There are certain views about churchgoers, or believers, or whatever it is you want to call people of faith, that still seem to persist for a lot of people – chiefly those who don’t go to church, or profess to not have a faith themselves – views ranging from “They’re all right-wing reactionary bigots, to “Well, they’re really just well-meaning do-gooders, with no real clue of the real world.” Occasionally, to be fair, you do get people who do give church goers a fair(er) crack of the whip, but mostly we’re deemed irrelevant and misguided at best or dangerous brainwashing “dyed in the wool ‘faith head’” predators at worst. Or maybe I’ve just read too much Richard Dawkins …
In all honesty though, the church – or at least every church I’ve been involved in – has always been full of all different types of people; from those who are theologically conservative to those with more liberal views, from those who are more King James version and those who think The Message is way behind the times, from those that are comfortable with a charismatic, spirit-led free for all to those who stick faithfully to the Book of Common Prayer. Okay, maybe not exactly divided along such specific lines, but always with a sense of variety and difference within a united community.
It shouldn’t surprise us … look at the people Jesus had around Him (from Mark 3:14 -17).
- Simon Peter – the impetuous fisherman
- Andrew – Simon’s brother, the man who introduced Simon to Jesus (John 1:41,42)
- James, and his brother…
- John, the sons of Zebedee; also called the ‘sons of thunder’ (Mark 3:17)
- Philip – seems to be an early evangelist like his name sake in Acts
- Bartholomew – (possibly also called Nathanael) brought to Jesus by Philip in John 1:45ff
- Thomas – the famous doubter
- Levi/Matthew – the tax collector
- James, son of Alphaeus (possibly ‘James the younger’ in Mark 15:40)
- Thaddeus (probably ‘Judas, son of James’ from Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13ff)
- Simon the Zealot
- Judas Iscariot
The range of social, political and cultural views contained within that group is fairly diverse – deliberately so, I would say. So, why shouldn’t it be like that today?
Instead, things seem to have polarised somehow.
Those with a ‘social gospel’ or ‘liberal’ leaning seem to distance themselves from people with more ‘conservative evangelical’ preferences – look at the discussions and reactions to such issues as female bishops in the Church of England, or openly gay ministers in the Church of Scotland, or even the view – still held in certain denominations/churches that women shouldn’t speak/lead/minister in churches and that the Pope is – naturally – the antichrist!!
When researching a sermon last year, I came across the amazing fact that there are over 33,000 recognised Christian denominations! (According to the World Christian Encyclopaedia, 2001 and estimates from the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary – which puts the number as high as 43,000); it seems that if we Christians disagree about anything, instead of agreeing to disagree, or (heaven forbid) discuss it and work things through in a possibly prayerful way, we instantly press the big red button marked “SPLIT!” (it’s the button next to the one marked “SCHISM!” and just under the lever that says “JUDGMENTALISM”) and subdivide again and again.
No wonder that the world seems to look at the Church with exasperation and/or condescension …
Again, I’m thinking … Why?
Look again at the twelve – actually let’s narrow it down to two – specifically, Simon the Zealot and Levi/Matthew the tax collector.
Simon the Zealot was – and the clue is in the name here – a Zealot! (You know, I went to Bible College to gain such deep theological insight!) Now, the Zealots, particularly at the time, were a group of extreme nationalists who resisted payment of taxes to Rome and were pledged to drive out the Romans, using force of arms if necessary. The Zealots hated the Romans, everything they stood for and everyone who associated themselves with them, associates like a certain tax collector, for instance.
Levi/Matthew was a tax collector – and if you think the Inland Revenue aren’t particularly popular these days that’s nothing compared to the contempt reserved for tax collectors in Jesus’ time. Tax collectors were collaborators of the worst kind; home-grown traitors who collected/extorted money from the masses for their Imperial masters and their own private gain. They were despised, hated, rejected and shunned by their good Jewish contemporaries … people like Simon the Zealot – in fact, people like all the disciples!
Nevertheless, Jesus calls Levi/Matthew into the fold – showing everyone (from the watching crowds to His closest followers) that He really meant His kingdom to encompass us all. And somehow, the presence of Jesus meant that it worked – somehow Jesus being the person that they followed allowed Simon the Zealot and Levi/Matthew the Tax Collector (and all the disciples) to see beyond their histories, their politics, their errors and their chequered pasts to see each other, ultimately, as brothers in Christ.
I don’t know, but maybe it’s not a bad idea for today …
I think it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we Christians could try to see beyond our collective histories, politics, errors and chequered pasts and start to behave as though we really were brothers and sisters in Christ, as though “we who are many are now one body” (Rom. 12:5). Don’t you?
After all, if we start to behave like a community of forgiven and loving children of God, then maybe – just maybe – the world might start to see as something more akin to what Jesus seemed to have in mind when He said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35).
And, if they could see that, and see that we would welcome them, in much the same way that Jesus could welcome such disparate people as Simon the Zealot and Levi/Matthew the Tax Collector into His community and into His friendship, then maybe – just maybe – they actually might start to see beyond us, and catch a glimpse of Him …