Friday, 19 October 2012

Goodbye Christendom, hello servanthood

20th After Trinity

Mark 10: 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ 

What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus today in the West, in the 2nd decade of the 21st Century?
In some ways it’s very different from the experience of the first disciples who set out to follow Jesus on the Way.
In some ways it’s very similar.
Firstly, how is it different?

One word: Christendom.

Whatever we think about how ‘Christian’ we are in the UK now, we have to live with the reality that for large swathes of the population, going to church and following in the way of Christ are seen as entirely unnecessary to the good life.
So as disciples of Jesus today, we are already swimming against the tide.
It’s as if Christianity has been tried and found wanting.
When the Emperor Constantine first embraced Christianity as the official Roman religion, the Way of Christ became associated with the way of temporal power.

Given our gospel reading today, this was perhaps a mistake.
Rowan Williams in his Epilogue to Praying for England (Wells and Coakley, Eds., 2008) says ‘we cannot take for granted any specific religious foundation for national belonging, public morality or policy-making’ (p. 172).
He is surely right. We cannot assume any sort of religious, let alone Christian basis for society any more.
We are post indeed Christian, but with the background noise of a once Christian identification humming away like society static.
So people still come to the church in times of need.
When April Jones, the five year old from Machynlleth
disappeared, to be later presumed dead, the Bishop organized a silent procession from her home to the local Anglican church - half the town turned out to cling onto something in the darkness.
This was the church standing up for and serving the weak and powerless, not wielding influence over society through some imagined privilege.
We’re called to follow a Saviour who chose the way of the Cross, not the way of power and political influence.
The first disciples misunderstood this, as we heard in the gospel.
James and John said they could suffer with Jesus but the fact they asked him for privileged positions in heaven shows they had got it wrong.
Anyone who follows Jesus for the privileged position it will give them is onto a losing wicket.
(Okay, I have to admit that processing into a Cathedral with your clerical robes on, for an Ordination service does make you feel quite special, but there is a warning here against pride.)
The Established Church today is a strange mixture of what looks like past historic privilege and the reality of today’s falling numbers, falling revenues and falling reputation.
People generally don’t want the church to assume it has influence today and to tell them what to do.
Is it a case of how the mighty have fallen?
Does it bother you?
A fellow Curate told me of a time recently when he was called to visit a woman in her 80s whose husband had died.
The first thing she said, a little abruptly, when he arrived at the house was ‘why have you never visited me before?’
He felt like answering ‘because I didn’t know you existed until now.’
She was living in a world where the Parish Priest apparently knew everyone and checked up on them if they didn’t come to church.

She told my friend that when she was little, the priest would walk around the village in his black robes and if you didn’t say a courteous hello as he passed, he would be in the school the next day complaining about you to the teacher.
This world of ecclesiastical influence and privilege does not exist any more  (at least it doesn't appear to in Whitchurch).
Is this a terrible loss, or is it an opportunity for a new humility about the place of the Church in our culture?
The demise of Christendom, is, of course, experienced differently in different generations.
I will not forget in a hurry the time I helped to start an All Age Service a few years ago in a previous church.
With the particular aim of nurturing younger Christians we eventually gathered a group of people who represented three different generations.
We had a handful of teenagers, some mums and dads in their 30s and 40s and some older members of the regular congregation, in their 60s and 70s, who came to support and give stability to this new group.
We met on a Sunday afternoon, and one day our theme was sharing your faith with those you come across day by day.
We split into groups to talk about how easy or difficult it was to talk about being a Christian today.
The older people, by and large, found that it wasn’t really an issue for them.
Most of their friends were in the church already and so it didn’t seem that they were living in a culture that was hostile to Christian faith.
The 30s and 40s said it was hard to follow Jesus ‘out there’ in the world, but the encouragement of a handful of Christian friends did help and they were seeking ways to be Christ in their culture.
The teenagers were very timid. One of them spoke up and said it was extremely difficult to be a Christian and a teenager in today’s culture; that a Christian at Secondary School is in a tiny minority and finds it very hard to have the courage to speak out.
I know this to be true as my son recently left Sixth Form College where he helped lead a Christian union of 6 people in a College of 2000.
Three different experiences from three different generations.
When we consider what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the 21st Century, let’s remember and cherish those younger people who are forging a way forward in a highly secularized environment, and give them our prayers and support.

Living in a secular environment, though, can represent a chance to go back to basics, to refocus on the Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head and whose disciples were called to follow his example of self sacrifice.
Jesus was absolutely clear that following him would not be easy.
He had set his face towards Jerusalem and in so doing, spelled out to his disciples that there would be a baptism of suffering for them.
We relive this baptism into his death and resurrection every time we gather around the Lord’s Table and break bread and drink the cup of his self giving.
The first disciples would drink the cup of suffering but only as an outworking of their discipleship, not for any hoped for promotion in heaven.
So we do live in a culturally different time to the first disciples.
We have to contend with a post Christian society which doesn't know what or whom to believe any more.

One thing that doesn't seem to change amongst disciples, however, is the bickering.
After discovering that James and John have asked this embarrassing request of Jesus, the other ten are incensed.
They argue, they get into camps, they say bad things about the others; they feel they’re in the right while the others are in the wrong; they have no unity amongst themselves…
And all the while something of huge salvation importance is unfolding ahead of them on the road to Jerusalem.
Bickering about non essentials whilst ignoring the essential…
Does it sound at all familiar?!
How many times have we read in the newspaper that the church is arguing over this or that, while some huge issue like West African Famine unfolds on the front covers?
We need to look outwards and to regain a sense of urgency about seeking the Lord while he may be found.
We need to regain humility.
We in the Church of England are so wonderfully middle class and respectable - we urgently need to divest ourselves of any remaining sense of cultural privilege and recapture a sense of service to our world.
Two words used in Mark 10 describe the life of a disciple: Jesus says ‘whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all’.
‘Diakonos’  and ‘doulos’.
'Diakonos' gives us ‘servant’, ‘minister’ or ‘deacon’, and 'doulos' is even lower: ‘slave’.

Servant and slave.

Two words which sit uncomfortably against a history of power, wealth and privilege about which the Church may well feel uncomfortable today.
‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (verse 45).
This is the life to which we are all called; this is the life of humble service.
This is the life which may be misunderstood by the general populace but which still brings salt and light to the world.
May God strengthen us in this life today and teach us to walk in the way of the Cross.


  1. I smiled at the middle class and respectable. within the society of frinds in brotain there are muttering from some about how middle class the society is, which I sort of can see - but I am from the dwindling rural working class. But actually it is quite an important thing to look at, to understand. Sometimes it seems to me that in the uk there is very little understanding of how other people's lives might be, especially with a government that says hard work is rewarded with an implicit: if you are not wealthy you are not hard working. To say you are a christian can be very difficult. I have realised that I am a christian even though I hvae no concept of the resurrection - certainly the bodily resurrection [I have a close friend who is a catholic and we meander around that one it seems impossible to understand the other.] To be a follower of Jesus is to serve. Not to do voluntary work that you would like to do, to offer charity where you think it is needed/deserved, but to be open to all, accepting of all. As a quaker there is no creed but we do have Advices & Queries and the bigger Faith & Practice...and there is the: do accept that of god in everyone? which always brings me "back to earth" back to the way of jesus and I try again. If I serve god then I must serve all people. Do I need to tell others that I am a christian? I don't know.

  2. I have a lot of time for the Quakers. More silence and listening would help us all.
    I enjoyed your point of view. Thanks.