A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on November 7, 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: John 10: 10-15
If I were to ask you the two dates that were most important in the story of St Martin-in-the-Fields, I wonder which you’d choose. Maybe 1726, the dedication of this current building. Maybe 1914, when Dick Sheppard became vicar, and our emphasis on being with people on the edge began. Maybe 1958 with the foundation of the Academy, or 1987 with the formation of the Enterprise. They’re all good suggestions. But I’m going to choose two different ones. I’m going to suggest 337 and 1853.
The year 337 is when St Martin met a beggar in Amiens. Why is that such a significant day? Because until that moment, the Christianity that spread from the tiny communities around the Mediterranean and up into Europe, and eventually became the religion of the Empire in the early fourth century, had largely assimilated into the prevailing cultural assumption that you had no obligation to those beyond your kinship group. Even the words of Matthew 25 about when I was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick were read as referring only to those within the community of faith. Martin reaching out to a total stranger started a revolution. Today St Martin-in-the-Fields is famous for working with those who have no home, no reliable relationships, nowhere to turn. We take for granted that we walk with people regardless of how they’ve got into trouble or whether they’d had anything to do with us before. We seldom ask when people started thinking like that. Well, the answer’s 337 AD. It was St Martin that started it.
So why 1853? Well in 1853, the Professor of Moral Theology at King’s College London, Frederick Denison Maurice, was dismissed from his post. He’d published a book called Theological Essays, in which the final chapter was called ‘On Eternal Life and Eternal Death.’ F.D. Maurice argued that the notion of an eternal hell was incompatible with belief in the infinite love of God. He said these memorable words: ‘I am obliged to believe in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death: I dare not lose faith in that love. I sink into death, eternal death, if I do. I must feel that this love is encompassing the universe. More about it I cannot know. But God knows. I leave myself and all to [God].’ Like St Martin’s gesture, but perhaps even more so, it’s impossible to overestimate the significance of these words. Because the church for most of its history had devoted itself to saving people from eternal hell and communicating Christ’s offer of eternal life. Maurice was suggesting something different: he was saying the purpose of the church is to model today what life with God will be like forever.
Maurice didn’t change the church on his own, but 1853 marks the date when Christians started to stop believing in eternal hell, and thus began to rediscover the true purpose of the church – to embody in this life the transformed way of living that God promises us for the next. And now you can see why I’ve chosen these two dates, 337 and 1853, as the two most important dates in the history of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Because they together embrace what’s most important and most distinctive about this community: we’re not constantly telling individuals and society what’s wrong with them; we’re seeking to embody what a good life and a good society entail. To explain this further, we need to go to one further historical figure and one further date: 185 AD. That’s the year Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, completed his lengthy book Against Heresies. It’s an important book, because it’s the first book that quotes all 27 books of what’s now known as the New Testament. But the most famous line comes in part four, chapter 20, where Irenaeus says, ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’ I believe when we put Irenaeus together with Martin of Tours and F.D. Maurice, we get the essence of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Let me explain.
One of the persistent questions at St Martin-in-the-Fields is, ‘Are we a church, or aren’t we?’ The problem with this question is explained by what I just described about F.D. Maurice. It depends what you mean by church. If church means an exercise in telling people ‘If you don’t believe precise things and act in certain non-negotiable ways then not only are we going to exclude you and describe you in demeaning ways, but we’re going to tell you you’re going to roast in flames and gnash your teeth eternally’ – then no, we’re not a church. But if instead church means taking the example of St Martin and transforming the whole notion of who’s on the edge and who’s at the heart; and if church means taking the example of F.D. Maurice and seeking to embody in our life together our deepest convictions of what lasts forever – then yes, we absolutely are a church, not just in our worship in this building but in everything we do in every part of our organisation. If you’re among those who’re frustrated that some members of our community struggle to perceive all the work we do as church, pause to reflect for one moment that the kind of church we seek to represent has been a minority pursuit over the last 2000 years, while the kind of church we don’t want to be has actually been the majority pursuit – and there’s still a lot of it out there; so surely people can be forgiven for confusing the two.
I want to suggest that Irenaeus gives us language that can explain how all our different dimensions of life at St Martin-in-the-Fields are part of the same project, but are doing it in slightly different ways. Consider Jesus’ words in John chapter 10: ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ That’s what everything at St Martin-in-the-Fields is about: living life to the full; enjoying the abundance of the world we’ve been given and the glory of those we’ve been given to share it with; being fully alive.
Let’s look at this notion of being fully alive in five stages. The most obvious sense of being fully alive is using our gifts to the full – and even better if, in doing so, we can give joy and inspiration to others. The arts programme at St Martin’s, from our choirs and concerts to our craftspeople’s group to our drama and our art commissions, is all about our being fully alive. Just reflect on that feeling you get when your skills are being stretched to the utmost, and you’re giving your very best, and you’re participating with others in making something beautiful and true together. You’re living abundant life. The same is true of our community’s affirmation of people hitherto excluded on the grounds of disability or sexuality. Those pushed to the edge become the centre. From dwelling in the shadows, we are celebrating being fully alive.
But the phrase ‘fully alive’ also has a particular significance for our work with those on the edge. It’s really hard to talk about homelessness without being judgemental. Who am I to tell someone they shouldn’t be sleeping outside? But when a friend looks at my life and some directions I’m going they don’t agree with, they say to me, ‘Sam, let’s be honest, I think you can do better than that. Your gifts can be used for more than that. You can aspire to something beyond that. You can be a blessing to more people than you are currently.’ What they’re saying is, ‘Sam, with respect, I don’t think living like that is you being fully alive.’ They could equally well say, ‘Do you think you’ll be doing that in heaven?’ The work our community does with people experiencing alienation and deprivation is about walking with people as they become fully alive. This is the glory of God: beholding a person become fully alive – either coming back to life, which we call resurrection, or coming to a life they’ve never known before. The language isn’t important: what’s important is that fully alive names what our community wants for everyone.
Let’s look at a third level. Our commercial work has two purposes: it seeks to generate funds to enable our community to thrive, and it strives to embody in its operations what a truly healthy community looks and feels like. Both purposes are about being fully alive. If we were the kind of church we don’t want to be, we’d simply see the business and the Trust as instrumental to our superior work attending to people’s souls and delivering them unto eternal salvation. But our vision’s much broader than that: it’s living abundant life. The business and the Trust enable St Martin’s to be fully alive by funding things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible here; but they also enable us, not just to talk about the glory of God, but to dwell in it in our face-to-face relations, and to seek to embody it in our work to model and advocate for social change.
Today we have to consider a fourth level of what it means to be fully alive. In 2021, to be fully alive has to involve sustainability. Again there’s more than one way to think about the climate emergency. You can regard it as a nuisance, a tiresome problem that we seek to fix reluctantly by reducing carbon emissions and expanding grey water use and recycling and enhancing renewable energy. Or, close to St Martin’s heart, you can see it very differently, as a way to be alive like never before – to rediscover old ways and find new ways of living in harmony with the planet and not as its exploiter, to replenish and renew the storehouse of the earth more than we ransack and plunder it. The climate emergency is pointing us toward abundant life, towards being fully alive in hitherto neglected ways, mostly practised only by people on the edge of civilisation.
But there’s also a fifth level. When Irenaeus said, ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive,’ he had someone in mind. For Irenaeus, that human being fully alive was Jesus. Because for Irenaeus, being fully alive meant being fully aware of being utterly in the presence of God. For Irenaeus, Jesus didn’t come primarily to rescue us from our human predicament, but to embody among us what God’s longing to be with us, and for us to flourish, actually looked like. Jesus had a phrase for what God’s longing to be with us and flourishing life in relationship and creativity looked like: he called it the kingdom of God. And this gives us a vocabulary for what St Martin-in-the-Fields is called to be: not a church in the narrow sense of concentrating wholly on rescuing people from the threatening world and delivering them to heaven; but a kingdom church that believes it’s called to embody and extend the flourishing life and the creativity and joy that flow from realising God longs to be with us now and forever. Such a community is an inspiration to church and society far and wide, because it’s not inwardly focused on itself but outwardly oriented to discovering the kingdom in friend and stranger. It can’t be absorbed in its own life, because it has the humility to realise others are practising what it aspires to better than it yet can, and it must be in relationship with them: which is what HeartEdge is all about.
For this vision of St Martin-in-the-Fields to work, requires two kinds of generosity of understanding. It needs those of us who call ourselves Christians to recognise that to be a kingdom church is a minority calling, and we can’t be surprised if people struggle with being part of a church, since many people have not
experienced church as abundant life at all; indeed, often quite the opposite. And it needs those of us who do not call ourselves Christians to perceive what kind of church St Martin’s is actually seeking to be, and not confuse it with other examples that are available. St Martin-in-the-Fields is about all five kinds of being fully alive – the creativity, the restoration, the embodiment, the sustainability, and the recognition of Christ – and about how each of these express and enrich the others. Jesus called such things the kingdom of God, because they anticipate now the way things will be forever: but we can simply call them ‘being fully alive.’