On avoiding 'supermarket church' in a Clockwork Orange world...

Themes: Acts John 1 John

David Emmott

Sometimes the lectionary – the directions about what Bible passages to read in church – tends to sanitise scripture. It will often omit difficult passages, or as those of us who rather like reading the Old Testament might say, the gory bits.

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles has been filleted. It misses out the story of what happened to Judas. But I can’t resist sharing the joke about how someone was reading this in church but turned two pages by mistake. So that the congregation heard:

[Judas] acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. … and the lot fell on Matthias.

I went to the Everyman the other evening to see Clockwork Orange. It’s had mixed reviews and is certainly not a jolly night out. You might have seen the film (if you’re old enough) when it first came out in the 1970s. This though is the author Anthony Burgess’s own adaptation for the stage. I imagine if you’re thinking of going you’ll have a good idea of the story already, but if you want to avoid spoilers plug your ears now.

It’s full of gory bits. And rape, knife crime and murder. The central character, Alex, is a teenager who lives for violence. He is addicted to it as others are addicted to drugs.

Unlike Judas though, he doesn’t meet with a violent death himself, but perhaps an even more sinister punishment. He is sentenced to prison for murder, and then is offered an early release if he consents to be a guinea pig for an experiment in aversion therapy. He is made to feel violently ill if he sees any incidents of sexual aggression or violence such as he used to indulge in. So that the authorities declare him ‘cured’ because he is simply unable to offend any more. He no longer has any free will; he is an automaton.

God could have made us like that. He could have created a world full of little robots all programmed to behave properly, to do what’s right and to look after one another. We wouldn’t have any wars; everyone would be fed; there would be no need for armies or police or even politicians.

But nor would there be any love. Love is our free response to love held out to us by God; God most often seen in another human being. A human being who lacks something... lacks the completeness of another’s love. If we were robots we wouldn’t lack anything and so would never know love.

The apostles in those days after Jesus had been taken up into heaven knew what love was. They had seen him the victim of horrors every bit the equal of those that Alex and his gang inflicted on people. They knew the worst that human nature could do. They knew their own weakness and failures: after all, their leader had denied he knew Jesus and the rest of them (apart from John) had all run away from the cross.

But it’s because of that, and because of Judas who betrayed him, that Jesus died. And through his death human nature is transformed. We are not mechanical beings programmed to obey; we are human beings who have seen the worst that humans can do and yet we are lifted up to a level far above what we have known. Far above what we could reach by our own efforts, and far above what we could even understand if we were just robots.

Matthias – whose day we celebrate tomorrow – and the other eleven had not been magically delivered from this world’s problems. They would have hard times ahead: for some of them, death by martyrdom. But the horror of the cross and the anguish of betrayal had been overtaken by the joy of the resurrection. Jesus was alive, and he’d ascended to heaven leaving them with a twofold promise: heaven is your home too; and I am sending upon you the Holy Spirit.

These words are addressed to us as well. We are assured of a share in the Spirit and we too belong to the kingdom of God.

So Jesus, in his great prayer to the Father that St John spells out for us, talks of his followers. He might have been primarily thinking about his closest disciples, about the twelve... but it applies to us all. ‘They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.’

Our citizenship is in heaven. That means, that our ultimate allegiance is to God and the values of the gospel. The Holy Spirit is given to us as a pledge of that citizenship.

That’s not to say we should live in a cloud-cuckoo land and forget about this world. It just means that we can’t sell out the values of the Spirit.

In recent years people have been encouraged to put themselves first. To pretend that what matters is personal fulfilment at whatever cost to others, to the community or to the environment. And religion has sometimes been adopted as a means to that end. People take up meditation or go to services as a sort of spiritual ego-trip, a boost of ‘feelgood factor.’ That’s why many churches have ceased to be communities of disciples, learning from God and from each other, and they’ve become more like cafeterias or supermarkets - you load up with spiritual goodies from time to time but you have no real relationship with anyone else.

But all that is about belonging to this world first and foremost. Today we’re reminded that our true home is in heaven and our true life is the Holy Spirit. And that’s not sentimental escapist religious rubbish. Even less is it self-indulgent. Because the Holy Spirit is yearning within us to transform us into the sort of people God wants in his kingdom, the sort of people we essentially are. And his fruits are, as St Paul says: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’

The Spirit can’t be confined or hoarded as our own private possession. The Spirit does not touch us unless we allow ourselves to become conduits of the Spirit. If we don’t show God’s love in the way we live, then God’s love is not in us and we’re doomed to die. But if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the Spirit of God, the world will come alive and just as Jesus draws us, his disciples, after him into the glory of heaven, so we in our turn will draw all those whose lives we have touched.