Sunday 14 July 2019
What kind of people shall we be?
Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-20; Luke 10:25-37
By Liz Shercliff
Director of Studies for Readers in the Diocese of Chester and teaches preaching to Readers and Ordinands. She has recently published Straw for the Bricks (SCM Press) and An exploration of missional Reader ministry (Grove)
Context: Parish communion in a rural (politically aware) parish
Aim: to encourage the congregation to consider how far the Christian faith affords guidance for action in the world today
‘What kind of a people shall we be?’ was the question on the agenda of this huge meeting. All kinds of people were gathered to reflect on it. Lawyers, who wanted to know what this might possibly mean in fine detail. Politicians, who wanted to know how to sell it to the people. Economists, asking how it might be afforded. Theologians, asking where God might be in the new nation. How might faith guide the way we build our nation in the future?
As Moses gathered the people of Israel on the Plain of Moab to renew their covenant with God, they reflect on the dark times behind them, and the promise of a new land that lies ahead. Summarising the passage, we have read, Moses says: ‘See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.’ Which will the people choose? They are there to answer that important question: ‘What kind of a people shall we be?’
If there were indeed lawyers and politicians and economists there, as I have imagined, I’m sure they had questions. How do we make decisions? Will it be based on prosperity? Or popularity? Or legality?
These are the questions carried forward a couple of millennia and presented to Jesus by the lawyer in our Gospel reading. By then the question has morphed into ‘what must I do?’ It isn’t clear in English, but what the lawyer implies is that there is one thing he could do that would guarantee him eternal life – salvation before lunchtime!
Jesus restores the age-old question, the one we must all ask, ‘what kind of a people shall we be?’ And then he tells a story that can’t have done much to improve relations with the religious leaders of the day, for to them, who worked so hard to make the Jewish nation distinctive, it sounded like he said ‘stop imagining you’re better than everyone else’! ‘In fact, stop doing, and start being.’ In answer to the question ‘What kind of a people shall we be?’ Jesus said, through the parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘be one willing to accept help from the outcast.’ Part of Christian discipleship, it seems to me, is to stop seeing ourselves as the answer to the problem, and start looking for answers in unusual, liminal places – in those we would happily reject.
Fifty years on again, the writer to the church in Colossae addresses what some nowadays might call the ‘sacred-secular divide’. What is holy and what is not? Gnosticism was thriving. Culture was dualistic. What was material, or physical was of less worth than what was spiritual. The aim of religion was to leave behind the material world for something entirely spiritual. And into this thought world comes this: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created … all things have been created through him and for him … in him all things hold together.’ All this physical stuff!
And then worse. In answer to the question ‘What kind of a people shall we be?’ the writer tells these early Christians to be a body, of which Christ is the head. Discipleship also involves being present in the world, touchable, see-able, hearable.
This isn’t new, of course. It’s there in the covenant, expounded at the meeting of leaders, and theologians, and economists, and politicians, and lawyers and the whole people that Moses gathers together. Just as they begin to wonder what this covenant means, how they might define it, God says ‘it isn’t that hard. You don’t need to mount an expedition, or recruit expertise, or invest in specialist equipment. You don’t need to go up to heaven, nor cross the sea. No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe. Watch for what God is doing, listen to what God is saying.
We, as a people, have experienced one of the most divisive times for perhaps a generation. It is worth remembering that in 1941 Archbishop William Temple convened a meeting of politicians, lawyers, economists, scientists, theologians and others to ask the same question, ‘what kind of people shall we be?’. It’s worth noting the date – the darkest days of the Second World War. Temple didn’t wait for things to calm down, for people to come together, he was proactive in asking a vital question. The seeds of health, social care, lifelong learning, good housing and working conditions were all sown by that conference.
Temple’s challenge was to determine ‘how far the Christian faith … affords guidance for action in the world today.’ It’s a challenge we might all do well to accept. As God told the People of Israel, ‘it isn’t too hard for you.’
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