We have a whole industry sector in our society who are devoted to image polishing, image making and image massaging, professionals who spend their talents putting the best spin on whatever unpalatable facts have to be told. Spin doctors they are often called. People who spend all their time fixing the mistakes of others, working to repair damage to reputation, reframing the news to put things in their best light. I remember being absolutely aghast when I heard about the 6 figure sum that was spent on helping the past Governor General to recover his image - ! - to no avail.
And, as we all keep seeing, the Christian Church, here, in the US and Britain, continues to get headlines for sad, salacious and sometimes brave moves to become more inclusive. The image we most often get though is the mud of the most strident critics and thats what seems to stick for the longest.
Like me, you might be wishing quietly that we could get some good news headlines instead. And then I hear many people lamenting what this sort of behavior is doing to the image of the church. Do we seriously need spin doctors ourselves?
Its a serious question, but Id like to explore it with a little playfulness to begin with. Now, I have nothing against either the past Governor General or spin merchants, but I am sure thats not the way for us to go.
What is the image of the church, how important is it - how should we behave - what do Christian ethics allow?
The image of the church gives rise to many jokes; "did you hear about the plane that was about to crash, - one passenger had a flash of inspiration, "quick" he said in panicked desperation - "we should all do something religious" so they took up a collection.
Well, you've, heard it straight from the Bible now, no abomination allowed, the truth is not to be bent, be angry but dont sin, keep your talk clean, "all you thieves, give up your robbing", put away all your bitterness, your wrath, your wrangling and slander and malice! Behave!" Paul does not mince his words, these things are very clear.
Pauls letter to the church at Ephesus has early passages full of a lyrical celebration of what God has done in Christ. Its wonderful visionary stuff! Like a magnificent hymn of praise!
Paul writes like someone on cloud nine. He hardly stops to breathe as he spells out the wonder of what Jesus has done, not just for the Ephesians but for all the world and the whole universe to boot!
Paul celebrates the reconciling power which will bring all things into one harmony. One Lord, one faith, one baptism!
Paul is no small mind, paddling around in backyard puddles and climbing anthills. He is a genius theologian. Paul launches out on the ocean of Gods glory and climbs the highest peaks of available. He sees visions far beyond the commonplace and struggles for words to even hint at the ultimate wonder of it all. The sentences roll on as if there was no punctuation possible once he got launched on his subject.
Then suddenly the mood changes, the sentences become short, his theme deals with the nitty gritty of Christian behaviour. After soaring through the universe he comes back to our street, our homes, our market place, back to how Ephesians, Melburnians and all Christians should behave.
But I dont believe Paul is interested in image at all, and he follows a well established heritage in this.
For the last two Sundays weve been following some of the less moral exploits of one well known King of Israel.. If the Hebrews were concerned about the image of their people, or the message it might send to record such a debacle as Davids with Bathsheba, they clearly wouldnt have committed it to sacred text. But they did! If they had valued positive spin, there would have been a lovely clean image of King David, beautifully polished for history to appreciate, but not these Hebrews!
Honesty, integrity and an ethic of absolute openness have given a healthy, formative and instructive narrative to countless generations
How people of faith appear to others is a witness, yes - but it isnt the reason for our actions and the truth should never be compromised, bent or shaped for appearances. Paul says quite clearly, we are to live by these principles; live in love, that is, because we are to be imitators of God, not for any other reason.
If we are to be Gods children, we ought to then also bear a family resemblance in the way that we act; love because we are loved, forgive because we are forgiven. And these must be applied to our debates and our differences - live and seek the truth in love, in a spirit of forgiveness, for these are the essence of the one we follow.
Paul cares not a jot about whether the actions of Christians seem foolish or irrelevant to the society around them, he says, "Gods foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and Gods weakness stronger than human strength."
No, our concern is not to be about what our image is, or how others see us as a church.
Our concern needs to be, whose image we are striving to attain to.
Not a concern about how our image appears but about who our commitment is to and about what direction our lives are traveling in.
"Be imitators of God" says Paul. Be imitators of God! Mmmm Perhaps Paul is a bit tough! a little carried away, unrealistic- what does Jesus say, then? "Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly father is perfect." No easy let out Im afraid to report.
How ever could we achieve something like this !! Imitators of God!
We need help to address many of the practicalities of our faith, we have many challenges to face, not least how we fit in the rapidly changing world we live in. So how are we meant to find the energy, find the best answers, get somewhere near this lofty aspiration?
Where are we meant to get the resources from ?
How on earth are we going to sustain all that for one Sunday, let alone for the rest of the week and a whole Christian life !!
Jesus answer is..., I believe we hear in the Gospel today, that the answer comes from him, is Jesus himself.
Jesus tells the crowds who've followed him that the resources and the sustenance will come from him. "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Whoever eats this bread will live forever."
The queues at ashrams are huge these days, look in the classifieds of any paper and see how many ads there are for mystics offering their services. My generation and younger are looking for the bread of life - for spiritual food from crystals and smells and smoke and all sorts of substances and weird practices.
This is a hungry generation, crowds looking to be fed!
Jesus said I am the bread of life and you must feed on me.
Bread of life, we know from his conversations with the crowds that Jesus doesn't mean that he is to feed everyone with the physical bread they need to live on. He says that the bread God gives is about having abundant, eternal life, a life in that isn't bounded by death, and that this bread is for the whole world.
Jesus feeds us and sustains us.
We don't come to church for a slice of Jesus to keep us going, but we do look to Jesus for things that give us life on a deeper level, to sustain and feed our spirits.
And unpopular though he may be, the missionary apostle Paul, grapples admirably with what these spirit things mean in the everyday things of our lives. The world around us does not need a network of soup kitchens to feed it, it does not need the plastic image of a squeaky clean church with no unsolved issues, it does not need a spin doctored image of a nice church, it desperately need people who are prepared to practice the faith that they do have, and to practice it in the real person to person, nitty gritty things of everyday life.
So let us do what we can to:
"Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us,... and who feeds us with the bread of life."
Thanks be to God - the God who feeds and stirs us on to become what we have been created to be - the very children of God.