Sermon on the First Sunday of Lent
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
It falls on me to begin our sermon series on Christianity and the modern world. In this series we’ll be looking at how our faith relates to the world around us. We’re hoping as a clergy team to sketch out a bright, appealing view of Jesus Christ and his world. We want to show how the faith can be attractive and engaged with the world around us, rather than threatened by it. Our sermons will be about big topics, but they’re designed to be relevant; to relate to each of us, and to our concerns about how the world affects us, and what our faith says in response. The first of these is Christianity and secularism. It’s a big topic, but here goes:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Is our faith dying? In Sonnet 73, which I’ve just quoted, Shakespeare speaks about seeing decline in everything: in the autumn leaves, in the setting sun, in the coming of death and so on. These things, he says, should cause us to love what we “must leave ere long.” But one phrase catches the eye, where he speaks about autumn boughs “which shake against the cold,Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” ‘Bare ruined choirs’ refer, of course, to the churches destroyed or desecrated at the reformation, where all the sacred furnishings had been torn out, and all that was left was a bare preaching box. It’s part of a wider pattern of late 16th century nostalgia for the church before Henry VIII. Seeing the ruins of a bygone Christian era, Shakespeare is saying we will lose all things, even the faith which we cherish. And it looks, once again, as though the faith which we received from the saints is dying. All around us we see the ruins of past Christian ages, whether that’s in closed churches or the decline of Sunday schools or the loss of regular worshippers. For most British people, our faith is irrelevant to their lives, and a growing number believe it is dangerous. One recent survey found that more people today in Britain believe religion to do more harm than good than those who believed it to do more good than harm. Another found that Britain was the most hostile country towards religion in Europe outside of Russia.
What are we to make of this? Well, first of all, our faith is not dying: from a global perspective it’s healthier than ever. More Christians are alive today than ever before, and the church’s new faithful in Asia, Africa and South America have more than made up for Europe’s secularisation. This past month the Pope celebrated the largest ever Eucharist in the Philippines with more than 6 million people taking communion. Christianity isn’t going anywhere. It’s also important to distinguish what we mean by secularism. Barry Kosmin, of Trinity College in Connecticut, suggests that secularism comes in two varieties. ‘Soft’ secularism argues that as religious truth isn’t something that everyone holds in common it should not have a place in public decision-making in a democracy. ‘Hard’ secularism argues that as religious beliefs do not make sense and can’t be proved by reason or experience, so are downright dangerous if they have any role in society beyond private life. While there is a core of hard secularists in Britain who believe religious belief is dangerous, many more people are soft secularists who simply believe it doesn’t belong in the public sphere. We should not make the mistake of assuming that just because someone is not a person of faith they are hostile to us.
Instead, we should take the growth of secularism and irreligion in our society as an opportunity to explore what our faith really means to us, to show why being a Christian makes a difference, and to show why our faith is not dangerous or simple-minded, but something which can transform human lives for the better. We can, of course, challenge head-on some of the assumptions that ‘hard secularists’ make. For instance, atheists and agnostics tend to consider human beings primarily in terms of our reason – you can’t prove God using logical deduction, so he doesn’t exist. But Christianity takes the whole human person seriously: for instance, baptism, by which we are made members of the church, engages our emotions, our sense, and our ethical sense, as well as our reason. And, of course, God, as Christians understand him, is still something which is necessary to make sense of the universe. Even if we can now pinpoint the moment when matter comes into being, we cannot see what causes it to appear. A creator God who exists outside of time and space is still a reasonable answer to the question of how time and everything we can see came into being. Likewise, when a ‘soft secularists’ say religion should have no place in politics because it causes divisions, we can respond that the scientific community has just as many divisions. Just ask a room full of theoretical physicists about black holes… or don’t, if you want an answer you can understand! Religious belief, like anything which is at the core of human identities, has a place in forming the kind of society that enables people to flourish, so it has a natural place in politics.
But these are academic answers in a battle which, culturally, the secular side is winning. Explaining how God fits into our view of the world may be worthwhile, but it tends to be a bit abstract. It gives no answer to the person who says “This is what religion looks like” when they see pictures of people being beheaded in the Middle East.
There is nothing we can do to answer that sort of criticism. To respond, we need to go back to the desert. Jesus in our reading today does just that: “… [T]he Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” The spirit of our own age has pushed us into the desert. We are bewildered and appalled at how quickly the church has gone from being at the centre of society to being at the margins. We feel isolated and threatened, just as we would be in the desert, with little food and water and the danger of wild beasts all around.
But the desert in scripture is also a place of renewal. The first covenant between God and his people was made, broken and made again in the wilderness of Sinai. In the book of Hosea, God says he will persuade Israel and bring her into the wilderness to renew her to what she was like in her youth. And now Jesus goes into the wilderness to renew our humanity. Having made the waters of baptism of baptism holy to cleanse us from sin, he now goes into the desert to face temptation on our behalf, to overcome our old adversary the devil, and to renew all creation. And so when we see our church pushed towards the desert in our own day, perhaps we should look for what God is doing to remind us of what our faith is really about.
For Christianity is fundamentally about a relationship with the living God, which we can only have through Jesus Christ. The church has no other purpose than knowing and loving God through Jesus Christ; it is not a charity, an institution or a social club, and when it becomes those things, God leads us into the desert until we are renewed. A recent article I read spoke about how the church can’t ever stop being ‘churchy’. That’s not because the church is quaint, but because its sole purpose is to know Jesus Christ and make him known by renewing human lives through prayer and the sacraments. Often people, especially church people, will tell me that the church needs to become more relevant and modern if it is to attract young people. Well, I am a young person, and one thing I can tell you is that people my age can’t stand it is people and institutions pretending they are something that they are not. If there is one thing that puts them off about the church more than anything else it is the church pretending to be just another part of the modern world when it isn’t. The church is the church and it cannot be any different. We are Christians, who have been made a new creation by water and the spirit. To play that down, and pretend our faith is just a trendy accessory or that the church is an exciting place with modern music, guitars and so on, is to ask to stay in the desert forever. Instead we should renew our bare ruined choirs with the furnishings of authentic faith and fervent prayer.
Now, that’s not to say that guitars have no place in church, or that the renewal of the church will be solely through a return to tradition. But we need to take the fact we are in the desert seriously. Many of those who have turned away from the church over the last few decades have done so because they felt they found pride and hypocrisy there. We need to take a long hard long in the mirror, and ask whether we as a church in this country really do reflect the face of authentic, living Christianity. Do we speak honestly about our relationship with God? If we have received such benefits from regularly attending church and receiving holy communion, do we share this with others and invite them to come too? Do we let our work with the community get in the way of our task to make disciples of all nations? In a country where most people are even more disenchanted with politics than they are with religion, does our relationship with the state get in the way of the church’s mission? My own view is that the church is seen as privileged because it is established, and that this gets in the way of our offering an attractive, appealing faith to a hurting society, but that is a topic for another sermon!
The desert is the place of where God gives us renewal and new life. And from our time in the desert God will bring new life to our church and to our nation. We see the green shoots of renewal already in a return to authentic Christian tradition among young clergy and ordinands. We have reason to hope when our bishops tell us that the church’s one priority for the coming decades is to grow. And from these things will come the transformation of lives and communities. We already are beginning to see that in the work of food banks, Christian educational charities and in the church’s engagement with the political system. This week the House of Bishops called for a new kind of politics where people are no longer demeaned and where the common good of all is sought. Lively faith in Christ cannot stay within the church’s walls for long, but will always seek to change people and society. If being in the desert forces us to return to the heart of our faith, then God will not let us stay there forever. He will send us out into the world to proclaim the gospel, to repent of our sins and to bring the kingdom of God come near to others. Amen.
Reverend Jonathan Bish, Curate, Halifax Minster