Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Baptism of Christ 2016
Start Date 10th Jan 2016 10:00am

The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian

As with all birth, the birth of Christian faith was a messy business. This new religious movement emerged in fits and starts, through many detours, mistakes, misunderstandings, and (in the language of the satnav) recalculations…

One vital ingredient of these birth pangs was the struggle to establish that this faith, unlike the religion surrounding it, really was for everyone equally, not just for Jews. Another was recounted in the story of our second reading. It seems that in one place at least (Ephesus), early followers of Jesus simply hadn't grasped that entrance to this new faith (by baptism) didn't just involve following a new belief: it also involved a transforming experience of the Spirit of Christ within them…

Providentially, in all these birth struggles, Paul was there as midwife. He was crucial in establishing that there must be real equality of Jews and Gentiles in this faith; equality of women and men, slaves and free, too, even though in his own time he didn't follow that through fully. He was also crucial in teaching the importance of the inner transforming experience of the Spirit. And so, with his help, the process of birth was guided to become eventually the great historic movement we all know: a new world-view, where life is governed not by personal prejudice, nor just by external laws and observances, but by the will of a personal God revealed in Christ: a God of love overflowing from its eternal home in the Trinity to create this world as a sacred theatre for this love to be freely lived and learned by the Spirit of Christ within; a love sparing nothing in its efforts to heal, forgive, restore; a Spirit which has continued alive and active for 2,000 years in the Church and beyond, transforming societies and individuals, helping people worship, giving them hope, inspiring them to support the weak, help the afflicted, honour all people; a Spirit which has freed slaves, inspired hostels for the homeless, hospices for the sick; a movement still growing world-wide, despite persecution in the land of its birth, and its relative retreat in our little corner of north-west Europe. And who would not now be proud to belong, wholeheartedly, to this religious movement?

Why then is it that in recent years, for the first time in my life, I now sometimes catch myself hesitating very slightly (if only unconsciously) before saying confidently and proudly, yes, I belong to this religious movement: 'I'm a Christian'?

The reason, I guess, is obvious. That vision of faith I've just sketched out is Christian faith at its best and truest, but of course it's not always like this. It wasn't just at birth that it had to struggle find its true identity. It always has, and in recent years, fuelled by media coverage, it tends to be the worst of religion, not its best, which has had more coverage. And we must face this. As religion generally has again become significant in the public sphere, it has come under new scrutiny, exposing its weaknesses, as well as its strengths. And this isn't just about the really ugly side of religion, like extreme politicised Islamist fundamentalism. Christianity too has come under scrutiny and been found wanting. It's been found wanting as a religion still failing fully to carry through its own vision of human equality: in some areas, dragging its feet behind the enlightened humanism of secular movements; a religion still imposing unnecessary guilt on people for harmless life-style choices, while closing ranks to protect its own when they have done serious abusive harm; a religion asserting its own identity over against others, dividing society into us and them; a religion trying to justify itself either by still peddling incredible superstitious beliefs about the nature of God, or losing its nerve altogether about any reality of God; either retreating into false certainties of its own fundamentalism, or reducing to a weak rump of well-meaning but ineffective doubt and irrelevance: a religion, in other words, rather as WB Yeats prophesied of politics, where the best lack all conviction, and it's the worst who have the passion. Recently I asked a sixth-form group what they thought of Christianity: their answer?—either an oppressive superstition, or a boring irrelevance. And who would be proud to be part of that?

Well, I have two things to say about this. First: we should accept the criticism. Of course religion, our longing for God, can and does go wrong. All good longings have potential for going wrong as their flipside. Just as all our longing for meaning, acceptance, security, love, beauty, easily become things about which we become jealous, possessive, oppressive—goals by which we define our own identity over against others, their tastes and ideas—so too our longing for God, our religion, can do the same. We must admit this, if we're to guard against it. We should remember that those very struggles through which Paul helped give birth to true faith, were actually forged out of a critique of the religion of their time. So a faith born out of criticising religion certainly should not ignore criticism itself!

But second: remember, too, the true faith, true revelation, which is also within religion; that vision I began with of a positive faith embodied in love, powered by the Spirit of Christ within, held humbly yet with conviction and real positive social effect. Such good faith is recognised sometimes, even in a world wary of religion: in fact public discourse may even be turning a corner, more willing now to admit it. But don't take that for granted. In this climate where the best of faith is too easily dismissed with the worst, we do need to seek it out, celebrate it, with as much vigour as some of the media ferret around after the worst of religion and point to that. We need to be confident in Christ's kingdom of love and justice at its best, in Church or world.

And so that is what I'll try to do in the next three January sermons: explore some specific best aspects of Christian faith, especially those often missed or misunderstood, which deserve celebrating. For now I simply leave it as an overall challenge: do not let the worst of faith have the monopoly of news and the passion: seek out and celebrate the best; let the best have some conviction!

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