This sermon was given on the occasion of a congregation's Church Anniversary.
The texts are: Ephesians 2:19-22 and John 17:5-8, 17-26.
It’s a Small World
In 1990, a playwright named John Guare wrote a play entitled ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ The play was based on the idea that, any two people in the world are separated from each other by an average of six other people – six other relationships.
So, if I wanted a personal introduction to George W. Bush, in theory, I should know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows George W. Bush.
This theory is absolute true, by the way. Something like it was first proposed in 1929 in a short story called “Chains”
Then in the 1950s, an American sociologist attempted to solve what he called ‘the small world problem’ by measuring the ‘degrees of separation’ between two people.
He randomly selected people in the mid-West to send packages to a stranger located in Massachusetts. The senders knew the recipient's name, occupation, and general location. They were instructed to send the package to a person they knew on a first-name basis who they thought was most likely, out of all their friends, to know the target personally. That person would do the same, and so on, until the package was delivered to its target recipient.
The sociologist actually thought that there would be hundreds of intermediaries between the two strangers. But, in fact, the usual number of intermediaries was between 5 and 7.
The experiment was repeated using email and the internet in 2001. Using the internet allowed many more people to participate in the experiment, but again, the average number of intermediaries was six.
It is indeed a small world.
Connected to Each Other
Who we are, what we do and how we treat others is important, because our lives affect the lives of those around us.
Anyone who has ever experienced any sort of upheaval in the family – and I expect that that is all of us – will know that this statement is true. Situations such as substance abuse, divorce or a sudden major illness or accident affect not only the person involved but the person’s nearest and dearest: spouse, children, employer, parents, teachers, friends. This negative events can have negative consequences that reach far beyond the individual or even their family.
But, on the positive side, who we are, what we do and how we relate to other people can also have far-reaching effects that are positive. Since we like and want these positive interactions, I think it’s sometimes very easy for us to take them for granted.
This past Wednesday, I celebrated All Saints Day with the Wednesday Fellowship Group and I invited them to tell me about the people in their lives who have been positive role models for them in their faith-life.
As one person told a story and then another, more and more people remembered the positive example that others had had on their faith. We mentioned people long since passed away – such as teachers, tutors and Sunday School teachers. We mentioned family members and members of this congregation and even – shock, horror! – a previous minister!
Christians and Community
But what’s any of this got to do with being a Christian? So far, I could be giving a motivational speech to the humanist society.
Well, I think that the bible reveals God to be a God of relationships. So, I think that we were created as beings who need relationships because we were created in the image of God.
I’m sure if you think your way through the biblical picture of God, you will be able to come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures of God being in relationship with human beings. I’m only going to point out a few examples.
As the book of Genesis opens, God is in relationship with Adam, but God also realises that Adam needs to be in relationship with another human being. The only thing that is pronounced “not good” in the creation story is that “It is not good that man should be alone.”
The first sin was a sin against relationship, a determination to “be one’s own person” outside of the human-divine relationship ordained by God.
And the incarnation is God becoming human. “Stooping down to our level” as it were, in order to communicate with us better, in order to walk in our shoes, but ultimately to save us in the crucifixion and resurrection. In order to have a saving relationship with us.
And then there is the famous Christian question “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?” This is truly an excellent question. he only problem I have with it is that it has been used so much, that – certainly in Christian circles at least - I think it’s lost the weight of its meaning. And I confess that I can think of no genuinely fresh way to pose the question.
All I can testify to is that being a Christian is about being a relationship with Jesus, and with the Father and the Spirit as well for that matter. It’s a real relationship even though we can’t see touch or feel God.
I think that faith is about relating to God, talking to God, or as an acquaintance of mine put it – listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd after we have asked him our questions.
Honesty in Relationships
Like all honest relationships, it’s OK to get angry with God, to argue with God, and to question God. The important thing is that we actually do make the effort to relate to God. In study of scripture, in worship and in prayer.
And that is what being part of a church community is all about. On the one hand, individuals support other individuals in their personal relationship with God.
In an ideal congregation, this means that each person feels able to be loved and known for who they really are. Each individual can be honest about where they are in their faith without fear of being told that they must believe this and mustn’t believe that.
On the other hand, I think that the congregation as an entity also has its own relationship with God and its own gifts. As an example of how a collective gift differs from individual gifts, one of this congregation’s gifts is clearly giving hospitality to young people in the neighbourhood. But as I’ve told numerous people, I myself do not have any particular gifts in that area. Yet God has called us together for a reason; and together, in relationship with each other, we can seek to find the mind of God for the congregation collectively.
And finally, I think that being a healthy Christian congregation means also to be a congregation that is open to new relationships.
And it’s not just about being open to new people who come and want to worship with us. It’s about being open to new relationships with other groups and other types of people.
To be a Christian means first to stand in relationship with God and secondly to stand in relationship with other people. To be a Christian means to know that being wrong can be forgiven – because we know ourselves to be forgiven by God.
Forgiving and Community
To be a Christian also means to spread the Good News to others that being wrong can be forgiven.
As people who have received the grace of God’s forgiveness, Christians are called to spread this grace of forgiveness to all with whom we come in contact. Our ability to forgive means that we are safe people with whom to have a relationship. We are people in whose company others can risk being known; because they know that their being-wrong can be forgiven.
This is the Gospel flame of grace that we have been given to carry to all the world. But we can’t give it away to others until we stand in relationship with them.
And so my prayer for this congregation this morning is that: First, that each individual in it truly knows the grace and forgiveness that God offers through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Secondly, that we support one another in our faith journeys and that every individual is given the space to journey honestly and to ask honest questions. And finally, I pray that our congregational life helps us to reach out to those outside the Christian community to spread the light of the Gospel.
Being wrong can be forgiven. We are known by God as we are and we are fearfully and wonderfully made. May we rejoice in the freedom of the Gospel. Amen.