Christian aid

What is the role of the church at a time of national turmoil?

This sermon was preached about 10 days after the UK voted to leave the European Union – Brexit as it is now called. It is based on Galatians 6:1-10.

I’ve been invited here to talk about Christian Aid and I will, but only later in this sermon. I don’t think I can stand up in a pulpit this morning and not say something about the situation that our own country is in at the moment. We seem to be in a complete mess don’t we?

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The trigger for this mess has been the referendum. One side clearly got more votes than the other, but only by a small margin. The conclusion of the referendum shouldn’t really be that there is agreement within the electorate about the way forward for our country. The conclusion should be that there is disagreement about the way forward. Whilst it is clear that the leave campaign got the largest proportion of the votes in an election that triggered the highest turnout in recent political history. It is perhaps important to remember that they won 37% of the votes of the total electorate to the Remain campaign’s 35%. We are a nation divided.

Following this  there has been turmoil on the financial markets. The pound crashed and hasn’t recovered. Nearly 2 trillion pounds was wiped off the value of the stock market we are told. This hasn’t lasted. The FTSE index has now bounced back to well above the pre-referendum result. What does it all mean?

Perhaps most obviously at the moment there is a lack of consent over the leadership of our two main political parties. Present indications suggest that Theresa May will become leader of the conservatives and prime minister. This will leave someone who felt it was in the UK’s best interests to remain in the EU to lead the country through the process when we leave. How can that make sense? In retrospect it seems a bizarre that the referendum was conducted that has allowed the people to vote for a policy that none of the major political parties believes in.

And what of the 30,000 people yesterday who marched through London in favour of the EU? Are they anti-democratic in fighting against the result of a fair referendum  – or is there justification that the referendum was fought on a number of lies and promises that the major leave campaigners have now reneged on once the votes have been cast?

I started off by declaring that we are in a mess and this seems to be the one thing, perhaps the only thing, that we can concluded with certainty from the events of the last 10 days. But we’re a church, we’re in an act of Christian Worship. What is the role of the church? What is our role as Christians at a time of political crisis?

The Methodist Church has combined with the Baptists, URC and Church of Scotland to form the Joint Public Issues Team. The Team aims to enable our four Churches to work together in living out the gospel of Christ in the Church and in wider society. We aim to promote equality and justice by influencing those in power and by energising and supporting local congregations.

It published a booklet “Think, Pray, Vote” to guide its church members through the issues of the referendum campaign. That booklet takes as its starting point the “new commandments” of Jesus that we should Love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls and minds and love our neighbours as ourselves”. It goes on to suggest that for Christians the question underpinning the referendum should have been “To what extent does the European Union enhance or hinder our ability to love our neighbour and, in doing so, our ability to love God?”

There are two consequences of this approach which I want to focus on. The first is the implication here that, as Christians we should be voting for the option that gives us the best opportunity to love our neighbour. Our vote should not be cast for what we want, it should be cast for what God wants. This made the referendum very difficult because both sides were campaigning incessantly on what would be best for us and not exploring what would be best for our neighbour. An example would be the discussion of the money that we pay into the EU each week (whether it be £350 million or £120 million). We heard a lot of money about who gives it (us) but very little about who receives it (those areas of the EU who are much less well off than we are).

But the other thing that is important about the Church’s response is that it doesn’t advocate a particular policy. It acknowledges that the issues and political environment are complex and that, whilst Christians may agree in the overall aim, there might be differences of opinion amongst Christians in how to achieve it. The role of the church is to remind us of the values we hold as important and to place those at the forefront of our decision making.

This is essentially the message of the passage we have heard from Galatians this morning. The passage asks us to remind each other of God’s purpose. It places a particular burden on us to do this at times when we fear that others may have been misguided, but it also reminds us that we should continually test and re-test our own actions. It reminds us that if we sow to please the Spirit then from the Spirit we will reap eternal life. Finally it concludes “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people”.

You may feel that there is little you can do to influence the national debate but the nation is comprised of individuals, that is the essential truth that is acknowledge by any referendum and it is essential that we do what we can. In the coming weeks I ask you to go into your communities, to talk to friends and colleagues and families and to remind them of the values that we as Christians hold dear. Don’t necessarily get drawn into fierce political arguments but do remind others that we want a society that places the needs of our neighbours (however we define them) as more important than our own.

Which brings me back to Christian aid. Christian Aid is an organisation which has been doing exactly this for more than 70 years now. It has been promoting Christian values of compassion, justice and love to the British population. It does propose solutions and it does advocate policy but above all it reminds people of the centrality of Jesus commandment that we love our neighbour. The theme for this year has been “Love every neighbour”.

The house to house collection in Christian Aid week is the biggest single act of Christian witness in the UK every year. It is not just offering people an opportunity to donate money, it is placing before them a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven in which the poor shall be valued and the hungry fed. It is placing our values at the heart of the national debate. And it works, one of the things that we should acknowledge, whatever we think of our outgoing prime minister is that he has fought hard to increase, sustain and protect the overseas aid budget of this country. That wouldn’t be possible without the campaigning work of Christian and secular aid agencies working together to remind us all who our neighbours are.

So on behalf of Christian Aid I thank you for the support you have given us in the past. We are particularly thankful for the work of individuals like Bob but we are also thankful for the commitment of anyone who has supported our work in whatever way.

I want to end by re-inviting you to share Christian Aid’s mission in your own lives. I invite you to pray, particularly over the coming weeks of political turmoil, to be reminded of who your neighbour is and how you can express your love for them. Try not to get pulled into the nastiness of partisan political debate. Try instead to focus on a vision of God’s Kingdom in which the hungry are fed, the naked clothed and the sick cared for. Our role as Christians is to hold up these values as our gift to the world and to pray that others receive that gift and work with us towards bringing that Kingdom to fruition.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

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Christian Aid Week and Pentecost

I’m sure it is no coincidence that Christian Aid week quite often coincides with Pentecost and this sermon considers the link between them. It follows a reading of John 14:8-17 and 25-27 in which Jesus promises his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Today is Christian Aid Sunday which is something I am passionate about. Every year, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, almost all of them Christian church-goers, flood out onto the streets during Christian Aid week and raise over £6 million. The annual collection is the largest single act of Christian witness we have in this country.

Its history is particularly relevant to us in Europe at the moment. It started in the aftermath of the Second World War, as Christian Reconstruction in Europe.  When British and Irish Church ministers met determined to do everything they could to help European refugees who had last everything. We tend to think as refugees as a modern challenge but Christian Aid has been addressing their needs for nearly 70 years.

Today is also Pentecost. The Christian celebration of God’s Spirit coming among us to inspire, motivate and empower us to go into the world and work for the coming of God’s Kingdom. What better symbol could we have of this than Christian Aid week? Even the colours match. The liturgical colour for Pentecost is red. In the church I went to when we lived in Australia we were all encouraged to wear red at Pentecost. On many years I went along in the shirt I am wearing today. The colour of Christian Aid week is also red. Every collector who goes onto the streets this week will be carrying a bright red bag like this one. Look out for them, recognise God’s Spirit at work on our streets.

One aspect of Christian Aid week that I want to focus on this morning is how it is so obviously a good thing. We just look at it, all those people giving up their time, to collect significant sums of money for people throughout the world who have nothing. We have heard this morning the Word’s that the author of John’s gospel attributes to Jesus:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

John 14:16-17

God is going to give us the Spirit of Truth. We shall recognise this because it will be written in our hearts. The idea that an ability to recognise God and Truth, through what is written in our hearts is a strong and recurrent theme in the Bible. It’s true isn’t it? When we see God acting most powerfully in our lives we can recognise it instantly. There is something deep within us that responds to God and recognises him. Christian Aid week is a good example of this. We can see what is going on and something deep within us responds and recognises God working through it. All those Christians across Britain and Ireland setting out to ask for money, the money itself (£6.5 million pounds), the network of international partners to whom that money is spent. Most importantly we recognise God in the way that the lives of some of the poorest people in the world are transformed. All over the world people like Morsheda are being transformed into people like Feroza.

This ability to recognise God’s will through an effect deep within us and the willingness to be led by that experience is fundamental to Christianity. It contrasts strongly, however, with the way the rest of the world is moving at the moment. There seems to me to be a rapidly growing conviction that all we need to do to be responsible members of society is to keep within the law. The emphasis seems to be shifting from a desire to do what is good to a lesser goal of merely avoiding what is illegal. Within this there is a further trend to push the boundaries of the law so that many individuals and institutions will try and bend the law as much as possible to their advantage. Perhaps the clearest example at the moment is international tax law. The positions of the establishment at the moment appears to be that as long as companies are managing their businesses within the law then they are behaving appropriately. This leads to the situation in which the largest companies spend extremely large amounts of money employing clever people to work out ways of avoiding paying tax. This may be through multi-national companies transferring funds between different countries or by setting up labyrinthine and secretive financial arrangements based around foreign tax havens. Whenever these arrangements are questioned the establishment response is generally that the companies and individuals have done nothing illegal. We need to understand that there is a difference between doing what is legal and doing what is right. Doing what is legal results in trillions of dollars being sucked out of the world economy, particularly in the developing world, and deposited in secretive bank accounts. That money dwarfs the total global development budget, let alone what Christian Aid collects each year. If the world could focus on what is good rather than what is legal there would be absolutely no need for Christian Aid. God is not satisfied with us doing what is legal, he wants us to do what is right and to help us distinguish between the two he has sent his Spirit to live within us.

Most of us understand what Pentecost represents as a Christian Festival but to understand its significance we also need to understand what it represented as a Jewish festival. To the Jews, Pentecost was, and still is, a festival to mark God giving the Ten Commandments. It occurs 49 days after Passover to reflect the Jewish understanding, from biblical texts, that God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments 49 days after they had been liberated from Egypt on the first Passover. The Ten Commandments were a great move forwards in the history of religion. It is one of the very first ethical codes adopted by any religion anywhere. The commandments marked a transition from assuming that religion was primarily about appeasing God, or the gods, by religious ritual, particularly those involving animal sacrifice, to a view that religion should guide how we live our everyday lives.

The commandments were still, however, essentially a list of laws. It wasn’t long before those ten laws multiplied within Jewish culture. The books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus are almost entirely composed of laws. Laws about what you should eat, how you should worship, how you should dress. As a church we visited the Manchester Jewish Museum within the old Synagogue on Cheetham Hill Road just north of the city centre. It was fascinating visit but left me quite depressed at the emphasis there seemed to be observing what seemed to be as rather petty rules.

The early Christian movement presented something quite different – a new relationship with God not through observance of laws but through a personal relationship with the Spirit written in our hearts. It is now coincidence that that movement remembers that gift as being given on the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The symbolism is that the emphasis on observation of the Law has been replaced by that on a personal relationship with God. We have replaced a Jewish festival which celebrates one with a Christian festival which celebrates the other.

So let us join in that celebration. Let us all recognise the Spirit of God written within our hearts. Let us be inspired by the disciples who first experienced God in their hearts and went out to do what is right. Let us be inspired by all those Christian Aid collectors who have experienced God in their hearts and are stepping out of the comfort of their homes to do what they believe is right.  Let us not be satisfied, either as individuals or as a society, with doing what is legal. Let us work for what is right. It is only through doing this that we will work together with each other and our God to build his Kingdom.