Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. (Matthew 3:2)
I think, as I look back over the years and see the ways in which society has changed, I am struck by a very great shift in the way people understood faith and especially Christian belief.
It’s not so much about how many people believe, or go to Church. It’s not about churches closing, the decline of practice and the rise of extreme and also non-Christian beliefs.
It is this: people - and that probably includes us - tend to see religion now more as a matter of comfort and culture, rather than as about conversion and salvation.
Let me explain.
I first became aware of this about 25 years ago when I was a part-time prison chaplain, when the role of the chaplain was moved from ranking alongside the governor, to being someone who worked in a department for ‘inmate services’. Religion was now no longer about reform and repentance, it was instead about supporting and comforting those in distress. It was not about challenging behaviour anymore, but about caring for those in trouble. It was no longer about values, but became a support service, like education, or dentistry.
And we see it nowadays in the hospitals too. The sick have a right to ask for their chaplain to visit them - but the chaplain has no right to seek out those who have not asked … or who didn’t realise they had to ask.
And this attitude infects our relationships with other Christians and other faiths and those of none. “That’s your opinion” people are likely to say. You have a right to practice your faith … but no right to persuade others that they should follow it too. It leads to some of the ludicrous examples we come across from time to time - like in Canada where Catholic nursery schools are now allowed to have Christmas Cribs and Nativity Plays, because they are a cultural expression - but they are not allowed to explain what they mean or represent. And it leads also to an idea that when we talk about God’s love, and God’s love for everyone, it is taken to mean that God blesses us wherever, whenever and whatever we do.
Now, of course, faith is about comfort. And it is welcome, I am sure, that we nowadays concentrate more on praising God than being paralysed by the fear of offending him. And people should be protected, especially when most vulnerable, from harassment and emotional pressure. It is certainly good that different faiths and none can enjoy mutual respect and not fear persecution.
But it is a very sorry day when we forget that the first instruction of Jesus to those who followed him was “Repent”, and the second instruction was that they should be fishers of men. It is regrettable when we suppose God’s love for the sinner means that he does not want the sinner to change. It is unfortunate when we speak only of heaven, but never of purgatory and still less of hell. It is sad when the message of the Gospel is stripped of its challenge, and faith which is always a source of comfort, never becomes anything more.