Pope Francis has been in the USA this week, talking to Congress, presiding at Mass, spending time with children. And he has been winning hearts and minds. There has been huge affection for him. And I hope and pray that his visit will continue to have an impact on people’s lives and bring them closer to God.
When I was a girl, my great aunt and uncle came to stay, and they went to the Christian Brethren church in Brierfield – there’s one on Bensham Bank, just up from St Cuthbert’s. I used to go with them. I would go to St Luke’s in the morning, and the Gospel Mission in the evening. The Christian Brethren are a spin off from the Plymouth Brethren, but not quite as strict, but they do have some very firm views. As far as the Christian Brethren were concerned, the Roman Catholic Church was an agent of the devil and couldn’t be regarded as Christian at all. I don’t know if they still hold that attitude. I’m talking 40+ years ago.
Mind you, when we came to live in Durham, one of the Catholic churches kept itself quite separate from the other Christian churches. Father used to tell the kids not to play with the nasty Prots down the road. And then that church suffered from an arson attack – this was in the 1980s – and was closed for a couple of years for restoration. And during that time, they shared St Cuthbert’s Anglican church, holding their Mass early, and the Anglicans coming in afterwards. Sharing a church did a huge amount to promote trust and reconciliation between the two churches. And Father retired or moved on, and relationships became much warmer.
Who is in and who is out? Who are the true Christians, and who are only going through the motions? Where is the Holy Spirit making things happen?
In today’s Gospel reading, the disciples come across someone casting out demons in the name of Christ, and they are quite indignant about it. This guy is not one of them, so who is he to use Christ’s name?
Earlier on in the same chapter of Mark’s Gospel is a story about the disciples trying to exorcise a spirit that gave a boy epileptic fits, and they failed, they weren’t able to do it. And Jesus got a bit cross with them for their lack of faith. But here is someone, any one, no one, outside of the core group, and he is casting out demons like a pro! Who does he think he is! I think they want Jesus to rebuke him. Jesus says no, and he sets out a rule for the church that we all need to remember, that whoever is not against us is for us.
The Holy Spirit is not constrained by who’s in and who’s out.
The Old Testament story from the book of Numbers is set alongside today’s Gospel reading. The people of Israel are in the wilderness, having left Egypt, and there’s a bit of an upset going on. God tells Moses to select 70 elders of the people and bring them into the special tent where there services were held, and God shows up in the cloud and talks to Moses and anoints the elders with the Holy Spirit. Two men, Eldad and Medad, have been left behind, and even though they are not in the tent, they too are blessed with the Spirit and start prophesying. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, is upset by this and comes along to ask Moses to stop them. And Moses says no, don’t be jealous, if only all God’s people could be prophets. So it’s a very similar story.
In both stories, the Holy Spirit is working with people who are outside the core group to do God’s work in the community. And both Moses and Jesus are saying, that’s OK, don’t get stressed about it.
In some ways, that is happening now. The traditional churches are struggling. They’ve lost their way. They’ve got encumbered with buildings and hierarchy and heavy responsibilities. They’ve stopped reaching out to the poor and marginalised. Numbers are going down. The energy is evaporating.
At the same time, new churches are growing at the margins, like the church at the Teams Life Centre, or the black church at Bensham Grove and there’s a church that meets at the Windmill Hills Centre. We know very little about any of them! And there are probably more that I simply don’t know about. They are doing God’s work in this place, and, perhaps, sometimes, they are doing it better than we are. Is there something that we can learn from them, I wonder.
Sometimes, it’s the people you don’t expect who give you the insights and the answers. Two weeks ago, we had a 3-day prayer event, praying night and day. And then last week, we had a consultation event, to help us think about the way forward for this church. There was some excellent praying, and some helpful comments, and I hope we can build on that.
But out of the blue, I got an email from a friend of mine who lives between Stockton and Yarm. It was too far for her to come and join in the prayer event, but she told me that she went each day to spend some time in her own church, praying for us and for the parish. This was her contribution to what she calls our “prayer marathon”. She said she was in St Chads once, about 25 years ago, so she had a very vague memory of the layout. In her prayer, she saw the sanctuary and vestry as being very dark at first. Gradually over the 3 days, light spread down until it glowed with an astonishing clarity and warmth.
For me, that was just so full of hope, that image of light growing and shining in this church.
The Holy Spirit is working in unexpected places and in surprising ways, through the Pope’s visit to America, in the less visible churches in Bensham, through people who are praying for us. Pray, and pray hard, that the Holy Spirit will fill this church with light. And life.