In the first book of Kings, chapter 8, there is an account of how Solomon sought to unite his people under a common belief, a shared story. This story was that God would punish his people if they ceased to worship him and forgive and restore them when they renewed worship. He also included strangers, whose prayers he commended to God, thereby urging tolerance and welcome in the land.
Our close cousins the chimpanzees can organise themselves in bands of maybe 50 individuals. Humans are different. Consider the number 700 million and hold on to it. That is the number of people who use an iPhone; it is coincidentally the number of Manchester United supporters world-wide. It is ten times the number of Methodists and half the number of Roman Catholics. All these numbers of people have something in common, some beliefs, some shared visions. iPhone users apparently have more faith that Apple will look after their privacy and interests than they do in their own governments. All United fans believe that whoever is in the team and whoever manages it, it is the best team in the world. All Catholics have some allegiance to the Pope; 34 million of them read his opinions on Twitter. All Methodists, well, sing.
A story or common belief does not have to be true in any sense to unite people. Wars are fought on common beliefs. Russia annexed the Crimea fostering the belief that Ukraine is not a sovereign country but an historic part of Mother Russia. China behaves in Tibet on a similar belief. For 20 years, the USA sacrificed the flower of its youth in Vietnam under the belief that the Vietcong were evil. Half of our population seems to believe that the EU represents an unwelcome intrusion into our lives whilst the other half seems to regard it as an essential contribution to European peace and goodwill.
Churches are united by beliefs too. Historically, some have been positive beliefs and others negative. The persecution of Jews and of Catholics in this country over many centuries was based on the belief that they somehow offended God by their beliefs. The Slaughter of Native Americans and Australian Aboriginal people was based on the belief by Christians that they were subhuman. On the other hand, the foundation of the NCH, of OXFAM, of CND, and of the United Nations, was based on the belief that all people mattered and that there were benefits in working together.
What beliefs, what stories, unite us here? Why is it that five people this month and 20 over the last two years choose to become members of this church? What is it about our beliefs that appeals to those who would become more Jesus-Shaped in their living at a time when the congregation in many churches is declining?
In John 13:34-35 John remembers Jesus saying:
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
Is it the belief that the bread and flavoured water of our communion service represents the body and blood of Jesus? Is it that we all believe in the Trinity and that Jesus physically ascended into Heaven? Is that what unites us? Is it that we host over forty groups in these premises that address loneliness and isolation; or that the number of volunteers who give freely of their time to support this church and these groups far exceeds the number of members in the congregation?
What newcomers tell me about this church and its attraction is that the established members smile at the newcomers and take an interest in them. Nearly everyone in the congregation is joyfully engaged in some activity that reduces their freedom to spend time selfishly; that reduces their wealth; that reduces their income; in favour of some benefit to others. What better definition of loving can we find? This is what binds us together; this is what makes us a growing community a Jesus-Shaped community. Whatever our beliefs, we can come here, be accepted for what we are, and contribute to the outflowing of love for each other and for others. That is what membership means.
Anything repeated often enough becomes the truth, the reality, in the minds of most people. That means we have to be very careful what we make our main messag e that we are going to repeat over and over again. This is a place where we love each other because God first loved us. It is in the baptism service, often one of the first official words that a child hears. Let’s give it some air time at every opportunity.