Sermon - Sunday, 8 October 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 8 October.

Scripture: Philippians 3: 4-14 / Matthew 21: 33-46

Text: but this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ           

                                                                                                                (Philippians 3: 13b, 14)


October 2017, at the end of the month we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and sad to say the various churches to which it gave birth in Western Europe are not in the best of health.

While significant national events, Remembrance Sunday being the most obvious, still have religious overtones, and people often turn to their local congregation in times of need or celebration for a funeral, a baptism or a wedding, any thought of ongoing regular commitment, even membership, is not something to be entertained.

Faithless Scots abandoning the Kirk declared a recent newspaper headline[1]

Based on the results of the nationwide Scotland Household Survey 2016, the report suggested that for the first time on record a majority of Scotland have been shown not to belong to an organised religion.

The survey made particularly bleak reading for the Church of Scotland because although the number of Roman Catholics has remained relatively stable since 2009, along with those belonging to other faiths such as Judaism or Islam, the membership of the Church of Scotland has fallen by 10% in the last 7 years and now stands at 24% of the population.

So is it time to shut up shop and put out the lights?

Not quite, because without disputing the survey’s findings, or denying their significance, they only tell part of the story.

Rather than asking about church membership, if the survey had asked whether or not people still believed in God, or still prayed, or even on occasion still read their Bible, it would have come up with a very different set of graphs and statistics.

Interestingly the outcome would also have been very different if the survey had asked people whether or not they considered themselves to be Christian because, as Steve Aisthorpe, author of the book The Invisible Church argues, such surveys confuse belonging with believing.[2]

Aisthorpe grew up believing being Christian meant belonging to a church and being part of a worshipping community.

However as he conducted his research into the decline in church membership, he encountered something quite different, something he described as a churchless faith, that is, people who considered themselves to be Christian, believed in God, prayed, read the Bible, and tried to live by Christian morals and ideals, the one difference being that they don’t belong to any church or sit in a pew on a Sunday morning.

And while it came to him as something of a surprise, the evidence led Aisthorpe to conclude that although no longer part of the institutional church, there are many churchless Christians for whom faith and living a Christian life is still important.

In other words a decline in the number of church members is not to be confused with a decline in Christian faith or Christian commitment.

So rather than being faithless, Aisthorpe’s research suggests Scots are expressing their Christian faith and commitment in different ways.

And to the extent to which that is true, perhaps there could be no better time to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, an event – or better – a movement in which Martin Luther sought to re-imagine the life and practice of the church in his day.

Paradoxically, with the focus of his emphasis moving from the authority of the church’s teaching to the individual person being able to read the Bible, pray and develop their own relationship with God, it could well be argued that Martin Luther was sowing the seeds of the downfall of institutional religion.

Just as parents bring up their children to think and speak for themselves – and then are appalled when they do, especially when the outcome of that thinking and speaking is very different from what they had anticipated - Luther’s emphasis on salvation by faith alone and the role of individual conscience, what he described as the priesthood of all believers, means we should hardly be surprised when, encouraged to make up their own mind on questions of faith and belief and the Bible and God, people do so – and do so in a whole variety of different ways.

And in the words of at least one commentator, the institutional churches’ reluctance to accept and celebrate such diversity of faith and life is one of the main reasons behind the decline in official church membership.

Writing in last weekend’s Sunday Times, Gillian Bowditch argued that the biggest factor in the long term decline of organised religion in Western Europe has been the rise of moral autonomy, people thinking and discussing and deciding for themselves on questions of right and wrong, good or bad, rather than looking to the church for guidance on what to think or how to behave.[3]

Whereas attitudes to contraception, the role of women, or the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage have shifted, and the groundswell of public opinion has been very much in favour of a more liberal approach towards the rights and freedoms of the individual, the churches have vacillated between burying their head in the sand and hoping it would all go away or anguished hand wringing about this evil and sinful generation.

The end result is that the churches have become increasingly out of step with public opinion.

Of course as a church, as individual Christian women and men, we are called to be faithful to the gospel rather than successful in worldly terms – being in tune with public opinion can never be our goal – yet far from embracing diversity and rejoicing in our faith in the God whose promise is to make all things new – we have turned our faith, our understanding, our traditions, our rituals into tablets of stone, once set down and never to be changed.

Or as Rowan Williams has put it quite succinctly, we have worked harder and harder at finding ways of saying ‘no’ rather than finding ways of saying ‘yes’.

Thankfully wisdom is to be found in the pages of scripture, exactly where Martin Luther would expect it to be found.

but this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on………….

Paul was already an old man by the time he wrote his letter to the church at Philippi – probably aged 60 – yes, I know, but life expectancy was very different in those days.

Imprisoned in Rome where he was due to appear before Caesar’s court, the charges against him of little substance yet given Rome was a snake pit of intrigue and corruption the outcome of the trial could not be taken for granted, Paul had good reason to despair and to wonder what the future held.

Yet far from being dismayed, his letter reveals not just his continuing enthusiasm for the work he was called to do and his profound conviction in the power of Christ crucified and risen.

Describing himself as a Jew born and bred, circumcised on the 8th day, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, zealous for the law, someone who had once persecuted the church but with his life transformed through the grace of God in Christ, Paul had come to a very different place and a very different understanding of faithfulness.

Although it continued to be important, keeping the law and the commandments was no longer enough.

Instead Paul had come to see that his hope of salvation lay through faith, faith in what God had done for him in Christ.

And because this was the hope of salvation, Paul realised there was no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free – for all are one, one in Christ.

Paul’s genius, a genius recognised by Martin Luther, was the insight that our unity lies in Christ, not in the fact that we all think the same, believe the same, pray the same, read and understand the Bible the same, worship the same or live in exactly the same way.

And so Paul pressed on confident, as he wrote elsewhere, that there was nothing in life or death, nothing in all creation that would ever separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As Margaret and I travelled throughout Scotland and visited dozens of congregations in various towns and villages, the ones which were thriving were the ones who reached out into their community seeking to engage with people as they found them and to respond to need as it presented itself.

Outward looking, hospitable, generous, embracing diversity and trying to find ways to say ‘yes’ in the ordinary and sometimes messy business of life: what better way to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation than to do as Luther did and re-imagine the life and practice of our church, a church Reformed and always reforming.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] The Times, 28.09.2017, p9

[2] Steve Aisthorpe, The Invisible Church (Learning from the experiences of Churchless Christians), Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh 2016

[3] Gillian Bowditch, Losing our religion but not our ideals, Sunday Times, 01 October 2017