Today I went back to the Church where I did my curacy to preach and it was a real blessing, seeing so many friends and people I care about (and great to meet some lovely new faces too!).
A fortnight ago I went to St. James’ weekend away to speak, St. James’ is the Church where I got married and worked for for a little while and my dad was Vicar there for about 12 years. Again it was so great to come back and feel something of the love and welcome of the Christian Community.
Many of these people are different ages to me, different backgrounds and life experiences, and it reminded me afresh of that wonderful -and incredibly counter cultural- way the Church is inter-racial, intergenerational, inter-class.
People that normally would never meet can come together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
It was funny for me to feel so ‘at home’ or like ‘coming home’ to both of these congregations, neither are particularly trendy or glamourous, but just ordinary Christians loving Christ, loving each other and seeking to follow Jesus.
Recently my Church experience has been one where I used to dread Sundays normally for the way people who’d call themselves Christians would sadly often behave.
Yet today and last weekend was a wonderful reminder of what Church, can, should and ought to be like.
As I thought about this idea of Church like coming home, I explored the idea further, often in a tough world which lives vastly differently from the way I want to do joining with the Church family should feel like that relief “at last a place where people get me, understand and what I am seeking to live for”.
In an increasingly lonely world, the community of Christian provides a place of belonging, a refuge and sanctuary, in a world that knocks us down so much a place where we can be loved and love is actually a very special place.
I did wonder if I was just having a nostalgic moment, but then I thought of when my parents moved house and I visited them in their new house, and realise at the heart of a home and belonging isn’t just about ‘knowing where stuff is’ but rather it is about the quality of relationships we find there.
Jesus talked about “by this will all people know you are my disciples that you love one another” -and when we see Churches living this out with skin on it is a truly beautiful thing. When we see Churches falling short of this it is painful as we know it can and should be so much more (and tragically our broken, fractured humanity sometimes leads us to get ‘being Church wrong’ and whenever that happens and real people get hurt that truly is a tragedy that must break the heart of God).
We yearn places to belong, places where we can just be, to feel part of something greater than ourselves with other people travelling the same path but with a variety of wisdom and experiences that they can share along the way.
As I began to think about the feeling of coming home, of being a valued and needed part of the family and knowing my need snd value of others in the family, I thought this wonderful picture of interdependence based around love.
As listening to the news of these bits of the Church family, there have been stories of wonderful joy -births, healings and successes- and also stories of bereavements, pain and suffering=.
Being part of a family is about sharing in both the joys and the sorrows.
Yet in our very british culture we ‘keep ourselves to ourselves’ and a stiff upper lip and tell everyone we are fine (when normally we’re not!) and I thought of the risks of vulnerability and allowing ourselves to be known being costly, but worth it.
The call to be community is often banded around very freely in some circles, but to actually be committed to making this happen and living it out in reality in our daily lives is a hard and difficult call.
As I thought more about this idea of Church feeling like coming home, I was reminded of one of my favourite theologians -Dietrich Bonhoeffer- (who wrote about community in his wonderful book “Life Together”) who radically rediscovered what it meant to BE Church (rather than just ‘go to’ Church) in the 2nd World War. His Church was banned and meeting together could result in being murdered, imprisoned, beaten up by the SS -and yet they still met through out the war. This wasn’t just going through the motions of religious meetings, but rather they discovered afresh what it meant to share lives together authentically and deeply. Bonhoeffer wrote of the two fellowships “the fellowship of the righteous” and the “fellowship of sinners”.
The fellowship of the righteous is where we are polite and guarded with each other, no one is real about brokenness, the pain and mess of real life, the doubts and the despair.
Yet the fellowship of sinners, is where we discover what it meant to carry one another’s burdens, to serve and be served, to love and be loved, to be ‘iron sharpening iron as one person sharpens another’.
I discovered something deeply beautiful and profound about Church whilst at the Priory Clinic on placement when at theological college, here were a group of broken people, their leader was an addict himself in recovery -what Henri Nowen would call a wounded healer-. They were an inter-generational group, there was a business man crying with a guy who’d been on the streets comforting him, they were all ages and walks of life, they were sharing deeply and loving, encouraging, challenging, inspiring and blessing one another. I thought this looks and feels like family, this looks and feels like Church -and yet I’ve never been in a Church that has quite felt like the community at the Priory Clinic, but I believe that Church, can and should look like this.
The world -lost, hurting and broken- longs and needs the Church to be the Church, extending a welcome and a sense of belonging to all we meet.
A church that extends the welcome we see of Christ, the welcome of the Father who ran to meet his Son and embraced him.
A story to close with, my friend Mark had been away from Church for a long time, he came to pick up his daughter from Sunday School and was spotted by Teresa -the associate minister- at the point in the service where the peace is exchanged, she spotted Mark whom she had known as a young man, ran down the aisle and hugged him, and this brought him not just back to Church but helped restore his relationship too with God.
…His words for this was “it felt like coming home!”