Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Missing the Mission

As the countdown tentatively begins towards my priesting, I am struck by the size of the task ahead of me. First, there is the fact that my poor Bishop has again suffered a major blow to his health which does put a small question-mark over whether the ordination will go ahead as planned. He is adamant that it will, and so I remain confident that all will take place as the Diocese expects.

However, underlying this injury, there is something that is really bugging me. I am reminded of the text: "And Jesus saith unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered." (St Mark xiv.27) Our Lord, in His inimitable fashion, is drawing us to the prophecy of Zechariah.
And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends. Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd , and the sheep shall be scattered : and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones.  And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, saith the LORD, two parts therein shall be cut off and die; but the third shall be left therein.  And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God. (Zechariah xiii.6-9)
It's rather disconcerting to think that our shepherd has been smitten again, and this naturally calls us to question whether there is something going on spiritually. Is the ACC being smitten in order to be purified? Or is our witness becoming dangerous to those who would that the Word of God be suppressed? If you have seen The Omen (1976), there is a remarkably staged scene with a pane of glass which halts one protagonist from removing the devil-child from the Earth.

As Christians in the U.K., we do face an increasingly uphill battle to broadcast our Faith to a society that describes itself as post-Christian. The main trouble is that most people have a very straw-man view of what Christianity is about or take their superficial experience of it as being true of the whole. As I walk through  the streets, youngsters shout, "praise the Lord!" intending to be ironic, but failing to realise that their flesh has just done that which they will not to willingly. Their assumption is that I am an evangelical Gospel preacher! I really don't think that I look like such a character. I've also been asked to bless a chap so that he can get back some money owed to him, as if God is a genie who specialises in bailiff duties.

The trouble is that so many people think they have Christianity summed up. While I appreciate that the Church has been indeed hypocritical and, at times, wholly unrepresentative of the God in which we believe, this doesn't render our Religion null and void. Indeed, our failings are predicted again and again in the very text that we hold dear. Christianity is all about the failure of humanity to be truly human and how it took God to show us how, not only by example, but also by giving us the opportunity to be perfected in Him. Even then, this is only a fragment of the situation.

There are just so many false assumptions that people make about Christianity. The Problem of Evil is indeed a problem that we all face, but it is also a problem for atheists as well as theists. Indeed, Alvin Plantinga has demonstrated that the Eurythphro dilemma has a plausible solution, reconciling the existence of evil with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God. Of course, if an Atheist wants to prove the non-existence of God, the sure-fire way is to assume that God exists and show that this leads to a complete contradiction. I don't see many atheists taking that challenge up seriously.

If Christians are to present a good case to society, then the Mission must lie in challenging the assumptions that are being made. This means listening to the stereotypes, misconceptions and even the hatred that people have for what they perceive the Church to be. Yes, there are concerns with some of the ways things have been done and the Church will have to account for its errors, but those errors are not doctrinal, but rather political and pastoral.

What does the Lord command? To make disciples of all nations. To baptise in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And also...
After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither  he himself would come. Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest. Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among  wolves. Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever  house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you: And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say,  Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you. (St Luke x.1-11)

What is interesting here is that there is no question of trying to convert people by browbeating. The disciples are called to be doctors, healing all those who are ill or in pain. The Mission is about being uplifting, bringing the Kingdom of God near enough to people for them to see it and have the option of taking it into themselves. It is a Mission of showing God to people and for them to recognise His image in themselves. Atheists like to tell us that we don't think they can be good. We know that this is not true but we must show them, not force them to accept precepts they don't care about.

This calls for an enormous amount of faith on our part, and it is something that we should pray carefully about, because God wants labourers for His harvest. We can possess all kinds of things which we believe will help us to do the task, but God sends us out without them asking us to trust totally in Him. Only then do we receive from God the gifts that He wants to give us which we cannot carry if we are already carrying the baggage we've brought with us hitherto.
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.  Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven. (St Luke x.19-20)

So we see, we simply have to put our trust in God and watch Him at work in us, but somehow we need to go out and do something. Boy, that is such a frightening thought! But then, God is not expecting us to do it all at once. There will be a place for us where we have to stay. We have to be faithful to that place because in that place we will have all that we need to get by. Masses and sacraments are fundamental to our experience of the real and living God, but people need to know that they are available. Indeed, they have to be brought into the community as a sure outward sign of the grace that God gives us. We remember that the Church is a sacrament in itself.

It is clear that we are supposed to take our time, but we cannot bide our time always. Our prayer lives should be active and our listening profound. We must set aside things of which we have no immediate need and we need to trust God. We also need to remember that while the task is big for us, it is not so big for Emmanuel - God with us.

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