Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video
In the church today, we quite rightly talk a lot about discipleship as a metaphor for what a Christian is. At its simplest a Christian is simply a follower of Jesus, someone who has received his gift of forgiveness and resurrection life by the Spirit and seeks to live out of that reality. The teachings of Jesus are an expression of what that transformed life looks like. However, its hard not to stray into more detailed definitions of what a really ‘successful’ Christian ought to look like. We might think of it as having a moral focus, or acts of great kindness and sacrifice. We might define it as someone overtly religious, who knows the Bible backwards with a quote for every situation, undefeatable in argument against the atheist foe!
Once we start getting into those sorts of comparisons, its easy to get depressed. I’m sure many of us sit in the pews week by week silently thinking that everyone may be better at this than I am. We always compare our inner angst with everyone else’s show reel; even more so if we are avid users of social media. We often think that others seem to be more loving, or caring, know the Bible better, or seem more certain about God. Worse still, we may equate these internal or cautiously voiced questions with a lack of faith, worried that to articulate our doubts is somehow to let the side down.
But questions, doubts even, are an entirely reasonable part of the life of faith. You don’t need even a cursory glance at the news to find yourself forced into questioning whether God can be all loving and all powerful at the same time. The temptation is often to abandon faith in one or the other, rather than live with the mysterious tension.
Handling this well is an important part of being a Christian community. An encouragement to brash confidence, thereby avoiding serious engagement with difficult issues, can eventually collapse under the weight of unexplored contradictions. I had friends at university whose childhood church had prevented them exploring legitimate questions in their teenage years in favour of an enforced conformity. Unsurprisingly, their faith didn’t survive very long confronted with alternative world views they were ill-equipped to counter. The worse thing a church could be in an age like ours is a place that closes down questioning by intimidating silence.
Last weekend, we remembered the ministry of John the Baptist. Perhaps surprisingly, I find him a helpful encouragement and comfort for the sorts of questioning I mentioned earlier. At the end of his life, while in prison, he sent word to Jesus, “are you the one to come, or should we expect someone else?” Despite witnessing all that Jesus had done, evidence that had compelled the other disciples into following him, he still had his questions. He can best be described as eccentric, certainly in his appearance. His social skills defied conventional marketing wisdom. Few would advise accusing those in authority of being broods of vipers. Confronted with injustice or immorality he called it out, irrespective of the consequences. You wouldn’t have wanted him as your Brexit negotiator.
Yet, despite being described by Jesus as the greatest in the kingdom of God until now, the apostle John is more circumspect. In John 10: 41, he says John the Baptist never performed a sign (or miracle) and his whole purpose was to wake people up to their need of Jesus and then fade into obscurity. Spiritual brilliance can be a dangerous thing. Temptation can accompany Christian achievement, although mediocrity has its dangers as well, at least according to the parable of the talents. John was a person of character and backbone, but with a simple task for which his character had perfectly equipped him. Accompanied by obedience and the holy spirit he did noteworthy things, but things for a particular place and particular time. John’s work was to witness to Jesus. All
the things he said about Jesus were true. People responded and came to Jesus for themselves. His was a ministry in an obscure corner of an ancient empire where he remained all his life.
John didn’t perform any miracles, he simply obeyed and responded to the leading of God where he was. He didn’t compare himself to others. He was content with where God put him. Most of us aren’t going to perform miracles. Most of us have deep, unshared questions. Most of us, when the history of British Christianity is written, won’t merit a paragraph.
But all of us have the capacity by God’s grace to simple, faithful obedience in the direction we sense God is leading us. The economics and status of the kingdom of God are very different to that of our status-obsessed culture. Jesus didn’t say, “well done, O good and brilliant servant”, he said well done, O good and faithful servant.” And it’s those cumulative acts of faithful obedience, that will write the history of church growth in our diocese in this time, in this beautiful corner of his creation where God has put us.