Obstacles to mission
One of the advantages of house churches is that sometimes new people pop in, which doesn’t often happen when the church meets in a school classroom. So when the school where we met in Mamelodi suddenly more than doubled the rental for a classroom on Sundays, we began meeting in the house of one of our oldest members, Christina Mothapo, who is 85. She was finding it a bit of an effort to walk to the school anyway. And since we’ve been meeting in her house, members of her extended family, who live on the premises, have joined us, which they never did before.
One of the disadvantages, however, is that Orthodox worship really requires a cetain environment that is not apparent in the small cramped sitting room of a council house. For those familiar with Orthodox worship, a couple of ikons propped up against the TV can suggest a great deal more. For those unfamiliar with it, it just seems a rather odd kind of decoration.
So when two of Christina’s daughters began joining us regularly, we began to plan to take them to St Nicholas in Brixton. Before our Toyota Venture was stolen five years ago we were able to to that quite frequently, but now it takes two cars, which means covering 400 km on a Sunday. When they start levying tolls on the freeway at 40c per kilometre it will be a lot worse. So it’s not something we can do every week, and we checked with Fr Athanasius at St Nicholas to make sure he knew they were coming, and that the full choir would be there.
So last Sunday we went there. I was afraid we would be late, but in fact we were the first to arrive, and Val came a little later, because Christina asked her to take them past the Russian Church in Midrand, which is the most beautiful temple in the diocese. We didn’t go there for the service because it is usually all in Slavonic, and though very polished and beautiful, would not be easy for visitors to follow. St Nicholas was founded as a missional parish, and the services are mostly in English, with a few bits in other languages, mainly Greek, Slavonic, Romanian and Afrikaans.
And everything seemed to go extraordinarily well. There were more people in church than usual, and it was even half-full for the second half of Matins, which is unusual. The singing was good, and so we hoped the visitors would have a picture of Orthodox worship as it is meant to be. At the end Fr Athanasius welcomed the visitors, and explained that there were people among them who were not familiar with Orthodox worship, as a kind of hint that people should chat to them and perhaps answer any questions they might have over tea after the service.
Well, we went into the hall for tea, and all hell broke loose.
Three people were engaged in a shouting match. I don’t know what it was about, but they sounded very angry. As one song I used to sing in my youth put it, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
On the way back to Mamelodi Val asked one of the new visitors what she had thought of it, and she said she was put on the spot by one of the parishioners who asked her if she was from Mamelodi, and when she said she was, the parishioner asked her what she thought of Julius Malema, and she was kind of gobsmacked.
So much for being missional.
But then I thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in his book Life together said
Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of my disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together — the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
Glory to God for all things!