The Sunday service ended and my colleague did the usual thing of standing at the door to greet people as they left. And a man came up to him and said: “That was all very nice Vicar but of course now it`s time to get back to the real world.” Not the subtlest of comments you might agree….. But every so often I wondering whether you ever think like that? Would you, in your heart of hearts regard all of this as a bit divorced from what you might call `reality`? I mean later this morning, are we in fact going on to a `real` world that makes this some-how un-real? Is all of this akin to a make-believe world?
Perhaps this is an odd place to begin but I think at some point we have to confront this assumption peddled by so many folks that if you attempt to engage with matters of faith than you are delusional; “a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic…“ or again, absorbed in some kind of escapism or fantasy.
Part of the issue is that in past generations we have seen what has been called a process of `disenchantment`; which has nothing to do with fairies. It simply means that `reality` as we like to call it has been severely limited to things which can be counted, measured and above all, controlled. And you might notice that to all intents and purposes this is the mindset by which we were formed in school and which in subtle and not so subtle ways really hampers our growth in faith.
So, the first thing I want to say is that I think it helps to remember that this IS actually a matter of formation. You and I have been subjected to a quite deliberate decision to limit our thinking and reflection according to certain fairly rigid and supposedly scientific patterns. And of course, when you add the word `scientific` it`s usually an attempt to claim some kind of legitimacy. I have serious scientists in the family so this is not a dig at the scientific method I`m pointing out how this way of thinking and defining what is `real` has again, held sway for some generations now and in part it`s what`s led to the relegation of faith to the margins; as something not to be spoken of in polite society…. This, I think, is what lies behind that remark… “That was all very nice Vicar but of course now it`s time to get back to the real world.”
The standard response to this situation, to this `environment`, is that we have felt it necessary to adapt the faith accordingly. For the sake of an easy life; for the sake of fitting in and making ourselves respectable we have allowed the faith to be subsumed and accommodated to the assumptions of this wider culture and mindset. One example of this is what happens when we read some passage in the Gospels which smacks of the supernatural. Instinctively our `formation` in this secular mindset kicks in and we think that to have any credibility; to appear as if we`re living in the real world; we have to set those texts aside as some kind of aberration or label them texts as the product of a primitive and obviously ill-educated society.… poor dears!
This simple practice has been responsible for breeding a complete mistrust in our foundation texts. But perhaps the most significant capitulation (if we might call it that) happened around the year 300AD … Yes, it`s as long ago as that! When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official Religion of the Roman Empire.
Almost overnight we went from being a persecuted (but nonetheless growing) body to being quite respectable thank you. And to begin with we were quite pleased with our place at the top table. But we had fallen prey to one of the Temptations of Christ… the seduction of power. And there was a pay-off; there always is. You see, for the first three centuries Christians had been an entirely non-violent body of people. We adhered to the teaching of the Lord, “You shall not kill”. So, for instance, Christians were simply not permitted to fight for the emperor or anyone else… since we were subject to a higher authority.
One little switch … That`s all it takes. And from being a body which stood in opposition to the violence of the world… A body which represented an `alternative Kingdom` to that of Caesar and Rome we got into bed with the Empire and all it stood for. And I raise this particular subject because this whole area of violence and non-violence is a key area in which the accusation of not living in `the real world` is often hurled at Christians.
Scorn is heaped on those who take this so-called `pacifist` view. But Christians don`t advocate non-violence because we want to rid the world of war; though that would be nice. We are non-violent because in a world of war as faithful followers of Christ we cannot imagine being anything other than non-violent. (Stanley Hauerwas) This of course is a big issue but I refer to it simply because it`s one of many matters of Christian conduct and behaviour which look very different when you take seriously the Lord`s claim that the Kingdom of God is at hand… a new world has begun; a new regime is in place. In other words, like a seed growing in secret (and all those other parables we easily forget) real, though often imperceptible change is afoot.
So, if you take this as true; if you`re going to put your shirt on this as being foundational to who you are and how you conduct yourself in the `world` then you will let this truth shape all of that; no matter how it stands in contradiction to the surrounding culture. You won`t get embarrassed by the Christ who tells you to turn the other cheek; forgive seventy times seven and all the rest. You won`t think of him as an idealist, a dreamer or as failing to live in the real world… You`ll get on and do it because he is your Lord and King.
Let me be slightly unkind. You see, when some people use that phrase the `real` world what they often mean is that “you simply have to learn to go with the flow” and with what everyone else is doing. They gloss it over with words like `common sense`; they hurl accusations of being `out of touch` but when they come from the mouth of one who purports to be a Christian it`s just an excuse to quit thinking and avoid confrontation. It`s a betrayal. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Blessed are those who see ALL things as the theatre in which God`s writ must run… in every aspect of domestic, social and political life.
You see, the question is not so much whether we are going out into `another` perhaps more real world when we leave here but whether what happens here has enabled us to become more attentive and response to the signs of the in-breaking of God`s Kingdom in the events of each day. To the opportunities presented to us to live an alternative way. In other words, unless you let what happens here form and shape your perception you won`t see out there for what it is; or be able to distinguish reality from virtual reality.
So, what happens here that might have that effect? Well it`s here that we make several `acts of resistance` which establish us in the life of the Kingdom.
Firstly, the fact that we are here at all is a sign that we refuse to let the ideology of commerce and all the anxieties that go with it give shape to our lives. Keeping Sabbath is a very potent thing. As is the fact of gathering; especially in days when community is easily fractured and individualism is rampant.
Secondly, the reading of Scripture asks you to consider not just `what voices are you are listening to`? but amidst so much noise, have you still any capacity to give your attention to what`s really going on in and around you? It`s what the tradition calls being `contemplative`.
Thirdly, the practically speaking `useless` nature of worship; what someone called, “A Royal Waste of Time” (Marva Dawn) is again going against the grain. As Jesus points out in the Gospel this morning it is `Abiding in him` that matters. Being rooted and centred in him that is the prerequisite for activity.
And then, Bread and wine asks you to consider what feeds you; where do you find nourishment for living in the world? I was going to say that I remain surprised by how many people I meet who appear quite casual about the eucharist. By that, I don`t mean irreverence but simply lacking in a sense of hunger for what Christ offers. Jesus says, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (John 6.53)
And even more so because it`s here that we`re given a model for Christian living. Those four things Jesus did with the bread at that meal (listen out for them!) are more than just quaint things to do; they`re a model for what a Christ-shaped life looks like in the real kingdom world. Remember, Jesus took the bread, Blessed it, Broke it and gave it. And said do this in remembrance of me. The point is that this is what he did with his life. He calls us to do the same in remembrance of him. That`s what living in the real world looks like.