Today we are celebrating St Austine and giving thanks for the life of the church. If I can fit in a Confirmation class before we start our barbecue, the lesson will be about the church. I suppose the first thing I would like to say is that the church is a work in progress. Behind me is an illustration of that. In 1882 when the church was new, it stopped where the big arch is. The sanctuary was not added until about 14 years later. The walls used to be a creamy colour with a deep red border around the windows, following the outline of the bricks. Later on the wall was painted blue and now it is cream again. We are renewing the paint and staining the wood panelling to make it match the rest of the woodwork. And the furniture, the pews, the organ and the altar have been moved around many times. St Luke’s church not a museum, it is a work in progress, a church building which is used, lived in and loved.
The church which I will describe to the Confirmation class is not really about buildings, it is about people. The church is about people brought together and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the disciples spoke in many different languages so that many people could hear, in their own language, the wonderful saving power of God. From the very beginning of the church on the day of Pentecost, the church has been a living, growing, changing community of faith.
One word picture of the church is of a grape vine. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Without the vine, the branches wither and die. Even the branches that are attached to the vine need pruning and cutting back if they are to bear fruit. God is the vine dresser, the one who makes sure the vine is healthy and productive. People and parishes are constantly being pruned to make sure they grow. The people who are the movers and shakers in the church move on, giving others the opportunity to make the church bear new, rich and abundant fruit, luscious grapes for a new vintage.
The church grows and spreads by planting new vines in new places. The apostle Paul was one church planter. In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we find him in Athens, in the market place, called the Areopagus, and he is telling the people of Athens the good news of Jesus Christ. He points out all the altars and all the Gods but stops at the altar to an un-named God, a God whom nobody in Athens has heard about. This is the one I proclaim, says Paul, this is the One true God who created all that is and who sent his son for the salvation of the world. Paul also quotes Greek philosophers because he knows that the church grows best if it is planted in the good soil which is already there.
St Augustine had the same wisdom. When he first arrived in England and began gathering people together to the form the Church in England, he advised them not to knock down the old pagan temples, but to convert them into churches, so that people would find new truth in the familiar traditions of their land.
This is the way the church has grown; Jesus Christ is planted in the hearts and lives of people throughout the world, of every nation and language, of every time and place, vines which, as God prunes them and trains them, bear all sorts of wonderful fruit.
Maybe our congregation here at St Luke’s is not a big vine, but I see a strong and vigorous plant with good fruit growing here. As people come and go we see God’s pruning and God’s Holy Spirit at work. Over the years parish priests have come and gone, each bearing fruit according to their ability. This is a natural and necessary part of the life of the church. As God prunes, so the new growth comes.
As you know, I am going to be pruned in January 2015, which is seven months away. And before that I will take three months long service leave, during which time there will be other priests leading our worship and caring for our community.
Let us give thanks for the life of our church and the worshipping community of St Luke’s. Let us remember that the church is a living organism, and each one of us is part of that organism, each of us is a branch which can bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And let us all take the opportunities which pruning gives us. It is a time of pain, perhaps, but it is also a time for new growth, new ideas and a new harvest. It is a time to remember that the church is work in progress and the work is God’s work.