Thank goodness the author of Deuteronomy said that, “it was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you”. If size mattered, as it were, the United Reformed Church would be an abject failure, this church would have been a failure. But the author of this book, which has been heavily edited and evolved before it took the form in our Bibles today, was writing to an ancient people travelling to an unknown place, not knowing where they were going, how they would get there, or how long it would take them, so perhaps it’s still of some relevance to the United Reformed Church and to us.
“You were the fewest of all peoples”, it continues. Even in their heyday Congregationalists and Presbyterians were never the most numerous Christians in England and Wales, Churches of Christ were even smaller, and Scottish Congregationalists were also thin on the ground. Since the first formation of the United Reformed Church, forty-two years ago this day, we have shrunk every year, and are now smaller than the Presbyterian Church of England, very much the smaller partner, was at the time of union in 1972. Our membership roll here hasn’t shrunk that much, indeed with statistical variations is much the same as it was, but that’s not so around the country.
Thank goodness, then, that the writer of Deuteronomy is telling God’s people that what matters is not numbers, but being faithful to God. God loves us, and is faithful to us, and asks us to be faithful to him. I think that’s as relevant to us today as it was thousands of years ago.
But what does it mean to be faithful to God? It’s easy to say, but I think we need to look a bit more deeply to see what it might mean. This is where one of our other readings comes in. In the letter to the Ephesians, the author talks about growing up to the full measure of the stature of Christ, which I think might have something to say to us about what it might mean to be faithful to God. I’m told that this is the text which John Huxtable, the first Moderator of General Assembly, preached upon that day we began this journey forty-two years ago.
The author of this letter to the Ephesians (I’ll call him Paul, but if you follow New Testament scholarship, I’m well aware it’s not as simple as that) is talking about growing up. I know it was always hurtful, when I was a child, and I was told to “grow up, or to “act my age”. Lots of people have told me they’ve often felt the same. It takes time to grow up, children need to start out as children, and gradually grow into adults.
This is what Paul wants these young Christians to do. He wants to be able to tell them not to be babies – and for that they will have to grow up. Plenty of learning what it means to be a Christian takes time, and is something many of us keep working at all ur lives, never being sure how far we’ve really travelled. Yet, there are many ways in which, once we’ve come to believe in Jesus as ‘Lord and saviour’ as our membership promises put it, maturity can actually follow swiftly. In today’s reading Paul shows how it happens, what God has given to the church to make it happen, and why it matters.
In reverse order, it matters because without maturity Christians are very vulnerable to all kinds of trickery that may well take them a long way away from where they ought to be. Paul offers three images to help us understand this: babies, a boat being tossed about on a stormy sea, and cunning tricksters gambling with loaded dice. It’s a bit much to think of them simultaneously, but each on their own show us what he’s driving at. We only have to glance in passing at the world around us to see that new Christians are every bit as vulnerable now as they were then. The world is full of people who are out to make money out of you, to catch you while you’re emotionally fragile or excitable, or perhaps to recruit you for their particular brand of teaching. The world was equally full of such people in Ephesus, and we should be as anxious as Paul was that we ourselves, and any younger Christians in our care, should grow up at least to the point where they can recognize such trickery for what it is, and resist it. Otherwise the best picture to describe the church will be a small boat on the open sea: rudderless and helpless against wind and wave.
Paul describes this as growing up ‘into Christ, who is the head’, which is an odd way to put it, since a human body doesn’t grow into a head, but gets its life and direction from its head. I think that perhaps, as with the babies in the boat, Paul is mixing two pictures together at this point. Every Christian, equipped by God to play their part within the whole community, has a role in enabling the body to function as the complex and interdependent entity that it is. It matters for Christians to find their way into maturity.
So what provision has God made to help this to happen? This long list that Paul gives is not about status or power, it’s about certain people having particular parts to play, so that every single Christian, and the church as a whole, is equipped for their work of service. The point of God calling people to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers is so that every Christian can serve in the way they are called to do, for the building up of the whole body. Apostles were witnesses to the resurrection; and since the resurrection is the foundation of the church, the testimony of those who had seen the risen Jesus was the first Christian preaching. Early Christian prophets spoke in the name of God, guiding and directing the church especially in the time before the New Testament was written. Evangelists announced to the surprised world that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead, and was Lord and Saviour. Pastors looked after the young churches, and teachers developed and trained their understanding.
That’s quite a list of things to help us grow towards maturity. At forty-tow, the United Reformed Church might seem a bit young for maturity, but before 1972, our ancestors were faithfully following Christ for centuries. Our church has been here since 1660, and long before that if you follow the continuity of people in parish church before our ancestors were ejected. I don’t think that means we can assume we’re mature, because we’re following in the steps of those who’ve gone before, but neither should we assume we’re not.
What do you think we need to do to continue to grow towards maturity? What gifts might God have given to help us do this? What challenges do we need to watch out for?
Prayer is always a work in progress, at best, for most people. If we’re seeking to be mature Christians, we’re challenged to persevere with prayer.
Reading the Bible is a challenge for many. Do we look for new ways to get into it, rather than giving up because we started at Genesis and ran into Leviticus? If we’re seeking to be mature Christians, we’re challenged to persevere with ways into the Bible.
Do we participate in silence and reflection, seeking God? Do we regularly share Holy Communion? If we’re seeking to be mature Christians, we’re challenged to try and meet God in different ways.
Trying to be a mature Christian isn’t about getting it right, having all the answers, knowing what we’re doing, but it is about being open to God, seeking God, being inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Today our little, young, United Reformed Church is a mere forty-two years old. Who knows what the future holds. But God didn’t choose us because we were numerous, but because we were trying to faithful. May his Spirit inspire us to be faithful now and in the future, in the United Reformed Church, in this congregation, each one of us, whoever we are and wherever we are on life’s journey, as we try to grow to the full measure of the stature of Christ.