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.