As a quick reminder, or to bring those of you not here last week up to speed, we have just started a series looking at the Five Core Values of the Baptist Union. These are all to do with the kind of community we are called to be, a community that is worshipping and inclusive and missionary and prophetic and sacrificial. We are considering the values in that order because it gives us the acronym WIMPS, which is the easiest way of remembering them all. It also means we could start with worshipping, which seemed fitting as our worship is what makes us a distinctly Christian community, and so it is the foundation from which we build.
We thought about worship as that which expresses God’s worth, and as something which has both personal and shared aspects. We thought too about worship being woven into the fabric of our lives, and a way of reflecting God’s love back to God and refracting God’s love out into the world. Ultimately, to be a worshipping community is to be a people who worship, who express and reveal the worth of God in all aspects of their lives. That is what we seek to be.
I said in my introduction to the series that these values are not distinctly Baptist, but rather are hallmarks of any true Christian community, and yet there may be radically Baptist ways in which we live them out. I didn’t come back to that as we reflected on being a worshipping community, but I want to say a little now, because I think there is something radically Baptist about our worship. Across the Baptist family there will be a great variety in terms of the structure of services and the style of music and the length of preaching, but what is common is that our belief in every member ministry means that anyone may contribute to worship.
We perhaps don’t yet make as much of that as we might, but it has been good to break the tradition of only deacons serving and praying at communion, and it was wonderful to hear contributions from members of the community during our series on Sacred Spaces. I would love for there to be more of that, and so I would love for you to tell me what you would like to offer to our worship, whether that is a prayer or a reflection or a song or something else. This is a precious part of our Baptist identity, but it goes right back to the early church. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:26, “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”
That sense of everyone contributing something brings us neatly to the value we are considering today, which is all about being an inclusive community. This is what the Baptist Union has to say: “Following Jesus in transcending barriers of gender, language, race, class, age and culture. Identifying with those who are rejected, deprived and powerless. We should reflect Jesus’ love for the fallen, the excluded, the poor and hungry, the oppressed, voiceless and powerless. As Baptists we need to recover the Reformation emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.” With that in mind, we will hear our readings and sing again, before digging deeper into what it means to be an inclusive community.
John 10:14-16 (NIV)
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.”
Acts 10:1-23 (NIV)
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa. About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate. They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there. While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you. So get up and go downstairs. Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.” Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?” The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion. He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.” Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests. The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.
As with last week, I want our reflections on community to be communal, and so I will offer some questions as well as some of my own thoughts. I encourage you to reflect on those questions, to talk with those around you, and perhaps to note your thoughts down. I’m not sure the board worked last time, so I have some sheets on the back tables. I then hope to bring all of our reflections together at the end of the series, and spend some time discussing what we have learnt about the community we are and hope to be.
So to get you thinking, my first question is: What does an inclusive community look like?
I first asked that question a few weeks after I arrived here at Stoneygate Baptist, and I keep coming back to the answers we wrote down then, because I think they give a really wonderful picture of what inclusive community looks like, and I think they capture so much of who we already are and who we keep striving to be. Here are just some of the answers we gave four years ago:
● being in the same room together
● feeling safe
● showing the love of God to everybody, no matter who they are
● a sense of friendship and fellowship
● being welcomed whatever problems/differences you come with
● being welcomed without judgement
● ensuring no one is left out
● when you can be allowed to take part in the activities in a church
● being part and being accepted for what and who you are
● celebrating diversity as better than uniformity and enriching for all
● others not ignoring or being frightened to ask about your problems
● offers of help (even if they are not needed)
● not asking questions, just accepting and loving
● being accepted for what I am and what I can contribute however small
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of what community should be like? And I believe that at our best we absolutely live up to it. Of course we are not perfect because we are still being perfected, but we show care and respect across so many lines of difference, and we have shown a willingness to take bold steps in the name of inclusion.
I’d like you to think back now to the passage we heard from Acts, when Peter is told not to call impure anything God has made clean: What does this passage say about inclusion?
Peter clearly understands his vision to mean that he should welcome the Gentiles that arrive at his door, people who he had been taught to believe were unclean and unacceptable. From there he travels with them, and he shares the gospel with them, and he witnesses them receive the Spirit, and he baptises them into the community of believers. Through this, he comes to realise that God shows no partiality and he is to make no distinction between people, and so the way is paved for the radical inclusion that was the hallmark of the early church, an inclusion so radical that Paul could write to the Galatians that there was "no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male and female". What struck me in reading the passage again this week is that Peter isn’t being told to accept that which is unclean, he’s being told it is not unclean to begin with. Inclusion goes deeper than simple welcome or hospitality, which we can do while still thinking all sorts of terrible things about people. If we really let it do its thing, it challenges our assumptions and knocks our prejudices flat.
We have already made a clear commitment to being an inclusive community, but as we have acknowledged, we don’t have all the answers and so we keep listening and learning and loving, which leads me to ask you this: Where do we still need to work on being inclusive?
There will always be more to learn about disability and neurodiversity, because each person’s experiences and needs will be different. We touched on this last week, during our discussion following the presentation from Baptist Assembly which we watched as part of the church meeting, and I suggested then that the size of our community is a blessing here as it makes it easier for us to understand and adapt to different needs, and recognise and celebrate different gifts. I think there are conversations to be had about race too. The other presentation from Baptist Assembly, which we would have watched and discussed during the church meeting if time had allowed, was about responding to the legacy of slavery and spoke of the peace of Christ disturbing us, as it must do if we are to recognise the ways in which our society is still not equal. I think there is more for us to learn about gender and transition, especially given the high level of transphobia in our public discourse at the moment, which makes it easy to be misled by ignorance and false outrage. It seems to me that transition is about living as one’s authentic self, and that is a holy thing which can bring rich blessing to the whole Christian community. And as a wider Baptist family we have some way to go on issues of sexuality, which still feels like the big rainbow elephant in the room every time the Baptist Union speaks about inclusion. We will think about being a prophetic community in a few weeks, and I hope that is a conversation in which we may have a prophetic voice, speaking with confidence and conviction as a church which affirms same sex relationships.
We talk about being a church for all, and Jesus spoke of there being “one flock and one shepherd”, so this one is a tough question: Can the church really include everyone?
The church contains a stunning breadth of beliefs and practices, and that is not inherently a bad thing. We are all trying to make sense of mystery, and we express ourselves in different ways, and no single congregation could do justice to all of that. As Ephesians 3:10 puts it, the church makes known the manifold wisdom of God, and it can only do that because of its manifold character, so perhaps we might say that there is one flock and one shepherd, but there are different pens. With such kaleidoscopic variety to be found within the church, it is no wonder or fault that people choose to worship in communities where they have a shared understanding or the style of worship best helps them connect with God. Put simply, we won't be everybody's cup of tea, and that's okay. Inclusion is not about creating something so bland it pleases everyone by satisfying no one, but about being open to allow people to decide for themselves if this is where they want to be. Having said that, I do think we have to be realistic about how much tension a single community can hold within itself. One of my favourite chapters in our church history is the congregation sending food parcels to members fighting on the front lines, even as other members committed to conscientious objection, because it speaks of a willingness to love across disagreement. But that is not always possible or right, and where beliefs or practices threaten or cause harm to other members of the community, the tension must be addressed and those who are vulnerable in that situation must be protected. It's a version of Karl Popper's paradox of tolerance - a tolerant society can tolerate anything but intolerance, and an inclusive church can include everything but exclusion.
We’ve talked about inclusion in quite broad terms so far, but I want you to think really personally and practically for this next question: What elements are essential for you to feel included?
I asked that question because often when we talk about inclusion, we’re thinking about the people we want to include, that is the people who aren’t here yet, perhaps because they have had previous experiences of exclusion. But inclusion is about the people already here too, and while we may assume that everybody here feels sufficiently included to stay, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t more that is needed to make sure we are all as comfortable and as confident as we might be. We also have to be realistic about the fact that we can’t anticipate the essentials of everyone who may walk through the door, but becoming more aware of ourselves may help us to become more aware of others. If you have essentials that aren't being met right now, or you can see there are elements missing that may be essential for someone else, please speak with me or one of the deacons so that we can do something about that.
I want to end with two brief thoughts. First a quote from a book called The Inclusive Church: "Inclusivity is not an optional extra for Christians, it has nothing to do with being liberal, it’s not a churchy version of political correctness. It’s a gospel imperative, fundamental to the nature of God and at the very heart of the mission and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s orthodox Christianity." And finally, a reminder of the picture Luke Dowding offered us a couple of years ago, of the mustard seed that grew into a bush so big that birds of every plumage nested in its branches. We are called to be an inclusive community, and that may mean deep reflection and hard work at times, but it is a joyous and holy thing when those birds fill the branches with their riot of song and colour.
Jesus the liberator who crossed bridges and broke down barriers; who found words for the voiceless and room for the outcasts; who gave dignity and value to those who had no reputation and no name. The whole creation longs to sing in harmony.
Jesus we must walk your way. Teach us to be an inclusive community.