Sunday, 9 February 2014

Salt and Light.

I spoke last week of a qualitative difference between the secular soul of society and the Christian soul of the church.
Jesus expands on this theme in this well known sermon and calls his followers to be the salt of the earth. What does salt do? Well salt both flavours and preserves, so He wants us to alter the flavour of society by our difference. We also know that it doesn’t take too much salt to alter the flavour of something so even as a minority we have the enormous potential to preserve, alter and enhance society together.
To do that we need to be distinctive – we need to have a different flavour to the prevailing culture. If we are not distinctive or as Jesus puts it, if we “have lost our flavour” we are not fit for purpose and need to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. 
It stands to reason that if our values are simply a mirror image of the values of society then we have no capacity to change anything. So even if we are a voice crying in the wilderness, we need to ask for the courage to stand there nevertheless and have the confidence in our beliefs.
The next parable talks of the church being the light of the world. We are used, perhaps too used to calling Jesus the light of the world, but here Jesus calls us the light of the world. It is much easier to see Jesus as the light of the world because that means we don’t have to do anything or change anything, but if we are the light of the world then we have responsibilities and everything becomes a little more uncomfortable.
Jesus tells us that in being different and acting in a different way we will do good works and we should do them openly and unashamedly and let people see that we have done them. Don’t shy away from doing things publically or be too shy to let people know that good works are being done. Not arrogantly or rudely in a condescending way, but in a way nonetheless that allows our light to shine before others, “So they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. “ The Church of England does so much good work but is almost ashamed to say so or draw attention to the fact.
Lastly in this three part teaching session Jesus gives us today Jesus states that He came not to abolish the law but to fulfil the law. He then says “that not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished”.
This is problematic for us for the very obvious reason that we don’t follow the law and Gentile Christians never have done right from the start. Indeed in Mark’s gospel in direct contrast, Jesus appears to overturn the dietary laws in a stroke by declaring “all foods clean”. St. Paul  is an advocate for gentile converts at the council of Jerusalem when he wins for us an exemption from nearly all laws except that we should eat no meat with blood in it (which we ignore completely) and abstain from sexual immorality.
So what is going on? Christianity from its very early days was a religion of Grace where the Jewish laws no longer apply so why does here Jesus advocate even stricter adherence to the law? 
The clue comes when Jesus says “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfil the law.”
There are always two parts to religion. The outer shell, the buildings, the bureaucracy, the hierarchy, the Holy books, the rituals, the creeds and dogmas and then we have the inner life of that same religion, the spiritual heart to which the outer shell of our religion all reflect.
Jesus discerned and revealed to us that the outer written laws were all a reflection of the beating heart of the faith which was Love. The fulfilling of the law to which we should adhere to with a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees is this;
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself”.  There is no other commandment greater than these. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
The outer written law in the Bible, like all the outward forms of religion, is an attempt to reflect the inner law, the spiritual law, to which Jesus invites us to give total assent.
The law without the spirit is a dead hand. As Paul himself writes “The letter kills. It is the spirit that gives life” (2 Cor.3:6)
With our lives illumined by the spirit of Love – the source and beating heart of the law we can do good works and be the salt that keeps society fresh and healthy. The heart of the faith is Love and as John writes in 1 John 4:7, God is Love.

 If we lose our flavour and refuse to shine, we may as well be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Dancing on the edge.

There was the start of a four part investigation in the Church Times this week that seeks to ask difficult questions about our church and our future.
It asked questions about worship, our belief systems, our church structures, our buildings, our morality, and attempted  to open up debate as to what can be done.
We have got used to saying that it is not all about numbers, but as the Church Times pointed out, our 9% decline in the first 10 years of this century at the very least a sign of a body in poor health.
So it was with all these statistics and forecasts of disconnection and doom running around my mind that I sat down to read this gospel text that I am supposed to use as my springboard for today’s sermon. I just couldn’t help thinking “what on earth has any of this to do with our lives”. At least in church we have some reference points but if I were to read that piece of the gospel in the pub or supermarket or anywhere where people are not conversant with church there would just be incomprehension.
This was written in a different culture in a different time about arcane practices that even the Jews no longer remember why they did them and was speaking to people in very different context to ours. In a sense my role is almost that of an interpreter, trying to decipher the heart of what was meant and translate it into something relevant to our community.
Coincidentally I have started to read two books this week that form part of my continuing ministerial development. One of them tries to analyse and provide an insight into the secular soul of this and just about every modern western country, in an effort to understand better what we are dealing with so we may be better able to bridge that gap that exists between us and wider society. As we both have a foot in both camps you’d think it was an easy task but actually it is not and needs spelling out.
It is good to remind ourselves that the goals of secular society for our individual selves and the goals set for us by Christianity are different. What follows is necessarily a caricature, with many caveats and exceptions, but in general I think hold water.
Our society is now basically individualistic and the goal of the individual is to achieve happiness through the acquisition of “things”, of money, status and power. The more we have, the happier we will be, and our whole economy is geared to this consumerist model.  One of my personal pet hates is when all of us are described in the media as “consumers”. That is our role – to consume – dehumanised; we are reduced to an economic unit in a big machine. Over-regard for the self, along with the neglect of any sense of responsibilities to other people can, and I believe has, in many respects  led to an inward looking selfish, dog eat dog society where the vulnerable are left to fend for themselves as best they can.
Christianity, by comparison is basically corporate. Sure, we want individuals to flourish, but this flourishing takes place, indeed can only really happen in a Christian worldview in relationship with others. Rather than the attainment of happiness through acquisition of belongings,  Christians  encourage the development of character through the nurture of virtue. Happiness is not a primary Christian goal actually and rather counter culturally we maintain that true happiness is a by product of the giving of oneself.
Our sense of worth is gained not by how big a car we own, or how many bathrooms we have, but is GIVEN by God. We are children of God and this status, very importantly, was NOT EARNED in the slightest. It was given for free. It is a part of being human. This is another place where secularism and Christianity rub up against one another. The concept of everone being a recipient of free grace, through no effort of their own runs completely counter to the norms of society where “you get nothing unless you pay for it”.
It is also important to say that our corporate nature is not collectivist, in the way that Communism was collectivist, a system in which the individual is suppressed and forced into uniformity .  I learned a lot about this subject living in a post communist country like Romania. In this sense Ronald Reagan was absolutely right when he described the Soviet East as the “Evil empire”. We, by contrast value the individual, we ascribe worth to the self, as we were all made in the image of God, but we find fulfilment in community.
The Christian body is Corpus Christi – the body of Christ – a body united in the unity of the Spirit of God the Father.  Jesus is indeed our friend and brother.
Tracts like the gospel reading I read today make a kind of sense in this place in this community but make no sense to any other body in a different place. We have to act as the translators of our understanding of the world to the people beyond these ancient walls just as I try and be a translator of  these readings to the body of Christ.
The way we translate our faith into a life that will speak to others is by building character by nurturing Christian virtues like trust, humility, wisdom, compassion, love, hope, and achieve well being, in which happiness is a by-product through self giving.  
The church is then set apart from the prevailing culture. It is truly counter cultural. Prayer, the act in which humility and grace come together is also a counter cultural act – it has no monetary worth and is an act of humility, another necessary Christian virtue. If we are to speak to people about the Christian faith, we need to understand that our rationale, our understanding of life is different, and if this is not recognised, we flounder at the first hurdle.

Unless we understand where people are, and what their underlying assumptions are about life, we cannot challenge them or offer any alternative. We do offer a powerful alternative to our prevailing culture. Some will be intrigued, some won’t, but we have to give them the chance to make that choice!