SERMON FOR 31ST AUGUST 2014
Like the Queen, I have an official birthday every year. It isn’t necessarily close to the real date. Two old friends and I get together for an annual so-called birthday meal and exchange token gifts and catch up on all the news. We have known each other for over 30 years. We all met through church connections when we were young parents. Over the decades, I have watched my two friends, both of them trained therapists and seriously good and kind people, drift away from formal Christianity. At our official birthday meal this week, one of them said to me quite frankly, I don’t go to church any more. Although I think there is something there, I can’t honestly say I believe the whole thing.
I didn’t enter into an argument. It wasn’t the time or place. But I’ve been mulling over her words ever since. They reminded me of an article I read a few weeks ago in the Huffington Post, about that old chestnut, the difference between spirituality and religion. So many people nowadays say that they believe in something but they aren’t sure what. They are on a spiritual quest of some kind, but the last place they would look for help is the Church.
The writer of the article, an ordained woman, argued that the real difference between spirituality and religion is the involvement of other people. It’s fine to have spiritual feelings and experiences on our own, but that is all about me. I can walk away from a particular spiritual practice any time it ceases to give me some benefit. But when we practise a faith, we do it corporately. We meet with other people to do things that our ancestors have done for hundreds of years. We encounter people who are not like us. We are required to notice the needs of others. Yes, we may struggle to make intellectual sense of the way our faith is expressed in words, but that is not the main point.
The way to keep the faith is to keep doing the faith. The more we pray, the more we want and need to pray. The oftener we come together with others to worship God, the more we feel the lack when we stay away. Coming to church isn’t about entertainment: it’s about formation. Paul’s list of instructions to the Romans is pretty daunting, I admit. But it’s a programme for becoming not just a Christlike person, but a Christlike community.
“Love one another with mutual affection; … serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. … Extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another … If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
This is not a DIY menu for reaching spiritual perfection in your own cell and in your own company. It is a set of guidelines for living with other people. When Jesus rebuked Peter for tempting him, in the gospel reading today, the temptation was to keep himself safe and apart, with his mind on higher things. But Jesus knew that he had to go to Jerusalem, get stuck into the muddle of religious and political conflict, put himself into the hands of his enemies, and die for the love of those who hated him.
To be a Christian is not to think the right thoughts about God, or to say the right prayers or statements of faith. It is to put ourselves into the hands of our enemies but with love, not hate, in our hearts. Being a Christian is taking up the Cross in imitation of our Lord. That doesn’t just mean cheerfully coping with the ills that assail all humankind. It means deliberately responding to curses with blessings. It means leaving vengeance to God. It means opening ourselves to being formed as disciples of Christ, whatever the personal cost may be.
We can’t do that alone. We need to be formed in loving communities, where we are trained in mutual forgiveness and honour. We need to be in regular contact with people whose lives are very different from our own. We have to be reminded constantly that we don’t live in hermetically sealed bubbles of safety and comfort, but we are placed in the real world of suffering and sin. Our brothers and sisters and neighbours are anyone who is in need.
This summer has emphatically not been the kind of silly season that often seems to prevail in August. We have been assailed by terrible news. First it was the deaths of hundreds of men, women and children in Gaza. Then a civilian airliner was shot down in the Ukraine. Next we began to hear about the so-called Islamic State’s vision for a purified society. The number of refugees, many of them fellow Christians, from Syria and Iraq reached the highest number since the Second World War, but our national borders remained closed to them. And then the Ebola virus began to rampage among some of the poorest people on the planet.
In the middle of these horrors we have seen wonderful examples of human response, often, I am glad to say, in the name of Christian faith. Canon Andrew White in Baghdad has steadfastly witnessed and reported the ongoing genocide of his congregation. The journalist James Foley was tortured and murdered by Islamist militants for the crime of speaking the truth, but he sustained his courage with prayer. Doctors and nurses have refused to leave their patients in the west African Ebola epidemic, though it has cost many of them their lives. One brave young volunteer is being treated right now just up the road in the Royal Free.
I am sure that you react like me when you hear of these people. Would I ever have the courage to do that? To stay put in the midst of terrible danger, to be a witness and a helper? There is only one honest answer to these questions. We simply don’t know. We have no idea what grace we might be given under extreme pressure. We don’t know if we would actually be able to pick up the cross that lies in our path.
Peter received plenty of formation in the band of Jesus’ closest friends for three years, and yet when the crunch came he bailed out to save his own skin. The story of his cowardice is a sobering reminder that none of us is a hero in our own strength. But the risen Christ came to him in forgiveness, gave him a blessing for a curse, and renewed his strength so that he became the leader of the young Christian community in which the followers of Jesus were to grow in faith and service. When the later challenges came, he stood firm and persevered unto death.
Where will we stand in that day? We don’t know. But we can go into training. With fellow Christians we can practise hope, patience, hospitality, mutual forgiveness, weeping with those who mourn, turning curses to blessings. And as the Christlike way of living together becomes second nature, we will see the world beyond our little community as part of the same family of God. We will not seek vengeance on our enemies. We will not close our hearts to refugees. We will not turn away from the hungry and despairing.
Our faith will grow as we practise walking the way of the Cross. And where better to practise than with fellow sinners who hope to be forgiven again and again as we are slowly and painfully formed, as a community, into the likeness of Christ?