John 20.19-25, John 20.19-25
A number of years ago someone made an official complaint about me because, on the Sunday before the general election, I preached about the election. Now admittedly, if she had a postal vote, it was a bit late to bring up the subject, but that wasn't her complaint. She said was sick of hearing about the general election and she had come to church to get away from it.
She had to withdraw the complaint, because that's not actually a good reason for coming to church. Church shouldn't be the place where we go expecting to get away from things, it should be the place where we go to engage with things, to think and pray about what’s happening in the world, and that includes the general election. You see, church isn't a quiet space, a sort of holy grotto to which we can retreat when everything gets too much for us. Instead it's a sacred space, a special opportunity in the week for us to share our concerns, our fears, our anxieties and - yes - even our boredom and our fatigue, with God and with the rest of the Christian community.
To try to take refuge from the general election in church is to become like the first disciples, hiding behind locked doors, trying to take refuge from the uncomfortable and painful reality going on outside. But Jesus bursts through the bubble. He comes and stands among us and urges us to be at peace in the world as it is now, the world where good people get crucified but love still has the power to triumph. He breathes his Spirit upon us and he gives us a commission to go out and change the world, challenging error, telling truth to power, encouraging people towards the right paths and condemning the wrong paths that people sometimes take.
However, Thomas, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the others when Jesus appeared on that first Eastertide, and he refused to accept this new commission unless he could see for himself that the Jesus who was now challenging him to go out and confront the world was the same Jesus who had himself confronted the authorities - and been put to death - only a few days before.
We often criticise Thomas for his lack of courage and conviction. But it seems to me that he was right to be sceptical. A sanitised Jesus, a Jesus who has been rescued from the Cross by God, or who has been magically kissed better - like a little child running to her mother for comfort after falling down - would not have the moral authority to challenge us to unlock the church doors, go out into the world and face the music. Only a Jesus who has been through the fray, and still bears the scars to prove it, would be worth following.
This Jesus was the person whom Thomas would later acknowledge to be his Lord and his God. And this same Jesus is our Lord, too. That's why Christians cannot run away from the general election, however baffling, bewildering, boring or plain annoying the competing claims of the politicians might be. And that’s why the Baptist, Methodist and URC Churches have come together to run a campaign of their own during the general election campaign, called, "Love Your neighbour: Think, pray, vote." Because thinking and praying about life is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
So what exactly do the Churches want us to think about? If you really are tired of the election coverage this might cheer you up, because they've got nothing to say about deficit reduction, or the NHS, or the future of the United Kingdom, or the personalities of the party leaders. Important as these things may be, the Churches have decided to focus on just four things which they would like us to think and pray about before we cast our votes.
The first is climate change and making economic growth more ‘sustainable’. It's not a popular subject at the moment. Even Natalie Bennett, the Leader of the Greens, hardly dared mention it in the first televised leaders' debate, and we've come along way since the last time David Cameron hugged a husky in a bid to turn the Conservative Party green.
When I’ve talked about climate change to house groups or in worship I’ve often been surprised to find that a lot of people are very dubious about it. The fact that the vast majority of scientists believe in global warming impresses them not a bit. So I don’t want to get into a debate with you about whether or not climate change is happening, and what is causing it. I just want to pose one question, ‘What if?’
You see, you can ask the ‘What if?’ question about anything to do with the general election. What if we borrow more money for a few years to get the economy going again, as Labour want to do? Or what if we carry on with austerity, in the hope of lightening the ship of state so that it can float off the rocks of economic stagnation all by itself, as the Conservatives want to do? What if we leave the European Union, as UKIP wants to do? Or break up the United KIngdom, as the Scottish Nationalists want to do? These are all very important questions, and to say that there is no difference between the political parties, as many people seem to want to do, requires us to ignore those questions completely.
But the really important question - the Numero Uno question - is about climate change, because if we take the wrong direction on any of those other issues it won’t be the end of the world, whereas - if unprecedented climate change is really happening, and we are causing it - the end of the world is truly nigh. So when we cast our votes, as I hope we all shall, the Churches want us to ask ourselves, ‘What have the candidates got to say about global warming and greener energy?’
The second issue that the Churches want us to think about during this election is immigration. The question they pose is this, ‘Is there really no room at the inn?’
Now I work in an area, Darnall, where there have been very high levels of immigration - first from the Yemen, then from Pakistan and Bangladesh, then from Somalia, and finally from Eastern Europe. I know, therefore, that sometimes immigration can create problems. An area like Darnall can easily become over-burdened with new arrivals, so that its schools and medical services and housing provision can no longer cope.
In the recent waves of EU immigration there have sometimes been problems with people not knowing how they are expected to behave. And there have been people who came just to get child benefit. But for every person like that there have been many more who came to work hard - harvesting potatoes, cleaning offices or picking and packing things in warehouses - and settled in unobtrusively. Darnall has become a much more interesting and exciting place to live in as a result of all these people mixing together. Strangers, outsiders, sometimes drive through Darnall and imagine trouble. They wind up their car windows and lock the doors. But people who live in Darnall see new opportunities to learn and share. Is there really no room in the inn?
And if we leave the European Union, and all the East Europeans have to go home, are we ready to welcome back all the British emigrants who left the UK for Europe and will have to come home again? My son’s hoping to go halfway around the world to work, so if UKIP wins the general election and he isn’t able to go to some countries, my wife may not be too sorry. But before we cast our votes, the Churches want us to ask ourselves, ‘Are we really ready to say that there’s no room any more at the inn?’
The third issue which the Churches want us to think and pray about is peacemaking. The days are gone, it seems, when we had enough soldiers, planes and ships to invade someone else’s country, but do we still think we have a role to play in helping bring about peace in today’s world, especially as so many of the world’s problems seem to revolve around the relationship between Christians and Muslims, and that’s still very much an issue for us here at home, as well as for people far away? And we could also ask, do our nuclear missiles help us to maintain a fragile peace or do they undermine our credibility when we argue that other countries should manage without them?
There are some people who would argue that it’s time to pull the drawbridge up on the rest of the world and abandon our role as peacemakers. After all, it has often been a controversial role, and we’ve often done it badly. But, before we cast our votes, the Churches would like us to ask ourselves: ‘Do we have an obligation to be peacemakers, or would it be better to stop interfering?’
And the fourth and final issue which the Churches would like us to think and pray about is what they call, ‘the true story of poverty’ in our country. Now I happen to think that Church leaders sometimes wear rose coloured spectacles when they think and pray about poverty. They want us to tell the true story of poverty and how it affects people and blights communities, but I work with disadvantaged people and I know it simply isn’t true - for instance - to say that everyone who has their benefits sanctioned is being unfairly treated. Sanctioning them, or in other words ‘stopping all their benefit payments’ and forcing them to rely on food banks if necessary, might be a very blunt instrument and its impact on the rest of their family might be wrong and unfair, but the fact remains that some people do refuse to help themselves, or let anyone else help them, when it comes to looking for a job. Lots of disabled or mentally ill people have been unfairly denied benefits, and lots of young people would love a job if they could find one, but there are some able-bodied people who are determined not to work for a living, and they ought to be confronted just as much as wealthy tax dodgers need bringing to book. To deny that is to deny the true story of poverty, and - while it’s right to criticise the proliferation of food banks - church leaders ought to be careful about that.
Nevertheless, before we cast our votes, the Churches would like us to think and pray about poverty in our country, and to ask ourselves whether we want to go on living in a society where poor people bare the brunt of putting right the mistakes of the past, mistakes which they were certainly not responsible for, or whether we want to create a society where rich people have to put their hands in their pockets to help put things right. And then we need to ask ourselves what the candidates intend to do about it.
I hope I’ve said enough about the Churches’ concerns to convince you, if you weren’t already convinced, that we ought to be thinking and praying about the general election. St Paul said that we should be subject to the governing authorities, and that could be read as an excuse to stay out of politics and simply do as we’re told, as many German Christians tried to do in the 1930s. But Paul was making two assumptions. The first was that the government itself is trying to keep the peace and create a well-ordered society. In Nazi Germany, particularly after the regime got well established, the opposite was true and the government became bent on plunging the world into chaos and destruction.
Paul’s second assumption is that we don’t have any influence over who governs us, and therefore we have no option but to do as we’re told. However, in a democracy we, the people, are the governing authority instituted by God. We, the people, are the servants of God, given the task of promoting what is good and rooting out what is bad. in a new book called ‘Who Governs Britain?’ Professor Anthony King explains that all the politicians are scared of us - the people. They daren’t campaign for what is right in case we don’t like it! That’s why the general election is something we cannot afford to ignore. We all have a God-given duty to think, pray and vote.