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How to revive a flagging church

May 27, 2015

Feast of Saint Augustine

1 Thessalonians 2: 2-8                27 May 2013

St Paul and Pope Francis both have something to say about the first Archbishop of Canterbury – and it is about a struggling church and the danger of thinking we can do everything for ourselves…..

Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonicans was written in about 50AD – so it’s one of Paul’s earliest letters

Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia, a wealthy port city with everything that goes with being a trade centre – multi-racial, cosmopolitan, cultures meeting, all kinds of religious beliefs. The church Paul founded in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey was mainly from former gentiles, people who had been heathens, and they were now living out their Christian lives in a hostile environment. Paul and Silas had only spent four weeks in Thessalonica because of strong opposition, which ended up with the orthodox local Jews organizing a mob to cause trouble. Paul and Silas were locked up and bound over to keep the peace. Why was the local synagogue so worried? No doubt they were appalled at Paul’s preaching that seemed to hijack the Jewish faith but they thought he had abandoned the one true God.

Because he had left in a hurry, Paul was concerned about how the new Christians were coping, and he sent his co-worker Timothy “to keep you firm and strong in the faith and prevent any of you being unsettled by the present troubles.” (1 Thess 3:3). Then he sent his letter to encourage them, encouraged by the news he had heard from Timothy. The first chapter of his letter was Paul giving thanks ’s for the Thessalonians’ faith and dynamic witness.

And today’s reading is Paul’s explanation why the Church in Thessalonica had been such a success, despite a very shaky start and on-going persecution.

And you could use today’s reading as a model for strategies on how the Church should complete its mission of bringing people to God. So it’s a very appropriate therefore that it is the reading for this Feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, when the Pope sent Augustine to England to re-establish a troubled and failing church.

Paul says that achieving the church’s mission depends on each and every member of the church doing his or her part. He describes how he, as a church leader, had been given the courage to proclaim the good news fearlessly – that is the Holy Spirit at work in St Paul. He says he is not trying to please man, but to please God. That means saying things that people don’t like to hear. When people hear things they don’t like, they can get very vicious. Anything church leaders says must be done in a prayerful way – discerning the movement of the Spirit, mindful of the consequences of saying it.

In today’s reading Paul in effect is saying church leaders need to lead example, and that this can have a big influence. “Slaving day and night so as not to be a burden on you.” I don’t think that Paul meant by this that he went out to do a day job so people didn’t have to give to the collections for the Church. No, I think he meant that he understood the everyday difficulties that face ordinary people, and that he didn’t lose sight of the fact that it can be difficult for people to continually adjust their lifestyles to fit in with the convenience of the church leaders.

In the first two months since he was elected Pope, one of the themes that has emerged from Pope Francis’ homilies is that the Church has become absorbed in itself – it has come to reflect the selfish, conceited, smug culture of the wider world. Pope Francis says this needs to change.

Here’s an example of the way our present pope follows the example of Saint Paul. Saint Paul says today, “Never at any time have our speeches been simple flattery”. So imagine the stir when the new Bishop of Rome spoke to all the priests of his diocese at his first Chrism Mass in Rome in 2013. The Chrism Mass is when his diocesan priestsgathered to renew their priestly vows and allegiance to their bishop. I bet there were some who did not like what they heard:

“We need to ‘go out,’ then, in order to experience our own anointing, its power and its redemptive efficacy: to the ‘outskirts’ where there is suffering, bloodshed, blindness that longs for sight, and prisoners in thrall to many evil masters. It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live our priestly life going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become Pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.

Those who do not go out of themselves, instead of being mediators, gradually become intermediaries, managers. We know the difference: the intermediary, the manager, ‘has already received his reward,’ and since he doesn’t put his own skin and his own heart on the line, he never hears a warm, heartfelt word of thanks. This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad – sad priests – in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with “the odour of the sheep.”

Wow! Can you see how the Pope really stirs things up? Like Saint Paul, Pope Francis knows what it is like at the sharp end. Having been a priest and bishop in South America has convinced him that things need to ‘get real’ in the church – that we need to get out there and get stuck in. And again, following what Saint Paul says today, Pope Francis shows that a little example from the leader can make an enormous impact and inspire church members.

An interesting point to finish on. Pope Francis mentioned how, if we become too inward-looking we can become “Pelagians”. What’s a Pelagian?

Oh dear, Pelagius was a product of the Church in this country (354AD – 520AD). He was a British monk. Actually, he spent a lot of time in Rome, where St Augustine spent a lot of time. The interesting thing is that Augustine and Pelagius were around at the same time, both monks in Rome. Pelagius left Britain to go to Rome; Augustine left Rome to come to Britain. This British monk Pelagius is associated with the heresy that through sheer will and self-improvement we can overcome sin. And it is a heresy because we need to be humble and recognise we can only rely on God’s grace for our salvation. We can’t do it ourselves. Do you see how Pope Francis refers to ‘self-help courses’, and priest going on self-help courses – there’s a danger we’ll become Pelagians.

Would you believe it – Pelagius the rebellious monk alive at the same time as St. Augustine, whose feast day we celebrate today. And guess who was Pelagius’ biggest opponent. You got it – the first Archbishop of Canterbury, Saint Augustine! One of the reasons Augustine became a saint was because of his fight against the church becoming inward looking, with people looking to their own strengths to overcome sin rather than going out into the world, facing challenges, supported by the grace of God. There we have it, completely up to date, and things have gone full circle – Pope Francis is preaching the same message as St Augustine.




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