If ever one thought the Jesus project had anything to do with finding a comfortable place in this world and living out of it, then this passage promises anything but. This coming of Jesus into the world is all about turning the status quo upside down and reimagining what it means to be human.
In the 21st century we are living in just such a time. Over the period of the last century our world has changed from that known by our predecessors of all the centuries before. No more are we at the mercy of invaders and wars, diseases and early death, or the whims of gods who decided when to rain, send pestilence or cause a famine. During the 20th century the capacity for human beings to design and control their world has advanced beyond anything our grandparents could have imagined.
We live in a connected web where remote places on the other side of the world are but just a click of the keyboard away, where diseases once thought incurable are things of the past and where the basic rudimentary necessities of life are available to most despite droughts, floods, fires and famines. Technology, science and the connected world of the internet has effectively changed humans capacity to change and manage the world and has advanced evolution at warp speed beyond the natural processes envisaged by Darwin.
It has been suggested that the primary projects for the 21st century are to find ways to live forever (immortality), to be happy and to be the gods (Homo deus) of our own existence. Again we are well on the way to doing so.
People are now dying of the diseases of old age, cancer and illnesses never before seen because we used to die young. More people die of either diabetes or suicide than die in wars or as the result of terrorism or famine as we find ways to ameliorate violence and scarcity.
Where in the midst of all this is the church and the mission of Jesus? How do we live out the prophetic calling we hear from Jesus, the calling to live and speak in opposition to the wisdom of the day as espoused by those seeking to fulfil these 21st century projects or the voices in the church who want us to remain in the paradigms of the past when gods in heaven ruled our very existence?
How do we speak to these things when most people have little or no need of God or the church, nor see the relevance of either in a modern world where the mystery of the vagaries of life can be explained by science, logic and rational thought? What has served us well in the past no longer does and we have moved on to find those things that do.
Jesus is blunt: “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” This is often interpreted as a comment on those who pursue the success, wealth, prominence and power, the ignoring of the kingdom of God, but I would suggest it also refers to those who hang onto things that have saved them in the past and refuse to be moved into a new place from which to live. Jesus is not referring to a spiritual experience, the soul, but a physical and material existence called life; that nebulous, sensuous and emotional existence we participate in as evolving human beings. It also applies to the organisations and institutions human beings build to support their worldview. Without the capacity to evolve, these organisatons and institutions become moribund and chained to the past, past memories, past actions and past relevancies.
Today, more than ever the church is facing a pivotal moment in its history and theology – how to engage with a world that has left much of what we have built our faith and life on behind? This applies to the large institutional churches as it does to local parochial churches such as St Oswald’s.
This challenges the thinking of those who lead these churches. Is what we are being taught in theological colleges and from parish pulpits in tune with and casting light on the questions of today and not the questions of the past which have, for the betterment of most people, been answered by the evolving knowledge base of humans? Or are we still answering old questions and needs with out-dated understandings? Are we being empowered by the knowledge we learn to address questions that have never been asked, or needed to be asked before or do we remain with both the questions and answers of the past?
This challenges our responses to the needs of the human beings (and non-human beings) around us? Are our responses still those that we have used both successfully and unsuccessfully in the past or are we called to speak a different language and imagine new ways to engage and meet needs? When we begin the process of change we often fall back on what we know, but what we know is about the past, not about the future – the past because we have some experience of it, the future because we have yet to experience it.
Where we are now in terms of the massive changes that have occurred is relatively new. The key year for the massive change in science, technology and medicine was 2007 – the year when the rate of change moved into the era of exponential change – what scientists call crossing into the second half of the chess board. And it can’t be reversed.
In terms of our local community we are witnessing incredible change in demographics, cultures and languages. The culture and traditions we have believed to be cemented in place are beginning to unravel and be replaced by foreign traditions and practices.
What is needed in the midst of this tectonic shift in human existence is a similar tectonic shift in our understanding of faith and the way we practice and share that faith in a world we haven’t been in before.
Jesus is blunt – making this shift will be costly because we will leave behind the world of the elders, the theological overlords and those who are tasked with enforcing tradition. He makes it clear that the Son of Man and those that follow this process must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders responsible for maintaining the status quo, the system both religious and secular – chief priests, and the scribes – and be killed, and after three days, after a period of time, rise again.
We, this church, need to change. Change what we do, how we do it and reimagine why we do it. We are at the crossroads, we can either hang onto the past and risk perishing with it or we can step out into a path unknown, prepared to relearn and become a prophetic and compassionate voice for the future.
That was the reason we undertook our strategic planning process. the steps we have taken in it are tentative and unsure with a focus on the future and the occasional glance to the past. It is but a beginning. More drastic action may be required. At least we have begun the conversation with the 21st century committing ourselves to find ways to be the imitators of Christ in the here and now.
Let us step forward with confidence and engage the task at hand aware of the faithfulness of God and the disruption of the Spirit, both found in the obedience of the Christ.