The most obvious comment about the news at present is that that we live in troubled times. Of course, we have to keep that in perspective. And what troubles we have: a pandemic, a worldwide economic recession, Brexit, incompetent and power-hungry rulers, abuse of the media, a renewal of racialism and above all the climate emergency. No, my daily paper does not make happy reading.
“Where do we go from here?” is the question some are asking. The danger is that many of us have framed a different question. We are simply asking, “What next?” We do not feel like the helmsman consulting the compass and then taking a new bearing. It is much more like being in a very small boat being swept along by a powerful current with the sound of dangerous white water ahead of us. We are desperately looking around for a paddle by which we can steer the boat safely to shore, but there does not seem to be one.
Or have I got that wrong? Is it just that I am old (nearly eighty) and know that whatever else happens on my stretch of the river, before long my boat will topple over the waterfall? Perhaps so. Still, looking at my fellow voyagers, even among those much younger than I am, I do not detect much hope that things can change. Some are fearful, some are angry, some seem indifferent or even fatalistic. I suspect the majority never had much hope even before ‘the troubles’ began. Their big desire now is ‘to get back to normal’, but when you look into it, ‘normal’ was never up to much in the first place.
So how are we Christians getting along?
Not very well, I suspect, but let’s lay out some options. There are those who do not think that Christianity offers any sort of answers to the sort of issues I am raising here. Christian faith is important to them, but it is essentially about something else. The planet may be in the process of being destroyed, millions are out of a job, the pandemic is raging, we are being ruled by the wrong people, but that is God’s business. We must just leave it all to Him. The importance of Christian faith is that it provides us with an assurance that God is with us, whatever the circumstances, that there are other Christians to whom we can turn for help and encouragement, and that in the end everything will be all right because we shall go to heaven to be with Jesus.
Now these are no small blessings! But it must be admitted that the experience as just described does not sound much like the Christian discipleship as understood by the early Church. Just to point out a few obvious differences: for the first Christians God was not so much with them – in the sense of offering companionship – as working through them (Acts 3: 12,16). Again, the fellowship of the church was certainly mutually supportive, but it also had dramatic consequences in terms of economics (Acts 4:32), discipline (Acts 5:1-11), growth (Acts 2:41), witness (Acts 4:19,29), persecution (Acts 5:40) and more besides. They were looking forward to seeing Jesus again, but this was not meant to stop them from ‘turning the world upside down’. Indeed, it seems that they were being encouraged to see the inception of the new creation there and then (Acts 2:16-21) even if there was more to come.
We need, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to make all this practical and relevant to the twenty-first century. So here are some down-to-earth suggestions.
- We can sort out the things that we can do better, not just the same as before after the pandemic is over. We can be more neighbourly, more aware of the vulnerable, more supportive of those like NHS workers who have difficult jobs, less frightened to talk about life and death issues.
- We can take a lead in (or at least participate in) green issues locally. My friends in the Green community are not all that impressed by the Christian response to the climate emergency. I know someone who has an electric car, sustainably sourced home heating, uses rainwater as her main supply, and has a kitchen free from plastic of any sort. She is not a Christian. Neither are the faithful supporters of the local Green Party, nor the local members of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Why not?
- Christians who vote for political leaders who are racist, immoral, homophobic, sexist, and unable to tell the truth should be ashamed of themselves.
- How about taking up some of the traditional Christian causes: pacifism, criticism of rich and greedy lifestyles, prison visiting, debt relief (loans without interest), living simply and generally trying to live up to the Sermon on the Mount.
And much more. These are only examples.
My understanding of the New Testament description of where we are in God’s timetable (and I think this reflects the thinking of a number of New Testament scholars) is that we are in the thick of it. The time is now. We are under ‘marching orders’ from Jesus (Matthew 28:19, Acts 1: 8) and the Kingdom – that is the practical experience and demonstration of the rule of God – which Jesus announced is, for the time being, in our hands. Of course, there is more to come. Who would not want to see ‘the restoration of all things’ as Peter calls it (Acts 3: 21)? But the restoration of some things is possible now. In the prelude to Peter’s sermon (when he speaks about the restoration of all things) Peter restores the disabled person to full health and restores him to the worshipping community. Restoration, redemption, renewal should be big Christian words, operative here and now.
To return to our previous picture. We are not, or should not be, drifting helplessly down the river. We are runners in a race, soldiers in a battle. This is not a time when we should quit the race or leave the battlefield. We have not crossed the winning line yet, nor routed the enemy – though the Person ahead of us has. We can aim for that, but meanwhile the action continues.