THE CHARACTER QUESTION
There should be something distinctive about the Church that others find arresting which is rooted in its character or not at all
I have often asked Christian people what they find hardest about the Church and the most popular answer is the disillusionment they feel when other Christians do not live up to their calling. I think we can all identify with this. What we are less good at identifying is when we do not live up to our calling. The reason we like hard-hitting sermons is because we hope they hit someone else hard; we are less good at taking the blow ourselves as part of God’s discipline.
In Romans 12:9 and following, St. Paul shows the cause and effect of the Gospel. Because Christ has sacrificed his life for us, so we should offer our lives as a living sacrifice to him. The ideas Paul articulates about love, humility and service are breathtakingly beautiful and worth more than a thousand sermons, and I will confine myself to four observations.
Love must be sincere, says St. Paul, suggesting it is sometimes insincere. Insincerity is typically demonstrated when we say one thing about a person to their face and another behind their back and let’s face it, we’ve all done that. Some, however, make a career out of it. We often think that the love Paul talks about is an emotion, but it lies deeper than this. To love someone does not mean we have to like them; it is impossible and probably undesirable to like everyone. To love someone is to do the right thing by them; it is an act of will, not necessarily a feeling of the heart.
Keep your spiritual fervour, says St. Paul, implying we can easily lose it. The idea of being zealous today is especially unfashionable, connected as it is in people’s minds to religious extremism. Our culture is cool and ironic, affecting not to care too much about anything in case we look earnest. There are times, culturally, when we may need to stand up when everyone else is sitting down; this may make us feel self-conscious and uncomfortable, but our discipleship demands it of us. Paul’s understanding of spiritual fervour does not preclude a sense of humour, much less a sense of perspective. Among the most engaging Christians, there is a spark which others are drawn to imitate and which preserves the well-being of the wider church. It is something we should all aspire to and nurture.
Bless those who persecute you, says St. Paul. Our eyes can drift lazily over this command. We do not live in North Africa or North Korea, where those who oppose the Church cause as much harm as possible to those you love. We should pray for these Christians, for none of us know how we would respond, if called to do this. But St. Paul surely meant this for lesser offences too. Bless those who criticise you. Bless those who gossip behind your back. Bless those who lie to win an argument with you. With these words it comes closer to home and we see the depths of commitment to which we should plunge. It is in the act of blessing that God is honoured and that others are challenged.
As far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all, says St. Paul, suggesting that it is not always possible to. Conflict is not in itself necessarily wrong; we are often in conflict with others but don’t name it because we find ways of resolving our disagreements; this is the way we forge a common life. But conflict quickly becomes destructive when we place no priority on peace as a function of the work of the cross. If we have peace with God, we should find it with one another and work hard to keep it when it is threatened. Too often we tolerate a diminished kind of peace, like a country experiencing a low-grade insurgency which neither amounts to a civil war nor any kind of peace.
To live this kind of distinctive life may feel beyond us, but it is not beyond the capacity of the Holy Spirit, whose resources of power, love and self-control we are under a duty to call on. And it is evidenced in churches across the country. People are searching thirstily for authenticity and something different today. A church which offers this is like a cold drink on a blazing day.
What is the temperature of the glass we are offering to our surrounding community?
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