Year C Proper 21 (2007) RCL Principal
In reports in the news media, from comments I hear at Church meetings and around the place I get the feeling that we are a very nervous Church at the moment. We are told our congregations are dwindling, there are competing ‘entertainments’ which distract people from involving themselves in Church life, people are interested in ‘spirituality’ (whatever that means) but not in ‘institutional religion’ – except, it seems, for various forms of fundamentalism which offers a safe haven in a rapidly changing world. Within the Church ongoing rows bubble away over the ordination of women, now concerned with consecrating women as Bishops, and over the ordination of openly gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex marriages, and to top it all every now and then up pops a conspiracy theory aimed at taking away the little authority the Church has – whether the Gospel of Judas, the daVinci code or any other fashionable excuse for dismissing the Church.
And some of this is true. There are a lot of things which are stripping away the authority and influence the Church has built up over many centuries. People are less afraid to criticise the Church, and we find ourselves ridiculed or, more often than not, ignored in our present day society. Many people lament the fact that we no longer have the respect we once had, or that people no longer consider Churchgoing a duty as they once did. As if somehow we deserve to have our Churches full, and for people to listen and take note of our every pronouncement.
These days it seems the Church is only noticed when there is some negative news, like a child abuse scandal, or some form of sexual or financial misconduct, or sadly, as we have seen recently in the news, when a Vicar falls out with his or her congregation in a spectacular way and they feel the need to bring this up before a Consistory Court.
But, and this may come as a surprise, we do not have any right to expect respect, or to be heard, just by virtue of being ‘the Church’. And we shouldn’t expect to either. Jesus certainly didn’t expect this would be the case.
22 Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man's sake. 23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.
1 ‘I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling. 2They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. 3And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me.
Jesus knew that following him and proclaiming his message was more likely to lead to condemnation than adulation. And that our message was not an easy one to hear – even though our message is weighted towards love and grace and forgiveness, it is still a message of calling, of faithfulness, of living to a different standard, of faith, of trust, of hope. These aren’t actually things that people seem terribly keen on if it cuts into their lives of self sufficiency, self obsession and self absorbtion. If it prevents them enjoying the things they want to enjoy on their own terms.
But this isn’t new. Look at today’s parable. We have the familiar, though disturbing, parable known traditionally as the parable of Dives and Lazarus. One in which a rich man through his selfishness finds himself condemned to eternal punishment and a poor man through his suffering finds the reward of the next world.
Now I would caution about taking this parable too literally as a description of how God sorts out the afterlife – it seems to rule out the possibility of forgiveness and grace, and has no mention of faith or trust in Christ. Like many of Jesus’ parables it paints a vivid picture of the consequences of our actions, and challenges us to live to God’s standards, though we may not necessarily believe in a literal hell where people are punished for eternity for their deeds we are warned how seriously God takes us neglecting our neighbour and not working to end the kind of injustice that causes the suffering endured by Lazarus.
But i want to particularly highlight the last words of today’s parable.
30He (Dives – the Rich man) said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He (Abraham) said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
Not being listened to is not a very new thing for Christians. It does no good to lament our lot, complaining that we don’t have the power and influence we once had – and there are very good arguments against that power and influence for it seemed to breed corruption through the whole of the Church and meant that the Gospel message was often lost in the midst of religious trappings and a desire for money and to keep the power over people’s lives that this position brought.
It should cause us to ask, though, what is it that would make people listen to our message? If preaching the Gospel of the risen Christ cannot convince people, as the parable implies, then what is it that will draw people into new life?
Well there is an implication from the passage that it is our deeds that make a difference. Rather than focussing on the life beyond, we should focus more on the life we lead here. Not so that we might earn a place in paradise, but so that the way we live is consistent with God’s values. In contrast with the rich man in today’s parable these values consist of humility, compassion and doing what one can about injustice. It seems to me that being rich was not that man’s problem – but his attitude and use of that wealth was. The Gospel is for rich and poor, it calls us to recognise our need for each other, and calls us to share all that we have with one another without begrudging those in need. In this way our Christ-centred values are lived out, with grace and love and faith.
And alongside this we are called to live out our lives faithfully, with love and forgiveness, with a calling to moral purity, gathering together as the God’s people sharing life and love and worshipping God. Recognising our own need of grace and of God’s touch of healing and forgiveness. It is this that earns us the right to speak out the Good News of Jesus Christ. Lives lived to God’s standards, inspired by God’s holy Spirit and heeding the calling of Christ. We call upon God for grace to live as he demands and in living this way we are able to invite others to share in this great story of redemption that we are privileged to share in.
This should embolden us in our proclamation, too, as we find our who lives consistent with the message of truth which we are a part of. We have no need to be nervous, for the numbers who attend our church, those who respect our Clergy or the privilege which our Church has enjoyed in previous generations are not marks of our faith. The test of whether we are successful as a Church is not whether we have lots of people coming, but whether we are following Jesus, and learning to love God, our neighbours and our selves with all that we are. May God give us his grace that it might be so. Amen.