Stolidity or imagination

A homily for Easter 3 Year A at St Paul’s, Burton on Trent

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19. 1 Peter 1:17-23. Luke 24:13-35

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God .…  And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth.

And a very happy Christmas to you all.

No, I’ve not lost my marbles. I’m drawing your attention to a wonderful exchange in which, as St Irenaeus wrote, “the Word of God … did become what we are, that He might bring us to be what He is Himself”. Or as Charles Wesley wrote in the hymn we’ve just sung “Made like him, like him we rise”.  Fr Columba Marmion, an Irish Benedictine, wrote a few decades ago “What the Word Incarnate gives in return to humanity is an incomprehensible gift … In exchange for the humanity which he takes, the Incarnate Word gives us a share in his divinity; he makes us partakers of his divine nature”. The Divine assumes the human in order to lift the human to the Divine.

This is the wonderful exchange recalled privately by the priest in the moments before Holy Communion. 

Today on the road to Emmaus the disciples are gloomy like Eeyore, and obsessing about the past, not recognizing their fellow traveller. Then just as they do so, he vanishes.

For me this is the completion of the wonderful exchange. He vanishes because he is incorporated into them—into all humanity. Or maybe all humanity is incorporated into him. Either way it’s a metaphor for us being made divine as the Divine and the human merge. There’s no more need for Jesus to be visible because he is part of us all, though in some cases rather well hidden by our pride.

Now, if you accept all that—and I think it’s a lovely idea—you should ask: “so what?”.

So this.

The theme of Easter is renewal. The Holy Week story is about a group of people who were so threatened by new ideas that they killed the originator. Look at the world today and see the same forces at work, all because governing cliques are threatened by new ideas. It’s a failure of imagination, a lack of courage, and most of all it’s about the entitlement and pride of the powerful.

At Easter Jesus opens the tomb of imprisonment in the past so that we can rise with him. At Easter Jesus tells Mary Magdalen not to cling to him—not to cling to the past if you like—for he has work to do. As we heard last week, Jesus disposes of the past when he says to the frightened and ashamed disciples “peace”. He forgives them. He wipes the past clean. 

Today I see the the disciples obsessing about the past, unable to see what is before their eyes, blind to the present and future. When their eyes are opened they begin to see things through his eyes. I hope we do too. “Don’t be afraid. Stop clinging to the past. Use your imaginations—you’ve got work to do.”

And that is what I want to say to you as you soon, I hope, advertise for a new incumbent. I’ve said it to St John’s and now I say it to you. 

Remember that though Burton has many good points it is not high on the list of desirable places to live. For every vacancy in the south east there may be five or more applicants, but north of a line between Gloucester and Ipswich you’ll find maybe one or two, or even none. The interviews are more about applicants judging you than about you judging the applicants.

So I ask you:

  • Are you forward looking? Or do you want to stay stuck in the past?
  • Are you hankering after the certainties of bygone days, or the ways of other churches you once attended?
  • Are you willing to imagine what the future could be?
  • Are you willing to ask young people what they would like or are you going to tell them what you think they need?
  • Given all the things people could be doing on a Sunday, is it worth their coming here? Is it safe? Is it comfortable? Is it warm? Is the PA system adequate? Are the readers, musicians and servers competent?
  • Is there joy in this place?

For example, when people our age start thinking about modifying churches for community use, they think of kitchens and bogs and not much else. All that is decades out of date. What you should be thinking about includes:

  • making space by getting rid of pews and clutter;
  • having the church fitted for Wi-Fi;
  • being able to send text, pictures and documents to people’s phones. Today’s people are not used to handling paper—they have screens in their hands. 
  • And more.

That’s just one example of the way in which congregations of crumblies like us are unable or unwilling to grasp the opportunity that modern culture presents. 

You could sit tight and carry on as you are. St John’s could do the same. As the local population becomes less and less Christian, which is inevitable, then I would predict that within 10 years, only one of the two churches will still be open for regular services.

Or you can grasp the opportunities offered by today and make the best of them using your imaginations and listening to the people you’re trying to attract. 

Jesus says: cast out into the deep; fear not; take risks for the Kingdom. 

Are you going to be stolidly human or divinely imaginative?

The choice is yours.

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