What is Church? Part 2

So, in my last talk I likened the church to a group of people swimming in the sea, the sea being God. And in this analogy, some of us are only paddling, most are swimming but quite close to the shore and only a few have gone further out. And of course lots more people are still on the beach. But… some of them are probably edging towards the water and thinking about dipping a toe in and our job as those who have already taken the plunge is to convince them to do the same; to say, as I did last time, Come on in the water’s lovely…

 

Now, several people came up to me after that sermon and told me that they’d found that particular image extremely helpful and indeed inspiring and, to be honest, I’m not surprised because I believe that that image was directly inspired by God. Now I’m not saying that the sermon was inspired by God – although of course like all preachers I did pray both before and while writing it; and indeed before delivering it – but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Rather, that picture of the church as sea was based almost entirely on a prophecy that I was given nearly 20 years ago.

 

Now I hesitate to use the word prophecy because I don’t want people to think I’m some sort of religious maniac. Of course, given what they might’ve read about me on the internet [see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3604056/I-felt-the-attraction-of-the-dark-side.html] it may be a bit late for that but certainly I don’t want to make things any worse and I’m aware that prophecy is not something that people are comfortable with – inside the church as well as outside it.

 

Now to some extent this may be because they don’t understand what it is. To many people the word prophet means only someone who predicts the future – and the Old Testament prophets did sometimes say what God was going to do. But when New testament writers such as Saint Paul refer to prophecy they’re talking about hearing and relaying any message from God whether its about the future, the past or the present.

 

Now that may make some of you just as uncomfortable. I believe it was the Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz who said ‘If you talk to God, you’re praying. But if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia’ (although until I looked it up I assumed it was Woody Allen) and it’s precisely because I attended a Pentecostal church for several years – and as you probably know, Pentecostals are big on prophecy – it’s because of that that when I hear someone say ‘God told me’ or worse ‘The Lord said to me’ my first reaction is to duck. And of course the classic example of this is the man who went up to a woman in a Pentecostal church and said ‘The Lord has told me that you are going to be my wife’; to which she replied ‘Well that’s great but what a pity he forgot to say anything to my husband…’

 

But as those of you who have heard me preach before know, I’m not afraid to use the language of God speaking to us. Indeed, I would say that God has spoken to me in various ways on many occasions: through coincidences; or Godincidences if you prefer; through impressions or intuitions or feelings and through prophecies delivered by other people. And none of those people were wild-eyed lunatics; well not most of them; they were ordinary people like you and me and indeed my friend Roger the management consultant who gave me the prophecy about the sea…

Now that prophecy or message from God (which he delivered to me in a café in Notting Hill Gate) was originally about how God saw me and my ministry; and it both rang true to me at the time and gave me a vision which has inspired me (and now some of you as well) ever since. But how does any of this relate to our alleged topic: what is church?

 

Well, when Saint Paul talks about prophecy in his first letter to the Corinthians, he says if an unbeliever is in church and people are prophesying, the secrets of his heart will be disclosed and he will bow down before God and worship him declaring ‘God is really among you’!  And I think Paul is absolutely right: when Roger gave me that prophecy back in 1993, I knew that God was really real. I mean I knew that anyway but now I knew it even more.  And I also knew that God really knew me. Again, I knew that before but now I really knew it and in that moment I was so overcome with the presence of God that I burst into tears as I have many times since when God has spoken to me through the prophetic words of others or directly. So Paul’s vision of church excites me: I would love to be part of a church in which people really experience God, a church that people walk into as unbelievers and leave saying ‘Well, blow me down, it turns out God really exists after all…’

 

But I’m not sure how to reconcile that kind of church with the broad church I described last week, the church that gives the newcomer time and space to grow. And while some people might respond to prophecy in the way that Paul suggested, in the way that I did, just as many others would run away screaming or simply sneak out never to be seen again. And of course churches which allow and encourage prophecy like the Pentecostal one I used to attend – well, I think it’s fair to say that they often encourage a fair degree of insanity too. I gave you one example earlier and I could give you many more… So, how do we create a church culture in which there is both room for God to move in these more dramatic ways but also space for people who wouldn’t be comfortable with that?

 

Well, I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that; indeed, it is one of the great unanswered questions for me personally and I’m kind of hoping that we might work it out together over the next few years… but I would like to offer you a few brief thoughts…

 

Having talked about God moving in dramatic ways, we need to remember that right in the middle of his discussion of prophecy and other spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians Paul says ‘if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and knowledge but have not love I am nothing so clearly we need to remember what’s really important, what the Christian faith, what God is really about and obviously it’s love. However this can hardly be taken as a reason for saying that prophecy and spiritual gifts are unimportant because in the very next sentence Paul goes on to say ‘strive for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy because those who prophesy build up the church’. And it’s just after that that he says the thing we’ve already discussed about the life-changing effect, of nonbelievers seeing prophecy in action.

 

Of course, other people may get to the same place of falling to their knees saying ‘Wow, God is real after all’ in different ways. Caroline Spencer the church warden, told me a great story recently about a life-long atheist who walked into Canterbury cathedral and was instantly converted by the architecture and the atmosphere. Well, of course he was converted by the action of the Holy Spirit but the spirit worked through those earthly things just as he might work through beautiful music or a sunset or the kindness of a Christian neighbour. But, as a card-carrying charismatic, that is someone who believes that the spiritual gifts Paul talked about 2000 years ago are still part of what God wants for his church today, I am convinced that a church without prophecy is like a person without eyes or ears. And of course that is Pauline imagery itself…

 

Again, in the same part of 1 Corinthians (and you may find it useful to read the whole of chapters 12 to 14 of that letter to get a handle on where I’m coming from here); in chapter 12, he famously describes the church as the body of Christ and stresses that there are different members – eyes and ears, hands and feet – all of which are equally important; and that analogy may point us in the right direction on this issue… The church needs prophecy – but not in the main service perhaps. So, let there be a prayer ministry team praying with those who want it after the service and that’s the place in which God can move in that way if He wants – although of course I feel slightly uncomfortable telling God what He can do and when. Ultimately, He can do what He wants, when he wants, as He did on the first day of Pentecost. And my prayer for all of us is that we will be as open to whatever the Holy Spirit wants to do here as they were…