Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
One of the joys of being part of a worldwide church is its rich diversity. Whilst we will find immediate connections, worship with our friends in Tanzania is very different to worship in Nuremberg.Within our own church there is a huge diversity of worship style and theological emphasis. The genius of the gospel has been its ability by God’s grace to find a home in many different cultures without forcing those cultures into a monochrome sameness.
That means that the emphasis of our preaching and evangelism will be different depending on the culture we are speaking into. Paul preached very different evangelistic sermons to the Athenians than he did to Jewish people.Being part of a church with lots of different traditions and cultures, at its best, helps us not to get so captured by our own culture that we lose something of the essence of the gospel as a result. Every culture is in danger of creating a Christ in its own image, rather than the Jesus we read about in the bible.
Today we quite rightly emphasise God’s love, we talk about hope and the gospel being good news. All these things are true, but love is not just unconditional, positive regard.The love that Jesus displayed had an edge to it. The famous verse John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world,” not as an outpouring of affection, but in this way God loved the world – by sacrificing himself for us on a cross. Jesus modelled unconditional acceptance; he didn’t model unconditional approval. When he was set up to make a judgement on a woman caught in adultery he emphasised his lack of condemnation, but he didn’t imply that her behaviour didn’t matter. He encouraged her to live differently.
The gospel is good news because it first diagnoses some very bad news about the human condition and then provides a remedy for it. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, as Psalm 139 tells us; in the image of God, as Genesis 1 declares and at the end of the creation story God looks at everything he made (including us) and says it was very good. This is his first word to humanity. However, the scriptures also make clear that left to our own devices we are alienated from God, as Augustine said, “collapsed in on ourselves.” Whilst it is God’s desire that this condition isn’t permanent, it does raise the possibility that our own choices can make it so. Rather like a bowling ball, there is an integral part of us causing us to deviate from the straight and narrow.Francis Spufford in his wonderful book ‘Unapologetic’ describes it as the ‘high potential to muck things up’.Actually, he uses a word that rhymes with muck that I can’t use unless I want these videos to be notorious rather than popular. Nowadays our culture, if it thinks of God at all, tends to view him as a sort of indulgent cosmic grandfather.Loving us is his job, making any demands on us in return most certainly isn’t. Our forbears received the gospel as marvellous good news because they had a much keener sense that all was not well with the human condition and Jesus offered forgiveness for our personal guilt and a means of spiritual and moral reformation.
The danger of these truths, is that if not held in tension, they can foster arrogance and self-righteousness rather than humility and gratitude. We could slip into an easy spiritual superiority that forgets we are sinners like everyone else, with no grounds for thinking ourselves privileged other than through what we have received as a gift.
If you are tempted in that direction, the publishing of the IICSA report this week should shatter any illusions you might have held.It is a profoundly distressing revelation of individual and institutional sin within the church.Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and survivors who had the courage to help bring these things into the light. The abuse was terrible, the covering up and therefore facilitation of further abuse arguably worse. The way in which victims and survivors have had to wait so long for apologies that go beyond words in to proper care and redress is a failing that is a stain on our church from which it will take many years to recover.
That great leader of the Jewish people, Nehemiah, although probably not born when the sin that led to the exile was committed, takes responsibility for it as a member of the community. His prayer is simple, “I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you.” There is no attempt evade responsibility or blame someone else.He recognised his responsibility in the now to do things differently.
You might ask what place forgiveness has in all of this as its the heart of what God offers to us.To be forgiven, or to offer forgiveness is not to say that what happened didn’t matter.This was the naivety of failing to recognise the addictive and compulsive nature of abuse and the terrible harm it did to the abused. You do not put an alcoholic in charge of a pub. Forgiveness means we don’t have to suffer the eternal consequences of our sin because Christ has taken them for us.It doesn’t absolve us of a responsibility to address these things by the grace of God.
As an institution we need to ensure our protective procedures are robust and followed scrupulously. We need to assure that all complaints are taken seriously and dealt with appropriately. Survivors need to be treated with compassion and properly supported as long as they need it. We all have a responsibility to engage with training, to grow in awareness of the seriousness of the issue so together we can create a culture that deters abusers from abusing and makes it as impossible as we can make it for the predatory to offend.I’m happy that we have colleagues both in our church and partners from statutory agencies who help us ensure these things are so.
Above all we need to pray for the healing of those who have been abused, for God’s mercy on our church for our corporate and individual failings past and present. If the outcome of this soul searching is both a safer and humbler church and better care for those affected then there is some hope for the future. If this drives the last nail into the coffin of the illusion of power, privilege and self-righteousness and makes us a humbler more dependent people, at least we will more faithfully be the Church Jesus always envisioned we could be.