Faithful witness

What does it mean to “love God and glorify God forever”?  To attend worship services and become ‘involved’ with the life of a congregation is only part of the challenge.  Yes, worship and Christian service in the world are made possible (and “easier”) if we are working together toward a common goal or purpose, but as we know, gathering together is easier if you have a building; and buildings are expensive to maintain; and money is increasingly hard to come by when the number of givers (or their economic circumstances) change.  In these times, it doesn’t take long before our energy is directed to worries about maintenance, and finances and the search for “willing workers” becomes a quest for “warm bodies” – and the church becomes just another organization with its hand out, rather than a place where people can be encouraged and nourished and discover the gift of God’s love in Jesus.

If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when was the last time you talked to someone about something that excites you; chances are it was the Blue Jays, or the recent election.  Do any of us get excited about what we do together as the people of God?  Do we brag up the soup lunch (sometimes), or cradle roll (we should)… or do we rave about how a worship service challenged or changed us…?  I didn’t think so.

It’s not that we’re not faithful – and I’m not doubting that your lives have been affected by your encounter with God and your faith in the Risen Christ.  Your willingness to return to this sanctuary, week after week – year in and year out – tells me that there is something here that you need – something that feeds you – something that you cannot resist.  I know that it isn’t me – I hope that it’s not me – because it is my task to point you to the source of all joy; The hope is that we might all encounter the majesty of God in Christ – and I pray that such an encounter changes each of us.  Because the church that we say we want – a church brimming with life and love and the activity of the faithful – is only possible because of what others see in us (or hear from us).

The witness of the faithful in every season can have enormous consequences in the community of the curious; and we are surrounded by curious people who have little or no understanding of the church except that the church is always raising money for something.  What might those consequences be?  Let us consider our Scripture lessons from a moment ago

First, there is Jesus’ encounter with a scribe of the law (Mk 12: 38-44)  The scribe ‘tests’ Jesus understanding of the law of Moses: “What commandment is the greatest?”, he asks, and Jesus offers good, solid orthodox teaching.  The scribe praises the teacher and affirms his statement – a solid case of one persons witness affecting another part of the community.  They have discovered a point of unity between them.  But when Jesus returns praise to the scribe, who repeats Jesus answer and expands on it slightly, Jesus’ praise goes beyond mere back-slapping.  “You are not far from the Kingdom of God…” he says.  What a witness – what generous praise – what a way to open the door to a stranger!  The further results of this conversation are not recorded – but can you imagine; two potential adversaries (the scribes were always nervous of “new” teachers and their potential for upsetting the faith community) discover that they are allies!  the community is strengthened; the call to consider these two (equally) great commandments can now be shared by what were two formerly separate communities of the Jewish faith – bound together by a desire to love God and neighbour.

And in case you are still sceptical – after all, it’s easy to talk about faith with other people of the same faith (Jesus and the scribe are both Jewish, after all…) – consider the story of Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth.

A woman of faith – Naomi – far from home and in desperate need following the death of her husband and both of her sons – Naomi is still living what I will call a ‘life of attractive faith’.  Her daughter’s-in-law are doing their best to stand by her in her distress.  Ruth is so taken by the example set by Naomi that she renounces her home, her family and the religion of her childhood to accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  Naomi’s must have been a powerful witness for God even in deep distress and misfortune, for Ruth’s life to be so radically changed. “Your people will be my people; your God will be my God.”  There is no evidence that Naomi compelled her son’s wives to follow in the family religion – there was something about the way Naomi faced her troubles that helped Ruth choose such a risky path.

The church today faces a risky path forward, and it is hard not to lose our way in despair.  But the beauty of the Christian faithis that risk and struggle should not be offered as excuses for failure – indeed, it is in our struggles that our faith should be MOST EVIDENT!  The church is not struggling because of the culture – and the ‘death of Christian culture” should hold no fear for us.

We are disciples of the risen Christ – we believe that death is not to be feared – furthermore, our faith insists that death is a necessary step on the journey toward life abundant; life in the Kingdom of God.  Physical death is only one way to achieve the promised gift of God – but Jesus teaches that the death of certain ideas also propel us toward the Kingdom; and so Jesus praises an approach to the law that focuses on God’s love and our emulation of that love – and Ruth follows her faith-filled mother-in-law into foreign territory; and throws herself on the mercy of a man who follows the principles of love laid down in the law; and we can take a lesson from these Scriptural examples.

Instead of striving for survival at any cost, or wringing our hands in despair at the signs of decline in our churches, perhaps we should embrace the death of things that do not satisfy, do not glorify, and do not nurture faith in our risen Saviour.

That sounds like a terrifying thing as I write it – (I’m not sure I’ll have the courage to say it out loud) – but the truth of the matter is that faith is an eternal gift (not to mention a sign of God’s presence) and the community of faith is a large, unwieldy and fluid thing, but the idea of “church” as a stable, permanent, constant fixture in the culture is dead, dead, dead.

If that troubles you, it shouldn’t, because the signs of that death have been with us for years.  And the death of “Christendom” (the cultural prerogative of Christian people to make the rules and set the standards) is, for many people, something to celebrate.  A culture that neither understands Christianity nor defers to it, is a place that frees people of faith to start from scratch – to tell people about Jesus (rather than explain what WE are all about as ‘the church’…) – and I think that is a thrilling place to be.

It has always been hard to “be the people of God”, no matter what we tell ourselves. But in those times when the challenges seem most severe, we are given ample opportunity to express that faith – to acknowledge that not even human indifference can (destroy) the Church of Christ.  For Christ’s church is not the work of human hands; it is a work of the love and majesty of God. Thanks be to God, we are not responsible for the survival of this venerable institution. The “future of the church” is entirely in God’s safekeeping.   The challenge that we CAN accept is to share the good news; to tell the story. The future of our faithful witness rests in our willingness to be challenged and changed by the truth of Christ’s victory over death.

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