The epistle set for Holy Communion today is Acts 5:12-16, which reads:
‘Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.’
The early church was meeting every day in the temple, in the part of the temple where Jesus—along with other preachers—had been in the habit of teaching. Among the crowds of pilgrims, many found themselves drawn to them, but afraid to come too close. This is not surprising: God’s presence is deeply attractive to humans created to be in relationship with God; but also—rightly—a cause of fear: God is, after all, the Creator and Lord of the universe. This tension appears to have been overcome by the recognition that in God’s presence, healing and freedom is to be found: they came, bringing the sick and tormented.
As I read this familiar account, I find myself thinking of the Minster. Here is a place to which people come, every day throughout the week, to approach God, while choosing to remain at a distance from the gathered congregation. They slip in and out, not brave enough to join us in public worship (and while there may be many reasons why people don’t come then, in conversation holy fear is a recurring theme—one which might challenge us in our over-familiarity). And they come carrying their sick and tormented to God in hope of a miracle: carrying them, not physically and literally, but symbolically in the lighting of a candle, the writing and pinning-up of a prayer. Physical healing, emotional freedom, the restoration of broken relationships, and concern for the deceased account for the overwhelming majority of prayers and prayer-requests written and left.
People in Sunderland recognise that God is, somehow, present in our midst, and their response is to ask God to heal their sick and bring freedom to their tormented through our prayers.
Yet they still stand off, at a safe distance.
And I rejoice at the ways in which our experience reflects that of the earliest church. But I long for more, long to see people bringing their sick, long to see healing—not just the hope of healing—happen, long to see more men and women added to our number, joining with us.
If we are to see such a step-change, it will happen when we start to take daily gathered corporate prayer and worship more seriously.