A sermon by Pastor Gervase Charmley of Bethel, Hanley
Among his recorded sermons is one in which Dr. King addressed the problem of unbelief, of materialism and atheism. His reflections are well worth pondering today because the problem is even more widespread now than it was when he made these remarks in 1957. A complete transcript of the sermon is available here: The Man Who Was a Fool.
In this sermon, Dr. King commented on Jesus’ parable of the wealthy man who had a huge harvest and, instead of sharing it, just built bigger barns to hold the excess. The Lord called him a fool for thinking that his material wealth could provide security.
Following are excerpts from this sermon, with Dr. King’s words shown in bold, black italics and my comments displayed in plain red text. After discussing several reason why the man was a fool, Dr. King said,
Jesus [also] called the rich man a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God. He talked as though he unfolded the seasons and provided the fertility of the soil, controlled the rising and the setting of the sun, and regulated the natural processes that produce the rain and the dew. He had an unconscious feeling that he was the Creator, not a creature.
Having discovered the inner realities of many processes, the materialistic atheist fails to ask more fundamental questions such as “Where does the cosmos ultimately come from?” and “What is the ultimate destiny of all things?” Having found some answers, he mistakes them for the ultimate answers; they are not.
There is no problem with a scientist saying that these sorts of questions lie beyond science, that science is only focused on material and efficient causality. Each discipline does have its area of focus. The error of scientism is in its claims that science alone explains all reality; it does not.
The usual response of those who ascribe to scientism (not all scientists do) to questions that science cannot answer is to dismiss them or to say that one day science will find an answer. When we, who are obviously creatures and contingent beings, dismiss our Creator, we are displaying either hardness of heart or a form of madness. Such a dismissal is neither rational nor reasonable.
This man-centered foolishness has had a long and oftentimes disastrous reign in the history of mankind. Sometimes it is theoretically expressed in the doctrine of materialism, which contends that reality may be explained in terms of matter in motion, that life is “a physiological process with a physiological meaning,” that man is a transient accident of protons and electrons traveling blind, that thought is a temporary product of gray matter, and that the events of history are an interaction of matter and motion operating by the principle of necessity.
Dr. King describes here the problem of reductionism, in which things are reduced to matter alone and attributed entirely to material causes. This view holds that even concepts such as justice, meaning, and beauty must somehow be explained materially in terms of their cause. The human soul that knows immaterial things does mediate its thoughts through the brain and the central nervous system, but it does not follow that the medium is the cause. It does not pertain to matter to be the cause of what is spiritual.
Having no place for God or for eternal ideas, materialism is opposed to both theism and idealism. This materialistic philosophy leads inevitably into a dead-end street in an intellectually senseless world. To believe that human personality is the result of the fortuitous interplay of atoms and electrons is as absurd as to believe that a monkey by hitting typewriter keys at random will eventually produce a Shakespearean play. Sheer magic!
Many atheists think they have solved this conundrum, but I think that they “solve” it with a set of assumptions so outlandish and unproven that it requires far more “faith” to accept them than to believe in an intelligent designer and creator.
The statistical possibility that things could come together “by chance” to form complex life—let alone intelligent life—and not just once but at least twice (for reproduction’s sake) is minuscule! (As Dr. King says, “Sheer magic!”) Those who demand we accept this explanation are far more credulous than are believers, who observe the intricate design of creation and conclude (reasonably) that there is an intelligent creator.
An interesting example of what we try to do here, and decidedly on point. Presented by a Lutheran, from a Catholic source, of a Baptist sermon, and all orthodox both to our churches and each others’.
There was a hit piece published on Buzzfeed last week on Chip and Joanna Gaines last week. If you don’t know they are the hosts of one of HGTV’s house flipping shows. And no, I haven’t seen it, I no longer have cable (other than for the internet) and rarely watch TV. But the difference in this one is that the hosts are Evangelical Christians, and that was the point of attack. Here’s a bit from Brandon Ambrosino, writing in the Washington Post (yeah, I went , “Huh?” too).
I am currently planning my wedding, and I’ve never been happier. I believe that God brought me and Andy together and that God celebrates our love. I also believe that our marriage will offer a powerful testimony to skeptics that queer love can be God-honoring, and even sacramental.
I have heard from a few well-meaning Christian friends that they feel they can’t attend my ceremony. I think that’s silly, I think it’s theologically misguided, and it hurts me deeply because it makes it seem as if they care more about abstract principles than me, their friend and family member.
Still, I do not think these conservatives should be shamed or mocked. I do not think they should be fired. And I certainly do not think they should be the butt of a popular BuzzFeed article.
I’m referring to a non-story written by Kate Aurthur, published Tuesday on BuzzFeed. The piece starts off innocently enough by describing the success of Chip and Joanna Gaines, a husband-and-wife team whose series “Fixer Upper” is one of the most popular shows on HGTV. After pivoting to the religious beliefs of the Gaineses, and pointing out that they go to an evangelical church whose pastors oppose same-sex marriage, Aurthur then poses these questions:
“So are the Gaineses against same-sex marriage? And would they ever feature a same-sex couple on the show, as have HGTV’s ‘House Hunters’ and ‘Property Brothers’?”
The entire article is an elaborate exploration of that hypothetical question. And yes, it is very much hypothetical, by the reporter’s own admission: “Emails to Brock Murphy, the public relations director at their company, Magnolia, were not returned. Nor were emails and calls to HGTV’s PR department.”
But that does not stop Aurthur from writing almost 800 more words about the non-story. Her upshot seems to be: Two popular celebrities might oppose same-sex marriage because the pastor of the church they go to opposes same-sex marriage, but I haven’t heard one way or the other. (I can’t imagine pitching that story to an editor and getting a green light, by the way.) […]
BuzzFeed is probably at the forefront of discussions surrounding diversity in entertainment. But do their reporters think diversity refers only to skin color? Does ideological diversity count for nothing, especially when it is representative of, again, a sizable chunk of the American public? It’s hard to make the case that the website promotes this kind of diversity, particularly on same-sex marriage. In June, Ben Smith, the publication’s editor in chief, told Politico that “there are not two sides” on the issue.
Ok, ya all got that? There are not two sides to the question, so sit down and shut up, not to mention believe what we tell you to believe.
Well, guess what? A whole bunch of people say there are at least two sides to this question. Our churches (unanimously till about 15 minutes ago) have always believed and taught that marriage is between one man and one woman. A case can perhaps be made for SSM, civilly anyway, although I’m not going to, so don’t even go there with me. But the mainstream view is one man and one woman.
And you know what else? This supercilious, arrogant attempt to shut down the debate, that they created, is a good bit of why Donald Trump will be President. Because we all, any of us who disagree with the overly narrow left about anything, have simply had enough.
Decidedly true in America, in fact, you might even ask Kelloggs, who recently and ostentatiously pulled their advertising from Breitbart, and now is looking at a possible conservative boycott, or the failing network ESPN and it’s NFL franchise, or Target, and its frantic backtracking on bathroom policy.
A good many of us have simply decided to put our money where our mouth is, and you know, it works, not least because we are a 40% (at least) plurality of the country, and we’re not very happy lately. Vote with your feet, vote with your ballot, and yes, vote with your pocketbook. Remember this? So do we.
There are those who would draw a distinction between being a Christian and being religious. I think our friend Bosco is one such to judge from the comments he sometimes makes. As I understand it, they see religion as a set of codes designed to control people’s’ behaviour, and Christianity as something else – a personal encounter with Christ; what I don’t understand is the distinction. We do not encounter Christ in some historical and personal vacuum. The Bible itself is not simply the product of the Holy Spirit guiding the Evangelists, it is the product of an historical process, and we can trace pretty accurately the way in which it came to have the form most of us receive it in today. To be ignorant of that is to be ignorant of what, for Protestants, is the critical part of our faith; how can we really think that we have the knowledge to understand the whole of Scripture by our own efforts? Those who claim the Spirit inspires their understanding have a problem if that understanding is not that held by others who make the same claim. By all means, in this relativistic world, claim your ‘facts’ are preferable to my ‘facts’, but outside this world, some facts are just that – facts. Neither you, myself, nor anyone else we know encountered Jesus without knowing something about him, and if we know anything about him, we know something, even if it is something we dislike, about Christianity. It is typical of contemporary man to think he need know nothing about the past.
Are some Christians, as Jessica wrote last week, too judgmental? Yes, of course they are. Jesus knew better than anyone the way this temptation is one to which religious people can succumb. Historically, Christianity has always recognised this tendency, and ever and anon in its history, there have arisen movements to revolt against it – whether early monasticism, the Friars, the Lollards, the Reformation, the Jesuits, Baptists and so on and so forth, Christianity has evinced an ability to remind itself of its roots in repentance and amendment of life. We can, as modern man likes to, pretend that we are the first set of people to act in this way and to recognise that elements in the mainstream church or churches have become soft, complacent and lacking in vigour and evangelising zeal – but no one familiar with St Anthony, St Francis, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin or John and Charles Wesley is going to fall for such a perversion of our history.
All these men have in common one thing, a zeal for the Lord and a sense that the church in their time needed a shake up; being full of sinners, the Church usually does need shaking up. But the other thing they all have in common is that in time the movements they helped start began to exhibit the same symptoms they once criticised. The same is true of more modern Christian movements. It is arrogant folly of anyone to imagine that they can claim exclusive and new revelation, and worse for them not to realise the temptations such an attitude gives rise to.
Wherever I disagree with my Catholic friends, or my Anglican ones, I agree with them on much more. We are untied in a faith in a Christ we all see as the Second Person of the Trinity, and whom we read not simply through our own personal encounter, but through the encounters of many who have walked this way before us. We can take that illiterate contemporary view that somehow we are uniquely qualified to know the revelation of Jesus – or we can have the modest humility to learn from our ancestors. Religion is simply derived from a Latin word meaning to bind – and if we are not binding ourselves to Christ, then we do not deserve to be with those who were first called Christians in Antioch when Peter was the elder there.
Jessica’s hymn of praise to her homeland resonated. I spent many a late summer in parts of North Wales, going from chapel to chapel. There was a quiet, ordered dignity which chimed with my Yorkshire experiences. In both places, what we used to call Nonconformity was the dominant religious style; small stone chapels, quite plain, where men in suits and women in suits and hats met to hear the word of the Lord preached, and where there was considerable, but silent, disapproval if the sermon came in under the hour. We were thirsty, and that thirst could never be wholly slaked, but a good meaty sermon with the word explicated well would keep us going during the week – and we’d have the evening one to digest too.
I recognised in that Welsh experience, my own at home. Here were men and women whose tradition went back centuries. They were outside the confines of the Established Church, and even the less established purlieus of Wesleyanism, which was mainly for the better sort of shop-keeper; even in our religious affiliations, the class system played a role: the manual workers would be Primitive Methodists or a certain type of Baptist; small shop keepers, engineers (such as my father) would be a different type of Baptist, or a Methodist without the prefix. These things you knew from the inwardness of things – we never went to the Bethel at the bottom of the valley because it wasn’t where the likes of my mother went. That implied a class judgment which you felt rather than explained. I’d suppose any outsider would have found it very odd – but then outsiders did not come to these places – if you were there you knew why; if you didn’t know we were there, you just didn’t go. The very respectable went to the Anglican Church, and it was a sign of respectability and entry into the security of the middle classes to change from chapel to Church. Catholics? except in Liverpool and Belfast, I never heard of any, nor saw a church of that designation. There was something very Welsh or very Yorkshire about chapel.
Words, learning, listening, these were the active components of our Christian faith. We didn’t go in for symbolism – unless it was Biblical typology – and we didn’t go in for fancy clothing (couldn’t have afforded it)- we went in for moral seriousness which regarded money as something to be spent on those who needed it; we didn’t think God would mind us worshipping him plainly if the widow and the orphan were looked after. I recall as instance where an elder wanted to leave us money in his will to buy new hymn books, but we persuaded him the existing ones would do, and he left the money to the foreign missionary society we support instead.
In all of this there was, and remains, an ethos of independence. Jesus died to save us, we go direct to him, and we work to him; we need elders to be the servants of the servants of God, and we need a pastor to help explicate the word of God and all of us work with the body of the congregation to do what we can to spread the good news. We’re not big on aesthetics, we’re very much not given to clericalism – and we really don’t hold that there is some magical connection going back to old St Pete which makes a fellow special – enough of those who have claimed that have shown it to be nonsense. Faith is a living thing, the Spirit moves among us and we go with Him. Our tradition is one that rejected patronage, whether by clericalism or the gentry or the employers – we are responsible before God for what we do, and we can; blame no one but ourselves if our mission falters. In His grace it has survived in these dales for many centuries, and prospers still. But when I go for my walks, I too, see those disused chapels and churches, and those signs of the ebbing of the presence of the faith in these lands. But by grace we persevere – and when He comes again, He will find us – in all our unaesthetic piety – doing what we can.
I noticed that, in commenting on Jessica’s post on Saturday, my friend Dave Smith, quoting from the old penny catechism, commented that the ‘Church is one’ because it acknowledges one head – the Pope – among other reasons. I know what he means, but I also think that this Pope is about as far from a focus of unity as you could get. In yet another of his interminable monologues on a plane (can’t the man just watch the movies like ordinary people?) he seems to have said that it would be fine if folk used contraception to avoid conceiving because of the Zika virus. I write in the conditional tense because who can be sure what he means? If Dave really believes that he and his fellow Catholics are united under this Pope, or indeed under the last few, he’s ignoring the reality: under John Paul and Benedict the liberal Catholics ignored much of their social and moral teaching; now the boot is on the other foot. Any how, anyone who enters the Catholic blogosphere expecting the Church to ‘be one’ is going to be a sadder person after even half an hour there.
The RCC is not the only church which professes the Christian faith, or even the only one which can sustain a claim to have been founded by Jesus, and neither is it the only one to have been around from the beginning. With the exception of the Pope, the Orthodox Church claims all the same things, and they may both be right. They may also both be ignoring the work of the Holy Spirit in the world. The Creed is neither the product of, nor the possession of the Roman Catholic Church – indeed there was no delegate from the Rome at the 381 Constantinople Conference, and no one submitted the 325 Nicene one to Rome. I am glad the RCC exists, it gets more right than it gets wrong, but like billions of people in this world, I am not in the slightest convinced by its claims, neither do I think it has some unique access to the Holy Spirit.
I was pleased that the Pope met with the Moscow Patriarch, as I am whenever Christian leaders meet and behave like brothers. For once, Pope Frank did not shoot off at the mouth, and that can only be a good thing. But anyone who imagines that either of those churches is going to be the sole engine of some great evangelism is as barmy as anyone who imagines that my church or any other will be. Jessica is spot on in thinking that if we spend so much time on the past, we shan’t have much of a future.
A common complaint among Christians is the challenge we face in the public square. Jessica is quite right in thinking it cannot be met by insisting on old divisions, and, I fear, in thinking that too many Christians will carry on doing just that. With those, as with those Orthodox who rejected the compromises of Florence, nothing, not even the flag of Allah flying atop a symbol of Christendom, will change their mind. If they are the last Christians on earth, they will rejoice at being the pure remnant. You know, we might at least try to help the Holy Spirit out here.
Quiavideruntocli and I get on here like oil and water, although because we both hold firm beliefs firmly, I like to believe there is a mutual respect; at any rate, I respect his views, and like a virile and robust statement of belief – all of which is a prelude to saying that whilst I am grateful for his post about Mary being mediatrix of all graces, I am baffled by it. When I translate it into English – it is written in that curious jargon RCs fall into when talking about Mary, which always makes me wonder what it would sound like in English as she is spoken and understood by most of us – it seems either to be saying not a lot, or a great deal. Let me expand.
I’m leaving aside the gender pronoun stuff – as that risks falling into the modish rubbish about gender identity being fluid – but it does point up the dangers of thinking in this way. If the soul is female, then what of Paul saying there is neither male nor female in Christ. Men who have a desire to be a bride? Well if QV says so. I’ll leave it to him. I feel no call to be a bride, and can see nothing in Scripture which says I have to become one to to be saved.
If every ‘pure and holy soul’ is to some extent co-redemptrix, mediatrix and any other sort of rix, fine, but so what? Where everyone is something, there’s no particular honour in being that something. But then we get that leap of logic which no doubt makes sense to Catholics but to the rest of us looks like someone has just put into the equation the answer they wanted. If she is the God-bearer, he says – well she is – then that proves she is the “Mediatrix of All Grace’ – sorry, several stages got lost there. You can state it is it is what you believe, but you can’t just state it as though in some way you have proved it. He writes: ‘Communicating the author of Grace, it is plain that she communicates thereby all graces.’ I have no idea what use of the word communicate this might be in the first clause; she gave birth to Jesus, if that is communicating him, fine, and if he means that she gave birth to Jesus who is the source of all grace, fine, but to say she ‘communicates all graces’ is an abuse of English and of logic. She communicated, if you allow the odd use of the world, the source of all graces, but that’s it folks. It would be like saying my mother was the generatirix of my children – true, but what’s the point being made? It is either a truism – she’s one of their grandmothers, or is is to imply some greater claim.
QVO goes on to write:
Our Lady cooperates in the economy of salvation with Our Lord’s work of redemption in a way that is wholly unique. Her participation in His life becomes, by inevitable extension, a participation in the life of every Christian
As a statement of what he and his church believe, fine, but again he presumes the major premise he is proving. Of her participation in his life we know but little. We know he was not terribly keen on starting his mission at Cana, but agreed, presumably to honour his mother. We know that Mary and his family had their doubts about his mission at one point, but we know she was there at the end. This is all excellent, but hardly makes her in some special way a cooperator in the economy of salvation. Salvation comes through faith in Father, Son and Holy Ghost – Mary certainly was the chosen one through whom the Lord came, and we should honour her for that – but at the least it creates a misleading impression to start talking about her being involved in salvation. Yes, it you mean she was the chosen woman; but there is nothing in that to suggest we go to her with prayers or petitions – there is ONE Mediator – Christ. To make statements about anyone else being a mediator in the same way is to imply what is not being stated. If the RCC simply means she’s the Mother of God, excellent, full agreement – but if it does not realise that calling her a mediator raises the idea that she has a role similar to that of her son, they they are either by intention or accident, tone deaf to the use of language. It is like the language used. It is no good saying it is not ‘worship’ if it looks and sounds like it. There’s no point complaining people are not understanding the subtleties of your position – for most if it looks like worship that’s what it is – who, in real life, ever used a word like hyperdulia? No one. It gives the impression you are being at best shifty – well there’s this special word which means our actions do not mean what any observer would assume they mean.
None of this is not respecting Mary; indeed I would be prepared to argue that from everything we know about her, she’d be a bit embarrassed at the extent t which some followers of her son have taken her cult. I am happy to bless her name, as the Spirit said would be the case. But as to all this stuff about female souls and mediatrixes, it all sounds as dodgy as you can get. Mary played an honourable and indeed notable part in the life of Our Lord, she bore the saviour in her womb – for all this she is to be honoured. The rest of it – the whole Marian cult – seems to me an exaggeration, and adding to what we know on a scale unjustified by any Biblical practice. I don’t see it in Acts, I don’t see it in the Apostolic Fathers, and I don’t see it in the way the Orthodox act. They honour the Theotokos – but they don’t have the statues, the hyperdulia and the rest of it. Rome is welcome to the exaggerated veneration, but I think even it realised some time ago that it is a great obstacle to unity. It is a shame that it has chosen to condone some of the things it has, and as long as it does, the mother of Our Lord will be what she was never meant to be – a focus of disunity. All Grace is from God, he doesn’t needs servants to help him there – he’s omnipotent – One Mediator – Christ Jesus. That’s what St Paul said, and I’m being Biblical there. Yes, I know one can extract from the OT fantastical stories to justify something unBiblical – but I would commend the Orthodox practice here to my RC friends.
At the centre of my life as a Christian, its very foundation and cause, is my relationship with God. As I tried to explain last week, that involves being part of a Christian community, as we are offered no examples in Scripture, of the individualist Christian doing it all by himself. This is the school in which one grows in the faith, and in which one works with fellow ‘saints’ to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Until the fourth century this was how it worked for all, and a perilous existence it was. The Roman Empire distrusted this religion, which refused to play the game of the State religion; it owed allegiance to King Jesus, not Emperor Caligula. Then, in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine seems to have decided that if you could not beat them, you could co-opt them. After his victory at Milvian Bridge, he allowed Christianity to flourish unchallenged. This did more damage than any amount of persecution.
When a faith is persecuted, no one joins it for any reason other than the obvious one – like Paul on the Damascus Road, they can do no other. They are called out, together, to give witness to Christ. It is a hard road, made all the more so by the distrust of the State. Once a faith is approved of, and even more, once it becomes the State faith, then every grovelling little lick spittle who wants preferment will join it. In the case of Constantine, it was clear that a symbiotic relationship with the Church developed. He wanted a faith which would provide some glue to hold together his sprawling empire, and the bishops wanted a way of putting an end to the Arian heresy. It was a marriage made on the banks of the Bosphorus. As it happened, although the Council of 325 thought it had solved the problem, it took another century for the Orthodox position to win out. After that there was no looking back. Did Nestorius say things which seemed suspect? Set the Emperor on him. Did Disocorus of Alexandria reject Leo’s Tome, set the Emperor on him. Did the Patriarch at Constantinople reject Rome’s claims, excommunicate him and rely on the power of the Holy Roman Emperor to protect you. Did Luther’s calls for reform get your goat, excommunicate him and use the power of the Emperor to try to put an end to him. Did Elizabeth I not come back as you wanted, bless Phillip’s II’s Armada. It was so easy to resort to force, so much easier than having arguments.
Its effect was to create every schism there has ever been. Not once has the use of force actually done anything but split the Christian community. A man will not cease to believe what he has been taught because some fool with a sword tells him to: sincere men will die; insincere ones will pretend they believe. In the end you end up with more of the latter because the former have gone. That’s how you end up with a Laodicean church community.
What happens when being a Christian is no longer the route to a privileged position in society? The time servers go elsewhere, although, as long as there is preferment to be had, some of them will stay where they are; but it will get hard to recruit talented people. What happens when you can no longer use force, or when the idea of excommunicating someone ceases to frighten them? You don’t know what to do. You have lost the art of apologetics and of discussion, and you have to relearn it.
I take, entirely, the point made here by Jess and others that the example of the Church of the East suggests that not having a State to protect you can be damaging, but having one can be so in another sense. My own tradition goes back to those who have always rejected State patronage. We’ve been persecuted by Catholics and Anglicans, and I daresay had there been Orthodox control, they’d have done the same. But we hold to the spirit of the original. We are a called out people owning allegiance to King Jesus and no other. My ancestors suffered persecution, imprisonment and even death for this, and not one of them benefitted materially from their stubborn persistence in this narrow way.
It’s no accident, I suspect, that the faith remains strongest in the West in America, and there are welcome signs that the Catholic Church is gaining the courage to reject the patronage of princes. In the end we stand together. The State has used the faith as best it could and wants to discard it. Good, I say, no one will come to it now because it offers power and a career and wealth. They come, as they should, as we all come, because we are unworthy sinners throwing ourselves on the mercy of Christ. Where that comes to you, into which gathered community it leads you, I no longer much care, for in the face of the hostility of the princes of this world, the Christian identifies him or herself as such because of their belief; that’s enough for me.
I am grateful to Chalcedon and Dave Smith for their help in trying to understand the language of Marian veneration. But I still feel, as I did reading David Monier-Williams’ explanation of the ‘hows’ of therapy as though I am in the presence of something designed to complicate matters in a way that allows those conveying the language to exercise power; it is the creation of an hieratic priesthood which has privileged access to secret mysteries cloaked in a language of social exclusion: don’t understand it? You are shut out, unless, that is, you consent to be taught it. This is as far from Jesus as you can get. Jesus spoke in parables because he wanted to be clear to folk. His prayer was a simple one which had in it all a person could need. His message was also simple – repent, the kingdom of God is at hand. In everyone’s life that’s the case. I could drop dead this afternoon, so could you. We never quite got round to the repenting because there was always tomorrow – Jesus is reminding us that one day there won’t be. It is urgent we repent and come to Him. That is why his language is straightforward, as is that of Paul and the others. Now it is true that the passage of time and the necessities of translation mean that we need some help with understanding what is being said – but that’s all.
Complex vocabulary has its place, but is, too often, the instrument of a small elite entrenching itself with the power which the understanding of that language gives it. This was one of the arguments of the Reformers against using Latin. Latin was not the original language of the Scriptures, it may be doubted that Jesus or his Apostles understood it very well, if at all. Yet, for centuries, it was the language of the Bible in the West. That served the purposes of a clerical elite very well, but there’s no evidence it served the purpose of communicating the Gospel to the people. When I was a lad, I never met a Catholic who had even read the Bible. They listened to the passages said at Mass, but I never came across a Bible study class at a Catholic Church, or a Catholic who could refer, with ease, to the Scriptures. I blame no one for that – save their clerical class. If a powerful group of men hold the great secret in language you don’t understand, that puts you at their mercy. However much you mouth that you are the servant of the servant of the poor, you aren’t – you really aren’t.
The great strength of English Protestantism has been that it brings the words of God to all who will hear them, and it takes those words very seriously. Recently here we had some discussion of the length of a sermon, with some of my Catholic friends here saying that no one could be expected to concentrate for 45 minutes. Tosh, was, and is, my response. If you cannot concentrate on the word of God for 45 minutes, then I am not sure what sort of relationship you think you have with God. If the ploughboy and the serving maids in the early part of this century could do so, I am not sure why some think modern man is so lacking – 45 minutes on the computer game would be thought a tiny amount of time.
In the end, if comes back to taking personal responsibility. Yes, you are saved by the blood of Christ. If you want some other intermediary, if you want some hieratic mystery, fine, reach out for it – even if you can’t be bothered to listen to a 45 minute sermon – but it is really much easier – and also harder, than that. Jesus has saved you. He is the one mediator with God. His the one sacrifice which you ever need. His the only Graces you need. But that calls forth from you a personal responsibility. The priest, the bishop, Mary herself can, none of them, not one of them, call forth from your heart the love which will make you want to transform your life. The Holy Spirit does that – and like Peter, you will follow where he leads – even if it isn’t where you want to go. You don’t need anyone save the Holy Spirit – and if you have him, you know it.
One of the things which emerged from the reactions to my post here yesterday was the dissatisfaction which many feel with their local church. From the descriptions offered the last thing some folk find there is what should be there – a Christian community. Maybe it has always been so? But I am surprised, all the same, because it always seems to me that for a church to become a community there needs to be something more than a once a week get together at which we worship God and then shove off as fast as we can get out of the place. I have seen that at some bigger churches I have been too, and it baffles me. Maybe it comes from folk feeling that going to church is an ‘obligation’? If you feel that, why go? Is it some kind of left-over from the days when the neighbours would look askance, or Fr O’Fiery would give you a black mark for a ‘mortal sin’?
Bosco speaks for himself, but I have a feeling it is this sort of thing he’s getting at when he embarks on his trite hackneyed comments about ‘costumed holymen’. I recall one fellow who came to us after hearing us preach in the market place on a Saturday asking ‘do I have to come every week’? I asked why he asked the question. He thought a moment and said ‘what if I don’t feel like coming’? I asked in return what he would do instead? “Sleep in and then watch telly”, was the answer. My response was that it was up to him to decide which way he wanted to spend his Sunday morning, and to ask how he’d manage at the Bible classes in mid week without listening to the sermon. He looked a bit surprised, asking whether he had to go to that too? My response was the same: ‘what else would you be doing?” His response was “watch telly”. It was, I said, up to him whether he wanted a drive by shooting kind of relationship with us, or a proper one, and given his own considerable talents with a frying pan, we’d rather hoped he might come to the Saturday morning pre preaching breakfast. He looked and asked: “Would you like me to?” I said as long as he didn’t burn the sausages – he laughed, came, and has been an ever-present ever since. And he doesn’t burn the sausages either! The whole episode was a reminder, which we’ve always heeded, that we need to be more than just a congregation which meets twice on a Sunday.
It is not, after all, as though there is nothing to do the rest of the week. Some of us meet up to help with the food bank, others are still helping locally where people are barely recovering from the recent floods. Where, as was the case recently, one of our congregation lost her job and had problems with the benefits system, we made sure we were there to help – we weren’t having one of our own going to a food bank. When Mrs S was not well last year, there were always folk popping in to see how she was – and the odd cake, casserole and ‘little treat for pudding’ seemed to be part of the visit; they had not forgotten me in remembering her. That’s how good families work, and our little community is just that. We know each other well, we socialise outside of church, and inside church. If one is in need, we all do what we can.
That, for me, at least, is how the Spirit moves us. We can all get het up about styles of worship, we can all get cross about certain opinions, and we can all become personally offended by someone else’s remarks, but if the Spirit moves in us, none of that matters. Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Corinthians speak as loudly to us as they did to their original recipients – which is why the church adopted them as scripture and why we study them to this day. They are calls to action, and to be a Christian is to be active in Christ’s name. We pray, as he did, we listen to preaching, as he preached, but we spend no time worrying about this or that liturgy, this or that vestment, this or that rubric – simply because he spent no time doing any of that. It is a waste of time and spirit when there are the poor to feed, the distressed to be comforted, the widow and the orphan to care for. I think if more churches concentrated on these things, they would be more Christ-like.
We are a community, or we are nothing. Christians do not exist in some splendid isolation worrying about the state of their souls, or indeed, those of others – we work as we pray – together. This means we don’t watch much telly, and that we spend our leisure time in his service – but what else was it given for?