A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 23 August 2020, the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, by the Revd Jonathan Evens
Reading for this address: Romans 12. 1—8
The challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the use of lockdowns to prevent its spread and impact have created a set of additional challenges and debates about doctrine and practice for the Church. This week our newsletter cover written by Susannah Woodd includes reflections on the opportunities and challenges of living as one church body, whether online or in person. This is at the heart of the challenges and debates within the Church, as they are about the extent to which virtual gatherings are either an opportunity for renewal or a fundamental change to central elements of being Church.
Some argue that Christianity is a material religion involving physical gatherings in particular buildings in order to physically eat bread and wine that has been consecrated in the time and place of that meeting. Where this is a key understanding people have sometimes protested at the closing of church buildings, undertaken a Eucharistic fast during lockdown, celebrated the reopening of their church buildings and pointed out that, because of the digital divide, there are many who cannot access virtual Church. Those who have seen lockdown as an opportunity for renewal have pointed out that many who, for a variety of reasons, cannot access physical services in physical buildings often can access virtual church. Some in this situation were already meeting in virtual churches before lockdown began but had been overlooked and ignored. Additionally, they have argued that because we cannot share physical bread and wine together in virtual churches, the wider purpose of our gathering – being formed into the Body of Christ in order to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world – has become more apparent to us.
The letter that St Paul sent to Christians in Rome was sent at a time that has some parallels to our own situation today. Those to whom he was writing would have experienced restrictions on their movements. The Jews among them had been expelled from Rome towards the end of Claudius’ reign as Emperor and would only recently have returned. Paul, although he wished to visit Rome, was unable to do so and could only share remotely by letter with the Christians there, most of whom he had not met. When he did get to Rome later, it was not because he had travelled there freely but because he had been arrested and sent for trial. He was also writing to people without church buildings, who were meeting and celebrating the Lord’s Supper in their homes.
Although Paul longed to meet with the Christians in Rome but was unable to do so, the technologies of his time did allow him to share with them and he used those technologies to do so. The early Church also realised that the benefit gained by hearing the stories of Jesus told by those who met him, could be expanded and shared if those stories were written down and shared. The experiences of hearing testimony in person and hearing letters or stories read were different and the way in which gathering of Christians were held changed as a result. Yet, we would not have known of Christ had those changes not been made. It’s potentially no different today, in relation to our use of new technologies.
The beginning of Romans 12 is the part of his letter where Paul writes about worship and what is interesting is that he doesn’t focus on their gatherings (what we might call services), instead he focuses on their service (by which he means their day-by-day living out of their faith). He does so by writing about bodies and minds, Christians and churches.
He begins with our bodies which are to be offered to God. This is about the ongoing, day-by-day offering of the whole of our lives to God. Eugene Peterson in ‘The Message’, his paraphrase of the Bible, describes this as ‘your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life.’ We are called to live for God in all these aspects of life, 24-7, Monday to Sunday.
Doing so, is what Paul calls our worship and our service. So, worship is not described here in terms of a once a week gathering in whatever platform that takes place – actual or virtual – nor is it described in terms of daily gatherings or services. Instead it is described in terms of what results from those gatherings. That is, the Christian faith lived out in practice within our day-to-day lives. Were we to read further in this chapter, we would see Paul describing what that life looks like in practice; blessing those who persecute you, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep, living in harmony with one another, and much more.
Paul describes this in terms of the central act of gathering for worship in the Jewish faith at that time; sacrifice. He says that to live in this way is to be a sacrifice. In doing so he changes the understanding people had about sacrifice. Throughout Jewish history up until this point sacrifice had meant dying. Animals were slaughtered and blood shed as the means of giving thanks for blessing and to atone for wrongdoing. Paul, by contrast, talks about being a living sacrifice. He does so, because Jesus had already become the ultimate sacrifice; a sacrifice that does not need to be repeated. As a result, a different understanding of sacrifice was required. The Lord’s Supper – the remembering, celebrating and then taking of Christ’s body and blood into ourselves – is about forming those who gather into a body that takes Christ to others in the way that he came to us. That is to embody faith, hope and love by being with others and bearing their burdens by making their concerns ours.
Paul is saying that to be with others and to wash their feet, as Christ did, is now worship, service and sacrifice; all in one. He sees our gathering together as resourcing this in two ways. First, in order to offer our bodies in this way, our minds must be renewed, and our gatherings provide a context in which that renewal can begin. Second, we need to identify our gifting or contribution or place within the body of Christ. The part that we, as individual Christians, have to play in this moment can only be found and followed together, in the community of the Church.
As human beings we are as likely to: build walls that shut some out as bridges that bring people together; gather in tribes, races and nations in order to protect ourselves against others as to gather as rainbow peoples, inclusive and diverse; and create laws and regulations making some pure and other impure as to eradicate notions of purity and impurity. As a result, we need renewal of our thinking to more fully and more consistently model Jesus’ radical welcome of all by being with all. Our gatherings, where we retell and re-enact the stories of Jesus, are where this renewal of our minds and thinking can begin and where we can be both encouraged and challenged along the way.
Jesus embodied – lived out – radical welcome. It is not enough to talk about, discuss or debate, radical welcome; to be real, to be experienced, understood and received by others, it has to be lived. As Jesus is now with us virtually, through his Spirit, it is in our coming together as those who follow in his footsteps that he is embodied in our day and time, in the here and now. As Teresa of Avila said, it is we who are his hands and feet, his eyes and ears, within our world. Christ has no body now, unless we form that body.
His body though, is always corporate. None of us, by ourselves, can fully embody Christ and, therefore, Paul says that each of us needs to identify our role or gifting within the Body of Christ; the part that only we can play in a particular moment and time. This identification cannot be done in isolation but must come with an understanding of the ways in which the organisation of our gatherings may empower some and disempower others. In our community here, we have seen the way in which interacting virtually has enabled some of our number to share their gifts and take their place more fully because aspects of our physical gathering – like crowds or noise – that had previously restricted involvement or engagement were removed during lockdown.
The depth of our welcome and inclusion is measured by the extent of our understanding of those who are most on the edge. The way Paul described this in writing about the Body of Christ to the church in Corinth was, using Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase again: ‘God designed our bodies as a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.’
So where does all this leave us in relation to our current debates about the relative virtues of actual and virtual church? The places and ways in which we gather – whether actual or virtual – enable some to be included, while excluding others. In both settings we need to be more aware of those who are excluded, than those that are included. As Paul wrote about the different parts of the Body, the members of the body that are least noticed are those who are indispensable, and those least mentioned are to be treated with greatest respect.
Our worship and service is not so much about our times of gathering together but about our actions when we are not together. Our debates about actual and virtual gatherings will become more focused and more useful, the more they focus on the ways these gatherings form and fashion us to be the Body of Christ when we are not together but are still one Body. Our ability to be the Body of Christ in our generation, and at such a time as this, will only be realised as we prioritise our embodying of Christ over the varying and various ways in which we gather as Christians. As Susannah wrote living as one church body means continuing to rejoice in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer together.
And where does it leave us in relation to our gathering today? The question for us today is, what offering of ourselves will we bring? Something we are laying down or something we are taking up? I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Amen.