Blowing the Gospel

September 21, 2008

Glynn Cardy

Feast of St Matthew


Like blowflies to a carcass of raw meat, religion always attracts an unsavoury element. Ideologues, legalists, and the narrow-minded swarm in turning ancient sayings, customs, and understandings into ecclesial laws and moral dictates, submerging the spiritual beneath their own needs to control and be controlled. Reformers like Jesus spend a lot of their time trying to swat them away.


It is amazing that the carcass of religion survives and can be taken, cleaned, prepared, cooked, and served to feed the spiritual desires and hopes of normal people.


St Matthew’s is part of religion. It offers a spiritual space you can get pleasantly lost in. It offers liturgies and music, people and events, thoughts and writings. It is a place of spiritual refreshment, a well for the thirsty rather than a club for the well-heeled.


When you are not part of a church, or have had a bad experience of it, it is difficult often to see past the blowflies religion attracts. Their noise and activity obscures all the good you hope is there


One of the concepts that Christianity talks about is sin. Rather than a list of what we think is naughty, bad, or evil the Bible offers a brief but profound description: ‘that which separates us from God’. For some there seems to be a great chasm between them and God. Sin is a big deal. For others, like me, it seems like acknowledging the air we breathe. God is and has always been very close even when I’m unaware. Nothing I can do will change that closeness. God is unconditional love. And unconditional means unconditional.


Blowflies love the notion of sin. They have turned it into an industry. They have compiled and graded huge lists of sins. They have devised complex methods of trying to diffuse God’s supposed wrath and earn approval. Judgement, guilt, misery, and ecclesial power mongers are the maggots produced.


The message of Jesus and St. Paul is that God doesn’t feel that separation between the divine and human. Their message is ‘You are forgiven, so live free’. Whether you understand that this is the result of the death and resurrection of Jesus [like Paul did], or whether you understand that this has always been the nature of the God called Love [like Jesus did], the message is the same: ‘Forget sin. Forget the things you think are blocking you from God. Sure get your relationships with other people as right as you can, but don’t think God has a list of grievances against you.’


When liturgies say week by week “Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world have mercy on us”, and “I am not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under your table”, I think God weeps. Blowfly thinking and blowfly readings of Scripture have triumphed. By our words we are saying that we don’t believe that God has taken away the sins of the world. We don’t believe that God has forgiven anything that ever needs to be forgiven. We don’t trust God. We don’t believe the 16th century Reformers understanding of ‘the once and for all’ nature of grace. We don’t believe we are loved unconditionally. We prefer to listen to that blowfly in our mind that continues to say we are not worthy.


As retired Bishop John Bluck once said about such theology, ‘It is like the cream doughnuts we had as kids. We know the taste and like it. We also know that it kills our hearts.’


God wants us to live free. God doesn’t see us as two-year olds who need constant scrutiny and control. God trusts us as adults. It is hard to spread a spiritual message of hope – a message that everyone is unconditionally loved, the Divine is known in that love, and together we can make the world a better place – when we don’t believe it. Or at least I think we don’t believe it. The authorised liturgies of the Anglican Church that thousands recite weekly declare our corporate disbelief in the power of God’s love and the enduring, atoning work of Jesus.


This is a large part of the reason our Worship Committee and I have been proactive, especially over the last year, in writing new liturgies that take God’s love seriously. It’s not a case of change for change’s sake, but change for integrity’s sake.


While all of us need to reflect on and examine our lives, our successes and failures, good things and bad, there is a huge difference between seeing our actions or even ourselves as ‘sinful’ and imagining that God sees us similarly. ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God.’ This is the theological reality of the Gospel. We have been and always will be forgiven. God isn’t interested in the scratches we get when we fall off the bicycle of life. God wants us to get back on it, and live, love and pedal free. The blowflies want us to stay looking down at our bloody knees and forget the liberty of God.


As part of her service of installation a few weeks ago the Bishop of Christchurch, Victoria Matthews, prostrated herself before the altar and reportedly stayed there flat on the floor for some minutes. This is an old symbolic rite of unworthy subjects humbling themselves before a mighty king. It is also blowfly theology.


To use parental language for God: ‘Is this what a parent wants of their children? Is submission what a parent values, desires, and needs?’


Well, this is exactly what one sort of parent does want: the insecure parent. This is the parent who never wants their children to grow up. This is the parent who doesn’t want their children to become adults, make their own choices, and live their own lives. This is the parent who wants their children always to be dependent because they are frightened of losing them.


Maybe the greatest blasphemy is that blowflies have made us believe that God is insecure. That God needs us to be obedient submissive children rather than creative powerful adults. That God needs us to prostrate ourselves rather than stand tall, proud, and answer back. That God needs us to say every day that we are weak and God is strong. That God needs us to be insecure in order to disguise God’s own insecurity and fear.


And what we also know about insecure parents and the insecure children they produce is they are risk adverse. They won’t venture into new ways of thinking and acting. If we are going to heal this world, to thwart the violence and the greed that feeds it, we need to find new ways to think and act. That will involve taking risks.


I believe in a God whose love is secure. I believe in a God whose freedom is grounded in that love. I believe in a God who wants us to be secure and revel in the knowledge that we are loved and that we are free. Only then can we build relationships that express a selfless love and a courageous freedom.


I have used the metaphor of blowflies but it has this inadequacy: there are significant, powerful, religious and political interests in keeping people fettered, sinful, and spiritually insecure. They should not be underestimated. I call them blowflies, but remember they managed to kill Jesus. They managed to corrupt his message. They managed to instil in Christians the need for continuous repentance. They managed to promote and have widely accepted a view of humanity as untrustworthy. The Gospel of unconditional grace and empowerment has been turned into a rulebook of earned love and servitude.


This Church of St Matthew is named after a man who followed the grace and freedom of Jesus. He didn’t beat himself up every day of the week saying ‘Woe is me a sinner.’ Instead he moved on from being so defined and therefore so restricted. He left the bad things of his past behind. Let us likewise trust God, trust the message of Jesus, and get on with living loved, living free, and living powerfully in order that all may be loved, free and powerful.

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