Being a Christian (3)
When the wonderful play by our local hero Alan Bennett, The Madness of George III, was made into a film, the title was changed to the Madness of King George. I understand this is because the producers were worried that the American audience would want to know why they missed The Madness of George 1 and The Madness of George II.
Today the sermon title is Being a Christian (3) and it really is the third in a series. Those of you who missed the last two weeks can read the sermons on our website if you are very keen. The idea was to have a mini-series on the subject of what it means to be a follower of Christ, or in church-speak a disciple.
So two weeks ago I said that being a Christian isn’t a matter of winning intellectual arguments or being right in our thinking. It’s a matter of accepting our frailty, acknowledging our mistakes, receiving God’s forgiveness and living in mutual forgiveness with one another.
And last week Mark talked to us about how Christians are those who acknowledge that God comes first in our lives, and who are ready to submit to the practice of discipleship so that we learn to flourish in community with others and become the persons we were intended to be.
So now we come to the last of this miniseries. There are many Bible passages I would like to have chosen to talk about being a follower of Christ. But you may know that in the Church of England we don’t get to choose our Bible readings for any given Sunday. They are set all across the country – not just for Anglicans but for Roman Catholics and several other denominations too – and the good result is that Christians from many different backgrounds think about the same Bible passages at the same time.
However, the downside of that is that the readings that happen to come up today, the Sunday we want to encourage lots of people to come back to church, may be a bit offputting. When I sent the draft of the Sunday leaflet to Celyn I had to ask her to be sure not to find an illustration for the front cover of someone tearing out their eye or cutting off their hand. This is not the easiest gospel story to start with. So let’s backtrack a little and look first at the other two readings.
This bit of the book of Numbers always makes me smile. Anyone who has ever tried to encourage a community or a family to move in a new direction will recognize the sentiment: We remember the good food in Egypt – the fish, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic – and now all we’ve got is this boring manna from heaven! No wonder poor Moses complained to God that he couldn’t manage the people on his own and he needed help. Gloom prevails. Nostalgia rules OK. It was always better in the old days. When I was a curate in Poplar I found that nostalgia was an absolutely endemic condition – until of course you started to dig a bit deeper and found out how absolutely awful the poverty used to be. Yes, the old community has changed out of all recognition, but everyone has an inside toilet and can rely on the NHS.
So there is something here about trusting the process of moving together into a new future, and about sharing the responsibilities of leadership, which is helpful for Christian communities to hear, perhaps particularly in the week when some poor bishop is about to get a tap on the shoulder and be handed the impossible job of being Archbishop of Canterbury.
And then in the epistle of James we get a rather lovely picture of how church life is supposed to be. James tells us to pray with the sick, sing with the cheerful, confess our failings to each other, and bring back the wanderer. That’s how it’s meant to be: not lonely people struggling to make sense of their lives, but a real family of people who care about each other and look out for one another.
Over the past few months some of us have been involved in a course to look at specific ways to improve our welcome at church. Two members of our church council have been carrying out extensive surveys of congregation members to see what you have to say about the way you were treated when you first attended a service here and what you think is good and what could be improved. It is not too late to be interviewed today!
What we have discovered is that James put the emphasis in the right place. What we all need, to help us in our walk with God, is a community that really makes us feel valued. A group of people who share our griefs and our joys, who welcome our children, who look out for us when we are old or unwell. A community that admits its failings and apologises readily to each other. A family that notices when people drift away and tries to find out why and invites them to come back. That is why many of you received an invitation to come to church today from someone who wanted you to be part of this community.
So having looked at Numbers and James, let’s take a deep breath and make a running jump at the gospel of Mark – always the bluntest and most challenging gospel, in my opinion! Notice that once again the Bible is not talking about how we relate to God as individuals, but how we treat one another. Don’t judge the people you think are outside the fold, says Jesus. If someone is doing good to people in need, then they are one of us, no matter whether they have signed up officially as followers or not.
On the other hand, if you are making life and faith more difficult for people who are in need, then watch out. Jesus uses exaggerated language, in the Jewish teaching style, in order to make the message perfectly clear. Be salt, not stumbling-blocks. Season the food, don’t starve people. And above all, be at peace with one another! Remember that he himself in another place summed up his teaching as love of God and love of neighbour. We can’t have one without the other.
So we need to be together. As Mark said last week, quoting the current Archbishop of Canterbury, we should ask ourselves how surprised we are by who we see in our church. Is it really the place of most diversity in our local community? If it is, we are living the gospel simply by coming together in fellowship and love. If it is, on the contrary, a club of the like-minded, then we had better be careful: we are putting stumbling-blocks in the way of those who need to come in.
Therefore we arrive at the end of our mini-series of sermons by reflecting that being a Christian always involves other people. However much we might prefer our spirituality to be all about our own personal growth and our relationship with God, the messy truth is that we are all in this together.
If we want to be disciples, we should worry less about what we say and believe and more about how we live. That doesn’t mean that we earn God’s favour by doing good works. But it does mean, as Mark reminded us last week, that being a Christian means pursuing a way of life that enables us to live abundantly in community with others.
At St Mary’s we have realized that that requires us to look at the way we welcome and include people in our worship and our common life. If you are here this morning because someone invited you, I hope you will discover that this congregation has learned something about the importance of flourishing in community since you were last here, or in any other church. But recalling the first sermon in this series, I hope you will also remember that we all make many mistakes, and that the first principle of a Christian community is to forgive one another as God has forgiven us. If we put that principle into practice, then we can let go of our fear and start to enjoy the adventure of being Christians.