Most countries in the West are currently undergoing profound changes in terms of their response to traditional Christianity. Each census over the last forty years has showed a marked decline in the number whose self identification is Christian. It is true that new immigrants often show a strong religious affiliation to any of a number of religions from their own past home nations but typically the new groups express concern about arriving in a community where there seems to be growing secularity. The new-comers are naturally uneasy surrounded by what they see as threats to their traditional religious practice while many of us who were in effect from the previous generation immigrants find ourselves in aging and diminishing congregations.
Although some ethnic congregations retain a degree of numerical strength, in practice inter-church understanding and cooperation is limited because the bigger Churches have radically different notions of purpose, and for the most part the Churches and their congregations appear to have limited impact of the daily life of the wider community.
So for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, how is it working out?
If we forget for a moment our own view of our own particular brand of Christianity it is hard not to notice that the disparate sub-groups, all claiming to follow Jesus, behave very differently in living out their religion. And it becomes a fair question. So in general do you think his followers are noticed as living Jesus’ message? And if it comes to that….. more to the point…. are we living that message?
Look around. Which group would others see us as representing? Some are very religious and put their emphasis on acts of worship. Some Church groups are struggling to maintain buildings and staff and have little energy left for practical mission and are not necessarily noted for providing welfare assistance to the wider community. Some are very caring and visit the sick, care for the refugees and the poor and stand up for the rights of the oppressed. Is that us? Others are extremely judgemental and rather than seeking ways to help those who are strangers to the community try to reinforce their own sense of belonging by expressing disgust at those who don’t share the same set of beliefs and values.
Surrounded by a group of approximately like minded Church members we might feel comfortable in our attitudes to scripture, to assume our faith is affecting our day to day living in a positive way, and even that we are consistent with Christian teaching in the way we treat those outside our circle of faith. Today I want to suggest that just as those closest to Jesus needed to be pushed out of their comfort zone in following their master, perhaps we too should be vigilant that we are not becoming too complacent in living of our faith.
Yes, I know that if we are relatively regular in Church attendance sooner or later we are bound to encounter many of the standard stories of our faith. And yes that may be as good a place as any to start the Christian life.
But I guess the real question then becomes: how are we going in developing our own faith action stories in our own lives? And perhaps even more pointed: are our attitudes and actions helping others understand the gospel?
Studying the Bible, and hearing about Jesus and the adventures of his disciples may inspire us but surely that can only take us so far towards living the Christian life. Sooner or later we have to decide for ourselves which parts of our faith are important enough to give direction to our life’s journey, and it is good to pause every now and again to ask ourselves if this journey is working out in a positive way for ourselves and those who are influenced by our decisions.
It is actually quite easy to lose one’s way when it comes to Christianity. Sometimes the arguments over the details of interpretation and what the earnest minded and even the fanatical might call the basics of belief, draw attention away from something Jesus claimed to be at the heart of his message. I may have it wrong but as far as I can tell the message Jesus emphasizes is essentially a call to relationship.
Remember his two key commandments. Love God – and love one’s neighbour. The relationship commitment is first to embark on a life-long journey to seek that mysterious creative and elusive “God” force which draws us to journey with a sense of wonder, and the second to find and then use a human setting for the awakened sense of love and compassion. Without this commitment to Love, as Paul so eloquently put it in chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians, we are nothing.
Jesus is very clear about the attitude required for this commitment and, according to the gospel accounts he himself was prepared to die for this principle. In our reading today from the gospel of John, we discover Jesus telling his disciples that they are to love, but not just love in general, they are to love as he has loved them. Although that sounds straightforward, to find meaning in his statement we must first be sure we know how Jesus expressed his love.
Before we reflect on how Jesus loved the disciples we might pause and think for a moment as to who the disciples were. According to all four gospels the disciples were most assuredly not clones of Jesus. Loved they may have been but they were not all portrayed as particularly loveable. Peter for example comes across as impetuous and, at least before the Crucifixion when it came to the crunch, even cowardly.
There were those who were ambitious vying for places of honour in heaven, and of course the largely illiterate majority who are portrayed as slow to understand Jesus’ message, not to mention the potentially dangerous Judas – and as a group, none obviously worthy recipients of Jesus compassion and concern. Certainly a clear majority are recorded as deserting Jesus at the very time he most needed them.
For all their potential problems, Jesus did not appear to have gone out of his way to choose as followers those like himself. The implication then that by talking of love for ones fellows as Jesus himself had shown love, was not a prior requirement of those who would be disciples. Jesus commitment with his disciples was one to those who happened to be close-by.
Dr Liz Carmichael from Oxford University, herself one who committed her efforts to working with the afflicted, saw this radical Messianic friendship of Jesus as: “Making friends with people who are not my sort”. Or perhaps even in Bishop Desmond Tutu’s words “an enemy is a friend waiting to be made”. So a political question. Does that mean we are not representing Jesus if we want to keep refugees at a distance. Would a Christian nation do that?Not all of us have the confidence to commit ourselves to strangers, but there is nevertheless, for most of us another form of relationship thrust upon us by force of circumstance. “You may choose your friends” goes the adage, “but you can’t choose your relatives”. If, as the history of Christianity’s saints suggest, it is possible to commit one-self to those who might even have a different view-point or different culture, then how much easier should it be to share commitment to those whose connection is that of a relationship by birth.
Loving those who circumstances bring our way could only help a fractured and uncertain society where there may be no immediate family to fill this role. In practice we should be truthful with ourselves and admit while John records Jesus as making the ideal of love key to his message, since few if any of the saints were able to achieve this ideal in all aspects of their lives, so while clearly it is an ideal worth striving for, it is probably best understood as a goal rather than as a prerequisite for the Christian journey.
Ethics is inevitably situational in practice because we cannot know in advance what the calls upon the best of our intentions are going to be. Crunch situations find us out. “Greater love has no man than this, (the saying goes) that he is prepared to lay down his life for his friend” said Jesus. Today can we even widen it and say “his or her”. The catch is that in the real world we have no knowledge of whether or not such a dilemma is going to confront us and still less how we will respond in practice.
We do know that such situations are uncommon. The one who dashes into the burning building to save a trapped child, the one who responds to the call for help against the armed assailant, or the one who swims out in treacherous surf to the drowning swimmer are inspiring but rare examples of Jesus’ injunction, but in the same way the disciples were found wanting when the soldiers came for Jesus, the truth is that we do not know how we would be found in such circumstances.
We know from history that the practice of prayer and Bible reading would not automatically equip us for such an occasion. The small percentage of clergy prepared to stand up against unfair provisions for families, or the few who speak up against inhumane Government policy, or show leadership resulting in tolerance for unpopular minorities suggests that even Church position is no guarantee of loving and sacrificial attitude.
Nevertheless Jesus places this ideal squarely before us so what should our response be? If we are to take his message seriously perhaps the most sensible reaction is to make a determined effort to begin by shifting our first loyalty from ourselves, to those around us. Of course we can never be certain that our commitment to others is going to win through when the unexpected arises, but it does seem to me that until we see those about us as worthy of attention, worthy of sympathy and worthy of sacrifice we have not begun to understand how to honour those we claim to love.