Reading: John 1:29-42
Test of Strength
The strongman at a circus squeezed the juice from a lemon between his hands. He then said to the audience, “I will offer $200 to anyone in the audience who can squeeze another drop from this lemon. A thin scholarly looking woman came forward, picked up the lemon, strained hard and managed to get a drop. The strongman was amazed. He paid the woman and asked, “What is the secret of your strength?” “Practice,” the woman answered. “I was the treasurer of an Anglican Church for thirty-two years!
Anglicanism is about People
I am truly grateful for treasurers & churchwardens, vestries & Parish councils, building committees, dioceses, bishops, archdeacons, canons & regional deans, stewardship officers & executive administrators. I’m thankful for all these funny sounding titles and committees that have become part of the fabric of the Anglican Church.
And I’m deeply, deeply thankful, that the Church is much more than these things. Behind every position and every committee are people. The people of God. And I believe it is the people of God, enlivened by God’s Spirit, that are the greatest testament to God’s continued care and provision for Christ’s Church.
A Season of Challenge
We are in a very challenging season in the Church – specifically the western church in Europe and North America. In recent years the Anglican Journal published some sobering findings. I quote: “We’ve got simple projections from our data that suggest that there will be no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040,” the Rev. Neil Elliot, a priest for the diocese of Kootenay tasked by the national church to collect statistics, told the Council of General Synod.”
2040 – 17 years from now. And this research took place pre-pandemic. There have been a lot of reactions to reports like these. Surveyors point to the reliability of their data, accumulated through several different methods. Others scoff at reducing the Church’s viability to numerical data & projections. Leaders, like our Primate, Linda Nicholls, are using this information to call the Church to a renewed faithfulness to the gospel:
A Season of Opportunity
“We’re called to do and be God’s people in a particular place, for the purpose of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and the only question is, ‘How do we need to share it, so that it might be heard by those around us?….I think we’re being tested about perseverance, endurance, creativity in the coming years…At the end of the day, when we stand before the great judgement seat and have to answer for how we lived our lives as Christians, I think the question that will be asked is, ‘Were you faithful with what you were given?’”
Exile or Loss of Privilege?
Some have likened the decline of the Church to the plight of the ancient people of God who frequently found themselves living in exile. I do see some parallels and have used the comparison myself. But in reflecting on the matter of the decline of the Church this week, I’m not sure it’s appropriate to compare ourselves to people whose homes were literally pillaged and burned to the ground, their young people hauled off to slavery in foreign lands. Many of these folks were victims of genocide in its various forms.
I’m not in exile. I’m not a victim here. I am a white male. I am in the position of privilege. Many of us here are. Much of what is distressing us is not that we’re being arrested and tortured for our faith, but that we’ve lost some of the power we once held. Some of us remember this church being full every Sunday. We remember large choirs and booming Sunday schools. Part of me really longs for a return to those days. But I think I’d be focused on the wrong things.
Was there a Cost to Following Jesus?
When the Church was truly in a position of privilege and influence, it was easy to attract a crowd. Going to Church was good for business, and some came simply to make business contacts or to fulfill social obligations. The Church had a virtual monopoly as a centre of society – it was where you went to find friends and potential spouses. But there were also many, many people who came to Church in those days to grow in their faith and faithfully witness to the gospel. And by my calculations, these are the folks that remain.
But being in a position of privilege meant there was little cost to being a follower of Christ. In fact, there might have been a greater cost to not being a churchgoer in those days. And when pews are filled and financial obligations are easily being met, there isn’t a great need to examine who we are and what we’re chiefly about. As hard as it is, I’m grateful that we are now living in a time where those of us who are trying to follow Christ as active members in the Anglican expression of the Jesus movement, really and truly want to be here. We’re facing a stark reality, but one brimming with potential, potential that can only be realized when we get first things first.
John the Prophet Points to Jesus
John the Baptist was the greatest prophet Israel had seen in at least 5 centuries. He was a revolutionary, but his message was not out of line with religious practices of the day (note how the super-religious people of his day, the Pharisees, were quick to partake in his ministry). I believe it likely that John knew Jesus before the events in today’s gospel. I mean, they were blood relatives, living in relative proximity, in a culture that stressed family bonds. They were in the same demographic – Jewish men in their 30’s. And yet, it is only in today’s gospel that we find that John truly KNEW Jesus.
The Holy Spirit, signified by the dove, opened John’s eyes to see Jesus in a completely new and life-changing way. “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” A bold claim by a bold man. Taking away sins was exclusively God’s business, so it seems John discerned something of the divine activity in Jesus. As prolific as John’s ministry was, today we discover that all that John was about was pointing to Jesus. It wasn’t about John or John’s way of doing and seeing things, it was about drawing people to the healing and loving Jesus.
John even pushed members of his flock to join Jesus, for the sake of God’s Kingdom! One of these, Andrew, would follow John’s example by himself pointing to Jesus. He invites his brother, Simon Peter, future leader of the early Church, to ‘come and see’ Jesus. And the rest is history, as they say.
The Church Thrives on the Margins
I think today’s gospel reading is a timely one for us in this key year in our church’s life. Historically speaking, our gospel faith has thrived the most when followers of Jesus were pushed to the margins of their societies. The early Church is a prime example of this, as is the current underground Church in China that is one of the fastest growing Christian movements in history.
I believe the gospel thrives in these settings because the gospel is good news to the marginalized. It is ‘good news for the poor’ and those who lack position and privilege. We find that Jesus embodied this gospel throughout his ministry – breaking social barriers, healing the sick, transforming the lives of all those who came to him in humility and sincerity. In fact, the only people that struggled to receive his message were those in positions of power and privilege – the political and religious elite.
A Big Year Lays Ahead
We have much to do, and the task before us is not an easy one. We have to think and act creatively, we will have to make difficult decisions for the sake of sharing Jesus’ love. Our perceptions of what Church is supposed to look like have to change, and the costs for following Jesus will only mount.
But amid these challenges, I am so grateful for all of you here today. You didn’t have to be here. The bitter cold this morning would’ve been reason enough to stay home in bed. There is a lot of competition for your time and energy, but you chose to be here. You chose to come and worship God and learn from God’s Son. You choose to give sacrificially to support the ministry of St. George’s. You joyfully offer your time to take your part in continuing gospel ministry in your community. You make the time to pray for those in need and give to support the less advantaged. And you are the greatest reason I maintain hope for Christ’s Church. Thanks be to God! Amen.