A question I often ask myself, sometimes my congregations and once before on this blog is this: “What on earth is the church for?”
Some would say it is to worship God, but I find too often their views of what constitutes worship to be rather restricted to what one does in church. If the offering of worth to the divine (that’s what worship means) is confined to singing hymns and saying prayers in church, (or even suffering the preacher’s sermons) that’s altogether too limited for me. Worship is the offering of our whole lives or it is nothing; otherwise it’s a bit like telling my wife on Valentine’s Day that I love her but ignoring her needs for the rest of the year.(She won’t read this, not using the internet much – but I do love her, every day!)
Anyway, the idea of a worshipful life leads me to what I think the church IS for: being the expression of corporate and individual discipleship after the example of Jesus. How do we know what that example is? Well, the truth is that we don’t have much to go on. The gospels don’t tell us much and there is debate about how much we can accept to be the actual words of Jesus even when they are suggested so to be. It is also true that people will see different aspects of Jesus in those gospels, leading them to different conclusions about who and what Jesus was for people of his day, and is for people of today. Various people have described Jesus as: Peasant Sage, Social Revolutionary, Religious Mystic, Prophet of the End-Time, Marginal Jew and True Messiah. To those recent descriptions and others we might add those that have their basis in actual Biblical descriptions: Redeemer, Saviour, Prophet, High Priest, Lord, Conqueror, Captain, Good Shepherd, Way, Truth, Life, Light of the World, Pioneer and Perfecter of Faith, Bread of Heaven.
Jesus is truly many things for many people and, of course, for some, merely a name in a book perhaps never read.
I would not want to pick one of those titles as being ultimately descriptive of how I see Jesus, but if I had to give a description to the Jesus who manages to shine from the pages of those gospels across the millennia to illuminate my life today it would be Jesus the Compassionate. When I use that word compassionate I know that I risk the charge that it suggests mere woolly, sentimental, “do-goodism” (Is that a word? It is now!). But that is not what I mean by it. Take its parts:
Com – meaning together. The Jesus who offers a way of seeing my world is one who stands with and alongside others and particularly the poor, the marginalised, the voiceless, the grieving, the weak.
Passion – nothing woolly or wishy-washy about passion, is there? It suggests real strength of feeling, but it’s worth digging further. Its roots are in the Latin pati meaning to suffer.
I cannot say that I suffer with all those I seek to serve, but to follow the way of Jesus the Compassionate demands that I attempt, at the very least, to put myself in their position, attempt to see the world from their perspective and if I have any strength, voice, power or influence to use it on their behalf.
Yes the church gathers around the Jesus story but not as if it were some sort of Highway Code of morality, rather as a story through which prayerfully and thoughtfully, we might discern a compassionate way to live in our own times and places.
Is that how the church is seen from outside?
In the light of Christmas messages from certain church leaders, I suspect that Peter Smith speaks for many. Tweeting under the name @Redpeter99 he wrote: “Twice a year the church has a shop window. What is their biggest concern? Injustice, peace, inequality? No. It’s gay marriage! Jesus wept.”
While some church leaders used their Christmas opportunity to pontificate on that topic, poor Rowan Williams, in his last sermon as Archbishop of Canterbury was left bemoaning the fact that the Anglicans had shot themselves in their collective foot over women bishops.
Yet Dr Williams had this to say also: “Jesus does not come just to answer the questions we think important … he does not come to give us a set of techniques for keeping God happy; and he certainly doesn’t come to create a harmlessly eccentric hobby for speculative minds. He comes to make humanity itself new, to create fresh possibilities for being at peace with God.”
Jesus the Compassionate is a disturbing presence in my life, reminding me that I cannot be at peace with the divine, the heart of all being, unless I am at peace with others, unless there is a peace built on justice in my world and also unless I am at peace with myself.
To look, as far as we are able, through the eyes of Jesus the Compassionate is to allow that possibility that we might be renewed in our humanity.
What on earth is the church for? I’d say, living that renewed humanity! The sad truth is that, human beings as we are, we remain a long way short of that. So may Jesus the Compassionate disturb the church in this coming year, lift our eyes from mere legalism to the great demands of justice and mercy, and give us strength and vision to be instruments of compassion in our own communities.
Thanks to you all who take time to come and visit my blog, and also to those of you have responded. I haven’t opened this up to responses yet because of the way that some blogs tend to attract some very negative thoughts and people get into quite nasty arguments and I don’t have time to moderate public responses. I don’t mind if you don’t agree with me or would like to expand on my comments, ask questions, or maybe even suggest where occasionally I might be near the right track. I always welcome your thoughts. The best way to share them with me is through the age’s contact button which will send me an email or find me on Facebook and PM me. Thanks. Julyan