It's quite strange to get this Gospel reading hard on the heels of last week's (non-Harvest) denunciation of divorce and remarriage. For one thing, it tells us much about the Cof E that, were I daft enough to remarry I'd have to get permission from Canterbury but were I to own a fleet of BMWs, a villa in Cannes and a private aircraft no-one would bat an official eyelid. Reflecting on how we handle the difficult sayings of Scripture is an important part of growing in the faith, lest we hurl around verses condemning of others but keep schtum about any which might challenge us.
Then again, when you think about it, this entire sequence of readings isn't a triumph of marketing anyway. Any club which promoted the benefits of membership with passages like this would have the life expectancy of a prawn at an Australian barbeque. To sum up: 'If you want to sign away your right to a private life, turn your back on material security, and expect to be criticised and persecuted for doing so, here's the pen.' To misquote again from the Paddington movie, 'Rum idea of Good News you've got there, Jesus.'
I was talking to my old training incumbent the other day – he's 76 and running 8 Somerset parishes – and we shared gloom over our common tales of decline and apathy. It echoed a similar conversation I had with a pal with a leafy parish near Birmingham, and numerous others I've had recently .Then Mark said something particularly enlightening. 'They've had a go at most things round here – messy church, café church, you name it – but it's made no difference, really.' That was, if you like, the 'eureka' moment.
To pinch the language of the commercial world, what is Christianity's 'Unique Selling Point'? Playing with clay? If we want to do that, we'll do it properly and go to a pottery class. Coffee with a few like minded people? Well, there are enough tea rooms in Barton these days to cobble dogs with. Why don't we come clean and admit that our unique selling point's not craftwork, nor entertainment, nor even tea and buns, but salvation. And salvation – 'making whole' if you prefer a non-technical word – involves changing the world around us - which will always involve our changing, too.
The early generations of Christians knew this well. Not until the fourth century did becoming a Christian become a good career move: prior to that, joining the faith was very much about encountering God and accepting the risks and changes that encounter would bring. Our brothers and sisters of the evangelical movement have got it exactly right – the point of being a Christian is to have a personal encounter with the reality at the heart of the universe. And if we're daft enough to think that sort of meeting will leave us happily where we started, we've completely missed the point. Why is the Church apparently incapable of coming clean and telling it like it is?
Let's be honest – however we come to faith – be it through hurt, or upbringing, or chance encounter or whatever – there will most certainly come a point where it will no longer be what we want to do. Do you all spring out of bed Sunday by Sunday thinking, 'Wonderful, I can go to Church?' Probably not. It so gets in the way, doesn't it? I've always been tickled by those boards outside chapels announcing the week's preachers, a delightful invitation to stay in bed if you don't like whoever's billed for that week – and, having been told yesterday how nice it'd be if I lost my voice and couldn't preach, it's not a strategy I'd risk here! I once interviewed a potential ordinand and asked what family support was like – to be told they were really happy for him to go forward as long as it didn't mean they had to give up weekends away in the caravan. Perhaps I should have told them to trade it in for a tent - at least Easter and Christmas might be too chilly under canvas!
And that's just the silly end of things. In a world where our brothers and sisters in the faith risk death and vilification for their faith, don't you feel that we might be betraying them – and ourselves – by our western 'Come to Church and it'll really make no difference?' What would our fellow-believers in Africa and the Middle East say if they heard that, when their faith could cost them everything – and yet they still know it's worth it?
If we are to take the witness of the New Testament seriously – and I hope we do – the Gospel was never spread by the likes of Paul saying, 'Come to Jesus and stay as you are.' What point would there be? Instead, in their various ways, they said, 'Come and meet God – and start to become what He created you to be.' And yes, sometimes that'll be nice, and other times it'll be hard, and restrain how we run our relationships, our bank accounts and our diaries – and that's if we're lucky. But isn't that what the business of the cry 'Repent' is all about – not the leaving of gin out of our gin and tonic, but the call to start to change direction and be conformed to God rather than the colour supplements?
If we recruit under false pretences – 'Join the Church and learn how to bake cakes' or 'make friends' or 'listen to some nice music/sing some jolly songs' we're selling possible fringe benefits as the real thing. The real thing is the cry of God to each human heart, which is rather like that of the Spirit of Christmas Present to Scrooge – 'Come in and know me better, man.'
At the Readers' Service in the cathedral yesterday morning, one of the readings included these words: 'Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’
Zechariah gets it in a single sentence – forget smells and bells, messy Church and coffee-cup communions – it's only if folk look at us and think,'This person has seen God' that they'll consider the risk of faith worthwhile. Otherwise, they'll stick with the art class or the concert. And – to be honest - who could blame them?