Inaugural sermon

This is the text of the sermon preached at the inauguration of The Spire Church, Farnham, on Sunday 2 September 2018, by the Rt Revd Dr Christopher Herbert.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace

Ephesians 4 1-3

It is a very great privilege and an honour to have been invited to preach at this inaugural service…and I thank Michael Hopkins and Conrad Hicks for that invitation. What Michael and Conrad could not have known when they invited me to preach is that there is a strange symmetry about all of this. My paternal grandparents attended  a Congregationalist chapel in Gloucestershire and my maternal grandparents were devout Methodists, also in Gloucestershire…so mention the words ‘Sunday School Anniversary’ to me and I can immediately see  myself as a child sitting on a pitch-pine pew, with butterflies in my stomach waiting for my turn to sing a solo in a chapel that  gleamed with cleanliness and which had the words “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” painted in heavy Gothic script on the wall behind the pulpit…

And my text for this very important occasion in Farnham is this:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…

But now, following the great URC and Methodist traditions of intelligent scholarship, let me put those Biblical verses in their historical context.  They were possibly written by Paul when he was a prisoner in Rome in the 60s…at which point Michael Hopkinson and Conrad Hicks, the theologians sitting at the front  and any lay-preachers in the congregation will be thinking that I haven’t done my home-work. So, just to show that I have, let me add that there is considerable dispute amongst Biblical scholars about whether or not it was Paul who composed the letter to the church in…….[Pause]

You are probably filling in the gap for me and saying to yourselves “Ephesus”, but actually the earliest surviving manuscript of the Epistle does not have the word “Ephesus” in it…there’s a blank, as though the epistle was more like a Round Robin letter  which had the blanks filled in by the churches which received it. Another argument suggests that Paul did not write the Epistle because there are no personal references in it as there were in his other epistles, and surely, goes this argument , Paul, having spent at least two years in Ephesus nurturing the church there, would have included some personal greetings and references when he wrote to them from Rome…

Well. We aren’t going to be able to sort out the problem of who wrote the Epistle here today…but the fact that there are serious questions to be asked should make us wary of over-claiming certainty.

But I need to add that as the Church gradually put together what we now call the New Testament, (and that took a very long time), there were no serious questions raised about whether or not the letter to the Ephesians should be included… there was, right from the moment it was written, a recognition that the words were inspired; they were seen as containing huge encouragement allied to subtle theological thinking and deep insights about the relationship between Jesus Christ and his church; insights which have inspired Christians ever since.

So, let’s ask another question: who were the audiences for this Epistle?

I want to go slightly off-piste for a moment and talk about the audience for Paul’s undisputed letter to the churches in Rome. When Paul was taken as a prisoner to Rome it has been estimated that there were between 5 and 10 synagogues in the city. Only one synagogue has been discovered by archaeologists and that is in Ostia, Rome’s port. If that synagogue is typical each synagogue could hold about 50 or 60 worshippers at a time… so if we assume 10 synagogues with 60 worshippers in each, that would give us at the maximum about 600 people in Rome who were potentially readers of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Some of those worshippers would have been proselytes, that is, Gentiles who had converted to Judaism and some God-fearers, that is, those who were sympathetic but had not yet converted; now add a further statistic: it has been estimated, through the study of epigraphs in the Jewish catacombs that the literacy rate amongst the Jews in Rome would have been between 10% and 15%. So, the actual number of people able to actually read what Paul had written could have been as few as 60, although many more would have heard the epistle…

Translate that set of statistics to Ephesus… we know from the account in Acts that there was a Jewish community there plus a synagogue; again, if it followed the Roman pattern the synagogue in Ephesus would have been a building which could hold about 50 or 60 people…but we also know that when Paul himself was in Ephesus he fell out with the synagogue and took his followers with him. And the question is, how many went with him to a place called the Hall of Tyrannus, probably a place used for philosophical discussion and teaching? Let us assume that of the 60 worshippers in the synagogue about one half followed him. So perhaps Paul might have been in regular touch over a couple of years with  only a few score people…which Luke, writing in Acts,  describes in this way:  ‘the whole population of the province of Asia , both Jews and Gentiles heard the word of the Lord’ That sounds like a bit of an exaggeration to me….

My argument thus far might seem a bit obscure and a long way from today’s great event here in Farnham…but actually it is entirely relevant.

Often  in books about Church History we are given the impression that the Gospel spread like wild-fire from the very beginning…I suggest that the fire might not have been as wild as all that. After all, if Paul himself taught in Ephesus for two years and even then, in spite of Luke’s attempt to spin it , did not have an overnight success perhaps the Gospel only moved and expanded gradually and slowly…

In other words, it was a patient, organic process, tho’ we know that within thre or four hundred years it had made great progress and had come to dominate the Roman Empire.

Translate that humble process into where we are today in this celebration. In our eyes it really is a great event…but who knows what the consequences will be, not just tomorrow but in decades and centuries to come. We simply cannot foretell what will happen…what we are doing this day is placing this venture of faith into the hands of God. And this is what we do know as an absolute certainty…that God will be faithful and will take us forwards together to the place where he wants us to be…

I return to my text:

 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,  with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,  making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace

That sense of faithfulness, that commitment to each other in Christian love, that call for us to be humble and gentle in all we speak and do…those wonderful gifts of unity in the Spirit, as we learn to work together, will result in joys and blessings not only to ourselves but to our town and to the world beyond.

When those few people meeting in the Hall of Tyrannus tried to follow Christ…and did so in a city which was multi-cultural and multi-faith, with its inevitable mixture of the agnostic and the indifferent, they could have had no idea what the results of their faithfulness and quiet courage would be… but from that, gradually, gradually, the world was changed. So, alleluia for them, but also alleluia for you because you, like those first followers in Ephesus, can have no idea what the future might bring. You have taken a courageous step on God’s road…and the future is in his hands.

I pray therefore with you, that God in his love and goodness, will bless, strengthen and encourage you  not only this day but in all the years that lie ahead….

(c)Rt Revd Dr Christopher Herbert, 2018

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