DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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TRINITY
4
The Cost ...

Matthew 10.34   Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the world. No, I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

The gospel reading set for today is part of the discourse Jesus gives to his newly-commissioned disciples. To what extent they are the words of Jesus, or later reflections on the early church is difficult to ascertain, but however we choose to read them, the message is one of warning - there is a price to pay for discipleship. 

Disciples are told to expect alienation, persecution and possibly martyrdom; nothing must stand between them and their duty to Christ, including family ties and commitments. All are dispensable in the service of the Lord, and, in return for the hard path of discipleship, there is the promise that God will not desert them � �even the hairs on your head are numbered�.

Matthew wrote his gospel probably some forty-five to fifty years after the recorded event, and during that time the church had indeed known violent persecution. 

One source of information concerning the early church rests with the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea, an early church historian. He tells us, for example, that Emperor Nero had Christians doused with oil and used as human lanterns to light his palace gardens at night. 

We know too that Christians were covered in animal skins before being put in the arena to face the wild creatures of Nero�s circus. He records that the apostle Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified, and we know that many of the other early converts met a similar fate.

In today�s era, Christians in some parts of the world are also heavily persecuted. The ownership of a Bible or the suggestion of belonging to a prayer group is enough to warrant jail - or worse - in some countries.

What is it about Christianity that causes such persecution?

The truth is, that Christianity is powerful and revolutionary stuff! It flies in the face of both conventional authority and human nature. Christianity encourages us to put to one side all that is most cherished in secular society. It teaches that true power lies in servant-hood, that wisdom requires the perception of a child, and that we are to embrace, pray for, and forgive our enemies. 

These are ideas that our evolutionary genes have not prepared us for, and it is no wonder that the human ego blanches at Christian ethics. Quite simply, it isn�t natural! That is why the faith is persecuted; it isn�t the normal, everyday way of doing things.

In Nero�s day, of course, the threat of Christianity went even further, for in proclaiming Jesus as a God he was seen as a direct rival to the Roman Gods. Edicts were issued, specifically to entrap Christians, obliging citizens to affirm allegiance to the crown.

In short, there is a fear about Christianity that has existed in one form or another throughout its history.

Part of the problem lies with its own teaching. By this, I don�t just mean Christian theology such as the incarnation, but verses like the ones in today�s reading. 

Matthew 10 makes it clear that a family rift must be expected by those who follow Christ: �Brother will hand over brother to death, children will turn against their parents�; �I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother�; �a man will find enemies under his own roof�; �no one is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than me�. Why such strong words?

My own view is that they contain elements of Jesus� own teaching, and thus his own experience of family life. Although some denominations try to paint a rosy picture of Jesus� family life, there is nothing to support such a stance in scripture, beyond the idealised prologues of Matthew and Luke�s gospels. 

His father, Joseph, is never mentioned beyond the initial preambles, suggesting that he either died or left the family home. And the few references to Mary, Jesus� mother, do not suggest particular warmth or affection between them. Did Jesus� radical religious faith cause rifts within his own family? He was an obvious rebel to orthodoxy, and we should not assume that he was easy to live with. 

Thus I suggest that if the words of Matthew 10 do reflect Jesus� thoughts, he was speaking from personal experience. He knew that his way of living, his way of understanding God could cause family arguments and worse. He also knew that to embrace his lifestyle left no room for stability and family ties.

Whatever Jesus� experience of home life, he obviously thought that his cause was worth the price of alienation and possible death. And one has to say that many a convert to a religious faith would say the same.

There is something almost intoxicating about a faith that can lead one onto another spiritual plane. It is little wonder that St Paul was �caught up unto the third heaven�, to �paradise�. Mystics throughout the ages have vouched for such experiences. This experience of heaven encourages one to take leave of worldly wisdom, worldly ties and relationships because something richer and more enticing has been found.

This experience probably lies at the heart of much of Jesus� teaching. After all, his sense of son-ship to God was hardly based on theology alone.

The path of son-ship, the Jesus way? Simple really; to love until you have nothing left to give, and then embrace death with a joyful heart.

It is no wonder that Christians are persecuted for such an outlandish view of life, and that families are torn apart by such behaviour. In a world where gain is all, to be told, �Whoever gains his life will lose it; whoever loses his life for my sake will gain it� (Matthew 10.39) is folly indeed.

But then, is not what seems folly to man, possibly the wisdom of God?

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