Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Jobs For Pals

2 Timothy 4.18  The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.

It can be extraordinarily difficult for Westerners to understand how other cultures work. It is as though they have been born blind to all but their own way of seeing things. The result is often an air of uncomprehending superiority.

Perhaps their myopia derives in part from isolation, a lack of day-to-day exposure to racially and culturally different communities. The nations of Europe and the people of the United States are, despite everything, much like each other. And when their peoples travel abroad as tourists, they have limited interest in those amongst whom they holiday. Britons want beer and chips in Siberia. Americans want hot dogs and MacDonald's in Samoa.

Or perhaps Westerners have forgotten their history. So when they complain about corruption in other countries, they forget that bribes were the norm in Europe not that long ago - and still are, behind the scenes. They refuse to admit that Western politicians are not particularly honest but just more sophisticated about dirty deals than their developing counterparts. 

More likely, they don't realise that they are carrying on a way of life marked by Jesus as "the way God does things" (otherwise known as "the kingdom of God").  Despite many lapses this way of life has penetrated Christian communities and nations deeply and (one hopes) permanently.

Let me explain. Mark 10.35-40 tells how James and John ask Jesus for top jobs when he inaugurates his kingdom. In Matthew's account (20.20-23), it is their mother who does the asking. Most people in the West would react negatively to this story, dismissing the two disciples as cheap opportunists.

In the West jobs have to be earned, not given away. Nepotism is regarded as despicable because it deprives the worthy of deserved advantage and gives it to the undeserving. Jobs for pals strikes at the heart of democracy.

But this is not the norm for the vast majority even today. Ties of family and faith are paramount in many countries - as they were until very recently in the West. In many parts of Africa, for example, it would be a social crime to deny a family member a job if it was in your gift.

James and John were calling Jesus to account. It was his duty to favour them if he possibly could. He should know that it's right to reward those you know and those you owe.

However, it's important to notice what both gospel authors place directly after this incident. It is an injunction by Jesus which startled and displeased his followers. And it is one which to this day is transforming, bit by bit, the foundations of communities all over the world.

The disciples are expecting preferment. What they get is something very different. "If you want a job," says Jesus, "be a servant to all. The person who is at the top of the pile in God's eyes is the faithful employee." And by implication, "Jobs for pals isn't the way God does things."

Regrettably, the Church's prayers remain full of requests that God give Christians their due as his children. We lay claim to be part of God's extended family in a way that non-Christians are not. We think we deserve favours because (so we suppose) we belong to God, and God belongs to us.

For example, some Church prayers include the request that we "... may be partakers with the saints of your heavenly kingdom" or "... that we, with the whole company of Christ, may sit and eat in your kingdom." That is, if we do the right thing here on earth, then we deserve to be treated right when the reckoning up comes. We want the heavenly equivalent of jobs for pals.

Advent has always had that emphasis about it. We look forward to Christmas - but also to the great Christmas in the sky when a grateful Jesus will sit us round the heavenly table and we'll have a right old party. 

In truth, then, Christians have nothing to feel superior about when they sneer at bribery and nepotism. For they tend to perpetuate a jobs-for-pals way of doing things rather than a determination to serve and not to count the cost.

Indeed, non-Christians have a good point when they wonder at the gap between word and deed displayed by some Christians and many churches. How is it possible, they ask, that Jesus taught servanthood and yet Christians lord it over others in so many ways?

So Advent could be redirected to better effect. Rather than expecting Jesus to come in power and glory - as tradition has so often put it - it would be more appropriate to sing the praises of Jesus as a humble servant who comes unnoticed and goes unappreciated.

The trouble is that this sort of role isn't popular. There are few applications for the job of washing feet.

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