When Jack Archer was ill in 1952, the Vicar of Ambridge helped Peggy look after the pigs on the smallholding, and she said it meant more to her than all his sermons. What I want to talk about this evening is putting our faith into practice. As you’ve probably guessed from our readings, I don’t think God’s terribly keen on people who make all the right noises in church, and behave unspeakably for the rest of the week.
For many of us, ours is a Christianity of cushion rather than cross. A Jesuit priest, Anthony De Mello, records the lament of a bishop who gloomily remarked, ‘wherever Jesus went there was a revolution; wherever l go people serve tea!’ Jesus made heavy demands on his original disciples. When he talked of their need to take up a cross, it turned out literally true. Their allegiance to him resulted in martyrdom. For us in western Europe it’s highly unlikely to turn out like that, though Christian allegiance makes plenty of martyrs in some troubled places of the earth, as we know all too well. Naturally, we prefer cushions to crosses. There’s a Jewish yarn about Goldstein aged 92 who had lived through pogroms in Poland, concentration camps in Germany, and dozens of other persecutions against the Jews. ‘Oh, Lord!’ he said, ‘isn’t it true that we are your chosen people?’ A heavenly voice replied, ‘yes, Goldstein, the Jews are my chosen people’. ‘Well, then,’ came the reply, ‘isn’t it time you chose somebody else?’
Another Jewish story tells us that when Moses threw his wand into the Red Sea the expected miracle did not take place. It was only when the first man threw himself into the sea that the waves receded and the water divided itself to offer a dry passage to the Jews. Divine choice and allegiance to Christ for Christians means that demands, possibly rigorous, may well be made upon us. Isaiah waxed eloquent when his people drove a wedge between worship and service. The prophet’s complaint was that, though God’s people crowded the places of worship and sacrifice, almost suffocating God with the smell of the right ritual sacrifices (almost a comic picture), their daily conduct and behaviour offended him. They treated the underdog unjustly, deprived orphans of their rights and oppressed widows. What God wanted from them was the removal of the chains of oppression, the lifting of the yoke of injustice, the sharing of food with the hungry, practical compassion to the homeless and destitute. ‘Then,’ the Lord told them, ‘my favour will shine on you like the morning sun. When you pray, l will answer you. When you call to me, l will respond’.
A major lesson the people we read about in the Hebrew Bible had to learn was that just and loving conduct was more pleasing to God than any amount of formal worship. Hundreds of years went by, and they still hadn’t learnt it even when Jesus was physically among them. His fierce criticism of the religious officials of the day was just this: ‘They don’t practise what they preach’. He quoted another bit of Isaiah to them. ‘These people, says God, honour me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me’. Sunday worship in church, and weekday behaviour in our dealings with each other, belong tightly together, and cannot to be conveniently separated.
This is something we can see in our Holy Communion. It’s not about words, but about action, as God comes to us through breaking and sharing bread and pouring and sharing wine.
Geoffrey Bellhouse was one of the greatest preachers of the middle of the 20th century, Minister of the Presbyterian Church in Eastbourne. He had this passage in one of his sparkling sermons: ‘There are still people who would not miss Communion, but who still refuse to stretch out a reconciling hand or write a reconciling letter. There are still people who “enjoy a good sermon” but who go home afterwards to bully the whole household’. He pleaded with his congregation not to regard religion as a separate compartment of life, and that church services should never be viewed as ends in themselves. True religion, he concluded, ‘seeks to baptise the whole of life into the spirit of Jesus’.
That reminds me of a tale about a devoutly religious woman who went to church every day. On her way children would call out to her, beggars would accost her; but she was so immersed in her devotions she failed to notice them. One morning she reached the church and pushed the door but it wouldn’t open. She pushed it again harder, but she found the door locked. She was distressed at the thought of missing service for the first time in years. Then she looked up, and there it was. A note pinned to the door which simply said: ‘I’m out there!’