When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralysed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic – ‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’ And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’
Throughout the Church of England there is a folk-lore which suggests that, within the living memory of many, our churches were packed to the doors every week. This is, of course, folk-lore. It does not take much serious research to find the truth. There certainly were times when congregations were consistently larger, although not that much larger, than they are today. But that was in a time when society was organized in a very different way. That was in a time when shops were closed on Sundays, and when social activities revolved around evenings and other days of the week. Today’s more secular attitude mitigates against large congregations on Sunday mornings, but it does not mean that there is less need for our churches to feed the faith of the population.
In today’s reading we encounter these words: So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them. In the church where I served before moving to Lincolnshire there was a photograph in the priests’ vestry. That photograph depicted a church where so many [were] gathered around that there was no longer room for them. This was often referred to as a sign of that church’s decline over the last four decades. However, photographs do not tell the whole truth! When we did a little research into the provenance of that photograph, we discovered that it had been taken at a Deanery confirmation service. The church was so full because there were confirmation candidates, their families and friends, and representatives of six congregations packed into a church which seated just 150 people. A pedant might well point out that a similar service would attract just such a large congregation today!
The arguments about church attendance are, of course, a distraction when we consider the mission and ministry of the Church at this point in the twenty-first century. There are many social indicators that demonstrate a continuing desire in many to have their faith fostered and fed. It is the Church’s responsibility to find the most effective way of doing that.
The Church of England is facing a time of difficulty that is no different from that faced by many other organisations. The prolonged effects of the pandemic have brought about further levels of change which many find difficult to handle. Suddenly, the certainty of ‘Sunday morning’ church services, and other fixed points in the weekly church calendar do not align with the way in which lives are lived in the ‘real’ world. The Church is faced with a dilemma. Are the ‘fixed points’ of Monday fellowship groups, Tuesday house groups, even Friday choir practice, essential elements of our faith, or should we be seeking ways to meet people where they and their needs really are?
Two thousand years ago Jesus was at home in Capernaum. He was not in the synagogue or in any other formal place of gathering or worship … he was at home. His presence was sufficient to bring people together … so many that there was no longer room for them. Given that he was at home, there would not have been space for hundreds of people, but there were more than could be accommodated in a normal domestic dwelling. Perhaps our prayers should be focused on accommodating and nurturing the few in order that the many may, in their time, feel the welcome of the loving and all-embracing Jesus Christ in their lives. Perhaps our prayer should be for the strength to step outside our beloved routines in order that Jesus might step in and show us the way he wants us to follow.