The Revd Antonio Garcia Fuerte
Last Thursday, I was watching one of my favourite programs on TV: QI. Stephen Fry and the rest of the guests discussed how cultural perceptions have shifted drastically in the past 100 years or so. One of the examples they quoted was regarding the Church itself. They argued that, up to the 19th century, the Church had much focused in the afterlife, the reward or punishment that awaited in “the other side.” In contrast, on the 20th century, the Church is almost exclusively focused in the present life, to the point, Stephen Fry said that “some churches in the USA are not very different from self support groups.”
And I completely agree with him, 100%… however probably not in the same way you might be thinking. Let me explain myself.
First of all, there is a lot to say about the development of self support groups in the 20th century. One of the best methods of addiction recovery is the “twelve step programme”, started by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939. In a nutshell, the “twelve steps” are a journey to introduce the addict person to God and to a life of spirituality (originally based in the Christian tradition but today not exclusively). So I would say that it is not that the Church has become a self support group, it is that when everything else fails, we turn to God. And it works.
However, this is not the point I want to make. Where I really agree with Stephen Fry is that the Church today is much more focused in the present life. The shift has been, however, in how we relate our present life to that afterlife. It is true we no longer try to picture that afterlife, as we have done in the past. We don’t know much about that afterlife because Jesus is explicitly elusive in the Gospels when they ask him about it. But what he does tell us, and is our Christian hope, is that we will come to see God face-to-face, and we will present our lives to him.
If Christian hope were to be a coin, this would be only one side of the coin. The other side would be what we call the “resurrection of the dead”, or in modern words, the continuity of our own true identity between our present and our future life on “the other side.” Who we really are, our true being, is what will not change when we cross over.
If we are to present our lives to God when we reach him on the other side, if we believe we are to continue to live carrying with our own same identity, then what we do here in this life, that which forms who we really are, our true identity, that now is paramount to the after, because it is indeed what we will present to God.
Going back to Stephen Fry; yes, there has been a shift, because we live our lives not in the search of “brownie points” for the afterlife, but trying to became the best version of ourselves now, the best possible me, in order to build our best possible identity and take this and present it to God when we finally get to see him.
This idea is what the Gospel and all the readings today are trying to address: to focus on being and not having, because what we have does not determine who we really are.
What we have is tagged as ‘vanity’ by Qohelet on the first reading, because it will all go away. And he or her asks rhetorically, “what will there be left?”. The answer is not “nothing”, because behind all that we have, is who we are. And that is what counts. And also note that in the Gospel Jesus doesn’t say to the inquiring young man or indeed neither in the parable, that what they have done is actually wrong but foolish. The point is that what they have does not determine who they are. The focus needs to be in who they are, because this is what it will carried on to God, in the words of Jesus, who we are is our riches or treasures towards God.
So… the question here for our lives should be: how would we like God to see us when we come face to face with him? And there is only one answer to that question, if I may say: the best possible me, the best possible version of myself that it could possibly be.
But there is an even deeper and much more profound layer to the Gospel today: “The younger of two brothers complains [to Jesus] that the elder refuses to give him his share of the inheritance … The elder brother would rather leave the inheritance undivided” (cf. J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, p. 194), as they received it from their father. But the younger brother wants to break the bonds through the inheritance received and go solo, broken bonds with his brother and with the desire of his father. Jesus doesn’t oppose to it per se, “who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” but he tells him a parable where relationships, or rather, lack of relationships are paramount. In that parable, the rich man all by himself accumulates even more riches, focused on his own growth, forgetting all other relationships. So together with what we have just said about the importance of being the best possible me, of self growth, Jesus highlights the vital element of relationships for self growth.
Today two parents bring their daughter to be baptized. And baptism is fundamentally a moment when relationships shift, because baptism sets Olivia in the living context of the community of faith, as a member of the Body of Christ, which is the Church. At this moment the journey of sanctification or growth in Christ is publicly affirmed, and all of us here too establish a new relationship with Olivia, as we also publicly commit ourselves, in our different roles (parents, godparents, community), we commit to help her grow in faith, to help her become the best possible version of herself, to one day present it to God. And we renew the promise to help each other grow in faith too, to help each other become the best versions of ourselves. We do this with the help of the Spirit, who draws us closer to God and through God to each other.