Sunday, 4 February 2018

Don't tell me what to do!

A sermon preached at
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
4 February 2018

1 Corinthians 9.16-23  
Mark 1.29-39  
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

This phrase, uttered by Paul at the conclusion to our passage this morning
            from his letter to the church in Corinth,
has caused much debate amongst those
            who have tried to understand his motivation and methodology,
            particularly as they might apply to the missionary endeavours of the church
            to ‘win’ people for Christ.

Does becoming ‘all things to all people’
            constitute a call for relativistic pragmatism,
                        whereby Paul, and by implication all of us,
                        was willing to forgo his principles and convictions as long as some are saved;
            or is there something else going on here?

It’s a tricky one, because at the heart of this
            is the deeper issue of how the ethical perspective of the Christian
            should relate to the ethical stance of the world beyond the Christian community.

Are we to take a moral stand over and against the world,
            calling the world to live according to our standards;
or are we to enter the world and risk compromising our high ideals,
            for the sake of making the gospel of Christ heard more widely?

The history of the missionary movement is littered with those
            who have occupied the imperialist end of this spectrum,
            and it isn’t always pretty.

The great global missionary expansion
            that rode the coat-tails of European colonialism
was one which by and large sought to impose Christian morality
            by firm persuasion, and by force if necessary;
with colonised nations places such as South America
            being forcibly converted to Christ,
            and required to live accordingly.

Closer to home, and closer to our own time,
            the Western church’s current evangelistic efforts
often seem to revolve around trying to persuade people
            that there is something deeply wrong with their current worldview,
            to which only the church of Christ has the solution.

And so people are invited to leave their past behind,
            and move into the new way of living
            that is available to them through faith in Jesus.
This may even have been your own experience of coming to Christ.

I think that what it boils down to
            is whether we are going to seek to assert any kind of firm difference
between what we might call God’s culture
            and our lived experience of Human culture.

Are we going to seek to persuade, cajole, or require
            those who live in whatever passes for our prevailing culture
that they should, ought to, or must take on a new way of living,
            that we are going to assert is God’s preferred culture?

It’s really a question of whose rules are we going to live by?
            Shall we live in obedience to the rules of our dominant culture,
            or according to the rules of some so-called counter-cultural kingdom of God?
And in any case, what is the relationship between these two cultures going to be?
            And what does this all even mean, when we get down to the practicalities of it?
            What does it mean to live by God’s laws rather than by human laws?
                        Should I still pay taxes?
                        Or drive on the correct side of the road?
            Is it OK to educate my children according to my beliefs
                        rather than according to the best insights of scientific knowledge?
‘Living by God’s laws’ is good Christian-speak,
            but what does it really mean
            for those of us who have to live in the real world?

Now, I don’t know about you,
            but I have never really liked being told what to do.
As I child I was, what my father used to call, a contrary little whatsit,
            (I’m paraphrasing him here, you understand).
I can remember that I would deliberately do the precise opposite
            of whatever he was telling me to do,
                        even if I had been just about to do of my own accord
                        the very thing I was now refusing to do.

It wasn’t that I was by nature particularly badly behaved,
            it was just that my motivation came from within rather than from without.
In some way’s I’m still a bit like this;
            I’m much more likely to do something if I’ve decided that I want to do it,
            than I am because someone is requiring me to do it.

And I wonder about you, where do you sit on this?
            Are you like me, a rebel within a cause;
            or do you prefer being told what to do?

Do you respond well to being given a code of rules for how to live,
            that you can keep and get right, and know that you’re doing OK?
If so, you’re not alone.
            There is great comfort to be found in knowing where you stand on issues
                        because an external voice is telling you how to respond.
            Many of those who are drawn to religious faith
                        are in precisely this category.

I have often wondered, from my perspective,
            why those strands of religion
                        that offer very strong answers and very few grey areas
            are so attractive to highly educated people,
and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because some people,
            particularly those who have to handle great complexity and nuance
                        in their engagement with the world on a daily basis,
            crave deep-down the kind of certainty of belonging and being
                        that a definitive religious community can offer.

And so people look to the Bible as a rule-book for living,
            to be read and followed uncritically;
and they look to the church as the arbiter of what’s right and what’s wrong,
            telling them how to live well and rightly in a complex and ambiguous world.

In the clash between God’s culture and Our culture,
            a church that clearly articulates what God’s culture looks like,
                        over and against the prevailing culture of society,
            is offering a highly attractive proposition.

And the thing is, there are so many voices
            competing for the right to tell us what to do.
It can be utterly overwhelming to have to try and choose between them;
            and we can cast around in vain
                        for a basis on which to decide who has the right to tell us what to do,
                        and whether we have to do it.

From the advertising industry telling us to buy this, or not to buy that;
            to political voices telling us to vote this way, and not that way;
            to moral voices telling us to do this, and not to do that.

The ability to distinguish right from wrong can become lost to us,
            as we find ourselves unable to work out
            whether the calls on us are absolute or relative.

In response, many of us turn to our friends, our families,
            our social networks, or our faith communities for guidance.

The rise of social media has created possibilities
            for new communities of moral and ethical reinforcement,
            as people are able to establish peer-groups across geographical boundaries.
The role of Twitter in everything from the Arab Spring of 2010
            to the most recent American Presidential election,
shows the power of such virtual communities
            to transform the geopolitical landscape.

And the questions over the ability of big data manipulation of such communities
            to achieve political objectives is deeply troubling.

It seems that if people no longer know, instinctively,
            where to turn for their moral compass,
            they will still find somewhere.
None of us live in a vacuum
            and we’re still going to get our ethical code from someone;
but if it’s not some external metanarrative
            offered by political ideology or religious conviction,
it will most likely be from peer-pressure
            or the moral outrage of the Twitter-storm.

The fragmentation of society into mutually-reinforcing groups,
            motivated primarily by self interest,
lies behind many of the movements
            to deconstruct the larger institutions that have held sway in recent decades.

The Brexit mantras of ‘I want my country back’,
            or, possibly, ‘I don’t want these Brussels bureaucrats
                        telling me what my money should be spent on,
                        or what shape my banana must be’,
have offered a highly compelling narrative
            to many who were seeking new rules to live by,
            and a new world in which to live.

Well, now we’ve got our freedom, and I wonder what we will do with it?

Just this week I watched Miriam Margolys Big American Adventure,
            and she visited a ranch in Arkansas, Trump territory.
She was speaking with the wife of the rancher who lived there
            about the America First ideology that is driving so much
            of the domestic and international political agenda of the current administration,
and they said,
            “y’know, our country was founded on people like us,
                        who went to work every day,
            y’know they left England because they didn’t want people telling them what to do.
                        So they come over here and they make the best country in the whole world,
            and then you have Obama that says ‘we’re gonna make everybody even’...
                        well that’s not right.
            If you don’t want to go to work every day,
            why should you have all the benefits that I do.”

A bit later in the programme, in response to the question
            ‘how would you like America to change?’,
the leader of an alt-right group, a church pastor named Mike,
            who believes that Jews, blacks, and homosexuals
            should be neutered, deported or executed,
replied that
            ‘well obviously I’d like it to change
            to be a godly country that enforced God’s laws’

And here we are, back again at the clash
            between God’s culture and Our culture.

And I honestly think that as Christians, we have to find a better way through this,
            and I think this is where Paul can be so helpful to us
            with his comments to the church in Corinth.

“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

You see, I am simply not satisfied with a version of Christianity
            that seeks to exert its own moral and ethical code
                        as normative and absolute on the world,
            and which then seeks to take enough power to enforce that code on others.

I don’t believe that God’s culture is in competition with Our culture,
            in such a way that we are in a battle with the world
            which we must win in order that people can come to know Christ.

I don’t think we should seek to create godly countries
            where people live by God’s laws.

I think it was a mistake when Constantine tried to do that in the fourth century,
            and I think it’s a mistake when Islamic extremists attempt to do it today
                        with the re-establishment of a caliphate,
            and I think it’s a mistake when Pastor Mike wants to do it in America
                        and votes Donald Trump in to do it for him.

And I don’t believe in the notion of England as a Christian country,
            and I wouldn’t want to live in it if it was,
            because Baptists have been persecuted by the established church in London before.

You see, the problem with any kind of Christendom
            is that when Christians become the absolute legislators,
they try to write their version of so-called biblical morality into the national law,
            and then require others to live by it
            as if this in some way saves or Christianises the nation.

And Paul knew this danger of absolutizing religious belief all too well.
            He had grown up in two very different but closely related worlds.
As a Roman citizen, he was raised in a city
            where the emperor required everyone to worship him;
and as a Jew he was part of a people
            who believed that God ruled their country absolutely.
His whole life was lived out in the tension
            between two competing religious orthodoxies.

And so he says,
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

To the Jews, Paul is a Jew;
            to those who live under the Jewish law, he is one who lives under the law;
to the pagans who are not under the law,
            he is one who is himself outside of the law.
He is neither Jewish nationalist, nor Imperial worshipper;
            because he is free from all these demands.

And this means that we, too, are free from such compulsions.

Where Christians have gone wrong, I think, down the centuries,
            is that we keep setting up God’s culture
            in opposition to human culture.
We create a competing ethical narrative
            which we set up as an alternative
            to that which society has constructed,
and then we seek to impose our own moral code on others,
            either by conversion, coercion or force,
            in order to win the world to Christ.

And this isn’t what Paul has in mind at all.

When we simply seek to replace secular law
            with our own version of the law of Christ,
we just re-invent the wheel
            and reconstruct the very thing that Paul is so scathing about,
            we rebuild the very thing we’ve just torn down.

Paul’s great insight is that those who follow Christ
            have been freed from the law, be it religious or secular.
The ten commandments are not binding on those who follow Christ,
            any more than are any other attempts to codify human behaviour.

But, and here’s the key thing,
            Christians are not free to do whatever they like,
            with no thought to the consequences.

For Paul, God’s culture is always, definitively and absolutely, a culture of love,
            and it is made known in the person and example of Jesus.
And it is this culture of love
            which offers the only credible alternative
                        to all other human cultures,
            which are always, definitively and absolutely, predicated on violence.

There is no vision of human society which does not, in some measure,
            depend upon the threat of violence to en-force its requirement.
And when Christians seek to re-write society as God’s society,
            we end up in the same place of legalism and punishment
            as all those who have gone before.

But, if Paul is right, it is not our calling to re-write society,
            it is our calling to subvert it through love.

This message of good news,
            that Christians are to proclaim and embody,
                        is a gospel of love,
            it is an invitation to enter into a new world
                        where the sole defining absolute,
                        is the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The key question for Christians is therefore not what law they should keep,
            but how can they live in love.
They are free from all laws apart from this,
            because this is the only ethical absolute: that we should live in love.

And this culture of love
            is one that can take root in and among all other human cultures.

We do not need to create a law of love
            that we must argue for, defend, or impose on others.
Rather, we can live the law of love into being
            in the midst of whatever culture we find ourselves.

So Paul can be a Jew to Jews, and a Gentile to the Gentiles,
            he can be all things to all people,
because that is how he can make known the love of God
            to those who do not know what it is to live in love.

Those who have taken it upon themselves to live in the love of God
            do not enter human culture as a conquering force,
                        seeking power to dominate and impose,
            but rather to bring to birth the power of transformation from within,
                        to make known the law of love
                        which has the capacity to make all things new.

So our involvement in our society
            is one where we are the yeast in the loaf,
                        the active ingredient that transforms the whole,
                        the pinch of salt that seasons the meal.

Should Christians become involved in politics?
            Absolutely yes.
The structures of our society need transformation and redemption
            and we have a part to play in the drafting of legislation
            and the betterment of the common good.

It is our calling to speak love into places of hurt,
            to speak peace and reconciliation to places of division and strife,
to point to those places where love can be found
            and to proclaim the blessing of God on them.

Because not everything in human society is bad,
            and not everything in it needs re-drafting.
There is much that is good, and godly, and worthy of blessing and sanctification,
            and sometimes our role is to see where God is at work beyond the church,
            and to join our voices and efforts with those
                        who are outworking a message of love
            even if they look nothing like us,
                        and believe nothing like we believe.

God is the God of the whole earth,
            not just our little corner of it.
He doesn’t need us to defend his rights,
            he just asks us to make him known.

As Jesus went from place to place,
            crossing borders and entering towns to proclaim the message of God’s love for all,
            and bringing healing and transformation to the hurt and the vulnerable,
so we too are called to journey from our own places of security,
            into places where we are not always welcome,
in order that the reigning boundaries of power in our world might be challenged
            in the name of the one
            who continually transgressed those same boundaries in his time and place.

But we do this not because we are seeking to replace society
            with our own version of it,
but because we believe the good news of the love of God
            is a gospel for all people, and all cultures,
because we believe that in God and through Christ,
            there is a new creation where all are equally loved.

And this means that faith in Christ can have multiple ethical outcomes in this world,
            as long as they can all be fitted under the umbrella rubric of the love of God.

As Tom Wright puts it,
            ‘Christian freedom is not freedom to do what you like,
                        but freedom from all the things
            that stop you being the person God calls you to be.’

And so we take our place in society,
            becoming all things to all people
            that by all means we might save some.

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