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Saturday, 12 May 2012

My Grandmother's Pew?

SUNDAY, MAY 13th 2012

Acts 10.44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5.1-12
John 16.16-24

I described John a week ago (and two weeks ago, elsewhere) as the Nimbinite of the early Christian witnesses. Not least because he, who was probably the ‘beloved disciple’ of the Fourth Gospel, was so moved by the compassion and sanctity of the incarnate Jesus he expected of himself and other followers of Jesus great and godly holiness and integrity. Not for John Paul’s sense of the self, wrestling between volitions to do evil and the summons to do good. To John the life invaded by the Comforter, the Spirit of Christ, is the life transformed into Christlikeness. But his community were letting him down. Like the hippies of Nimbin they were eroding the supposed structures of decency and John’s own supposed authority, living to their own priorities, and even questioning his integrity as a witness of Jesus.

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his command¬ments. And his commandments are not burdensome

John was watching as his understandings of the commandments of God were eroded. Two thousand years later many church leaders have experienced and will continmue to experience the same pain: patterns and activities that were once considered de riguer fall from the practice of faith. Patterns and activities that were once considered beyond the pale are becoming established as patterns of faith. 'Things fall apart', wrote W.B. Yeats: 'the centre cannot hold'.

To some extent there is a yardstick by which to evaluate changes and trends: does this point to the cross of Jesus Christ? Or is something else the hero of this narrative – my good feelings, my self-aggrandizement, my entertainment, preservation of the meaningless, or some other backwater of non-gospel? There are many light-bulb jokes about the various Christian denominations, but the Anglican versions tend to revolve around horror at the notion of change. It’s a caricature, but like many caricatures it contains some truth.

Too often I have encountered in the Christian community those who are burned out and embittered by the processes of change. ‘My grand-mother gave that pew’ or ‘but that’s not the way we do it’ are not words that point to the expectation-shattering cross of Jesus Christ. Nor on the other hand ‘but it’s more relevant’ … I don’t notice Jesus touting relevance, except in so far as he feeds the hungry and heals the sick, as cornerstones of the gospel. Still: church communities are often filled with those frightened by the present and the future, clinging tenaciously to the past, embittered by the changes that just may have been works of the Spirit of God if they have jettisoned the redundant and preserved the kernel of the gospel.

John was not a preserver of irrelevancies. He was fighting to ensure that his community stayed on the main game, the game of cross-focussed, self-surrendering love. As it happens it seems he was probably unsuccessful – the tone of 1, 2 and 3 John is increasingly strident. The fact that we still have his writings suggests that someone eventually saw how important his call to love was. Perhaps to some extent he was too idealistic and forgot that we, the people of God, continue to be fundamentally flawed this side of for ever.

We are caught up in the ‘in a little while’ of Jesus’ peculiar sayings – though he was probably referring to resurrection and the coming of the Comforter-Spirit there is a sense in which we too stew in our inability to see Jesus, stew in our ‘little while’ of inadequacy. As individuals and as a corporate body we sometimes cling to that which needs to be jettisoned – and sometimes I fear jettison that which needs to be clung to. Does it point to the cross of Jesus Christ? Sometimes the answer is easy: wealth and prestige do not. Sometimes the answer is more complex: can we say our prayer book liturgical traditions do? I fervently believe so – sometimes against all odds – for they point to the cross of Christ and to the still small voice of calm, not to the neon-lit imposter God of glamour and of glitz.

But where I am wrong the Spirit has a habit of making new paths into the future. Our expectations of church and society change – and God journeys with us into the future that has God’s footprints, not ours.

For us the task is to continue to cling to the God of the future. In a little while … just beyond our sight, our understanding, and our control: there God beckons us.

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