13 April 2017
"...Do we sometimes race over the reflection of holy week and the pain of Good Friday, in order to reach the joy of Easter?..."
"...The Christian vocation means feeling and facing the suffering and injustice of the world, alongside God, until new creation is complete. Staying with suffering and tackling injustice is no easy option but is where Christian confidence takes us..."
A few weeks ago we both attended the launch of JPIT (Joint Public Issues Team) Yorkshire in Leeds along with about 100 other people. It was held in the grand surroundings of the Civic Centre, high ceilings, gilt-painted mirrors, and plaques listing the great achievers of the industrial and civic life of the city. The self-assured grandeur of the surroundings sat a little uneasily with the title of the conference: "Recovering confidence in the North".
The building spoke of a confidence of a time long gone; the conference looked at how through the decades since that economic and cultural confidence had been lost. The reality of poverty ingrained in parts of various cities in the north, the loss of industry, the London economic magnet, sucking life out of the rest of the country. But the speakers also spoke about the confidence which exists in the North, and is even growing. It seems that northern businesses and politicians are taking up the notion of a 'Northern Powerhouse' though perhaps they are reshaping around themselves and their aspirations rather than the needs of local people. The conference ended on a note of hope, with the signing of an agreement between the Methodist, Baptist and URC leaders in Yorkshire, along with Rachel as the leader of the Joint Public Issues Team, to work together on issues of peace and justice in the region.
We sometimes struggle with the word "confidence". Our Secretary of Conference, Gareth Powell, has encouraged us to be churches of confidence and imagination. But around us we see church membership declining and a huge demographic cliff of younger (and not so young) people who are simply not in our churches. We have a shortage of ministers to station, and for many people it feels like a bit of a battle just to keep going. Is it hard to keep preaching the gospel of resurrection if we have so little confidence in the present?.
Some of it is surely how we understand confidence. It is often portrayed as self-confidence that needs to be asserted, so that our view and agenda triumphs over others, so that we get that job, win that debate, capture that vote, gain that power advantage. Christian confidence is quite different. It is a confidence not in ourselves but in a crucified God, in Jesus raised from the dead and in the Holy Spirit making all things new. St Paul says that he had lots of grounds for confidence in himself but that he has counted all that as loss or waste - he uses a rather stronger word meaning utter rubbish - for the sake of knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3.3-11). This is the Christian confidence we need as churches, a confidence that the crucified one has been raised and that God's love is calling into a different kind of future.
But we should note that Paul doesn't stop at knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection but also includes the calling to 'share Christ's sufferings'. It is not easy to know what this means exactly but it suggests that the Christian vocation means feeling and facing the suffering and injustice of the world, alongside God, until new creation is complete. Staying with suffering and tackling injustice is no easy option but is where Christian confidence takes us. The English word confidence comes from the root words of con "staying with" and fides "faith" Staying with the faith is a far more appropriate way of understanding confidence at Easter.
I went on a Good Friday walk of witness a few years ago. While we handed out hot cross buns to slightly bemused passersby, we sang songs, led by a band from the local free church. These were songs of resurrection, of rejoicing, of the redemptive power of the resurrected Christ. The wooden cross, being carried at the front of the procession seemed rather lonely and out of place.
Do we sometimes race over the reflection of holy week and the pain of Good Friday, in order to reach the joy of Easter? And by doing this, do we deny the pain? Are we really staying with the faith?
We visited Blaydon Foodbank a few weeks ago. This church-run foodbank, like so many others, stays with people through their pain. The volunteers help and hold people through their hunger, pain and difficulties. The church at Blaydon, where the foodbank is based, has doubled in membership, with volunteers and foodbank clients coming to learn more about this confident faith, a faith that stays with people through their pain, and allows people to catch the infectious hope that there is Christ.
We pray that we will all deepen our confidence in Christ, as we journey through the last part of Lent and Holy Week to the pain of the cross and the glory of the Resurrection. May it allow us to stay with the suffering of the world with irrepressible hope, and may it inspire our imaginations so we share in a thousand different ways the good news of Jesus, risen and alive.
Roger Walton and Rachel Lampard