You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. And to all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Greetings on the Feast of Michael and All Angels!
I would like to start by thanking you all for the wonderful welcome we have received since moving into the Vicarage at the beginning of August. Thank you to those who sent cards and flowers, thank you to those who gave financially to help us get the place habitable again, and thank you to those who gave so generously of their time to help us clean, paint or reclaim the garden from the wilderness. I know that Jo, Bethan and Bartholomew would agree that we couldn’t have wished for a warmer welcome.
Thank you also to everyone across the three parishes who has worked so hard over the last three weeks. I know that you work hard all the time and, further, that you have had to work harder still during the interregnum. However, after that tea-time when the news broke of our Late Queen’s death, there was yet more to be done. Within an hour of the news, our churches were open, with the Books of Condolence flanked by candles, flowers and an official photo of Her Late Majesty. Certainly in St Eustachius, the first people arrived to pay their respects and light a candle within half-an-hour. During the following week so many of us were involved in preparing services, ringing bells, ensuring supplies of candles were topped up and a range of other background jobs. Our services of commemoration were done brilliantly, culminating in the civic service for West Devon in Tavistock. Then, without a pause for breath, it was straight into preparations for the licensing service and the Benefice Eucharist, both of which were cracking occasions.
On the back of all this, it is perhaps unsurprising that that lots of us are tired. And we are, after all, coming towards the end of the (Church) year, too. The season of remembering is just over the horizon – with All Saints’ Day, All Souls Day and Remembrance Sunday – and then comes Advent Sunday and the start of a new year. So, maybe now is a time for us to collectively draw breath, to hit the ‘pause’ button and to spend some time praying and listening to the Lord, asking him to give us a vision for the year ahead. We only have a finite amount of energy, time and resources and I believe we need to focus those things where they are going to make the most difference.
At my licensing, Bishop Robert reminded us of the three mission priorities of the Diocese, notably to grow in prayer, to serve the people of Devon with joy (those last two words being essential) and to make new disciples. I sense that our vision for this team will flow out of and reflect those three priorities, with a focus on making new disciples. When Jesus called Matthew, the tax collector, to follow him, he got up immediately. The Gospel then tells us of a meal at Matthew’s house, where lots of ‘tax collectors and sinners’ were present, and Jesus was there. Matthew had only been following Jesus for a few hours and already he was drawing others to the Lord. What a great example for us!
The Gospel tells us that when the Pharisees saw this they were indignant and took the disciples to task. These were not the right kind of people for someone like Jesus to associate with. But Jesus overheard and told them that he had come for those who were, as it were, on the outside. My brothers and sisters, the Church is not a club. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great German theologians of last century, who was hanged in a concentration camp by the Nazis, said that the Church is only truly the Church when it exists for and is focussed on those who are not its members. In other words, when we are about sharing God’s love with the world and sharing the Good News of Jesus with others in such a way that they, too, are drawn into a relationship with him.
If we are to do this and to bear fruit, we need to start by loving one another. It is, after all, the ‘new’ commandment Jesus gave the disciples at the Last Supper. And it applies to us as well. It’s not an optional club rule we can choose to ignore. The people around us, even those we don’t necessarily get on with so readily, even the ones who sometimes annoy us, are given to us, as a gift from the Lord, as a gift ‘in the learning of love’. I refer you back to the passage from Colossians that I started with, and to the final verse. On top of all those qualities he lists, Paul tells them to ‘put on love’. He is telling them (and us) how to live as Christians.
So, as we draw breath over these next few weeks, in readiness for a new Church year and a new season in the mission of our parishes, let us start by asking God the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts afresh, to melt us, mould us and fill us anew, to break our often stony hearts and be helped to really love one another, because when people start to come – and if we pray, if we dare to trust that God will, indeed, answer our prayers for growth, if we are bold in inviting people and being ready to give account of the hope we have in us – then we want them to find a community whose hallmark is love. If they find that, then they will want to be part of it.