What’s Church For? Church as Pilgrim People

This week’s image of the church is one you won’t find in so many words anywhere in Scripture, and yet it is implied on virtually every page. The word ‘pilgrim’ and its relative terms do not occur in my NIV version at all. And yet from that fateful moment in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden God’s people have been people on the move. Another landmark of pilgrimage comes in Gen 12 when God tells Abraham to ‘leave’ all that he knows and to ‘go’ to the place yet to be revealed to him. This is the essence of pilgrimage, leaving, journeying and, eventually, arriving. It is interesting that in the Bible arrival is often synonymous with ‘rest’: Hebrews 4 talks about this particularly. So a good definition of church which works well for me is that we are a bunch of people on a journey to the new heavens and earth, and inviting others to join us as we go. As a model of church this one has a lot going for it: it is dynamic, not static; it is purposeful, and it is evangelistically focussed. For those with the right mindset it can be an exciting, exploratory journey, with new possibilities and no opportunity to get bored. Some however find this model a bit exhausting, perhaps those who prefer a holiday lying on the beach in the same place they go every year rather than cruising the Caribbean or climbing Kilimanjaro.

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I can remember years ago hearing a charismatic speaker talking about the frequent accusations of ‘triumphalism’ levelled again the renewal movement. ‘I don’t believe in “triumphalism”’, he commented, ‘but I do believe in triumph!’ Since then my definition of ‘triumphalism’ has been ‘wanting your triumph too early before it’s ready’. I think there is something similar going on in church circles: so often we want our rest too early. Next time I’ll be looking at church as ‘haven’, the idea that church is a safe place amid the storms and ravages of life. By definition pilgrims do not play it safe, do not settle down, do not retrace old ground, but keep moving forward, setting their faces towards the new Jerusalem whatever hardship might await them on the way. Perhaps the greatest definition of a pilgrim lifestyle is that of Paul in Phil 3:12-14:

Not that I have … already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

So what would a ‘pilgrim’ church look like? It would first and foremost be adventurous, never playing it safe. It would be, in the immortal words, ‘purpose-driven’, and it would have about it a sense of wonder and excitement. It would know how to celebrate, not just because of the ultimate destination but also because of the little staging posts safely reached along the way. It would attract younger people and men, and it would be gloriously life-affirming.

Sounds good to me!

What ‘s Church for? Church as Bride

Having looked at the Greek and Hebrew words which refer to ‘church’ we move this week to look at another term in common usage: church as the ‘Bride of Christ’. How useful is this in the self-identification of a church community? And how biblical is it actually?

The references (and they are not very explicit) come only in the Gospels and at the end of Revelation. Nowhere is Paul’s clear statement that ‘you are the body of Christ’ made of us as bride. In the Gospels the emphasis is much more on Jesus as the bridegroom: this picks up on much Jewish imagery about the new age of the coming Messiah being described as a wedding. There are two key motifs here: waiting and urgency. ‘Why aren’t your disciples miserable like us?’ ask the Pharisees of Jesus. The answer is that at the moment the bridegroom is here: this is no time for fasting and mourning. But he is about to go, and ultimately come back. In the meantime we wait, but we wait with a sense of urgency, because he might come back literally at any moment, and we need to be ready. This is the thrust of several gospel passages.

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There are two isolated references in the epistles: in 2 Cor 11 Paul fears that the Christians to whom he is writing might have lost the plot. He promised them to Christ as a pure virginal bride, but they have instead ‘committed adultery’ by adopting false doctrine. This picks up an OT prophetic image of false religion as adulterous. And then in Ephesians 5 the point is made that wives are under the authority of their husbands as the church is to Christ. This idea may seem to us as quaint as the idea that brides are virgins, but we’ll tiptoe past that one.

But most of the references are from Revelation, and only really from chapter 19 when the battles have been fought and won, and God’s people are ready to enter the new creation. But if we look carefully the church is never here described as the ‘Bride of Christ’ – that title is reserved for the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. As is his wont John is setting up a contrast between the tarty woman of Rev 17, dressed up to the nines in all her seductive gaudiness, and the pure bride dressed in white linen. The prostitute, we discover, is the archetypal evil city, manifested at different times as Babel, Babylon and now Rome, so her purified counterpart is the new Jerusalem.

What does this mean for a church which thinks of itself as the Bride of Christ? It is both a call and a promise, with a bit of waiting in between. The call is basically to live with purity, not perversion. The promise is of a renewed creation, when all blemishes and wrinkles will be removed. And in the meantime we wait, living faithfully in a love relationship with Jesus.

The Bride is not the predominant model of church, and it certainly isn’t a very blokey one (we’ll be remedying that later in the series). But it does present us with that challenge and that promise. Next time we’ll go for a less sitting-and-waiting model as we consider church as pilgrimage.

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Qahal’

Called together

Last time we looked at the NT word ‘ekklesia’ which we said suggested a bunch of people ‘called out’ from one lifestyle into another, very different one. So it’s only fair that we look at the OT equivalent word. Immediately, of course, we have a problem, since the Christian church doesn’t actually feature in a big way in the Old Testament. But we can do a bit of detective work by using the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek dating from the 2nd century). One word is overwhelming translated into Greek as ‘ekklesia’, the Hebrew word Qahal. Most of our English versions translate Qahal as ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly’, hence its common application to the ‘church’ in the OT. The term ‘Qahal Yahweh’ describes the gathering of the people of God, often for worship and/or instruction.

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But there is a subtle difference between Qahal and ekklesia: while the latter has the sense of referring to a congregation of people who have been called ‘out’, Qahal is much more about being called ‘together’, hence its translation as ‘assembly’. Of course the one implies the other, but in the OT the sense is much more about a gathered assembly. The cognate Arabic word has the meaning of ‘to speak’, so the ‘assembly’ might be people gathered to listen to a sermon or speech. The term ‘Qoheleth’ related closely to Qahal, the name for the ‘Teacher’ of the book of Ecclesiastes (interesting name!) may refer to one who addresses assemblies of people, as a preacher or teacher would. But the unmistakeable sense, which is complementary to that of the NT term, is of a crowd of people who have been called together to assemble. The Christian church could appropriately be described as people who have been called out to be called together.

We noted last week the moral dimension of having been ‘called out’, and the tendency of some Christians to want to keep a foot in both camps, rather than making a clean break with the past behind them and the world around them. But the term Qahal also challenges some contemporary thinking about church. Firstly it makes us think very hard about so-called ‘communities’ where people don’t actually meet. Various attempts at ‘virtual church’ and ‘online church’ have been attempted, but I’m not sure how convinced I am. Of course those much younger than I am would protest that e-communities are every bit as real and valid, and they certainly do have value, as I discovered when I was recovering from serious surgery and felt so encouraged by well-wishers on social media. But can they really replace the face-to-face gathering of people for worship and teaching? Discuss!

Secondly, though, the term challenges, I believe, the growing trend for what Alan Jamieson’s famous book called ‘Churchless Faith’ (2002). I can understand only too well how more and more people find that they have better things to do with their precious lives than to sit in cold and musty buildings singing dreary songs and hymns, listening to irrelevant drivel from the front, and drinking awful coffee. It used to be non-Christians who used to say ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’: now more and more it’s ex-committed churchgoers. It does, of course, behove the Qahal and its Qoheleths to be worth the bother of assembling for, but at the same time I am as concerned as I have ever been about Christians who believe that they can go it alone and still grow and thrive. We need one another, and I believe we need one another face to face.

What’s Church For? Church as Ekklesia

We’ve looked at a recent bit of church history through my highly selective and biased eyes, and now we’ve begun to explore some of the biblical pictures with which the church is described. Today I want to look at the predominant NT word, ekklesia the word from which we get terms such as ‘ecclesiastical’ and indeed ‘ecclesiology’ which is what we’re doing right now. What does this word tell us about what Church is for?

Word studies are, of course, highly dangerous. In my Liturgy and Liberty (MARC, 1986) I attempt to use the word ‘green’ to explain to alien readers what the English word really means, which is that it describes jealous, inexperienced and nauseous ETs who live in houses made of glass. We know this is nonsense, but it is no worse than many sermons we’ve all heard which explain what the Greek and Hebrew terms really mean. But I don’t think we’ll be committing hermeneutical murder if we think of the word’s root meaning of ‘calling out’, not in the sense of heckling but of being called to leave one place or lifestyle and go to another. I find it helpful to think of the church as a bunch of people who have heard God’s call to leave and to travel.

This picture has good OT precedent, as far back as Abraham, who was called in Gen 12:1 to ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you’. Since then God’s people have been people on the move, and a static church seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. But there are two different but complementary interpretations of this journey, both of which are important for the Church to take seriously.

The first is more to do with leaving, in the sense of repentance. Again and again the NT calls Christians out of previous lifestyles and standards of behaviour and into something better. Jesus launched himself into ministry in Mk 1:14 with the word ‘Repent!’ and it became a constant refrain of his teaching. ‘Unless you change’, he told his would-be followers, ‘you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. The epistles are full of this stuff, and the most notable example is where the author of Ephesians insists in 4:17 that his readers ‘no longer live as the Gentiles do’, a phrase all the more telling, of course, as those to whom he was writing were Gentiles. So 21st century British disciples must no longer live as 21st century British people do. A church which seems constantly to be accommodating itself to the spirit and the behaviour of the age, in order that it might appeal more to those outside its walls, has lost the plot big-time. The Liberal movement of the last century had this explicit aim, to make the gospel more believable and the church more accessible. I’m not convinced it hasn’t been counter-productive.




But the second application of the meaning of being ‘called out’ has more to do with destination than life-style. In Gen 12 God was highly specific about what Abraham had to leave (his country, his people, his father’s household) but gloriously vague about where he was headed (‘to the land I will show you’). We are not called from sitting in one place to sitting in a different place: we’re called to pilgrimage, journey, uncertainty and insecurity. The call of God to Abraham comes more than once, and the call of God to his church is a constant one. Whenever we think we’ve made it and can settle, that call comes again. All we know is that will be a final destination, and a rest for those who have travelled long and hard. But in the meantime we keep on walking.


What’s Church For? Church as Body

So far we’ve been on a very brief and highly selective and impressionistic trip down the last few decades to look at how the church (or at least my bit of it) has changed and developed. Now it’s time to get more biblical, as we look at how the church is described within the NT (mainly). It’s worth noting that there are many different terms used of the gathering of those who are followers of Jesus, and that the Bible contains some which are clear descriptions, and others which are more vague allusions or pictures. So let’s begin with perhaps the clearest – the Church as the Body of Christ. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a church community which thinks of itself in these terms?




The first thing to say is that it is one of the most biblical pictures. In 1 Cor 12, the key passage, Paul states clearly that ‘you are the body of Christ’ (v 27). You can’t get clearer than that! He uses the same language in Rom 12:4-5, and, if you believe he also wrote Ephesians and Colossians, a couple of times there. The idea is that all of us who are in Christ, the head of the body, are bits with different roles to play. As I’ve already mentioned the church rediscovered this notion along with charismatic renewal in the mid-70s, and it really was a liberation from centuries of clericalism and priestly domination. Along with the mood of the times it encouraged people to find their niche and grow to their full potential, and it released into the church an army (see later!) of lay ministries without which we might never have survived. It is an organic model, rather than a mechanistic one (although the NT has those as well), and it emphasises the importance of all, not just a few.

However, as we will see with all the different models, it is not without its problems. Indeed Paul anticipated some of them and addressed them head on in 1 Cor 12. Basically there are two issues: ‘I’m more important than you!’ and ‘You’re more important than me!’ The fact is that as in any area of life some jobs or roles feel more important than others. However much you big up the deputy washer of the church tea-towels, the worship-leader or preacher seems to be far more important. Paul addresses this too, illustrating his words with some different bits of the human body, some of which, vital though they may be, are usually less visible! To cultivate a culture where everyone is equally valued is nevertheless not an easy thing to do, and this may be where some other models become more helpful.

The other great weakness of the ‘body’ model, though, is that it tells us little about what the body is there to do. Churches which major on this model in their self-identification may find that it doesn’t help them to be purposeful, and whilst it does have a growth imperative, that growth is only in the direction of personal and corporate maturity, and not necessarily in size. A human body which started growing new members, an extra leg or two or a few more fingers, would be a grotesque thing indeed. It does not take seriously the Lord who adds to our number: it seems to be merely about how to make a self-sufficient closed system work better.

That’s why we need all the different biblical models, and not just one. Next week – Church as Qahal and Ekklesia (bet you can’t wait!)


What’s Church for? Church as Disappointment

Last time we thought about the halcyon days of the 80s when the church, or at least the evangelical/charismatic bits of it, thought of itself as an army, trampling down Satan and bringing in the promised revival which would usher in the return of Jesus. Inevitably disappointment was to follow, and although there is some evidence that we did see church growth in the 80s it fell far short of the tales we had been devouring from Wales, the Hebrides and other places. we emerged into the final decade of the 20th century, designated by the C of E ‘the decade of evangelism’ sadder and wiser, and determined to apply a slightly more rigorous business model to church growth. Many of the teenagers who had worshipped and prayed so heartily were now busy making money and getting married.

Of course the management gurus had been making inroads into church strategy and planning for a while, and of course were greeted with cries of ‘Unspiritual!’ from many who would rather trust in the Lord than in John Harvey Jones. But in the 90s we began seriously to think about vision, strategy and planning. Meanwhile the worshipping life of the evangelical church changed dramatically, reflecting a new vision of what it was we thought we were supposed to be doing.

Under the joint influences of the growing movement towards political correctness and the ever-widening influence of the Vineyard churches (especially on ‘Anglican’ churches through ‘New Wine’, which began in 1989) worship songs began to be less about taking the nations and beating down Satan and more about personal intimacy with God. Our ‘hearts’, our personal and secret relationships with God seemed to be the most important thing, eclipsing any calling or ministry we might have to the nations. Intimacy with God has always been the core value of worship in the Vineyard movement, and worship (for which read ‘singing’) was seen much less as spiritual warfare and much more as a chance for me and Jesus to draw close together. Some unhelpful exegesis of the Greek word ‘proskuneo’, which, we were told, means literally ‘to approach to kiss’, backed this up. In fact the word means ‘to make a cone-shape towards’, that is to bow down with your face to the ground and your bum in the air, a classic gesture of submission to a conquering king rather than a lover’s kiss.

Of course we didn’t altogether stop talking about revival (although we pretty much stopped singing about it), but it seemed that our hearts weren’t really in it. This decade, call it the decade of evangelism or not, was about the church drawing closer to God. But then quite suddenly in the summer of 1994, we were hit by a new phenomenon, the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’. Starting from a Vineyard church near Toronto Airport (although with some prehistory before that) it swept the British charismatic church, bringing joy and dismay in equal proportions. Some thought it really was a brand new move of the Holy Spirit: others that it was a Satanic deception, designed to divert the church from its real task of obeying Scripture (except of course those bits which told us to be filled with the Spirit).

My own take on this, as a parish priest at the time, was that it was immensely important for our congregation and our city, and I believe that the fruits of this blessing are still significant today. Others, with hindsight, tell us that a slightly jaded movement like charismatic renewal would inevitably have some kind of an attempt to kindle new excitement (although I never actually heard anyone say that except with hindsight). But as a decade of evangelism the general reflection is that it was a failure, and that growth during the 80s had been much more significant. But the new millennium brought new hope: wouldn’t it be great if Jesus returned as we entered the noughties?

What’s Church for? Church as Army

A weekly series exploring how church has changed in its self-understanding.

Last time I recalled the church of the 70s in which I grew up as a teenager, and our rediscovery of Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ. But things moved on in the 80s, with two major developments in our life and style. In many ways I look back on this period with great nostalgia, but also with a more critical eye and the benefit of hindsight.

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The first is that the predominant model of church moved from ‘Body’ to ‘Army’. The songs we were singing in my bit of the church were unashamedly songs of warfare and victory, about trampling down the Enemy (who was an intensely real figure for us), and above all about the coming revival. Books about past revivals were consumed avidly, and the great cry was ‘Lord, do it again!’ This was long before the church had heard of political correctness, and if as the Body we were a bit hazy on actually ‘why?’ we were very clear now: we were the army destined by God to bring in the great revival which would usher in the last days. Intercession was rich, fervent and faith-filled, and worship songs were loud and triumphant. The mood of victory was palpable, and this was a spirituality which particularly appealed to young people and men, in contrast to the slightly feminine Body stuff. This was about power and action, not intimacy and ‘sharing’.

A new twist came in the mid-80s with the visit of John Wimber from Anaheim, California, with his message of ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’. It isn’t enough, John maintained, just to tell people about God: we should be showing people God in action, through miracles, healing and deliverance. He then taught us in great detail just how we should pray for the sick, and undergirded it all with some very solid theology of the Kingdom of God. To the powerful intercession and warlike worship was added the possibility of real action, as people learnt to pray for the sick and to expect miracles. Paradoxically the worship-songs went entirely in the opposite direction, and became slow, gentle, some would say ‘boring’, and all about intimacy with God and nothing more.

These were heady days, and as far as church was concerned we had a very clear idea of what we were about. Inevitably with hindsight we were a bit disappointed as the promised miracles didn’t materialise in the quantities we had hoped for, as the revival failed to happen, and as the advent of PCness made us all feel just slightly guilty about the militaristic language of our songs and sermons. John Wimber’s theology, so convincing at the time, began to be open to question in one or two of its tenets (does the NT really teach that all Christians should be miracle-workers, or is the Apostles who pray for healing most of the time?). And while the Vineyard churches, which grew and developed in the UK as a result of John’s ministry, were very keen on ministry to the poor, it tended to be on an individual basis rather than any great struggle against unjust structures.

Personally I think we had a lot going for us in those days, and the loss of so-called ‘militaristic’ language, a theme to which I shall be returning, is a tragic loss to the church and its mission. Naive we almost certainly were, and I wonder whether the prayer God really enjoys is not ‘Lord, do it again!’ but rather ‘Lord, so something new!’. But as we moved into the 90s there was to be a major new twist.

What’s Church for? Church as ‘Body’

Last time I got all nostalgic about the church of my childhood, the fortress into which we barricaded ourselves lest we should get polluted by the naughty world about us and start sinning, God forbid. So imagine the liberation when I grew up a bit, moved on, and discovered St Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ.

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The charismatic renewal movement of the late 60s and early 70s will most readily be remembered for its emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit from 1 Corinthians 12. But important though that insight was, I reckon far more significant was the other bit of the same chapter, the rediscovery of which by the charismatic movement provided a major watershed in the life of the church. Before that, you see, religion was a personal and therefore a private thing. This was the spirituality of the Anglican 8 o’clock Communion service, where the Lord’s Table was a table for two, where you ‘made your communion’, and if possible escaped without any human interaction with your fellow-worshippers.  But suddenly all that changed, and one’s spirituality was out in the public domain. Demonstrative and emotional worship, liturgical dance, small groups for ‘sharing’, prayer ministry when you were in need and didn’t mind people knowing it, an emphasis on using your gifts for the benefit of the whole: these and other new ingredients in church life formed the significant spin-offs from the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.

The musical backdrop to this movement within the church consisted of short, simple and emotional ‘choruses’, often about how much we all need one another. People like David Watson in York were putting their lives where their mouths were and experimenting with community living, and ‘faith-sharing teams’ were going on the road to spread the gospel of every-member ministry to other churches not quite so far down that road. They were heady days, and great fun to live through.

But with hindsight, whilst I rejoice that one small chapter of the Bible could so radically affect the church in such a short time, I can’t help but ask myself the question ‘Why?’ Try as I might to remember, I’m not sure exactly what gospel we were living and proclaiming in those days. If anything it certainly was a gospel of personal salvation, but I think the ‘get baptised in the Spirit’ agenda was more dominant. It was a time of great internal church renewal, but I’m not sure at that stage that we had much to offer those outside the fold. All that was to change, and maybe we needed a period of getting our own house more in order, but on reflection I wonder if it all seemed a bit navel-gazing and self-obsessed.

So how well did the church in Britain learn the lessons from that era? Pretty well, actually, I would argue. Most of us do now believe that worship at least ought to be a bit inspiring from time to time. Most churches would have some sort of homegroups or study groups, even if only for the weeks of Lent. Every-member ministry has become de rigeur pretty much everywhere, at least in theory, and many churches would at some time or other offer some kind of prayer ministry. Some would argue that the charismatic renewal movement peaked and died as a movement not because it failed but because its work here was done. But I’m still left with the nagging suspicion that in spite of all that, many of us are still not sure what we’re meant to be doing with it all. If God was preparing his church, we’re not quite sure for what, exactly.

How far are the lessons learnt from this era part of your church’s life?

To what degree is your spirituality and its expression public property?

If you lived through this era in church circles, what are you fond and disturbing memories of it?

What’s church for? Church as Fortress

I made the point previously that whilst most churchgoers know pretty well how they actually ‘do’ church week by week, very few of us have ever stopped to ask the question ‘Why?’ What are we meant to be here for, and therefore how should we be occupying our time? It seems to me that this is a highly urgent question, and I continue to meet more and more people for whom, for one reason or another, church just isn’t cutting it. Neither are we cutting it nationally or culturally, as we lose confidence under the onslaught of secularisation the new atheism, and marginalisation by the society for whose benefit we exist. 2013 has seen us fail signally to affect the political agenda as it has eaten away at historic Christian orthodoxy in the interests of ‘equality’ and political correctness. Church needs some attention, I reckon!

I began with the Bible – suggesting that at its most basic level church is there to carry on doing the stuff which Jesus did whilst he was incarnated here on earth. I could then skip on through church history and explore different understandings which have come to the fore from time to time: church as empire, church as withdrawal from society,  ‘christendom’, where it is assumed that everyone is a Christian really, and so on. But I want instead to get a bit more personal, and reflect on my own lifetime, and my own experiences of church for nearly 60 years.

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I was brought up as a nonconformist, and it seems to me now on reflection that the model of church which formed me was Church as Fortress. Even in the 50s and 60s we were aware that the new post-war culture was hostile to Christianity, and so what we had to do as Christians was to make sure we didn’t get tainted by the ‘naughty world’ around us. Certainly any engagement with culture was frowned on, because it would probably corrupt us. I can remember an impassioned sermon about why we should all make it an absolute priority to attend the mid-week Bible study, because we went out from Sundays into a world where people swore and drank, and we needed a mid-week top-up of God, because what we had received last Sunday would not on its own be enough to last us for seven days. My prevailing sense of the Christianity of my childhood and youth was all about what we weren’t supposed to do. I even developed the understanding (and I am now sure that this wasn’t official doctrine, just a child’s misunderstanding) that my eternal destiny, heaven or hell, depended on what I happened to be doing at the moment Jesus returned. At least this belief taught me to sin quickly, but if we did conform to the world the consequences could be deadly and eternal.

Is this understanding, of church as the fortress into which we barricade ourselves, alive and well today? I believe it is, although in some subtly different forms, since holiness has become a lot more unfashionable than it was back then. But the ‘change and decay’ mindset, in which the church is the final bastion of unchanging faith while the world around us goes to hell in a handcart, is alive and well among older people. This in turn has implications for those leading churches, whose job therefore is to protect their people from anything which might rock their equilibrium, like change, for example.

There is clearly much in the Bible about being holy, separate, blameless in a corrupt world and so on. But are we really here simply to pull up the drawbridge and try to be good?

Is there any of this fortress mentality in your church?

How does it manifest itself?

What does it demand of its leaders?

Free Nelson Mandela

tribute with every five gallons of the other tripe I spew forth each week.

Thought I’d join in with the tributes to this great statesman and leader, but let me begin not in Johannesburg but in Belfast. A couple of years ago my son visited the city for the first time, and was amazed to see what a great place it was, with so much going for it. He later confessed to me that he remembered growing up in the church where I was vicar and hearing week in week out in the intercessions ‘We pray for Northern Ireland’, and thinking ‘What’s the point? We go through the same old prayers every week, but nothing ever changes.’ But seeing the place as it is now, he came to realise that tremendous change is possible. It’s not perfect, but so much has been achieved, and who is to say how much the faithful prayers of Christians for decades aided that process?

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There’s a lot of Nelson Mandela hagiography going on at the moment, and rightly so. As far as I can tell no-one is making great claims about a Christian faith, but he does appear to have achieved near-sainthood, if you use the word in its ‘secular’ sense to mean a very good person, rather than its New Testament sense. However, whatever his own personal faith he has set the rest of us a stunning example of Christlikeness which puts many believing Christians to shame.

First there is his ability to forgive. In his excellent obituary of his friend, Desmond Tutu (http://t.co/JtmCNH2L9P) claims that

The 27 years [in prison] were absolutely crucial in his spiritual development. The suffering was the crucible that removed considerable dross, giving him empathy for his opponents. It helped to ennoble him, imbuing him with magnanimity difficult to gain in other ways. It gave him an authority and credibility that otherwise would have been difficult to attain. No one could challenge his credentials. He had proved his commitment and selflessness through what he had undergone. He had the authority and attractiveness that accompany vicarious suffering on behalf of others.

I can’t begin to imagine that degree of forgiveness, which he has since shown to many of those who helped make his life hell. But that is exactly the kind of forgiveness to which Christ calls his followers.

But even more significant is his ability to believe, in the face of all the evidence, that things can change. Last Sunday in a stunningly good sermon in Canterbury Cathedral Nick Papodopulos used the picture of the root of Jesse causing damage to the well-established structures of society just as tree roots can damage even the strongest buildings today. I’m pretty sure Isaiah didn’t have this picture in mind when he wrote, but it is a striking image. Whether you were a Jewish peasant in exile, or a privileged Pharisee at the time of Jesus, it must have seemed that the way society was was a given, just as apartheid seemed so deeply entrenched in South Africa. Love it or hate it, it was there to stay, both for privileged whites and downtrodden blacks. Yet through patience, forgiveness and work towards reconciliation that bastion fell, and again, who knows how much the faithful, enduring prayers of God’s people world-wide helped in that process?

I note three things from this. I promised you a blog on ‘What is church for?’, and although it felt right to interrupt my plans to pay tribute to Madiba, actually I do have one answer: the church is there to pray. It is there to pray, to go on praying, to keep praying, to carry on praying, even when the systems it is praying against seem to be built so solidly that any hope of change is futile.

Secondly, from great pain can come great strength, which is something I’ve been trying to say in my #godingrimtimes thread. It’s not easy to see our suffering as the crucible in which God is refining us. And of course we always have a choice: just imagine how 27 years of imprisonment could have gone the other way, and produced an angry and bitter old man. Something in Mandela must have been receptive to God’s transforming grace, or he would have gone down in history as just another forgotten victim of a corrupt system.  Like the forgiveness theme, this really challenges me in my little tribulations.

The third thing is very simple: God takes his time. Both Northern Ireland and South Africa show us that change is possible, but that it rarely happens overnight. I don’t know how many times whilst on Robben Island Madiba felt like just giving up. But he hung on in there. That’s our calling too.

Nelson Mandela – I hope you’re resting in peace. btw – loved your shirts!