The Christian Individual
Preacher: Canon Ralph Godsall, Precentor (2001-2008)
1 April 2007, 15:15 (Palm Sunday)
As this year’s Lent programme, ‘Set my people free’, has progressed, the weight of responsibility on this week’s Holy Week addresses has accumulated. Professor George Newlands’ book on Christ and Human Rights – the cathedral’s Lent book this year – challenges the Christianity of our times to develop a Christology for human rights and to live responsibly with the consequences of unlimited and vulnerable love.
That chimed well with Canon Jean Kerr’s sermon last weekend on slavery and her opening up of a world in which only individuals as open and passionate as herself can work – sustained not so much by the old ecclesiastical structure as by something bigger (the whole range of human experience and God’s created Kingdom) and something smaller (the deep and careful relations in a gathering of friends).
I am grateful for their insights this Lent. They see the role of the Church as just such a cherishing of individuals following their own visionary star – and both have reflected that it does not seem to be very good at it. They have left me with the daunting subject of individual discipleship and saying what it might be in Holy Week.
First I brace and comfort myself with a spiritual stirrup-cup. The old ecclesiastical gramophone has been grinding on during Lent and has had much to say in the readings at our cathedral services about the individual believer.
In the mornings, passages from Jeremiah have confronted us with a solitary believer in an elusive God in a world where nobody listened and anybody who mattered was against him. My own Lenten reading has been nourished by Bunyan’s pilgrim taking his single road to God, sometimes sustained by his meetings with individuals and groups and sometimes threatened or confused by them. We are now at the beginning of Holy Week in which the sharpest instance of such individual solitude in faith will come before us with the charge of the institutional men: ‘He trusted in God that he would deliver him. Let him deliver him if he wants him’.
‘To dare as a single person to have to do with God’ – that, said the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard, is Christianity, and there is no escape from it into the collective of Christendom, the great Church, which is in a clear and historical sense often the place of rebellion against God, a skulking in the bushes from his presence.
But it is an awful strain. Not just because it gives each of us so much to face and do, but also because it brings the nagging central question down on each of us (not unlike the question at the cross), ‘But are you then a Christian, a true believer? Living so far from the central institution, so much on your own with your vision, your little group, are you attached to the God of the tradition? You are an individual alright – but are you a Christian? The question is serious and needs an answer. Let me try to do so.
First, my recollection of Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Jeremiah, and Jesus in Holy Week, means that there is a fair chance that I may be. These precedents are far more august than anything I’m likely to pull off, but they make it quite clear that the old orthodox edifice contains individual
figures (doubtful and doubted from the conservative collective point of view) in its authoritative memory. Of course, it never likes them when they happen. It kills the prophets. But then it builds their tombs – and the bible is a virtual cemetery of them – with a sort of hypocritical remorse that is also a genuine tribute by which the institutionalists, with the man out of the way so it’s easier, turn the tables on themselves.
That relieves the pressure a little. It makes a case possible. Uneasy relations of individuals with current orthodoxy are a traditional part of that orthodoxy and have contributed to it majestically – think only of that maverick, St Paul!
Second, I think it fair to suppose that the person who asks that question, ‘Are you a Christian?’ supposes one of two things or both of them. Either he supposes that he at any rate is a proper orthodox Christian or that there is a definite body of people who are. But suppositions such as these, neat and clear-cut as they may be, simply won’t do, because they don’t go deep enough. They fix on superficial markers, like bible and creed, but being a Christian means accepting and believing not in them, but in someone and something they talk about.
Third, our question, ‘Are you a Christian?’ is virtually the same, in form and in tormenting power, as the question which agonized so many of our forebears and did for the sanity of poor, pious William Cowper: ‘Are you one of God’s elect – or an eternally damned reprobate?’ That was a question you couldn’t answer with a faultless record of church attendance or almsgiving, not even with a total acceptance of every doctrine in the book nor the memory of a heart-warming experience during a sermon. None of these reach to its terrible depths to exclude or torment, whether of one person or group or church by another or of one person by himself.
So when the question put to Jesus by the High Priest (by the institutional Church) comes to us this week: ‘Are you the Christ?’ ‘Are you a Christian?’ our response will be silence – a silence of faith in God and our neighbour and love towards them, a waiting upon them. Like master, like disciples. At its roots my life as an individual Christian is hidden from me, goes away from me, into God and other people. I cannot go about proclaiming myself a Christian in the sense of possessing Christianity because I can say the creed or fire out texts or go to church a lot.
The figure of Jesus in Holy Week, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim and Jeremiah the prophet, jettisons these kinds of certainties. In discovering about love, I am confronted by the invitation to be silent which comes hard to so self-defensive and talkative a person as I am. But if I can keep silent, like Job when confronted by the mystery of his own suffering, even from good words, and allow God to meet me in the silence, perhaps I will witness to those things that are most self-forgetting in the Christian life – faith, hope and love. ‘And the greatest of these is love’.
To say it again, quite simply, in words from the Jesus of this afternoon’s gospel: I will find my life by losing it.