One day last year as we approached the town of Bangor from Craigantlet Hills, we came to the Clandeboye T-junction and Margie remarked almost casually "Look at the elephants in the field ahead," then with a startled cry "Elephants in our fields!" Cows, sheep, horses, pigs, goats we may have but elephants! what were they doing there, where had they come from?
Then we saw the caravans of the circus people and realized the elephants in the field along the dual carriageway were circus animals hobbled but un-caged.
We all know about this kind of circus. The Oxford dictionary says "a travelling show of performing animals, acrobats, clowns, etc". One year our summer church school was built on the theme Circus Spectacular and I can tell you that Summer School was quite a performance and the staff were the trainers and carers coaching the young people.
The dictionary has a second meaning, however:
"A scene of lively action, a disturbance".
And there is a third meaning given:
"a group of people in a common activity, especially sport".
Any Church School group will meet this description too as they organise and pull together to learn more of Jesus and respond together to his invitation to enjoy his company and celebrate his salvation.
Finally the dictionary explains that the word "circus" has its origins in the Roman rounded or oval theatre with tiers of seats for equestrian and other sports and games.
It is interesting then that St Paul and other New Testament writers never compare the church to a circus. He did compare the Christians to those contesting in the games.
Wrestling: We do not wrestle against flesh and blood but against the rulers and authorities and cosmic powers of this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil. (Eph 6: 12)
Boxing: Do not run aimlessly or box as though beating the air. Athletes exercise self-control in all things, so I bring my body into subjection. (1 Cor 9: 24-27)
Running: In a race all the runners compete but only one wins the prize. Run then to win; run with patience the race set before us, your eye fixed on Jesus [on whom faith depends] from start to finish. (Heb 12: 2)
He used other analogies too:-
The church is the garden God cultivates.
It is the body of Christ in the world today our hands his hands, our voice his voice, our feet his feet, or each of us functioning in our own way as different parts of a body.
It is a holy temple dedicated to Gods glory and in which his spirit dwells.
It is an assembly of people summoned together for special purposes.
[I Cor 12:12-31; Rom 12:4-8; Eph1:22-23;Col1:18;2:19;Eph 2:20]
St John and others said
It is the bride of Christ. [Eph 5:22-23]
It is the branches on a vine producing fruit, having been grafted on to Christ the stem. [John 15]
It is like a flock of sheep Jesus is the shepherd.
But some of the Biblical analogies are outdated, time limited to the 1st century, strange to the modern ear and secular urban society.
So it is no bad thing to think of modern comparisons.
We could think of the church perhaps as a space ship, a train, a formula one racing car, a 5 star hotel. One child suggested a milk float delivering spiritual nourishment around a neighbourhood. Or a nuclear power plant.
But who would think of comparing the church to a circus?
I would like to think of it as "a scene of lively action, a disturbance", as in the second meaning given by the Oxford dictionary, so full of enthusiasm that it disturbs the whole neighbourhood, the powers that be, the world. [If you think about it thats a neat description of Jesus and his 12 followers: and shouldnt it be for his followers now] Think of the fuss Jesus caused, the impact he had, the attention he created, even the alarm.
So, lets think of the church as a circus spectacular.
Now, whos the Ringmaster introducing all the acts, encouraging all the participants, putting the whole show together?
Is it the Council Chair Person, the Music Leader, the Summer School Director, the Minister? These are all possible candidates if you think small rather than large, locally rather than globally.
But surely it has to be Jesus Christ. He calls the tune, he dictates the action, he inspires the players, he encourages them to develop their talents and skills and provides the opportunity to put them to good use.
Have you put yourself at his disposal yet?
Who will we have on first? What about the
throwing china plates in the air, passing them to one another, then flaming torches, skittles, balls? How do they do that without dropping them, without breaking something, without getting burnt? Its impossible!
I imagine Chris Begg, the congregational treasurer and his finance team in this role. Its not that they have too many plates or torches but its a delicate job juggling the finances to make sure nothing gets broken. Yet how much more spectacular this show could be with even more resources. [Sometimes Chris thinks he is left throwing one plate round his team as in the childrens game "donkey" except if anyone drops it the whole show is finished.] Lets turn him into a real juggler give him plenty to do and watch him perform the impossible.
But here come the
They look outlandish and foolish and strangely dressed. But their skill is cleverly honed and we cant help laughing at them in a kind of inside out way is it that they are causing us to laugh at ourselves for their antics are exaggerated versions of things all of us do to ourselves and others?
This has to be the ministerial team, Anneka, Ian, Ron look at the way they dress! Remember the things they do. Their antics to attract our attention. And isnt their job to help us see ourselves and laugh us out of our foolish sins and mistakes? They tell us all have a ministry - so out there others laugh at our beliefs, actions, lifestyles, even our appearance and learn to laugh themselves out of their foolishness into more sensible lifestyles.
Oh here come the
They take your breath away. Who would dare climb to the dizzy heights and throw yourself off into space, trusting someone else to catch you, confident you will make it to another swinging bar in mid-air. Listen to the "oh!s" and "ah!s" of the audience. This is the mission team, the Korean team, Romanian team, the Poland team. Its Alastair and the team in Malawi. Robin Boyd in India. They let go and launched out and made it!
Look at their spectacular leaps and bounds, somersaults, backward flips. Watch them build a tower one person on top of another, then a chair, someone on top doing a handstand on it one hand. Amazing feats of balance, cooperation and trust. What a team! They organise the fellowship breakfasts, the study groups, the Youth activities, the Womens Fellowship, the prayer team, the outings, the stewarding rota, the elders visitation and duties. The acrobats are the teams of people who work closely together, put their faith and trust in one another and draw our admiration. Maybe you could have a place on such a team! You have heard the requests for helpers, arrangers, readers, activity sponsors, organisation leaders, youth advisors. There is a great thrill in such a co-operative effort. Not a chance to be missed, I think.
Or do you fancy something more daring?
What about a
LION TAMER or working with TIGERS in a cage?
Look at these beasts. Listen to their snarls. See how they paw the trainers whip. But they get on their perches eventually teeth bared. Whats he doing now? Putting his head in the lions jaws! I cant bear to look! Would you have enough courage even to enter the cage?
Are the Christians thrown to the lions today? There are different places to work as a Christian person. In your workplace it can be very stressful to get the performance needed, the standards to be achieved, the profits and still behave with Christian morality and courage.
There are other risky tasks given to the church too. House-to-house calling with Christian Aid envelopes or church invitations or collecting outside a shopping mall for a charity. One of the hardest, most dangerous tasks it seems is to go and invite new residents to church. And what about outreach organised by a past elder of Stormont church, John Luke. He and his volunteers go into the city streets from 11 pm to 2 am to contact young people leaving the clubs and pubs, help them, give them advice, talk to them about the pleasure of being Christians. Many of them are like wild animals. Im sure you have equivalents. They are needed in every big city. Now Johns mission is expanding Belfast and more lion tamers are called for there - and in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne, South Yarra,Toorak.. Oh!
As the lions and tigers slink off down the tunnel, a team of workers invade the ring. They work flat out for 5 minutes while the band plays. Soon they have the cages dismantled, the ring cleared and cleaned, new sawdust spread and we are ready for the next act.
But wait. Before it comes on think of the
Would any of this be possible without these anonymous workers who put up the tent, assembled the seating, constructed the ring, put up the drapes, did the posters, sold the tickets and all the rest of it?
Every church needs such a willing team. Its the ones who put the shine on the floor, spring-clean those pews, polish the windows, make the teas, provide the sandwiches and cakes, run the sales, cook the breakfasts, practise the music, arrange the flowers, paint the doors, repair locks, do the typing, give out the bulletins, man the doors. You might not fancy juggling, acrobatics or lion taming; you might not be fit for it. But who could not do some of the background work? Who could not be part of the support team? Work, encourage, give, pray, act, sing, greet.
If all this comes together, it is SPECTACULAR,
a circus spectacular a church spectacular,
and people talk about it. "Did you see that?" "Have you heard about Toorak Uniting Church?" When Gareth our Stormont Youth Worker organised the young people to offer a free car wash to passers by on the main road by the church, people were amazed. "Is it really free? Why are you doing it?" they asked. Awesome! Christianity is about service, giving, surprising people with unsolicited kindness and help. Spectacular! [Why do ministers have to spend so much time asking, requesting, pleading for volunteers?]
I said the origin of the word "circus" is the Roman rounded or oval theatre with tiers of seats for equestrian and other sports and games. In the Roman circus the charioteers raced round and round. Harriers, cyclists, runners in the Commonwealth games, and Formula One drivers, all still do lap after lap racing against one another and the clock: but never going anywhere!
The circus is only a performance.
Thats where the analogy breaks down.
If our worship here is merely a performance and our activities repeat and repeat but never break free from the ring into every day and everywhere, it isnt really Christianity.
The ringmaster says "go into all the world and I am still with you, always, to the end of time.."
So the love, the trust, the friendship, the sharing spread outward. The circus ring becomes more like a centrifuge moving round a centre but moving out with centrifugal force like the ever-expanding universe.
a church spectacular.
HEBREWS 12 : 1 5 and 11 14 [The Message]
"Do you see what this means all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means wed better get on with it. Strip down, start running and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race were in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed that exhilarating finish in and with God he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now hes there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! In this all-out match against sin, others have suffered far worse than you, to say nothing of what Jesus went through."
"At the time, discipline isnt much fun. It always feels like its going against the grain. Later, of course, it pays off handsomely, for its the well-trained who find themselves mature in their relationship with God. So dont sit around on your hands! No more dragging your feet! Clear the path for long-distance runners so no one will trip and fall, so no one will step in a hole and sprain an ankle. Help each other out. And run for it! Work at getting along with each other and with God. Otherwise youll never get so much as a glimpse of God."