Why does St Martins Presbyterian Church Exist? John 15:1-17
Over the past few months a small group (called the Mission Discernment Group MDG) has been meeting to try and clarify our mission as a community of Christians. Often it seems we assume we all know why our church exists, but actually when asked many are unsure. Maybe it’s just too big a question, or maybe we haven’t really thought about that. Church is just church and it’s always just been there. It is a big question and however good your answer may be it misses something. On the other hand however if we don’t have some sort of picture of why we are here it can mean that we get a little lost and forget what we are really on about.
Anthony de Mello a Jesuit priest and story teller tells this story: On a rocky seacoast , where shipwrecks were frequent there was once a ramshackle little life-saving station. It was no more than a hut and there was only one boat, but the few people who manned the station were an amazing group who kept constant watch over the sea and went fearlessly out in a storm if they had any evidence that there had been a shipwreck somewhere. Many lives were saved and the station became famous.
As the fame of the station grew, so did the desire of people in the neighbourhood to become associated with its excellent work. They generously offered of their time and money so new members were enrolled, new boats bought and new crews trained. The hut too was replaced by a larger building in which saved people could be dried and warmed. And, of course, since shipwrecks do not occur every day, it became a popular gathering place-a sort of local club.
As time passed the members became so engaged in socializing and running their club that they seemed to forget about life-saving. In fact, when some people were actually rescued from the sea, it was always such a nuisance because they were dirty and wet and soiled the carpeting and the furniture.
The social activities of the club became numerous and the life-saving activities few. But there was a showdown at a club meeting with some members insisting that they return to their original purpose and activity. A vote was taken and these troublemakers, who proved to be a small minority, were invited to leave the club and start another.
Which is precisely what they did-a little further down the coast, with such selflessness and daring that, after a while, their heroism made them famous. Whereupon their membership was enlarged, their hut was reconstructed.. and their idealism – smothered….. and you get the idea!
There is a constant need for us to ask the question ‘what are we here for?’
As the workgroup has wrestled with this question one theme that has seemed important to us is that St Martins Presbyterian Church exists to help people find ‘life’. ‘True life’. Our reading this morning uses an image of the vine and the branches. The vine exists to bring life to the branches. Branches aren’t much good unless they are connected to the vine where the life giving sap is transmitted from the roots. Jesus’ stories and his teaching assume that to find life we need to centre our lives in God. We need to orientate our lives in something bigger than us. Often this happens when people recognise they are not as complete as they might think. It’s when something breaks, or we face the reality that not all is well with us that God gets a look in. I think this is why healing was such an important part of Jesus’ ministry.
But it’s not just something for individuals. Some in the MDG also pointed out Jesus taught us guidelines or morals for living together in community. This is also part of finding life. Just as we need road rules to guide us to all drive safely we need ways of seeing and habits that enable us to live together in healthy communities. No killing even with words, forgive forgive forgive, be kind and generous, put away your swords….The teachings of Jesus provides a God inspired framework that enhances the life of community and enables us to live in harmony with the whole earth. They are about finding life. Jesus summed up this framework as “love one another.” Love is at the heart of it all or if you like the sap that flows through the Jesus vine. Sadly it is often the case that blind following of the rules and habits without love can actually destroy life.
Finding health and life is not just about our relationships with each other and the earth we live on, but is also about our relationship with our self and looking at what motivates and drives us. Jesus taught us to be humble. That doesn’t mean demeaning self, but it does mean examining our motives and looking at what we are really seeking. Jesus also recognised that many people are motivated by a need to bolster themselves in front of others. He stresses over and over that we find our true value in God. Our value is not based on achievement and worldly success, the exterior image, but simply is – a gift of God. This relationship with God provides life. God is a life giving God. Again we often picture God as policeman, as judge, as a stern old man, but we do well to picture God as midwife, as potter with clay, a life giving sap, giving rise to life.
There is an interesting term that John uses a number of times in his gospel. ‘eternal life’. Jesus brings eternal life. Sadly many people have thought of this as life after death. Literally the Greek term means life of the ages as opposed to life in this contemporary culture or life in this economy. Eternal life is not a good translation. John simply assumes there is a fuller life, a true life that can be found by drawing close to Jesus. I would be thrilled to hear people saying, “I go to church because I find true life there”, or “I look forward to going to church because the sap of life is set free in my veins.” Actually I do hear people saying these sort of things!
A few other points…. Jesus didn’t force this life on others. We have to find it. He told stories, he modelled actions so that people could see this life in action. This is in turn the work of the Church. To tell stories, to model actions, to teach.
Jesus assumed it was a personal thing but also a corporate and community thing which he named as a new society, a new community he called the ‘kingdom of God’ or the ‘kingdom of heaven’. For some reason Paul never took up those names, and he called this new way of life ‘God’s new creation’. Paul talks of a ‘new fullness’, ‘freedom’, ‘new life’, ‘life in the Spirt’ and ‘life in Christ’. We have to discern what these things mean in our time.
I have to say the MDG didn’t find all this easy to sum up. We struggled to formulate a simple statement of what we are on about. But my take on what we were saying as we struggled was that our mission is to promote this life centred in God that was seen in and taught by Jesus. If I am to reduce this one sentence it is simply this: Our church community exists to discern, model, and teach what makes for true aliveness.
Dugald Wilson 6 May 2018