Thursday 12 September 2013

A new kind of human being

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

Ephesians 4:23-24: “The old you – get rid of it! Become a new you, living in a new way, God-shaped from the inside out, holy and true.” [My translation]

This morning I want to suggest two things. First, that Christians don’t exist so that there can be a church, rather the church exists so that there can be Christians. And second, that Christians exist not simply so that there can be Christians, rather they exist to be the prototype of a new humanity. This is what baptism and discipleship are all about, a fundamental parting of the ways, which the New Testament speaks about in terms of re-birth, of death and resurrection, of putting off the old way of life and putting on the new – in short of committing yourself to becoming a new kind of human being. Still around in conventional church life is the Victorian notion that God has nothing more distinctive to tell us than to behave ourselves, but I can assure you that God is much more imaginative and radical, has bigger plans than that. God’s agenda in Christ is, in C. S. Lewis’ words, not nice people but new people. And what I want to do now, very briefly, is to sketch for you what this new kind of human being might look like, in contrast to the kind of people formed by and fit for contemporary culture.

First, we live in a culture of fear. Being afraid has become an ever-inflating part of life in the 21st century. We not only live in fear, we think it is only sane to live in fear of – well, you name it: fear of abuse in the family, fear of strangers on the street, fear of unpredictable bio-threats and the hazards of new technologies, fear of ecological devastation and extra-terrestrial catastrophe, fear, of course, of terrorist attacks. Moral panics regularly grip the nation; uncertainty, stress, and feelings of helplessness have become psychologically crippling; and risk-management is now a huge business in a society that worships the idols of health and safety. In spite of the fact – the fact – that, compared to our own past and to the developing world, we in the West not only experience less pain and suffering, and indeed actually enjoy unprecedented levels of personal security, nevertheless we have become an angst-ridden people who approach the future with a sense of foreboding.

Fear diminishes our humanity. It makes us see everything as a problem rather than a challenge, and it highlights failure rather than success. It disempowers us as can-do agents and discourages heroic attitudes. It prompts us to blame others rather than to take responsibility for ourselves, turning us all into victims. And it attacks the very basis of faith, namely trust. Which is why, in the Bible, we often find the Lord’s words of disappointment, “O you of little faith!”, coupled with the Lord’s words of encouragement, “Do not be afraid!” Of course this does not mean that we should be heedless of real (rather than just perceived) threats, reckless in our behaviour, or negligent in our planning, but it does mean that we should assess and react to situations and events, not like the hysterical Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army, but with calmness and discernment, with courage – “grace under pressure” – and, above all, with love, for faith shows its mettle in love, and love casts out all fear. Fearless, because faithful and loving – that is the new kind of human being that the Holy Spirit is shaping.

Second, we live in a culture of lies. In 2005, the journalist Peter Oborne wrote a book called The Rise of Political Lying. Of course, “All governments have contained liars, and most politicians deceive each other as well as the public from time to time. But in recent years,” Oborne insists, “mendacity and deception have ceased to be abnormal and become an entrenched feature of the British system.” Lying is no longer a matter for shame, only getting caught in a lie is a matter for shame. Lying is even spun as a virtue, on the nihilistic grounds that the end justifies the means. And as with the culture of fear, so with the culture of lies, the basic casualty is the erosion of public trust. Bush and Blair lied to us over Iraq. Is it surprising that we are now suspicious, rightly suspicious, of Obama and Cameron over Syria? Indeed lying has become so systemic that liars are no longer even aware when they lie, which is how they can lie with such sincerity, taken in as they are by their own acts.    

The new kind of human being the Spirit is shaping, however, will not be so gullible. We will be sceptical about the truthfulness of public discourse as it is controlled and disseminated by those in authority. We will be alert to voices suppressed and speaking from the margins. We will honour whistle-blowers. And although we will be modest enough to acknowledge that truth is not always easy to discover, and that it may look different depending on your perspective, nevertheless, once discovered, we will be bold to be in the face of power with it. For “the need of truth is more sacred than any other need” (Simone Weil). As for the truth about ourselves, we will acknowledge that “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself” (Wittgenstein), that introspection alone will never reveal the real me, that self-discovery is an ongoing and arduous exploration, that I will never know who I really am until Judgement Day, so we will be humble as well as bold. And as for our knowledge of God, even more than self-knowledge it will always be under constant review. For in Rowan Williams’ graphic image, even our best theology is but “the noise of someone falling over things in the dark.” There will always be more of God.

Finally, we live in a culture of violence. Four numbers, two dates: 9/11 and 7/7: the terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington, and then in London. Now you can add Boston. But what of our responses? Grief, which gives us a sense of belonging. Outrage, which makes us feel righteous – but then quickly hardens into what’s been called “militant goodness”. And then fear – fear again – the fear which drives us to over-react and behave irrationally, to suppress dissent, to cherry-pick human rights, to look for scapegoats, to divide people and whole communities into good and evil, and to look for revenge. And the really insidious, satanic thing about violence – the way it mesmerises us, draws us into its one-dimensional world-view, tempts us into thinking we will find meaning in it, and seduces us into believing the lie – lies again – that good-guy violence (and we are always the good-guys) can somehow be redemptive.

The new kind of human being the Spirit is shaping, however, will witness to the God of Jesus Christ who has nothing – nothing – to do with terror or vengeance. Rather we will participate in parables of peace, like the group of Jews and Catholics who went together on the Friday after 9/11 to a mosque on the south side of Chicago and encircled it, joining hands to protect those worshipping there from potential aggression. Indeed the only truly Christian response to events like 9/11 and 7/7 and the Boston bombing is not only to make the effort to learn about Islam and to engage in inter-faith dialogue, but also to defend Muslims and, more, befriend Muslims, and to see “them” as “us”.

This is the new kind of human being that we are, in Christ, called to be, the new kind of human being we are committed to become – courageous and loving, open and truthful, friendly and peaceful, in the teeth of a culture of fear, lies, and violence. It takes worship and prayer. It takes relentless discipline and patience. For it means reconfiguring our identities, relocating them, by moving from the fantasies of the narratives that shape us and inhabiting the world of the story of Jesus, the real world, the greatest story ever told. It’s a struggle – boy, is it a struggle! – and because it’s a struggle it takes encouragement and support. And that’s why God gives us a church, with Jesus as its focus and his Spirit as its force, so that we may help and strengthen each other in our work in progress of becoming Christ-like.

We will certainly fail, and fail again, that is to say, we will sin; but we will fail better the next time, and the time after that, that is to say, we will grow. And finally, by the grace of God, we will be remade in the image of Jesus Christ himself, the one who is the new human being. 

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