Sunday 9th August

‘Stepping Forward in Faith’

Dear Friends,

Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

It feels strange, this ‘undiscovered country’ – or the ‘new normal’, which some have termed it. I watched the BBC news the other evening with much concern and exasperation, and I see a world different to the one that we have been used to; a world of face coverings, victims of coronavirus and a complete uncertainty in the future. And I wonder, how does the church begin to respond?

One thing is certain, and that is for those of us who have accepted a life in Christ Jesus, there is a complete certainty – a hope and a salvation. What joy that brings!

Jesus’ narrative in Matthew 6:25-34 brings a hope of the coming Kingdom, and the instruction to “… seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” gives us a starting point in the affairs concerning the Kingdom of Heaven.

As the body of Christ, we have excelled in shrouding faith with religion and creating ceremony to govern our worship and traditions that have been passed from one generation to the next. So much so, that both our traditions and ceremonies (or ways of doing things in church) have guided our faith – and for many, both ceremony and tradition have become the kingdom in which our church communities sit. In order to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, perhaps the time is ripe to look beyond our traditions and familiar ways of doing things to see where God is calling us to respond next in a divided world full of people desperate for a peace that only the God of miracles can truly bring?

I was very excited this week after discovering a link on social media to the ‘New reality, same Mission: A stimulus to renewed community engagement as we emerge from the pandemic’ booklet produced by the URC. The booklet frames well the current situation and impact left by the Coronavirus and gives an excellent guide to how the church can respond. Through our charity work at ‘YES! Brixham’ and Youth Genesis, Katherine and I know all too well of the impact that the Coronavirus has had on people of all ages: the loss of jobs, isolation, loneliness, bereavement, hopelessness, poor mental health, increased domestic abuse, food poverty… And the list goes on. If the church is to respond, now is the time.

The new booklet offers many suggestions on how the church can respond; giving a clear hope and certainty! But, it may involve doing things differently to how we’ve done them before, or putting some of our traditions to one side in favour of working out God’s plan in reconnecting our churches with those who have lost hope. For some, reshaping our mission may involve putting ‘new wine into new wine skins’, but Jesus offers us a solution…

In Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5 we see a comparative of Jesus’ illustration of putting new wine into new wine skins; putting new wine into old wine skins will cause the old skins to burst! Only in the Luke synopsis does Jesus point out (in verse 39): “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’”

You see, this is where we are with our churches: no one after experiencing the old wants the new, for they tell us ‘the old is better’!! And I’ve personally heard it many times on my travels!

Firstly, we have been instructed by Jesus to seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness. Secondly, we need to keep the old wine in the old wine skins – our traditions are vitally important and provide a much needed vehicle to worship for many. Finally, we have an opportunity to do something new – to create ‘movement’ in the way that Jesus did followed by the Apostles and Saints – who, filled with the Holy Spirit, were called to do something new at the time!

Now is the time for us to do something new, but what is it that we are being called to do?

Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus commissions the disciples to “… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The commission is clear, but what does that look like in 2020?

We have an opportunity, through the Gospel, to bring certainty in an uncertain world, hope where there is despair and a peace where communities are divided. We have an opportunity to bring God’s kingdom to those struggling with unemployment, domestic abuse, poverty, hurt, grief, loneliness and physical and mental struggles.

Perhaps now is the time to consider the following:

1) Prayer – seek first God and His righteousness through prayer. In Luke 11 Jesus tells his disciples how to pray, saying: “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

Jesus continues in verses 9-10: “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

So the advice is: seek, ask and receive.

2) Explore how the church can support those in need, being realistic about the resources (building, people, finances, equipment etc.) at hand. Often, the resources we need are beyond the walls of the church, and working in partnership with others is often the way forward. The booklet gives some great ideas for how this can happen.

3) Being prepared to do something new. The booklet says (page 20):

A YouGov survey in April 2020 found that ‘only 9% of people in Britain want life to return to normal after the coronavirus outbreak is over’. Most people in the UK do not want to simply go back to life as it was before.

How can we work together collaboratively to create a fair and just society where every one of us can thrive? In this, it is especially important that we listen to the ideas of children and young people, who will probably be affected the most by the choices we as a society make today.

Society is wanting something new; as the church, are we ready to provide it in Jesus’ name?

A prayer for this tenth Sunday after Pentecost:

Father God, in a time of conundrum for many, we come before you now to seek your wisdom, grace and guidance;
We pray for a world surrounded in despair and uncertainty;
We pray for those who have lost hope or struggle on a daily basis facing challenges beyond comprehension;
We bring before you those whom we love; those whom we know are finding these unprecedented times difficult.

Lord God, you are the architect of all creation; you created the heavens and the earth; you put the stars in their positions; you designed every living creature.
We seek you to give us strength, through the power of your Holy Spirit, to bring peace and restoration to the order that you created;
For the lives that struggle, we ask that you pour out your miracles to bring a new hope and peace to many.

As Your Church, we pray that you inspire us to look beyond our comforts and see a new way of reaching out to so many souls who do not know Your Son Jesus Christ.
These prayers we offer in the name of Jesus, AMEN.

Bless you all – and keep the faith.

Jonathan Oliverio