The Rector's Sermon from 22/6/03:
"Neither the immoral, nor adulterers, nor the greedy, nor homosexual offenders will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you…" 1 Corinthians 6:10&11
From the beginning, the moral characters of churches have been skewed by the immoralities of the societies from which they emerge. Look at modern churches around the world. The African church has problems with polygamy and syncretism with tribal religion. In North America the culture of greed leads to churches over-interested in you sending them your money. The wider western Church we belong to is heavily influenced by a culture of sexual licence. But go back to the New Testament and the same was true. If the early Church hadn't also had such problems half our Bible would be missing!
Corinth in particular was a wild place. My daughter would love it! A New Testament Soho, a 1st Century Ibiza! The Temple of Aphrodite alone employed a thousand male and female prostitutes. What a rich seam for Christian disciples to be mined from! And what a struggle it was for them to rise above their background. The Corinthian Church had so many problems St Paul had to write twice!
Flawed societies lead to flawed churches because it is often the most flawed people who respond to Christ. Christ has always sought such people. Read the Gospels and examine the encounters of Jesus and you could almost produce a tick-list as category by category Christ works though the excluded of society. These were not the merely unfashionable, but the un-kosher: Tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers with ugly sores, the woman with the issue of blood, the deaf the blind and the physically marred. It was not just that such people were unpopular, they were unclean. They were excluded from Temple worship, and if for some reason you accidentally touched them on your way in you would have to return home until you were ritually clean again.
When Jesus was criticised for eating and drinking with sinners, he was very matter of fact. "I have come for the sick… for the lost sheep". The successful, comfortable, respectable and influential were never going to be as interested in what Jesus has to offer; whereas the flawed hunger for Christ's healing and forgiveness. In everyone that comes to Christ there is that recognition of a flawed inner spirit. That's why the Church even today can be such a comical troop of outcasts and misfits. God's Church will always be made of flawed people. In Corinth that included the greedy, adulterers and homosexuals, "and such were some of you" St Paul said. Christ doesn't seek to build his Church from good people he wants to make nicer, but from wicked people he wants to make holy.
Let's look at two of the 20th Century's greatest saints, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
Martin Luther King, what a man! Even now when I see some of the old black and white footage of his speeches they can still make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. What an orator, what a leader - and a serial adulterer too. From all his extra-marital affairs you wonder how he had time to write a sermon let alone the strength to stand up and deliver it! But Christ spoke through that man.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta: In recent years journalists have done a pretty good hatchet job on her personality. She has been portrayed as an arrogant, rude, scheming and aggressive old woman. But I ask you, would she have achieved such solid good if she'd been a nice cuddly old granny? It is precisely because she was such a fiery old crone that she was able to show the dregs of Calcutta something of the grace of Christ shown to her.
Please, I beg you, don't ever be disillusioned by Christians. We shouldn't have such illusions. We are not plaster saints, all serenity and rosaries, we are a gang of sinners.
OK, let's cut to the chase: What to make of Dr Jeffrey John's appointment as Bishop of Reading? I suspect he too is a deeply flawed person. But he has wrestled with his conscience and chosen celibacy for over 20 years. Would I have chosen him? I don't think so, though to quote Churchill, if he had been the only half-crown item in a sixpenny bazaar it would have made for a very difficult decision. I have taken the time to read some of writings and sermons over the last week. I have to admit they have been some of the most moving things I have come across and they've touched my heart deeply. However, I believe scripture tells me homosexuality to be wrong - but I will welcome gay men and women to Christ. I believe adultery and divorce are wrong too - but if a couple are seeking to rebuild their lives I will consider marrying them again in Church. I believe it is always wrong to have sexual relations outside marriage, but the majority of couples coming to our church are living that way and so I gladly marry them. WE ARE A FLAWED PEOPLE. Where I take issue with Jeffrey John is that I don't believe we should rejoice in our flaws.
I am not comfortable with his appointment, but I will not be leaving the Church, neither will I be casting the first stone. I will however be rejoicing that there is a God who calls even the most deeply flawed people to be his followers.
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