Sunday, April 22, 2018

the faith - what you have signed up for!

May my words be in the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I joined the US Army I had to take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. I remember the day well. We were gathered in a large, low-ceilinged room in a recruiting centre in North Florida. The décor was quite dull, as were all government offices at the time – a very plain, beige carpet, walls painted a nondescript shade of green, and with a scattering of desks and chairs, all the standard government issue gunmetal grey. The only splash of colour was the red, white, and blue of the flag in the presence of which the oath had to be taken.

The people who were to take that oath with me that day varied considerably. They ranged in from late teens to mid-thirties, covering the whole span from youngest to oldest ages at which a person might join up. Some were Black, some Hispanic, some Asian, others, like myself, Caucasian. Perhaps other ethnic groups were represented, but nothing stands out in my memory. The style of dress varied greatly also. Some were in t-shirts and jeans, a few in hoodies; a small number were dressed quite formally, men in suits, women in dresses. The majority would have been somewhere in between – smart casual is the term, I believe – the men wearing proper shirts but no ties with neatly ironed trousers, and the women blouses and skirts.

Really, the whole melting pot that is American society was represented there that day. But whatever their age, ethnicity, or socio-economic background all there had one thing in common: they were all prepared to make a solemn pledge that if need be they would die to defend the values of their society and the democratic way of life.

Most soldiers know, of course, that they will never be called upon to make that ultimate sacrifice. Even in times of war most in uniform have a very good chance, statistically speaking, of avoiding not just death but serious injury as well. But that was not what Jesus was signing up for, so to speak, when he became man. Death was certain. As he says in our Gospel today, He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep – the sheep being all of mankind, all those who have ever lived or ever will live.

And like a soldier, he laid down his life for a purpose. That purpose was the salvation of all mankind. But unlike a soldier he had the power not only to lay down his life, he had the power to take it up again. And by his rising he destroyed the power that death had over his flock – like him all would die; and like him all would rise again – but to eternal life on the last day.

But until that day comes, he left work for his flock to do. In our Gospel we also hear our Lord speaking of the sheep who are not of this fold who must be brought in also. Jesus was telling his disciples that he had not come only for the Jews, but for all the people of the world. This is a teaching that he would give to his followers more than once – for example at the end of Matthew's Gospel in what is often called the Great Commission where he told them make disciples of all peoples.

And how are we progressing with that work? Well, with over two billion Christians in the world some might think not badly. But if we consider that there are around six billion people in the world there is clearly much that needs to be done. Indeed, perhaps much more than we might first think. Firstly, how many of those two billion are Christians in name only, people who although they are baptised live no differently to those who are not, people who would never dream of allowing the teachings of their faith to interfere with how they live? And secondly, there is our Lord's teaching that there should be one flock and one shepherd. And there is indeed only one shepherd and can be only one, our Lord himself, but the flock is sadly divided into many thousands of different denominations.

So there remains much work to be done. And looking to further words of our Lord's in today's gospel, the place to begin that work is, as always, with ourselves. We must not be as those he condemns as hirelings, who care nothing for the flock. And because Jesus commanded all his followers to make disciples of all nations, all have a role in caring for his flock – both in increasing it by bringing more in and maintaining it by supporting and encouraging those already within the fold in the faith. All, of course, have different roles to play; but there are certain basics that all must fulfil. 

The first is we that must know our faith. This involves both the regular reading of scripture and educating oneself in the teachings of the faith. Studying what the Church teaches did not end with Confirmation class – that was only supposed to be the beginning of a new stage in your journey of faith! 

Next, we must live our faith. Private prayer and regular attendance at public worship are a vital part of this. Those blessed with having the care of children and young people must ensure they are instructed in the faith – part of which is the example of godly living that they see in the home. Decisions, small and especially great, must be proceeded by prayer and careful consideration of what it is that the doctrines of the faith instruct us as to what is right and wrong in particular situations – by which I mean the teachings given by Christ to his Apostles and handed down by his Church generation after generation, not some new and fashionable thought that someone came up with five minutes ago. 

And third and last we must proclaim our faith. I do not mean by this standing on the side of the road holding up a sign that says 'sinner repent!', but rather in our everyday interactions with others. If someone tries to get you involved in some deal that means cheating of some kind – a good price for cash, for example, but no receipts so that the taxman need never know – not only say no, but say why you're saying no. If you are discussing the issues of the day with friends, don't be afraid to make it clear that your Christian faith informs your views. If an election candidates comes knocking on your door, make it clear that if they want your vote they have to represent your values … and if it happens to be someone who said one thing to you last time round and then behaved another once elected, make it clear that they needn't expect your vote this time and why. 

And, of course, when you do vote cast it in accordance with those Christian values. Secularists make no bones about trying to see their values enshrined as matters of public policy – why should a Christian feel it is wrong to also vote in the way he or she feels is right? And, in any case, if Christians will not vote in support of Christians values, then who will?

This may seem like a lot. But really it is not. It is simply a small part of what it is to live as a Christian in the world – something, I will add, that you faithfully promised that you would do as part of the vows you made at Confirmation. These, rather like a soldier's oath, commit you to serve as Christ's witnesses in the world. Such living is not something you will be awarded medals for - indeed, many in the world many condemn you for your fidelity to Christ. But this should not dismay us but rather cheer us. Christ told us to be afraid if the world hates us, for it hated him first; and his followers all through the ages always considered it a great privilege to suffer for the sake of his name. Indeed, we even today we have a title of great honour for those who die for the faith – martyr. But even if our fidelity brings neither medals nor martyrdom, it brings us something greater: eternal life in heaven. And this is something for which we must thank God always: Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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