Christianity still in our land

Christianity Still In Our Land

Did you see the Victory in Europe Service from Westminster Abbey on television over the week-end? I am surprised and pleased that such a service is unashamedly Christian without compromise. It is also undiluted Anglican worship. The scale and architecture of the Abbey, the great organ and the trumpeters, the well toned choir, the powerful set prayers, the very short sermon, the colourful vestments of the clergy, the sound of many people singing traditional hymns. It was a splendid national occasion. There are few such left. Public Christianity is receding in this land. I was much impressed by the Benediction given by the friendly, bespectacled bishop to the British Legion Nigel McCulloch. Here it is:

'God grant to the living, grace; to the departed, rest; to the Church, the Queen, the Commonwealth, and all mankind, peace and concord; and to us sinners, life everlasting; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen'

Is this language meaningful to anyone who does not go to Church? It encapsulates all that Christianity is in a few words. God grant to the living, grace. This means God's continuing good will actively visiting and supporting our human lives and living. It is inclusive of all human beings who are alive, in contrast, of course, in the context of the VE Day Service, with those who did not survive the 2nd World War who are being remembered. Here is the idea that God continues to care for all creation, something at the heart of Christianity. The idea may be discredited for some due to the faults and failings of Christians throughout the ages. It is nonsense to hard nosed atheists in our own country today. But even the most faithless scientists marvel that our little planet earth continues in existence, stable in its position in space, making life possible. They do not acknowledge this as God's grace, but we Christians do. It is a fact for which our Faith gives reason and explanation.

'to the departed, rest' This is a confusing prayer. The idea is simple, of course, that those who struggled and suffered in war but also everyone for whom this life journey has not been easy, should find eternal rest. Is the meaning here is of spending eternity fast asleep? Maybe it means R&R – rest and recreation – re-creation – new creation. It means activity very different from warfare and life difficulties, heavy responsibilities, and from disappointments and failures in personal life. Maybe it means eternal respite from – in other words eternal freedom from the negativities of life's vicissitudes. There is an inherent idea that we labour in this life and that the life to follow will not be so arduous. That may be connected with the story of the fall of Adam and Eve who were sent out from the Garden of Eden where they had everything to earn their livings through hard work all their lives. The New Testament picture of heaven is not one of rest doing nothing; it is one of inspiring activity, worship, recognition and whatever else. Billy Graham said that he expected God to send him to some other planet somewhere else in the marvellous creation to evangelise lots of people in the Name of Jesus. Heaven will not be like Ibiza or the Bahamas, though, not even like Bournemouth or Rothesay. But the burdens of human existence will be over – that is what the prayer seems to mean.

'to the Church, the Queen, the Commonwealth, and all mankind, peace and concord'; This part of the Benediction is about this world. Peace is the absence of war, concord is the absence of disagreement. More positively, peace and concord result from agreement and understanding between human beings. These are not easily won and have to be strived for. The Church of Jesus has not been and is not filled with peace and concord today, nor has it ever been. Differing ideas, theologies, ethics, practices continue. The Church of Jesus is united only in the sense of acknowledging Jesus as Lord. The Queen lives in relative peace but she has seen turbulent times in her reign and in her personal life. After the death of Diana, for example, there was anything but peace for the Queen. There was the possibility of some kind of republican uprising. The Commonwealth being mentioned in the prayer after the Queen simply states the length and breadth of the Queen's regal influence. That, by the way is 53 countries and about 2.5 billion of humanity. Anglican liturgy doesn't do political correctness. all mankind is next in the prayer. Not ‘all humankind’, not changed to men and women or to women and men. These great Anglican state occasions utilise the Authorised King James version of the Bible and not modern translations. There is a strange power residing in the old words though they surely were meant in their time to include everyone. This is also the peace and concord of God being wished for everyone. But that is dependent on the Covenant with God being honoured. We know we are a long way from universal acceptance of such. Enmity is at the door of our land and within the house of our nation and in other lands every day.

I was particularly struck by the next phrase in the Benediction and to us sinners, life everlasting. If there is one outstanding politically incorrect words these days it is the word 'sinner'. We do not use that word to describe our relationships with one another. The context of the word is within Judaism and Christianity. The word 'sin' presupposes the existence of God, a God who is good and just, who wants us to live in obedience and receive the benefits from so doing. The Benediction says 'to us sinners'. Here is a complete statement of equality and inclusion. Christians do not claim to be better than anyone else; we are saved by grace. 'us sinners' means humanity undeserving of eternal life according to what we might have been and the reality of what we have been and are. 'to us sinners, eternal life' witnesses to the life and work of Jesus. Not specifically for he is not mentioned but there is no possibility of eternal life for sinners apart from what Jesus Christ has completed for us on Calvary and in resurrection.

Again, this language cuts across today's political correctness. No-one is to be called a 'sinner' these days. No lifestyle is to be regarded as mistaken or wrong. Everyone is to be free to live as they wish without constraint or consequence. But here in the VE Day Service on this great occasion before millions of people watching on television, we are reminded that Jesus Himself regarded the human condition as default sinful and requiring redemption – which – he proceeded to accomplish for us. Christianity is the world's largest and greatest saving organisation. It is spiritual re-cycling of spent and wasted human life. It is ecology for human life and living. It is not just saving the planet, it is saving humanity. No other faith or philosophy has the power and legitimacy of the resurrection of Jesus Christ at its heart. Jesus saves.

'and to us sinners, life everlasting' This is an offer of fact, confidently and clearly proclaimed. Life everlasting is the Christian promise. Paul said that we are given the Holy Spirit as the deposit on eternal life. If you are aware of the Holy Spirit in your life, be assured that you will also inherit eternal life. You are not travelling this journey alone. Too many people have had this experience for it to be untrue. Life everlasting is not just survival after death, it is not the spiritualists' vague continuation of this life hovering above the Happy Valley pub or Club Earth, the Almondvale Centre or Livingston Football Club. It is not nirvana or reincarnation. Life everlasting is life in Christ everlasting; the words have a dynamic meaning and quality in the Christian context. They communicate Jesus' resurrection and our share in it.

The Benediction ends with words we use every week. 'and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen' This invokes God's favour and protection. The words affirm and reaffirm that this is actually happening and is given. The Trinitarian blessing is an offence to Muslims and a contradiction to Jews. It is simply how we express our understanding of God revealed as Father in Jesus Christ and the effective presence of the Holy Spirit in the world. The words are based on the incarnation of God in Jesus uniting our life with that of our Maker in that unique way. I wonder how many people watching grasped anything of the meaning of that Benediction. Atheists and secularists are campaigning for Remembrance Day Services to be less overtly Christian. There is hardly anything left in the land so clearly Christian. I wonder if it is perhaps Queen Elizabeth who is influential in maintaining the present forms.

'God grant to the living, grace; to the departed, rest; to the Church, the Queen, the Commonwealth, and all mankind, peace and concord; and to us sinners, life everlasting; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen'

There is Christianity still in our land. It seems more precious as the contrast with everything else becomes more stark. Churches are dumbing down Christianity to try to appeal to younger people and to make connections with those without any personal knowledge of God in their lives. Jesus himself cast a wide net in his preaching and teaching. But he called people to himself. That is where we should be. Let us take a stand with him. Christ still in our land, Christ still in our hearts.

Robert Anderson 2017

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