It was a treat, last Sunday night, to see two Christian thinkers, Prof James Mackey and
Dr Fainche (Fawn-cha) Ryan standing up to the rudeness and aggression of their
interviewer on RTE television. In the face of a barrage of often ignorant and accusatory
questioning – some would say attacks – they remained calm, thoughtful, courteous,
explaining that responsible Christian faith was neither fundamentalist nor naive, but a
way of life leading us closer to God’s truth and opening us more fully to his love.
How I wish more of us could be as fearless and as faithful, as well as unfazed,
articulate and polite in the face of aggressive challenge.
Fearlessness and faith – faith in the sense of trust in God’s promises – are the
qualities demanded of us in today’s readings. “Do not be afraid, Abram; I am your
shield… Do not be afraid, little flock. It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the
But both the fearlessness and the faith have to be demonstrated in action, and often
in words as well. God’s call to us, God’s challenge to us, however we understand it,
requires action; otherwise it remains sterile and we remain unproductive, even if
Abram believes God’s promise, even through his moments of doubt, and follows
where God leads him. The disciples eventually overcome their fear – even if it takes the
resurrection to give them courage – and go out to share the good news at the risk of their
The question for us two thousand years later, is how fear – and maybe also doubt –
impede our spiritual life and our Christian witness day by day. How in fact they harm us
not only as individuals but as a Christian community. Fear of ridicule and bullying from
increasingly aggressive, if ignorant, atheism of the Richard Dawkins variety has driven
too many of us underground. And faith in the Church as an instrument of the kingdom
has waned so dramatically in the last decade that too many believers consider
dissociating themselves from the institutional church entirely. Quaker meeting any one?
Without wanting to make theologians or mystics or biblical scholars of every one,
I’m inclined to think that what’s needed is for all of us to think and pray a little more
deeply and carefully about our Christian faith and practice; and allow what some have
called the “God virus” truly to infect our daily lives and our decisions.
“Sell your possessions and give alms”? Well, at least we could re-consider how
much we give to those in need, even on our post Celtic Tiger incomes.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit, keeping watch for your master’s
return”? Is that not a compelling reminder that our lives, and our opportunities to do
good or ill, to speak healing or hurt, are given to us day by day? The gift can be
withdrawn at any time, at any moment; and in any case “we shall not pass this way
But as Christian people we are called to much more than alms-giving and day-today good will.
In a world constantly threatened by greed, violence and irresponsibility,
in which injustice and prejudice seem endemic, we have always to be ready to “give
account for the faith that is in us”, making the Gospel and the example of Christ more
effective. And that may require a little more thoughtful consideration of scripture and
ethics than we are accustomed to.
I believe we must also, in God’s name, find the courage to challenge injustice,
misuse of God’s word, cowardice and untruthfulness wherever it is to be found – perhaps
most especially within our own institutions and places of work, and indeed in our
personal lives. Evasions and half-truths, favouritism and black-balling, malicious gossip
and failure to challenge it, are traps that all too easily ensnare us – and cause untold
damage in our community. If any one claims never to have fallen into one or two of
them, that person must live in a cloud not so much of unknowing as of self-ignorance!
So let’s cop ourselves on, and keep watch!
Two men who were in different ways heroes of Christian faith and witness died in
the past ten days and we would do well to heed their examples.
One was Professor Sean Freyne, a scholar, teacher and friend of many of us in the
Christian churches and academies of this country and beyond. Over the past thirty years
or more he showed us how disciplined and adventurous study of the New Testament and
its world enlivens Christian faith and leads to deeper understanding. For him and with
him, scholarship was never a threat to faith but rather an aid. I still remember him being
amused, long ago, at a critical nay-sayer’s surprise that he attended daily mass in Lent! If
only more of us would combine scholarly excitement with the practice of our faith.
The other hero was the Revd Mervyn Kingston. Less well-known and not so
widely acclaimed, he made huge personal sacrifices in order to bring the plight of lesbian
and gay Christians to the attention of members of the Church of Ireland. This could only
be done by identifying himself as a partnered gay man, and some legal progress was
made as a result; but by the same token he lost his permission to officiate at Church of
Ireland services, a privilege granted to retired clergy only at the discretion of their
diocesan bishop. So in a certain sense, he was silenced. He was a hero nontheless, and
an effective one.
In time to come, I expect that Mervyn Kingston will be recognised as a courageous
path-finder on the road to Christian acceptance of committed same-sex partnerships – an
issue which sadly still remains divisive both in the Church of Ireland and in the Anglican
Communion. It is regrettable that his courage and his openness have so far been
exceptional and that conservative voices remain so threatening. We should be able to do
something about that. But as of now the fear of personal sanctions is so strong that it will
be hard to find a successor with the courage and conviction to follow Mervyn’s example.
The good gifts of biblical scholarship and faithful same-sex partnerships,
symbolised by these two men whom I salute this morning, are just two of the issues
which Christians need to ponder and pray about today, recognising where prejudice and
fear may lead us away from truth, justice and love. There are many others: among them
racial prejudice, dehumanisation of outsiders, and poverty at home and abroad.
My prayer for us all today is that God will lead us from fearfulness to courageous
speech and action, from doubt to faithful following of Christ’s way, and from lazy, quasi
nominal, Christianity to active, sacrificial involvement in God’s reign of justice, love and
If we cannot do that, we have no right to the respect of the wider community; nor
will our Church be recognised as a force for good in the world. Let us resolve then, to
think and speak and act as true followers of Christ, however difficult it may be. Amen.