Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Familiarity Breeds…?

There are two things that stand as obstacles to people hearing, understanding, and seriously considering the good news of Jesus Christ. (There are more than two of course, but there are two I want to talk about) The first is ignorance.

A  pastor recently spoke of his work in sports chaplaincy. He related how he led a sports team in prayer, sharing some thoughts from the Bible. After the match a young player asked him, “What’s that book you were reading from?” That’s how unfamiliar many are with Christianity these days and, if we are to share the message of Jesus, we must start much further back than was necessary in previous generations.

The second obstacle, strangely enough, is familiarity, or at least a perceived familiarity.The Swedish-born American philosopher and Nobel prize winner, Sissela Bok, in her book Lying, observed:

“To be given false information about important choices in [our lives] is to be rendered powerless. [Our] very autonomy may be at stake”

Many today have been rendered powerless by a misleading perception of what it is to be a Christian. People think they know all about it when church is mentioned and, on the basis of what they think they know, they make ill-informed decisions about some of the most important questions of life and faith.

The Christian Church, some think, is a comfortable club for the virtuous, a congregation of the pious, a crowd of the well-intentioned but out of touch. Further, rather like many of Jesus’ day, they equate piety and virtue with good fortune and, like Job’s comforters, insist that ill fortune is a sign of a life not lived well. This is basically blind superstition but it is the world’s picture of church.

But the Bible unties our lives from the worldly way of hanging every value judgement on good, or ill fortune, of thinking of our own piety and self-righteousness as essential in the race to some imagined heavenly pinnacle of achievement. There is no heavenly “greasy pole,” no career path to sainthood -  a much misunderstood word in itself.

Christian believers are urged to be a countercultural community. You see this in Paul’s contrasting the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God.

“For the message of the cross,” he writes, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” He goes on to insist that, “the foolishness of |God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” 1 Cor.1:18&25)

He is not ascribing to God foolishness, nor is he saying God is somehow weak but he is drawing a stark contrast between the way man sees things and the way God sees things. When everyone seems to have a solution to the world’s problems, yet nothing seems to change, God has determined that the world’s wisdom will not be the means of knowing him, of putting things right. In the world’s “wise” estimation the message of the cross is foolish but in God’s wisdom people will come to know him through the message of Easter, through his crucified Son.

In his letter James insists that this “upside-down thinking” should work out in the everyday lives of Christians.

“The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pas away like a wild flower.” (Js.1:9-10)

Now, I like rich people, they can be and often are a blessing to the church and to society. I am also uncomfortably familiar with poverty and know the trials it brings. The trouble with both these states is that they pressurise us into concentrating on the world, either worrying about where our next million is coming from, or our next meal.

The rich, James insists, need to realise the temporary nature of worldly wealth and the fact  that it will not matter a jot when they stand before God. The poor, on the other hand, should find great consolation and encouragement in the fact that, in Christ, they enjoy high status, seated with him in heavenly realms (Eph.2:6) because of the life-changing message of Easter.

Both rich and poor may be saved but each faces trials in different ways that tempt them to think the way the world thinks. Christians, whatever their worldly status, will in God’s wisdom (Js.1:5) hold lightly both the riches and the cares of this world while holding firmly the sure promises of God in Christ.

Think about this; we could end up thinking quite differently about God, mankind, this world, this life, our inevitable departure from it, as well as the life to come. With such a radically different outlook how might our lives and the way we live them change? Where are to get the power to live this way? How might this impact the world around us, our neighbours, friends and family?

People think they know what they are dismissing when they dismiss the Christian message. I suggest they need to think again. If you are sick of this world’s wisdom that ends in conflict, complications, and injustice, if you are looking for values that actually make a difference, if you are seeking something countercultural that will release you from the way the world around you thinks. More than that, if you are seeking something that will make a profound difference in your own life, maybe you should find a good Bible-believing church this Easter and take another look at Jesus.

Familiarity needn’t breed contempt. It might breed respect and admiration, even awe and worship for the God who did what this world could never do – change everything forever. How radical do you want to get?

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