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Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Down the centuries there have been many different ways of engaging with the life of the Church. At some points in history the majority have journeyed in parallel with the spiritual practices of an educated elite who were selected to offer prayer on behalf of those deemed to be unworthy. At other times there has been a compulsion for all to attend their local Church and to engage fully in the worship being conducted there. Today we find a more mixed economy: some attend Church, bringing with them a code of attitudes and beliefs which they expect others to respect and follow, while others seek a more spontaneous relationship with God. No matter what our personal feelings may be on the subject of Church membership and participation in public worship, because of our very human natures, we do not like to be seen as doing the wrong thing.
When I am on holiday I invariably attend worship in a local church. That often feels like going into a foreign land where I thought I was fluent in the language but where I suddenly know that I am lacking. No one can doubt that I know the liturgy of the Church of England, but each congregation seems to have the innate ability to make it incomprehensible to ‘outsiders’. In some churches I have been welcomed with open arms only to find myself being recruited for some rota or the other. In others I have been able to remain anonymous because it has been made perfectly clear that ‘outsiders’ are not welcome at all. Despite being on holiday, and therefore not wearing a clerical collar, I am often identified as being a priest because I have ‘a confidence’ in attending a ‘strange’ church that is not shared by other holiday makers.
As I sit, and try to pray, in churches that are unfamiliar, I often observe the local hierarchy acting out its weekly ritual. I can usually spot those who are valued by the local clergy and laity alike, just as I can spot those who are avoided for whatever reason. I can always see those who make a great show of getting things ‘right’, just as I can usually see those whose active participation in the mission and ministry of the church would not be welcome at all. It doesn’t take any insight to see those who like to be seen as the most ‘important’ and most ‘worthy’ members of those unfamiliar congregations.
Sadly, we do not have to be on holiday to see some of this. As you attend public worship look around you. What do you see? Do you see a social club that acts out a time of ritual or do you see a community of faith? Do you see an open and welcoming congregation that is eager to further the mission and ministry of Christ’s church or a coterie of local worthies who like to be seen doing the ‘right’ thing? Do you see a situation where the ragged and unpredictable Son of God would be welcomed or rejected?
Let us pray that we might set aside our need for the adulation of others and be Christ-like in our lives. Let us pray that the communities of faith to which we belong might be driven by love, prayer and service. Let us pray that we might welcome all into the light and joy of Christ, and not just those alongside whom we feel comfortable.