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It is such a pleasure and a privilege to welcome Lizzie and Phil into our church family. And our hope and prayer for both of you is that you will feel very welcome and very loved and that you will know our support and encouragement for you both as you enter this new phase of your life together.
We thank God for you and we look forward to your ministry here at St. Andrew’s. And, as Lizzie enters into this new ministry, this new way of life, it is our deep responsibility to care for her and support her in ministerial development.
And things have changed quite a lot in this regard over the years - and all for the better, I must say. Today is quite a special day for me personally, because it was 23 years ago today that I was ordained in Lichfield Cathedral and things were a little different for us young Curates back then. Let me tell you about my first 24 hours in ordained ministry…
I was ordained Sunday afternoon at about 2.00 and then I started work properly on the Monday morning on the housing estate just outside Birmingham, which was my first post. Well, my Vicar decided to take a day off on my first day and so I got up, put on my dog collar and sat at my desk wondering what on earth a Vicar does for a living. I had no papers to shuffle around, so I sat there filling my stapler and arranging my new pens in colour order and sharpening my pencils, thinking “What on earth am I supposed to do?”
And then the phone rang.
It was our Parish Administrator. There had been a suicide on our housing estate: could I please go and sit with the family?
So with my nerves jangling, I went round the house and the police where there and an ambulance and I went into the house. The body of the suicide victim was still there and I tried to remain calm and composed as I walked past. And then I sat with the family and tried to bring some sort of comfort for the next few hours.
And, of course, the inevitable question came from one family member: “How long have you been a Vicar, then?”
I stared down at my shoelaces and said, “Since yesterday afternoon…”
Within 2 weeks, I had done my first funeral – the suicide victim - and, I have to say, the start to my Curacy was a real baptism of fire and I’m not sure that I have ever got over it..!
But I am glad to say that things are not like that any more
The training for Curates, particularly in the last 3 years, has improved immensely and we will not be expecting Lizzie to go to a suicide situation tomorrow morning!
I put an insert into the pewsheet recently about what it means to be a Curate. I hope you have all seen it: if not, there will be some spare copies at the back. But I do want to stress again some of the points I mentioned in that:
The most important is this: that it takes 6 years to train to be a Vicar. Lizzie has done 3 years at college and the next 3 years training are here at St. Andrew’s. So Lizzie is not a Vicar – she is learning to become a Vicar and it is really important for us to remember that as she becomes incorporated into church life here. We need to remember that Lizzie will be on a steep learning curve, having to adjust fairly quickly and to learn many new skills over the coming months and years and we have to encourage Lizzie as she learns rather than treat her as someone who has all the answers and all the skills already.
That means being patient and being kind, being loving and supportive all the while. Most things in ministry will be new for Lizzie, even though she comes will lots of experience already, and we must give Lizzie space and time to grow into the role. And I have no doubt that we will do just that…
One of the greatest acts of kindness you showed me when I arrived 2 years ago was that for weeks and weeks after my arrival, every time I had a conversation with you, you started off by telling me your name again. Even after 3 or 4 months, some of you were kindly reminding me of your name at the beginning of every conversation. I cannot tell you how important that was for me and I would urge you to do the same for Lizzie. In this coming weeks alone, Lizzie will meet literally hundreds of new people: that’s a lot of faces and a lot of names to remember! So I am sure that you will help her out with that!!
Lizzie is embarking on a new life today: and we give her all the support we can. Lizzie and Phil both join us at an important stage in the life-journey of this church as we seek to increasingly become a Mission-Shaped Church. And, as we all know, there are lots of areas of growth for us at the moment and lots of challenges that we all face as a community together. And I have chosen this passage from Acts of the Apostles for us to think about this morning – the calling of Matthias to be an apostle – to help us reflect on Lizzie’s calling into the ordained ministry here at St. Andrew’s and also for us to reflect together on the type of community God wants us to be and how we can live out together our calling to be a mission-shaped church.
It’s an important passage – so if you want to follow it with me it’s in the New Testament – the second half of the Bible on page 126 of the Bibles in the pews…
The event in this story happens immediately after the Ascension of Christ back to heaven. And the disciples had left the Mount of Olives, presumably in complete shock, bewildered by the turn of events and they had returned to Jerusalem.
And a couple of verses before our reading, we are told that they went to an upstairs room together to pray. Sometimes, it is assumed that they went back to the upstairs room where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus in order to feel close to him again. But I think that’s unlikely, because Luke uses two different Greek words for ‘upstairs room’ in his account of the Last Supper and this return to an upstairs room in Acts. And in this story from Acts, the type of room he speaks of is actually the prayer room and study of a rabbi - not a general room for eating in. And it’s only a small point but I think there’s something interesting in that because, in the light of the shock they were feeling with the crisis events of their life, they sought sanctuary in the traditional religious structures; a rabbi’s prayer room.
And I think that there is an important point for our ministry at St. Andrew’s here, that there are many people in our community in Enfield who, when they go through times of stress and crisis, will seek sanctuary in the comfort of the traditional church. And we need to be ready to welcome them in at that point, asking nothing of them, but only providing hospitality for them in their time of need.
We have seen, haven’t we, just how popular the votive candle stand is and the prayer tree and we know that this church has many, many visitors throughout the week: people just wanting to come and pray in the quiet of a church when they are going through difficult times in life. We must not underestimate the powerful ministry that an open church during the week offers, and we supplement that with hospitality and welcome ourselves.
So the disciples pray together in the context of the familiar: a rabbi’s prayer room. And, after a while, they decide that it is time to go public again and see what God has in store for this community he has drawn together over the previous few years.
So we read in verse 15: “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about 120 people). And, as we might expect, there is something significant in the fact that there were 120 people present because, in Jewish Law at that time, 120 men gathered together was the requisite number to form and formalise a new community with its own council and leadership structures.
So there’s something very intentional about Peter’s actions here: he recognises the need for order and structure amongst the people of God and he waits until the time is right and then begins to formalise the community of the church.
And then he stands up to speak and he announces that the time has come to replace Judas with a new apostle. And to do that, Peter proposes a qualification for finding a new apostle in verses 21 and 22: “So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”
The qualification was that the new apostle must have spent time with Jesus and been a personal witness to his glory.
When we think about the great heroes of the faith, we might think about those people whose names are written large in the history books: the Wesley brothers, Martin Luther, Mother Teresa and so on. People who had an extraordinary call on their lives and achieved extraordinary things. But if we thought a little more personally about that questions - who are the heroes of the faith to us - we may come up with a very different answer…
For me, the heroes are those people who nurtured me in the faith when I was an arrogant and annoying teenager: local church people who never gave up on me. The heroes of the faith are some elderly people I have known in my life; people who have had a quiet faith but been faithful churchgoers, faithful lovers of Jesus for 40, 50, 60, 70 even 80 years, faithfully praying for the work of the local church. The heroes of the faith are some people I have known who have faced death fearlessly and with Christian dignity; a shining example of how to die well.
These, to me, are the true heroes of the faith. Ordinary people, living ordinary lives, doing ordinary things and yet, in their ordinariness, there was exhibited to me an extraordinary faith. And the reason for their extraordinary witness was because they had met with Jesus in the ordinariness of life and had found him in the mundane of daily living: they had spent time with Jesus and were witnesses to his glory.
Now Lizzie comes to us as a Curate today after years of experience as a Parish Assistant and three years of theological education and with a dog collar round her neck. And we may think that she is an extraordinary woman following an extraordinary calling: and so she is…
But what qualifies Lizzie for this role is not any deep, supernatural spirituality that she has but the fact that she fulfils the qualification for discipleship that Peter lays down here: that she is an ordinary person who has discovered the extraordinary God in the ordinary of life.
And that is surely true of each one of us – whether we have a dog collar or not…That our qualification to be a disciple of Jesus is that, to some degree, we have experienced the extraordinary of God in the ordinary of life.
And this seems to me to be what lays behind the call of the replacement apostle: someone who had found the extraordinary God in the ordinary of life. And so, in our story from Acts, two names were recommended: Matthias and Joseph called Barsabbas, also known as Justus. So the disciples prayed together: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship…”
And, knowing the tradition of Scripture, we might have expected a calling on God to perform a supernatural miracle to show everyone who the next Apostle to be chosen. Writing on the wall or a thunderstorm or a voice from heaven - anything like that would have done…
But what happens? This reading says: “They cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles”.
How ordinary can you get?
The apostles cast lots – a bit like flipping a coin - and that was that. We might have expected something more dramatic!
But I think there is something for us to learn in the ordinariness of how Matthias was chosen. Matthias was an ordinary man. We don’t hear anything extraordinary he ever did, before or after his call. Matthias was an ordinary man, chosen to be an apostle in a most ordinary way. Casting lots – a roll of the dice. An ordinary man, ordinary apostles, using an ordinary system of decision-making to bear witness to an extraordinary God.
And that, fundamentally, is what the church is all about. Here we are: wearing a dog collar or not wearing a dog collar, all very ordinary people living in church community in an ordinary way, doing our best to stumble our way to God, getting things right, getting things wrong, moments of being strong in faith, moments of being weak in faith, sometimes honouring to God, sometimes dishonouring to God…Dog collar or no dog collar, all of us are just ordinary people trying to get it right with God, but so often getting it wrong…
And yet, by doing so, in the strength and the weakness that all of us have in our faith, we are bearing witness to the power of an extraordinary God. Because the qualification of discipleship, as we mentioned earlier, is that we ordinary people spend time in the presence of an extraordinary God. You and I may have spent years living in the presence of God. You and I may have spent years knowing what it is to have Jesus as our Lord and Saviour. You and I – ordinary people - know what it is to love and be loved by an extraordinary God.
And so the beautiful things about this story from Acts, the calling of Matthias, is that, actually, it is a story about our calling. Ordinary people being called by an extraordinary God. And that is why Paul was able to write in his letters that he could never boast in himself and his own achievements but that he could always boast in the awesome power of God. And so it is with us: we don’t boast in ourselves but we can boast in the extraordinary love and the extraordinary power of God whom we have had the privilege to call our Lord for so many years.
And the sacrament we will receive in a few minutes is, of course, the ultimate symbol of what we celebrate today. The ordinariness of bread and wine symbolising for us the extraordinary sacrificial love of God made manifest in the life and death of Jesus Christ. In the Eucharistic meal we share, the ordinary and the extraordinary come together in one moment, in one time, in one place. The bread and the wine. The body and blood of Christ.
And so it is we celebrate our relationship with the living God, the extraordinary God, at work in the ordinariness of our lives.
So what do we learn from this passage as a church in Enfield? To sum it all up very briefly, I think there are 4 points for us here:
1. St. Andrew’s must be a safe place for those in crisis
Just as the disciples met together in the safety of the rabbi’s study, so we must work hard to create an environment at St. Andrew’s where people will feel safe and at home during the most difficult times in their lives.
St. Andrew’s is not my church. St. Andrew’s is not the PCC’s church. St. Andrew’s is not Lizzie’s church. St. Andrew’s is not your church. St. Andrew’s is God’s church – and he welcomes in the hurting and the broken and our task is only to facilitate that
2. St. Andrew’s must be a community with a purpose
Just as Peter waited until there were 120 men present to form a community, so we are a community formed with a purpose, which is to worship God and tell others the Good News of Jesus. We have a Mission Action Plan to facilitate that work, that purpose and we must continue to be intentional in unfolding the MAP.
3. St. Andrew’s must be a place where we share personal experiences of Jesus in our lives
We are witnesses to the gory of God in our lives. Each one of us has a story to share with others about how we have met with God in our lives. We must share those stories to encourage one another.
4. St. Andrew’s must be a place where the extraordinary God is found in the ordinary of life
The miraculous is in our midst: an extraordinary God is at work in our ordinary lives and we should be seeking the hand of God in the simple things of life.
The Word became Flesh: he didn’t become Superman or Spiderman! The Word became Flesh and we find the Word in the Flesh-ness of our everyday lives and we need to help one another find God in the ordinary.
So this passage from Acts may seem innocuous enough. But here we learn crucial lessons about what it means for us to be Church: basic lessons, fundamental lessons – but crucial all the same.
So Lizzie and Phil, welcome to St. Andrew’s. Welcome to our church family. Welcome into this place that is frail, vulnerable, often broken, this place of stumbling around where we try to discern God’s will and do our best to follow it – but not always successfully.
Lizzie and Phil, welcome to this very ordinary church filled with very ordinary people and thank you both for bringing your ordinariness to us.
And Lizzie and Phil, as you work out over the next 3 years what it means to be ordinary in the context of this ordinary church filled with ordinary people, may each one of us grow in our knowledge and experience of our loving God – who is far from ordinary in so many ways but has chosen for the Word to become Flesh and embrace both the ordinary and the extraordinary in one state of being.
And our prayer is that as we continue to develop together a church that is safe, that is purposeful, that is a place of story-sharing, that is extraordinary in its ordinariness so God’s name will continue to be glorified. Amen.