St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 19th April 2015
Readings – 1 Peter 1:3-9; Luke 24:36-53
So polling day is fast approaching. We’ve received all the leaflets through our door, we’ve heard the leaders’ speeches on the news, we’ve seen the posters and the billboards on our streets, and if you haven’t yet had candidates knocking at your door, I’m sure it is only a matter of time. Everyone is out trying to persuade you to vote for them. Millions of pounds are being spent to convince you to adopt their policies and believe their promises, all with the hope that on May 7 they will receive enough votes to form the next government of the United Kingdom.
So how should we as Christians respond?
Well, one response is to say that politics has nothing to do with the Christian faith. Our job as believers is to preach the good news and our sole aim is to win souls for Jesus Christ. Now, of course, there is a certain amount of truth in that approach. Our calling is to grow the church and to make the gospel known to each new generation. But souls have bodies that need feeding and minds that need educating. We cannot ignore the issues and the concerns which directly affect those we are seeking to reach.
In fact, if we ignore politics completely, then we run the very real risk that we end up saying that the Christian faith is only really concerned about the spiritual side of life and that following Jesus is only about what you do for and on behalf of the church. And when we do that, we play into the hands of our opponents who – as far as they are concerned – see the Christian faith as a religion only to be practised in our own personal, private lives, and should never be allowed to enter the public domain. No, the political side of life should matter to us, just as, for example, it mattered to John the Baptist when he rebuked King Herod, or to Jesus when he testified before Pontius Pilate.
But this does not mean, on the other hand, that as Christians we should equate following Jesus with voting for one political party, and I certainly believe the pulpit is never the place to tell people how to cast their vote. All political parties reflect the values of this world. None of them are perfect, and none of them have as their overriding objective the establishment of God’s kingdom on this earth. And until the Lord Jesus returns, we will always have governments over us – of whatever party – who fall short of the standards God expects of them.
So what are the guiding principles that should help us as we approach the general election?
First of all, Jesus is alive and He is Lord.
That’s what Jesus taught His disciples in our reading this morning when He stood among them and said Peace be with you (Luke 24:36). He gave them convincing proof that even though He had been nailed to a cross, He had now been gloriously raised to new life and given a new resurrection body. So when they were startled and terrified at His appearance He showed them His hands and feet (Luke 24:40) and He ate a piece of broiled fish (Luke 24:42). He wanted them to understand that not even death could hold Him and He would now be with them forever as their Lord and Saviour, with power and authority over all things.
And fundamental to our Christian faith is that this same Jesus is alive and with us now as our Lord and Saviour. So what has this got to do with politics? Very simply, that Jesus has to be our primary allegiance. Nothing should matter to us more than the fact Jesus reigns over all. Yes, there are many other important issues in this election. Yes, we should be passionate about health or the economy or immigration. But the thing that should concern us most is the freedom to declare our faith and to express our allegiance to Christ.
This needs saying, because over the past ten, twenty years this freedom to declare our faith is being very quietly and very subtly eroded in two important aspects. To begin with, the history of our nation is being rewritten so that the contribution of the Christian faith to so many of our public institutions and laws is being ignored and marginalised – with the result that, as has become clear from several recent school inspections, British values no longer mean Christian values. Rather Christians are viewed as intolerant, bigoted and out of step with society.
This is why increasingly individual Christians and businesses run by Christians are being prosecuted under equality legislation. So even as we speak a bakery in Northern Ireland is awaiting to hear what punishment if any it will receive for the crime of failing to bake a cake for a gay rights activist who deliberately targeted that business. If the bakery loses that case, then we shall have hundreds more similar actions, all designed to drive expression of the Christian faith out of the public sphere.
So, whichever party gets elected on May 7, we need to pray for a government who understands and recognises the value and importance of the Christian faith – but not only in this country. One thing has become painfully clear over the past few years is how little secular governments in the West understand the importance of religion around the world and how unwilling they are to speak out for persecuted Christians. Sometimes the suffering of our brothers and sisters in places like Syria and Iraq does reach the headlines. But rarely do those in power acknowledge they have been targeted because they are Christian, let alone take active measures to ensure their safety and welfare.
How, then, should we as Christians respond to all the policy announcements and promises that our political leaders are making at the moment?
Well, the second point that comes out of this passage is that for Christians our main manifesto is the Bible because it is the word of God. When the risen Lord Jesus appeared to the disciples we are told in verse 45 that: He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He helped them to understand His identity and their mission as His followers. And the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives today is similarly to reveal God’s word to us so that we learn more and more who Jesus is and how He wants us to live for Him day by day.
This doesn’t mean that we should treat the Bible as a handbook which seeks to give us rules in every situation. Unlike Islam, the Christian faith does not try and impose one uniform culture everywhere.
But some teaching in the Bible is clear. For example, God’s word talks about marriage about being between one man and one woman. Why? Not in order to oppress those who struggle in this area, or to condemn those who fail to maintain their relationships, and I am not suggesting for a moment that we should return to the days when those not properly married were stigmatised or outcast. But because marriage is seen as a God-given institution which forms the building block of society. So when, for example, in Mark chapter 10, Jesus is asked about marriage and divorce, the first thing Jesus does after giving teaching in this area is to take children in His arms and bless them.
And that teaching has inevitably has political consequences. It means, for example, that we need a government who understands how important it is to adequately fund the treatment of mental health issues which impact not only on individuals affected, but also on their families. It means we have to think carefully about how to teach children about the importance of strong, committed relationships especially when what they watch online is sending out a very different message. It means we need to consider carefully the ethics of medical technology and whether we should create, for example, embryos from the DNA of three people. We won’t as Christians all agree how the Bible’s teaching should apply in every area, and none of us can be experts in every field. But we can at least understand that God’s word calls us to engage and we need to prayerfully read and reflect on that word as we look at the issues society faces.
Some teaching in the Bible is clear and directly relevant. Other teaching provides more of a guiding principle where the exact application is perhaps less straightforward. So, for example, throughout the Bible there is a bias towards the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalised. When the prophets of the Old Testament preached to the people of Israel, they brought a message of judgement because of the way the poor of the land were being exploited and downtrodden. When Jesus came preaching and teaching in the New he spent time with social outcasts, with tax collectors and prostitutes and otherwise unspecified sinners.
What, then, would Jesus, I wonder, make of research that shows in the West the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening over the past 30 years? Or that the top 1% in the world now own more than the other 99% combined? We can’t be sure, but we do know that He called the rich man who built bigger barns for himself a fool, and said: This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God (Luke 12:21).
And what about those areas where it is difficult to see directly applicable Biblical teaching? For example, the Bible says nothing about climate change or nuclear power or recycling. But it does teach us that we are stewards of God’s creation and that our sinful behaviour affects the world around us. Now we may disagree what this means for individual Christians. But we need to discuss openly and honestly our different positions and when we do so with love and grace, we may well discover what the risen Lord is saying to us even on those issues.
Yet it is important that we do not spend so long discussing them that we become sidetracked from our primarily calling as the body of Christ.
After all, the third thing that Jesus teaches us from this passage is that we are called to be witnesses of these things (v.48). That is, we are to testify that Jesus has risen from the dead and that we are to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name to all nations.
Which all sounds pretty clear, but this hasn’t stopped Christians arguing as to what exactly He means. So, on the one hand, there are those who say that we should go out and spread the word, that all our efforts should be directly towards verbal communication of the gospel, using whatever means at our disposal to make the good news known. While, on the other hand, there are those who say that we should go out and get involved in social action. We need to communicate the good news by the way we care for the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable so that people see the risen Christ in our actions.
Actually, as we think about what it means to be engaged politically, it’s important to realise these aren’t mutually exclusive alternatives. In many parts of the world the preaching of the gospel goes hand in hand with projects designed to benefit local communities. So, for example, an organisation like Tearfund, which we supported on Wednesday at our coffee morning, works through the local church to alleviate the needs of communities in poverty. It sees its mission as helping the local body of Christ realise its full potential to be the agent of change, ready to care for the whole person in every way.
It is really only in the West that we have created this artificial division between our faith as something we practice in church or in the privacy of our homes, and the rest of our lives. So maybe it is not too surprising that we have ended up with a political establishment that seems to misunderstand and marginalise the Christian faith. They are working with the understanding that what you choose to believe is a matter of your own personal choice and so long as you keep it to yourself, that’s absolutely fine.
That’s why I believe it is so important that we go back again and again to our mission statement and work out how St Michael’s and St Barnabas are called to be in the wider world. We need to show in our own individual lives that following Jesus as our risen Lord and living by His word makes as much a difference on Monday afternoon as on Sunday morning. We need to show in our life as a church that we not only want to preach the good news to the local community, but also seek to address some of their needs.
How precisely we do that with the resources at our disposal is of course a big question. But just as Jesus promised to the first disciples that they would be clothed with power on high, so Jesus promises to equip us with His Holy Spirit as we seek to live for Him day by day.
And our hope and prayer at this general election must be for candidates who also own the risen Lord and seek to serve Him in the power of the same Holy Spirit. It is easy to tar all politicians with the same brush, but let us not forget there are godly men and women who do seek to serve the Lord as MPs. They are very running against the tide of popular opinion at the moment, and they will find it increasingly hard to make their faith public. We need to find out who they are, we need to support them and pray for them. If we do not see part of our wider witness as engaging with the world of politics, then we have less reason to complain about a government who seems determined to marginalise and undermine our Christian faith.
But as to where exactly you put your cross on May 7 – well, I am not going to tell you that. As I hope I have made clear this morning, that decision needs to be with you and the risen Lord. Spend some time in God’s word. Look at Jesus’ priorities as He walked this earth and what He taught His disciples. And ask He might clothe you with power on high so that you honour Him with your choice, whatever that might be, to the praise and glory of His name. Amen.