3 October 2010
Have you ever been ashamed to be a Christian?
When I first became a Christian I thought that the very idea of being ashamed of the faith that we have to be laughable – who could possibly be ashamed to be in a living relationship with God, to be able to worship God with joy, to feel the love of God in one’s heart and to be a part of the eternal story of God’s creation? Where is the possible shame in that?
And then I started telling people about my growing faith. I was in my early 20s at this point and was working as an articled clerk and I spoke to one of my fellow articled clerks who, somehow, I knew to be a Christian and, as it happens, she is now married to a vicar in Sussex. So I spoke to this girl about being a Christian and she started to get all embarrassed. She then told me that she was embarrassed as she didn’t like either talking about her own faith or even hearing anyone else talk about their faith. I don’t think that she was actually ashamed to be a Christian but she was certainly embarrassed about talking about it and to a reasonably new and keen Christian this was a revelation and a bit of a shock.
And then, as I grew up a bit and was exposed to more and more of the Christian world, I am sorry to say, that I discovered more reasons to be embarrassed or even ashamed of calling myself a Christian, and most of those reasons were the actions of some of my fellow Christians. Firstly there was then the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland in which Protestants and Catholics were still killing in each in the name of religion. Then there were people like Fred Phelps with his “God Hates Fags” campaign, then the Church of England itself spends decades squabbling over the gender and sexuality of clergy and then, most recently, there have been all the terrible stories of child abuse carried out by priests which have sometimes made me feel ashamed to wear a dog collar.
And at the same time as the actions of our fellow Christians can sometimes make us feel ashamed to admit that we hold the same faith so our increasingly secular society seems determined to push faith to the margins; to make faith a purely private matter which we can do in Church on a Sunday morning but which must not dare to intrude into the workplace on Monday morning. You will doubtless all have heard the stories about airline stewardesses being disciplined for wearing crosses, teachers disciplined or dismissed for talking about their faith in school and even schools in Catholic Italy being required to remove crosses from walls because of European legislation. And of course, who can forget the famous Alistair Campbell line: “We don’t do God.” Even though everyone knew that the Blair family had a deep Christian faith we were told in no uncertain terms that faith and the public sphere do not mix.
And I think that, as Christians, we take on board all those messages, we learn to think of faith as being a purely private thing, I know some Christians who wont even come to church because that is too much of a public statement, we learn to be a little bit embarrassed by the actions of some other Christians and we learn to keep our heads down and keep quiet about what is, for many Christians, an incredibly important if not the most important part of their lives.
Believe it or not, and despite my some of the feelings of embarrassment that I mentioned a moment ago, I have always been very ‘out’ about being a Christian, even when I worked in some hard nosed law firms. I never bible bashed my colleagues, but they knew that I sometimes went to church at lunchtimes in the City and they knew without doubt that I was a Christian. You would be amazed at the number of people who said to me at one time or another that they were Christians too but they never felt able to mention it in the workplace because, you guessed it, they were ashamed or embarrassed to be known publicly as Christians. I can tell you that the number of closeted Christians out there is huge and it often only takes one person to be bold to help others overcome their embarrassment.
In his letter to his young protégé Timothy St. Paul commends him for the gift of faith and reminds him that this is not meant to be a cowardly faith to be keep hidden out of shame:
“…for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-disipline. Do not be ashamed then of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with holy calling, not according to our works but according to his purposes and grace.”
God gives us a spirit of power and we are not relying on our own strength or abilities but on the power of God. We may sometimes be embarrassed or ashamed by the actions of our fellow Christians but Paul is reminding us that what each of us has is a calling from God and that God is the reliable source of power behind everything we do – there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. And as Paul tells Timothy not to be ashamed so Paul says clearly that he is not ashamed and why:
“I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”
I am not ashamed – For I know the one in whom I put my trust.
To know God is to love God and to be connected with the source of love and power and self discipline is to overcome the spirit of cowardice which so often seems to afflict us. And for that we need faith, and faith is sometimes fragile and hard to come by in a world which places so little value on it.
Faith is a pure gift from God and we know that faith which is as small as a tiny mustard seed can grow into the tallest of trees. If you ever feel that your seed of faith needs resowing, or watering or weeding then never feel that you are on your own – faith is a gift from God but it is not scattered blindly or rarely – God rains the seeds of faith on us continually and he listens to our needs and our prayers – if you need God to build up your faith then you could do worse than to join in with the request of the Apostles themselves:
“Increase our faith.”
Here is a variation on a story you have probably heard before:
There was a tourist walking in the Lake District. He fell over a precipice. As he plummeted down, he grabbed the branch of a small tree. He looked up and desperately called out, “Help! Help! If there is anyone up there, help!” The divine cloud appeared, the angelic choir sang, and a voice from heaven said: “I am here. I will help you. Let go of the branch, and I will send the holy angels to hold you safe in my supporting arms. Have faith. Let go.” The lad looked up, looked down to the jagged rocks below, looked up again, and asked: “Is there anyone else up there?”
We must have faith and trust in Jesus Christ, who died and rose for us, not just to show that he loves us, but to declare that we are lovable. If God loves us so much, we ought to be able to love ourselves.
The apostles were asking for the thing of greatest worth. They were asking for a solid faith — however small, even as small as a mustard seed. Faith means trust in God. That is where all one’s hopes are founded.
In our scripture, Jesus explains faith by presenting a hard parable. He speaks of a servant who has to deal with all his responsibilities and tasks, before he can take his rest. He does not receive congratulations or praise, let alone thanks, for merely doing his duty. “Does the master thank the servant because he did what was commanded?”
In the matter of increasing faith, Jesus says to us: “Do your duty, and God will do his.” Having faith does not mean gliding through life and expecting God and others to come to the rescue when your fecklessness and inattentiveness have got you into a jam. We all have to do what we can; but Jesus Christ will be there with us, guiding, supporting, and rescuing. Increase our faith to do this. And help us to say: “We are unworthy servants: we have only done what was our duty.”
Sometimes our fellow Christians may give us reason to be ashamed and sometimes the world tries to push us into a corner where we can be safely ignored. Remember always that our faith is not based on the actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ and it is certainly not based in the approval or disapproval of the wider world. Christ came into the world to redeem the world and that work of redemption continues through his church today. So do not be ashamed of your faith but rather join your prayers with those of the apostles:
“O, Lord, increase our faith.”