Fifth of the Year, 6th Feb 22
I often toy with the idea of having a Ripped Jean Sunday, when everyone has to wear ripped jeans to Mass. This isn’t because I particularly like ripped jeans but because I would hope it would encourage us all to realise that it doesn’t matter what we wear. It might even mean everyone was on time for Mass if as much time did not need to spent beautifying ourselves before coming out! Before I was ordained I would always wear a tie on a Sunday so I completely the understand the desire to be smart and I’m not condemning it. One of my teenage rebellions was that I was going to wear trainers for church hoping to really break the mould and cause outrage and, of course, I’m not sure anyone battered an eyelid!
What is the Church? This is a question we should have an answer too and I think the simplest answer is quite simply, “The Body of Christ.” It’s a biblical analogy, of course, (I Corinthians 12) which hopefully can tell us everything we need to know about our vocation to be Christians. The Church is to be close to Christ just as we see in today’s Gospel the crowds pressing round the Redeemer on the lakeside. But the union is such that the life of Christ is even at work within us. This is true of our Lord’s sufferings, as Paul makes clear in his opening words of II Corinthians 1, as we’ll be looking at next week in our Study Group. And this is also true of the glory which our Lord now knows wonderfully in Heaven (Romans 8:17). The image of the body as we heard two weeks ago from I Corinthians 12 also reminds us of our union one with another.
“What is the Church?” is also a question we must also ask ourselves whenever we hear about boats in the Bible. The bit of the Church that we’re in now is called the Nave, from the same word as we get navy: the Church is a boat riding the rough sea of the secular age. As Noah’s ark contains the family saved from the destruction of the waters of the flood, so the Church is to be the family saved from eternal damnation and able to land on dry ground, the promised land. In today’s Gospel our Lord looks across the Sea of Galilee, which St Luke refers to using another name, Gennesaret and He sees boats.
One characteristic of the Church in this scene is her comprehensivity and inclusivity. Note, Jesus can see two boats which by the end of the account need to come together to cope with the size of the haul of fish. St Bede commenting on this passage says this is a reminder that the Church is to include both Jew and Gentile, circumcised and uncircumcised. But we might add other divisions which come together in the flock of Christ: the Church is to be composed of those who are male and female, rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, politically left and right. This is reinforced when we picture how difficult it is for Peter and his companions to pull in the nets, which are beginning to tear, Luke tells us, there are so many fish caught.
And this shouldn’t surprise us: God wants everyone to be saved, after all. And those on the peripheries of the Church who limit the number of the saved to 144,000 misunderstand the passage in Revelation 7:4 where this number comes from. Here the number is symbolical, being 12 times 12 with a few noughts on the end. Twelve is the number of God’s people, being both the number of the tribes of Jacob and and the number of the Apostles. In Revelation 7:9 St John is very clear that the number of the Heavenly throng is “impossible to count.” We must never limit God’s mercy and grace to a select few.
The second defining quality we can see of the Church in today’s Gospel is obedience. Peter has been out in the boat all night and caught not a flipping thing. But when Jesus tells Peter to put out into deep water and pay out the nets for a catch, Peter agrees: “If you say so, I will.” He states he’s not sure it will work. Our Lord has created a relationship with the chief apostle when he can say where the problems are but those problems do not mean Peter gets off the hook when it comes to doing what Jesus tells him. He needs to do it.
Jesus is the Head of His Body the Church and on the one hand that’s all that needs to be said. In reality, however, we’re all too aware that people disagree about how our Lord wants His Church to be ordered. At root the current disagreements within the Body of Christ are not about sexuality or who can or cannot be ordained but who has the authority to decide these things. One common misunderstanding is that individually we can all just read the Bible and decide for ourselves. This would be a very inefficient way to communicate with us and that’s probably why God hasn’t ordered it so. For what we see Jesus doing in this Gospel and throughout His earthly ministry is forming the Church, calling disciples and sending them out to draw yet more in.
The disciples are also given authority alongside this. The authority is to cast out devils, to heal the sick and to cure the lame. The authority is also to forgive sins, to bind and loose, as it is sometimes called, referring to the phrase our Lord uses (St Matthew 18:18). The authority is to baptise and to teach the Gospel (St Matthew 28:19). This authority is continued and handed on when the Apostles choose St Matthias to replace Judas after his betrayal (Acts 1:12-26). It’s then handed on to successive generations and eventually over the centuries that authority was used to agree on which texts should be in the Bible and which should not. It didn’t land in a space ship from Heaven as a finished product. It is given us by the Church. Today that church is to be overseen by shepherds appointed to watch the flock, namely bishops.
Today is seventy years since the death of George VI and we should pray for his soul. We pray too for the Queen in the platinum year of her reign as she presides over the nation, whether we think monarchy is the best form of government or not. We remember too that the monarch has, since 1521, been called Defender of the Faith, a title given by Pope Leo X to Henry VIII and which successive monarchs have retained. It’s referenced on our coins even today with the letters F D meaning fide defensor. The Queen continues to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England and addresses the General Synod at the start of each of its three year round of meetings.
But the Church of England has never claimed that she had an authority akin to the Pope. What would have been the point of objecting to the spiritual authority of one person and simply giving it to another? Each year the Queen continues to distribute what’s called Maundy money in one of the Cathedrals of the land. The name of the money comes from the same Latin word which gives us the name of the day before Godo Friday, Maundy Thursday. Mandatum is the word for commandment and Jesus gives the Church at the Last Supper on the night before He died on the Cross a new commandment, “to love one another,” (St John 13). He then washes their feet and tells them to offer Bread and Wine in memory of Him. Authority within the church is not to lord it over others but to be as one who serves.
In our second reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we’re reminded of another essential quality of the Church: this is to be the place where the Gospel is proclaimed. We heard Paul say, “I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, the gospel that you received and in which you are firmly established.” Here the reading of the Scriptures are the firm basis of what is proclaimed hence the repetition of the phrase “in accordance with the Scriptures.” It’s for that reason we say in the Creed every Sunday, “he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” As we gather its as if we hear the stories about what Jesus does bouncing off the walls and be handed on afresh to the each generation.
Our first reading from Isaiah 6 reminded us that the Church is above all else to be about the worship of Almighty God. We have to be especially mindful of this as we take up positions of responsibility within the Church, be it refreshments or meals or welcoming people or being a sidesperson or a Sunday School teacher or singing or serving that we can’t live out those important ministries if we don’t stay rooted in the vocation we have above all else to worship our Risen Saviour. The vision Isaiah receives is a powerful description of what Heaven looks like. The designation of God as “Lord of Hosts” reminds us that God is powerful and that it behoves God to be worshipped by a number impossible to count. We’re reminded of this in our Communion today at St Mary’s, which I hope people will join in to sing even though it is not announced and the hymn numbers are always on the front page of the Mass Sheet.
So, we learn of our shared life today as God’s people. Living this vocation out faithfully will be pleasing in the eyes of God, will bring us joy and will build a peaceful world. Jesus is the Head of His Church. Let’s ensure the Church is the place of the preaching of the Good News, the place where worship is offered, where Jesus is followed obediently and where all can gather to worship Him, even until the net is nearly tearing and whatever folk are wearing. Amen.