All Saints, Benhilton
Sunday, 26 August 2001
Why so few?
Last Sunday we answered the often-asked question: How do we know what God is like? We discovered that anything we can know about God is due to his willingness to reveal himself; that although that revelation has taken place in many different ways, the final and full revelation of Godís nature is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Then we compared how our understanding of God, like our understanding of physical objects has changed over the centuries Ė the example was the pew you are sitting on: what is it made of? And we saw that whilst for most practical purposes the answer "wood and metal, planks and screws" would suffice, the real answer is much more complex than that and resembles a mathematical equation like E=mc2 So too with our understanding of God. We can think of him as Father, Shepherd, Judge, Saviour, King, and, supremely, Jesus Christ because God has revealed himself as all of these; but the real answer is more like the formula Three in One and One in Three. Thatís the truth from all eternity: God does not change, but our ways of understanding him can and should change.
Which leads on naturally to this morningís question: If our faith is true, why do so few people believe in it?
Letís listen in on a conversation at the local Pub between a Man-in-the-Pew (who goes to church every Sunday) and a Man-in-the-Pub (who doesnít). Weíll call them PewMan and PubMan.
Says the PubMan to the PewMan. "If what you believe is true, how come that everyone doesnít believe it?"
The quick answer to PubMan is that people donít believe it because they donít want to! Itís too disturbing for most people even to think about it. If, with Pewman, we believe that Jesus Christ alone is the Way the Truth and the Life and nobody can comes to the Father except through him, it means that weíre dealing with a person: and persons answer back and make demands upon us. Our God, is a consuming fire. Those who play with fire risk getting their fingers burnt Ė and not just their fingers! Small wonder that few want to take that risk.
Having made that point to PubMan letís correct two mistaken ideas which his question suggests:
Pointing out these mistakes should give PubMan food for thought. He justifies distancing himself from the PewMan because PewMen are presently in a minority Ė which is irrelevant as to whether what they believe is true or not; at the same time he dismisses PewManís beliefs without having given five minutesí serious thought to whether theyíre true or not. So PubManís views get off to a thoroughly bad start.
PubManís problem isnít atheism. If Pubman had seriously thought about God and decided on the available evidence that thereís no such Person, then PubMan would be far closer God than he in fact is. The thoughtful atheist, who has examined claims which Jesus Christ makes on us and decided, perhaps reluctantly, that they arenít true may, upon further thought, realise that heís made a mistake Ė his disbelief, like many othersí, is based on a misunderstanding. Bad teaching early in life results in misunderstandings but good teaching later on can undo the mischief, whether the subject in question is history, geometry or the Christian faith.
But Pubmanís real problem is that he deliberately avoids asking Ė or even caring Ė whether PewManís beliefs are true or false, right or wrong. This contempt for the truth is quite a recent thing. Whereas ordinary peopleís interest and knowledge about worldly things has increased by leaps and bounds, their interest in, and knowledge about the ultimate significance of those earthbound things has reached an all-time low!
Until recently people used to argue passionately about whether Jesus Christ is God incarnate Ė as we PewMen believe Ė or just another Very Good Man whose moral teachings we should follow in our daily lives. Others even believed people that Jesus was a deluded first-century Middle-Eastern fanatic who had misunderstood his vocation. These people didnít just argue about it, either. They lived as they believed. Those who believed him to be God worshipped and obeyed him; those who saw him as a great moral teacher spent their lives in the service of humanity; whilst those who believed him a charlatan tried to persuade others against believing what they saw as being superstitious nonsense.
Not so today. Questions like "What do you think of Christ?" are seldom asked. Questions about the purpose of life, if they are asked at all, are answered in terms of self-fulfilment and personal achievement, This refusal to think about things is worrying because it effectively closes off every avenue whereby PubMan can be led into the way of truth, not just the truth about the Christ but about anything Ė including Pubman himself!!
Behind Pubmanís refusal to ask questions lies PubManís reluctance to face facts: two facts in particular, even when they are staring him in the face: facts about the finitude or limitation of this earth and our lives upon it.
First, thereís the inescapable fact that weíre all going to die. Itís said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Well, most of us accept the necessity of paying taxes. But when it comes to thinking about death PubMan fights shy. Death is the last great taboo: the thing we neither talk nor think about. Once it was Sex: nowadays that gets talked about all the time; Death has replaced sex as the Great Unmentionable.
Second, and contrary to what PubMan has been taught to believe, things like health, wealth, happiness or success arenít guaranteed to any of us, least of all in the measure which would permanently satisfy us. One reason is that most of us donít remain satisfied for long. But in addition most of us, when weíre being honest with ourselves recognise that there are whatís called glass ceilings above our heads. However hard we try, we can never get above that ceiling. Some peopleís ceilings are higher than others. If we donít get all we want out of life the probability is that as an individual we never had "what it takes" to get it in the first place. God, invites us to accept our glass ceilings cheerfully, thanking God for our "creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for [his] inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ" as the General Thanksgiving puts it, and rejoicing that other people ceilings and achievements are higher than our own.
PubMan, by refusing think about those two inbuilt limitations to earthly life, death and glass ceilings, makes himself inaccessible to the truth as revealed in Jesus Christ. Itís not the ordinary sins which separate PubMan from God today. People are no more given to adultery, murder, stealing or drunkenness than in the past: fashions in sin come and go as often as fashions in clothes. But PubManís systematic refusal to face facts about himself, his life and death keep him securely isolated from God. Itís the sin against Truth and the Holy Ghost himself; the sin which Jesus tells us is unforgivable until itís repented of.
Thereís no quick fix to this problem. So let me end by highlighting three practical ways in which PewMan and Pew-Woman who do face the facts of our finitude and death, differ from PubMan.
So PubManís real question shouldnít be "Why do so few people come to church?" but "Why do so few people face up to reality?" The answer is simple, they really donít want to. Our mission must begin by persuading them to take their death and finitude seriously before itís too late!
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