From today’s Gospel lection: “35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”
In these Sundays after the feast of the Epiphany the focus is on the revelation of Jesus. It is fairly easy to see that this story about John the Baptist is intended to be understood as an epiphany or revelation. S John was declaring who Jesus was to two of his disciples. The scripture tells us that the two disciples heard what John said and followed Jesus.
Another way in which we can understand Epiphany is by considering the words mission and evangelism. Today these words are vital for the church in which we find ourselves. All around the world our particular church, as well as other historic denominations, are finding that our numbers are dwindling. In so many places parishes are being closed down because they are not able to pay their way – the number of people at church on Sunday does not generate enough money to pay a priest.
Different dioceses try to deal with the problem in many different ways. In some, as in this Diocese of Auckland, it is by appointing a priest as a part time incumbent. In other dioceses two or more parishes might be clustered together – still as independent parishes, but having the same incumbent. I know of one vicar in East Anglia in the Church of England who has seven old churches as part of his living. Imagine having seven Annual Meetings a year and seven Vestry meetings each month!
The challenge for us is to ask ourselves why this has happened, and what we can do. If we are brutally honest with ourselves the main reason for the parlous state of the church is us; that is the people who make up each parish and the clergy appointed to minister in them.
The Gospel which the church has been proclaiming for more than two millennia is still the same. The God whom we worship in the church is also still the same. The aspect of the church that has changed is the way in which we do things.
Some places have decided that the thing which will bring people in is if the worship is modernised. Vicars and worship committees have fiddled with the language of the liturgy and the music used in it. In the Church of England the General Synod is looking at amending the canons about the robes the clergy wear in church; allowing them not to wear any, as already happens illegally in many parish churches up and down England. In some cases there has been an increase for a time, but all too often the decline has returned. In one parish in London the Sidespeople hand out muffins to the congregation at the beginning of the sermon!
In some instances churches have decided that they should not emphasise the worship aspect of their existence, but rather place the emphasis on their being a community drawn together by what they believe, although this often has a very wide application. These churches have found that they are suffering because the world of today is one in which people are not joining organisations as they did in times gone by.
There are any number of other examples we could think about which would help us understand why our church is dying. A research project undertaken in 2005 suggested that main line churches could expect that their attendance in 2005 would be reduce to 10% by 2020. In other words if there were 50 souls in church in 2005 there would be 5 in 2020.
I believe the feast of the Epiphany directs us away from despair to the position where we take the mission of the church seriously. It has to do with worship. At the core of worship is the mystery of the Godhead. When we gather in church for worship we should fix our eyes on Jesus. He is the one whom we will meet in our liturgy. He is the one who will feed us with his Body and Blood in the sacrament of the Altar. He is the one who, when he is lifted up, will draw all to himself.
The story is told of a retired Irish labourer who met his friends in the village pub every morning at opening time. About an hour before opening some of Paddy’s friends noticed that he would be seen walking across the village green and entering the parish church. Just before opening time Paddy would come out of the church and walk over to meet his friends at the pub. It was the same Monday to Saturday, week in and week out.
After some months his friends could not take the suspense any longer. They knew he was not going to Mass, as there was not a daily Mass in their church anymore. This was because they no longer had a resident priest, but shared their priest with two other villages, in one of which he lived.
They asked Paddy what he did every day in the church. His reply was very simple. He told them that he went into the church and sat himself down on a pew in the Sacrament chapel – his knees were a little dodgy these days so he could not kneel. He said, “I then look at Jesus, and he looks at me, and we love each other.”
That is what we should be doing in church: looking at Jesus and loving him. We will find that he will do the same. We will get caught up in the mystery which is the love of God.
That then is our mission: to tell people about the love of Jesus and to invite them to join us in experiencing that love. That is what S John did in our text from today’s Gospel. He exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ The amazing thing is that his two disciples left him and followed Jesus.
All the other things we do in the church are distractions; pulling us away from the mystery into which we are called. That mystery was declared to the world at the Epiphany; it was repeated in the events on the Mount of Transfiguration; it was shown in the miracle at the wedding at Cana. This mystery is declared by the voice of God the Father from the cloud: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
May God bless you more and more with the love of Jesus.