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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Sermons from the margins

The Tough and the Tender

Ask any minister serving a church. Whatever you do, the people complain. Get them involved in all the planning and it�s "too many committees". Take the decisions yourself and you�re an autocrat. Work your socks off all the hours of the day and "He�s always busy; you can never get hold of him". Spend lots of time "being available" at home or in the office, and "He doesn�t go visiting like the old minister did."

Well, let the clergy take heart. It was just the same for John the Baptist and Jesus. John came and showed them the tough challenging austere side of religion. He touted fasting, self-denial and a solitary life on the margins of society. And when people came to see what he had to say for himself, he rounded on them in a decidedly unfriendly manner: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" So what did people say? "Oh, he�s mad, that one. Nutty as a fruit cake. Totally off his head."

So Jesus tried a different tack. He was generally friendly, sociable, and he always had a gang of the lads with him; he was the life and soul of the party. He had a fund of stories as long as your arm, he never turned down a drink, and never missed an invitation to dinner.

So how did people like that approach to religion? Worse than they liked John the Baptist�s. "Call himself a rabbi? It�s disgusting. You should see the company he keeps. I wouldn�t be seen dead with them. And drink! Did you hear what he did at that wedding? Don�t tell me you pluck liters of wine out of thin air and still stay sober."

Well, that�s the situation presented in the Gospel of Matthew (11.17). And even Jesus loses his cool over it. You can�t win, he says. They�re like a load of kids bickering in the streets. One starts playing some jolly music and its, "Boring! Don�t want to dance." So someone else says, "Okay, let�s play funerals then," and it�s "Boring! Don�t want gloomy games." Nothing satisfies them. And yet, comments Matthew - or possibly Jesus himself - "Wisdom is justified by her deeds".

What are we to make of it all?

The clue is in that final and curious comment - "Wisdom is justified by her deeds". The "wisdom" referred to is the divine wisdom that is God himself, who sent both Jesus and John, and who still calls his Church today to exercise two opposite kinds of ministry. They are needed by different people and they are needed in different circumstances, but they are both needed. The previous chapter of Matthew has Jesus telling us that whoever does not take up their cross and follow him is not worthy of him. The call to heroic sacrifice is needed, the challenge forsake all for the sake of Jesus.

On the other hand, what used to be called the "consolations of religion" are also important. So the eleventh chapter of Mathew's Gospel ends with the famous invitation from Jesus:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Over the many centuries of its history, the Church has done justice to these two opposing aspects of the Gospel message - the call to sacrifice and the and the promise of relief from the burdens of life - by making membership of the Christian community as open and easy as possible, and at the same time to make available within the wider community of the church a number of avenues for those who are called to the heroic path.

So entry to the church is by baptism, a sacrament administered with water, just about the commonest and most easily available thing in the world. And when the Church has tried to make baptism more difficult, adding extra burdens on those who seek it, the Church has generally paid the price of alienating the very people it was sent to serve.

But the open church, the accessible church, the fuzzy-edged church is always in danger of becoming flabby and weak and useless. It is to guard against this danger that we need within the friendly open church some structures and opportunities for the smaller number who are called to a tougher, leaner, fitter type of discipleship.

The classic example of this are the religious communities of monks and nuns and friars, who take particular vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. Another example is given by the missionaries who leave the comfort and security of home to carry the word and work of the Gospel far and wide.

But there are plenty of less drastic opportunities to put the "discipline into discipleship", if I may so phrase it. Membership of a house group, for instance, or of the church choir, or a management committee. This is hardly the same as becoming a monk or a missionary, but each nevertheless requires its own extra commitment, some loss of freedom, some degree of sacrifice.

Each of these commitments contributes both to the personal growth of the individual and to the corporate strength of the local church and the Church at large. And to these three examples you may add any and all of the groups and tasks that relate to Church membership. Not everybody is called to these extras, but each of us should ask ourselves from time to time, "Is one of these roles for me?"

My own experience, for what it is worth, has been that these situations where more is demanded of us are precisely the ones where more is also given to us. So perhaps the two ways of discipleship - the austere and the comforting - are not so opposed after all. Perhaps the truth is that we have voluntarily to take on the burden of Jesus in order to feel that it is light, and to wear his yoke in order to discover that it is easeful.

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