God’s People (Sermon preached on the 2nd Anniversary of the Filipino Methodist Fellowship of the UK)
Psalm 100, Colossians 3:11-17
Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:3 NIV)
That verse from the psalm really is a reason to celebrate and give thanks! It declares that God made us and that we belong to him. This is more than a statement that we are individually created and shaped by God. It is saying that he has made us a people, his people.
Originally of course ‘his people’ referred to Israel. Over the past few weeks in the Old Testament lectionary we have been travelling with the Israelites as they were brought out of Egypt on their journey to the promised land. That shared experience of the wilderness journey, with its struggles and its miracles and the making of the covenant with God is what made a motley group of slaves into a people – a community.
But in the New Testament this definition of God’s people is broadened and extended to all, who by God’s grace have been brought into a saving relationship with him. Therefore, as 1st Peter declares:
you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. (1 Peter 2:9-10)
To the early generations of Christians the fact that God had made one people out of those who were previously estranged and suspicious of one another was nothing short of a miracle. So Paul writes to the Colossians:
Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Col 3:11)
In other words, when we are in Christ, differences that used to be important now pale into insignificance. The Christian community crosses those boundaries of religion, culture, ethnicity and class which separated people in Biblical times and still divide people today. Paul echoes 1st Peter when he addresses the Colossians as “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” (3:12)
And Paul really expects this new identity to make a difference. So he goes to speak of the relationships and behaviour which he expects to see in the Christians community – “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Bear with one another; forgive. And most of all, love.
You might think that there’s nothing more to add. But Paul can’t stop. Let Christ’s peace rule… live in peace… be thankful. Teach and admonish one another. Sing! And give thanks!
Does that sound like a description of this fellowship? Or the church to which you belong? Sometimes?
This is an attitude that cannot really be commanded or prescribed. It flows naturally from an awareness of God’s love for us and for others and an awareness that in Christ there is far, far more that unites than divides us.
It seems so obvious, but the reality is that instead of our unity in Christ, it is often the differences we see. So we have divided and sub-divided the body of Christ into denominations and traditions. Every week I get an enquiry at the church office at Archway from a church, fellowship or ministry that is looking for accommodation for yet another worship service or prayer meeting. As the chair of the ecumenical group in Upper Holloway a little while ago I tried to find out about every church in the area. I counted nearly 30! Now I am getting a bit cynical. Do we really need yet another church, another denomination? And lest I be accused of hypocrisy let me say that Methodism is as much part of the problem as part of the solution, for are we not just one denomination among many?
So we are called, as God’s people, to live in love and unity.
Which begs a question – a rather uncomfortable question – as we meet as the Filipino Methodist Fellowship for this anniversary celebration. Are we not introducing a further distinction into the body of Christ? Writing of the ethnic divisions of his day Paul could declare “Here there is no Gentile, Jew, barbarian, Scythian”. To put it simply: by meeting as Filipinos is this reintroducing a distinction which Paul thought had gone forever?
Now, lest you’re thinking – shall we beat up the preacher now or afterwards? – let me reassure you that I am going to answer that question in the negative. I believe that fellowships such as this one contribute to the life and vitality of the church.
In the remainder of the sermon I want to reflect on the growth of the various fellowships and chaplaincies in the British Methodist Church and then more specifically the role of the Filipino Methodist Fellowship of the UK.
A large proportion of Methodists in London are from communities which are included in the title of BME – ‘black and minority ethnic’. It’s a rather clumsy phrase, but one which is in widespread use. It has the advantage of including ethnic groups such as Filipinos and Chinese which do not normally think of themselves as black. In fact in our inner city churches, including those in my circuit ‘minority ethnic’ people are actually in the majority. So at Archway we have members from Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, various Caribbean islands, India, South Africa, China – and of course the Philippines! This influx of Christians from around the world – many of whom were Methodists when they came to this country – has revitalised the Methodist Church and is providing us with some of our most capable leaders.
The transformation of our congregations began in the 1950s with immigration from the Caribbean. Many were young people who came to this country as part of massive recruitment drives by British Rail, London Transport and the NHS. Later they were joined by men and women from other parts of the commonwealth, in particular the Indian subcontinent and West Africa. Many were active Christians, and many were Methodists.
Despite the encouraging slogans of the recruitment posters, the sad reality was that many black Methodists arriving in this country in this period received a cold welcome. Searching for lodgings they found that it was not unusual for landlords to post signs saying ‘no Irish, no blacks, no dogs’. On Sunday they presented themselves at church and often found people unfriendly and unwelcoming. Some churches were, thank God, more enlightened and became known among the black community as places of hospitality. Archway Methodist Church for example was so successful that by the late 1960s it was running a huge youth club catering mainly to black teenagers whose families had settled in the area.
So began the long process of integration. In the 1980s the Methodist Church pioneered the observation of Racial Justice Sunday and for many of us at the time this became an important opportunity to celebrate our diversity. A further challenge for many churches was not just welcoming people from BME communities in worship but bringing them into leadership positions in the church – a process of transformation that is not fully complete even today. Churches which failed to welcome new members into their congregations and leadership inevitably closed. More seriously, we lost many members to Pentecostal churches which often had strong roots in particular cultures and communities.
This has been the experience of many Filipino Methodists as well; over the years I have met several Filipino pastors serving so-called ‘born again’ churches who have their roots in Methodism. It must have been 7 or 8 years ago that I met with Bishop Solito Toquero, now retired, but then the bishop of the Manila Episcopal area, and he told me that one of his great concerns was Methodists moving to the UK and drifting toward Pentecostal ministries and even the Iglesia ni Christo.
This is one of the reasons for the sudden growth, indeed explosion of fellowships and chaplaincies in British Methodism. The largest of these and in many ways the pioneer is the Ghana Methodist Fellowship which meets once a month at Westminster Central Hall and has hundreds of members. There are Chinese congregations at Kings Cross and Epsom, with worship in Cantonese and Mandarin. There are Zimbabwean groups, which share with the Filipino fellowship the fact that many of their members were brought up in United Methodist Church, with its different structure, liturgy and hymns. An Indian family that attends Archway are members of the Gujerati Christian Fellowship which meets twice a month at Northwood Methodist Church but which is ecumenical. Once they invited me to preach and it was very strange to attend a service totally in Gujerati, with an interpreter translating my sermon. And at the welcome service of my colleague Revd Dr Donghwan Kim, who is from Korea, we had the choir of the Korean Christian Fellowship, which is another group that is ecumenical rather than just Methodist.
So we have moved a long way from what I call the ‘one size fits all’ model of Methodism, when all that was on offer was Sunday morning worship in English and if you were looking for something more in tune with your cultural or linguistic needs you had to look elsewhere. Now there is a whole variety of fellowships and chaplaincies, one of which is FMFU. There is even a committee that meets from time to time when leaders of the fellowships get together for common counsel.
But this movement is not without its critics. Just a couple of weeks ago I was talking with a Methodist minister from an African country which does not have a large number of members in the Methodist Church of Great Britain. She is concerned about what she sees as the power of the Ghana Chaplaincy and whether it is exerting too much influence over the British Connexion. It seems that every ethnic group, she told me, wants its own fellowship. It’s important that we hear that coming from someone, who is so to speak, an outsider. It would be ironic if a development intended to include people in ends up shutting some people out.
For myself I believe that we gain more than we lose and the development of this patchwork quilt of fellowships and chaplaincies is a good thing. If we maintain that spirit of humility and love that Paul commends to the Colossian church it no more divides the body of Christ than does the existence of separate activities for children or young people, or fellowship meetings for women and for men. It recognises that we have needs that can only be met in community and often with people with whom we share similar heritage and culture. It recognises that it is good being able to pray and worship in our own language, our mother tongue, for there are times when English does not adequately convey our innermost hopes and dreams. And it gives the Methodist Church an evangelistic reach into ethnic communities which it would not otherwise have.
I wonder – does this resonate with your own understanding of the role and purpose of your fellowship? What I am suggesting is that this cannot be an organisation that exists only for the benefit of its members. There are plenty of Filipino cultural organisations that do this already. Rather, like the church itself, this fellowship must benefit those outside its membership and enrich both the Methodist Church and the wider Filipino community.
May I therefore leave you with a challenge?
Here are three questions which you might want to reflect upon as you enter your third year as a fellowship.
1. What is the relationship between the FMFU and the wider Methodist Church? The first time I heard about the fellowship was a rumour that a Filipino minister was trying to plant a UMC in London. Whether this report was accurate or inaccurate, it went against a long standing agreement between the UMC and the British Conference, that each respect the other’s territorial integrity. To put it bluntly, no fishing in each other’s pond!
In fact the British Methodist Church has a well developed model, based on the Ghanaian chaplaincy. This is that although the Ghana fellowship, like this fellowship, has offices, committees and structures, it is not legally a local church. To be a member of the Ghana fellowship you have to be a member of a local Methodist Church. The chaplain of the Ghana Fellowship is subject to the discipline of the British Conference, as are the pastors serving the Chinese congregation at Kings Cross, although they come from the Hong Kong and Malaysian conferences.
That does not prevent this Fellowship making use of the United Methodist structure, liturgy and hymns familiar from “back home”. But the future of this fellowship must be as part of the British Conference.
2. What is the relationship between the FMFU and other Filipino Methodists? Filipinos have been active within our churches for many years. In the 1980s my wife’s late mother attended Chelsea Methodist Church where there was a group of Filipino ladies, mainly housekeepers. Some of them still attend the church, even though they have long moved out of the area.
Then there’s the Filipino fellowship at Westminster, which includes a former pastor and deaconess amongst its membership. What’s your relationship with them? Are they rivals? Or are they sisters and brothers in Christ who share the same concerns as this fellowship?
And what about the many Filipino Methodists who are outside any of this groups, simply content to worship in their local Methodist church and participate in church life. We have Filipino members who are stewards, Sunday School teachers, worship leaders, pastoral visitors, members of church councils. Does FMFU have a role in encouraging and supporting Filipinos who are office holders in local churches?
3. What is the relationship between FMFU and the wider Filipino community in London – and beyond? In other words, how does this fellowship contribute to the wider mission of the church? The Filipino chaplaincies in the Roman Catholic Church and Church of England have both been in existence for well over 40 years and during that time have developed distinct ministries to the particular social and cultural needs of the Filipino community in the UK. In comparison you are the new kids on the block. But surely this fellowship also has a social and evangelistic ministry to the nurses, carers, seafarers and domestic workers who are new arrivals in the UK, not to forget Filipino families who settled here many years ago and have seen a second and third generation born in this country.
But those are more than enough challenges for one day, especially when we are celebrating! Today we praise God that he has truly made us his people, for all that he has accomplished so far in this fellowship and for all he has in store in the future. May God bless you and bless you richly.