I read this in the Christmas Eve edition of The Times‘ newspaper earlier this week – written by a journalist who is not a regular church-goer:
‘Come with me…to the schools, hospices and care homes where thousands of Christians do good work every day. Seek out the grittiest, grimiest edges of British life and they are there. They are helping addicts limp to liberty from drugs with infinite patience. They are supporting families who are mired in debt. They are caring for those in prison cells whom no one else cares about any more. They are giving shelter and warm meals to the homeless. At one church I attended, a man who had slept rough for years was the clean-shaven collection plate-bearer, his set of shiny new teeth bought for him by fellow members of the congregation.’
True to reality
It is good to read the compassionate acts of churches receive coverage like this because it rings true to the reality I see. Of course, Christians do not have a monopoly on kindness and many people of other faiths and none also give generously.
But the impact of the Christian faith often goes unacknowledged. One reason is that churches often do not promote the good they do (partly because Jesus said not to) and the media prefer to focus on controversies and scandals. But, if we have eyes to see them, there are beautiful examples of faith-inspired compassion all around.
Purpose and joy
Last week, I visited a church in North London whose incredible work with homeless people blew me away. The man who welcomed me when I arrived was a former guest in their night shelter was helped to come off the streets and now works as the caretaker. He was a walking illustration of the difference faith makes. Faith had motivated those who helped him – but this went deeper – because faith had impacted him personally. It had given him meaning, purpose and a deep joy which was palpable and contagious.
On Christmas day, instead of just cooking for their own family, my brother and sister-in-law invited many others from their community who would otherwise be alone to join them. They ate together in the church hall with my nephews and my parents helping serving. Its a kindness and generosity which was replicated countless times in churches up and down the country.
It is easy for people to lament the declining numbers who attend church or focus on the institutional challenges and tribal politics. But despite these realities, faith continues to make a huge difference to people and society. We should have confidence in this – a confidence which flows from the inside out.
Firstly, faith has to make a difference to us personally. We should be ready to share with others why we have the hope that we have. And, it should be continually shaping our priorities and actions.
Secondly, faith should make a difference practically. Actions really do speak louder than words and faith without deeds is dead. This is why compassionate acts – of individuals or churches – illustrate the Christian message better than anything else.
Thirdly, faith should make a difference publicly. Faith should shine out and play a role in public life. Again this year, the Queen gave a great example in her Christmas speech:
“Only a few people acknowledged Jesus when he was born; now billions follow him. I believe his message of peace on earth and goodwill to all is never out of date. It can be heeded by everyone. It’s needed as much as ever.”
It would naive to pretend that faith can avoid controversy. In fact, just as Jesus promised, faith will bring conflict and difficulties.
Elsewhere in the same edition of The Times quoted above, another article focuses on criticism of Archbishop Justin Welby for speaking out about poverty and working conditions. They quote the response from his office:
‘The Archbishop has been asked by some to stay out of politics. His response is that this is not what Jesus did. No wing of party politics, left or right, can claim God as being on its side. But Jesus was highly political and if we are to follow him then we must share his concern for justice and for the poorest and most vulnerable. That is always political. If Christians do not speak out about injustice in society then its tantamount to ripping out whole sections of the Old and New Testaments.’
Confidence what God has done
Authentic Christianity is transformative. It changes people personally. It changes communities practically. It changes the country publicly.
By its very definition, faith is not focused on us. Our confidence is not based on what we can do. Faith has power because it draws from a source beyond this world – it is a confidence in what God has done.
Christians are not intrinsically ‘better people’ than others. Rather we are people who have accepted and received a gift. And of course, this is the real meaning of Christmas. It’s a theme sung a million times this Christmas in familiar carols: God has come to be with us in the person of Jesus, to share our pain, lift our burdens and give us hope.
In 2019, let’s be confident in this message – and show the world the difference it makes.