The Jews gathered around Jesus and said:
How long will you keep us in suspense?
In a gospel reading that speaks of a Festival of Dedication, the identity of the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus’ words and works, and eternal life, you may wonder why we are beginning with the question asked by those Jews who gathered around Jesus:
How long will you keep us in suspense?
In the Church’s calendar, today is celebrated as a Dedication Festival for churches where we do not know the exact date of their dedication.
The majority of churches in our Benefice, along with many in our Deanery and Diocese are ancient, having been dedicated many centuries ago.
The records do not exist that would tell us the moment when a bishop stood in our churches for the first time and, basically, declared them ‘Open for business’, but, we do know that that did happen and that millions of people will have worshipped in our churches down those centuries … almost a thousand years of faithful prayer and worship.
And yet, we find ourselves, like many before us, living in a time of uncertainty.
The uncertainty I am referring to has nothing to do with politics and economics, or our recovery from the pandemic … this uncertainty surrounds the life and the future of our Church.
The Church of England is facing a crisis … that crisis has caused many to join those Jews who gathered around Jesus, some two thousand years ago, in asking: How long will you keep us in suspense?
People are fearful for the Church they have known all their lives, just as they are fearful for the future of their beautiful historical centres of prayer and worship … the dedication of which we celebrate today.
As is common with humanity, when we are confronted with a crisis we look both backwards and inwards … we try to pull the comfort blanket of the past tighter around ourselves … we cry out in despair.
I completely understand that feeling.
I, like so many others, began my life in the Church as a choirboy. I joined the pilgrimage of faith in the days of the Series 2 Holy Communion service, and the service of Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer. That was many years ago now … and, since then, I have experienced so many moments of ‘crisis’ in the life of the Church.
So … what is different today? Why does the feeling of suspense feel so much more compelling? Why are we finding ourselves in a darker place than ever before?
I would suggest that the answer to that question lies in the use of a new ‘category’ of Church identity … one that fills us with fear and dread … the category of Church closure.
Up and down the country, in every diocese, this phrase has been turned into a conspiracy theory … surely the Church hierarchy is simply trying to close down our churches.
I, for one, do not believe that.
The parish system, and the sense of belonging and ownership that accompanies it, has been in existence in this country since before the Norman Conquest … and there is no great plot to dismantle it … even though every church member will have to work harder to ensure its future …
Yes, there will have to be change … but, that change needs to be rooted in the way we shine out as beacons of Christ’s light, love and service in the community … and, that is not just the work of the clergy!!!!
Immediately before the beginning of this week’s gospel reading … in John 10:21 … we read these words: Again the Jews were divided because of [Jesus’] words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’
These are powerful words.
I include them because they reflect where the majority of us find ourselves on this Dedication Festival Sunday.
We love and value our churches.
But, we need to ask ourselves, how do we love and value them?
Every church has people who can recite the highlights of their church’s history but … our churches are not … or should not … be museums.
The history is interesting, and it helps us to understand our place in the centuries-old pilgrimage that has led from the buildings dedication to the present … but all that life is behind us.
All of that life should be inspiring us to even greater things.
Instead, we are fearful and, like the Jews who witnessed the living Jesus two thousand years ago, we have allowed ourselves to become divided.
Christ’s Church on earth is called to live in unity and peace … but we do not.
Just as we know better than any of our politicians, so we put ourselves in the position of saying: ‘We know better than the leaders of the Church … and Christ!!’
In the creed we say these words: We believe in one God.
The God in whom we believe is himself a model of how we should live in unity and peace.
The God in whom we believe is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
However we may understand the concept of the Holy Trinity, we can be sure that they are not a family that is at war within itself.
In the creed we also say: We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
The Church is holy because it is a community of believers that was instituted by Christ himself.
It is ‘catholic’ because it is universal … the life, light and hope of Christ is for all.
It is ‘apostolic’ because all who profess the Christian faith are called to accept the challenge of being ‘sent out’ (being apostles) in the name of Jesus Christ.
We are not called to sit in our beautiful ancient museums and repel all who dare speak of change.
In our diocese, as in every diocese, we are journeying through difficult times. These times are, indeed, rooted in the financial burden of maintaining and preserving these beautiful centres of prayer and worship.
But … there is hope.
I began by echoing the question of the Jews who had gathered around Jesus: How long will you keep us in suspense?
For those Jews the answer would come in a very short time … for us it came two thousand years ago.
Those divided Jews would see Jesus’ response to their question as a defeat … how could the long-awaited Messiah claim victory as he hung on a cross?
For us, it is different.
- We know that Christ rose from the dead.
- We know the new hope of the resurrection.
- We know the words of both the greatest commandments and Christ’s great commission.
- We know how to end the suspense!
Today, we gather in the churches for which we thank God.
Today, we are being invited to celebrate the fact that these churches exist.
Today, we are being challenged to set aside our introspection and negativity as we prove that we understand why the dedication of our churches is worth celebrating.
Today, we are called to acknowledge and accept our place in Christ’s flock … the flock of which Jesus said:
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish.
On this special day, let us thank God for our parish churches and for all they mean to us.
Let us also pray for the strength to play our part in securing a future that will lead others to take their place in Christ’s flock.
Let us pray that we might turn those feelings of dread and suspense into an energy that burns brightly with the love and the light of our risen Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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