Exposed for all to see

Pentecost 14 – 2015

Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

Marian Free

 

Lord our God, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, we ask you to cleanse us from all hypocrisy, to unite us to our fellow men and women by the bonds of peace and love, and to confirm us in holiness now and forever. Amen.

Last week we looked – in a rather light-hearted way – at a number of the reasons people give for not inviting others to church. As I reflected on some of those reasons, it occurred to me that not one of us mentioned that the church was perceived as hypocritical. In the latter half of the last century if not before, the accusation of hypocrisy was often leveled at the church and used to justify non-attendance. If the subject of church attendance was raised, we were as likely as not to be told: “I don’t go to church, the church is full of hypocrites”. Those who made the accusation felt that the lives of churchgoers did not match the values and morals that they proclaimed to uphold. To be fair, this statement was made in an age in which the church had set itself up as the moral guardian of society at large and not only did many people feel burdened by the sometimes harsh demands placed on them, but on more than one occasion the church or its members had spectacularly fallen from grace. Issues such as fraud, adultery and underage sex all made front-page headlines and demonstrated that even members of the church were unable to achieve the high standards that they set for others.

The reputation of the church was seriously eroded long before the more recent revelations of the prevalence of child sex abuse in the church and its agencies.

It has been a long time since I have heard the hypocrisy of the church used as a reason for someone not to come to worship or as a justification for abandoning the faith. The reason for this is simple. Over the last decade or so the human frailty of the church has been laid bare for all to see. In the light of catastrophic failures such as child sex abuse it has become impossible for the church to continue to claim the high moral ground and difficult for us to impose on others standards of behaviour that we ourselves cannot consistently achieve. Collectively, we have been forced to concede that we cannot always live out what we preach.

I don’t know about you, but I find this new situation strangely liberating. It means is that we no longer have to pretend. Instead of trying to present a perfect face to the world, we can now be honest about our brokenness and frailty. Instead of standing apart from (dare I say above) society as a whole, we can admit our common humanity. Instead of constantly striving to be what we are not, we can finally relax and let people see us as we really are – imperfect, struggling human beings, set apart only by virtue of our belief in the God revealed by Jesus Christ.

While the exterior of the church may be tarnished and our failures laid bare for all to see, we have been set free from the unnecessary burden of pretence. Now that there is no longer anything left to hide, now that it is impossible to pretend that we are something that we are not, we can concentrate on our true vocation – being in a relationship with the God who accepts us as we are, frees us from guilt and fear and challenges us to strive for wholeness and peace – for ourselves and for others.

Our gospel this morning warns us against giving priority to rules in the belief that somehow we can achieve a degree of godliness simply by our own efforts. It is a reminder that it is what we try to be, not what we pretend to be that really matters. Authentic living, the gospel suggests, means that we should not elevate our public image at the expense of an honest and authentic engagement with and identification with the world at large.

These are lessons that for today’s church have been hard-won but, thanks to the failures of the past, it is much clearer now that the church (the Christian faith) is less about codes of behaviour and more about love, less about being good and more about being with God, less about judgement and more about forgiveness, less about guilt and more about acceptance, less about anxiety and more about confidence, less about exclusion and more about inclusion and most importantly that it is less about putting on a face and more about being real.

We come to church, not because we believe that we are better than everyone else, but because we know that we are not. We come to church as we are – broken and lost – knowing that we are assured of a welcome from the God who forgives the sinner, seeks the lost, embraces the prodigal, lifts the fallen and who longs to heal, forgive and restore a humanity that has lost its way.

This is what we (the church) have to offer the world – not a false image of perfection, but an assurance that God who loved us enough to die for us, is waiting with outstretched arms until each of us finds our way home.

 

As Rowan Williams said in his enthronement sermon: “The one great purpose of the Church’s existence is to share that bread of life, to hold open in its words and actions a place where we can be with Jesus and to be channels for his free, unanxious, utterly demanding, grown-up love. The Church exists to pass on the promise of Jesus – You can live in the presence of God without fear; you can receive from God’s fullness and set others free from fear and guilt.”

 

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