Just Church: Grace & peace

photo(2)St Peter’s Bethnal Green – one of our partner churches – has just begun a sermon series based around our Just Church report.

Preaching on 19 January, the Revd Adam Atkinson (Vicar of St Peter’s, and CTC’s Senior Tutor) introduced the series.  His text was 1 Corinthians 1.1-9

The sermon is reprinted below.


Great stories often start with a strong opening line. See if you can guess/know any of these from literature or film:

All children, except one, grow up [J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan]

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. [The Hobbit]

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much [J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone]

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen [George Orwell, 1984]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife [Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice]

The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play, so we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day. [Dr Seuss, The Cat in the Hat]

Yo, ho, yo, ho, a pirate’s life for me. Yo, ho, yo, ho, it’s a pirate’s life for me …  [Pirates of the Carribean]

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth [Moses, Genesis/The Bible]

This is not a sermon to promote a pub quiz at The Marksman, though that’s a good thing. This is an introduction, an opening about a sermon series called ‘Just Church’.

In this new sermon mini-series, ‘Just Church’, each talk builds on another. There’s a ‘Just Church’ booklet to go with it and we are recording and podcasting the talks.

This is an introduction to the Just Church series. ‘Just’ – what is it to be just? and ‘Church’ – what is church? Are you sitting comfortably? In the beginning…

In our reading, Paul ‘an apostle’ is the author. He’s given testimony, told the story of Jesus to real people in Corinth. Scripture is personal. He’s now writing them a letter which we can read, which speaks to us and which we can act on.

I particularly want to look at verses 2 and 3. St Paul writes to them, calling them in v2 ‘the church of God in Corinth’.

We are ‘the church of God in Bethnal Green’ and, church, God does want us to hear him speaking to us today, specifically to us in our context. He’s got a message for us, collectively and individually. It’s personal. He’s about relationship.

So, what is church? People who have been ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people’. Who are they? ‘All those … who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’.

What does that mean? People who are no longer in control of their lives, subject to own wills and instincts but instead who call Jesus ‘their Lord’ and when they pray and worship and also when they face things in life and decide and act ‘call on’ that name, the person of Jesus. They can, we can, become new people because we can know him, personally.

So the message to us has already started: What God has done ‘in Christ Jesus’, makes us his new people. We become God’s people as a result of divine activity.

And as his people we are sanctified. It is a technical-sounding word, applied to utensils in the Temple, set apart for God. Because we have been set apart for God we must also bear the character of the God who has set us apart.

As those ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’ we are ‘called to be his holy people’. If we are ‘in Christ’ then we are no less than God’s children by divine calling and, as his people, will reflect his character, the family likeness.

For the Christians in Corinth this was not their strong suit, they looked far more like others around them in Corinth than they looked like God’s holy people in Corinth.

Holiness is part of God’s intention in saving his people. The church in Corinth needed to hear this because they separated belief from action, there were no ethical consequences to their faith. But holiness in the Bible usually involves observable behaviour, be under no illusions.

What about us? Do we look like God’s holy people in Bethnal Green, or do we look like the rest of London?

What I mean by that is holiness in speech, holiness on social media, in our sex lives, in our spending. Also holiness – something also observably different – in our approach to other people and to the structures and systems of society.

If Jesus is our Lord and not ourselves then we will reflect his holiness, we will sound and act and look different here in Bethnal Green to others who are still subject to the Lordship of London.

Paul is writing to ‘the church of God in Corinth’, God is speaking to ‘the church of God in Bethnal Green’.

The one thing that you might know about the church in Corinth was that is was a mess – full of problems, sin, division, heresy. It was in this sense no different from us – and every other church for that matter!

What is church? A fellowship of sinners seeking to become saints. We are not heroes, we are full of weaknesses and sins – I’m going to let you down and you will let one another down. But we are a family, at our worst dysfunctional but at other times displaying the best of human family, loyal, caring, open – a cup of tea not far away!

There are lots of reasons to  come to St Peter’s! But here’s one reason to come: we’re on a mission from God and we’re in it together. Like an old mission outpost set down and publicly evident in an area where lots of people don’t know Jesus and who we get to show and tell God’s good life.

We’re a community church, we’re diverse, we’re cross-tradition, we’re trying to be authentic. We’re not perfect but that doesn’t mean we’re like all of London because we are set apart for God, becoming more and more holy.

We are in it together, with those across the globe who ‘call on the name of the Lord’. Church is where we encourage one another in holiness. Life Groups are so important in this, life at the heart of the church, meeting to eat together and in many different ways calling ‘on the name of the Lord’.

The most important thing about us though is that we are ‘in Christ’. That is true of us before anything else. We have warts and all but God has done great things for us in Christ. What’s on display of holiness and other things in church such as growth, faith and activity are all good but they come out of being ‘in Christ’. God’s generosity and faithfulness in his relationship to us is what counts most of all.

As church we’re people relating to one another not accidentally but intentionally. We’re set apart, we’re being made holy. And we are part of a bigger picture, we’re not alone.

We also get something in church. There it is in verse 3: ‘Grace & peace’. Say it to one another. ‘Grace and peace’ – it is what you should experience in & around church. Grace and peace is what should flow from us.

CS Lewis was asked to sum up Christianity in a sentence. He said ‘I can do better than that, I’ll put I in one word: grace’.

God has given himself to us human creatures mercifully and bountifully. Nothing is deserved by us, nothing is achieved by us, instead it is all God’s work for us out of love. Grace means that there’s nothing I can do to make God love me more and there’s nothing I can do to make God love me less.

And the sum of these benefits as experienced by us who receive God’s grace is bundled together in the word ‘peace’, shalom – meaning wellbeing, wholeness, of body mind and spirit and wellbeing, wholeness of the entire world order.

‘Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’, and explicit in v 6 is the Holy Spirit.

If Jesus was in the congregation now, and I interviewed him about his story he might say it is one that involves being loved by the Father. Which might surprise you – because when we think of Jesus’s life on earth it is easy for us to imagine it wasn’t so great. Persecuted in his own town, hunted down, ganged up on, abandoned and finally killed.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus didn’t have a very rosy view of his time living among us. But Jesus knew he was at the centre of God’s love. And as such he was able to love others and tell his story of relationship with God the Father and God the Spirit. He’d want to tell us the story so that we could be part of the story of their relationship too.

Father, Son and Spirit – the Trinity – love one another, prefer one another, look to one another, rely on one another. We can share in this relationship today and for eternity.

We are made to relate to a relational God. He has created us for relationship. To love God and to love our neighbours. That’s Jesus’s summary of the OT Law: Love God and love our neighbours. So, church, ‘Grace & peace’.

Where there is shalom, peace, there is likely to be justice. Which brings us to being a just church – what is it to be just?

Last week I talked about Jesus the servant healer and King in Isaiah, who is coming back to establish the reign of his Kingdom and heal everything that is wrong in the world, to do justice.

Justice is the job of a good King and Jesus will do that, he will put everything right, he will undo all the horrendous and degrading effects that sin has had on the human race.

The church ‘in Christ’, in relationship with this King Jesus, is to care for the bruised and battered with him who is loving and kind to the broken. As he heals and forgives us we share the story of our relationship with the King among those could miss out on his grace and peace.

It also means we are a church to do justice with him, to put things right out there in the world. But do this in such a way that gets the results of the good king of the Kingdom, without resorting to the methods of the earthly evil empire.

This takes a lot of wisdom on our part. We have to deal with the doctrine of sin and the spirit of the servant.

The doctrine of sin tells us is that people who wield power in an unjust way will never relinquish power from the goodness of their heart. The doctrine of sin applies. At the same time we need to exhibit the spirit of a servant, Jesus came not to take power but to give it up and to love and to die and to suffer. The results of the king without the methods.

This is the case in the area of payday lending. Last year we went to one on the high street and celebrated Canada Day, because their terms are better in Canada than here. We were after a relationship with them and justice for customers – with Maple syrup! That’s why we are building a CitySafe Zone along Hackney Road, relationships leading to justice.

The church ‘in Christ’, in relationship with this King Jesus, is to care for the bruised and battered with him who is loving and kind to the broken. As he heals and forgives us we share the story of our relationship with the King among those could miss out on his grace and peace.

It also means we are a church to do justice with him, to put things right out there in the world. But do this in such a way that gets the results of the good king of the Kingdom, without resorting to the methods of the earthly evil empire.

To extend mercy to the broken, bleeding and battered and also to be a church enacting
justice among the systems in this world is hard. But we are in relationship with one
another and with our neighbours, we’re on a mission.

The last time we asked what people wanted to see better around us in Bethnal Green the result was: jobs, money, housing & food. So these are at the top of our list of action to be taking.

As we do, the display of grace and peace among the church is an acting out of the story of Christ. The gospel is the good news of what God has done – done for each of us. We pass this on, bear witness, we need to show and tell the story.

It isn’t an option to be a silent witness Christian. ‘My faith is a private matter’, ‘Oh she doesn’t force her faith on anyone’, ‘he just quietly goes off to church’. Yes, there is a story we are writing with our lives as a testimony to the love of God, but it goes together with story that comes from our lips.

The love of God, Father, Son & Spirit is a relationship we are set apart for. It is a relationship which shines out in holiness. It is a relationship abounding in grace & peace. Not pie in the sky when you die but meat on the street with your feet.

We’re Just Church – we get fed here, refreshed here, restored to that relationship again here, we receive his grace and peace to us sinners here. And from here we follow him outside to continue the story. One which does not end with his death on a cross but through the resurrection if we are ‘in Christ’, really can end: ‘and they all lived happily ever after’.


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