On the 21st August, Professor A C Grayling reader in Philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, wrote an article in the Guardian about David Miliband’s future political hopes and the fact that he is a declared atheist.
‘It would be a great advantage to everyone to have an atheist prime minister’, states Grayling. His arguments are that an atheist will form decisions based on rational argument, not ‘messages from Beyond’; that an atheist PM will not give special treatment of funding to religious groups, but will treat everyone fairly; and that an atheist will be down to earth about lifting up the poor of society, rather than simply offering them a heavenly reward.
All this shouldn’t surprise us from the man who in March 2007 took part in a public debate arguing ‘We’d be better off without religion’.
Meanwhile, in the States, Sara Palin, the Republican Vice-presidential candidate, is making a lot of her credentials as a creationist, anti-abortion, fundamentalist Christian.
I hope we reject both these extremes: being a Christian is neither ‘being so heavenly –minded as to be no earthly good’ ; nor is it coming to any discussion with hard-line intractable views. So what does it mean to be a Christian – whether a Christian politician or just an ordinary person in the street?
The letter to the Romans makes it very clear what standards of behaviour are expected of those who follow Christ. ‘Love your neighbour… for love is the fulfilling of the law’.
Christians are to live as children of the light – not spending their lives in revelling, debauchery, quarrelling and so on: we are to lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light – we are to put on Jesus Christ, so that our identity as Christians is apparent in the way we live our lives, and so that we are shielded and kept safe by Christ himself.
But in this day and age loving our neighbour has to go beyond simply doing good for those who happen to live near us. Our world is facing an environmental crisis, and how much food we eat and how much oil we burn has a direct effect on our ‘neighbour’ on the other side of the world.
In the Indian, Eastern state of Bihar, the flooding has been the worst for 50 years and over 2 million people have fled their homes. Global warming is starting to seriously affect the word’s weather patterns – and as always it’s the world’s poorest people who are hardest hit.
So AC Grayling is wrong – a Prime Minister who is a Christian rather than an atheist cannot simply tell people to raise their eyes to the heavens and pray for help – he or she must take seriously the commandment to love our neighbour, and ask what this means for environmental protection measures.
And Sara Palin is wrong – whether the motto is ‘Alaska First’ or ‘Country First’ a truly Christian motto would be ‘neighbour first’.
Yet of course knowing what to do about such a complex matter as environmental change as a Christian is not easy. Jesus offered no teaching on global warming. But he did offer the teaching we heard in today’s Gospel reading.
“If another member of the church sins against you…& if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you” and later “if two of you agree n earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my father in heaven”. Jesus reminds us that the best way to follow him is in company with others, so that together we can help each other see the way ahead clearly. We are all fallible, we can all go astray, but as 2 or 3, as part of the body of Christ, we are less likely to stumble. And if one of us does stumble, there are others around to help set us back on our feet.
So being a Christian is not about banner-waving or claiming a label for ourselves; and it is not about leaving practicality and reason behind us, it is about being a thoughtful and faithful member of that band who together seek to follow Jesus.
And, crucially, we are not left alone to muddle through as best we can. “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there among them” promises Jesus. We are here to celebrate the presence of Christ among us, symbolised in bread and wine and made real to us through his Holy Spirit.
Here as we eat and drink we declare that we are Christ’s people, fed and nurtured by him and led by him into the paths he would have us walk.
Here we discover time and again what it means to be a Christian, to be clothed in Christ, to follow him as a member of his company.
Here we are renewed and sent out into the world to bravely bear the title Christian.
To God’s praise & glory. Amen.