Is Christianity Relevant?

Christianity is a world faith.
Some of its manifestations are beautiful and life-changing.
It has inspired people to build cathedrals and hospitals on every continent.

Some of the one billion people who describe themselves as Christians do fantastic things.
Others are nutcases and rogues.

Christianity as a religious expression is
Sometimes relevant to the needs and desires of the 21st century
And sometimes it completely misses the mark.
Forms of Christianity which excite people today will be completely irrelevant soon.
And that's nothing to worry about.

Tony Jones made an interesting point:

"There are under a million pay phones in the United States today. In 1997, there were over two million. Of course, the death of the pay phone doesn’t mean that we don’t make phone calls anymore. In fact, we make far more calls than ever before, but we make them differently. Now we make phone calls from home or on the mobile device clasped to our belt or through our computers. Phone calls aren’t obsolete, but the pay phone is—or at least it’s quickly becoming so."

He continued:

"Similarly, the modern church is changing and evolving and emerging. To extend the analogy a bit, no one is saying that the pay phone was a bad idea. Most people would agree that it was a good idea at the time — it was an excellent way to communicate. But communication was the goal, and pay phones were merely a means to an end.
The modern church—at least as it is characterized by imposing physical buildings, professional clergy, denominational bureaucracies, residential seminary training, and other trappings—was an endeavour by faithful men and women in their time and place, attempting to live into the biblical gospel. But the church was never the end, only the means. The desire of the emergents is to live Christianly, to build something wonderful for the future on the legacy of the past."

In his famous poem Church Going,
Philip Larkin wondered what would happen to these buildings
That dot most lands where Christians have lived.

Deciding that the empty church he dropped into
Was "not worth stopping for", he remarks:

"Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?"

The day may well come when
"churches will fall completely out of use"
But this will be because the Church
Has moved on
To find new ways of serving and worshipping.
Besides, Theology 101 will teach you
That a Church isn't bricks and mortar.
It's people who are born, live and die
But who share a faith in Jesus of Nazareth.

Attempts to make Christianity relevant
Which are not efforts to communicate with honest clarity
The bold and disturbing message of this carpenter's son
Are doomed to disaster.

Jesus is not someone to be sold like a set of encyclopaedias
Or a savings plan.
He's a person to be encountered anew
By everyone in every generation.

If you are put off church by the hard-sell efforts of tele-evangelists
Or the outrages of faith-exploiting politicians
Or the calamitous moments of intolerance in church history, ancient and modern
I don't blame you.
But it's like being put off a football team
By the hooligans who wear the scarves and riot in the pubs
But rarely show up for matches.

And if you are horrified by the shlock excesses
Of a Christian subculture
Where the faith is peddled
As a shortcut to higher self-esteem
(Or even a thinner waist or a better love-life)
You're not alone.

As the great Christian writer CS Lewis snorted:
"I haven’t always been a Christian.
I didn’t go to religion to make me happy.
I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.
If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable,
I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

Jesus famously kicked the money-changers
Out of the Temple.
And many Christians wish he would do the same in his Church.
And if neither the glam-rock theatricality
Of high church worship
Nor the raving tambourine-breaking attracts you,
Trust me - there are Christians everywhere who cringe their way
Through such sessions.

Why do they stick with it?
It is not because some theo-marketeer has convinced them
Cfhurchgoing will make them chirpier.
Rather, they have encountered in Jesus someone
Who is supremely relevant.

How come?
Let's look down the other end of the telescope for a moment.
Why would God consider humanity worthy of his attention,
Never mind his love?

When God elected to save humanity from its sins
With the sacrifice of his son
How do you think the angels of heaven responded?

It is easy to imagine these great winged messengers
Turning to each other,
Pulling faces of shock and saying:
“What?! Is he going to do that for them?

Each year we learn more about the
Extraordinary expanse
Of the universe and the microscopic nature
Of our tiny planet.

Schoolchildren know how it orbits an unexceptional star
In an otherwise mundane
solar system in one
Of at least 170 billion galaxies.

I am sure angels can appreciate the full wonder of the created universe.
But they have also seen the power which forged the cosmos.
They have worshipped before the throne of the triune God.

So the revelation that the God whose glory and genius drives all existence
Would send his son to die a humiliating,
Criminal’s death
On a cross
To rescue
Men and women from
Eternal death
Must have had these celestial beings
Scratching their heads.

“Why?” they might well have asked.
“Why endure such pain to save a species which has
So little going for it?
They messed up the Garden of Eden.
They systematically slaughtered God’s prophets.
Why bother with them?
They are so irrelevant.”

In perhaps the most famous chapter (John 3:16-17) of the Bible Jesus gives an answer to the “why”.
This is why the divine became human:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son
That whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world
But to save the world through him.”

This is why we are relevant to God: He loves us.

Before going to war or launching an epic rescue operation,
Presidents, Prime Ministers and generals ask the question:
“What is in the national interest?”
Before spending blood and treasure on a foreign adventure.

But God's rescue mission was motivated by sheer love.

If I had been a nearby angel who overheard Jesus, I might still have shouted:

Why love these people
When you know the horrors of the sin
They inflict on each other and will
One day inflict on you?

Why save these people who will force a crown
Of thorns onto your head?
Who will whip the flesh from your back,
Nail you to a cross and thrust a spear into your side?
Tell me why you love them!”

If an angel would struggle to comprehend why God loves us,
A human mind can merely boggle.
But in the very first chapter of the Bible, in Genesis,
We are told that God created us “in his own image”

And when we look at the love which burns against the odds in human families
Perhaps we can gain a faint but true insight into the extraordinary love which God displays towards each one of us.

With good reason,
A sceptic can ask if it is rational to believe that a
Father God would love his creation with such zeal.

But is the love that explodes
In the hearts of mothers and fathers
When they cradle a screaming scrap of flesh in a maternity ward
In any sense rational?

What relevant gift
can children with their snotty noses and consuming appetites
Give to their parents?
How could they justify the phenomenal exertion
Involved in raising the most straightforward son or daughter?

If a child is sick,
Why do parents with work the next morning
Sit up through the night at his or her bedside?
What is the secret power behind the forgiveness
Which parents show when a stroppy teenager screams and swears in their face?
Why, when a son with a brand new driving licence
Writes off the family car is the dad’s first reaction upon seeing him
To hug him instead of suing him?

The everyday heroism of parents is powered by a love which is tender and yet fierce,
And is a distant echo of our creator’s devotion to his creation.
An infant daughter cannot comprehend
The love of the mother who lifts her to her breast,
But she depends on this love and is transformed by it.
The most relevant fact in her universe is the truth that she is loved.
It sustains her life and enables her development.

From our perspective as mammals who have been given the use of a
Very lovely blue and white planet
We are unlikely to ever grasp the reasons why God loves us,
Yet this does not mean that we do not depend on his love
Every day of our lives.

As the Irish philosopher Peter Rollins put it:
“We are like an infant in the arms of God,
Unable to grasp but being transformed by the grasp.”

One of the staples of schlocky reality TV
Is the moment when a screen is pulled back
And a grown-up is united with the parent
He or she has not seen in decades.
The son or daughter had made a go at living a good life
In the intervening years,
But their whole world is now transformed by the
Certainty their parent is alive and wants to know them.

Billions of people today are trying their best to lead
Useful lives and love their friends and family,
But they do not know that the God who loves them with a
Desperate power wants to break into their world,
Free them from the disease of sin,
And give them a hope which stretches beyond the grave.

How would it change your life if you truly believed that
This God was the king of the universe?
What fears would this perfect love drive away?
Which new colours of joy would the discovery of such a Father reveal?

The writers who chronicled the story of Jesus described it as
Good News and what message could be more relevant to the 21st century?
Great thinkers have used
Logic to argue that a Supreme Being exists,
But only through the words and life of Jesus Christ
Can we begin to know God as a loving father.

For the apostle John,
Life-giving and self-sacrificing love is the most
Perfect expression of God’s identity.
He wrote in the fourth chapter of his first epistle:

“Whoever does not love does not know God,
Because God is love.
This is how God showed his love among us:
He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.
This is love:
Not that we loved God,
But that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

These verses reveal that the consequence
Of not dealing with sin was so horrendous that God
Was ready to see Jesus die in our place.

In chapter 21 of the book of Revelation,
A voice from the throne of God’s new Jerusalem declares
The beautiful hope which has opened up for humanity
But also a terrifying “second death”.

The voice states:

“To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.
He who overcomes will inherit all of this,
And I will be his God and he will be my son.
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral,
Those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars –
Their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulphur.
This is the second death.”

Jesus was clear that anyone
Who hated a brother
Might as well be a murderer.

There is no one alive who has not lied,
Turned a desire into an idol,
Or flashed with cowardice.

We know that there is a dark current in the world,
Pulling us towards destruction.
We want to reach the spring of life,
But our thrashing doesn't us far from the lake of death.

And in the consequent guilt and dread
Our horizons are clogged with sulphur.
Its fumes fill our throats until we thirst for a better life,
For a love more pure than we could ever know,
And a hope beyond anything we deserve.

The message of Christ is of direct relevance
When we're caught in these waves.
That thirst was planted by a Father
Who wants us to know him and know life in all
Its fullness, justice and beauty.
This is why we can look to the fulfilment of history
Not with the wild-eyed terror of an apocalyptic cult
But with the confidence of children who
About to meet the Father who loves them and his son
Who suffered death in their place and is now
Lord of the universe.

It's heady stuff,
But this is what it's all about.

As Jesus himself put it in the sixth chapter of the gospel of John:

“All that the Father gives me will come to me,
And whoever comes to me
I will never drive away.
For I have come down from heaven
Not to do my will
But to do the will of him who sent me.
And this is the will of him who sent me,
That I shall lose none of all that he has given me,
But raise them up at the last day.
For my Father’s will is that everyone
Who looks to the Son and believes in him
Shall have eternal life,
And I will raise him up at the last day.”

If the trajectory of history runs not towards nuclear annihilation,
The devouring of our species by a rogue virus
Or simply the death of our sun
But in the revelation of Jesus as returning king
Who knows us by name and will reach down and lift us up,
How should this affect the way we live today?

Once again, Jesus had plenty of clear advice during his three years of public ministry.

In Luke 12, he told his followers:

“Do not be afraid,
Little flock,
For your Father has been pleased
To give you the kingdom.
Sell your possessions and give to the poor.
Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out,
A treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted,
Where no thief comes near
And no moth destroys.
For where your treasure is,
There your heart will be also.”

The apostle John would later write in the third chapter of his first letter:

“This is how we know what love is:
Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him,
How can the love of God be in him?
Dear children,
Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

If we are convinced that Jesus is alive and that his Spirit has the power to set eternal life in our hearts alight today,
Then we should ask if the lives we now lead are relevant to his kingdom.
If idols, cowardice and lust lead to death
We should pray for the power of the Spirit to lead us into truth, courage and love.

Great Father,
Remake us, Lord, as your children.
Rewire us,
Retool us,
Reboot us for your purposes.
Cleanse our minds of fear and foolishness,
Purge our hearts of evil and regret,
Lead us into life everlasting,
Into a new family
Of people blessed to know your love.