Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 February 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar Prebendary Alan Moses
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Acts 2.42
Just before Christmas, Pope Francis ruffled some very grand ecclesiastical plumage when, in the traditional address to senior members the Curia, the largely clerical bureaucracy which runs the Vatican, he called them to a critical process of self-examination. To help them along, he spelt out some of the failings which beset an organization which is a combination of imperial court and civil service: careerism, gossip and the like.
It has been pointed out that such an examination of conscience is pretty much what one could expect from someone who is not only your boss, but a chief pastor formed in the Jesuit tradition. The daily examen is an integral part of the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola. It asks how we have used our time, gifts and opportunities, how we have fulfilled our duties or failed to, how what we have done has served the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Self-examination should not be confined to ecclesiastical bureaucrats or members of religious orders. It is required at all levels of church life – both communal and personal. The confession and absolution with which Cranmer prefaces the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, used tonight, help us call to mind those things “we have left undone….which we ought to have done,” as well “those things we ought not to have done.”
This is not to make us feel bad but to make us better: “That we may, hearafter live a godly, righteous and sober life,” to the glory of God’s holy name.” An intention which a pope, who is a member of a religious order whose motto is Ad Maiorem De Gloriam, would recognize as the heart of the matter.
One of the origins of Lent lies in the period of preparation for catechumens, candidates for baptism at Easter. Now, in the liturgy of Easter Vigil, whether there are candidates for baptism or not, we will all renew the vows of our baptism.
So at at Evensong during this Lent, we are engaging in catechizing: rehearsing some of the questions we will be asked at Easter. Our sermons will be based on the questions in what is called the Commission at the end of the Common Worship service of baptism. These spell out the basics of what it means to be a Christian: “Those who are baptized are called to worship and serve God. We are going to preach on those questions in order to focus our self-examination.
The first of them is based on that text from the Acts of the Apostles which I read out at the beginning: “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers?” It is Luke’s description of the communal life of the earliest Christians in Jerusalem; those who were baptized as a result of Peter’s preaching at Pentecost.
Some argue that this is an idealized, rose-tinted, picture of the early Church. This may be true, certainly the church in Jerusalem was not without its problems – as Luke himself tells us. The cynical might say that he presents us with an impossible ideal. The implication being that we should not even try to emulate it.
But is it not better that we have an ideal which challenges us rather than a lowest common denominator which leaves undisturbed in our mediocrity? In his column in the Guardian yesterday, Canon Giles Fraser recalled a fellow columnist saying to him, that it was better to be a hypocrite than to be a cynic. Hypocrites at least have ideals even if they fail to meet live up to them. Cynics do not have even that. Without an ideal of the Church and Kingdom, we sink into easy-going but very dull conformity.
To fail, to fall short, in our following of Christ, does not mean that following Christ is wrong, and that we were equally wrong in trying to do so. Our intention is right, even if we fail in the execution of our good resolutions.
So, on the basis that it is better to have ideals and fail, than to have none and not even try, let’s look more closely at the elements in Luke’s pen portrait of the early church.
They were devoted to:
1. The Apostles’ Teaching.
That teaching would come to form what we know as the New Testament but at that stage must have been primarily oral. Its core would be their witness to Jesus Christ, birth, ministry, passion and his resurrection which was got it all started.
Doctrine, another word for teaching, is unfashionable these days. Many parts of the church seem to have largely abandoned it in favour of experience: feeling excited about the Spirit or nice and warm about Jesus. But doctrine is important because we are surrounded by all sorts of mind-forming forces, which shape and influence us; whether we like it or not, whether we recognize it or not. They co-opt us to a culture which persuades us that all our needs can be satisfied by buying its products. It provides us not just with these products, but with experiences meant to satisfy us.
If we do not learn the basic Christian truths that we are created by God, not by ourselves, or by some random natural process; that we are created for a purpose which is to love God and our neighbour, and that this God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is one who is both loving and lovable, then we find ourselves with little reason to be religious other than force of habit, or as a mechanism for coping with the stresses of the world.
Being faithful to the apostles’ teaching asks of us a willingness to go on learning – that is to go on being disciples. That learning is in part an intellectual exercise – we have to study scripture, read books, listen to sermons, attend study groups and the like, if we are to grow in Christian understanding. But this teaching is more than a head thing. It changes our lives as we put into action what we have learned. The practice of Christianity will in turn make us ask deeper questions about what we have learned. We are to “continue in the apostles’ teaching.” Your clergy have a duty to go on teaching you in that tradition and we all have a responsibility to go on learning. It’s hard work for us, and for you. In the short term we might well prefer to have our ears tickled with a few amusing anecdotes topped off with a bit of general moralizing – but in the long term that soon fails to either challenge or satisfy.
2. Fellowship: a word which can also be translated “communion.” We are not individuals interested in a religion who have joined a society of the like-minded. God has chosen us, we have not chosen him: “You did not choose me, I chose you.” We pray, “Our Father,” not “my Father.” This goes clean contrary to the way our age, obsessed with consumer choice, thinks.
We are members of the Body of Christ, a body in which all are mutually dependent. We are members of a household built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the head cornerstone. Even though that body is divided, its unity fractured by disputes old and new. It was so even in the time of the New Testament – there was no golden age to which we can return. But maintaining and building the unity of this fellowship was and is a significant responsibility for members of the Christian community. For those of us in episcopal traditions, that is focussed by our being in communion with our bishops, the successors of the apostles, our being in communion with them. That is why we pray for our Bishop at Mass each day. It is not just that he has a difficult job to do.
We must do all that we can to be “in love and charity with our neighbours” as we approach the Holy Eucharist and as we live out our life in the church. St. Paul has some scathing things to say to Christians in Corinth whose bad behaviour, greed and selfishness, contempt of those poorer or less important than themselves, those less “spiritual” perhaps, results in them not being able to discern the body of Christ and eating condemnation on themselves.
In the Gospel at Mass today, Mark tells us that when Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, the angels ministered to him. Being faithful to the apostles’ fellowship involves ministering to our brothers and sisters; bearing one another’s burdens.
3. The Breaking of the Bread
Luke and the early church term for what we call the Mass, the Eucharist, the Holy Communion. Christian communion is expressed and effected by our table fellowship. We are the companions of Jesus and one another – we eat with him and he eats with us.
Our tradition places the highest importance on the centrality of the Eucharist. It is not merely a sad memory of someone long dead, but the active presence of one risen and still with us – one who makes himself known in the breaking of the bread; one who feeds us with himself the living bread.
We see it as not only expressing a communion already established but as working the transforming act which builds communion or re-establishes it when it has been fractured or impaired. The Church makes the Eucharist and the Eucharist makes the Church. That is why we must hunger and thirst for the Eucharist; why we should be eager to take part in it as often and as deeply as we can.
4. The Prayers. The prayers, first of all of the Church – it’s daily common prayer, whether we are physically present at them or whether we join in them by saying the divine office at home.
The Letter to the Hebrews reproaches those who “neglecting to meet together, as some do:” (Hebs.10.25). This it not just because of the bad effect our failure to be there has on us but also because we not only miss the opportunity to encourage others in their faith but might actually discourage them.
Statistics suggest that patterns of church attendance are changing. People attend less frequently: one or twice a month instead of every Sunday: once on a Sunday instead of twice; not during the week at all. In many parishes, even urban ones here in London, where we do not have the problems of rural multi-benefice parishes with a handful of priests covering numerous places over sometimes distances, daily worship, the offices and mass, once seen as vital, in parishes of catholic tradition, has almost disappeared. I realise that I am preaching to the converted here, because you are here for Evensong and it is not my intention to beat you up.
There is, however, more than one spiritual danger in the neglect of worship. It is the focus of our life: it is where we encounter the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, where we break bread together. Neglect of “the prayers” makes Christians seem much less prayerful than members of other faiths – especially our Muslim neighbours who pray five times a day..
So our prayer in common, our devotion to the prayers, is an important act of witness to others. Think of the person who wanders in during a weekday service, and finds not an empty building but a group of people praying the Eucharist or the Office: a living microcosm of the Church.
There is too, a danger for those who worship here only at large choral services. They risk succumbing to the experience culture which affects other traditions rather more obviously. The experience of High Mass or Choral Evensong, is not necessarily more holy, just because it is aesthetically more refined than the Christian Folk Rock music you will encounter at Hillsong along the road in the Dominion Theatre.
Rather than congratulating ourselves on our heritage of faith, our concern should be to allow it to shape and strengthen our Christian lives more fully than before. We need to steep ourselves in the elements of the prayers which have sustained and motivated generations of Christians in witness and service: the psalms and scripture, hymns and prayers.
We do these things because that is what Christians are called to do.