The sudden, shocking and comprehensive lockdown of the UK announced by the government in March 2020 turned out to be absolutely necessary. The instinctive response of the senior church leaders across the North East region was to meet weekly (online) to pray, support one another and to share information, stories and experiences in a rapidly shifting situation. It was immediately clear that the churches of the region faced common problems: congregations scattered by covid-19; people with a range of practical needs; and the ‘upskilling’ challenge of harnessing new technologies to sustain worship and community during lockdown. There was a shared, cross-denominational sense of navigating uncharted territory where, for an unspecified period, health security came before our shared instinct that gathering for worship was central to our lives as believers and as church communities.
Most churches found the best proxy for the worship they were used to, not because it was perfect but because it was what was there in the circumstances. The larger and younger congregations invested in truckloads of ‘tech’. A lot of ministers, with much of their usual work curtailed, learnt more limited techie ways to lead their congregations. Across the board we discovered that the live video communication that helped us keep up with our unexpectedly inaccessible family also enabled forms of worship and church community. Among the senior church leaders there was some dark humour too. One bishop said that his small rural churches were well prepared for ‘socially distanced’ church where people kept well apart, didn’t speak to each other and didn’t sing: ‘They’ve been doing it for years – it’s called “church”’.
The optimists said the pandemic would be over in three months. The cautious voices said it would take two years to work its way out. Right now we are not so much in the post-covid world as moving towards it. We are out of the tunnel and heading through a cutting before the open countryside. Amongst the church leaders there has been a unanimous if quiet acknowledgement that the church in the North East will never be the same. ‘Many churches will never re-open’; ‘Some will reopen but they probably shouldn’t’; ‘It’s a great chance to do something new’. The dominant tone has been regret about the necessity of painful decisions, optimism about what a more missional future might hold and great pastoral anxiety that too many people will fall through the cracks.
I have wondered less about the questions of continuity or change and what is good about each, and more about how we take this opportunity to re-envision ourselves for the core task that lies before us, whatever (and whenever) that looks like practically. The envisioning can’t be primarily about the nuts and bolts of how we do church in the post-covid world. It’s not what we stop, what we start, what and when we change, whilst we are still negotiating the practicalities of infection rates, room capacities, face coverings, ventilation and so on. Rather the better preparation for God’s future for us is at the deep level of gospel values and biblical truth. Regathering in person is the perfect place to remind ourselves what this church is committed to. It is time to renew our commitment to the Trinitarian God, the saving good news in Jesus Christ at the heart of the gospel and to bring to focus again the simple basics of Christian discipleship which have sustained God’s people at all times and in all places since the earliest churches. As someone said to me last week: ‘Church is not complicated. We worship God, care for people, teach them and reach out.’
So in a departure from our usual pattern of preaching through biblical books, we are revisiting the Essentials series over ten Sundays. We’ve added a fifth theological title Confessing that Jesus is Lord to the four existing ones – Encountering the Living God; Trusting in the Crucified Saviour; Rising with the Living Lord, Living in the Power of the Spirit.
Perhaps there is no more pressing need in our day than for those who call on Jesus as their saviour to recognise that the salvation that Jesus offers us through his cross and resurrection is inextricably linked to his Lordship over all things. They follow each other in the story of Jesus. His Lordship is a universal and cosmic reality. I don’t make Jesus Lord. You don’t make Jesus Lord. You and I are way too late to the party. Jesus has been exalted as Lord by his Father. The crucified one has risen, ascended and been enthroned as Lord. What I do – what we do – is recognise Jesus’ Lordship, embrace the truth of it and confess it. That confession comes with our lips, but also our lives.
We speak and act in conformity to that divinely initiated and divinely established reality. When we make that simplest of early Christian confessions, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (actually in Greek it is only two words: ‘Lord Jesus’), we are saying we recognise who Jesus is: Lord over the whole cosmos. Not just now, but until the consummation of all things. And in saying ‘Lord Jesus’ we are also embracing all the implications: his gospel, his person and his teaching is the first and highest loyalty in our lives. It shapes the whole of reality. Three short words with sledgehammer implications precisely because they are a universal claim: Jesus is Lord.
We’ve also added to the more practical discipleship topics (Hearing the Word of God; Sharing in the Body of Christ; Praying for the Kingdom; Telling the World): Enjoying the Grace of God. The centrality of grace is no surprise. We know that the grace of God in Jesus is full and free. As humans, even though we have been saved by grace, we have a constant tendency to tie ourselves up in knots. Sometimes we can’t really believe we are forgiven. Or we think that being forgiven means we can do what we want.
We know we can’t impress God, but we are so used to trying to impress others that we quietly think that God can be impressed too. We live like we would actually prefer our Christian faith to be boiled down and simplified into a code of behaviour where there is a list of things that are right and a list of things that are wrong. We judge ourselves by them. We judge others by them. We speak grace, but live law.
Or we do the opposite and tell ourselves that there are no limits, no obligations, nothing to constrain how we behave, because God, after all, is irrevocably gracious to the point of indulgence. Jesus makes us free. He will always let us off. He can’t help it. But like codifying God’s grace, presuming upon it is in danger of extinguishing it. Enjoying God’s grace is more like falling in love. We long for the person’s presence and find honest acceptance. We live to please the other person not by a list of rules but because in the midst of joys and sorrows they love us and we love them. As Paul says in Romans 6, if we are joined to Jesus, we can never presume on the gift of justification that his death lavishes on us so fully and freely. Perhaps it would be better to say that God’s grace is to be enjoyed like a steady, mature and flourishing marriage. He delights in us. We delight in him.
With these ten Sunday preaching topics comes a booklet of studies: The Essentials of Discipleship. We’ll give a copy to everyone at Kings. If you aren’t in Durham you can ask for a copy from the church office (firstname.lastname@example.org). Many small groups have already begun to study these together midweek. You can talk through them with another believer at home or in your college. They are set out so that you can also use them as personal studies (there are five for each topic so that you can do them on weekdays and catch up at the weekend if you miss one!). The Essentials of Discipleship make an excellent ‘Beta’ course for those who have done an Alpha course recently. In each case the ten studies extend and deepen the Sunday sermons. Most of all these solid foundations will remind us that in a disoriented and disorientating world, God’s work in Jesus is still the foundation and focus of our life together.