Sermon given by Anne Tomlinson, Ministry Development Officer

Jeremiah 1, 4-9; 2 Corinthians 5, 17-6,2; Matthew 28, 16-20

At 5.00pm last Wednesday, on his day, St Ninian, Bishop and Apostle to the Southern Picts, was the subject of a debate in no less a place than the Scottish Parliament. In the course of a motion brought forth as part of what is called ‘Members’ Business’, Ninian was described in the chamber as “Scotland’s premier saint”. But you, of course, have known that to be the case for a very long time, with or without the prognostications of the sages of Holyrood.

The debate in Parliament was all about the economic consequences that would flow from recognising Whithorn as Scotland’s cradle of Christianity and giving it priority over Iona. Such a move, it was suggested, would bring about an increase in tourism to the Wigtownshire village, with all the attendant financial benefits. But your privileging of Ninian in this place, in your hearts – what is that about? What consequences does living under his banner have for you?

In the Collect we prayed earlier, we gave some sort of an answer. For we said to the Lord: ‘May we prove to you our thankfulness for Ninian’s life and labours by following the example of his zeal and patience’. Zeal and patience: an odd combination! They seem almost to cancel each other out. For it is of the nature of ‘zeal’ to be headstrong and impetuous, while it is the characteristic of ‘patience’ to be humble and measured.

Yet it is these very gifts which, I believe, are needed by congregations across this diocese as they seek to be faithful to God’s call to go to all nations and make disciples. It is these very gifts that are needed, and needed in equal measure. ‘Zeal’ means literally ‘to boil’. We are called to ‘boil’ with enthusiasm for the good news that we ourselves experience in such a way that the message bubbles over into the hearts and lives of others. And surely we cannot do otherwise? ‘You have received the grace of God’, says Paul to the Community at Corinth; ‘do not let it come to nothing’. Don’t let it go off the boil so that the living water of Baptism simply trickles wastefully into the sand. We are called instead to ‘run from the well’ and tell others about the water of Life we have encountered there! We are called to be Christ’s apostles of the good news, just like Ninian. We are called, to use the current jargon, to become ‘mission-shaped congregations’.

In the past, Episcopalians have tended to operate on an attractional model of mission. We have worked hard at making ourselves more welcoming – the first phase of Mission 21, you may remember, was called ‘Making Your Church More Inviting’. And that is well and good – up to a point. But we live in a post-Christendom age in which 40% of the population have no contact with church, no knowledge of scripture, no immediate family history of church membership, no awareness of the Lord’s Prayer. Britain has lost a large amount of ‘cultural awareness of Christianity’. So coming cold to a church such as this is a leap too far for many people, however inviting we may make ourselves.

Back to Church Sunday is an admirable venture, reaching as it does those who have some past affinity to church-going, and it’s great that 25 charges in this diocese are engaging with it very shortly. But the de-churched, as they’re called, are not the only people that we need to be reaching out to. Our churches have to be even more daring, even more adventurous than that. We need to be making many more connections with the non-churched. But how to go about making such connections? We’ll look, I hope, at some ways of doing this in our afternoon’s discussions, but the clue is in all three of our readings today:

‘Go to whatever people I send you’, says the Lord to the hesitant young Jeremiah. ‘Be an ambassador’, says Paul, a travelling salesperson of the Gospel. ‘Go therefore to all nations and make them my disciples’, says Jesus.

We are called not so much to invite as to go, to go outside the walls of the worshipping community and meet people where they are. To seek opportunities to make connections in new and imaginative ways ‘off-site’: in our daily lives, in our conversations, our activities and pastimes.

Ninian did this after all. He criss-crossed Central Scotland preaching, healing and doing what Celtic monks always did, blessing people right where they were. These missionary monks went out and ‘made church’ wherever the people were: at the well or the forge, in the fields and in people’s homes. And nothing was too ordinary to be blessed – a new field, a new cow – everything was sacred.

We are called as 21st century missionaries following Ninian’s footsteps to bless people where they are. Remember Rowan Williams’ definition of mission: ‘finding out where God already is at work and joining in’. Not simply inviting in but going out to join what’s happening out there, bubbling over with Gospel zeal.

And the second charism that we need in equal measure if we are to be true to our patron Ninian is that of patience. But not patience as we now interpret it. If ‘zeal’ literally means ‘to boil’, ‘patience’ – as the Latin scholars among you well know – literally means to ‘suffer’. Becoming mission-shaped, becoming Ninian-shaped, means we will have to risk going out of our comfort zone. A church shaped for mission will be one shaped for the sake of those to whom it is sent in mission, not one shaped purely to meet the needs of its existing members. The church is most true to God’s call when she gives herself up, in her current form, to be reformed amongst those who do not know God’s Son. In each new context, the church must die to live. All too many of the charges in this diocese are doing the exact opposite: they are living to die, clinging so tightly to their well-loved ways that they are unable to reach out to those on the outside who do not share the same history, background, traditions or assumptions. And that way extinction lies. You have only to read the Diocesan profile collated for the upcoming episcopal election to know the truth of this: it makes depressing reading.

You who gather here today are not, of course, in this dying category …. but even in the most lively of congregations there is always ‘room for improvement’, as my school report hinted annually. Today is an opportunity to reaffirm your commitment to being a ‘mission-shaped congregation’ following in the footsteps of Ninian, bubbling with Gospel zeal and being prepared to suffer the birth-pangs of change. But true obedience to God’s call, rather than mere lip service, is never easy. Saints through history have known that. ‘Ah Lord’, says Jeremiah, trying to wriggle out of responding to God’s calI; ‘I’m not a good speaker and I’m far too young. I wouldn’t know what to say to them.’ What excuses do we give to avoid answering God’s insistent call to mission today? Ninian made no excuses. He answered that missionary call and, his biographer tells us, ‘hastened forth under the guidance of Christ to the work whereunto the Holy Ghost had called him, girding himself with the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the breastplate of charity and the sword of the Spirit.’ We too are assured of that same mighty protection, united as we are with Christ and part of his new order. The God who has remade us in Christ, and who enlisted us in this ministry of mission, also promises to be with us on the road for all time and for eternity. ‘Fear none of them’, He says to Jeremiah, ‘for I shall be with you to keep you safe ….. In the hour of my favour I answered you; on the day of deliverance I came to your aid.’ ‘Yes, it’s true’, Jesus assures his disciples: ‘I will be with you always to the end of time’…. So let us likewise respond to that solemn commission, in the sure and certain knowledge that ‘faithful is the One who calls’.