Transcript of Discussion with Martin Johnstone
I believe in Jesus Christ
God’s only Son our Lord
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead
General Opening Comments
A story about a theologian in Brazilian. I was there for three months living and working with a very young family. My job was to meet people who were well known in the world but were actually very ordinary people. I was sitting in a flavela where 300,000 people lived. In one woman’s house I was sitting on the only chair in a house made of cardboard and wood drinking from the only cup. There was herself and five children. I asked the question: “What could the church in my part of the world learn from your part of the world?” After a brief thought she looked me in the eye and said: “We can offer you hope.”
I must have looked confused: how can a woman living in a situation like that ever be able to offer hope? It was a very hot day and the smell of the open sewer got you in the back of your throat but hot weather was better than rain because then the sewer ran through her house.
“Martin,” she said, “you are confusing hope with optimism. Here there are no grounds for optimism because here everyday people die of hunger, disease and violence, but there are still grounds for hope because hope is a gift from God.”
There is that sense that what Jesus offers is hope and that is quite different from optimism. We discover Jesus when we have the lens of hope and when we end up going into situations that look impossible but find there people of great faith and resilience.
While we support what the church does for the poor, we don’t get involved personally that much. There are other agencies that get involved with the poor. What makes us specifically Christian rather than humanist?
Martin: Sometimes it isn’t different because sometime the person who works for that other agency is living out their faith. What we do is living out our faith/ministry. Church needs to get beyond the notion that when the church does it it is so much better than everyone else.
People also tend to conflate the Kingdom with the Church. One way that happens is that unless it is the church that does something it isn’t of God. Our picture of God is one where God is bigger than the church. Sometimes what people are doing is an expression of God’s love in the world.
Also some of what we do is different: at our best when we walk alongside the poor as a church or as individuals or communities of faith and are able to see Jesus in that person it changes the dynamic of that relationship so one of the things I’ve learned is that there are two stories of creation: one we hear of the sinfulness of humanity (and that’s real) but also a story in which we hear of beings made in the image of God and therefore there is something divine in every person. If we go to the poorest in society and are able to see the beauty and wonder of God there then we are acting in a different way from what the rest of society does. We see the value and worth of that individual rather than someone who needs our help and support.
When you talk of the woman in Brazil having hope what does she have hope in?
Martin: Her hope was that no matter how difficult life was God was there. One of the things that struck me often was seeing the sheer joy and exuberance and laughter when life is pretty difficult and recognising in comfortable places there isn’t the same spirit of joy and laughter.
Why does the Creed miss out the bits about Jesus life?
Martin: At early stages in the formation of the creed the bits people heard most often were reinforced. There is also something in the fact that the world in which the early church developed was one that quite quickly got into concepts and ideas and doctrine and truth whereas Jesus’ own world was a bit more gritty and practical and down to earth.
Also it is a bit easier to say ‘believe in things’. Bit tougher to do things and so the church moved in the second, third and fourth centuries to something that was an institution that was favoured in wider society rather than and irritant that continued to talk of an upside down world.
When look at creed there seems to be words that are limiting. Words have been agreed on by great meetings of the church and they are a human attempt to define issues of faith. But is can be quite inaccessible for it is very demanding saying you have to believe some things that are very challenging. Great danger being caught up on semantics rather than the need for action. All church members would accept need for action and value the example Jesus left us, and so hope as we think through the challenge of creeds that we come up with something more accessible with people. Buddhism is not demanding in terms of faith but is a way of life which has lot in common with Christianity. Can we be liberated from demands of belief in the creed. These are not necessarily Jesus’ demands.
Martin: Words by their nature are limiting but they also have the capacity to explore. We are stuck with words. Following Jesus is about a relationship rather than about a prescription to a set of things you can tick. For those of us who have been and are in loving relationships we could do a whole series of lists of things about what good marriage is for example, but in actual fact when we are in a loving relationship we know it and when we are not in a loving relationship we know it. We need to be thinking about following Jesus as thinking about being in that sort of relationship which liberates and sets us free.
If we know this person loves us regardless it somehow sets us free to do and be more. It is this kind of relationship we encourage people to have when we say the words: “I believe in Jesus Christ…” and God will sort the rest of it out for us.
In the early church there was a struggle between law and grace and we can get caught up in debates along the lines of ‘in order to be a Christian you need to do this…’ This is the territory of the law when really we need to be in the territory of grace.
One central thing in the life of Christianity is that Christianity was ever meant to be an individualistic faith but a community faith. The church gathering week by week is so important. People will say, ‘I can do this on my own.’ Well, you might with the religious stuff but to be truly Christian you need to be in community with each other.
Can we free ourselves up and rethink our believes and what these statements mean? It it is an irony that we haemorrhaging members when our outlook is more about community and doing things. How do we open ourselves up to a more progressive christianity rather than an even more traditional set of ways (fundamentalism) that are drawing people in.
We have a huge amount to learn from other churches and need to be careful not to set ourselves up in opposition to them. The churches that proclaim a narrower/fundamentalist approach are able to demonstrate how those strict parameters represent good news for some. So we who want more fuzzy edges, how we can demonstrate that is also good news…
I don’t believe the purpose of sharing the good news is fundamentally building the membership of the church but enabling the world to look a bit more like God intends it to be. That is our calling when the environment is all about how we pay the bills. Our calling is to enable the world to look more like the kingdom of God and ours is not to bother too much about the future of the church.
Some are drawn to certainty and security especially in troubled times and in such times we are drawn to certain securities. Most people I meet know certainty and security is a bit of a myth and would love a church more willing to talk about the fragility of human life. When I was a wee boy I remember my mum tidying our china cabinet and she handed me a cup from my great grandmothers wedding china. She told me to be really careful: it was very fragile. When my mum died we were clearly out that cabinet and came across the cup. When my mum used the word fragile she didn’t use it the way we normally use it. She was talking about something precious and value rather than something that was breakable.
Our communities and or economy are all fragile. We image we can grow our way out of that fragility and make strong. The planet is fragile but we tend to forget that. You can look at the gospel and think about Jesus birth, life death and resurrection and ascension as fundamentally about fragility: God chose fragility: a poor birth in a poor womb with a poor man with immediate threats to his life. It is about worth and value.
One day the church will have the courage to share that message of fragility with a fragile world: that would be very attractive in a way that sharing a message of certainly and security are both a denial of reality and a denial of the gospel: it is pretending there is a whole host of certainties form God who actually chose fragility over power.
You’ve been and walked in the footsteps of the poor properly. Few of us go out and do that. Church very middle class and do things with money rather than feet. When you look at the Creed I doubt much of it. Is it easier to do than to believe?
Doubt is part of faith rather than opposites. Faith is believing the things we cannot see. Faith and doubt hold together. It is to the shame of the Church that people are accused of being unfaithful when they say they can’t believe something.
And what about walking along side the poor? I walk a very comfortable life, don’t experience some of the real struggles my friends do. I never ever want people to beat themselves up for their lack of friendships with those who are really struggling but do want to encourage development of those friendships because my experience is that they are very liberating and transforming. This then ceases to be the thing I feel guilty about. Friendship set us free.
One final thing: the church is changing. One of the most dramatic changes we cannot see in our context is that the church is truly becoming a movement of the poor. After 1700 years with the centre of the church in this bit of the world, the centre of the church is now becoming Latin America and Africa and Asia. It is strongest in those parts of the wold where life is a struggle.
Many of us poor background culturally. Poor in Bearsden is not a good experience.
Really important not to get into the territory of guilt as we find the ways to serve and meet Jesus in the people around us because he is there.