“I will not leave you desolate”, says Jesus, “I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
These words come from John’s report of Jesus’ last speech to his disciples, at their final meal together. He is preparing them for his imminent arrest and death and for what will come after, his resurrection and then ascension, the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the Church.
Those events took place nearly 2,000 years ago. In the Spring of a year in the early 30s AD. They took place in a room in the city of Jerusalem, in a province of the Roman Empire. They happened long ago and far away. At the time of his death it is unlikely that more than a few thousand people had ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth and those who followed him were probably numbered in the scores rather than in the hundreds. The earliest “Christians”, those who believed in him at his death, would almost certainly have been able to get into this room (if we were relaxed about fire regulations).
Today, two millennia later, there are over 2 billion Christians in the world. 100 years ago two thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, today Europeans make up only about a quarter of Christians. In that time, the last century, the total number of Christians in the world has quadrupled. I don’t know how many of those 2.2 billion people will be in church today but I think we can be sure that as we gather here we join hundreds of millions of people in every corner of the world and speaking every language.
During Jesus’ life and at his death he and his friends had very little, they certainly had no buildings, no bank accounts, no complicated organisations. Today, in the UK alone, there are something over 30,000 church buildings and around the world there are structures like St Peter’s in Rome which has a volume of over 1 million cubic meters and the building of the Full Gospel church, completed in 1973 in Seoul, South Korea which seats 26,000 people.
From those small beginnings to the incredible power, diversity and dynamism of a worldwide Church in which there are now thought to be more than 30 million churches and over 60,000 denominations.
How this happened, how this movement within Judaism, this new message proclaimed by someone from an obscure corner of the Holy Land, came to be the largest and most vibrant religious movement in the world, both the biggest and the fastest growing, might seem mysterious. Why didn’t this movement collapse and disappear like so many others, apparently similar? Why did the followers of Jesus win new converts in great numbers, develop an ever more complete set of ideas about him and his significance and all sorts of practices and forms of behaviour with which they celebrated their relationship with him? Why didn’t his name disappear into the obscurity of historical specialism, like other claimants to the title of Messiah? After all who now remembers Simon of Peraea, or Athronges, or Menahem ben Judah?
As Christians we say that the answer to this question is that Jesus of Nazareth is unique and incomparable, we say that he is not simply a man but is also God, that God is one in three and three in one and that in Jesus the world has seen God, God the Son, second person of the Trinity. What is more we say that this Jesus, this man who is God, this union in a single person of human being and transcendent God, is not dead but lives, having died. His living presence with us and in us, as he says in today’s gospel reading, is what accounts for the vigour and strength of his Church, all these years after his execution on a cross. He speaks to the Church when he say: “because I live, you will live also”.
He has been as good as his word. Through all the years, centuries and millennia since his death and resurrection he has been present to us, in the Word and in the Sacraments. He has enlivened and sustained his people through their hearing and believing the stories and the beliefs about him and what he has done for us and by joining himself to them in a real and powerful way in the eating and drinking of the bread and wine of communion.
In all of this he has been joined and enabled by the third person of the Trinity, of the triune God, by the Holy Spirit, as he promised he would be. “I will pray the Father and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, who the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you”.
The Spirit dwells with us and is in us. It is this relationship between Jesus, the Spirit and the Church that accounts for the amazing story of our communal life since Jesus returned in glory to the Father. The vitality and vibrancy of our communion, from the Spirit empowered apostles we read about in the Book of Acts, through the persecutions, arguments, and spread throughout the Empire of their successors, through the conversion of the Empire itself, its collapse and the birth of the new nations of Europe, through renaissance and Reformation, through the missionary activities of the European churches and on into the extraordinary present, where a Latin American Pope presides over the Roman Catholic Church and Pentecostalism, born only 100 years ago, is now the biggest successor to the “Protestant” break from Rome.
The development of the Church has always been surprising, always taken unexpected turns and today it looks very different from what was expected by the enthusiasts for unification of the denominations that merged to create the United Reformed Church in the early 1970s. There are more, not less, separate denominations and groupings of churches and the divisions within denominations, over issues like homosexuality or the ministry of women, are more bitter than the divisions between denominations.
The good news is that the Spirit is still dwelling with us, still in us, the good news is that Jesus, in that same Spirit, is still in us, as he is still in the Father. The good news is that the Church, despite its divisions and despite the decline of some older denominations, like the URC, continues to grow and to change, driven onwards by the work of that same Spirit.
So as we prepare to eat and drink, to be brought into the living presence of Christ himself in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, I invite you all to be still for a moment with me and in silent prayer ask that God grant us a full knowledge of his dwelling with us and in us.