In the Name...
A grumpy fellow once complained to a pastor, "I don't go to church because it's full of hypocrites." "That's not true,” the pastor replied, "We're not nearly full at all and I’m sure you’ll find a seat."
Our lessons, this morning, share the common theme that there is a vast difference between the way human beings act and think and the way that God acts and thinks. Not so many years ago, we heard a lot about the various gaps in our society. The generation gap, the nuclear arms gap, the education gap. Today, we have the gender gap, the economic gap, and gap insurance. But, this morning we are reminded of one in which all of us live and that is the credibility gap. The credibility gap. That is, the space between what we say we know and believe and what we actually do.
Now, hypocrisy is not the same thing as the credibility gap, because the hypocrite denies it exists. Hypocrites are perfect people who never make mistakes or do anything wrong. That's why they never go to church. Did you know that? People who do go to church, on the other hand, know they're not perfect and so they summon up the courage to face the gap, to kneel, sit, and stand in the presence of God and know the joy and comfort of being accepted by the perfect God even with the imperfections they have.
The danger, though, for the church-goer is that we can fall into a sense of complacency with a routine and, while admitting our imperfections, not do much to overcome them and that is what the outsider can legitimately criticize about us. If our church experience doesn't seem to bear fruits.
The fact is that most people in society, inside or outside of church, want to lead decent lives. Most people, religious and non-religious, are sincere about wanting to be good and we all have general ideas about what makes up this goodness. Church people say that we find our guidance in the Bible, but, the fact is that when we start talking about what it is in the Bible that we're using to define a good, decent, lifestyle, we find, often to our surprise, that it is no different to the principles of Buddhism, or Hinduism or Islam, or even atheism. Atheists can be decent, moral, philanthropic folks and it doesn't take a God to convince me that lying, cheating, murdering, and stealing are not good for the order of society.
So, there has to be something more that we're missing if we're going to make the claim that Christianity has something special to offer beyond commonly agreed standards and attitudes. That's why the Gospel is not about the things on which we all agree. It is about the things on which we do not agree.
In the section we heard from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians, we heard him set up a contrast between what he called "works of the flesh" and "fruit of the Spirit." The works of the flesh, he said, are obvious and he goes on to mention things like drunkenness, or putting things in place of God in our lives, or taking drugs. Yes, when he said “sorcery”, the word he used was "pharmakia" from which we get "pharmacy" because sorcery, back then, involved taking drugs - so we might say that Paul was ahead of his time.
And then there were strife and jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, carousing "and things like these." Quite a list. But, the interesting thing about all of these is that while St. Paul says they're obvious, none of them is obviously wrong in the same way that murder and theft are.
For example, I have known people who are totally against legalizing marijuana, but, who live totally dependent on perfectly legal opioids. I have known people who decry the inability of politicians to compromise for the common good, and yet, who have refused to speak to a family member in decades.
The works of the flesh St. Paul lists aren't so obviously wrong because they're not about public policy, but, personal choices and the prevailing view in our society is that I'm basically free to make whatever choices I want. So what if I'm angry or jealous or sleeping around? So what if I'm sexist or racist or materialist? That's my business as long as I'm not breaking any laws.
And, that's what it all comes down to. It's relatively easy to conform one's outward behaviour and avoid things which get us into legal trouble and as long as they're doing that most people think they're o.k. But, this is where I said the Gospel is not about the things on which we all agree. It is about the things on which we do not agree and St. Paul would not agree that we can divide our lives into public and private lifestyles.
In this morning's Gospel, Jesus and the Twelve are refused hospitality in a Samaritan town. The initial reaction of James and John is to punish the town for insulting a holy man of Israel. Jews and Samaritans have a long history of hating each other. It’s socially acceptable. But, this holy man reacts to them with a rebuke. Followers of Jesus have to rise above the socially acceptable and behave in ways that are socially offensive. In this case, the offensive act is to ignore the insult and move on. Nobody who follows Jesus has a right to hate someone who doesn't.
Anyone who wants to be a follower of Jesus has to stop being a follower of, not only the world, but, themselves. Following Jesus means not following ourselves. And we, who claim to be following Jesus, display a credibility gap to an unbelieving world every time we show that we are more comfortable with the works of the flesh than the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The credibility gap is real and it's a real danger. We'll never close it by ourselves. But, with the help of the One who bridged the gap between heaven and earth we can narrow it quite a lot.
In the Name...