In looking back over my many reflections on the uses of abuse in a church, we nearly always seem to come back to one place. Abuse, more often than not, seems to involve evoking fear in an individual. Whenever a person is frightened, for whatever reason, they can usually be compelled to do whatever the fear-monger requires. In summary, to frighten a person is the simplest way to control them. As I have often said the greatest thing to be feared among many conservative Christians is the threat of being consigned to eternal damnation. Anyone who has been persuaded to believe in this state of everlasting torture when they become Christians will do absolutely anything to avoid it. Sometimes in the process of avoiding hell and damnation their earthly lives are blighted irreparably by the miasma of fear that permeates their awareness.
When I contrast a stirring up of deep fears and dread about eternal punishment with the actual teachings of Jesus, I see an enormous divergence. Jesus had no interest in making people frightened and most of his condemnatory words were directed at the false and hypocritical teachers of his day. His central message was far more one of encouragement, how to discover the potential of life when lived within an awareness of God’s gracious love. I have often quoted the passage from St John which talks about the purpose of Jesus’s ministry, ‘that they may have life, life in all its abundance’. To quote this passage is not taking one saying out of context because we can see how it fits into the main thrust of Jesus’s other words and actions. We could summarise the ministry of Jesus as being one of removing the impediments to wholeness that existed in peoples’ lives. The healing ministry of Jesus is not only a battle against pain, but it is more importantly a way of helping people to find their full place within their faith community as well as their society. Sin is identified, not because it leads to hell, but because it represents another kind of failure to flourish as a full human being. When I read the parables I note a great deal about people searching and finding something new and exciting. The woman sweeping her house to find lost silver, or the man selling everything to buy the field with treasure inside it. Jesus seems to have been appealing, not to our defensive fearful selves, but to the hopeful and adventurous aspects of our personalities. He invites us to come with him on an adventure, and adventure towards a life lived in all its fullness.
Today, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, the gathering of Anglican primates begins in Canterbury. From my perspective I see one group who are in touch with the adventurous, transformative side of Christianity. Another group seemed to be tapping in to a version of the faith which is only concerned with self-protection, fear and the avoidance of terror. No doubt the conservative group experienceS some of the rewards of God’s blessings but one can’t help but feel that they have become obsessed with creating a system which in many ways has the potential to close people down. The countries of Africa are facing enormous problems, economic, social and providing adequate healthcare for millions. We also see massive problems of reconciling different tribes, different religions and facing up to the results of decades of corruption in government. In the midst of all this, the African archbishops choose to spend an enormous amount of energy on upholding a particular sexual ethic, one which has no impact on the wider society. Something is very wrong when this kind of situation arises.
The way that we can move from a fear-filled Christianity to one of hope is, I believe, to embrace the invitation of Jesus to move towards a love filled way of life. We can, for a start, believe in a God who invites us to share his fullness and his holiness without making us feel as though we are worth nothing in his sight. To judge from the comments of Jesus, we have every good reason to believe that God sees the good in us before he sees the ways that we fail. God is far more interested in encouraging the positive than in condemning the negative. Of course all of us fail, of course all of us do not live up to our potential. But I think that we can believe that God wants to bless us far more than he wants to condemn us. So much of Christianity feels like a headmaster’s study when the pupils queue up to receive their punishments. No, the Christianity I want to embrace and also communicate is a faith that constantly draws me out of myself to glimpse a fuller, wider and broader way of living and being.
This week we will see whether a part of the Anglican Communion decides to walk away in the name of what I believe to be a narrow, legalistic and claustrophobic expression of faith. If that happens it will be an occasion of regret, but the remaining part of the Communion, must then try to live out its own understanding of what it means to see the faith as a life affirming and life embracing creed. As far as I am concerned, Jesus came to invite people to see what life can be when it is lived in openness and love towards others and to God. The greatest sin is not that of sexual deviance, but a failure to live life as it is meant to be lived. A full life will include rich experiences, aesthetic, emotional and intellectual. But the same life will also involve feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting prisoners. Our modern obsession with sex does not seem to have entered the minds of Jesus or his disciples. If we remain with the gospels, we find Jesus encouraging us to live in new transformative ways. It is in exploring those new ways that makes the Christian faith constantly exciting and new. We travel in the path that Christ set before us but we never actually arrive.