Vicar's Sermon - 4th September 2016
So did you get that? Did you hear what Jesus said? ‘None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ Just pause will you. Don’t run over those words: hear them. ‘None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’
Did you get that? Did you hear what He said? ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’ Hate…father…and mother…wife and children…brother and sisters…even life itself. Just pause. Don’t run over these words: hear them.
Did you get that? Did you really hear what Jesus said? ‘Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’.
‘Cannot…cannot be my disciple…none of you can unless…’ Where does that leave us? Where does it leave me – with my house and my car and my books and my pictures and the things I have accrued over a lifetime that have become a part of me, that speak of who I am and the things that matter to me? Where does it leave me – with my love for my family…for Kim and the kids and Ezra my grandson and my family down in Hereford and the wider family spread around the country? Where am I in this gospel reading. I, who have been spared the suffering that comes to so many? Where is the good news in this reading – for here, according to Jesus, I have not even begun to follow Him, I am nowhere near being his disciple. In fact, I ‘cannot’ be his disciple: it’s not possible.
What is a Christian anyhow? What marks out people as being Jesus’ followers, his disciples? In the course of this week I have been re-reading the story of the church’s spread out from Jerusalem and Judaea, beyond the borders of Israel into the Mediterranean world. You’ll know the story, but by chapter 15 of the Book of Acts a decisive moment comes when the experience of the growth of a ‘non- Jewish’ church is recounted to ‘head office’ back in Jerusalem. The new Christian communities – are they to observe Jewish ritual (as the first disciples did) or not, or are the marks of being a Christian somehow different according to culture?
When our ancestors were ‘converted’ – whole tribes of Northumbrians, Picts and the like – what were they converted to? What made them ‘Christian’? In Northern Europe (as later in South America under the conquistadores) conversion seems to have taken place at the point of a sword. One powerful ruler exacting allegiance from his vassals and insisting that there be a common religion across the area over which he ruled. Have the English ever been truly Christian disciples under these terms?
For does living in a particular part of the world make you a Christian? For most people in the West the answer has been ‘yes’, the question has had no meaning for century after century …until division within Christendom combined with contact with non-Christian cultures made the question more pressing: ‘What is a Christian?’
When Wesley and Whitfield led that Great Revival in the 18th century they gave an answer that separated off ‘nominal’ Christianity from ‘true faith’. For all our prim and proper Establishment church going and moral uprightness the Dissenters weren’t happy with the definition of ‘Christian’ on offer in their time: surely the individual soul had to be challenged, the individual had to take to themselves the knowledge of their wretchedness and then throw themselves upon the grace of God, receiving His Spirit and committing themselves to a life of Holiness. Is this what being a Christian is? Does being Christ’s disciple require a particular experience…or particular doctrine…Can we distill the essence of the faith into a tract for distribution in the street?
Too many questions? It is actually quite hard, hard for those who for all their lives have been brought up within the Christian church to find the answers – it is from out on the edges of the church, from the ‘mission field’ where faith engages with the questions of others, that the answers are more likely to come. But it does seem that ‘becoming one of Jesus’ disciples’ involves conscious, deliberate choice – a choice that will, as honestly as one is able, assess the cost of following Jesus and a choice that is all about Him and how we relate to Him. There is no Christianity without Jesus Christ. For those of us who are ‘cradle Christians’, who cannot remember a time when we were not ‘Christian’ this suggests that it is useful, at some point, to consciously ‘decide’ for Christ – to nail ones’ colours to the mast and to say ‘I am His follower’. For some people that moment was their Confirmation but if that was a social rite of passage rather than a conscious decision for Jesus then one of the most helpful things a person might do to set them free to grow in the faith would be to renew their baptismal vows as a way of underlining their decision to follow Jesus.
And clearly, it is not possible to be ‘half a Christian’. There is a story of one of the old rulers on Orkney who was a Christian on land but not on the sea: when out on the water he entrusted himself to the old gods. Jesus’ words about ‘hating our families’ and about giving up our possessions are at the very least geared towards reminding us that following him must mean ‘all or nothing’: we cannot compartmentalize our lives so that Jesus gets an hour on Sunday and very little else. Following Him, putting Him first must touch our families and our possessions.
Concerning family his language is Middle Eastern hyperbole to make a point BUT he points us towards reordering our relationships. As we place Him above even our closest kin we receive them back from him better able to love them through him: our relationships are now conducted ‘in and through Christ’. More than this, every true expression of the faith finds itself linked into a wider, broader, understanding of humanity and human loyalty – that one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that unites into one huge family us White Anglo Saxon Protestants with Romanian Orthodox, Brazilian Pentecostals, the numerous and curiously named African Independent churches and the Three Self church that is growing exponentially in China. We are family.
And concerning possessions his words are of a piece with so much of his teaching: ‘It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle; Blessed are the poor in Spirit: Go, sell all that you have and follow me. You cannot serve God and Mammon.’ I came across a quote earlier this week: ‘Some people are so poor that all they have is money.’ Jesus calls us to a re-evaluation of our priorities and he speaks right into the heart of the things we see as being important: our families and our belongings. These are the things that define who we are, and by encouraging us to ‘give up all our possessions’ he is asking us to throw ourselves upon God’s mercy, to be open to Him in a new way, to live trusting in His generosity, to receive all of life as a gift. Is that you? His words should affect how we use the money entrusted to our stewardship, money given to us to pass on and use in His service...His words affect how we view the world…they affect how we treat people and care for the poor – for all life comes from God’s hand, all of us dependent upon Him.
So, can I call myself a disciple? Can you? If we are following Jesus how far ahead of us is He? Have we allowed a gap to open up between us and His leading? His words today are hard to hear today – you cannot, you cannot, you cannot – but remember Jesus’ words to Peter when he wondered who on earth might fulfil Jesus’ demands ‘For mortals this is impossible but for God all things are possible’. So maybe we can follow him…by the grace of God.