A few weeks ago I mentioned how, back in the nineteen nineties it was fashionable in some circles to refer to the Church as a bit like an old lady muttering to herself quietly in a corner…. Largely irrelevant and waiting only for the Funeral Director to call. At the time, this was a cruel but convenient caricature. It reflected some peoples` belief that our days were numbered; principally because we were thought to be of little practical use to `the modern lifestyle … `
Now, because we weren`t especially clear thinking at the time it didn`t seem to occur to us that we should question the assumption that to be of value `religion` had by definition to be something that was useful or to fit in with our lifestyle choices….… and so we allowed the mud to stick. And this became a bit self-fulfilling … A lot of us talked ourselves into depression. But, I didn`t think that picture was particularly true then and I don`t think it`s true now…. But if I WERE to offer a caricature I think I would probably go to the other end of the age range.
You see, I think our day is marked much more by what I would call `Missional Anxiety`. Essentially we worry far too much ……and as Revd. Dr. Sam Wells puts it in far too many places the Church resembles not so much the old lady sitting in the corner but the teenage girl who is anxious to be liked.
I really don`t want to be unkind… but we`ve perhaps all seen the teenage girl who goes out in inappropriate clothing hoping to attract that mythical mate who will only accept her if she dresses in that particular way.
Older heads would say… “That`s about insecurity isn`t it? …” And the Church – rather than striving to be what only WE can be – has, it seems to me become quite expert in dressing up in inappropriate and ill-fitting clothing …. In so many places we present a fantasy designed to appeal.
Now, I`m not pouring scorn on many well-meaning initiatives… I just want to stress that because we begin with what we think people will like…. With what will attract our proposed suitor …. We not only live lives of anxiety; we end up cutting ourselves adrift from what Christ actually wants for us …..
You see the big battleground today is what`s called `Ecclesiology`…. The doctrine of the Church… The questions being asked are about what shape of life we should adopt (and this is the point)….. so as to be faithful to Christ. And I think that our New Testament Reading this morning offers us a way through the fog. (1 Peter 2.1-10)
In that extract from Peter`s first letter he begins by homing in on RELATIONSHIPS IN THE COMMUNITY. In verse one he says, “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander”. Peter sets the goal of building good relationships and he insists that this will only happen when we are quite deliberate about it: He tells us to `rid` ourselves of certain behaviours and attitudes. The Greek word for `rid` here means `the stripping off of clothing`. Think about it next time you put something in the place where you put your dirty laundry…..
In the same way he`s saying, “Get rid, be done with all those same somewhat smelly attitudes which so pollute the common life…” the destructiveness; the whispers behind the hand… the character assassination and so on. Actively and practically be done with them!
And then in contrast he says, “Like new-born infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good”. Peter insists that growth in faith isn`t possible without nourishment. And when he refers to milk he`s not talking about the kind of milk puddings we were forced to eat as children….. (semolina and tapioca puddings are etched into my memory!) No, it`s the equivalent of ice-cream… the kind of thing we might be eager for and wolf down! And FULL cream at that… pure, nothing watered down… the stuff that will really feed the soul.
So it`s worth asking, “What do we feed on….?” I mean we all know people who seem to live off the kind of destructive attitudes and behaviour Peter refers to don`t they? Well, Peter wants us to come to Christ and feed on something rather better… As I`m always saying some of us spend more time with the daily papers than the Scriptures….. and the results are obvious.
So it all centres I think, on his second point. He says “COME TO HIM”. Christian life is life lived `in the company of Christ` … a daily, quite deliberate coming to him is absolutely vital for our growth in faith. But there`s something else going on here….. Peter says, “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight”. In other words, it`s a fundamental truth about Jesus that he was both `rejected` and yet `precious in God’s sight`.
And Peter takes both of these things and says, “And this is YOUR reality as well isn`t it?”. Peter KNOWS that the Church he`s writing to feel very much on the edge but he`s telling them to accept and embrace that alienation they feel…… because it`s the way Christ himself took.
And also because they too are `precious in God`s sight`. He wants them to find their strength and security, not in currying favour or pleading for acceptance and all the rest ……. but in being more truly a Christ-shaped people.
Rather than shaping or accommodating themselves to the world around them for the sake of popularity they are to LET THEMSELVES BE BUILT “into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. He`s telling them to submit themselves to his work among them……
But what will that look like? Well, this is the third thing: Peter says that Christ wants to build them into a “Spiritual House” and “a Holy Priesthood”. So we have these two things going on. Firstly, he`s saying that when Christians gather we constitute a Temple…. a space for encounter with God. To coin the vernacular; “We do God”. That`s what we`re here for….. And then secondly the Christian community is also a Priesthood…. It`s a word which means `bridge-builders`…. It`s about drawing people into friendship with the Lord. Again that`s what we`re here for…….
Anything else we manage to dream up- if it doesn`t enable those two things to happen… `being a Temple` and `Bridge-building` then to put it politely we`re being distracted. Because Peter sums it all up by saying that the purpose behind all of this is so that they (and we) “may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light”. The Church is doing its job… the Church is `being` Church where Christ is praised and known….. Temple and Bridge-building.
So if we`re listening to Peter…. what`s the agenda? Well firstly we have to quit worrying about what anyone else says or thinks about us…. or whether we`re regarded us as useful to modern lifestyles or not. … We`re not here to adorn peoples` lives but to re-shape them…. And don`t imagine for a minute that we`ll gain any friends by dressing in inappropriate clothing!
Secondly, get the relationships right. Cast off the destructive stuff and LONG for growth in the things of God…. There can be no half-way house. As Paul says, “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”.
And then thirdly, “Come to Him”. Accept that we who bear Christ`s name will, as he told us, experience the same rejection and alienation as him…. It just goes with the territory….. I mean, can we not grasp this…? Christ LOST the popularity contest. He remained faithful to the Father and what he wanted for him… and the people killed him for it. BUT the Father raised him up… Well, in the same way, our vindication- our validation at the end of the day is not `were we popular` but `were we faithful`! Were we a Temple….? Were we bridge-builders…?
That`s the vision we`ve been given. We pray to become a Spiritual House…. a place of encounter with the Lord… and a Priestly people – those who build bridges in his name. I say again, there are all manner of suggestions doing the rounds about the future shape of the Church….. There are many well-meaning attempts at something new. But far too many are based on anxiety … and they resemble a Church in very inappropriate clothing; a church longing to be liked and accepted… but a church that really should know better.