‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs’. In Matthew’s Gospel (18.3) we hear the words: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’.
Jesus consistently challenges cultural norms – in this case, where those of no social status are included in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus consistently values and welcomes the presence of children. But what does he mean about changing and becoming like children. There is one thing that’s worth making absolutely clear: whilst we are to become child-like we are not encouraged to become childish. Other passages from scripture encourage us to have a mature, grown up faith, a faith that can handle meat and not just milk.
Some of us from church went to see the play entitled The Christians at The Gate theatre a couple of weeks ago. It’s about an American Pastor, Paul, who has grown his congregation from a dozen people into a megachurch, including a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool, a huge parking lot, coffee shops, offices and with a building bigger than a cathedral. It’s a special day in the church’s life, because they have cleared their debt, and we hear the sermon that marks the occasion. But, unexpectedly, Pastor Paul uses the sermon to announce that he does not believe in hell. He believes that the death and resurrection of Jesus have saved every human being, and that heaven is the destiny not only of Christians, but of those of other religions or no faith at all. Pastor Paul is distressed by the doctrine that unbaptized non-Christians – even the most saintly amongst them – must be tossed into the fiery pits of hell, he comes to the conclusion that there is no hell. At least, not in the literal sense of biblical teachings. ‘Satan’ can refer to humanity itself, in all its cruelty. We ourselves are the ‘devils’ who torment one another with acts of inhumanity every day. As for Hell, the Pastor’s God tells him: “You wanna see Hell? You look around,” and look no further than that mass of humanity. “They are in Hell.” The sermon was like a bombshell dropping on the congregation.
The associate pastor cannot understand why he is being asked to change the beliefs that first captivated him and, after a vote, leaves to start a rival church. Over the course of the next hour, as various conversations are had, increasing numbers of the congregation leave Paul’s church and join the associate pastor.
A choir member voices her concerns: Why is Paul suggesting that the Bible doesn’t say what it appears to say? Does universal salvation apply even to Hitler? Why didn’t he mention that he believed this previously? Was he waiting until the church’s finances were secure? After this dialogue it is rather shocking to see the whole choir leave the stage, leaving just Pastor Paul and his wife. The play ends open-ended with the pastor rather shell shocked and his wife with her bags packed ready to leave him.
The play has many facets to it. It’s about power; it’s about the big questions of salvation and grace; it’s about what we do with those who hold different and opposing views to ours. What’s done very well in the play is that neither side is caricatured – it would have been all too easy to portray the kindly liberal on one side and, on the other, the fire-breathing fundamentalist. But this wasn’t done.
Laying my cards on the table, I am theologically in full sympathy with Pastor Paul. Although to arrive at this position took me over ten years of grabbling, struggling, reading, debating, feeling like giving up the whole thing. My journey was triggered by a moment in the late 90s when I started my BA degree in theology. I have a vivid memory of being on a street corner in Calcutta, India, at dusk. Thousands of people were on the way home from work, dangerously hanging on the back of busses, others were buying shopping, eating food on the street, begging for a few rupees. I was there working as a missionary, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m suppose to believe that all of these people are going to an eternal hell, largely based on the arbitrary fact that they were born in a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim tradition.’ And I remember thinking, I can’t be a Christian any more… or there is another way of being Christian. But what about the Bible? How to make sense of those verses about hell that, on the surface, or based on how I was brought up to read them, seem pretty clear. I went through a number of years of grappling with those Bible verses, as well as reading a whole range of theologians and eventually, after a period as an agnostic, ending up with a different sort of faith. And finding a spiritual home within the broad and open tradition of the Church of England.
After the show, I felt a sense of pride and thought how good it was to be Anglican, where we don’t view theological issues in such a black and white way; how we can, like mature grown ups, cope with different beliefs within the church.
But reflecting on matters further, and looking at the issue of human sexuality, or the role of women in the church, for example, it’s abundantly clear that a power struggle is going on at the very heart of the Anglican communion. No room for feeling too smug. But then, conflict has been very much a part of the church from the very beginning.
Returning our Gospel’s comment about becoming child-like, I wonder how it’s possible to cultivate an attitude of openness, to have an inquisitiveness to learn new things. I am reminded almost every evening, that children can read stories over and over again, fully fascinated, without needing to verify the historical question, which is in contrast to the assumption that the historical literal level of understanding of a story is the ‘truest one’. We also need a mature attitude that includes the humility to hold our views in a provisional way, open to be challenged, open for our views to be sharpened and clarified through the engagement with those who think and believe differently. Some of us find it relatively easy to visit the sick and the poor – but less easy to admit that we might be wrong in our thinking. For some it may be the other way round.
The catholic nature of the Church – that which belongs to the whole – is most truly exhibited when it is diverse, not uniform; and where we recognise that common identity does not require conformity of practice. Then we will know that the Church’s mission is strengthened, not diminished or weakened, by differences held in love.
Sermon by Fr James Heard, Sunday 4th October 2015, Trinity 18
Today we shall shortly be baptising James. The water we pour on him speaks of, and mediates, new birth, a new way of being, becoming part of the Christian community.
I wonder what sort of life lies ahead for James, what sort of person he will become. Developing into maturity will include many events and experiences. Exiting, sad, joyful, disappointing, thrilling. Choices to make. He will be happy and he will be sad. He will succeed and he will fail. He will be good and he will be bad, and yet regardless of what journey his life takes, he will never be alone.
He will know the love and care of a generous God who will love him for what he is and not despite what he is. He will walk with a God who affirms his humanity as something which is to celebrated and not perpetually in need of correction. He will find God in all things not just religious things. He will have the love of different people in his biological family and in his God family, the church community.
We as his God family have a responsibility to teach James a faith which will affirm his experiences as a human being with all of his hopes and dreams.
It’s time for James to start his journey of faith, to look for and affirm life in abundance. A life in which we live and learn; give and take. Love and be loved. My prayer for him is that he might become a human being fully alive, knowing deep, deep down God’s unconditional love for him.
Fr James Heard