Regular followers of this blog, or those who have just picked up the odd link on Twitter, will know that I’ve been taking part in the Twitter #adventbookclub, reading Maggi Dawn’s “Beginnings and Endings”.
Although I have enjoyed this, it has taken my energy and focus away from the book that I had intended to read this Advent and Christmas: “Real God in the Real World” by Trystan Owain Hughes. This post is an attempt to make up for this a bit; I probably won’t be able to comment every day, but the book is divided into sections, and the section for 8th-14th December is called “Christ in our neighbour”.
One of the Bible passages that Trystan uses is the story of ‘the sheep and the goats’ in Matthew chapter 25. Although at first glance the meaning is quite clear (those who do good get rewarded, and those who don’t get punished), it is actually quite challenging.
For one thing, it sets up a tension (at least) between the ideas of ‘salvation by faith’ and ‘salvation by works’, and challenges the idea that we are saved by faith alone. It seems that “faith, if it is not accompanied by works, is dead” – as James puts it. So although we can’t do anything to earn our salvation, although we are forgiven freely by God’s grace, it is also true that what we do, and the way we live our life, does matter.
Another challenge comes from the goats. It would seem, from their response (not actually covered in Trystan’s extract, so I’m cheating a bit!), that they would have been quite happy to do things for Christ – feed him if he was hungry, find him a place to stay, visit him when ill or in prison – if only they has recognised him. The challenge for us is whether we do things only to get a reward (or only when we think we are being watched), or whether we do them for their own sake, and for the sake of the person in need.
Do we really see Christ in our neighbour – in each one of our neighbours? Do we see him in the radical terrorist, who doesn’t see killing someone as murder because they’re fighting a war? Do we see him in the far-right extremist who wants to send all foreigners ‘home’, even the ones who were born her? Do we see him in the politician who wants to get as much as possible out of the expense system? In the person trying to survive on benefits who hasn’t worked all their life? In the unmarried mother who keeps having children knowing that this will increase her child & housing benefit? In the drug addict who breaks into our house to steal something to sell to feed his habit? In the men who see any woman dressed ‘provocatively’ as automatically giving consent to sex? In the gangs who groom young girls? In those who keep women as slaves, sexual or other?
At what point did you throw your hands up in horror? It’s at times like these that I try to remember Paul Field’s song “God of the Moon and Stars”, which lists lots of different types of people. It reminds us that our God is the God of all of these; and from this parable our God is in all of these and from time to time will need us to be a neighbour to him.
Many of the other readings in this section of “Real God in the Real World” take up this theme: who is our neighbour? what would Jesus do? I’ll finish, though, with one of my favourite verses:
“As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NIV)
May these be our clothes, this Advent and Christmas and beyond, ready to serve Christ at all times in all our neighbours.