A former vicar of mine used to tell us about her former vicar, whose favoured response to the many people who read the tabloids and then proclaim
“I’m not coming to church…it’s just stuffed full of hypocrites”
“That’s quite OK…We always have room for one more”.
It’s a good line, I think.
But you see, we are always in danger of this accusation, aren’t we?
We gather here, Sunday by Sunday – and sometimes on the Thursdays in between, - in the name of the risen Christ.
We find joy in being here in the house of God.
We sing our hymns, we pray aloud and in the silence of our hearts, we share God’s peace with one another and break bread together on our knees and then……
Then we go out and get on with our everyday lives – and there’s the rub.
Because, of course, it’s there that the reality of our faith stands or falls.
There as we deal with all the complexity of life for which there is no prescribed answer, for whose problems there are no surefire solutions.
There’s only one context in which our faith should make a difference – and that context is, quite simply, the totality of our existence.
But I wonder truly if our neighbours can detect any difference, other than the way we choose to spend our Sundays, between our lives and theirs.
Not that we’re any worse than our neighbours, - I guess that we probably look like quite nice people on the whole, - but unfortunately that’s not really the point.
There’s a chapter in one of C S Lewis’s books of Christian apologetics entitled “Nice people or new men” – and the trouble is that too often we are recognisable only in the former category.
When I was a child, I remember being driven somewhere one Sunday by the mother of a school friend. We were passing a local church as the congregation emerged, and she said, quite without irony
“Look…there are the good people coming out of church”.
I’m not sure that anyone passing as we emerge from All Saints this afternoon would be so generous in their assessment, - nor am I sure they should be.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating…
The proof of our faith is in our lives…lives radically different from those who live around us.
Just before I drove up the hill to Selsley, I baptised three delightful little girls at St Matthew’s, - and we talked a bit about the other, more popular, name for the service, - christening. Christening, unfortunately, can’t be guaranteed at any baptism despite our fervent prayers, because christening means nothing less than becoming little Christs…
That’s the calling for each one of us as Christians.
To be Christ-like
And as the gospels make very very clear, to be like Christ has nothing to do with being religious.
It’s such an easy mistake to make.
Religion is, after all, the way in which we express an element of our faith…but think of the number of times someone has said to you
“I’m not religious BUT…” and then goes on to share something of their personal faith that is powerful in its immediacy, or breathtaking in its simplicity…Something that is, quite certainly, in no way compromised by the lack of religious packaging.
Then set against that, the times when someone has tried to hold a religion to account for all the wars and cruelties that have ever been perpetrated in its name.
Religion cannot be allowed to be the whole story. It is never the same as faith.
Listen to Jeremiah, speaking to the devout Jews of his day…those who were rigorous in their attendance at Temple worship, but missed the point of it all
4Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is* the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
We need to keep those words at the forefront of our minds in the days and weeks ahead. We may know that our energies are directed not towards this building as something precious in itself but towards this building as the place where we encounter God in our midst…but we need to make it clear in every aspect of our behaviour that we are motivated by something infinitely larger than even the most beautiful of buildings dedicated to God’s worship.
The Temple was pretty special, after all – all those exotic woods and gold and silverwork in every corner….but as God made clear to Jeremiah, even the most wonderful worship in the most splendid of buildings won’t feel like worship at all if it’s not supported by lives of generous integrity.
Let’s go back to those baptisms for a moment.
Baptisms are very much about what James describes as “the implanted word”…
In baptism, we are firmly grafted into the family of the church…We are marked with the sign of the cross, an invisible badge that can never be removed. The implanted word indeed…
But it is more than sad if the badge is completely invisible
We cannot and must not rely on its covert presence to guarantee our membership of the household of God…We need to be doers and not hearers…
Anyone who comes through our doors on a Sunday hears God’s word…of course they do.
But it is those who are so touched by it that it impacts on everything they do from then on who will make God dance for joy.
It’s nearly 10 years since my friend Roy died.
Roy was a Warden at the church in Great Rissington.
He worked as a used car salesman – but was respected and loved by all the local community.
He was a leading Rotarian.
He was a constant fundraiser for asylum seekers, for refugees, for single mothers, for those who had few people on their side…those who have replaced the widow and orphan as the forgotten people, the people without status in our contemporary culture.
Each year he organised an amazing fun day for handicapped children at Cheltenham racecourse….and had the time of his life sharing in their excitement at fairground rides and clowns; and
Roy’s death from a brain tumour was rapid and hard for his friends to grasp.
The morning after he went home to God, we gathered for our usual Wednesday Eucharist, and by the sort of co-incidence that is nothing of the sort, the epistle that morning was these words from James
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Roy’s whole life was a gospel based on this text.
He was a very ordinary man, made extraordinary by his loving obedience to the word of God.
His profession might have led to compromises with truth…but he never allowed them for an instant.
Nobody who knew him could ever doubt that he was indeed a man unstained by the world.
He did spend time in God’s house – he was, indeed, a focussed and devoted servant there – but it was his Monday to Saturday life that made up the gospel he both wrote and preached with every breath.
“Be doers of the word and not merely hearers”
We have faith in the God who did not just tell us how to live but showed us…the God who came himself to model the perfect law that goes beyond mere observance of instructions, however detailed, to a life transformed in every particular…
I’m not a great fan of those rather cheesey “wayside pulpits” that carry a poster with some faintly witty message, designed to inspire reflection as we pass by.
However, there’s one such poster I’ll never forget
It asked, quite bluntly
“If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
Be doers of the word and not merely hearers