Defining events of 2017 – and what they mean for us as Christians.
The Reformation broke as many things as it fixed
By the sixteenth century, the church desperately needed to be re-formed:
- Vast sums of money were being spent on lavish church buildings.
- Priests served communion only to themselves.
- “Indulgences” were bought and sold. Certain saints had an abundance of good works stored up somewhere. If you were running short (and who isn’t?) you could buy their good works!
Out of this arose the Protestant movement, as well as a decisive counter reformation which cleaned up the Catholic church. Great! But as often happens when things go wrong politically, culturally or spiritually, we “over correct”. We rush to the other end of the pendulum swing. And that creates a new problem that didn’t exist before.
It was good to celebrate the 500th anniversary of our Reformation in 2017. But here are two examples where the reformation created a new glitch while fixing an old one.
Word over image
The big correction the reformation gave us was that God’s word, the Bible, must be available for all to read, not just clergy. Simply scaring people into the kingdom by showing them pictures of burning fires was not pastorally responsible. Today, thankfully, the Bible is widely available and read.
But as Nick Page points out, it seems that many of our churches today have only got the word. There is a lack of beauty, colour and imagery in our churches. There is nothing to give a “sense of something other”. Nothing in fact that would speak to the masses who have no interest in a Bible, but may well have a spirituality.
Faith over works
The other big correction was to throw out indulgences. God has done the work, not us, and you can’t buy good works. We needed to hear this. Surely “we are saved by faith alone”?
In fact the truth is, “we ARE saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone”. Saving faith, growing faith is never “alone”. Works don’t save us, but
Works are the evidence of faith; works are the accelerator of faith. Works matter.
Today some Christians have absorbed an idea of “cheap grace” … Just show up on Sunday. — don’t worry about the rest.
Seriously? This seems a far cry from the call of Jesus to radical discipleship.
World disasters — what are we supposed to do?
I frequently find the news upsetting. Most likely you do too.
We are uniquely exposed to shocking news as no previous generation could have been. Today’s news is reported in real-time 24x7. We have notifications, alerts and apps on our phones that tell us what is going on anytime, anyplace. Bizarrely, we can know more about a struggling woman in Syria or Yemen than the homeless person in our own town centre.
And sadly 2017 brought us more disasters than anyone could have imagined, among them: flooding in Bangladesh, hurricanes in the Caribbean, mudslide in Sierra Leone, and the depressing effects of war in places including Yemen, Somalia, and Congo.
We are uniquely exposed to shocking news as no previous generation could have been
We feel we can only handle a certain level of bad news. And it is difficult to know what to make of such events, but there are always two things we can do.
Love as an action
Love in the Bible is not a feeling, it’s an action. It’s about doing for others whether we like them or even know them or not. So what’s the opposite of love? Hate? Fear? Maybe, but usually the opposite of love is simpler than that. It’s indifference. Persistently not doing anything is the opposite of love.
We can become indifferent and inactive. We can distance far off events, especially as news close to home always grabs our attention. This is the worrying outcome of BREXIT for those of us in the UK. Despite dramatic and difficult world events, we are consumed by the daily feed of our representatives in Brussels. The danger is we have no bandwidth left for what God actually wants us to care about.
Prayer as a mystery
We are always called to pray.
But, you ask, “how can my puny prayer make a difference to a major disaster in some distant land?” I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone knows. But prayer is a mystery that God invites us into. And somehow, in the mystery of God, your prayer makes a difference.
There is an ultimate weapon against terrorists
On the morning of May 23rd 2017, we woke to news that there had been a terrorist attack on teenagers at a music concert in Manchester.
And recent months have been punctuated by such attacks on innocent bystanders on their way to work, attending church, or taking a stroll. Whether it’s Manchester, London, Paris, Barcelona, Las Vegas, or Texas, it’s easy to remember only the terror. This is what gets reported. It’s easy to feel a sense of fear, instability.
And yet listen to the words of Andrew Graystone on Thought for the Day that morning on 23rd May. He chose to talk about another side to this event. On that same night in Manchester, people offered rooms for the night to strangers stranded in the city, taxi drivers refused cab fares as they escorted youngsters home, hotels and coffee shops offered safe spaces, people queued to give blood.
These defiant acts of kindness, are acts of grace.
Grace is at its most potent, its most intoxicating when it’s least expected. Someone once compared grace to a daisy breaking through the concrete on a grey and lifeless road. It doesn’t belong there, we don’t expect to see it. And yet there it is, a splash of colour in a sea of blackness. What’s it doing there? We expected gloom, a like for like response. Grace from God is His love to people who don’t deserve it. Grace from us is the single act of kindness to people who don’t expect it. It can make us uncomfortable, even vulnerable. It is Paul’s more excellent way in 1 Corinthians 13.
A single kind act, an act of grace can seem insignificant, even weak and foolish. But these are the means that God chooses to break into this world. Listen to Russell Rook on the victorious Christian life:
“Christians do not rise above every trial, every ill, every sickness, or win every battle. They suffer and wonder why … They pursue powerlessness rather than power… They seek servant hood rather than high status. They gain victory by sacrifice, not savagery. And unlikely though it seems, they win the world for God”.
As we peer into the uncertainty which is 2018 we take great comfort and strength from this: God doesn’t expect you or me to win the world for him. He really doesn’t. He just asks us to say a kind word — when it’s not expected. To put our hand on the shoulder of someone – though they never did that for us. To catch our kids doing something right – and tell them. To share the reason for our hope – with gentleness and respect. To perform a defiant act of grace — when there is no reason to show grace, and every reason not to.
And — unlikely as it seems — we will win this world for God. This is the hope we have, this is the God we serve.