• Fr John

Faith and Religion: Private or Public

It is widely argued that there are no gods, or if there are, then they are unwilling or unable, or uninterested in the affairs of the earth. As a result, we must live our lives by our own lights, make the most of life, decide our own fate, because the gods, if there are any, are not going to do anything about it. Decide your own ethics, because it only actually matters if it matters to you, or you get caught! You are very welcome to pursue religion, but that’s your own private affair and we would prefer that you didn’t bother us with it.

One might expect this to be a thoroughly modern and scientific view, but it is actually the philosophy of one Epicurus who died 270 years before Christ! One of the problems of modern life is that for two hundred or more years, we’ve thought that we are the highpoint of civilisation, that we are the ones who really understand things and do things properly, that anyone previously was simply not intellectually or scientifically equipped to understand the world like we do. Even though democracy originated in ancient Greece, the Egyptians and Romans mastered civil engineering in ways that would not be seen again for over a thousand years, and the art and sculpture of the Romans and Greeks has been collected and admired and copied right up to today.

These attitudes infect and infest Christianity. Religion is seen as a private thing: we don’t talk about our faith; we don’t follow up when people are missing from our community - what if they were cross with us; we don’t invite people to explore or experience our faith - what if they don’t like us any more? We prefer our religion to be of good quality, but at a safe distance and not too emotional - we can be more audience than celebrants; more members club than mission.

But that’s not the picture in Acts 2. Here the Holy Spirit breaks into the private meeting of the disciples; the Holy Spirit drives them out into the street for some very public proclamation of Christ. Notice that the first impact of the Holy Spirit is the sound of a rushing wind, in language remarkably similar to that of the first verses of the Creation story in Genesis 1 - there is here a new beginning a new creation. Before, the disciples, who had seen the resurrected Christ, for all their excitement were still shut away; now these people who had run away and hidden, who have been keeping themselves to themselves, are telling about the Kingdom of God, about the crucified and risen Lord, in very public ways.

It would be good to ask ourselves where we are in the picture: amongst those who pass by, successfully unnoticed; those who mock or pick holes; those who are interested and have questions or those who are believers and willing to answer the call of our God.

We may prefer our religion quiet and at a distance, but this is not the Christian faith: today we heard Jesus speak, “Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and , in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” St Paul say, “ For you did not receive a Spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, Abba! Father!’” St Peter quoted the prophet Joel, “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.”

The call of Christ is not to private religion, but to a faith that changes our lives and that changes the world - enabling the Kingdom of God; it is distinctly and distinctively public. What is God calling you and I to do about it, where is the Holy Spirit driving us out to?

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