The Mixed Blessing
Being a Christian within a church.
Morning Service led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from Ephesians 2, verses11-22
The Mixed Blessing
“Can someone be a Christian and not go to church?” asked our June Newsletter. This question was presented because it is a question that is asked frequently today. Statistics demonstrate that there are now far more people in the UK claiming to hold Christian beliefs and live according to Christian values than there are those committed to a Christian church.
Some of these people have become disillusioned with church. They have found its’ teaching too uncompromising or its people too unwelcoming or its’ worship too boring or themselves simply unable to fit in. They think they stand a better chance of being a good Christian outside the church than in. We know them. We have met them.
Many more though, I suspect, simply do not want to commit. Our culture today is seriously ‘individualistic'- doing your own thing. Your profession is no longer seen as something lifelong to which you offer a lifelong professional loyalty. Most people will change jobs or even careers at least five times during their adult life. Shops and businesses can no longer rely on customer loyalty to keep them going because we like to shop around. Once strong local community groups such as Rotary and Round Table are now struggling to survive rather than have people queuing up to join. Men and women no longer want to commit to organisations. They want to keep themselves free. We have what I call a “walk-in/ walk-out” kind of culture. We want to be able to go where we want, buy what we want, access the services we want at the time which suits us best. So when it comes to religion, the sociologist Grace Davie described our current position as “Belief without Belonging.”
All of which makes church life increasingly pressurised. Our church here is almost entirely dependent on volunteers- people who are able and ready to commit themselves to keeping this faith community going. And, lets’ be honest, it demands a lot of us. The URC monthly magazine Reform has been running a series called “Commitment Phobe,” following the search of one young woman for faith. She eventually came to terms with Christianity and was happy to call herself a Christian. Now her struggles are with her church. It sounds like a lively church with plenty going on to interest her, her husband and her young children but more and more is being asked of her. She is on an ever-increasing number of rotas and is frequently called to stand in for someone else at the last minute. In the last edition she is looking at the August rotas and asking herself if every job in the church is going to end up with her name on it one Sunday? Sound familiar……
And again, lets’ be honest, we sometimes wonder it is really worth it? It seems that we are running ourselves into the ground simply to stand still or even slide slowly backwards as we struggle to keep a faith community relevant and available to people in a Commitment-Phobic society. When you read Paul’s letters to different churches in the early years of Christianity, and see all the problems they are having with political hostility, social indifference, clashing of cultures, financial struggles and personality clashes (and I have not even started on theological issues) you cannot help wondering whether it would have made Paul’s life simpler just to work on converting individuals to the Christian faith and not bother with churches? Rowan Williams, talking of Jesus’ original twelve disciples said that there would certainly have been some who said “Yes, I love Jesus. I want to follow Jesus. I could just do without Thaddeus being in the group.” If you can believe without belonging, then you don’t have to worry about Thaddeus. It is only about you.
The reading we heard was written by Paul to the church in Ephesus, a prosperous city in Greece and within the Roman Empire. The society in which Paul and these new Christians had grown up was far more ‘community” orientated than ours but only in a very exclusive sense. Each racial and religious community kept itself strictly to itself. So there were the Jews, whose religion forbade them to have anything to do with Gentiles (non-Jews). You could not speak to them in the streets, enter their houses or even offer them help if they were dying. Then there were the Greeks, who called every non-Greek a barbarian. And they had a history of “city states” in which each city governed itself and there was no communication or co-operation between these cities, not even in the face of enemy attack. And then there were the Romans who believed themselves so superior to every other race that they set out to conquer the world, with born and bred Romans as the privileged race and everyone else subservient. Happy days……
The Christian church, as a multi-national, inter-cultural community; for which faith in Jesus Christ was the only entry requirement was a weird and wonderful creation. It took a long time for every church mentioned in the New Testament to get their heads round the idea that they were being called to create a community into which people of different races could come, people of different social standing, people of different colour, people with a background in different religions, people with dubious-sounding pasts, women as well as men, children as well as adults- all worshipping together simply because they believed in Jesus Christ as Son of God and Saviour of the world.
In this letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul, who himself had come from a rigidly segregated religion, is trying to explain why this kind of faith community is so amazing and important.
In the first chapter he speaks of God’s life-giving power that called the world into being and of God’s love that gave life to the human race, intending us to be like him, sharing his creative genius. But when you give something life, you have to be prepared to let that life develop in its own way. Things can go wrong and people do not live in the way you hoped or intended. But God never gives up. He still lives in hope that the whole universe can live and work in unity. He still lives in hope that the human race will work with him to bring this unity to the earth and the universe and to all life.
In the second chapter, Paul explains how God has tried to reconcile the human race to him by sending Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come so that God would be reconciled to us, saying “Oh well, these people are a huge disappointment to me but because of you, Jesus, I’ll give them a second chance.” Jesus came so that we might be reconciled to God; so that we might see that the God whom we had found disappointing in a suffering world was actually right here beside us, not piling heavier burdens of obligation upon us but seeking to lift the load from our shoulders; a God who will go right down into our darkness, to bring us out.
God now hopes that having been reconciled to him, we may be reconciled to each other. “No more foreigners and strangers,” wrote Paul, “no more Gentiles and barbarians;” all are fellow citizens as God’s people, joined together to become a temple of God’s glory. The Christian Church becomes the means by which God’s reconciling love is made evident to the world. This is pretty awesome stuff and it goes a lot deeper than “let’s try and be nice to everybody because we are good Christians.”
In the June edition of Reform there was the tragic story of Fusi and Nancy, a young black South African couple who were pursuing a lawful immigration appeal to remain in this country. They were not illegal immigrants. They were not refugees or asylum seekers. They had no terrorist connections or criminal records. They were simply trying to negotiate their way through the incredibly complex process of being given permission to live here. (I have a sister in law from Brazil who has been going through a similar process and believe me, the tabloids who claim that Britain is a “soft touch” are lying).
The single biggest problem Fusi and Nancy had to contend with was administrative muddles and breakdowns in communication. When it came to the immigration process the left hand never seemed to know what the right was doing. Fusi was arrested and sent back to South Africa through mistaken identity and it took him eighteen months to sort it out and get back to his wife. Then a computer failure to update their appeal had them both forcibly removed to the airport and, when Nancy collapsed, she was threatened with being shackled and handcuffed to get her onto the plane. A last minute intervention by their barrister prevented this and they were taken to a detention centre. When finally allowed home, Nancy collapsed again and this time died from a blocked artery in the lung.
I am not naïve. I know that we simply cannot open our borders and allow anybody and everybody in because we have not the resources. I know that there are people who have come to this country in order to cheat and steal and destroy. I know that any fair immigration process is going to be complex and lengthy. What struck me about that story was not that our system is unfair but that it is totally inadequate. There are nowhere near enough staff to process information properly, to deal with the heavy burden of administration, to listen to the people and to make properly informed decisions. From there it is only a short step to the National Health Service, to Social Services, to Policing and what is the problem with all of them- under-resourcing. There are not enough people employed to do all that needs to be done.
I am not naïve! I know that money does not grow on trees. But what frightens me is this growing sense that we live in a culture of “grudge;” an underlying attitude that anyone who is poor, hungry, homeless, seeking asylum, disabled, long-term sick, frail are somehow in this position because it is their own fault. And that therefore it is an act of charity on the part of the fit and strong, the comfortably off and successful to allow help and support to be given. And this charity is given grudgingly: “we should not have to do this. If these people who are poor and sick and needy could somehow get their act together we could keep more of our money for ourselves.” Let me be honest with you: having lived in the high-achieving, prosperous South East for nearly thirty years now, I catch myself sinking into this mentality of impatience with people who are struggling to cope. And I look at myself in horror and ask “what have you come to?” None of us can help getting “weary with well-doing” as the Bible says and having horrible thoughts crowd into our minds when we are exhausted but this basic attitude- that people in need are little more than a drain on our society and an encumbrance to living a happy, prosperous life- is only a few steps away from Adolf Hitler. He just moved on from thinking to actually liquidating he they considered inadequate. Is this the way we want to go?
William Barclay, commenting on the letter to the Ephesians, said that the most effective way of reconciling two people who are at loggerheads with each other is via one person who loves and is loved by both. This, said Paul, is what Jesus Christ is doing. He reaches out both hands and draws us to God; he reaches out both hands and joins us to each other. He joins those who call themselves Jews and those who call themselves Greeks, bringing them together to create something new. And in this new community there are no divisions, no needing to prove yourself, no being told that you are worthless, because all have a value and know their value in the sight of God.
Our nation desperately needs these kind of communities right now. It needs men and women of faith to point out and to demonstrate that there is an alternative way of assessing human beings besides that of dividing them into winners and losers.
For the third and last time, I am not naïve. But I just look at history showing us that a society in which nearly all the power and resources are in the hands of a privileged minority is an unstable society that will not survive. Sooner or later there will be a revolution of some kind and most likely a revolution soaked in blood. We may feel that we are lacking the skills or the knowledge to bring about huge political changes but that is not what the Christian church did in the first century. Those who were reconciled to God and to one another through their belief in Jesus Christ simply taught and showed an alternative way of living to that of the power-hungry, elitist Roman Empire. Often it has taken only one voice speaking out for a different way of seeing things that has stopped a whole lot more people in their tracks and made them think “maybe they are making a good point here…” This was how it went in the early church: a small alternative culture that answered a growing need.
SO: Do you need to go to church in order to be a Christian? Do you need to sacrifice some of your precious “me time” to sitting in a hot church on a Sunday morning, having your kitchen wall plastered with rotas, putting up with people like that Thaddeus who get on your nerves or demand to much of you?
You never know, Thaddeus may be the person whose words and ways you have outgrown but without whom you would never have known about Jesus or about being a Christian.
Thaddeus may be the person whose ideas about faith are different to your own but who will prevent you from becoming narrow-minded and arrogant in your beliefs.
Thaddeus may be the person who is holding you in prayer when you are in such a dark place that you feel you have no faith left.
Thaddeus may be the person who sends you a card or brings you some flowers when you are feeling so isolated you could weep with loneliness.
Thaddeus may be the person who sends you yet another rota for yet another job but without whose persistence you might have drifted right away from the faith community.
Thaddeus may be the person whose needs invade your own comfortable, private space but you find yourself encountering Christ as you serve him.
Thaddeus may be the person who started up Food Banks for the hungry and Street pastors for the most vulnerable when our political systems failed them.
Thaddeus may be one of the last members left in that tiny local church who still speak up for the needy in the name of Jesus Christ and look for ways of serving them, hoping and praying that others will become convinced.
Maybe it is not a case of “do Christians still need the church?” More a case of “does the church still need us?”