“The Body of Christ” – In This Place

“The Body of Christ” – In This Place

Allan Davidson Romans 12.3-13

Sun 22 Sep

One of the most popular images of the church in the New Testament, is Paul’s description of the Church as “the Body of Christ”. Paul uses this image in Romans and Corinthians and it also appears in Ephesians and Colossians. The Church for Paul was an organic, growing entity of people, who responded to the message about Jesus that Paul and other missionaries brought to communities around the Mediterranean. Paul in his letters, was often the practical theologian, helping these new Christian communities understand what it meant to be Christians within their context.

The image of the body proved to be particularly appropriate. It enabled Paul to emphasise the importance of unity in the early Christian communities in Corinth and Rome. The body is made up of many different parts, with different functions. These parts are interconnected and contribute to the well-being of the whole body. Paul’s description, that “individually we are members of one another”, highlights the way in which Church members are interrelated. The Church functions best when there is harmony among its members, something Paul laboured to achieve. He was working with the reality of an emerging organisation, that had high ideals, but reflected its human frailties; something which hasn’t changed! His reminder to his Roman readers, is that individual members are corporately part of something much bigger than themselves – “we, who are many are one body in Christ” – that is the Church.

Paul affirms alongside this corporate identity, the individual gifts which people bring to the Church as prophets, ministers, teachers, preachers (exhorters), generous givers, diligent leaders and cheerful carers (the compassionate). The Church exists to share the fruits of these gifts both among its own members and community, and beyond. Paul goes on to encourage the members to “love one another”; to be zealous and ardent in serving God; to be people of hope; to be “patient in suffering”; persevering in prayer; contributing materially to the needs of other Christian communities; extending “hospitality to strangers”.

There are in these few verses, a description of what the Church is and the actions its members should take. It provides an outline for how they should relate to one another and encourages them to be people of action.

As I’ve been digging into the early history of St Luke’s, I’ve been reflecting on the characteristics that have shaped this Church and its people. How has St Luke’s acted as the body of Christ in this place?

When St Luke’s began in 1875, one of its first activities was to have a soirée. The venue was the church building that they recently acquired and moved on to this site. The account of this soirée records that over 300 sat down to tea. Ten tables were presided over by “Mesdames” who are identified, as was the custom of the day, by their husband’s initials, or in one case by his Christian name. These “ladies”, the preferred designation, were usually responsible for providing the food – an early version of “ladies a plate”.

The beginnings of St Luke’s are identified with the mixing of a social occasion, and a meeting outlining why the church had begun, their hopes for a minister and the proposal to begin a Sabbath-school.

Some of the major characteristics of the church were expressed in this inaugural gathering. The social dimension reflected the cultivation of community – belonging, people sitting down at table with others and sharing food. The inaugural soirée was the forerunner of a myriad of communal occasions which became part of St Luke’s life, with regular socials, concerts, entertainments, Sunday school anniversaries and picnics. Later on, for the Bible Classes, sports, Easter camps, inter-church rallies, national conferences, and after much debate, dances, became ways of providing young people with opportunities of social bonding and belonging within the church.

The second major characteristic was worship. There was a choir from St James Church which rendered several musical selections in addition to the opening hymn. There were also four solos, two them from Handel’s Messiah. Singing, along with prayer, were constituent parts of Presbyterian worship. Thomas Macffarlane also referred to the appointment of a supply minister, who “would conduct divine service every Sabbath morning at 11 o’clock”. Weekly worship has been at the centre of this parish’s life, and conducted on this site, on almost every Sunday since the first service in May 1875.

The third characteristic expressed at the soirée, was giving money to support the church. Alongside Thomas Norrie’s reference to liberality, Macffarlane read out how much had been spent on buying the church building and this property, and the contributions received so far. When G.B. Monro arrived two years later to become St Luke’s first minister, there was a debt of £800 on the church building and the costs of bringing the Monro’s from Scotland. Two church members offered to pay half the debt if the rest was met by the congregation. By the time the Monro’s had been welcomed the debt was cleared.

Giving has been an expression of Christian stewardship and commitment. St Luke’s has been blessed throughout its history by the generosity and the industry of people in raising money for buildings, for ministry, for charitable work within the parish and community, and in support for mission and outreach in New Zealand and overseas. Often at the forefront of that activity have been women, who through the Ladies’ Guild and Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union, had their sales tables, fairs and various fund-raising activities. Many of you will remember how through Sunday school and Bible class we were taught to seeing our offering as an expression of belonging to the Church.

A fourth characteristic of the Church was expressed by Thomas Norrie, supporting the need of a Sabbath-school. Teaching children was an essential part of the Church. Norrie in expressing the hope that there would be no “‘milk-and-water’ Presbyterianism”, underlined the seriousness with which he and others took this work.

Along with belonging – believing and conviction have been constituent parts of St Luke’s identity. Organisations like, the Band of Hope and Christian Endeavour in the nineteenth century; the Sunday school and the Bible Classes, were agencies through which St Luke’s Sunday school teachers and Bible class leaders shared their understanding of the Christian faith and how people should live. The underlying intention was to bring young people to a point where they would commit themselves to following in the way of Jesus and become church members.

The beliefs and convictions of previous generations have changed over the decades. An example of that is seen in changing attitudes towards alcohol. In the nineteenth century there was increasing fervour associated with the Prohibition Movement. At St Luke’s there were robust debates over whether to continue the practice of using wine and the common cup for communion. These were eventually replaced, with some dissension, by grape juice and small glasses. Some years ago this was changed again when the choice of either wine or grape juice was introduced. The passionate support for Prohibition gradually waned, although many of the problems that alcohol produces remain with us.

There were also changes in beliefs which had an impact on the way people lived. “Honouring the Sabbath and keeping it holy” was expressed by Presbyterians in Sabbatarianism, with very rigid rules on what people could do on Sunday. In the early twentieth century, when trams began running in Auckland, there was a strong move against having them run on Sundays. Gradually this was modified, against Church protest, and they were allowed to run on Sunday, except at times of worship. Eventually in the 1920s they could run on Sundays, irrespective of the time of the day. There were still some curmudgeons who objected to them ringing their bells when going passed a church holding a service.

One of the intriguing questions about change here at St Luke’s, is how the congregation moved from its very evangelical beginnings, seen its first minister’s commitment to missions and revivals, through a liberalising period, to the inclusive, progressive church of today. While I have some ideas on that, this is still very much a work in progress.

Two other dimensions of St Luke’s identity, not mentioned by Macffarlane, but expressed from its beginnings, were seen in its caring and the encouragement it gave to service. Pastoral care was under the oversight of the minister and elders, who undertook this in a formal way. Alongside that, we can’t begin to quantify the informal caring that has been an extension of people’s involvement here at St Luke’s. Women were to the fore in doing sewing and collecting clothes for the poor and needy, visiting the sick and the elderly. Young people entertained children in orphanages and gave simple but effective help. One example was their collecting blackberries and donating sugar to make jam for orphanages. There were frequent special retiring collections over the years for good causes, for example: relief of famine in China, earthquake relief in Hawke’s Bay, helping a minister and his family in Otorohanga flooded out of their house.

The call to Christian service has been expressed by members of St Luke’s both within and beyond the parish. For some outstanding women, that was seen in leadership of organisations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association. Others from St Luke’s have been involved in local body politics and various charitable and service organisations, concerned to make a difference in people’s lives. St Luke’s has a notable record in terms of members who have served the church at the regional and national level, through Presbytery and Assembly committees, giving freely of their time and expertise. For some the call to Christian service has led them to becoming ministers, missionaries or deaconesses.

There is much more to the life of St Luke’s over the last 144 years than this brief survey can encompass.

The Annual Reports, which will be tabled at the Annual Meeting next Sunday, express both continuity and discontinuity with our past. They point to the way in which we have been the Body of Christ in this place over the last year. There is much that we should celebrate. There is always more that we can do.

At the centre of our chancel is a stained-glass triptych linking us with our past. The three windows were given in memory of John Young Stevenson, St Luke’s first session clerk, by his widow, Maggie Stevenson. John was described as the “founder of St Luke’s”. He died of tuberculosis in December 1878 and the following year the windows were installed. When this building replaced the original church, the windows were relocated here.

The central panel shows the figure of Jesus, with the text underneath – “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. The way that we understand those words in our inter-faith world today is very different from Stevenson’s day. But the Jesus panel remains central to our identity as the Body of Christ in this place.

David Clark, in his preface to the 1993 Annual Reports, wrote that just as in the past, so in the present and the future:

the heart of the matter is a commitment to the way of Jesus Christ, and to the God who is revealed in Jesus. How that is expressed changes – each generation must reinterpret the gospel for its own time. But the core does not change – the core of all that Jesus brought to humankind, and which is perhaps best summed up in those ageless words ‘faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love’.