Colossians: 1:9a, 11-20; Luke 23:33-43
Christ the King
St Barbara’s 20.11.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we finish our three-part series on the church. On All Saints Day we looked at the church in the past – all those Christians who have gone before us and inspired us by their faith. Two weeks ago, we thought about the church of today, and we reflected on the importance of not giving up the habit of meeting together. And today, we are going to think about the church of the future.
When we think about the future of something it can often be helpful to look at statistical trends, although with a professor of statistics in the congregation, I realise I have to be careful what I say! If you look at statistical trends for St Barbara’s they tell different things according to where you start looking. Back in 1977, 45 years ago, St Barbara’s was a significantly bigger congregation than it is today with an average Sunday morning attendance across our 8am and 10am services of about 120 a week and about 30 baptisms a year. Nowadays, we have about 4-5 baptisms a year and our 8am and 10am congregations, when including those joining us online, is about three-quarters of that, roughly a 25% decline in attendance over that time. However, if you compare to where we were 10-15 years ago, we’ve actually grown as a congregation (by about 8% if you are interested). And if you look at what has happened since the pandemic, our attendance across all our church services, including Prayers and Bears, Buzz at St B’s, mid-week communion, are fairly similar to what they were three years ago, especially when including those joining us online. That is actually quite unusual. On the whole its an encouraging story (although we must acknowledge that those coming to St Barbara’s amount to just 3% of the population of the parish).
It would be fair to say that what is happening at St Barbara’s, however, bucks a trend. Between 1980 and 2015 church attendance in the UK fell by over half. And whilst 40 years ago 40% of people in the UK identified themselves as Anglican, that figure is now below 17%. Those figures will not surprise us – it reflects a societal trend where organised faith has become seen increasingly as just one of a multitude of interest groups, hobbies and lifestyle choices rather than as a core foundation to community and national life.
Where there is church growth in the UK, much of that is down to Christians from outside the UK coming to live here. And that points us to a trend in global Christianity. Whilst the Church in Europe and north America continues to decline in numbers the Church in Africa, Asia and Latin America is growing, to the extent that by 2050 there will be twice as many African Christians than European and American Christians put together. China and other parts of Asia are also seeing huge growth.
That growth comes with challenges. Attitudes to theology and Christian practice may be different from our own, as is witnessed over the increasing tensions over issues such as human sexuality. There is also evidence to suggest that as countries become wealthier they become more secular and the church begins to shrink. It is easy to look to the future and be worried and concerned.
Which is what makes today’s focus on Christ the King so important. This is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. For the last twelve months we have been journeying through the Christian year and the Christian story.
- We started with Advent last year, hearing the words of the prophets preparing ourselves for the world-changing event of Christ coming among us at Christmas.
- Through Epiphany, we recognised how God, in Christ, was making himself known to the world.
- Then in Lent, we journeyed with Christ through the wilderness and forty days of preparation, arriving at Holy Week, and Christ’s death and resurrection, the moment in which life and eternity are changed for ever.
- At Ascension we witness Christ returning to the glory of his Father;
- at Pentecost we witness the birth of the Church and the gift of the Holy Spirit;
- and then throughout the summer months we continued to think about what Christ’s body now on earth, his Church, should be like, how we live out his teaching and embody his love.
- And then earlier this month, we arrived at All Saints, the celebration that heaven is populated with all those who have gone before us, cheering us on.
- And now we reach the end of the year with the climax – the place to where all this story has been heading – the proclamation, the celebration of Christ as King.
Paul, writing to the Colossians, captures something of the wonder, the awe, the majesty of the moment. Christ is the image of the invisible God; through him all things were created; He is Lord over all things – there is no power, no dominion, no ruler, no power that can remotely touch his majesty and reign. In Him all things hold together. In Him all God’s fulness dwells, and he is the true reconciler and peace-bringer of the world.
This is the King revealed to us on the cross. The soldiers called him the King of the Jews, but in his death and resurrection he revealed himself as the king of the universe, the cosmos, of all life. As he was dying on the cross Christ welcomed the penitent thief into his kingdom – “today you will be with me in paradise.”
This picture of Christ as King surely shapes how we look at the future of the Church. Statistics, projected trends, may cause us to despair, to throw in the towel, to feel that our generation may be the last remnant clinging on before the tide of secularism sweeps us all away. But Christ as King, as the head of the body, his church, tells us a very different story.
Let me put it this way. Those of you who have followed English cricket over the years will know that it can be a stressful experience, the ability to pluck devastating defeat out of the jaws of certain victory with an unforeseen yet also at the same time inevitable batting collapse. There are times when I feel physically unwell just listening. I have to switch off the radio until it is all over. Well no doubt the same would have happened to me last Sunday if the Cricket World Cup final had not clashed with our Remembrance Sunday service. Mercifully I was saved the angst and sheer tension. By the time I came to watch the match on Sunday afternoon I already knew the result, I knew England had won. I could watch with total relaxation and enjoyment. I had no need for anxiety or tension. I knew the game was won. I didn’t know how or who had starred, but knowing we had won made all the difference.
As we look to the future, we know, as it were, that we are on the winning side. Christ is Lord. His kingdom will one day come in all its fullness. The Church, past, present and future, local and global, will one day come together in a great gathering of praise, the culmination of God’s pouring out of his love throughout history. We can look to the future of the Church not with anxiety or depression but with hope and anticipation.
But where the analogy with England’s cricket triumph breaks down, is that with the cricket I could only remain a passive observer. I watched on from the sidelines. But with Christ’s kingdom we are invited to take part, to work for and pray for the coming of his kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. The result is assured, so what an incredible privilege to be part of its outworking, to be part of the kingdom of love, compassion, justice, grace, generosity, hope, peace in our world, to know that our efforts will not be in vain.
For each of us, the question is: how can we contribute to Christ’s kingdom? At school, at work, in our our families and community, in our world, what will we do to be part of the coming of the coming of the kingdom, to being an expression of his body here on earth. Maybe ask yourself: this week, what one thing will I do or pray to be part of the coming of God’s kingdom.
And so, cheered on by the Church of the past, supporting and encouraging each other as the church of the present, we look forward to the Church of tomorrow, where Christ is King, revealed in all his glory.