Back in the 1990`s, one of our right-wing politicians very controversially coined the phrase `The cricket test`. It was, he said, his way of deciding who had really integrated themselves into what he called British culture. He suggested that those who support their native countries rather than England at the sport of cricket wouldn`t really pass the test.
Now, comments like this are inflammatory to say the least, especially since we live in days when the poisonous idolatry of `nationalism` has reared its head. `Citizenship` is what we call a hot topic these days and whatever you say about it is easily misconstrued. We have to tread very carefully when talking about how far those from one culture should be expected to what we call `integrate` with another. But what we often miss, I think, is how often this language of `citizenship` is used to describe the space occupied by Christians. So, for example, in one of his letters St. Paul describes us as a `colony of heaven`(Philippians 3.20).
In these terms a colony is rather like a beachhead, an outpost, an island of one culture in the middle of another; it`s a place where distinctive values and ways of living are practiced and passed on perhaps in contradiction to the surrounding or `host` culture. And it seems to me that we`ve rather got out of the habit of using this `citizenship` language as a way of understanding ourselves and the way of Christ. This I think is partly because we are used to thinking of ourselves as very much at home thank you very much… We`ve lived for a long time with the notion that we have created a `Christian` culture… But without being cynical… I sense it`s time to realise that we`ve been fooling ourselves and this picture of being a `colony` of heaven might help.
I recently heard the story of a rabbi who said, “It`s hard to be a Jew in our town. We are forever telling our children, `That`s fine for everybody else, but it`s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You have a different story. A different set of values. You are a Jew`”. I want to suggest this morning that if we are going to understand our current situation; and if we are going to flourish as Christian people then we are going to have to listen very carefully to this experience of our Jewish brothers and sisters.
So, let`s begin by noting that after 25 years of reporting these things, the organisation called `Open Doors` identified 2016 as what it called the “worst year yet” for the persecution of Christians. It says, “Throughout the world (we) continue to risk imprisonment, loss of home and assets, torture, beheadings, rape and even death as a result of our faith.” It is no exaggeration to say that 90,000 and more Christians die each year simply because of their continuing loyalty to Christ … Because they choose to live their difference; and have their lives, actions and attitudes shaped by him rather than the surrounding culture. They know what it is live as a `colony of heaven`.
Now, these are awful and staggering statistics and sometimes I think we don`t really know what to do with them.On the one hand, it`s easy for instance to become alarmist. All you need is for someone to suggest that, ”Well, we`ll be next” and Christians start `circling the wagons`, retreating into a ghetto of fear and paranoia. But I think on the other hand, the experience of our brothers and sisters elsewhere is best used, as a way of exposing what we can only describe as our complacency and ignorance of the fundamentals of our faith… The difference in being Christian. Let`s put it bluntly. Over many generations we have in many subtle ways re-packaged our faith so that we wouldn`t have to die for it.
If I were to sum it up I think it`s fair to say that we`ve allowed the Gospel -the news of what God has done in Christ- to become muted and privatized. We have been all too content to take our place in the market of `spiritualities` as just another means of helping bored, western materialists feel better about themselves. And again, I think we are `hobbled` by this notion that we have managed to create a `Christian` culture.
So, for example, we have allowed the name `Christian` to be `re-defined` in apparently ethical terms as meaning `generally nice`. We bend over backwards to agree with virtually every cultural whim and fancy because the aim it seems is to be `liked`… to fit in… to be acceptable… to `integrate` rather than to challenge and transform. It was summed up so well by the person who said, “The Ten Commandments have now become Ten Suggestions”. I`m sure you know the kind of thing I mean…
Perhaps I exaggerate for effect but nowadays the overriding task is to make the Christian message credible to what we call the modern world… We call it `relevance`. But what if we`ve got it the wrong way round? I mean, as we heard in our Gospel reading last Sunday …(Matthew 28.1-11) the `earthquake` that is the resurrection of Christ from the dead…. is the announcement that actually a new world has begun; a new order; one which profoundly questions the way this one is going….
You see, the message of resurrection is not, “There is life after death” (though that`s part of it). The message of resurrection is not that we are leaving here and `going to heaven` so much as `heaven (God`s space) has come to meet us`. The message of resurrection is `new creation`. God has acted to re-create all things and we the Christians, the Church are a colony of this Heaven… God`s space… We`re a beach-head.. an invasion… an alternative way of living. So, the message of resurrection is “get on board.. get with the plot…” St. Paul said, “Consider yourself as dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”. (Romans 6.11)
Sin literally means to `miss the mark` (It`s rather like firing arrows at a target and missing). In this sense, we all `sin` we all miss the mark when it comes to being human. The message of resurrection is that on the cross there is forgiveness for all that `mark-missing` and the chance to begin anew as part of the colony of heaven… God`s invasion.
It was a bit of a cheap shot but in my teenage years it used to be asked, “If you were in court charged with being a Christian… on what evidence would they convict you?”. It`s a version of `the cricket test`. But it`s a sobering thought.
No, bearing the name Christian means that we have to take our lead, not from what the world around us finds acceptable… but from what we find in Christ. Our calling is not `integration` but transformation. C.S. Lewis once said: “Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed…and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”
St. Paul says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, (Romans 12.2) Or as one translation puts it “Don`t let the world squeeze you into its mould”. This is the beginning of discipleship… the life to which we are called. And no, you`re not going to fit in.
Curiously, I think we`ll know something`s beginning to happen when you start to hear people say: “It`s hard to be a Christian in our town. We are forever telling our children, `That`s fine for everybody else, but it`s not fine for you. You are special. You are different. You have a different story. A different set of values. You are a Christian`”.