KEEPING CHRISTIANITY CHRISTIAN
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus!"
Our daughter Jeanelle recently drew our attention to an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian" (25 April) titled "Why I answered the call of convent life" in which it was reported that an increasing number of young women in England and Wales are becoming nuns. This is a surprising turn of events for not so long ago the number was rapidly shrinking. But during the past two years the number of Catholic women entering convents was seventy-four, that is a 25-year high compared to only seven who joined ten years ago. And already this year 420 people have registered an interest in becoming monks or nuns in the Church of England Community of St. Anselm in London. In trying to explain this growing number of applications, the prior of the Community simply says that "they want to be all out for Jesus" in the life of the world. They choose their vocation not to escape the world, but because they want to devote their lives more fully to serving the needs of others.
There is so much in the history of Christianity that fills us with both sadness, despondency and even anger. I need not list all the horrors associated with Christianity from crusades and inquisitions to colonial conquest. We all know the story, one which, tragically continues today when Christianity becomes confused with the interests of empires and nations, or identified with religious intolerance of others and narrow bigotry. All of which is a contradiction of what Jesus taught, the life he lived, and his death of the cross. So it comes as a welcome breath of fresh air to read about this new generation of monks and nuns in Britain who "want to be all out for Jesus" in a way that seeks to serve the real needs of the world. And they are not alone. There are many more younger people like them who are doing the same in different ways across the globe without becoming monks and nuns. It is this rejuvenation of commitment to serve Jesus by serving others that keeps Christianity Christian.
According to the gospel reading today, some Greeks came to the festival in Jerusalem to worship in the Temple during the week that Jesus was crucified. They had heard about this Jesus of Nazareth who had raised Lazarus from the dead, they had seen him in the distance, but they really wanted to meet and get to know him. So they came to the disciples and said "We wish to see Jesus!" So the disciples introduced them to Jesus, and he in turn told them about the meaning of what was happening to him and what it meant for them to follow him.
This cameo of a story is a wonderful description of the task of the church. Like those first disciples, it is enable others to "see Jesus" so that they can discover for themselves who he is. For it is only as people discover Jesus for themselves and follow him that Christianity remains Christian. Yes, of course, like all religious movements, Christianity needs institutions and traditions to ensure that the story of Jesus is passed on from one generation to the next, but too often in the process Jesus disappears from sight. Outsiders cannot see Jesus; all they can see is the trappings of another religion which hides Jesus from view.
It is just like sport. You cannot keep cricket alive without cricket clubs, coaches, match fixtures and making cricket balls and bats, just as a nation cannot function without those institutions of state that enable it to do so. But it is not the sports clubs or the parliaments that keep the spirit of sport or of a nation alive and well. Often they become corrupt and serve their own interests instead of the spirit of sport or the needs of society. It is the passion and commitment of sports men and women that keep the game alive; just as it is people committed to the common good that keep a country on track. In the same way, Christianity needs its institutions and traditions, but it fails to be Christian if Jesus disappears from sight. What keeps Christianity Christian is people who follow Jesus.
On several occasions in his letters St. Paul describes the church as the "body of Christ." This has often been misunderstood, especially when the church as an institution claims an authority and acts in a triumphalistic way in the name of Christ as though it were the Lord rather Jesus, the servant of others. What Paul means is that through the work of the Spirit of Jesus, the church becomes the real presence of the risen Christ in the world. It is the Spirit of Jesus that makes and keeps the church the body of the risen Christ.
We misunderstand the resurrection of Christ if we simply think of it as something that happened two thousand years ago to Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, something did happen that first Easter morning. I believe, with the first witnesses, that when Mary and Peter and the others came to tomb it was empty. Even so this cannot be proved simply by historical analysis; it is an event shrouded in mystery as is evident in the various stories in the gospels which tell of Jesus' appearance to his disciples. Jesus is real, but his reality is different to what it was previously. They recognise him as the Master with whom they had walked and talked together, but he is now in a different dimension. A spiritual dimension which which certainly touches their lives, but he is beyond their grasp and only known to faith. Through the resurrection, the Spirit of Jesus has been let loose in the world.
There is, in other words, an inseparable connection between the Easter message and Pentecost when the Holy Spirit takes hold of people and they begin to witness to Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus as the Christ is the releasing of the Spirit of Jesus in the life of the world in an act of new creation that continues to have a transforming impact on the world. So the proof of the resurrection is is seen in the lives of ordinary people who are transformed by the Spirit of Jesus and bear witness to all that he said and did. And it is precisely this that keeps Christianity Christian.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 30 April 2015