In writing this I have that sense that some people will be 'concerned' by what I'm saying here. I've deliberately used an emotive example because it is only when we examine our reactions to issues that may be difficult for us that we can begin to comprehend how our behaviour needs to change. What follows is actually not about belief but about action because sometimes action is far more important.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Mouths, belly buttons and the Church of EnglandWhat are we doing here? I know that we all ask this question of ourselves from time to time, perhaps with that kind of doom laden voice of our internal teenager, ‘Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life?’, but that’s not actually what I mean. We spend far too much time worrying about ourselves. So I’m not thinking here of us as individuals, but of us as a church. What are we doing here? What is the church actually for?
The reason I like the two readings that we have here is because they answer that question for us in fairly simple logical steps, yet leave us fundamentally challenged as to how to respond. They also give us a pretty good indication as to why, as an institution, the Church of England is struggling. You see the clue is in the phrase in 1 Corinthians, ‘You are the body of Christ.’
Christ is no longer physically present in the world, but we are, and the Church says that he lives in us. So on this earth we are meant to be continuing the work which he started. In other words, if you want to know what the church is meant to be like, and what we are supposed to be doing here, then all we actually have to do is look at what Jesus does. And the Gospels make it easy for us. We don’t have to read, learn and digest the whole of all four Gospels, although that’s not a bad idea. This passage from Luke actually makes it nice and easy for us because it comes from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry and reads like his manifesto. This is what he intends to do, and so he sets out his stall using a prophecy from Isaiah.
This is what Jesus intends to do: Bring good news to the poor; Release to the captives; Recovery of sight to the blind; Let the oppressed go free; Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Now it’s really important that we understand that poor means both those with limited financial means, and those who are poor in spirit. Likewise, release for the captives means exactly what it says in liberation theology terms, but it also means releasing those who are captive to circumstances, emotions, and patterns of behaviour which bind them. The blind refers to those who can’t see physically and those who can’t see spiritually. The oppressed are those under the rule of unjust governments and those who are simply oppressed by others, by feelings, by spiritual forces beyond their control and so on. This is the work that Jesus believed he was called to do. And we are the Body of Christ, which simply means, this is now our job. This is what we’re here for. This is what we are supposed to be doing, basically setting people free from circumstances in order that they can become the kind of people that they were meant to be. This is why it’s called the Good News, which is what the word Gospel means.
Unfortunately the truth, in my experience, is that whilst we are doing this in part at grassroots level, it seems sometimes as if the national church is often doing exactly the reverse of what we’re meant to be doing, and I think the reason for that is that we let our judgements about right behaviour get in the way of doing the right thing. In other words we often only seem to want to help people if they conform to our ideas regarding behaviour. To illustrate what I mean I’m going to use what may seem a controversial example, but it needs to a difficult example to explain what I mean. Last week Steve Chalke, a known leader and big name in the evangelical movement, declared that the way the church has treated homosexuals is akin to how we treated slavery, by misusing texts from the Bible as an excuse to maintain our prejudices and keep people excluded from the lives they should have. That it was an evangelical leader rather than someone out of the liberal wing of the church is a huge deal. Someone with a big profile has broken ranks, and he will of course be applauded by some and pilloried by others. I think he’s right. In our culture, for generations, homosexuals have been oppressed. What does Jesus say he will do? Set the oppressed free. The reason we haven’t is because we have stood in judgement on a particular type of behaviour, often without proper and deep scriptural understanding. My feeling is that Jesus is first concerned about how we treat people, regardless of our feelings about them. I’m deliberately not commenting here about the rightness or wrongness of any particular type of sexual expression; this is not about belief, it is about how people are treated. Jesus ate and drank with the people everyone else rejected. Who knows what he believed about them, but that seemed secondary to him.
If we had been acting like the Body of Christ here on earth, then rather than being the people who were being lampooned by the press and condemned by the public, we would have been challenging the government decades ago with the words, ‘You, as a nation, have oppressed these people. Set them free to have the lives and rights that you have.’ We would have come under fire for the right reasons. Instead we now have the opposite, where society has done the work of the church and begun to look out for the needs of an oppressed minority whilst the church has spent its energy arguing about whether it can stand in judgement on a group of people, forgetting that Jesus said, ‘Do not judge or you will be judged’. I take that to mean that we are commanded first and foremost to help those who need help and worry about behaviour at some later date. But we don't seem to want to act like that. The simple truth is that at a national level we do not act like the Body of Christ. We are not Good News.
At grassroots level there are amazing things happening where the church is coming alongside their communities in difficult circumstances, opening their doors in welcome, and stepping out beyond those doors into the lives they are called to serve. I have friend who leads ‘The Order of the Black Sheep’, a Christian community for those who society rejects. For years there has been a Christian presence amongst looking out for the prostitutes working behind Kings Cross station. Now we have street pastors in places in the country, just being there, being caring for those coming out of night clubs the worse for wear.
How, then, have we got to this point where we are known as an institution that brings bad news, keeps people captives and seems to be spiritually blind? Personally I think there may be many reasons, but there is a general philosophy that we can find if we go back to the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians which can be seen as indicating two major faults in the church today that we need to be aware of in order to change. There, not only does he liken the church to being a single body, he carries the metaphor deeper and likens each individual to being one part of that body. That therefore means that in order for the body to function each part must take its place and use its gifts.
So the first reason behind some of our difficulties is what looks to me to be a need for power. I know of plenty of churches which are struggling either because the vicar believes he or she should do everything, or because the congregation believes that their vicar should do everything. You know as well as I do that each of us has our gifts and we are always better when we allow people the space and encouragement to try things out and to grow in the gifts that they have. But when you get one or two people who want to be in charge, they will gradually try and exert more and more influence, often by taking on several of the more high profile jobs in order that they get their own way, and exclude others.
To do that is anti-Christian, it is the opposite of being the Body of Christ because it is essentially saying, although I am an eye, I also want to be a hand, an ear, a mouth, oh definitely a mouth, and maybe a leg too. So we have this situation where people who influence take on the jobs that other people should be doing, and we stop being the Body of Christ. And that then leads to the second difficulty which is that of exclusion. This is when either an individual, or a part of the church, points at others and says, ‘Because you do not believe as I do, or do what I do, you are not legitimately a part of the church.’ I have a couple of friends who have been told to their faces that they are not Christians anymore. Why? It’s because they are asking difficult questions and learning about spirituality in a new way that falls outside the narrow box of what others say a Christian is allowed to believe. And so we get different bodies within the church such as the ironically named ‘Anglican Mainstream’ saying, ‘We are the true church, not you,’ which can be roughly translated as, ‘We are all mouths and you are clearly an ear and therefore you are not one of us.’
In other words the institution of the Church has allowed itself to become embroiled in partisanship with each group trying, very vocally, to declare that it is the true church when the actual truth is that we need each other. Liberals need evangelicals to challenge them to read the Bible. Evangelicals need liberals to challenge their interpretations of scripture. The catholics remind us of our traditions and history and we need the charismatics to remind us that our beliefs are meant to be experiential, and they need liberals and evangelicals to put a context on their experiences and challenge their interpretations. Or in other words, ‘We are the Body of Christ.’ The church in this country is struggling because it has forgotten this.
So what does it mean for us locally? Firstly some words of affirmation. Every single one of you is valued for who you are. I hugely value diversity and the best places are ones where there are evangelicals, charismatics, liberals, catholics and everything in between, because we need each other. It sometimes leads to interesting debates, but that’s how it’s supposed to be. I know that as a vicar, if people didn’t disagree with me it would mean that I wasn’t saying anything challenging. What’s more, disagreeing with the vicar about theology or interpretation does not mean you can’t be a part of the Body of Christ.
But it’s not all quite as simple as that because you also all need to ask the question, ‘What part am I?’ Are you an ear that is also trying to be a mouth, an arm, a leg and an eye? To do so is to work against being a part of the Body of Christ and it shows you do not value anyone else but only want your own way. But also, if you are a mouth who is determined instead to be an unseen bellybutton, then you are depriving the Body of Christ of valuable skills. If you are a pair of arms that resolutely remain folded, then work that could be being done is being left undone. So let us learn to value each person for the gifts they bring. Let us learn to have the humility to step aside, particularly if we have become too protective of our job, and may we each be given the courage to say, ‘I don’t know if I can do that, but I am willing to give up some time to learn and have a go.’ I’m not sure how much we can change the national church, although we should pray for it, but we can, every single one of us, act our part to make our local church mirror the Body of Christ, being loving, accepting, working to set people free and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour. But we can only do that if we each do our own part.