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Back to Basics

Fred Nye, Sunday 18th November, 2012

‘Back to basics’ is a slogan that has been the downfall of more than one leading politician. To emphasise high standards in public life, be they about money, marriage or the media, is a high risk strategy which can so easily backfire. Politicians are after all only human. Some of the time, or cynics might say most of the time, they can find it hard to practise what they preach.

The letter to the Hebrews is also about getting back to basics – but basics of a very different kind. The letter was written to Jewish converts to Christianity, perhaps living in Rome, who were finding it difficult to cope with their new faith. They kept harking back to times past, to the days when their ancestors worshipped in the wilderness, and  the letter is full of references to the old Tabernacle rituals. Not exactly stirring stuff. But if we sift through the letter to glean a little bit more about the people to whom it was written, we can gain a lot.

‘The Hebrews’ had been well nurtured in the Christian faith, but to the writer’s obvious exasperation they seemed to have stopped making progress, even to the point of going backwards. Times were hard, some church members had drifted away, and even among those who stayed, confidence was running low. They needed much encouragement to keep firm their hope of salvation, and to go on living a life of Christian love and care. Perhaps their church community was not, after all, so very different from our own. And what the writer of the letter tries to do is to bring them back to basics, by reminding them of the central, crucially important truth of the Christian faith: it is through Jesus Christ that we are saved.

You may not agree, but I find these words strangely disquieting. ‘Are you saved?’ is a question that makes many traditional Anglicans squirm inwardly. But why should this be? After all, like the Hebrews community we are steeped in faith, and nourished by faith. The evidence for God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is all around us. In the scriptures, in the Eucharist and the sacraments, in prayer, in the events of the church’s year, and in what the Prayer Book calls ‘the blessed company of all faithful people’ we are constantly reassured of one great truth. Through his cross and resurrection Our Lord Jesus Christ has redeemed the world, gives us the means of grace, and offers us the hope of glory.

So what’s the problem? Perhaps in common with the Hebrews, we Anglicans often  settle for what in religion is traditional and familiar, rather than yearning for that perfecting of the world, and of ourselves, which Our Lord has promised us. We live in a damaged and fallen world and, knowingly or unknowingly, we all contribute to its pain and discord. In our better moments we get a conscience about all of this, and wish that it were otherwise. But to be saved we must really want salvation, we must have a restlessness, a longing, a passion, for the Kingdom of God and for the reign of his love and peace. And that restless yearning, that divine spark, is itself a gift from God. ‘O thou who camest from above, the fire celestial to impart, kindle a flame of sacred love on the mean altar of my heart’.

We Anglicans like to think of ourselves as unassuming people with modest aspirations, for whom ‘nothing to excess’ might be a suitable epitaph. I remember Fr. Richard Capper memorably saying at my dear mother’s funeral that she had practised ‘religion without enthusiasm’:- and she might well have taken that as a compliment. Most of us share with the legendary church of Laodicea a preference for being lukewarm, a preference for a Christianity that is nether cold nor hot. We regard  Christians who are enthusiastic about their faith with some suspicion, not to say alarm! But I firmly believe that Jesus shared with his heavenly Father a vision that went far beyond our restrained and limited ambitions. It was a vision of the world, and of humankind, transformed and taken up into the glorious perfection of the Godhead itself.

It is remarkable that Jesus reserved his greatest praise, not for the great and the good, but for those who were dissatisfied with themselves and with the world as they found it, and had a longing for something far better. ‘Happy’, he said, ‘happy are the poor in spirit, happy are the merciful, happy are the peacemakers, happy are those who hunger and thirst for what is right’.  He held up as a role model the despised Samaritan who had the courage to cross the religious divide for the sake of common humanity. He befriended the loathed and hated Zaccheus, Zaccheus the financial wheeler-dealer who had the courage to abandon a life of cheating and greed.  And at the end of his earthly life Our Lord focussed his compassion on the woman who anointed him before his crucifixion, and on the penitent thief on Calvary:- because they both recognised their need for forgiveness and reconciliation. Like them, we need a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, and of ourselves renewed in body, mind, and spirit.

We can only compare salvation with what we already know: the experience of loving, and of being loved, in the here and now.  And salvation is nothing more nor less than  the overwhelming love of God, which we find in Christ Jesus our Lord. How can I, so flawed and fallible, deserve the total and unconditional love of another human being, let alone the love of my creator and redeemer? And yet Our Lord, through his death and resurrection, tells us that it is so, and his love compels us to come in. ‘Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou bidst me come to thee, O lamb of God, I come’. With this, our only possible plea, we are indeed back to basics.

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