The order that ‘ye shall utterly destroy all the places, wherein the nations which ye shall possess served their gods’ sounds harsh. Idol worship must be eliminated because of the danger it poses to Israel’s freshly revealed faith. One can think about it a lot what it requires preserving the orthodoxy of faith. Perhaps, the underlying moral is that it is a harmful naivety to think that faith should not be defended. That is, there is no contrast and collusion between our Creed and the ‘pluralisms’ of culture. The decline in numbers of religious attendance in the CoE (and elsewhere) requires an honest facing of whether we have not succumbed to the spirit (and gods) of the age. ‘Ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place’. I would like to read these Old Testament lines as an imperative to commit ourselves to the renewal of our faith. I am sure that that the all-time dilemma for Christians, to engage with culture or resist assimilation, will have to be answered soon with utmost honesty.
Yet, the emphasis in our reading is on the transformation that takes place after silencing the alien gods in us. In the wake of this renewed commitment to the Covenant with God stems growth, astounding growth. And this is the encouragement what our communities need in this age of 'post-truth' and 'alternative facts' (a good synonym for post-Christianity!). ‘But when ye go over Jordan, and dwell in the land which the Lord your God giveth you to inherit…so that ye dwell in safety; there shall ye bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and all your choice vows which ye vow unto the Lord: and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God, ye, and your sons, and your daughters…’
(Let us pause for a moment, when our CoE, and its bishops down to our deaneries, are under the pressure of producing numeric growth. The challenging passage, destroying the altars of alien worship, perhaps, should be read as the need to ground the desired growth in an in-depth spirituality. This is my impression that a quiet and toiling preparation, re-grounding in the Creeds, is needed first, as a precondition of numerical growth. If this ground-work takes place in our parishes, years of work invested into spiritual and creedal renewal – after this foundation is there, comes the agenda of mission, which so much dominates present church policy. /Sometimes it feels like a demanding super-ego./)
Our readings from Acts do both, encourage and challenge us further. It exposes to us the puzzling dynamic of grace. A small minority can catalyse and transform a whole culture! A handful of committed Christians (disciples) could turn inside out a decadent culture. Barnabas is rejoicing in this theoisis or deification. ‘And some of them were men of Cyprus and Cyrene, which, when they were come to Antioch, spake unto the Grecians, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord.’ And Barnabas, sent forth from Jerusalem, ‘had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave onto the Lord. For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith: and much people was added unto the Lord….And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.’
The challenging dilemma is this. On the one hand, it is a fantastic news that an inspired minority can revert ‘decline’. On the other hand, we should also face our situation with honesty. How does a culture’s blindness and decadence, its sins, affect our individual faith? Is not there a harmful blocking and weakening of individuals’ ability to believe – their openness to life and Meaning? What happens if the ‘moral background radiation’ of a culture does create (negative) conditions for faith? Is not it the situation that our opening passage, as a starting point for renewal, subscribes? It is a time, indeed, for prayer and Biblical discernment.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..