Sunday, 24 May 2009

Mind the gap

Readings: Acts 1 v 15-17; 21-26

As I emerged from the opening session of Assembly on Thursday, I met one of the other ministers whose name had also gone forward this year to be considered as moderator. There are usually 3 names selected from all the nominations before voting takes place. The moderator is selected from these three.
I wondered how he must be feeling, having not been the one selected.
Was he simply immensely relieved that he hadn’t been selected, that he wasn’t now “in the hot seat”?
Or was he wondering: what if?

In our reading in Acts this morning, we find the early church, meeting to plug a gap.
Jesus had 12 disciples and, now, they are one short.
Two names are proposed.
The names of two men who have been around for a while, two men who have witnessed and experienced Jesus first hand, are put forward.
By drawing lots, one of them is selected.
Matthias joins that band of disciples.
And Justus doesn’t.
Did Justus feel rejected?
Or relieved?
And did it really matter anyway?

What were the disciples doing when they got together to elect another disciple?
Were they following tradition?
Traditions spring up really quickly in the church.
Traditions very quickly become “its aye been done that way”
Did there really have to be 12 disciples?
Was that the magic number?
Or were they simply plugging a gap?

I’d like to suggest that what we are witnessing in this account of the early church in the book of Acts is a scene that’s been played out time after time in the history of the church.
A scene that continues in our church today.
We see a gap.
And we move to plug that gap.
It doesn’t really matter if the remit is one that’s still valid.
It doesn’t really matter if the person selected is suitable for the perceived role.
There’s a gap and we can’t have gaps in the church.
Because there’s always the risk that if we leave a gap unfilled, we’ll discover a way around it.
We’ll find another way to have that job done – or, even worse, we’ll discover that the role vacated is one that’s surplus to requirement.
It’s safer just to plug the gaps than to work out whether what we do is still required or even desired.
Some are selected, some are rejected and the wheels grind on.
And, just like those first disciples, the folk we consider suitable for filling the vacant slots are folk who have been around for a while, folk who know the lay of the land, who are familiar with the tradition and who will just slot in.
We don’t want anyone who might not know the ropes.
Or folk who might question why its “aye been done this way”.
No boat rockers.
Just solid, dependable gap fillers.

At least the disciples had an excuse for acting in the way they did.
They have just seen Jesus being taken up into heaven.
Its 40 days since the resurrection – the day of ascension.
And Jesus has finally gone.
And, what’s more, its another 10 days until Pentecost.
And so the promised Spirit has not yet come upon them.
They have a good excuse for wanting to simply plug the gap and get on with the great commission that Jesus gave them – “to go into all the world and make disciples”.
Yes, the disciples had a good excuse for wanting to maintain tradition and carry on as normal.

What about us?
What is our excuse?
We, who live in the light of Pentecost.
We, who know the power of the Holy Spirit?
What is our excuse for resuming normal service – for carrying on as always - as though nothing has happened and nothing has changed?
What is our excuse?

Although I’m fairly involved in General Assembly this year, I’m not a commissioner.
What I’m involved in is the fun events.
We’re heading back through for a service tonight.
That’s a tradition that only started last year at assembly.
There’s the huge service at St Giles in the morning and then a less formal service – complete with praise band of which I am part – in the evening.
On Friday night, I had the opportunity to participate in another fun event – and that was the celebration of church Without walls.
Its 10 years since the commission set up reported to the General Assembly and Church Without Walls became a familiar label for all those things that didn’t quite fit into normal church tradition.
The Church Without Walls movement explicitly encouraged innovation, fresh thinking.
Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
As well as space and encouragement for new initiatives, church Without walls also encouraged reclaiming old traditions too.
Reclaiming old traditions because they had a new relevance for the church of today.
We have a great spiritual heritage.
And lots of our ancient Celtic spirituality has great appeal and deep meaning for folk today.
So it’s not all about new fangled ideas.
It’s not all about maintaining tradition for tradition’s sake.
Rather, it’s about working out what is needed, what is right for our situation today.
I was asked to share briefly on Friday night, what difference Church Without Walls had made to my ministry.
And what I said was that the huge impact of Church Without Walls for me had been about permission giving.
Church Without Walls gave permission to do a new thing.
To dream dreams, to share those dreams and to try new and old things in different settings.
And so for the past few years, on Good Friday, I took communion onto the streets.
We called it Blood on the Street.
I simply set up a table in front of a fast food store in the parish I worked in then.
I set out bread and wine.
And printed an invitation – in the words of Jesus: Do this to remember me.

And people who wouldn’t find their way into a church building, along with some who often would, came and broke bread to remember Jesus.
Blood on the Street.

The thing is:
No matter how much we try and maintain our traditions.
No matter how much we try to plug the gaps.
God is already out there working in our community.
And we have to play catch up.
We have to find out what God is doing – and go and join in.
And all the structures in the world won’t change that.
All the formality and election and selection won’t get to the business of sharing the love and the grace of God in this community that we have been called to serve.
How do we do that?

In the sacrament of baptism this morning, we are reminded how.
Before we even understand, God bestows grace and love on us.
God freely gives us all the gifts of ministry.
God receives us, welcomes us – AND ORDAINS US.

Baptism is a beautiful sacrament.
It is a beautiful symbol.
But that’s not the end.
The joy of baptism is accompanied by responsibility.
The responsibility of sharing God’s love and God’s grace as gifts for the world.
Disciples, like the 12, disciples like Matthias and even disciples like Justus who didn’t quite make it into the 12.
In baptism WE become disciples, called, not to plug gaps, but to go into the world, to live and to share the gospel.
And that’s awesome.
Its an awesome gift.
And an awesome responsibility.

So if you feel you are here this morning because you have a duty to fulfil.
If you feel you are here to maintain tradition.
If you feel you are here plugging a gap.
Hear God’s call for you.

Discipleship is a gift from God.
Bestowed at baptism.
We can see that gift as another burden.
Another entry on that never ending list of things to get around to.
Or we can see it as the marvellous, unpredictable joy that it is.
Discipleship – God calling us to serve others in all sorts of surprising, unpredictable, grace-filled ways.
God calls us to that.
God equips us for it.
Do YOU accept the challenge?

To God be glory. Amen.

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