On Zombies. On Lent. On Learning to be God's people again. A sermon for Lent 1.
We’ve now moved into the season of Lent, the weeks leading up to our celebration of Easter. It is traditionally a time of prayer, reflection, and fasting. There will be a good number of you here, I’m sure, who are giving up something for the coming weeks. To help us think about this new season, I’m going to take a slightly unconventional angle. That is, I’d like us to think about zombies. A zombie, as many of you will know, is a fictional undead being – some form of reanimated corpse. The idea comes from Haitian folklore, in which corpses are brought back to life through magic. Zombies really entered into popular culture in the second half of the twentieth century, especially in films. Here, zombies are usually not created through magic, but through infection, radiation, parasites, scientific accidents and so on. The classic image of a zombie in films is a being shuffling forward, arms out, and groaning. There is also the idea of the ‘zombie apocalypse’, in which zombies are hungry for human flesh, and create new zombies by attacking others, threatening humankind. George A. Romero’s 1968 classic horror film Night Of The Living Dead, along with its sequels Dawn Of The Dead and Day Of The Dead, are the archetypes of this genre. Romero’s films inspired many things - Michael Jackson’s famous video to Thriller, Danny Boyle’s underrated 28 Days Later, and Edgar Wright’s hilarious interpretation, Shaun of the Dead. A zombie, then, is effectively a dead person brought back to life as an unthinking being whose sole purpose is to feed off others and to make them like themselves.
You may well be understandably feeling a little puzzled about where I’m going with this and about what it has to do with Lent. Today’s Gospel reading, as it always is on the first Sunday of Lent, is a version of the account of Jesus’ lengthy stay in the wilderness and the temptations he experienced there. The temptations to change stones into bread, to throw himself off the temple to be caught by angels, and to have control over all the kingdoms of the world. Each one of these temptations is based on some form of demonstration of Jesus’ divine power. If Jesus were to have changed stones into bread, if he were to have been caught mid-air by the angels, if he were to have assumed control over the nations, there would have been no doubt about who Jesus is, and no doubt about his power. And some have argued that it would have been a good idea if he had given into these temptations. If Jesus truly had the power to change stones into bread, he would have been able to bring a swift end to all hunger. If Jesus had assumed control over the world, he would have been able to bring an abrupt end to oppressive regimes and unjust government. If Jesus had saved himself from a fall from the pinnacle of the temple, people would have bowed down before him and worshipped him as the Messiah. It would have made his life so much easier. It would have made our lives so much easier. Yet Jesus doesn’t do it. In fact, at times when people witness his miracles and his teaching and want to lift him up and make them their king, he repeatedly slips away. Jesus repeatedly refuses to assume power, he refuses to take control.
The problem here is this: If Jesus had given in to these temptations, it would have solved some problems. Nobody would need to have gone hungry ever again. But it would have created a culture of faithful dependency. He would simply have given people what they wanted – food to eat, a king to lead them decisively, a Messiah to worship. But such a culture of faithful dependence would have created legions of zombie-like followers, effectively enslaved to Jesus. Unthinking, unfeeling followers who are utterly reliant on Jesus for their existence. And this is precisely what Jesus does not want. It is precisely what God does not want. This is because such a reliance would represent an imprisoned culture of faith – restrictive, helpless, immature. Jesus’ rejection of the three temptations underlines something fundamentally important about faith. For faith to be true, we need to come to faith from a place of freedom. We need to decide to follow Christ for ourselves, as independent thinkers. We come to faith out of our own free will, not because Jesus fills our stomachs. Jesus calls us to be a church of the thinking living, not a church of the unthinking undead.
Sadly, at the moment we are seeing the resurgence of a zombie church. We all know that the church is struggling. We all know about the spiral of declining attendance. We all know about the challenge of making Christianity and church relevant in today’s society. The evidence is in front of our eyes. But it seems as if the best response we can find at the moment is to try to reanimate its dead and dying remnants. The temptation is to look to the past and to bring back perceived past glories. We look to the successes of yesterday and assume that they are the answers for today. But in doing this, we are not being the living, responsive church Christ calls us to be. And the language of the church seems to be increasingly zombie-like. A growing emphasis on evangelism is all about bringing others to church so that they can become like us. We are more concerned with growing numbers than with growing thinking people of faith. The language used often treats Christianity like some form of infectious disease. Faith is something that’s catching, something that we can spread. The end result of this will be an unthinking, zombie church.
There is a key phrase in the Preface to the Eucharistic prayer during Lent. It says: ‘For in these forty days you lead us into the desert of repentance that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline we may grow in grace and learn to be your people once again.’
Lent is a time when we pause to take stock, when we think about our relationship with God as individuals and as a church, and we learn what it means to be God’s people again. Lent is a time when we make sure that we are not being an unthinking zombie church full of unthinking zombie Christians. Lent is a time of renewal and of refreshment during which we challenge ourselves to look at things differently, to look beyond what we’ve always – often unthinkingly – done. Our challenge here at St Dunstan’s this Lent is to start the process of thinking about what it means to be God’s people again. We can do this in conversation at our Lent lunches, at our Lent course, or simply as we talk with one another. Let us be thinking people. Let us be thinking Christians. Let us take the opportunity that this Lent gives to take part in the process of shaping, moulding our church as we move forward. If we don’t want to be a zombie church, then it’s up to each of us to play our part and give our church a living, lively future.