in the love of others as shown by the Saviour of the world.

The way this is indicated to the world is by our Baptism. A public acknowledging that we have become one with one another in Christ’s death. And this of course is what the jailor and his family did by immediately becoming Baptised.

And there’s a rather lovely link here with other readings that could be used in the lectionary that the Church has set for today. The gospel reading we had with Jesus praying for us to be one was set directly after the foot-washing. Another reading we could have had comes from Ezekiel 36.24-28 "I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God."

And from Revelation 22 we hear Jesus say from heaven that He is the first and the last, the beginning and the end. He says that the Spirit and the bride (Church) say, "‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift." All of those readings have the link of water. Which explains what we are about to sing (Jesus put this song) because the chorus speaks of the turning of our tears of sadness into rivers of joy. We will then sing an assurance of our heavenly inheritance (There’s a place).