A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 17 July 2005, by David Gill. Scripture readings heard during the service, which was broadcast by RTHK, were from Genesis 28:10-19a, Romans 8:12-25 and St Matthew 13:24-30,36-43.
When Roman Catholic bishops gathered in the Second Vatican Council, one of them posed a question that still resonates, all these forty-and-more years later. “What have we done to the Church,” he asked, “that makes people not want to belong to it?”
A good question. But let me suggest an even better one. What have we done to the Christian faith that makes people not want to believe in it?
The issue is not new, of course. The gospel reading we’ve just heard – the parable of the weeds -- suggests that Jesus and his friends puzzled over the mixed reactions they were getting, even then. It is not only recently that people have become ambivalent about the Christian message. People have always been that way.
Yet the situation facing the Church today is in some ways rather special. I’m not thinking only of those who find our truth claims preposterous. I’m not thinking only of the emptying churches of Europe and some other parts of the world. I’m thinking of the hostility I see in the eyes of some, even occasionally here in polite Hong Kong, when I tell people that, yes, I am a follower of Christ.
Why the angry rejection? To what extent – and this is what we need to be agonising about – may we Christians be the cause? What have we done to the faith that makes people react that way?
Partly, of course, it’s the spiritual climate of the day. You and I can’t be held responsible for the fact that far too many of our contemporaries live in a universe that has been steamrollered flat, with no room for wondering, marveling, worshipping. When kids grow up in the shallow faith that nothing is real unless you can eat it, drink it or drive it down the highway at breakneck speed, the Church’s task inevitably becomes problematic.
Partly, too, it’s the embarrassing burden of our history. Christians divided into different churches are a standing denial of the gospel. It was that great missionary bishop Lesslie Newbigin who commented that “a divided Christianity is as much a scandal as a temperance society the members of which are perpetually drunk”. Again, there’s not a lot you and I can do about that. We pray for unity. We work to make it real among ourselves. We strive for it in relationships with other churches in Hong Kong. But ecumenically Kowloon Union Church is a small potato. Others have to move things along in the upper echelons of denominational decision-making.
Partly, the negative reactions stem from the sight of Christianity, like other great religions, being exploited in our time to serve particular political ends. If we didn’t know it before, we surely know it now: religion is not necessarily a blessing. Religion can also be a curse, particularly when in the ultimate act of blasphemy the name of God is used to advance someone’s political ambitions, some party’s grab for power, some nation’s propaganda for war.
All of these factors, no doubt others too, help generate a negative, even hostile, response to the Christian message. And all of them, most of the time, leave you and me feeling pretty helpless, because there’s not a lot we can do about any of them.
But there is another factor that encourages people to reject the Christian faith. It’s quite basic, and it’s something that you and I can, indeed must, strive to correct.
You see, somewhere along the line there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. We Christians have given the world a quite false understanding of what the faith is all about. So many, Hongkongers included, have the strange idea that Christianity is just a list of instructions for living – a sort of checklist of do’s and don’t’s. Tick enough of the boxes and you qualify as a Christian. Tick even more and you win gold to rate as “a good Christian”. The confusion increases, arousing yet more resentment, when church groups claim the right to lay down the law not only for their own constituents but for everyone else as well.
Worse, this “rules and regulations” image of the faith causes mayhem within the Church itself, when we’re tempted to try sifting out saints from sinners, the virtuous from those who aren’t, the people who should belong from those who shouldn’t. Whenever the holy pounce on those they see as unholy, whenever the pious build boundaries against the rest, tragedy always ensues. It’s the fastest way I know to split churches, stir ill feeling, cause hurt – and, incidentally, give the Christian faith a bad name.
No wonder Mark Twain once referred to someone as “A good man in the worst sense of the word”. We know exactly what he meant.
Moralizers may be from the political right wing, the political left or for that matter the political dead center. The point is, whatever the issue that’s at stake, when Christians talk about light and truth in a way that reduces the faith to a shopping list of rules, we’ve lost the plot. We’ve obscured what’s at the heart of it all – the staggering claim that God so loved the world, ALL the world, EVERYONE without exclusion, that he gave his only Son.
There’s a lot of such “check-list Christianity” around at the moment. Presumably it was running in the mind of the person who phoned here a few months back to ask, about Kowloon Union Church, “Is your church Christian, or do you welcome anyone?”
The response was, of course, yes Kowloon Union Church is Christian and yes, for that very reason we do indeed welcome everyone because that’s what God does. Perhaps I should have tried to engage the enquirer in a fast study of the gospel passage we heard a few minutes ago. Remember it?
The farmer … the crop … the wheat and, among it, the weeds … and the question, what to do with the weeds? Jesus’ answer, you will recall, was: let God deal with the alleged weediness of others. You, deal with people inclusively. Never cease to have compassion. Never write someone off. Judge not, he says, for judgement lies with One who is wiser, more understanding, more caring, than you will ever be.
What have we done to the Christian faith that makes people not want to believe in it?
We’ve misrepresented it, that’s what. We’ve somehow turned good news into bad, mystery into moralizing. When congregations like ours apply themselves more wholeheartedly to living out the unconditional acceptance that’s in the heart of God, people who thought they knew what Christianity was all about and rejected it are in for a wonderful surprise.
Meanwhile, let’s be content to allow God to do the weeding. After all, you and I have more than enough to preoccupy us, with the loving, the living, the celebrating.
A radio talk by David Gill delivered as the Thought for the Week programme on Hong Kong's RTHK on 10 July 2005.
Good Morning. I’m David Gill.
A Roman Catholic parish in the Netherlands has held an unusual service in which the barking of dogs almost drowned out the prayers of the priest.
As reported by Ecumenical News International, the event marked World Animal Day as well as the feast of St Francis of Assisi. People had come to church bringing their dogs, cats, rabbits, mice, rats, birds and fish (“in bowls” adds the press report reassuringly), as well as toy animals.
The liturgy featured plenty of unscripted congregational participation – particularly, it seems, from the canine choir. But not everyone was happy.
According to the report, some cat owners complained about the number of dogs present and said they would probably stay away next year.
You have to sympathise with those cats. Who wants to be involved in the church if it means mixing with loudmouthed, bellicose types you spend the rest of the week trying to avoid?
Of course, one doesn’t need four feet and a tail to qualify as difficult to get on with. We bipeds can be pretty unpleasant to each other too. I’ve seen more snarling and scratching in a parish council than you’d get in a whole cathedralful of dogs and cats.
Humanity’s capacity for nastiness appears in institutions and communities of all kinds, but two of the worst are universities and religious bodies.
Universities, because the people there are smarter than the rest of us, so they tend to be unusually clever in the way they knife each other. And the churches, because there is nothing in this world more intractable, or more scary, than religious types who are passionately convinced that they have full, flawless and exclusive grasp of the mind of God.
No wonder one of my friends says that the more she sees of people, the more she likes her goldfish.
And no wonder, more than a century after it started, the churches’ movement to recover visible Christian unity – the “ecumenical movement”, it is sometimes called -- deserves all the support we can give it. Occasionally you hear someone say that the unity movement has stalled, even gone into reverse. But that’s nonsense. So many of the major conflicts that once divided the churches no longer do. For example, even the doctrine of justification, so basic to the Protestant reformation, has been declared by both Lutherans and Roman Catholics to be no longer church-dividing.
The quest for visible unity goes on. But we’re not there yet. Some historic differences remain. Recently, new divisions have emerged. How should the authority of scripture be understood, for example? Where should we draw the line between legitimate diversity of opinion, which is tolerable, and serious doctrinal error which is not? What happens to Christian unity when churches disagree on the gospel’s ethical implications? And how to open up effective dialogue between the rapidly growing Pentecostal churches, new arrivals on the ecumenical scene, and their older cousins?
An enormous amount of reconciling is waiting to be done, within the churches as well as between them. Some of it needs to happen right here, within and between our local congregations in Hong Kong, if followers of Christ are to become more credible witnesses to the reconciling power of a loving God.
And as for those cats in the Netherlands? Well, I hope they do turn up in church again next year. They may discover that even dogs can be lovable. If you work at it.