An Unvarnished Truth
A Bible quiz question: in terms of the total pages written, which New Testament author wrote the most? No not Paul! Luke as the only systematic historian of the emerging Christian Church with his detailed “Acts of the Apostles” together with his gospel stories of Jesus, leaves Paul in the shade (even if Luke also seemed to copy a fair chunk of Mark’s gospel).
Using the RSV as an example Luke is the author of 552 pages for the New Testament. Luke’s Gospel of 78 pages together with the Book of the Acts of the Apostles 71 pages (is over a quarter of the whole). Paul’s 121 pages is still significant but don’t forget some scholars claim some of his letters may have been written by someone else.
Paul describes Luke as a gentile and as a doctor (eg Colossians 4, 10 – 14) and we also note that Luke alone accompanied Paul to prison in Rome, so he would have been very much attuned to the need for warning the new Christians the reality that following Jesus could turn out to be divisive in practice.
When Luke was recalling Jesus describing the division that this form of faith would bring, even to family situations, recent memories of seeing families torn apart must already have been alive in Luke’s memory.
It doesn’t take very much self-reflection before we come across reasons for the discomfort that Jesus’ gospel can generate in practice.
There is a line in a song by John Ylvisaker: “Jesus was sent to upset and annoy.” This would no doubt puzzle anyone who holds to the saccharine image of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, yet many still seem to act as if Christianity is confined to that which happens within the confines of a Church service.
If you read Luke carefully it should challenge any who assume that Christianity is best practiced in complete isolation to outsiders. On the other hand anyone who has thought of attempting to apply Christian ethics to family, community and international decision making would soon have ample reason for agreeing that such application upsets and annoys big-time.
Because families and communities have the power to force decisions by weight of numbers, and since Christian principles often challenge popular assumptions of nationalism, selfishness and self interest, we can assume anyone attempting to live by the sort of Christian principles championed by Christ would soon find themselves at odds with those whose preferred actions follow basic self focused instincts. Think about nations following such themes. Honesty should also encourage us to admit that the principles advocated by Jesus are not always characteristics which we associate with all branches of the Christian Church – or even principles we associate with all factions of an otherwise apparently Christian congregation.
It is not as if we are unfamiliar with the teachings we aspire to follow. Taking no thought for the morrow, putting acts of kindness and compassion ahead of rules, forgiving seventy times seven, recognizing good acts regardless of expectations associated with religion or position (cf the Good Samaritan) and not storing up treasures on Earth – all of these are clear enough. What is less clear is how we might engage in such acts free from our own baser instincts or for that matter, antagonizing those around us.
At the most basic level, think how the family might react if one member decides to disburse material wealth to the needy. Think what happens when those who having expectations of inheritance see their share under potential threat. Even when we are not personally affected by such decisions we can probably understand that those who give generously to the needy make their colleagues and family whose actions are less generous feel uncomfortable.
Even formal association with particular faith communities can be a problem. In my wife’s family for example I know of a father with a nominal Baptist background who would not attend his daughter’s marriage to her chosen partner because he was a Catholic. As a science teacher some years ago I was instructed by my Principal not to teach evolution to some exclusive Brethren pupils because he believed their acceptance of such a view would result in them being cast out of the family. More recently when I was doing my five year stint as a full time lay minister, I recall a congregation member who some years previously had been cast out of his Muslim family for marrying a Christian woman.
When we read in today’s gospel: Vs 53…..they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” we find a truth that continues into our present.
Thinking of divisions immediately draws attention to the human weaknesses connected with the idea of Church. Historically we find much evidence that members of various Church denominations have traditionally favoured those in their own denomination, sometimes to the point of rejection of members of other faiths or those with other shades of belief. Do you need reminding of the Protestant Catholic rift in Northern Ireland? I guess like me you have heard some Christians condemn followers of the Muslim faith or Hinduism. Patterns of immigration laws past and present should remind us not to pretend a formal association with Christianity will ensure that Christian principles will always win out.
Where a majority accepts an exclusivist stance, those who work for peace are sometimes rejected to the point where they are victims of stand-over tactics or even violence. While it is easy to be scornful about populations in places like Egypt or Iraq where religious intolerance sometimes spills over into acts of uncontrolled vengeance and where peace keepers are targeted, it is less comfortable to remember our own history.
Those who insist on forgiving enemies are considered traitors in times of war, and anyone who doubts that need only look at the history of pacifism in the West.
Colin Morris in his book “God in the Shower” (Macmillan 2002) recalled how his father talked of a comrade in World War One who had served with distinction in the great battles of Loos, Ypres and the Somme. “ One day they were throwing the bodies of dead Germans into a huge shell crater to be rid of the sight and smell of them. One man suddenly stood up and said “Enough! This butchery is madness.” This man, said Colin Morris’ father, was the bravest of us all. “When the officer’s whistle blew and we went over the top again, he stayed behind in the trench. In no-man’s land we had an even chance of survival, but when he disobeyed that order he was a dead man”.
Although Morris does not spell it out, we don’t need to look too far to see the irony in officers who expected the enlisted soldiers to attend Church parade, yet use a court martial to proscribe the firing squad to anyone who refuses to act on the commandment not to kill.
There is always a temptation to compartmentalize our thinking, in effect thinking Church when we are at Church, and community when we are in the community. We then risk having our faith become irrelevant to our day to day life. It is, as Jesus is recorded as saying, fairly easy to notice the weather signs yet there are more important signs of our times which are always there for those of us who are prepared to look. Remember he asks: You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Jesus calls those who will not look hypocrites, and perhaps we should ask ourselves why.
For each generation the signs will no doubt vary, but the charge of hypocrisy for those reluctant to notice must surely stand, particularly if we claim to follow a faith that has something to offer in our respective life situations. Community-wise, there would be few communities where there are no disadvantaged people. Some Church communities are very aware of such needs and the pattern of giving to food banks and their organizing support services is to be commended. A reality check for a local congregation would include looking at which needs are effectively addressed each month and each year.
A similar self assessment on attitudes to international responsibilities is also part of any congregation’s claim to be relevant. For example most would be at least dimly aware of a present situation where powerful nations regularly exploit weaker nations for the strong nations’ benefit. As a nation we pay lip service to international justice yet do not always insist our decision makers adjust policies to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources.
According to our democratic practice, passively accepting our nation’s practice is tantamount to giving our rulers support to continue in their current policies. This becomes serious when for example a nation’s industrialists believe they have support for their right to produce obscene numbers of weapons and sell them to vulnerable nations.
Similarly there are statistics available to show that the world’s producers grow enough food globally to feed the world’s population and yet many would rather not notice that approaching a billion people have insufficient food for their needs. Policies of fair trade can be supported at the local level, and politicians can be lobbied.
This is only a sample of current tensions and we might argue that none are new situations. We can also argue that such issues are too big for individual Christians or individual congregations to make a real difference. However the hypocrisy comes when we claim a faith that concentrates on righting injustice and on offering compassion yet fail to notice when we are making no serious effort at all. When the signs of division are all around us, it is wrong to talk and act as if there is only unity in our corner of the world. Community may lead to a comfortable Church, but some would argue this would also be a church with little to offer its world.
I said at the outset that Luke was using his gospel and book of Acts of the Apostles to defend Christianity. Unlike many faith protagonists today, Luke mounts his defence simply by recounting what has happened. The actions of Jesus and his subsequent followers are their own defence. It is an approach from which we might be wise to learn.
Ultimately it is our individual histories rather than what we might say we believe that will either convince toward or alternately dissuade others from our faith. To show that we can read the signs of our time and choose to respond in a Christ influenced way that addresses the realities of our day as best we can is what is needed. We have to admit our efforts are individually unlikely to solve many problems but might at least lend our faith genuine credibility. To ignore the genuine problems, divisions and issues may allow us to pretend to offer a relevant faith, but unless others can see the relevance in what we stand for themselves we should not be surprised if our claims are then seen as empty and of no real value.