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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Passports to Heaven

Matthew 7.16-17  Since when do people pick grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Every healthy tree produces choice fruit, but the rotten tree produces spoiled fruit.

There is a natural tendency for all living things to take the path of least resistance. Why spend the effort if there is an easier way? Human beings sometimes prefer the hard way - but generally it's easy live and quiet die.

Christians are no exception. From early times many have looked for an easy way to heaven. And so the Church has devised passports to get them there. Though it may prove uncomfortable, take a look at what the Church demands of its members before they can get the required documents. 

First, they must be "born again" - by which is meant a mental and emotional about-turn towards Jesus of Nazareth. But an official baptism ceremony will do the trick just as well, regardless.

Second, they must "go to church" to worship God. For the majority of Christians, mandatory worship consists primarily of frequent attendance at the Eucharist. Prayer and Bible reading a highly desirable optional extras. Come seldom or never and you could be frozen out of the fellowship.

Third, their morals must conform to certain standards. If they are divorced, or heretical, or sexually deviant, their passports may be withdrawn until their behaviour once again conforms.

There have been times in the Church's history when other passports have been on offer. For many centuries a man or woman who chose the religious life of a monk or nun was thought to have a carte blanche for heaven. Only a few hundred or so years ago, a passport to heaven could be bought in the form of indulgences. Even today, some churches teach that confession to a priest will revalidate a passport to get a person through the control point to heaven.

But there is a problem. Nothing in the known words or actions of Jesus backs up this sort of teaching. Just the opposite is the case. The issuing of passports is up to God, not us.

Indeed, Jesus warns against those who tout passports to heaven: "Be on the lookout for phony prophets, who make their pitch disguised as sheep." A passport to heaven may look genuine - but what about the person offering it? Is a crook likely to give you a valid passport? Just as a tree or plant can yield only its own kind of fruit, says Jesus, so also with people. A thistle does not yield grapes. 

In today's language, Jesus is pointing out that a prerequisite for trustworthiness is congruence between words and behaviour. If what we say doesn't match what we do, then what we say is of little or no account. We must first evaluate those who ask for our trust. Question before you take up a quick-fix, easy-come-easy-go passport to heaven.

Check that the priest who preaches the love of others treats people with great respect. Does the dedicated pro-lifer kill doctors who give abortions? Does the bishop who upholds God's forgiveness also persecute a fellow-priest for heresy? Is the Church's baptism a token of change or a barrier to fellowship? Do worshipping Christians live out in life the prayers they pray in church?

The author of Matthew's Gospel sums it up. Perhaps echoing a sermon he once heard, he writes what he imagines Jesus might have said: "Not everyone who addresses me as 'Master, master' will get into heaven ..."

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