Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
Last week I attended the local council’s COVID engagement group. They are a marvellous bunch of people from the statutory and voluntary services who have co-ordinated the Herefordshire County response over the last 18 months of the crisis. I had very little to add to the meeting, although I was very happy to add a heartfelt thanks to everyone on behalf of the wider community at the end of it. I imagine a number of those gathered on the zoom call might have wondered why I was there. There is a good story to tell about the response of Christians in this crisis, with many churches being at the forefront of local volunteering. In fact, research shows that Christians represent a far higher percentage of volunteers than we represent in the wider population. There is something about faith in Christ that motivates people to make a difference. However, despite this, the constant pressure from wider secular culture is marginalisation due to our perceived irrelevance. There is a widespread ignorance about Christian things. A few years ago, when I was renewing my gym membership, the girl behind the counter, when she discovered I was a vicar, used it as an opportunity to ask a burning spiritual question. Her question floored me, it was, “was Jesus English?” She wasn’t taking the mick, she genuinely didn’t know the answer.
Faced with this, I know my temptation, and that of episcopal colleagues when asked for media comments, is to slip into left leaning generalities. Aspects of the five marks of mission around environmental stewardship and social action seem to have a much greater connection, so we major on those and neglect personal spiritual realities. Its sometimes hard to connect the heart of the gospel to contemporary thinking when so much of the biblical language seems to have no resonance. I remember when I was an atheist if someone had said to me that God loves me, I simply wouldn’t have known what they were talking about. If I had had any thoughts about it at all, it would have been so what, isn’t that his job. The language of sin, redemption, worship or faith isn’t what most people talk about at work around the water cooler.
And yet whilst our spiritual language seems unfamiliar and irrelevant to many, the things faith addresses are most certainly not. At the engagement meeting I mentioned earlier we were told of a marvellous initiative to encourage volunteering in the County. I hope that many people get involved and make a great difference. But when you start talking about volunteering, you are into the language of motivation. What motivates people to prize themselves from in front of Netflix, their favourite hobby or the endless pursuit of pleasure. How are people encouraged to rise above selfishness to the service of others. This is where you start on the language of character transformation. We know that climate change is an existential crisis. But never mind that Bangladesh is slipping beneath the rising sea, that gas guzzling SUV is so nice and comfortable and makes me feel better than other people. I’ve had a hard life and really deserve that long-haul flight to the sun. And I know that I should eat less meat but that bacon is so very tasty. These are caricatures but they have some basis in fact. How do we rise above our innate selfishness to serve others and make a difference? This is the province of the spiritual. We would argue that this intrinsic bias to the self, what the bible calls sin, is rooted in our alienation from God, not poor upbringing or bad socialisation. Such transformation is about much more than self-discipline. Its interesting that 80% of heart attack survivors don’t change the behavioural patterns that nearly killed them. Its when people want to change that they encounter this spirited internal resistance. As Paul said in Romans 7, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do.” So much of what is done to improve society is a form of pulling the bodies out of the river. What the Gospel is about is stopping people being thrown in upstream in the first place.
The good news of Jesus is about addressing character formation and changing peoples’ hearts. Its in this transformation that you go beyond the superficial and political to the deep change that makes people more loving, with greater resilience and less selfish in their dealing with others.
I freely admit we have a real challenge in re-connecting this good news with a society with almost endless opportunities for distraction, particularly among young people. But when we are tempted by the pressures of secularisation to circle the wagons and retreat into a private, secure faith bubble, the Easter truth of the resurrection crashes in on us again and again. The human problem is in fact very serious indeed and God in Christ has taken serious steps to address it. However secular our society becomes, however distanced from the language of the Gospel, it remains true that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. This is what we live and proclaim to change the heart.