As many of you will know by now, on Saturday 29th September we will celebrating 175 years since the foundation of the first St Michael’s church was laid. We will have tea at 4pm and an act of worship at 5pm. And then on the following day, at our Sunday morning service, Bishop Robert will come and lead the celebrations, which will include confirmation for two of our church members. There will also be a bring and share lunch!
But why are anniversaries so important? First of all, it is good to be reminded how God has led and kept His people over so many years. The tale of St Michael’s is a remarkable tale of survival, not told as far as I am aware in any history of Devonport or indeed Plymouth. It has survived complete destruction during WW2. It has undergone complete demolition and redevelopment. It has faced many, many challenges over the past 175 years yet the church community continues to stand out as a testimony to the goodness and the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. That surely has to be worth celebrating!
Secondly, it is good to be reminded of the vision which led St Michael’s to be built in the first place. The first committee who met in the late 1830s wanted a “poor man’s church” to serve the growing population of Devonport. And so they envisaged a church where all could come and worship the Lord, no matter their background. It is remarkable to see how that vision still is at the heart of the church all those years later. That’s why, as we celebrate, we need to honour that vision not just through our celebrations but by developing our welcome and our hospitality so that indeed all feel able to come and join us in worship.
Thirdly it is worth also pondering how St Michael’s has related to the local community over the years. During the late Victorian era the vicar and other members of the congregation were prominent on the Devonport School Board and were responsible for the foundation of many local schools that still stand today. During the First World War, the church offered comfort to the many families who lost loved ones. As we have seen, during the Second World War,St Michael’s shared in the suffering caused by the widespread destruction of the local area.
Times of course have changed, and here is perhaps one danger in celebrating an anniversary, that we imagine some golden period where everyone went to church and St Michael’s was at the centre of the local community. So while it is right that we celebrate our past, we must not be held captive by it. We must not imagine that if we turn back the clock somehow everyone will come flooding through our doors. Nor must we hold on the way things were done in the past, as if by holding on to our traditions, we are somehow being faithful to the vision of our forbears. After all, building a new church was a radical decision in its day, and those behind the project certainly didn’t intend to create a museum!
So our anniversary forces us to look forward. Because if we are to survive and indeed thrive for another 175 years we need to renew our vision and see what the Lord is calling us to do now. Yes, we are probably not being called to erect a physical building. But we are being called to pass the faith down to the next generation and commend the good news of Jesus Christ in such a way that speaks to life in Stoke and Devonport in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean abandoning or changing the good news we have ourselves received from those who have gone before us. Instead if we are truly to honour the faith we ourselves have received from those before us, we need to hold on to it, proclaim it afresh and above all live it out in a way that shows the real difference the presence of Jesus makes, even today, even in the lives of very ordinary people going about what may seem like very ordinary business throughout the week.
That to me is the challenge that our anniversary gives us. How we live up to that challenge – well, this is where I would draw your attention to our current sermon series from Colossians. Paul’s words there are all about a community focused on Jesus, rooted in His word, living out the good news. That is the type of community St Michael’s has been over the past 175 years; let’s ensure it remains that way, and let’s encourage one another to keep on building the Kingdom of God here in this place, for His good and His glory. And maybe, just maybe, in another 175 years time there will be another great anniversary that will celebrate all the Lord has done through us! Now there’s a thought…