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!