Tuesday 17 September 2013

Leaving the church?

A sermon by Kim Fabricius (his fourth-last sermon before retirement)

On my retirement in early October, my church, Bethel United Reformed Church, Swansea (UK), is going to be joining the worshipping community at the local Methodist Church. Our two congregations have been growing more closely together for several years, and my hope is that, in due course, we may become a united church, a Local Ecumenical Partnership (LEP). Bethel’s Church Meeting voted overwhelming for this venture of faith. But saying Yes is one thing, doing Yes quite another. And some are anxious – and others grumble. Hence this sermon, preached on September 15th.

Gregory Boyd is the Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. The church has an evangelical ethos, and before the 2004 presidential election Boyd was under a lot of pressure to “shepherd his flock” towards “the right candidate”, that is, the Republican candidate. As a conscientious pastor, Boyd tried to address the “big issues” of the day. So, he writes, “In April of 2004, … I felt it necessary to preach a series of sermons that would provide a biblical explanation for why our church should not join the rising chorus of right-wing political activity.” In them, Boyd argued that “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic idolatry.” Hey, this is the USA! What was Boyd thinking?!

Actually, “Some people literally wept with gratitude, saying that they had always felt like outsiders in the evangelical community for not ‘toeing the conservative party line’.” Others, however, howled with rage. “I felt as though I’d stuck a stick into a hornet’s nest,” said Boyd. And sure enough, the hornets massed, buzzed, stung – and then flew the nest. 20% of the congregation left in disgust. In round numbers, that’s a thousand people.

During the eighties, I myself preached on the embedded heresies of Thatcherism, and at least five miffed members left Bethel, maybe 15% of the congregation; thus in a small way I know how Gregory Boyd must have felt. So what’s the moral of his large and my little story? Don’t address controversial issues lest it divide the church? But then what kind of church is that? And what kind of Jesus? Do they actually match the church and the Jesus in the New Testament? And the answer is they do not. No way. I doubt you could find two successive chapters in the gospels where Jesus isn’t getting into trouble, conflict after conflict, with the religious leaders in Galilee or Jerusalem. Disputes continue in the early church, recorded in the book of Acts, though its author, Luke, does his best to airbrush out their ferocity; but it appears, gloves off, in the letters of the pugnacious Paul. Even the “God is love” letters of John were written to refute opponents, while the scathing letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation make “could do better” look like a gold star. So the question is not whether there were hostile reactions provoked by the life and teaching of Jesus, and acrimonious disagreements in the apostolic church, the only questions are what they were about and how they were negotiated.

One thing they were not about: personal offence. This has to be said because I’m afraid that personal offence is, alas, often the reason why people leave the church today: someone has done something to offend them. Here is material for the wry smile of a Barbara Pym novel, but none for serious consideration.

No, we’re talking substantive issues here, theological issues – including politics, money, and sex (and if you think these aren’t theological issues, you haven’t been paying attention) – they’re the ones that vexed the early church, and have vexed any serious-minded church in Christian history. The disputes Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees had to do, in general, with the way he interpreted the scriptures; in particular, with the way he was rather laid back about keeping the Sabbath and observing the rules of ritual purity. “For the gospels do not leave us in the slightest doubt that Jesus, judged by the standards of his religious environment, was in fact ‘liberal’” – “Soft on sin,” said his opponents – “and that it was … that very fact that sent him to the cross” (Ernst Käsemann). 

What was the reason for our Lord’s “loose” behaviour? People. Everything Jesus said and did was directed to human well-being, whether it was healing an illness, eating with an outcast, or embracing the poor. He taught and acted in this way because, intimate as he was with his Father, he believed it to be the will of God. All your piety and prayer and professions of faith don’t amount to a hill of beans if you don’t love neighbour, stranger, indeed enemy. And if anything in the letter of the Bible got in the way of human flourishing, Jesus reinterpreted it. He knew from experience that the devil himself could play proof-text.

This radical understanding of the way human beings should relate to each other continued to exercise the first Christians as they wrestled with the revolutionary implications of the life and teachings of Christ. For Jesus himself, radical welcome meant crossing religious and social boundaries and including previously excluded fellow-Jews in the community of Israel. The motley company of twelve disciples – symbolising the twelve tribes of Israel – reflected just how radical this inclusion would be, with the despised quisling tax collector Matthew at one extreme and the nationalist freedom-fighter Simon the Zealot at the other, the variety expanding as Jesus attracted all sorts of people including the sad, the mad, and the bad. The inclusion of non-Jews – Gentiles – was not really on the agenda, though contact with, and even praise for, a few heretical Samaritans and occupying Romans suggested that the circle of the accepted would become larger still.

Cue St. Paul. The entire mission of the apostle is based on the premise that, in Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, that this ultimate dividing wall has been dynamited by the resurrection of Jesus, the first of a new kind of human being called “Christian”, whose Spirit will plant “churches”, where people will relate to each other in new ways, with indiscriminate kindness, infinite patience, and limitless forgiveness.

Paul had his hands full, that’s for sure. If you know your Old Testament, the scriptures of the early church, you know that it is adamant about maintaining the distinction between Jew and Gentile. So Paul’s use of the scriptures to prove his case was “creative” to say the least! But Paul pushed the envelope because now that Christ is Lord, the scriptures must bend to Jesus, not the other way around. The mother church in Jerusalem, led by Jesus’ brother James, looked on askance. Travelling evangelists visited the churches Paul had founded to combat his new-fangled teaching that Gentiles do not have to become Jews in order to be Christians. Congregations became battlegrounds. Splits occurred, cliques were formed, in-fighting raged. But for Paul the very gospel was at stake – the gospel of grace and freedom.

So there he stood. He could do no other. His teaching of God’s unconditional loving-kindness attracted some and repelled others. But leave the church? When attacked and isolated, Paul would not be forced out – though, as we heard, at the end of his most bitter letter, to the Galatians, he did plead “let no one give me any more trouble” (6:17) (or as we might translate, “Give me a break!”). Conversely, when church members felt cornered and bullied, whether they were liberal or conservative – it made no difference to Paul – he pleaded with them to stay.

So that thousand that left Woodland Hills Church in a huff because they didn’t agree with their pastor’s preaching, I’m quite sure Gregory Boyd thought, not “Good riddance!” – that would be an understandable but finally quite pagan response – but rather “What a terrible pity! These beloved do not seem to know the ABCs of being Christian, being church.” Because while you can choose your friends, you can’t choose your family – I mean the one into which you were born again by faith, compared to which, according to Paul, your nuclear family is but a biological imitation.

There is a lesson here for us all. There is certainly a lesson here for me. For I confess that there was a time when I seriously thought that I might have to leave the URC itself, with nowhere else to go: when we were all discussing same-sex relationships back in the nineties, and I had to consider what I would do if General Assembly took a hardline stance against them. Because I would have deemed such a position to be a grave moral and theological error. Could I remain in such an un-Jesus-like church? I decided I must, that I would have to stay and continue to argue the case. As it turned out, the URC decided no-decision, matters grave and gay referred back to local churches. As Bethel knows. As Church Meeting decided in May 2012 against the blessing of civil partnerships. I was gutted. I still am. But I’m still here. By the grace of God I’m still here.

And here we are. By the grace of God, here we are – together. And together – come hell or high water – come a new home – together, by the grace of God, let us remain.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

Please credit the iconographer: Deacon Matthew Garrett of www.holy-icons.com for the icon you are displaying. Thank you.

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