Sunday, June 12, 2016

I Believe, Help my Unbelief

I didn't realise it until I saw BBC News this Sunday morning, but this weekend the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and Head of the Commonwealth, officially celebrated her 90th birthday. Little did I know, that wouldn't be the last I heard of it.

I trotted off to Church, for the first time in a while it must be said. We arrived late, and were greeted with a hymn book and an order of service, before settling into a deeply uncomfortable pew. Hymns were sung, prayers were offered, there was lovely choir performance that may or may not actually belong in a worship service, and some biblical texts were read from the lectern. And then there was a sermon.

It started off fairly benign, but the more it went on the more subversive it became. The only problem, and it really was the only problem, was that this particular sermon was subversive of the gospel. Out of nowhere, the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and Head of the Commonwealth was front and centre. The minister made reference to his own personal acquaintance with the Queen, and described this weekend as a celebration of her "public life". I turned to my wife and asked her what the hell he is talking about the Queen for? But it was about to get worse. The minister then directed our attention to what was coming at the close of the service - the first verse of the national anthem. Of cours,e he acknowledged that there may be some in the room who are critical of the monarchy, and they are of course free not to sing along. Yet this tolerance of other views was immediately undermined by his claim that "Yes, monarchy, in the past, has done bad things, but then" - wait for it - "so has the Church". The hidden message, of course, being - you who have not sinned, only you can refuse to sing the national anthem and refuse celebrate the "public life" of a queen. And for the record, this is a Presbyterian Church in Scotland. A Presbyterian Church in Scotland! As Alex Ferguson would put it, Church, bloody hell.

Now this is all bad enough as it is. And when I say bad, I mean idolatry and heresy. But the irony of it all was the biblical texts everyone in that massive Church building heard. That's the beauty of Scripture. Even when it is being mishandled and abused, it has a power that no human can get a handle on. The thing is, if you wanted to pick three texts that are deeply critical of monarchy, nationalism, and pride in human achievement, you probably could not have hand picked three better texts. Without any discernible self-awareness, the minister preached his sermon after we had just heard the story of King Ahab coveting the land of Naboth, and his wife, the Queen, conspiring to have Naboth killed and the land handed over to the monarchy! Here, in plain speech, is what the Bible has to say about the public life of queens. If only we had ears to hear. Next came a passage from Galatians, where Paul chastises Peter for a nationalism which undermines the truth of the gospel. Finally, the Gospel reading was from Luke 7, where Jesus eats dinner at the house of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader enthralled by power and therefore blind to his need for forgiveness. Three texts, one deeply troubling and energising gospel, and a sermon that sought to threaten it all at every turn.

We left after the sermon, but not before we recited the Apostle's Creed together. There we affirmed our faith in Father, Son, and Spirit, and our belief in the Church. And at times like this it is crucial to remember: that there is a Church is not a given, a self-evident factor in the world, but an article of faith. We thank God that there has been a Church, and pray that there will be a Church in the future, but it is in God's hands whether there is a Church or not. Stanley Hauerwas, in his Gifford Lectures, is critical of a sentence in Church Dogmatics where Barth says that the world would be lost without Christ, but would not necessarily be lost if there was no Church. This morning was a reminder of why Barth thought had to say what he said. The Church needs God, but God does not need the Church. 

In the Apostle's creed we also declared our common belief in the forgiveness of sins. Before I left, I was tempted to use the pen I was given to write on the order of service sheet: "God forgive us for celebrating the life of Jezebel." I refrained. I won't be going back to this Church again. An unfaithful, sinful Church is simply the Church of Jesus Christ. But an unfaithful, sinful Church that is blind to its need for forgiveness is the Church for Simon the Pharisee and Jezebel the Queen, and not the Church for the woman who loves the merciful Jesus and the vineyard owner who will not bow to the demands of the royal family.

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