Ok, I’m joking. Kind of. I can sense the fear emanating from Fr Philip, I bet he’s wishing he had checked over my sermon now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about church politics or why one side is better than another, but I am going to address the culture we create for ourselves as Christians, and indeed prompted by today’s readings I feel I would be leaving a conspicuous hole in my sermon if I didn’t address how we should be in the body of the Anglican Church. But it will be positive and edifying because I am taking as my theme the nicest and most generic of all Christian topics: love. Although, surprisingly it is something we get wrong all too often.
See the Christian concept of love is not just about making lots of affirming noises when someone “difficult” is talking to us, nor is it about loving our enemies, or living in wonderful unity despite our differences, though it can be all of the above. Being loving is not always what we want it to be, and neither is it always what we expect it to be. And it seems in the history of the church it never has been what we expected it to be. In Acts it says:
“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God.”
In the reading from acts we see that love goes down an entirely new route that the early Christians were not expecting. The passage is part of a narrative about a Roman soldier who invites the apostle Peter to his home to eat and give the message of Jesus Christ. Now, at first this doesn’t seem to be a big deal to us, we are used to hearing stories of apostles and evangelists endlessly wandering around the middle east and Mediterranean, telling all sorts of people about God, that is what apostles do, it’s their job. However, up until this point in the story of the church, the effort had always been put into telling other Jews about Jesus, they preached in Synagogues and taught in the homes of Jews scattered around the Greco-Roman empire.
The apostles themselves had grown up in a culture that actively separated itself from gentile culture around them. As God’s holy chosen people they had to distinguish themselves from unholy and unclean people - they had to eat different food, they had to mark their bodies through circumcision, and something that is particularly highlighted here is that they even had to avoid visiting the homes of non-Jews. So Peter would have been shocked and confused at God’s sudden plan to go the household of a gentile, in fact a soldier of the oppressive Roman empire. And Peter does go and eat with him and talks with his household. This seems entirely the wrong thing to do.
This is even more surprising when we think this is Peter, the original nerd of the New Testament, the goody-two-shoes who tried to impress Jesus the most, and who put in every effort to keep to the Jewish law, and tried to get everything right. And here he is, going into a home he shouldn’t, and associating with those he shouldn’t. Yet as a result of this, for the very first time, God gives his Holy Spirit to the gentiles and welcomes them into his church.
For the law abiding and righteous Jewish-Christians this is not what they expected and it is not what they set out to do. The move to welcome gentiles could have been damaging to the apostle’s cause, it may have damaged relations with the traditionalists and it would have certainly hardened the Jewish community to Christianity further. But the point is that everything about their faith changed with Jesus, no group is off-limits to God’s love anymore, and that love is not subject to cultural trends. We see here that the most loving thing to do is not what always appears to be the “right” thing to do.
Back in the present I think this situation still applies to us. I think as Christians we have developed a culture of fear for ourselves. Some parts of the church seem scared that we will lose the depth of our faith and respect for God and his church by making it informal, frivolous, fast food for the soul. Another side is terrified that the church will die because of its taste for indulging in liturgy and history. Then even more parts of the church talk about militant secularism, fear of being purged from public spheres and our usual places of influence in an historically Christian country. We are terrified that society will carry on and leave us behind as an irrelevant institution of the past, and that worries us not because we have a nagging doubt that we might actually be irrelevant, it worries us because we know we have something worth saying that might be lost.
But my rather annoying advice to those scared sections of the church is this; don’t worry about it. Simple as that. Don’t worry about it because of what it says in the second reading:
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child... For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world.”
See, John’s letter tells us simply if we are God’s children, then God’s love will conquer the world, love will always win. After all, we do believe that this is God’s world and he is almighty. Also in the Gospel it says:
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
It simply says in terrifyingly stark terms that we don’t have to fear loss, even loss of life, if we have love. So lets stop being so defensive. Because if we are defensive, then we are actually being regressive and showing a distinct lack of faith in God. You see love is always progressive and most importantly it is transformative, love will find new ways of making itself known and it will find a way forward.
So what if lots of churches may replace a reredos with a projector screen? So what if we don’t have bishops making decisions for the country? So what if people who have been previously excluded want to celebrate traditional societal values? Whether we believe these are negative or positive changes, if they do happen, so what? God has never called us to be in places of privilege, so why be worried if we lose it?
Anglicans especially seem to have a penchant for worrying about the future of the church. See, one of the wonderful things about Anglicanism is it aims to be the middle way, it is the church of all the people in the land whether they respect us or not, and historically whether those people are battling it out at the Catholic or Protestant ends of the scale. However I do not believe that the middle way has to always be caught between two extremes and I don’t think as Anglicans we are called to be reactionary, always jumping to keep up with the developments in each camp. And it seems right now we are worried that the world has moved on, and we’ve tried to catch up a little too late. I believe if we are acting in the love of God, and if whatever is born of God conquers the world, then we should seek the middle way as an alternative, not as a compromise, or a method of catching up. We must seek the middle way as the way that is most loving, not the way that soothes the most fears. Otherwise fear becomes the foundation of our church, not love.
Love will conquer and it will take us forward, we just don’t always know where we might end up. The world is changing, and it has always been changing, so have faith as God takes us into the unknown. Have faith in the love of God because we need nothing else to be a church.