Sermon preached at 4 th Anniversary service of the Church of the Ascension, Loundsley Green, Chesterfield, 12th September 2004
First may I thank you for inviting me here tonight … it is very good to be back, and to meet some people have known for almost forty years, as well as many who have become part of the Church of the Ascension more recently. I’d like you to think back – if you can, and if you are old enough - to 1964. The world was then a very different place: Nelson Mandela was put in prison in South Africa in June of that year; Lyndon Johnson was re-elected as president of the USA. Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel prize for peace, and the Beatles had just become a worldwide sensation. When my family and I came to live on Pennine Way in 1966, I was too young to appreciate just how new the Church of the Ascension was. I think my main memories of 1966 are to do with England’s victory in the World Cup. But before long the Church here became part of our life – first during Stuart Munns’ time as vicar, then Martin Hulbert, and subsequently Geoffrey Babb (I think). I have affectionate memories of cubs and then briefly of scouts – and it seemed perfectly natural that we should meet here during the week for groups such as these and come back on Sunday for church services.
I didn’t appreciate until much later how unusual a multi-purpose church such as this actually was – and still is, in many ways. There are very few multi-purpose churches in Derbyshire – by far the majority are traditional in design, perhaps with a separate church hall, or maybe with a part of the church reordered, with the pews taken away for form space for other activities. It seems to me that today we should be looking for all possible ways in which the church can be at the heart of the community; there are many different ways of doing this, but the more I think of Loundsley Green, the more it seems that you were among the pioneers in this respect.
But there is also a risk that the distinctive nature of a church is lost if all that it does is to be part of the community. It is all well and good to provide space for local activities and voluntary groups, but a church must keep to its roots as well. So what should the place of a church be in society today? There are of course many different answers to this question. However, two answers are suggested by today’s readings:
- the story of Zaccheus …to help people to see God more clearly … of course we cannot see God himself, but we have through the life of Jesus, and through the pages of scripture, glimpses of what God is like, a revelation which points us in the direction God wants us to look. So through the witness and the service of the church we are helping people to see God more clearly – so that they too may grow in faith and love, and follow the ways of Christ.
- Secondly: what should the church not be: it should not be an end in itself … Jeremiah … the people of Israel who claimed to be holy because of their possession of the Temple… just because we go to church does not make us a holy people in itself. There is always a risk that Christians become too self-satisfied, too confident that they have a privileged place in God’s kingdom. We must remember the words of Archbishop William Temple, who said that the church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of non-members.
And of course we must also remember the origins of the word ‘Church’ – ekklesia … people called out … for witness and service – who in turn help others to see God more clearly.
So how are we to go about our task of helping people to see God and his Son Jesus? To do this, a church does not have to be large or glamorous or historic. It is the quality of the Christian life which is followed by its members which really matters. My thoughts turn here to my own memories; indeed very vivid memories of the residents of Ashgate Croft being part of the Church fellowship here – I didn’t realise at the time how unusual this link was, and again, the kindness and warmth of welcome which extended to these people made a deep impression on me, even though I did not know it at the time. I also think of examples in this church of commitment and faithfulness in the face of an increasingly secular and irreligious world – one little but symbolic example being the church’s determination to carry on with the Good Friday procession of witness around the estate, on one occasion in spite even of falling snow. This said something about Christian commitment which lodged deep within me. Then there are the links with the Methodist church, which go back a long way: there were always certain differences between us, which were respected, but we took it for granted that there would always be certain things that we’d do together. I’m delighted to see that the hard work of many people in Loundsley Green to build bridges across the denominations is finally bearing fruit with the formation of a Local Ecumenical Area.
There’s a question about this church which I’ve never known the answer to – and perhaps after the service someone can help me with it. Why was the church dedicated to the Ascension of Jesus? Was this something decided here, in Loundsley Green, or did someone somewhere else decree that this would be its name? Whatever the origins of the name, someone mischievously left a difficult legacy for those clergy who task it was to preach the sermon at your annual Patronal Festival: as the vicar of my first church in London said, the Ascension is the most difficult theme of all to preach on, in the church’s year. (Although there is a church in my current deanery, Ashbourne, with an even more difficult name – Norbury church is dedicated to Saint Barlok, about whom absolutely nothing is known).
I wonder what the feast of the Ascension – 40 days after Easter – evokes for you. We will never fully understand how Jesus, having risen from the dead, finally left this earth and rejoined his heavenly Father. But when we think of his Ascension into heaven, we are made to think of words like “triumph” – Jesus’ triumph over death and the completion of his work on earth; “hope” – the new hope which he gave to the disciples, that all was not lost, as they had feared, when he had died on the cross; and “promise” – Jesus’ promise that to his disciples that he would be with them for ever – and all those who believe in him – through the Holy Spirit, who was soon to come upon them, at the first Pentecost.
Today we live at a time of great change in the Church at large. You have already had to form links with neighbouring churches, and the process is no doubt going to continue as we follow through the so-called “Renewing Ministry” plans. The newspapers regularly carry stories of church decline, falling numbers, increasing costs, shortages of clergy. It is easy to become despondent and to wonder where God is leading us. But at times of transition and upheaval such as this, it is all the more important to remember those three words which lie at the heart of Jesus’ Ascension:
- “Triumph”: that whatever may happen to the Church, Jesus triumphed over death and evil, that all that his opponents could subject him to failed to deflect him from his task of bringing to humanity the offer of a new world order, an order based on love, forgiveness, compassion and service. Whatever happens to our church buildings, and our church groupings, these are the things that really matter in God’s eyes. Jesus’ triumph over sin evil is non-negotiable and irreversible.
- “Hope”: we must never lose hope. There is always the possibility that we may be taken by surprise by God, just as the disciples found new hope and new energy when Jesus returned from the dead, and as he helped to rebuild their faith in those days between the resurrection and the ascension.
- And finally “Promise”: God’s promise of the Holy Spirit, given to the first Christians before Jesus ascended into heaven, has not been withdrawn. We can still seek the guidance and the strength offered to us by the Holy Spirit as we try to find out what God’s will is for us – for each one of us, when we have to make difficult decisions, or at times of trouble; and for our church fellowship as a whole, as we look for ways of making our ministry more effective and try to find answers to the problems which affect many of our churches.
So may I congratulate you on your first forty years: I sincerely hope you won’t have the frustration of a church near Durham which recently wrote to me asking for help with a one million pound appeal – their church had also been built in the 1960s, but the workmanship was so poor that it has had to be demolished and they’re having to build a new one. But from what I know of the Church of the Ascension, your strengths – built up over the years – are far more important than the church building. For buildings will come and go, but far more important for us as Christians is to grow in faith, to share that faith, and to pass the faith on to the generations which will come after us. Amen.
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