As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
Who makes you feel guilty?
I don’t buy many newspapers these days since I discovered I could look at them online for free, providing I don’t mind the adverts. The fun of that is, of course, that I can read the Daily Mail, a paper on which I wouldn’t waste my money, without having to pay for it. And what an eye-opener!
If you’ve never done it, have a look at the Daily Mail’s online paper. I was have going to say that it’s about the equivalent of the Beano, but the difference is that the Beano isn’t spiteful. The Daily Mail’s online page is split so that in the middle of the screen you get what passes for their idea of news, and then down the right hand side of the screen are links to pages about the rich, the famous and the celebrities.
And I have to say it makes for pretty dire reading, and is genuinely spiteful. It’s as if the worst excesses of playground meanness makes it into print. The editorial team take it upon themselves to be the public judges of what constitutes the correct clothes to wear and the correct toning of the body and then uses paparazzi shots to look down on just about everyone, either for how they look or for what they’re doing.
The trouble is, however much we may in principle refuse to condone it, this kind of press influence changes us; it inflicts guilt on us because we don’t match up to the impossible standards they set. We’re not tall enough or too tall. We’re not skinny enough or too skinny. For us men, our bodies are not well enough toned and muscled, or too toned and muscled. For women it’s all about having the right sized curves.
It’s as if there is some kind of identikit of the perfect human physique and dress code and none of us have quite got it according to the Daily Mail and others like it. And all of that conspires to make us think we need to spend more on clothes, more on getting down to the gym, more, more, more and still we never quite look right.
And then there are our lifestyles. The rich and famous always seem to have such glamour in their lives, but for us there is a different path. We try and say that we are content but the newspapers keep saying, ‘How can you possibly be content with such a boring lifestyle? Shouldn’t you be jetting off to sunnier climates? Why aren’t you investing in that second house on the coast with all the rich people?’
And it’s just.. not... real...
Except however hard we try, we can’t help being influenced by it. How many of us, for example, are honestly happy with our body shape and the possessions we have? How many of us are truly content?
Still, at least we can sit in church and not worry about it hey? Except, unfortunately, even if we don’t like the tabloids, the church often still plays the same guilt game; the same, ‘You’re not good enough’ game. A member of my family goes to a church in North London that has a new minister who has a particular thing about preaching salvation and hell... every week. Every single week....
And it’s the easiest thing in the world to do to make a congregation feel guilty. I could do it now. Give me ten minutes and I could make most of us feel like filthy rotten individuals, without any hope and in desperate need of salvation. And I know exactly what the result would be if I did that week after week. I would end up with a church full of guilt-laden people who were forever on their knees wishing that they were better people, and willing to do whatever it took to get right with God.
That is, those who stayed would feel like that. Everyone else would leave, which perhaps unsurprisingly is the kind of story I heard many times from some of my Pagan friends, that they went to churches that were so life denying and which made them feel so guilt-ridden that they left.
Thank good ness it’s not like that here eh! Only...
Only... how often do you feel that you’re not really good enough to be here? How often do you look around the congregation and think that someone else is a better person than you? How often do other people seem more worthy Christians than you are? And it’s the same for vicars too, if they’re honest. The number of times I find myself leading a service and thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be here, I’m not good enough.’
So what do we do about it? For some of us perhaps it leads us to spend much more time on our knees praying. For some of us we put lots more time into going to church or to supporting some particular charity. Maybe we put more into the collection than we can afford because we don’t feel we’re good enough. Some clergy overwork, putting in ludicrous numbers of hours. And we do all this because we don’t feel good enough and so somehow we feel that what we most need to do is to work much harder.
And what we’re really doing is making a sacrifice. We’re sacrificing our time. Or we’re sacrificing our money. Or maybe we’re sacrificing our family on the altar of spending lots of time trying to be good enough. And it’s time we looked long and hard at what the Good News about Jesus is, and it’s right there for us in the reading from Hebrews.
I don’t really need to say much about it but to repeat what the author wrote. ‘For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.’ This is not the time to go into the theology of sacrifice, or of the sacrificial elements of Jesus’s death. The important thing for us to take away is that his actions mean not that we are perfect, but that we are treated by God as if we are.
Let me repeat that because it’s of fundamental importance. The death of Christ doesn’t mean that you are perfect, but it does mean that God’s treats you as if you are.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. None of the self-sacrifices we do ever actually make us feel any better about ourselves. And there is nothing any of us can do to truly take away the guilt or shame that we might feel, either because we’ve done something wrong or because someone has convinced us that we are guilty of doing something wrong.
Jesus, in one action for all time, made it right between us and God, and it comes as a free gift because there is nothing we can ever do to earn it. Nothing.
So the church has no right to make you feel guilty. The church has no right to demand that you feel bad enough about yourself that you must make sacrifices the whole time. That’s Daily Mail level theology and it’s just wrong. The sacrifice has been made. The sacrifice to end all sacrifices. There is no need for any more.
What we do here or in some aspects of our own lives should flow out of gratitude that we don’t have to make self sacrifices. That means we should be moving towards lives in which our actions flow out of the love that’s growing in us rather than because someone is emotionally strong-arming us.
Look again at what Jesus says about the temple, perhaps the most amazingly beautiful and vast building dedicated to the worship of God ever. The disciples comment on it and he warns them that it will be destroyed, as indeed it was less than forty years later. Buildings, human edifices and institutions, all of them will crumble eventually.
None of these things are what make us right with God. The only thing that matters in sacrificial terms is that Christ put an end to the need for them. The guilt we feel, the shame that binds us, the things that you may have had said to you in a church to make you feel you need to give more, all of those were dealt with by Christ.
You do not need to make a sacrifice of anything to be ok with God. Instead you’re free. It’s over. It’s all been dealt with. All any of us can do is respond with gratitude as the enormity of what has been done for us fills us. We can’t buy God’s love, and we don’t have to.