St Stephen's Lewisham

Sunday, 29th July 2001

 

This is the last of four sermons intended for The Man (or Woman!) in the Pew, and it will look at the question, If our faith is true, why do so few people believe in it?

Letís listen in on a conversation at the local Pub between a Man-in-the-Pew (who goes to church every Sunday) and a Man-in-the-Pub (who doesnít). Weíll call them PewMan and PubMan.

"Very well," says the PubMan to the PewMan. "if thatís what you believe, and you believe it because itís true, how come that everyone doesnít believe it?"

The quick answer to PubMan is that people donít believe it because they donít want to! itís too disturbing for most people even to think about it. If, as Pewman believes, Jesus Christ alone is the Way the Truth and the Life and nobody can comes to the Father except through him, it means that weíre dealing with a person: and persons answer back and make demands upon us. Our God, is a consuming fire. Those who play with fire risk getting their fingers burnt Ė and not just their fingers! Small wonder that few want to take that risk.

Having made that point to PubMan letís correct two mistaken ideas which his question suggests he holds..

Pointing out these mistakes should give PubMan food for thought. He justifies distancing himself from the PewMan because PewMen are presently in a minority Ė which is irrelevant as to whether what they believe is true or not; at the same time he dismisses PewManís beliefs without having given five minutesí serious thought about whether theyíre true or not. So PubManís views get off to a bad start.

Note that PubManís problem isnít atheism. If heíd seriously thought about God and decided on the available evidence that thereís no such Person, then PubMan would be far closer God than he in fact is. For the thoughtful atheist, who has examined claims which Jesus Christ makes on us and decided, perhaps reluctantly, that they arenít true may, upon further thought, realise that heís made a mistake. Like many others, his disbelief is based on a misunderstanding. Bad teaching early in life is often the reason for such misunderstandings. A good teacher can undo the mischief done by the bad one earlier on, whether the subject is history, geometry or the Christian faith.

So Pubmanís real problem is that he deliberately avoids asking Ė or even caring Ė whether PewManís beliefs are true or false, right or wrong. This contempt for the truth is quite a recent thing. Whereas ordinary peopleís interest and knowledge about material things has increasied by leaps and bounds, their interest in, and knowledge about the ultimate significance of those material things has reached an all-time low!

Until recently people were used to arguing passionately about whether Jesus Christ is God incarnate Ė as we PewMen believe Ė or just another Very Good Man whose moral teachings we should follow in our daily lives. Some people would even say that Jesus was a deluded first-century Middle-Eastern fanatic who had misunderstood his vocation: These people didnít just argue about it, either. They lived as they believed. Those who believed him to be God worshipped and obeyed him; those who saw him as a great moral teacher spent their lives in the service of humanity; whilst those who believed him a charlatan tried to persuade others against believing what they saw as being superstitious nonsense.

Not so today. Questions like "What do you think of Christ?" are seldom asked. Questions about the purpose of life, if they are asked at all, are answered in terms of self-fulfilment and personal achievement, This refusal to think about things is worrying because it effectively closes off every avenue whereby PubMan can be led into the way of truth, not just the truth about the Christ but about anything Ė including Pubman himself!!

Behind Pubmanís refusal to ask questions lies PubManís reluctance to face facts: two facts in particular, even when they are staring him in the face: facts about the finitude or limitation of this earth and our lives upon it.

First, thereís the inescapable fact that weíre all going to die. Itís said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Well, most of us accept the necessity of paying taxes. But when it comes to thinking about death PubMan fights shy. Death is the last great taboo: the thing we neither talk nor think about. Once it was Sex: nowadays that gets talked about all the time; Death has replaced sex as the Great Unmentionable.

Second, and contrary to what PubMan has been taught to believe, things like health, wealth, happiness or success arenít guaranteed to any of us, least of all in the measure which would permanently satisfy us. One reason is that most of us donít remain satisfied for long. But in addition most of us, when weíre being honest with ourselves recognise that there are whatís called glass ceilings above our heads. However hard we try, we can never get above that ceiling. Some peopleís ceilings are higher than others. If we donít get all we want out of life the probability is that as an individual we never had "what it takes" to get it in the first place. God, invites us to accept our glass ceilings cheerfully, thanking God for our "creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, but above all for [his] inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ" as the General Thanksgiving puts it, and rejoicing that other people ceilings and achievements are higher than our own.

PubMan, by refusing think about those two inbuilt limitations to earthly life, death and glass ceilings, makes himself inaccessible to the truth as revealed in Jesus Christ. Itís not the ordinary sins which separate PubMan from God today. People are no more given to adultery, murder, stealing or drunkenness than in the past: fashions in sin come and go as often as fashions in clothes. But PubManís systematic refusal to face facts about himself, his life and death keep him securely isolated from God. Itís the sin against Truth and the Holy Ghost himself; the sin which Jesus tells us is unforgivable until itís repented of..

Thereís no quick fix to this problem. So let me end by highlighting three practical ways in which PewMan and Pew-Woman who do face the facts of our finitude and death, differ from PubMan..

     

  1. We Pewmen recognize our limitations. Every Mass begins with us admitting our failures. PubMan, however, looks at himself with considerable satisfaction. Is it surprising then, that heís reluctant to become involved in something which might disturb his complacency?.
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  3. We PewMan know weíre going to die. Many of us here this morning will die during the next thirty years. But we believe that since we are in Christ, whom God the Father raised from the dead, we shall be raised to life together with him. So our death is something for us to look forward to. Of course, the actual process of dying is likely to be messy, painful and embarrassing. But, that being said, you and I couldnít wish to die in better company than that of our fellow-Pewmen, living and departed. We know from watching those who have died that it can be done with dignity. We understand that death is a necessary step before enjoying fully the things that really matter. Surrounded by the living who share this belief, what better support could we have in our last days?
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  5. Just compare a Requiem Mass at St Stephenís with your average funeral at the Crematorium to see the difference. We donít need "bereavement counselling" and all the other accoutrements of death which are so fashionable today. Having already faced up to our mortality and finitude we donít have to worry about what to say. The liturgy of the Requiem Mass says it all. Once a year, on All Souls Day in November, we celebrate our mortality and finitude together with all those who have gone before us in the faith.

So PubManís real question shouldnít be "Why do so few people come to church?" but "Why do so few people face up to reality?" The answer is simple, they really donít want to. Our mission must begin by persuading them to take their death and finitude seriously before itís too late!

 

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