Human history is a great story of events that have changed people and places for ever. From the moment of creation this world and everything in it is ever changing. Nothing can or should remain the same. The story of the OT shows us the upheavals of God’s people – flood, exile, famine, promise, and each time there is change God is in the middle of it. In 1972 there was a seismic change when two minor denominations of the UK church chose to amalgamate (the first to do so since the Reformation!) to become the URC. That means that next year we shall celebrate our Golden Jubilee. We have not quite yet lived up to our desire “to seek ever wider union until the whole church of Jesus Christ is one” because the time is not yet right. But we keep to our ecumenical vision in as many ways as we can, and look back on our roots and traditions with pride.
But January is not just a time for looking back. The Roman god of January – Janus – has two faces, one looking back at what has been, and the other looking forward for a vision of what is to come. I think we could be forgiven this year for not really wanting to look back too much to 2020, but I think in order to see the future clearly we must, and we must see what a seismic shift there has been in the Church world-wide. We are not now the same as we were twelve months ago – and we should now be ready to build on the vision we have been given of how the church might move forward. Let’s be honest – many churches of all denominations have struggled with falling numbers, less ministers and in spite of national initiatives, a lack of clear vision and forward thinking. 2020 has been a year where we have been forced to stop and take stock. In a first for many of us our church buildings have been closed (previously in times of crisis they have been the pivot of our hopes and prayers!) We have had to become creative about our meetings and our worship. Ministers have produced their sermons as reflections for people to receive and ponder on. The internet has become vital to us. 2020 is the year that our buildings became less important and our communities more so. Last year was the year when we could worship any day of the week, when we could replay bits of the service, when we could switch off and start again.
When John wrote the prologue to his Gospel he linked it by its opening words to the beginning of the story of the Jewish people. “In the beginning” is the start of both stories; “In the beginning God” and “In the beginning the Word” links that Word becoming human that we have heard and sung about (quietly!) for the past ten days. The birth of Jesus was also a seismic event – and yet it passed many people by, because they didn’t know it was happening. In their desire to get the census over and life to return to what was normal under Roman rule, they were not looking for fulfilment of prophecies, but for life to resume.
In our search for sense and meaning in the peculiar times we have lived through it will be important that we do not fail to see the significance for us of what God is leading us towards. We must strive to use all we have learned this past year about being the Church so that we never return completely to what we were. As ever God gives us free choice. Once the virus is under control, once the scientists stop frightening us and the Government returns to other things we could too easily retreat into our buildings and go on as we have been doing. But as we have learned over and over in this crisis just because we could does not mean we should! Our mission as Christ’s church is to spread the Gospel. This year we found that there are other ways besides the church buildings. In the past many churches have prioritised the fabric of the church over the mission. (More time is spent choosing the colour of paint for the ladies’ loo than on how we are to spread God’s love and care outside our buildings.) Mission, I was told early in my ministry, is the work of the minister. No, it’s not! Mission is the work of every single believer. Mission is every church’s priority. With what we have learned this year we have the means to recharge the Church, to change our way of doing things, to reach people we have never reached before. We can be a new sort of church – a community of people using the buildings to further our mission to others.
I like and admire the strapline used by Glenorchy – “Within these walls let no-one be a stranger” Whoever thought it out put it into just enough words. And yet, in the light of where God has led us this past year, maybe we will need to rethink it? Maybe in this new vision we have it could become “Let no-one be a stranger – within or outside these walls.
May God continue to bless us with vision and hope and courage to become what God is showing us we can be – starting now.