Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
In a few weeks I have to do a ministry development review with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Part of the preparation was to give a long list of people who can provide me with 3600 feedback. This is always a nerve-wracking process. The first time I had to do it was as part of a leadership development programme 20 years ago. The responses came as quite a shock. All sorts of character flaws were laid bare. Most alarming was the several I hadn’t even been aware of, and the others were things I had been accused of in the past and flatly denied! I’m glad it happened at the beginning of ministry rather than having to discover things the hard way through some train crash or other. St. Teresa of Avila said that most of the problems in leadership can be traced back to a lack of self-knowledge. So, I’m hoping that my feedback people will be kind, but more importantly that they’ll be honest. Most of us, myself included, have a blind spot to our failings. We can easily dismiss them as personality flaws, rather than honestly engaging with what is wrong. If we are to engage with these things, in a way that leads to personal development, its helpful that the exposure happens in a supportive environment. No-one likes to receive criticism with no acknowledgement that there are successes and good points as well. Without it, things get buried and denied.
The New Testament gives plenty of instructions about living together in that sort of community that genuinely reflects the love of Christ. The Apostle John encourages us to love one another, and indeed suggests that the way in which we do so is far better evidence of the Gospel than eloquent proclamation or clever apologetics. But love like that is never simply unconditional, positive regard. We all aspire to model unconditional acceptance in our communities, but that isn’t the same as unconditional approval. In the past, church communities have been guilty of a holier than thou attitude. The reputation that Christians have sometimes had of judgementalism isn’t without foundation.
To compensate for this, we quite rightly emphasise God’s love, rather than his judgement (although they are in fact two sides of the same coin). The last thing many of the broken and hurting people in our society need is a message of disapproval that communicates sin as the only thing that defines them. God’s first word over creation (including humanity) in the Genesis story was to look at everything he had made and declare it to be very good. Both love and indeed sin have rich meanings in our tradition, neither of which have much to do with contemporary understandings of love being about feelings or sin being about condemnation.
What Jesus and Paul make clear is that no one is in a position to pass objective judgement on anyone else, since every time you point the finger you find 4 pointing back at you. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God says Paul in Romans 3:23. If you want to exclude sinners from the Church then we’d all have to stop going.
The wonderful truth of the Gospel is that the reality of our condition is laid bare before Jesus and he doesn’t turn us away. Its true he loves us more than we could possibly imagine, but he loves us far too much to leave us there. In this time of Lent we dare to bring the reality of our brokenness to Christ, confident that we will encounter deep love and forgiveness. We are reassured that a deeper look into ourselves is OK. We can look bad because we are in the presence of love. We are also provided with resources to engage in a process of genuine growth. Sometimes we simply come up against intractable aspects of our character which we long to change. We wish we were less irritable, or kinder, or more patient, or more aware of those around us. In the presence of Christ, we discover that naming these things is safe and hope can be released by the power of the Spirit to be different.
Many people in our society carry guilt around with them. They don’t know what to do with it. It gets suppressed or denied. I’m talking here about a proper response to bad things we’ve done. There is such a thing as false guilt! That’s one of the reasons, I’m so committed to the Alpha Course. There is something wonderful to walk with people on that journey as they begin to realise that God is for them; that forgiveness is tangible and available as a gift, not something that requires religious striving. It wonderful as people begin to realise that this Christian faith isn’t just subjective feelings but based on significant, historical reality. And it all happens in an environment where people are free to ask whatever question they like and explore spiritual things in a non-judgemental way.
So, if you’re asking these sorts of questions, I’d love to invite you to join us on that journey next week. All the details you need and how to sign up are on the Hereford diocesan website. The link is on the screen. And in this Lenten journey may all of us go deeper into the infinite, forgiving, transforming love of God.