We’ve run out of adjectives for these days. The ones we’ve been using for the last month or so already sound hackneyed. Unprecedented, challenging, difficult, strange. They have already lost their power to describe what we are going through. No wonder we have all had good days and bad days. No wonder we are all struggling to a greater or lesser extent, as we navigate the experience of this common storm from our own fragile boats.
I wonder; what have been your fixed points, your anchors, your certainties in uncertain times? For me, one of the things that has picked me up, kept me afloat, kept me going, is the wonderful Church family at St Peter and Paul’s. Church family is something we talk about a lot here, it is important to who we are, our sense of identity. Like all metaphors, it has its limitations, and we live with the tension of knowing that family is not a positive word for everybody who may come through our door. And we know we are not a perfect family ourselves. But it is the best metaphor we have come up with.
And our image of Church family is more than just a metaphor. We try to live it out; we are a community of mixed ages and mixed backgrounds committed to journeying together, caring for one another. Church is a place in which we are all valued, in which we can question and grow, and from which we can go out into the wider world to make a difference. If you were to come and join us on a Sunday morning in more ordinary times, you might be struck by the warmth of welcome you are given, or the sheer volume of noise and amount of hugging before the service starts, or the immense quantity and quality of cake that often meets you in the hall afterwards. We are far from perfect, but we try.
But Church is changing. Church has already changed. While we can no longer meet in person, there are three things that I have noticed about the Church family in Lockdown.
Firstly, my experience is that in these stormiest of seas the Church travels together even more closely. Random acts of kindness are rife, with small gifts of flour, cards and of course cake being left on doorsteps. Through our Church hubs we are talking to people whose faces we might recognise, but whose names and stories were previously unknown. This care one for each other has been wonderful to witness.
The second thing I have noticed is that this love does not end with the Church family. It spreads. Rainbows on windows. Working out ways to donate to the food bank. Giving generously to charities who are struggling. Shopping for neighbours. Picking up prescriptions. Delivering leaflets with the lifeline phone numbers on.
Finally, we are perhaps praying more than ever before. We are prioritising prayer and worship. So many of our Church family have told me that they are ‘coming to Church’ so much more than when the building was open, not just on Sundays, but for morning prayer and online Bible study too.
Church has changed, Church is changing. Perhaps more than anything else, we are speaking to people we’ve not spoken to before. Through livestreaming and the website and our Facebook page, people are coming to join the Church family. People are putting a toe in the water and faith is growing, even in these challenging, unprecedented, peculiar times. Especially in these challenging, unprecedented, peculiar times.
But perhaps there is precedent for this. Perhaps we should not be surprised by what God is up to. Although to be fair, I’m always pretty surprised by what God is up to.
When Peter addressed the crowds in Jerusalem soon after the first Easter, he was living in unprecedented times, challenging times, strange times. Jesus, his friend and the leader of a new movement had been executed. Then, three days later, reports of his rising began to spread. The world had been rocked, nothing was certain anymore. The dead were raised; talk about unprecedented.
Now, Peter was a fisherman; he was not trained for his new role as spokesperson and orator. No more than our ministry team has been trained for livestreaming and Zoom. Yet through the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter is given the means to speak to a whole new audience. Each person hears in their own language. Perhaps through the same Holy Spirit now we are being empowered to speak about Christ in languages we’ve never used before either; not just the ministry team, all of us.
What Peter speaks about in this new language is his experience of Jesus. An old story in a new tongue. When Peter says ‘Repent!’ he isn’t trying to guilt people, shame people. Peter is talking about what forgiveness meant to him. Peter heard words of forgiveness from Jesus’ own lips. Peter experienced that wonderful rush of knowing he had a new start. That’s what he’s talking about, that’s what he’s offering. Peter’s only training for this job was the training of failure, the training refusing to stand up for Jesus when his friend needed him most, and then the experience of knowing he was still loved. Peter’s call to the crowds is the same as the call to us now. Yes, the world has been rocked, yes, the world is broken, yes you may have failed or be flailing. But you get to start anew.
Repent and be baptised. Peter is not asking the listening crowd to be better behaved, or not just that, so much more than that. He’s inviting them to belong. The belonging of Baptism. We are born to belong, not to behave. We are born to belong to the God who pours out forgiveness in endless streams. God who loves us with no strings attached. God who would die for us, did die for us and rose so that even death can’t separate us. We are born to belong to community, to each other. To be Church family, online, offline, on the phone, in a building, through the internet. And if you are hearing this call for the first time, welcome! Welcome to the place where you already belong, the place where you already have a new start. Welcome to the Church family, the family of Christ.