The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Congratulations! You’re the 50th person exiting passport control at Heathrow, would you mind taking a survey? The lady was wearing a name tag from the Office of National Statistics. I was with the Chairman of Luther-Tyndale, Dr Jung Wing Wan – he was apparently 49 – or maybe 51 – and he paused and waited. We were heading to get our luggage. The ONS lady had her tablet ready to press buttons for the answers and she explained that the questions would relate to me – how I’m in the country – and to money – funds going in and out of the country because of my travels. Basically she wanted one set of answers to put in the tablet and “it won’t take long”.

The very first question related to passports. I have two. The tablet only wanted one answer. We discuss what she wants and now I’m British (wearing an Akubra and with an Australian accent ). She can find my village and county in the tablet so things are going well. Why have I been out of the country? At conferences – two of them – one after the other. She only wants one answer. What can I say? Did my company (I’m businessman it seems) pay for the conferences? Yes and no. That’s not one answer. I know but you did ask! One conference’s expenses is paid by the ‘company’ in the UK and one by an ‘international company’ in the US. So we only concentrate on the ‘British company’. Things are going smoothly. And then comes the final section about me – my age, and whether I’m nobility or military, and so on. Where does Royal Naval Reserve fit? She doesn’t know. Does the military pay me? I tell her I’m a chaplain, a priest, and my company here is a church. Now all this has happened with happy banter, smiles, laughter – and Jung has commented that it would have been simpler if he’d been #50! – because the ONS lady had said, ‘You just don’t fit into my categories!’.

And, of course, the answer is ‘yes and no’!

Often the categories we use are simply arbitrary, designed for good order, to gather information. After all, the work of the Office of National Statistics is invaluable. Or the categories are cruel, divisive, and meant to perpetuate division – a them and us – and we can think of prejudice and racism as key environments that create and maintain categories. Categories can be based on physical or verifiable realities – in chemistry and physics and why a flyweight boxer doesn’t compete against a super heavy weight boxer. However ever since what has been called Postmodernism (from the late 20th Century) and its increasing desire for power to define reality as it best suits us, there is an increasing separation of or challenge of previously held ideas and concepts in the sciences, architecture, culture, ‘metanarratives’ (think religion or philosophy), and reality. In Postmodernism things are much more fluid or on a spectrum and defined by the individual (or groups with power). This means that categories are increasingly blurred in modern society. To what end? We live on and see.

Christianity has many categories. There are two major categories – those ‘in Christ’ and those not ‘in Christ’. When the Lutheran Reformation came along the Reformers emphasised that they were still ‘in Christ’ but not in agreement with the Roman Catholic Church. (The Augsburg Confession sought to spell out their new category on the religious and political landscape.) Today denominationalism and the rise of ‘independent churches’ proliferates these categories. While there is only one Church – all those who are ’in Christ’ are one – there are far too many different teachings about Christ and in Jesus’ name. No wonder the world can struggle with Christians!

What category counts before God? In Jesus’ cross and empty tomb and the biblical message leading to that event and from it, we discover that humanity needs rescuing by God and that God in Jesus is our rescuer. Maybe that is the only category that counts – that we are sinners who are forgiven and live – in all our other categories – with God who is always gracious and merciful towards us. Our God is in a category all of his own!