5th Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2.2-10
Life in the Church of England in 2017. The bell tower has collapsed, the porch is dilapidated, the walls are damp. The vicar says the church needs new prayer books and the people complain that times are hard.
Is this a depressing assessment of Church life in 2011? No, it is Scawton, not far from Ampleforth and Helmsley in North Yorkshire, in 1882. The little church of St Mary is a picture book of the history of mission in England. It is now beautifully maintained and regularly prayed in.
The list of incumbents goes back to the 12th century. Scawton was an original Church plant. It came from Old Byland, nearby, and that in turn was a fresh expression run by Byland Abbey. There is a place for the abbot to sit – important because this was the person who oversaw the pioneer ministry going on there. Although missionary monasticism eventually ran its course, the Roman Catholic monks of Ampleforth Abbey have more recently restored it as a pattern of evangelisation.
The late 19th-century decay in the fabric of Scawton church is an indictment of withdrawal from the reality of pastoral and missionary life that properly characterises the mandate of the Church of England as we have inherited it. From 1828 to 1882 the incumbent of Scawton lived in Cambridge where he was the Master of Downing College.
He did not preach the gospel to the rural community of Scawton and the state of the building reflected his dereliction of duty. But it is the dereliction of souls that should concern us and the connection between building and beings is made in today’s reading from the first letter of St Peter.
It seems likely that some of this material in Peter’s letter comes from a sermon preached at the Easter vigil. It is particularly focused on those who have become Christians in the rites of baptism and confirmation. “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2.5KJV).
It would be a mistake to push too far the connection between the fabric of a church building and the quality of the worshiping and witnessing life of its congregation. Some buildings can be pristine but the mission is dead. But there are important lessons in this image of people as lively stones that form a spiritual house.
The first is the assertion that being a Christian is not a private, individual matter. We each of us contribute to the living building, a temple to the glory of God. Secondly, this very material image insists that Christian faith is not simply an ideology: it is about the transformation of material conditions, such as poverty and death. Our capacity to describe this goal in art, architecture, music and movement, is a symptom of the dynamics of creativity that is God-like and God-given.
But the real focus of this image is in growth. The growth of the building that Peter imagines is aligned on Jesus Christ, the cornerstone who is chosen by God and precious to him. The stone has been laid: our task now is the construction of the building to the glory of God.
In human terms, this is about the inclusion of all men, women and children within the company of those who offer spiritual sacrifices in celebration of the mercy of God that we have received. The urgency and challenge of this task are the same today as it has always been. The 19th-century vicar of Scawton chose to believe that rural ministry was unimportant; let that not be said of us.
Part of the challenge that Easter presents to the Church in this land is the determination to remain in every community, making manifest the presence of Jesus Christ. Today’s gospel extends this theme with the reference that Jesus makes to his Father’s house in which there are many mansions.
These words from John’s gospel suggest a connection between living buildings on earth and holy homes in heaven and Jesus as the way that leads from one to the other. But we should guard against the temptation to domesticate the revelation of God. Heaven is not suburban, with neat lawns and clean pavements: it is an inexplicable environment of awe and joy.
Where does John think that Jesus is when he says to the disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life”? He is in heaven.
In The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, the New Testament scholar, C H Dodd, perceptively identifies the connection between eternity and our world of time and space in these words of Jesus. “It is true that the dramatic setting is that of ‘the night in which he was betrayed’, with the crucifixion in prospect. Yet in a real sense, it is the risen and glorified Christ who speaks.”
In Sussex, as much as every other part of England, the fabric of our church buildings, in towns, cities and isolated rural villages, may provide the dramatic and historic setting for the Church’s witness. But that is never enough.
Unless, with your voice, the risen Christ speaks, those buildings are in danger of being dead tombs, not temples of resurrection life.