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Faith or Face?

“I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” John 5.43-47.

Here, Jesus is addressing “the Jews” (John 5.18) — an expression which, in John’s Gospel, often (as here) signifies members of the religious establishment in Jerusalem … Pharisees, scribes and high-up members of the priesthood. From the start, this group has consistently refused to recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the promise one — “the prophet” that Moses said would come (Deuteronomy 18.15), or as having any authority over them or claim upon them. “And that,” Jesus tells them, “is never going to change because you are far more concerned with receiving glory from one another than with receiving glory from God.” What did he mean by that?

Quite simply, these men loved their public status and reputation more than anything else. They would not do anything that might cause them to “lose face” among the other members of the establishment to which they belonged; and to give any kind of recognition to Jesus would inevitably have precisely that effect. Nicodemus, one of their number, would later invite ridicule from his peers by simply suggesting that Jesus should be given a fair hearing (John 7.50-52). So when, for instance, a prominent Pharisee like Simon invited Jesus to lunch so as to be able to question him and hear his teachings at first hand, he pointedly neglected all the social niceties so that his fellow Pharisees would not for a moment be tempted to suspect that he might secretly hold Jesus in some kind of esteem; there was no water to wash Jesus‘ feet, no touch of perfumed oil for Jesus‘ forehead (Luke 7.45-46). No, in the Jerusalem of that day, it was socially unacceptable to have anything at all to do with Jesus — unless it was to abuse him, rebuke him, insult him, or seek to trap him — so there was no way that these men, for whom social acceptance meant everything, could ever put their faith in him.

That is almost where we have now come to in the United Kingdom. On 19 January, in the Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Vine, a top BBC presenter who is also a committed Christian, claimed that “Christians are becoming social pariahs in Britain” and admitted to being afraid to discuss his own beliefs on air because he feels the country is increasingly intolerant of allegiance to Christ. He is not alone in that. Except when it is examining Christianity in its historic perspective, the UK media fairly consistently sneers at the Christian faith and those who still embrace it. Public figures, politicians, captains of industry, all proudly boast of their disbelief in God and mock the naivety of those who still cling to outdated beliefs such as belief in Christ. How different (at the moment) from the situation in the USA, where (so it seems to people like me in the UK) a presidential candidate has positively to declare his Christian commitment to have even a chance of being elected to that high office. But how long will it remain so?

The choice for the Jews in this morning’s reading was “faith or face.” They could put their faith in Jesus but, were they to do so, they would lose face among those whose acceptance and high esteem meant everything to them. And increasingly, it seems, even here in the West, that is the choice that is having to be made today.

Please God, help me to be like Paul — not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1.16). Please God, let it be that when I’m in fear of losing face my faith will grew strong and I will have the courage to sing with Delirious:

I’m not ashamed of the Gospel
I’m not ashamed of the one I love.
I’m not ashamed of the Gospel
I’m not ashamed of the one I love.

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