Whatever else the Church is called to do beyond itself, in the way that it shares the good news of Jesus with those who have not heard or understood it, and through the programmes that it offers in working for the justice and peace which God desires for this world – putting all those things which the Church is called to do as an extension of its life to one side – the primary calling of the Church (within itself) is to be a model family. A family that centres our life around God as our heavenly Father, and through which each one of is nurtured and supported to live out authentically Christian lives that bear the hallmarks of Jesus, as we love and care for one another.
The dominant image of the writers of the New Testament goes even beyond the idea of us being a family together. It likens the Church to a single body of disciples in which each one of us is a part – some of us feet, some of us hands, some of eyes and ears. Each joined together, each dependent upon each other for our ability to live an able, rather than a disabled life. So how do we live as God’s family together here at Saint Peter’s?
The first thing to say is that we recognise that we were essentially a group of strangers who have only been brought together because of the love and grace of God and the hope of the good news of Jesus. We were strangers who have been brought together by God, to be his family, his body, his life, here in this place. The good news for those who have been part of this family for a long time, is that our family is strengthened and renewed as it is changed by every new person who joins us: new members of our family force us think again, to change and to grow in our perspectives and experiences. The good news for those who are recent arrivals, is that there is a great deal of wisdom already here in the family to be shared: which means we have a collective family memory which will prevent us from making the same mistakes too often.
I say that we were strangers, because if we are honest, many of us would not have naturally chosen to associate with each other unless we had found each other here. There are a great variety of people in the life of this congregation – and we have different interests and outlooks, personalities and ways of doing things: just like, in fact, any normal family. The point is that what makes life in the Church so exciting and challenging at the same time is that we are not members of God’s family because we were attracted to each other, (because we are all the same): we are members of God’s family because God has adopted us, and drawn us together here despite our differences. When we are not thinking clearly we might have the sense that we are here because we made a personal choice to be here, but even if it felt like that for us, I believe that we are here because God invited us first, God desired for us to be here, at this time, to share in the life of his family together.
The goal of any family is to do all that it can to help each of its members to thrive and develop and to become all that it is possible for them to be. We long for each of the families that live around us in this parish to be places where children are given the best possible start in life by being nurtured and encouraged in healthy stable environments; we long for families to be places in which men and women are enabled to explore the fullness of how they can best use their gifts in the community and the work place; we long for families where the sick and disabled, and the elderly and infirm are valued and cared for, and surrounded by loving support. If were going to sum up what we believe God’s vision is for all families, in a couple of word, we might talk about families that live in ‘loving maturity’. Loving, caring and nurturing; on the one hand; and maturing on the other – valuing each member of the family without trying to possess or diminish, or control. Many of you are experts as parents, grand parents and even great grand parents, about how to bring that about in your own families. But how are we trying to be a loving and mature family together here at Saint Peter’s?
Let me identify for you, the three main foundational buildings blocks that we are focusing upon here, within our internal family life to help this family to thrive.
Firstly, at the heart of our family’s life is worship. We have been gathered together by God, adopted and brought into this family in order to live lives that are punctuated by worship, and a grateful awareness that all that we have has been given to us by our heavenly Father, to live together to the glory of God. Regularly gathering for worship is an essential part of our well-being as a family, and a sign of our commitment not only to God but to one another.
We have in place here opportunities that enable every member of the family who wish to, to worship together regularly. The normal place for us to do this is on Saturday evening or Sunday morning; but for those who are unable to, there are shorter services throughout the week, and particularly on Wednesday and Friday mornings, where we can gather together as a family for worship. For those people who are unable to be connected with this family in worship through any of those opportunities we have services twice each month at Greenhills Lodge and Nursing Home, and extended communion in homes (for those who are housebound) and in hospitals. Through various circles of interconnectedness we have in place a structure to enable the whole family to be connected together (as a family) in worship.
Secondly, at the heart of our family’s life is the care that we give to each other, and we are working hard together to further develop what has been in place here for a long time, in order to ensure that every member of this family can be lovingly cared for appropriately. Through our pastoral partners network, the work of our parish pastoral workers, home visiting, our bereavement support group, the men’s fellowship, mother’s union, the St Egwin’s Guild, parish lunches, the friendship lunch, our young families’ Play Time, time for conversations over refreshments after services, and in many other ways we are trying to ensure that there is a way for everyone to fully belong in this family, and to be cared for within it.
We have, over many years, moved from a model of pastoral care in which one person – the priest – was the pastor; to a model of mutual care in which many many people in our family have responsibilities for offering care and support within our life. Recognising that the work of caring for each other within God’s family belongs to all of us not just a few of us.
Thirdly, at the heart of our family’s life is the goal of growing into maturity together. Just like a biological family, we know that families are at their best when they are able to nurture and encourage each other to grow – both adults and children alike. Central to the well-being of our family life, is the ongoing stimulation and transformation that can happen in each one of us from learning together. That’s why we seek to grow in understanding when we gather for worship, and why we have a series of different home groups and study groups, where we can grow in our understanding and experience together; that’s why we have special times in some of the seasons of the year to come together to learn more about the Bible and about our faith; that’s why we try to make use of the various programmes for learning offered by the Diocese and other Anglican organisations.
We know that in order for us to be a healthy family we need to worship together, we need to care for each other, and we need to encourage each other to continue growing in our faith. The work of connecting with those beyond us is enormous, and we need to continue to have the right foundations in place here in God’s family in order for us to be able to do that work of mission well.
In this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus tells two stories about things that are lost and then found. A shepherd has one hundred sheep, but one goes missing – so he goes off and finds it and brings it back again rejoicing. A woman has ten silver coins, but loses one of them – so she lights a lamp and cleans out every corner of her home until it is found once more. The climax of the parables that Jesus tells is that when things that were missing are found the whole of heaven rejoices – earth and heaven are somehow aligned in the joy that something that was lost is found again. These stories are often interpreted to refer to drawing in people beyond the Church. But that kind of an interpretation seems to ignore the fact that the sheep and the coin were not found for the first time, they were things that had been there and had then been lost. So I want to suggest to you very simply this morning, that these are parables about the way that we act as God’s family together: the way that we love and care for each other.
As members of God’s family we each have a responsibility for being regular in our communal worship together, firstly to honour God, but secondly also to live out our commitment to being together and to encouraging one another. But more than that as a family we also have a duty, like the shepherd and the woman in the stories, to be alert to those who haven’t been here for a while, to gently find them and bring them home again. As members of God’s family we each have opportunities to show God’s love and grace to one another both informally every time we gather, but also through being involved in our various pastoral care and fellowship activities, so that no one may be lost because they have not received the care that they needed here. If we are someone who needs pastoral care we need to take responsibility to take the first step and to ask for care, so that the rest of this family can help us.
As members of God’s family we each have the choice as to how we will continue to grow in our faith, and encourage others to do the same, for the good of the whole family here, as well as for ourselves. The thing about being a family, is that everyone shares responsibility for making the family work. Families work, when the members of a family make them work. God has called us here and adopted us into his family. Let us then ensure together that no member of this family is lost through our indifference or lack of commitment, care or encouragement for each other, but instead – like the great images in Jesus’ parables – let us seek out those who have wandered to the edge of our family life (like the lost coin and the lost sheep) and let’s do all that we can to bring them back to the centre of things with the rest of us, as we worship and live and grow together for his glory.
Let no one be lost from this family because we did not go and find them. For great is the rejoicing in heaven when one who wandered off was found and brought home again.