Sunday 7 July 2019

In God's Family

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Gal 6: 7-10)
A nice rounding off towards the end of the book of Galatians. Paul has spent five chapters telling them off for reverting from a faith-based religion to a works-based one. And now he neatly flips it back round. So we are saved by God's grace - God's free love - which we receive from God through faith, not works. But it turns out, what you do in faith brings a reward.

So - though we are saved from Hell through God's grace -  our future reward will be a harvest of the good we've sown. Maybe the reward is like this - when you've sown the seed of love on earth, in the light of heaven it will grow to a plant that bears fruit forever. Gardeners know that reward - of seeing hard work and the planting of one seed producing a plant - after weeks or years - that's really growing and producing the way it can. Not me.  I never weed anything.  Bindweed everywhere. But still. Moving on.

Or maybe it's about practice. I went to see the B52s in concert last week. An awesome yet sad occasion as it's their last (they say) European tour. And the three remaining members are such a brilliant team. They work together so well. But then, they've been in the same band for 40 years. They've had a lot of practice. Maybe if we practice working for other people's good now, we'll be good at it in the life to come.

And I think the way Paul describes his expectation of how people should live is so important. It's not about individuals. He says don't let us collectively grow weary in doing right. Let us work for the good of all. And he tells us it is important that we do this in the family of faith. and I think talking about a household of faith is important as an illustration.

You can go to extremes in your view of the Christian religion. In case you'd never noticed. You can decide to be too strict on your body - or that you're free from hell and you can just have a good time. Personally I think you should take reasonable care of your body. OK, it's going to get a major overhaul on the last day. But after that it's going to have to last you an eternity. And there's no gyms in heaven. I mean, how could there be?

Or you can think religion is all about the individual. Whereas God has made us to be in community - family, friendship, societies, local communities - from the very beginning. But we can easily forget that. You can decide it's all about your salvation, your little soul, getting your salvation from your personal God. And you end up in a church where there are no children, and everybody's sad there's no children - but you wouldn't want children actually in the service, as they might disturb you when you're up the front receiving your communion. You'd really like some spiritualised children from the 1930s who know their places, don't have runny noses, don't cry and never run around the place and fall flat on their faces. Yes, they can make one endearing quip that the vicar can use in years to come as a moderately amusing anecdote. But let them then relapse into beatific silence. This is your communion after all.

Or you can go to the opposite end - and decide that the institution of the Church is important. That it's all about the organisation, the hierarchy, the structure. This leads to a different kind of problem. If it means you think the functioning, or the good name of the organisation is more important than the well-being of some of the people in it.... well, we know where that leads. In times gone by to persecution of those that might want other ways to believe. Or to over-deference to the clerics. To Father knowing best. Even when Father doesn't. And in the extremes - to what we've seen over and over again, the last few years, where those who've abused children and the vulnerable have got away with it for decades because the Church wanted to keep itself looking good, rather than doing good. Because in some cases it was more important that the vicar was respected, than that children should be protected. And the Church should repent - we all should - for the way the church as a whole allowed it to happen.

But Paul places how the Church should be right in the middle of that - in a household. In a family. A place where there are strains and arguments and people are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. But where - in a good household - everyone pulls in the same direction. Where you are all important because you are - when all is said and done - family. And this is not to say that all families are good. Some are terrible, some parents are dreadful. But it's what a family should be like. At the very start of Paul's letter to the Galatians, he sets out  his greetings through God the Father, his son Jesus, and addresses all his brothers (and, let's say, in our modern way, sisters as well). So it's a family with the sort of parent that good parents should be. With all God's people as brothers and sisters. An equality in the church, and the expectation that we should look after each other. It's a family that gathers to eat around a table, and the head of the table is Jesus Christ. Whoever might be doing the passing-round on his behalf.

So, Paul says, at the end of this book which has been all about salvation by faith, not works. Let's do good things. Let's start with the household of God - because where else would anyone start doing good but in their own family - and let's expand that out to everyone else as well.

And that seems pretty unfair. Because quite often it's so much harder to show love to people you know. After all, you know them so much better than people you don't. You know, I can support a charity like Christian Aid, safe in the knowledge that those that I help are very unlikely to be people who disagreed with me seventeen years ago about whether the service should start at 9.45 or 10 o'clock. It's easy to fill in a Direct Debit for the Big Issue trust. After all, a homeless young person is not going to be the one who's coveting my Saturday on the flower rota. If you send a few jars of Ambrosia Rice to the food bank, chances are it's not the person three pews down who sings flat that will eat them.

Although they might.

So I reckon Paul knows what he's doing here. We show love - especially within the family of believers - because that's where we will probably find it hardest. It's good practice. Some churches have a Sharing of the Peace. Others of course have an Unnecessarily Over-Friendly Hug of Peace. Some have a "Will you please leave my Personal Space Immediately" of Peace. But the whole point is - you've got to look people in the eye and wish them peace, individually, even if you don't like them. Even grudgingly.

And from that we've got to  do work for each other's good on a long-term basis. Now I know this is one case where we've come a long way. To Paul, working for someone else's good would be ensuring they weren't hungry. Looking after their kids. Giving a hand with the garden, maybe. 2,000 years on we've managed to get to the spiritual essence of working to other people's good. Back-stabbing, telling them horrible things "in love", arguing  over whose pew it is.

But maybe it's when we do what Paul says, on a regular basis - just working for each other's good - that the Church does become a properly -functioning household of faith. And when that happens - when the members of a Church start actually caring about even the people they don't much like - maybe that's when it becomes an attractive family - one that people want to join. And maybe, when we've done the hard practice of actually loving one another, that's when we start to be able to really, as a family, love those that aren't part of the family yet.

 So let's, whenever we can, work for the good of all.  And especially for the members of God's family. Because let's face it -  it's good training for loving everybody else. They're much easier. We don't know them.

Want to support this blog?
Want a good laugh? Want to laugh at the church? Want to be secretly suspicious that the author has been sitting in your church committee meetings taking notes? Then Writes of the Church: Gripes and grumbles of people in the pews is probably the book for you.

From Amazon, Sarum Bookshop, The Bible Readers Fellowship and other good Christian bookshops. An excellent book for your churchgoing friends, relatives or vicar. By the creator of the Beaker Folk.

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