Bishop Richard's Weekly Video Message - Transcript 15/07/21

Hello everyone and welcome to this weeks video.

Well after all the hype of the last 4 weeks, we now know it's not coming home! The Euro 2020 final joins the long list of nearly sporting successes. Bill Shankly, a previous Liverpool manager, is quoted as saying, “football isn’t a matter of life and death, it's much more important than that!” Looking at the responses to defeat, that’s clearly true in certain quarters. Allegiance to a football team can be quite an intense business. I had friends in Sussex who had an almost co-dependent relationship with Brighton and Hove Albion. Their mood on a Sunday was dependent on the team’s fortunes on the Saturday. Given that Brighton hovered around the lower reaches of the premier league most of the time, it was a stressful way to live.

In a psychological sense, this is a manifestation of our human search for identity. We are social animals who have a desperate hunger and need for belonging. The reactions to the fortunes of the England football team are a mixture of legitimate pride in their achievement, patriotism and tribal loyalty. There is a toxic side to it as well as jingoism rears its head in racist abuse to those who are just as much a citizen of the UK as you or I.

A sense of belonging is enhanced by shared adversity. The drama Band of Brothers, broadcast a few years ago, told the story of a group of American paratroopers from basic training through D-Day to the end of WW2. It was a graphic portrayal. The most moving parts were the interspersed interviews with the survivors, now old men, whose bond, forged in that theatre of war in their early 20’s, was stronger than ever. Our sense of national and political identity is forged from similar stories we tell ourselves about our history.

Unsurprisingly, Jesus had a lot to say about identity and allegiance, much of it extremely challenging. Those who say the Christian faith is a psychological prop for the weak should read it sometime. It reveals they haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about. The sort of faith Jesus envisaged is not for the faint-hearted at all. I think of the families I met in Pakistan a few years ago, who were on the run from their extended family, determined to kill them because they had decided to follow Christ. I had the privilege of baptising the child of one such family in a safe house. You could still see the scars on the little girl’s leg from the last time they were burned out of their home.

Jesus teaches us that becoming his follower brings us into a community where all previous loyalties and identities are superseded. Sometimes he said things that seem to us borderline outrageous. At the height of his popularity in Luke 14: 26, he said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple!” Of course, some of that is hyperbole. There is plenty in the rest of his teaching to demonstrate how much he valued family and family responsibilities. He had some particularly harsh words for those who were using religious observance as a way of getting out of such obligations. But he was being dramatic to make a point. A follower of Jesus derives their sense of familial identity as much from their church family as their biological one.

And all His talk of the Kingdom of God is a political statement as well as a spiritual one. His invitation to enter into the Kingdom through repentance and faith was an invitation to prioritise that sense of belonging above national and tribal identities. The early Christians declaration that Jesus is Lord, was subversive. It undermined the expected loyalty to the Roman state. Jesus admission to Pilate that he was indeed king of the Jews, removed the last vestiges of restraint in those who were seeking his execution. The Kingdom of God is a new realm, with a new Head of State, Jesus Christ, and a different set of values and laws, derived from the scriptures. Sometimes, these cohere with the values of culture and we joyfully affirm them. Sometimes they most definitely don’t and we prophetically resist.

As we seek to be faithful to Christ in our generation we must, as the writer to the Hebrews says, keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. If we do that our other pre-occupying concerns, whilst not disappearing, will assume their proper place. It is actually that allegiance that gives rise to the qualities of love and sacrifice that should mark our life internally and externally. The institution of the church nourishes us in our journey, but it is not the Kingdom of God. It’s a sign of the kingdom for sure if it is being faithful to its gospel mandate. Spiritual vibrant churches, draw people to become followers of Jesus Christ. But we must ask ourselves the right question in our ongoing consultation about strategy. Not how can we get more people to come to Church; but how can we encourage more people to become followers of Jesus? If you answer the second question well you will solve the first one, and many others as well.