Sermon - Christian Social Action

World of Diversity
Questioning Church
Being Church
Image of a big crowd in a city street; prominent advertisement including the words "Come Together"
John Schofield

John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.


I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.

In May 1997, I returned from a weekend in Prague fired by a single sentence that Milan Opocenski, a Czech professor, had spoken in a lecture: Every sermon is a political act. And another sentence which inspires me is Henry Scott Holland's famous phrase: the more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains. How's that for a Christmas message?

Michael Ramsey once said Our God is Christlike, and in him is no unChristlikeness at all.  But I believe we should take this statement a stage further and say: Christians are Christlike, and in them is no unChristlikeness at all. But what is Christlikeness, and what Christ are we trying to be like?  

Gentle Jesus meek and mild has done untold harm. Is this the face that overturned the moneychangers' tables, that made a whip and drove the animals out of the temple? Is this the face that welcomed prostitutes and tax collectors in the Kingdom of Heaven? Are we really content with gentle Jesus meek and mild, with the sentimentalities of Christmas, dressing up the story of an unmarried mother giving birth at the back of a garage? Are we so wrapped up in our pietism, so sold into the religion and politics don't mix mentality that tries to stifle Christian social action that we cannot hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu crying out When people tell me that the Bible tells us that religion and politics don't mix, I wonder which Bible they are reading?

The voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.

And another voice to add to those we’ve already heard. Canon Eric James is, to my mind, one of the greatest Christians our country has produced in the twentieth century. It was my privilege once to persuade him give a talk on the subject Evangelism is social action. I have resisted the temptation simply to string together a series of quotations from that talk and pass it off as my own sermon. And yet who better than Eric James, champion of Christian Action, to feed our thinking?

            At the age of 15, in September 1939, the day war broke out, I went to work at a riverside wharf on the Thames. At the wharf I learned much about trade unions because every chap there was a member of a trades union, and I learned that the church had nothing to do with trades unions at all....I learned that for the class structure of that sort of world to be served and penetrated by the church with the gospel raised all sorts of questions,  I learned that the Gospel had to be proclaimed to institutions as well as to individuals....proclamation means not only reaching out to the world, it means also confronting and maybe rejecting the structures of power in the world.

And what, I ask, does the coming of God among us - in the way that God came, and in what the power structures of the world did to Good - have to say about this?

At the end of his talk Eric took us to the Solomon Islands:

            I saw over the altar the word Tamboo Tamboo Tamboo....I discovered that Tamboo meant is actually our word taboo. (On another island) it was interesting because I found Tamboo Tamboo Tamboo again over the altar, and when I went to the Bishop's vestry that had Tamboo on the door - there were such a few words in the language - and when I went to the loo it said Tamboo. But it means that when you are trying to communicate what the holy is, language is terrifyingly important, but the sort of interior content of the word, if holy is the taboo, won't quite do because Jesus lived out the holy in the every day, every hour, through holy places, yet not by holy places but by making places holy....If we stop the clock at any minute of the day, at that time you would be working at the holy, through your person you would be doing it...the ingredients of the holy are always time, place and person. Holiness always has to be worked out through these three things, and it is a terrifying challenge. It is what Jesus did and empowers us to do.

To many, this move from social action to holiness may seem bizarre. Not a bit of it. In Leviticus there is a passage called the Holiness Code. It is all about how we live out our lives. That is social action. And the Holiness Code is based on the statement: you shall  be holy, for I Yahweh you God am holy. Holiness demands social action.

Now the context within which Eric James was speaking was evangelism, during the Decade of Evangelism. In recent years there has been a great deal of theological thinking about the nature of mission, of which of course evangelism is a part. And a consensus is emerging across the churches of the world that at the heart of mission is not just evangelism - the preaching of the gospel, and the making and nurturing of new Christians - but also the commitment to transform the unjust structures of society. This - just as much as evangelism - is a sign that we are working for the Kingdom. This is one of the fundamental marks of mission as understood at a national and global level by our church. 

The key words are transform and transformation. At a diocesan clergy conference I once organised we came, under the theological leadership of Rowan Williams, to see the idea of transformation as one of the key concepts for understanding what God in Christ was doing on the cross and in the resurrection. As we approach Christmas, it is important that we do not lose sight of Good Friday and Easter, for on one level what we are celebrating is the birth of the one who was crucified. And what was that death about? Reconciliation and transformation. If we are to be reconciled in Christ to God and to one another, if we are to be transformed by Christ and to help in the transformation of the world he came to save, we cannot fail to be involved in society, in political action, in social action. Remember: those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen; remember also that love is a hand up not a hand out.  

For transformation is not for us alone. We are transformed by the incarnation, by the atonement, by the resurrection, by the coming into us of the life-giving Spirit, in order that in Christ's name we may stand in critical solidarity with the rest of humanity, as representing Christ to them and them to Christ. That is our calling - your calling as baptised members of Christ every bit as much as my calling as one ordained. We are the light; the world is waiting for us to shine.

And shine it does: it shines in multitudinous ways up and down the country, from campaigning groups to night shelters. But does it shine brightly enough? And does it shine in me, and does it shine in you?

I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord.

We stand, waiting for the light of the Christ who comes.

But we also stand in the light of the Christ who came.

We stand waiting for the light of the coming Kingdom of God.

But we also stand in the light of the Kingdom of God which has already begun.

We are the light.  It is the world that is waiting for us to shine.

And if we are to do justice to the Christ whose coming we are about to celebrate we must dirty our hands in the same way as our down to earth God dirtied his when God became one of us.  Nothing less is demanded of us, by God and by God’s waiting, weary world.

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