19th June 2016

 “Time to choose” (Deuteronomy 30:1-20).

Well, the waiting is almost over. After what seems to have been an interminable campaign embellished with accusations of scare-mongering and mud-slinging and garnished with disagreements within both the Conservative and Labour parties, and despite the temporary cessation of hostilities following the appalling murder of Jo Cox, we have nearly got to voting day for the European Referendum. We may have made up our minds many months ago or we may still be undecided. And, I think, many people will vote one way or the other not because they particularly support it, but because they think the alternative is even worse. On Friday morning we shall wake up to the outcome of our collective decision, and then start picking up whatever debris ensues. The repercussions will clearly go on for a long time.

To what extent will our Christian faith influence the way we vote? You might say, “My faith and my voting decisions have nothing to do with each other, for religion hasn’t got anything to do with politics”. But I would strongly disagree with you as I believe that our faith must touch every part of our thinking and living – which includes politics and economics and international relations. I’m not, of course, saying that God is on the side of either “remaining” or “leaving”, nor that he will give us a direct revelation of the way we should vote if we pray hard and long enough; things aren’t as clear-cut as that. But I am saying that he has placed us in civil society alongside other human beings, and that he expects us to use Christian thinking and knowledge to make our choices, just as in every other area of our life.

As you all know, a few issues such as economics, migration and national sovereignty have dominated the Referendum campaign. Now these are significant and important matters; but they have often been presented in personalised or simplistic ways. The politicians have said that, if we stay in the EU (or leave it), you will be better off (or poorer); equally, if we stay in the EU (or leave it), your job will be on the line, your town will be over-run by folk from Eastern Europe, we will lose our British identity and be governed by nameless bureaucrats in Brussels (or, perhaps, we will gain something much richer by being part of a varied international community). Alongside the hugely unhelpful ding-dong battles within the Conservative and Labour parties, and the jibes and taunts made both at and by Cameron, Osborne, Johnson, Farage and Corbyn, the appeals have very much been made to us as individuals. To my mind they have gone “all out” to target our “gut reactions” and deeply held sentiments.

As a Christian I have been dismayed by all this, for a number of reasons. One is simply that our decision is too important to be based on such petty and temporary considerations: our vote will decide the course of British life for the next half-century, long after today’s politicians are dead and gone and after today’s issues have faded into history. It is incumbent on all of us to see a bigger picture. After all, we as Christians look forward to eternity! Another reason is that the campaigns seem to have largely ignored many matters which Christians will regard as equally important, such as human rights, our care for the environment, equitable trading, sanctuary for refugees, or our concern for international justice. We need to ask how all these issues may be affected by our decision.

More than that, I think it is vital in any election that Christians (of all people) shouldn’t vote selfishly or out of fear, thinking only of what they themselves may gain or lose: as the Baptist theologian Keith Clements has written, “Sheer self-interest, whether personal or national, is not an adequate guide”. I believe that the choice we make on Thursday shouldn’t be governed solely by the value of what Harold Wilson called “the pound in our pocket” nor by the thought who might move into the house next door. Those matters will, of course, come into our thinking, but we must ultimately be guided by what we see as best for our nation, our continent and our world, or what will contribute to the “common good” – a point well made by Ben Gummer at the Referendum Debate held in this church just a few weeks ago.

Again, I’d like to go deeper. The original dream of the EU was strongly informed by Christian principles of international brotherhood and peace. Following World War II people such as Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann wanted Europe to end its nationalistic rivalries, especially those between France and Germany, which had resulted in increasingly devastating wars that had wrought havoc in the wider world. The EU as we know it today had modest beginnings as the European Coal and Steel Community and was based on the idea of making the basic industries of France and Germany dependent on each other. So, from its very start (to quote Keith Clements again), the EU – under its various different names – “has been a venture in solidarity and reconciliation, not one of purely materialistic benefits”.

Now these are ideals which we would subscribe to. Christians believe in justice and equality and peace and sharing: they are fundamental values of our faith. Equally, we refuse to be defined by our nationality: the Kingdom of heaven doesn’t recognise or distinguish between Jew or Greek, rich or poor, male or female, black of white, slave or free person. We are all equal before God and must swear allegiance to him well before we pledge loyalty to the Union Flag, the Tricoleur or even the Cross of St. Andrew. At its best moments the EU has recognised that these values lie at its heart: in the early 1990s Jacques Delors, who was then President of the EU Commission, more than once addressed leaders of the churches and other faith communities, calling them to help “give Europe a soul”.

But the very fact that M. Delors made that call shows how much the EU had lost its vision and its way. Perhaps it lost touch with ordinary people, perhaps power went to its head, or perhaps it simply became too big and bureaucratic; but, somehow, those values changed. Economics, rather than peace or people, now seem to have become its primary concern. And nationalism sadly hasn’t gone away. In recent years we have seen the worrying rise of the far Right in countries as diverse as Spain, France, Germany, Hungary and Greece. And we have also witnessed the unedifying and tragic spectacle of national leaders vying to pretend that the refugee crisis isn’t their country’s problem and looking for a way out of working together to solve it.

So, as Christians, we have a difficult choice to make on Thursday. On the one hand we may want to stand up and cheer for those founding values which accord so well with our Christian beliefs, we may feel that by staying in we can help turn the EU round and restore its noble aims. On the other hand we may feel that the EU has left those values for ever and become an undemocratic and unwieldy behemoth, gobbling up our money and unaccountable to anyone but itself; we may feel that, whatever it may have achieved in the past, its time it now over and that we should to leave, allowing it to sink like a stone. But, whatever choice we make, it must be a careful and informed one.

Some 3500 years ago the people of Israel were also facing a national choice. Their circumstances were totally different to ours: they were about to invade the land that had allegedly been given to them by God. I’ll ignore the disastrous implications of that belief for the poor Canaanites who lived there, but I do want to focus on the decision which Moses laid before the people. Like our vote for the Referendum, it simply had two options each with its promised outcome. Either the nation could choose to love God and obey his laws, in which case it would prosper and live at peace; or it could choose to worship other gods and face destruction. Just like us, the people had to weigh up both the choices open to them and their supposed consequences. For, if they obeyed God, would he really “deliver the goods”? And if they chose to ignore him, would he actually destroy them? They had to decide how valid each promise was, and decide accordingly.

We live in a very different world. Most of us don’t regard Britain as a nation specially favoured by God; equally, we realise that most folk have no religious faith and that those who do come from a variety of faith traditions. There is no way that our nation can make a collective and conscious decision to follow God’s path (or, indeed, ignore it); it’s simply not possible to make that kind of choice on a national level. But I think God does still put these options before us as individuals: every person needs to be asked, “Where do you stand with God? To what extent will you live according to his precepts? How much will you build your live around following Jesus? Is God the foundational principle of everything you do and say and think?”

You see there are many people who have never thought about God, or who have rejected our faith on the basis of a few popular and misinformed rumours. And there are others who say that they are Christians, but whose faith (such as it is) is confined to a vague recollection of a few Bible stories and psalms, whose prayer life is restricted to saying the Lord’s Prayer, whose religious expression starts and finishes with an hour in church on Sunday morning. When God says, “Choose life” and when Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me”, he is asking for something far more radical and all-embracing, for faith to infuse and enthuse every aspect of our living.

So let us make our considered choice in Thursday’s Referendum. It is far more important than casting our vote in a General Election, as the result will shape our lives not just for a few years but for decades. But let us also make our choice in respect to God today and every day. Unlike Moses, I am not promising prosperity for you if you decide to follow God or disaster if you decide not to; that simply isn’t the way things work. But I am promising you a more complete and fulfilling life if you follow God, our Maker’s, instructions. And I am also saying that, if the words of the Bible are true, that this choice will affect your life not just today, nor tomorrow or next year, but for eternity.