The annex is complete and was formally opened on 28th May 2017.
Here is the sermon Bishop Andrew preached at the opening.
ACCESS TO ALL: Romans 5: 1-8
Good afternoon, everyone, and it’s great to be with you on this really special occasion, as we celebrate the completion of your Access to All project! Your new annexe and reception area, your kitchen and disabled toilet, have been a real labour of love on your part, and I’m massively impressed by all the commitment and faith and sacrificial generosity that lies behind this fabulous vision. A special thanks to Les your project manager, to Matt who has chaired your Fabric team and to the wonderful Esther – and many congratulations to you all!
Shall we pray… Prayer
Access to all. It may not be something we think about very much if we’re relatively able-bodied and of relatively average height, and can see and hear and speak clearly, and walk and run and jump. It’s true that we still accept that we are not welcome everywhere: that a large sign on a gate proclaiming ‘Private, Keep Out!’, complete with barbed wire and a couple of barking rottweilers, acts as an encouragement for us to keep our distance. It’s true that we recognise that access to a top university, say, is dependent on us getting the grades. But when it comes to the day-to-day living of able-bodied people, the world’s our oyster.
That all changes, of course, when we, or someone we love, becomes disabled in some way. For me, it’s only when I take Hazel, my mother-in-law, out to tea, that I truly begin to see things differently. Because Hazel is in the latter stages of Parkinsons, and she’s in a wheelchair, and taking her out to tea involves an almost military level of planning and precision. Suddenly I start noticing how few dropped kerbs there are in the pavements of Harpenden, and how difficult it is to cross the road without causing Hazel discomfort or tipping her out of her chair. Suddenly issues like the width of a doorway or the absence of a disabled toilet become more important to us than the quaintness of the tearoom or the quality of the cakes on offer.
I’ve done those exercises on disability awareness days, and you may have done them too: basic exercises involving wheelchairs, blindfolds, headphones and the like. It’s not a very sophisticated way of trying to enter another person’s world. But even being unsophisticated is better than doing nothing.
And ‘Access to All’ should be the strapline of every Christian church and school and institution, because access lies right at the heart of the Christian message. It’s partly that we follow a compassionate Jesus, who reaches out to the differently-abled with extraordinary grace, and who specifically instructs his followers,
‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind’
And it’s partly that Jesus himself is the gateway through which all of us need to walk if we truly to be reconciled to God our Creator and our Father: a gateway which most emphatically does not have a sign proclaiming ‘Private, Keep Out!’ attached to it, or barbed wire or a couple of rottweilers.
So what exactly does St Paul mean when he writes this in our Bible reading this afternoon:
‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand’?
Well, as we delve a little further into the idea of ‘Access to All’, I’m reminded of a theme that shapes many of our favourite stories and that seems to speak deeply to our souls: the theme of crossing the divide between this world and some new world of our imaginations. As children we get into that new world in many different ways: by climbing a beanstalk, perhaps, or walking through a wardrobe, or falling down a rabbit hole or being swept up in a whirlwind, or climbing on board the Hogwarts Express. As adults, the whole fantasy and science fiction industry – and, some would say, the travel industry too - is based on that dream, enticing us with new worlds, enabling us to boldly go where no man has gone before. And at its most sinister end, the appeal of the occult and the rise of drug abuse springs from a similar source, promising us new worlds of mystery and power – or at least a world where the pain of living is deadened for a while.
And this desire goes deep, because here is something implanted in us by God. He has given us, if you like, a hunger for heaven, a kind of nostalgia not for what is past but for what is to come; and it’s hardly surprising that that hunger is increased whenever our present experience is either unhappy or dull. Much of what we read to seek to satisfy that hunger is pure fiction, pure fantasy: I’m really sorry to disillusion all you Trekkies, but in reality, the only place to which Captains Kirk and Picard and their mates are boldly going is a newly-fitted out Paramount studio! Some of what we read is allegory, a fantasy world conveying genuine truth: the Shire and Narnia are great examples. Some forms of escape – like drugs or yoga - change our mood not our situation; other forms – like the travel industry – may change our situation, but don’t necessarily change our moods – at least, not for very long.
And Christmas and Good Friday and Easter Day change everything: that is the Christian claim: for it is through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus that you and I can follow Him into a new world: a world whose very atmosphere is different from the old world, because as Christians we breathe the oxygen of grace. The world around us, of course, is the same: we haven’t got whisked off to some extraordinary new destination, at least not yet: but the world within us has undergone such a radical transformation that we’ll never be the same again.
So what are the qualities of this new world to which we’ve gained access? In today’s reading, Paul mentions four.
First, he says, this new world is one in which we have Peace with God: not just the peace of God, but peace with God. Imagine, you see, if my wife Beverly and I were to fall out and our marria ge to fall apart– what a ghastly thought! – and imagine if as a result I was to be very lacking in peace on the inside. Well, I might find ways of making myself more peaceful: tranquillisers, yoga, transcendental meditation, whatever – but that would always be a second best, wouldn’t it? My primary need, you see, wouldn’t be peace within, it would rather be peace with Beverly: and having established peace with Beverly, peace within would flood my body as a happy by-product of our reconciliation. Christianity shares with other religions and therapies the promise of peace within, in other words: but where it’s different is that The Christian good news goes right to the heart of the matter in its offer of peace with God, a permanent glorious reconciliation with the all-holy, all-loving Creator of the Universe.
Here’s a second feature of the new world: the word Grace. Jesus has met us at the gate of God’s palace, has introduced us to God His Father, and has even given us the run of the place. In this new world we are loved and accepted exactly as we are, which may be an extraordinary new experience for us. In this new world we can talk to our Father at any time, without anxiety or fear or a sense that our concerns are too insignificant for Him to bother about. And grace is a place of confidence: St. Paul says we can stand in it with our heads held high: and all because we’ve been justified by God, forgiven, cleared, acquitted.
A third feature of this new world is Joy: the joy of knowing that, whatever the future holds, our lives and our world are ultimately safe in the hands of God. And even when the old world doesn’t understand the new – even when we face a bit of hassle, perhaps some persecution too, we can even rejoice in that too, because as Paul writes, ‘suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope’; and while many of our dreams let us down and end up in disillusion, this hope will never disappoint us, because even in the toughest times we can know God’s love poured upon us like water on a parched land.
Peace with God, grace, joy – and the fourth feature of this new world is the gift of Salvation. A holy God has been rightly angered at the mess we’ve made of our lives: He’s got every right to stick a ‘Private! No Entry!’ sign on the gates of Heaven, complete with barbed wire and a whole pack of rottweilers. But through His great plan of salvation God Himself has come among us and opened the gate. And none of us deserves to walk through that gate; and becoming a Christian involves recognising that and humbly placing our lives in the hands of a loving, transforming God. But the gate’s open, and the welcome team is out in force, complete with balloons and streamers and party poppers and champagne. As Jesus famously put it, ‘I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’.
So back to St John’s, and to your ‘Access to All’ project: and today you’ve made a fantastic start in enabling people like my mother-in-law Hazel to take their fullest place in the family of God, and to share in everything you have to offer. Your building now invites them to come in, with its level access, its disabled toilet, its welcoming reception area and kitchen. Your Lord now invites them to come in, with his commandment to ‘invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind’, and with access to the Father right at the heart of his mission. And the only remaining question is, ‘Do you now invite them to come in?’
‘Well, yes!’, might be your somewhat indignant response: ‘We are a welcoming church, a loving community, and we certainly wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of building annexes and kitchens and disabled toilets if we had wanted to keep people away!’: and of course that’s absolutely true. But do the people around you know that they’re invited here, that they’re welcome, that here is a place where they can make peace with God? Is that a message that you are regularly passing on to as many people as you can – to men and women, young people and children, who long for a life of peace, grace, joy and salvation, but don’t know where to find it?
The building’s ready for them. Jesus is ready for them. And now let’s make sure that the message of ‘Access for All’ is trumpeted far and wide, so that many might walk through that open gateway and into the Kingdom of Heaven – ‘Out of darkness’, as St Peter once put it, ‘and into God’s marvellous light!’