Recently I was sitting in a church building that had been officially “decommissioned” by the Church of Scotland for a festive concert. I sat listening to the local school choir sing “Make me a channel of your peace“, with no reference at any point to who the “Your” was in this prayer. Carols were sung to an absent “newborn King” as no advent message was said at any point to provide a context for the singing. I started to wonder what the Lord would make of it all. What happens when you rid a church of its figurehead and sing carols and hymns with no thought to who they speak of? Should this be a cause for sober reflection or should I be thankful that these old traditions still have a (minor) place in our secular society?
Last week’s Economist reports that the number of people in England calling themselves members of the Church of England has fallen from 40% to 20% since 1983. I would suspect a similar trend is occurring in Scotland. I asked myself: If people are leaving the established church should the remnants of their cultural connections be mourned or appreciated? Should I be grieved that people no longer know the King that they sing of in “Hark the Heralds”, or should I be glad that at least they find some shadow of significance in these cultural relics?
As I reflected on this I thought of Jesus’ approach to people – he was able to simultaneously welcome all regardless of their shallow understanding or commitment, while also putting his finger on the pressure points of his followers. His deep spirituality didn’t repel him from the half-hearted jew (Zacchaeus), or the proud know-it-all (Nicodemus) or the woman caught in adultery – he was attracted to them, and them to him. There was an embracing, non-judgemental, non-threatening acceptance of people he met, in fact, of every person he met. His embrace was not determined by their attitude or depth of belief, but by his own. He loved people and met people just where they were, without pressurising them to conform to a standard before they were eligible to receive his love.
And yet while this never changed throughout his life, there ultimately came a moment to challenge their shallow understanding. He wasn’t content to leave them as they were, but wanted to take them deeper into what it means to be follow him. We see the pressure points throughout his ministry, for example with the rich young ruler and the challenge to denounce his material possessions. However, it is in John chapter 6 that this is brought most clearly into view. Three times we read of Jesus challenging his hearers – firstly the crowd after they had been fed and Jesus challenges them that they are only seeking their physical needs (John 6.26), then the disillusioned crowd who don’t understand his metaphor of unity (v60-66), and finally we even see it with the disciples – “Do you also want to leave?” he asks them (v67).
Once it comes, the incisive call of Christ cuts deeply and many decided that this is the end of their interest in this Rabbi. Sadly his embracing love was eventually rejected by the majority of people who initially followed him. For at the heart of the love which caused him to embrace all mankind is the call to renounce all other lesser loves that compete for our attention. Peter realised this and knew he had nowhere else to turn “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life” (v68).
The important thing for the UK is not retaining the moralistic values that are remnants of our Christian heritage, but for those who profess to follow Christ to rediscover both the embracing and incisive aspects of Christ’s call. Too many of us focus only on one side, leaving people either unclear (and unconvinced) regarding our convictions, or doubting our love and compassion (so they are not attracted to what we say). Christians must hold these two in tension – embrace all, irrespective of belief, lifestyle or attitude and this will naturally bring people into communities where we can unpack the incisive aspects of Christ’s call from a shared understanding and mutual respect.
We must also be sensitive to the means and methods we employ in communicating these two aspects – social media, church services, home groups and community activities should all communicate both of these aspects, but in very different ways and in different proportions. Lets make sure we don’t mix up the order (and balance) that Jesus exemplified, and be so incisive that no one is embraced, or so embracing that no one is changed.