Sermon preached by Beth Allison, 6 February 2011. Go to the readings...
Yesterday I was walking through the centre of Dundee to be greeted by an array of large yellow placards. Every one of these yellow placards had in massive black letters "John 3:7" written on them. For those not in the possession of an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible, John 3:7 is the verse which says: "Do not be astonished when I say to you: You must be born again". (For the record, I had to look it up too!)
Now I have to confess, when I see Christian evangelism like that, I hide! I ducked behind the statue of Desperate Dan, made sure I didn't make eye contact and picked up my pace to get away faster. It seems that in every city, there's a church whose bright idea is to wave placards. Even in St Andrews there was one old and fierce Fifer, who waved a placard informing students that everyone who slept with someone outside of marriage was going to hell. I'm not sure he'd quite realised the priorities of his audience!
But the word "audience" is key. In our gospel reading Jesus talks about hypocrites. A hypocrite was the Greek word for an actor, because at the time, actors wore masks to portray their expressions. It meant that the face behind the mask could have a very different expression to the one it was showing to that audience: hence, our English word, hypocrite, means someone who is two faced and has a lack of integrity. Jesus calls the church not to stand on street corners announcing its own holiness so that the entire city knows how pious they are, but to quietly and secretly do our good deeds for the glory of God and the rewards he will give us.
We are called to be a church which rejects pretentious Christianity. We are to reject pretension in our own worship, and we are to reject pretension in our dealings with other people.
It is a challenge that faces us in higher church worship as much as it is a challenge to placard-bearing evangelicals. We worship in many symbolic actions, with great drama and reverence. Done with the right hearts it is something beautiful that glorifies God and brings us deeper into his presence. But there are many churches for whom the importance of lighting candles in the right order becomes more important than showing love and care to the marginalised in society. Worship becomes a play performed for the initiate only.
In the Old Testament, the prophets frequently cried out that God desired mercy, not sacrifice, and Jesus himself is quoted as snapping to the Pharisees to go and learn what that verse meant. We must make sure that our reverence is true reverence. We cannot fool God and show him our actor's mask in church, and take it off when we leave the door. He knows what we do in secret; he knows the piety we show in the quiet and the unacknowledged places.
Paul also critiqued placard-bearing Christianity. He shows them the importance of becoming "all things to all people". He is not saying, have no integrity and change your principles depending on who you are with. But he is showing the importance of real communication. If Paul had been writing his epistle to the Dundonians, he might have said "don't wave a placard that says 'John 3:7', because people won't understand, even Christians have to look it up; instead adapt to the needs of others." Take the humble role and communicate by any means necessary that God cares. Don't expect people to change to be like us to become Christians, but show them that God loves them by being their servant; even their slave!
We need to make Christianity understandable to other people. We might not have placards, but we do have a liturgy with some complicated words and ideas in it. When we meet someone new in the church, or when we leave the church and go back into the world, we need to make sure that we express our Christian love in a language that is easier to understand: the language of our actions. I have heard liturgies which use the dismissal "our worship ends, our service begins" to make exactly that point. Who we say we are in the church and who we actually are outside of it must not be different.
Being a Christian without pretension is a challenge which will take discipline. Paul uses the language of fitness training. All of an athlete's life must be considered when training for the Olympics: their mental determination, what they eat, avoidance of detrimental substances like cigarettes, as well as the agony of training. In the same way, our Christian lives must be disciplined, carefully nourished and persevere even in times of pain.
Somehow, being a true Christian always seems to come with hard sounding challenges attached. But in marathon running, athletes make sure they don't get fixated on how big the challenge is. Instead, they think about the smaller challenges along the way: they aim to complete the next mile, or the next hill or the next lamppost, whichever is easiest! If being a Christian who effortlessly lives out a life of peace and love sounds about as realistic as running a marathon, then relax. Focus instead on something that you can try to do this week to help your spiritual fitness. If you build on it each week, you'll get nearer to your goal. And the great thing about fitness, is the more you do, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes. The more we try to glorify God with all of our lives, the better we will get at it. If we put in the effort in the secret, quiet moments, we will get more enjoyment and blessing out of our lives with God.
This is because being an honest worshipper of God is something with a prize more exciting than a trophy. Both Jesus and Paul are keen to stress the importance of the reward we will get if we seek to live this life of inner piety and love. We are not being asked to glorify God for nothing, nor for an ethereal heavenly reward, but if we persevere we will be blessed in a very real way by God. We will be rewarded with something of substance, blessed with something that will never perish. Our lives, here on earth, will be transformed.
So don't be like the placard-waving evangelicals, who denounce others for not being saved like them, don't be like the ritualistic high churches, who care more for theatre than they do for mercy, and don't live out a Christian life for the benefit of how others will perceive us. If this is what matters to us, the fruits of our Christian life will always be limited. But let us instead lay aside our pretensions, let us open up our inner secret lives to God, for his glory. Let us run so that we may obtain the prize of a true relationship with God and the blessings that he will give us.
Let us start now, with the first step of the marathon, as we affirm our faith and offer up our prayers and lives to him.
New Testament Reading
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
1 Corinthians 9 vv 19–27
"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
"Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
St Matthew 6 vv 1–6