On avoiding ‘supermarket church’ in a Clockwork Orange world…

Acts 1:15-26

15In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”[ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20“For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’] 21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

1 John 5:9-13

9If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son.

10Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. 11And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.]

John 17:6-19

6”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.

11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.

17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Sometimes the lectionary – the directions about what Bible passages to read in church – tends to sanitise scripture. It will often omit difficult passages, or as those of us who rather like reading the Old Testament might say, the gory bits.

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles has been filleted. It misses out the story of what happened to Judas. But I can’t resist sharing the joke about how someone was reading this in church but turned two pages by mistake. So that the congregation heard:

[Judas] acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. … and the lot fell on Matthias.

I went to the Everyman the other evening to see Clockwork Orange. It’s had mixed reviews and is certainly not a jolly night out. You might have seen the film (if you’re old enough) when it first came out in the 1970s. This though is the author Anthony Burgess’s own adaptation for the stage. I imagine if you’re thinking of going you’ll have a good idea of the story already, but if you want to avoid spoilers plug your ears now.

It’s full of gory bits. And rape, knife crime and murder. The central character, Alex, is a teenager who lives for violence. He is addicted to it as others are addicted to drugs.

Unlike Judas though, he doesn’t meet with a violent death himself, but perhaps an even more sinister punishment. He is sentenced to prison for murder, and then is offered an early release if he consents to be a guinea pig for an experiment in aversion therapy.   He is made to feel violently ill if he sees any incidents of sexual aggression or violence such as he used to indulge in. So that the authorities declare him ‘cured’ because he is simply unable to offend any more. He no longer has any free will; he is an automaton.

God could have made us like that. He could have created a world full of little robots all programmed to behave properly, to do what’s right and to look after one another. We wouldn’t have any wars; everyone would be fed; there would be no need for armies or police or even politicians.

But nor would there be any love. Love is our free response to love held out to us by God; God most often seen in another human being. A human being who lacks something… lacks the completeness of another’s love. If we were robots we wouldn’t lack anything and so would never know love.

The apostles in those days after Jesus had been taken up into heaven knew what love was. They had seen him the victim of horrors every bit the equal of those that Alex and his gang inflicted on people. They knew the worst that human nature could do. They knew their own weakness and failures: after all, their leader had denied he knew Jesus and the rest of them (apart from John) had all run away from the cross.

But it’s because of that, and because of Judas who betrayed him, that Jesus died. And through his death human nature is transformed. We are not mechanical beings programmed to obey; we are human beings who have seen the worst that humans can do and yet we are lifted up to a level far above what we have known. Far above what we could reach by our own efforts, and far above what we could even understand if we were just robots.

Matthias – whose day we celebrate tomorrow –  and the other eleven had not been magically delivered from this world’s problems. They would have hard times ahead: for some of them, death by martyrdom. But the horror of the cross and the anguish of betrayal had been overtaken by the joy of the resurrection.   Jesus was alive, and he’d ascended to heaven leaving them with a twofold promise:  heaven is your home too; and I am sending upon you the Holy Spirit.

These words are addressed to us as well. We are assured of a share in the Spirit and we too belong to the kingdom of God.

So Jesus, in his great prayer to the Father that St John spells out for us, talks of his followers.  He might have been primarily thinking about his closest disciples, about the twelve… but it applies to us all.  ‘They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.’

Our citizenship is in heaven.  That means, that our ultimate allegiance is to God and the values of the gospel.  The Holy Spirit is given to us as a pledge of that citizenship.

That’s not to say we should live in a cloud-cuckoo land and forget about this world. It just means that we can’t sell out the values of the Spirit.

In recent years people have been encouraged to put themselves first.  To pretend that what matters is personal fulfilment at whatever cost to others, to the community or to the environment.  And religion has sometimes been adopted as a means to that end.  People take up meditation or go to services as a sort of spiritual ego-trip, a boost of ‘feelgood factor.’  That’s why many churches have ceased to be communities of disciples, learning from God and from each other, and they’ve become more like cafeterias or supermarkets – you load up with spiritual goodies from time to time but you have no real relationship with anyone else.

But all that is about belonging to this world first and foremost.  Today we’re reminded that our true home is in heaven and our true life is the Holy Spirit.  And that’s not sentimental escapist religious rubbish.  Even less is it self-indulgent.  Because the Holy Spirit is yearning within us to transform us into the sort of people God wants in his kingdom, the sort of people we essentially are.  And his fruits are, as St Paul says:  ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’

The Spirit can’t be confined or hoarded as our own private possession.  The Spirit does not touch us unless we allow ourselves to become conduits of the Spirit.  If we don’t show God’s love in the way we live, then God’s love is not in us and we’re doomed to die.  But if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit of God, the world will come alive and just as Jesus draws us, his disciples, after him into the glory of heaven, so we in our turn will draw all those whose lives we have touched.

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David Emmott, Associate Priest

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