Why would anybody want to be a Christian? The Church can be boring, backward, narrow-minded and out of touch. Christians can be bigoted, hypocritical, and stupid. And religion can give some people a twisted justification for evil. When we see Christian bigotry in Uganda, Russia or the USA, why would anybody want to be one of them?
When we think about the church’s obsession with sex, power and money, or about the endless platitudes about family life or being kind to one another, or 50 years of preaching a simplified gospel – as if all that matters in this life is that God loves us and that everyone is forgiven and that all of us are all right exactly as we are. Why would anybody choose to be a Christian – if life really is just traditional family values and being kind to one another, and if we really are all right just as we are are, why would we sit through sermons like this one on a Sunday morning – what added value does Christianity offer? Why would anyone be a Christian?
Why do we need prophecy if we don’t need to change? Why do we need grace if if we’re OK just as we are?
When was it – I ask myself – that Christians stopped hearing the voice of God telling us that God’s ways are not our ways, and when did Christians start to believe that our ways – the ways we like things to be and think things must be – are God’s ways as well? When did we cease to be challenged by our faith?
“Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully – – and what is that word – we might ask – Is not my word like fire, says God, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
And Jesus’s words are no less compromising: I have come to bring fire to the eath. …. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division – father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother …. You hypocrites, you know how to interpret the weather, but you do not know how to interpret the present time.
and so with those powerful words in mind, why would anybody want to be a Christian? – division, family discord, fire not peace – perhaps that has always been the real question.
Many of the first disciples chose to follow Jesus because they wanted a strong political ruler who would drive out the Roman occupation and restore Jerusalem to the Jews – they wanted the King of the Jews – a military king, a new Joshua, or a new King David. Perhaps others wanted a prophet or a miracle maker – someone who could give them spiritual leadership and healing – a new Moses, or a new Elijah. Perhaps some were hoping for the new world order foretold by Isaiah, a world where there would be peace – a messiah who would bring the whole world to the God of Jerusalem. Perhaps some people are still looking for all these things.
For St Paul, a generation later, and I think St John as well, Jesus turned the ethnic religion of the Jewish people into a new universal religion for the whole world – where jewish and non-jewish people are equal and worship equally, where women can join the covenant on equal terms as men through the same rite of baptism, where slaves and free, rich and poor are equal in God’s sight. This universality and equality is still a draw to many of us.
For the next centuries a metaphysical Jesus became the answer to the dead-end of Greek philosophy. God becomes human at Christmas, and humanity becomes divine at the Ascension and so Plato’s two worlds of matter and form are finally united into one system. Why would a Greek or Roman want to be a Christian? – because Christianity was a better philosophical answer than the religions of Mithras or the dualism of Manichaeism – and of course because the sign of the cross wins battles and because the Emperor Constantine said they had to! I don’t think many people are Christian today because the Queen says so, but some – believe it or not – are still drawn by doctrine, and perhaps even more are still drawn by the establishment.
And then this Christian religion spread to the barbarian north and to the Celtic west and found fertile ground in the animistic religions of the pagan world. – The heavens are telling the glory of God, wrote the psalmist. The old spirits of the rivers and trees and mountains, became the natural revelation of God, – God the Word – the Logos – which continually speaks all creation into being, and God the Holy Spirit the Lord and giver of all life
I bind to myself today The power of Heaven, The light of the sun, The brightness of the moon, The splendour of fire, The flashing of lightning, The swiftness of wind, The depth of sea, The stability of earth, The compactness of rocks. Wrote the Celtic writer of St Patrick’s breastplate in the 7th or 8th centuries. Why be a Christian, then, if you are an 8th century pantheistic creation worshipper? Because the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: God as creator – transcendent, incarnate and immanent works: a form of Christianity which is still popular today.
For St Anselm just a few centuries later in the 11th century the pressing need was to preserve law and order and the feudal system. Who has the ultimate power, if not God? Who has the power to forgive? Who pays the price to put right the things we have done wrong? In a world where each transgression matters: the serfs’ transgressions against their lord, the knights’ transgressions against their king: and yes – the king’s transgression against God – how can it be put right? How can sin be named? How can the victim’s rights be restored? How can wrongs be set right again. How can justice be ensured?
Christianity gave the answer: God himself is the top of the social order: God is the King, the judge, and the forgiver; and the price of that forgiveness is the sacrifice of God on the cross. Why be a Christian then? Because Jesus had paid the price you could never pay yourself – Jesus would save you from justice, from punishment and from Hell. And for many Christians around the world this is still the Gospel of atonement that they preach.
The 16th Century takes us into the Reformation, a time of secular universities, self-made intellectuals and powerful merchants – the rise – you could say – of the individual – when individuals discovered that they had the power to protest. The personal challenges of Jesus to the disciples to repent and turn to God and follow him, and the challenge of St Paul to personal faith resonated with this reformation world and with the new formed protesting – Protestant mind. Each person had a soul to save – and it was their own.
The world of the 18th century brought us the enlightenment and a more scientific approach to the workings of the world – natural events were governed by laws and mathematics not by the whims and fancies of an inscrutable God. Darwin in the 19th century changed how we looked at the Bible and Biblical criticism was born. The 20th century taught us how to de-mythologise the Bible so that the miracles of Virgin Birth, Bodily resurrection, feeding the five thousand, walking on the water could all be explained away. And much of the church is stuck here: a world where science is more reliable than God, a world where the Bible is just a record of what others believed in the past, and a world where miracles no longer happen, and where Jesus is just a good prophet – one amongst many.
And then came Generation X and the Millennials: Why would they want to be Christians? What can Jesus offer in this fast moving, information technology age where people are driven by global mega-concerns of saving the planet, feeding the millions, and the micro-concerns of seeking meaningful relationships and respect for who they are. A generation who is tired of political talking, and is wanting to see real and immediate action?
As I read today’s Gospel the surprise which struck me, and which I had not noticed before, is that this is not just about division amongst families – this is not just another example of Jesus warning us that blood family is not enough, that family goes beyond blood family and includes church family, community family – and of course ultimately the whole world family – but this is an inter-generational division. Jesus does not say that husband will be against wife, or that brother will be against sister – but that father will be against son, and son against father – that daughter will be against mother, and mother against daughter. The new generation will rise up and challenge the old to see the world, and the faith in new ways. Just as St Paul had to challenge St Peter. Just as the Greek patristic theologians had to challenge those who had gone before. Just as St Francis of Assisi challenged pope Innocent III, just as the reformers, the scientists, the scholars, and the sceptics had to rise up and challenge the church, so too this generation must rise up to the challenge. As Jesus himself said: we may know how to interpret the signs in the sky for the weather, but we have to learn how to interpret the present time. – and the present time is ever changing.
In the first century St Paul challenged the church about the need for circumcision for gentile converts. In the third century Tertullian defined the Trinity, and in the fourth century St Athanasius challenged Arius about the incarnation. In the 16th century Luther challenged the Western Church about grace and scripture, about married clergy and worshipping in a mother tongue. In every generation new challenges have arisen: the liberation of slaves, the ecumenical movement, interfaith dialogue, the ordination of women, the inclusion of LGBTQ persons – and now same-sex marriage. Throughout our history ecclesiastical sons and daughters have been set against their ecclesiastical fathers and mothers as we try to read the signs of the present times and try to respond prophetically. And it will not cease. When this current struggle in the Anglican Communion over same sex marriage is finally resolved, as it surely will be, then new struggles will arise – new challenges, new times. We may want to look back to a golden age: the golden age of the early church, or the age of the creeds, or the scholastics, or the reformation or the biblical critics: but Christianity is a living faith, a living God and Jesus is always several steps ahead of us leading us into prophecy, into reading the signs of the present time. Why would anybody want to be a Christian? To that question the answer today is the same as it was around the sea of Galilee in year 30, and has always been ever since – because Christianity is ultimately not a historical religion of a written past, nor is it a set tradition which much be preserved at all costs, but rather, it is the daily choice to follow Jesus, the living Word, into a new and ever changing future.