We have almost forgotten that Christianity is a radical phenomenon. In the UK – even in our present pluralistic society – Church and State are closely linked. On national occasions we are used to seeing the Church prominently represented; Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords, and some state events take place in church. It is all very respectable.
However, it is a far cry from the itinerant preacher who, with his twelve close disciples, blazed a trail across first century Palestine, disturbing the traditions of devout law-keeping Jews, consorting with tax-collectors and prostitutes, and eventually falling foul of the occupying force – the Romans. Much the same can be said of the early churches. They broke down the social, religious and political barriers, mingled with Gentiles, turned away from the established, respectable customs of Judaism, preached their message in the market-places and turned the world upside-down.
We see something of the radical nature of the true worship of God in our reading from Amos. God’s complaint against Israel was complex. They had worshipped golden calves (1 Kings 12:26-30), formed alliances with pagan nations, sacrificed at hill-top shrines, and indulged in immorality. However, in Amos’ prophecy, God’s anger is directed at them primarily because of their superficial worship (8:5) and their exploitation of the poor; ‘hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land.’ (8:4). The necessity of caring for those in need was enshrined in the law given to Moses (Leviticus 19:9-10) and each of the prophets spoke out against the neglect of that duty (eg Isaiah 58:6-10).
God is not deceived by the outward display of devotion. Where there is no true obedience to his laws, no reverence for his worship, he withdraws his blessing (Amos 8:10). In ancient Israel, the days were to come when God would turn away from the cries of the people (Amos 8:11-12).
All that God really requires is our devotion and loving obedience. In the story of Mary and Martha, many of us will sympathise with Martha, the busy, housekeeping sister who was ‘distracted by all the preparations that had to be made’ (Luke 10:40). However, most of what she was doing was not needed – the necessity was only in her own mind. When she remonstrated with Jesus because he was allowing Mary to sit at his feet and listen, he put things back in perspective. Only one thing was needed, and it was what Mary had chosen to do. In fulfilling our Christian duty, is it time for us to focus on what is really needed. Do we really need what Archbishop Welby refers to as ‘ecclesiastical bling’; do we really need an ordained minister to preside at communion? Do we really need to wear our best hat at church? Are our traditions taking the place of devotion to God and care for the needs, both physical and spiritual, of others?
We cannot ask Jesus, the way that Martha did, but we can see how he is revealed in our scriptures. In Colossians we meet him as the ‘firstborn over all creation’, the heir and Lord of all things, the head of the church. All God’s fullness dwells in him, and through his sacrifice on the cross, God reconciles all things to himself (1:15-20). If we keep such an image of Christ in our minds, surely the important things will come into sharp focus and we will not be distracted by what is not necessary. Nor will our hearts allow us to neglect our commission to minister to the needs of others and to declare the gospel.