Everything was going so well – first tennis match of 2024, a beautiful if crisp sunny day, serving for the first game, when without warning, BAM! a POP loud enough to be heard by my fellow players, and I collapsed to the ground in excruciating pain. I’m still not sure what was more shocking – the surprise or the pain – even as I fell, I remember the confusion: how could someone have come up behind me and hit me as hard as they could with a tennis racquet?
In fact, as many of you will have guessed, I’d ruptured my Achilles tendon, and a few hours later came home from A & E sporting a plaster cast – boring white, much to my granddaughter’s disappointment: hers had been bright pink. (The chap who plastered my leg was a Liverpool fan, and on hearing that my team is Arsenal, said, “I see … well then, this is going to hurt.”) 3 days on, I’m awaiting an appointment with the orthopaedic team to assess the damage and decide on treatment. Sadly, the only certainty is that I won’t be back on court for some considerable time …
The Achilles tendon isn’t a particularly big part of the human body; and to be honest, I’ve never given it much thought – and yes, I’m probably now paying the cost of that inattention! But I’ve been brought face to face with the disruption which injury to one part of the body causes to the whole. Getting used to crutches sounds easy when the person who’s just plastered your leg takes you through the patter, but – as the daleks discovered in that famous cartoon, it’s the stairs that do for you. I’m reduced to shuffling up and down on my bottom, just as our grandchildren did before they became confident on their feet.
In 1 Corinthians 12, St Paul uses the body as a picture of the church. Just as every part of the body is needed for it to function properly, so every member of the church is needed for it to function properly. Smaller parts of the body – or ones we don’t tend to notice, like my Achilles – are no less vital for their size or apparent insignificance. What a wake-up call that is for every church. Dare we consider any of our members too small or insignificant to warrant notice, care and attention?
Paul’s imagery also means that none of us can become complacent about our own membership and participation. If YOU are not at church, the body of Christ is reduced, even if it doesn’t feel so. We’re all aware that the Pandemic had a huge impact on church life – reduced attendance, reduced volunteering, reduced giving. The warning given by the writer to the Hebrews seems as relevant now as it was then:
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Chapter 10)
You may have heard the old story of the pastor in the Scottish Highlands, who noticed that one of his flock hadn’t been to chapel for a few weeks. Visiting the crofter in his home, he found him sitting in front of a blazing fire. Taking a seat the pastor sat there for a while, before leaning forward, taking the tongues and removing a single coal, placing it on the grate. Together, pastor and crofter watched as the coal slowly lost its glow and heat. The pastor then placed it back into the heart of the fire, whereupon it blazed back to life. Rising to his feet, the pastor said, “I’ll see you in chapel on Sunday then, John …” and left.
The Greek word translated ‘meeting’ in Hebrews 10 is episunagógé, a gathering together.
Some years ago, Christ Church adopted Gathering in place of Service, to emphasise both this meaning, and to reflect Jesus’ use of ekklesia, another word for gathering, to describe his church. It’s of fundamental importance that we gather, not least so that we can encourage one another in our discipleship.
However, we must beware the idea that meeting one another is the primary purpose of a Christian Gathering. Follow that view, and our churches become little more than clubs, whose main role is to cater for the needs and wishes of members. I remember the story of a minister who, confronted by one angry member on the way out of church with the words, “I couldn’t STAND the worship this morning, pastor” replied calmly and gently, “That’s alright, it wasn’t for you …”
The primary purpose of a Christian Gathering is for us to meet with the Living God, the One who revealed himself to Moses in flame, to Elijah in a still, small voice, to Paul in a thunderclap on the Damascus Road, to me as I sang “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” around a camp fire on a youth camp almost fifty years ago.
That’s why I go to church. Yes, I love seeing people old and new, but above all I want – more than that, I need – an encounter with Jesus by his Holy Spirit. That’s why, across all our Gatherings, with their different styles, we always make space for individual encounter, offer prayer ministry and encourage people to pray and be prayed for by people they know and trust.
Which completes the circle – because while we can and do encounter Jesus when we’re alone, in our daily times with him – there’s something which only the body can offer. I’m more likely to encounter Jesus when surrounded by his people pursuing his presence with passion and adoration.
My first sermon after becoming vicar here opened with the words, “This church is the pits …” which I have to admit drew some memorable facial responses. I left what I hoped was a dramatic pause and then gave a nod to the tech team. I’d arranged a video of a Formula 1 car coming off the track into the pits to be re-fueled and re-tyred before being sent back out into the race.
In Encounter, Christians find themselves renewed for the week ahead – because the true significance of what happens in church is what happens once we’re beyond the doors. I remember coming across a little church in the Lake District some years ago. You can always get a sense of the life and activity of the community that gathers even when they’re not present. As I left, I noticed a sign pinned to the inside of the main door. “The work of the Kingdom begins now.”
For many years, the slogan for the New Wine Summer Festival was Uniting thousands to worship One. Whether it’s thousands or a handful, that’s why we Gather. I invite you to make that a resolution for the coming year.