Beauty surrounds us, but we usually need to be walking in a garden to know it - Rumi
How can we as Christians be distinctive in the world?
The answer one might expect is that ‘faith divorced from action is futile’ James 2.20(RSV). But this implies a Christian faith whereas compassion for our neighbour whether in terms of social justice, or concern for the environment is not the sole prerogative of the Christian. There are many Jewish and Muslim charities, for example. Indeed, some charities do not appear to have a link with any religion at all. Equally some people who deny any religious affiliation do, and have done, great and vital work in the field of social justice. So, rather than ‘faith without works…’ it seems to be ‘works without faith’ (certainly a Christian faith.) Let me explore this a little further by introducing you to two very different people from different backgrounds and a different period of history.
The first is Annie Besant (1847-1933), who was born into a wealthy family. She was five when her father died at which point she went to live with her teacher, Ellen Marryat. Religion was her chief preoccupation although she preferred ritual to her teacher’s plain serviceable faith, (She was prevented from converting to Roman Catholicism only by a prior commitment to the Oxford Movement). In 1867 she married the Rev Frank Besant, ‘an impecunious, parsimonious, stiff necked young man whose evangelicalism was described as serious’. In 1871 she felt that God had been unjust in failing to spare her daughter from a near fatal illness and so lost her faith. Three years later, in 1874 the marriage broke down and she moved to London. Here she devoted the same relentless passion she once had for her religion to social justice for the poor of the East End. She published a halfpenny newssheet called The Link that sold like hot cakes. Its object was “building up” of a “New Church dedicated to the service of God”. In her autobiography she writes: ‘There the petty injustices inflicted on the poor found voice; there the starvation wages paid to women found exposure; there sweating was brought to public notice. A finisher of boots paid 2s. 6d. per dozen pairs and "find your own polish and thread"; women working for 10½ hours per day, making shirts - ' fancy best" - at from 10d to 3d per dozen, finding their own cotton and needles, paying for gas, towel, and tea (compulsory), earning from 4s to 10s per week for the most part; a mantle finisher 2s. 2d. a week, out of which 6d for materials; "respectable hard-working woman" tried for attempted suicide, "driven to rid herself of life from want. Another part of our work was defending people from unjust landlords, exposing workhouse scandals, enforcing the Employers Liability Act, Charles Bradlaugh's Truck Act, forming "Vigilance Circles" whose members kept watch in their own district over cases of cruelty to children, extortion, insanitary workshops, sweating, &c., reporting each case to me.’ Charles Bradlaugh MP was an avowed atheist though energetic social reformer and a good friend of Annie Besant
The second character is Cyrus, one of the most powerful rulers of his time (around 500 years BC). In the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, (Isaiah 45:1-6), we learn that even though Cyrus did not know God, yet God worked through him, giving him all that he needed to help accomplish God’s plans; the release of the Israelites from their Exile, enabling them to return home to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem.
Each of these cases seems to illustrate that good works can be achieved without faith in God. Yet each confirms the view that God has a specific purpose for every member of His Creation, whether it is humankind or the rose in my garden whose specific purpose is to be beautiful, and brighten an otherwise dull day by reminding me of God’s glory.
The message of Sunday’s Gospel reading, (Matthew 22:15-21), is that we all belong to God completely and are therefore called to offer God our entire selves. Jesus confirms that our first duty is to serve God, and to give God what is due. So whether we volunteer to work in a soup kitchen or a food bank, give money to charity, or simply phone a friend who we know to be lonely at this time for a chat, we are serving God. John Henry Newman once wrote: ‘I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. God has not created me for naught.’ It is in this way we Christians can be distinctive in the world. By being a 'bond of connection between person', for by loving our neighbour we love God.
This week, let us pray for the rulers and leaders of our world, particularly during these difficult times, asking that God will work through them towards justice and peace. We ask too that the Holy Spirit will guide each of us in how we can serve God best.
Peter is a father and a grandfather who has been retired from full time employment for a number of years