Tuesday, November 09, 2021

The Feast of All Saints

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast for All Saints'.

The Feast of All Saints

This podcast is for All Saints’. All Saints’ Day proper is on November 1 each year, but it has become the practice in the Church to celebrate All Saints’ on the Sunday nearest to it. Ironically, this year the Sunday nearest to it was October 31. As Facebook Group members will know, in some churches, October 31 is also celebrated as Reformation Sunday.

This is because the European Reformation of the 16th century is traditionally seen as having officially had its beginning on All Saints’ Eve in 1517 when a monk called Martin Luther, as it is commonly believed, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther’s protest set in motion a series of events that has resulted in the present division amongst the churches.

The irony of celebrating Reformation Sunday and All Saints’ on the same day lies in the fact that the Protestant reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, were all in their day somewhat negative about honouring the saints. Their descendants today are even more so!

It is common in many Protestant churches to hear sermons explaining how, biblically, all believers are saints and that it is wrong for us to apply this title to only a select group of people.

Today, Catholic believers certainly accept that all believers are saints, in the biblical sense of the word, but they also believe that it is right to use the word in a special sense to refer to those who are recognised as having lived lives of exemplary faithfulness, service, and holiness.

For example, the English word ‘sir’ can be used to address all males as well as serving as a title for a select group of them. So too with the word saint. It can refer to all God’s people and as a title for those who are part of a distinct group within them. This dual meaning of the word is surely something it should be possible for us all to accept.

It is interesting that, while they are suspicious of Catholic attitudes to the saints, many Protestant believers, are, nevertheless, generally willing, even keen, to acknowledge those followers of Christ whose life and witness has been outstanding. Again, as I said in the Facebook Group, there is an irony in the way some of those most opposed to honouring the saints substitute their own heroes for them instead. Protestants, for example, often give far more attention to the Protestant reformers of the 16th century than many Catholics give to the saints.

For most of us, however, I imagine that our attitude to the saints is neither one of opposition nor of enthusiasm, but of indifference. We don't much care one way or the other. The saints play very little part in our lives. We have more than enough to worry about already. This attitude, I think, is a mistake. I want, then, to try to explain why I think we should take the saints more seriously than perhaps we do.

To begin I would like to make some observations on being a follower of Jesus.

St Teresa of Avila likened being a follower of Jesus in this world to spending a ‘bad night in a bad hotel’ (The Way of Perfection, chapter 40). Now St Teresa has much more to say about following Jesus than a sound bite taken from her writing. She is, however, reminding us that being a follower of Jesus in this world is hard and difficult, and that we should not expect it to be easy.

Firstly, for us as individuals, being a follower of Jesus is certainly not easy. It is not easy because it doesn't come naturally. We have doubts about God and about our faith. We have struggles against our weakness and sin. We find it hard to find time to pray and study God’s word, and then, even when we do, we don't know where to begin.

Secondly, not only is being a follower of Jesus not easy in and of itself, it is made all the more difficult because of the opposition we often encounter from the world around us. Jesus warned his disciples that they would experience trouble in the world (John 16:33). They would, Jesus said, be unpopular. They would be rejected. They would be persecuted. They would even be killed. While we personally may not experience the physical persecution that people have faced in the past, and indeed still do in parts of our world, we certainly do face hostility to our faith and often ridicule for believing in it. Many church members are as a result embarrassed to be known as followers of Christ.

Thirdly, knowing what to believe and how to apply our faith in our lives and to the issues we face on a daily basis can be both difficult and confusing. The temptation simply to conform to the world’s way of thinking is very great. Knowing what to think and how to think as a follower of Christ is itself a challenge. How are we to know what is right in the different moral decisions we have to make? How does God wants us to live and raise our families in a world that does not share our faith?

Now sometimes we are told by other believers that we have the example of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so what more do we want? At first this sounds a very spiritual attitude to take; it is, in fact, both mistaken and arrogant. Christ has made us members of his body, the Church, and the Church is there to give us the support we need to follow Christ. St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, describes how we are baptized into one body and as one body in Christ are all members together (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). We need one another.

Now there is much that we can learn from each other and from our leaders and teachers in the Church. We can support and pray for one another, but we all, church leaders and teachers included, have our own struggles and difficulties too.

This is where the saints come marching in!

Those the Church recognises in a special way as saints are believers who had the same struggles and difficulties as us, but who through the grace of God found a way through them and learned how to overcome them. The saints have been there before and know what it is like. They can now serve as our teachers and guides.

For example, if you are visiting a new place (when we were able to do such things), you can, of course, just go and hope for the best. You can find your own way around, enjoying the sights as you come across them. Alternatively, you can buy a guidebook or register for a guided tour. This doesn't prevent you from making your own discoveries, but it can help prevent you getting lost or missing something that you wouldn't otherwise have seen. What is more, it enables you to go deeper and understand more about the place you are visiting and the sights you are seeing.

The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that we are surrounded by, whom we can look to for encouragement and whom we can learn from (Hebrews 12:1). St Paul in Ephesians describes how Christ when he ascended gave gifts. His gifts were that some would be ‘apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers’ (Ephesians 4:4-12). Christ's gifts to us are not simply the gifts of the Spirit that we normally think of when we talk of spiritual gifts; the people who receive spiritual gifts are themselves also God’s gifts to us.

St Paul wrote to believers that they should imitate him and follow his example (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1; Philippians 3:17). The saints too are a gift from God to the church. Not only can we learn from their life and their teaching, they also serve as role models for us to imitate and follow in the same way St Paul himself was an example for those who knew him to imitate and follow.

In the Book of Revelation, St John has a vision of heaven and sees there those who have died in the faith of Christ. The saints in heaven are described by St John, so that those he is writing to in the seven churches of Asia can know what God looks for in the life of believers. St John wants to offer encouragement to the believers in their life and witness for the Gospel. St John writes of the victory over the devil of the saints now in heaven:

‘And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’ (Revelation 12:11)

Those the Church recognises as saints often faced great obstacles and opposition as they followed Christ, and many suffered martyrdom. The saints show us how we can overcome obstacles and opposition as we too seek to be faithful to Christ. The saints encourage us to see that we are not alone and that even in the darkest moments when the opposition to the Church and to our faith seems to be at its strongest, victory is possible by trusting in Christ.

As I have said many times now, the constant message of the world we live in is that we should focus on ‘self’. This means, firstly, discovering our own identity and being true to ourself. It is, we are told, for us to decide who we are and who we want to be, and it is up to us to realize our potential. Secondly, it means getting the most out of this life and following our dreams. And thirdly, it means demonstrating we matter by ‘making a difference’ and leaving something of ourselves for people to remember us by when we die.

This is a message which we are bombarded with. You find it everywhere: from the seats of power to places of learning; it is all over social media and intrinsic to every form of entertainment. It finds expression in many ways, but it is easily summarized: ‘It’s all about me and I can do it.’

The saints, however, tell us another story. The saints tell us, ‘It’s all about God and we can't do it.’ Instead of the way that we are urged to take by the world around us, the saints direct us to a different way.

Firstly, by their life and example, the saints teach us that we are not put here to be ourself, but to be who God wants us to be. God has shown us what that looks like in Christ, and the saints show us how to become more Christ-like. Secondly, the saints teach us that the Gospel is not about getting all we can out of this life and following our dreams, but doing God’s will and following Christ in the hope of sharing hereafter in his life. Thirdly, the saints teach us it is not about demonstrating we matter by trying to leave something of ourselves behind for people to remember us by when we die, but sharing God's love through lives lived in the service of others whether we are remembered for doing so or not.

There is a great scene in the film: ‘A Man for All Seasons’. In it an ambitious man, Richard Rich, asks Sir Thomas Moore to help get him promoted to an influential position.

Sir Thomas Moore asks him, ‘Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.’ Richard Rich answers, ‘If I was, who would know it?’ Sir Thomas Moore replies, ‘You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.’

Richard Rich refuses to listen and finds preferment another way.

We long for fame, power, and glory; the saints encourage us to pursue faithfulness, service, and holiness.

As we celebrate All Saints’, I would like to think that what I have said about the saints is something all believers can share and believe in. Many believers, however, also believe that while the saints may have left this world, they are very much alive in Christ and are praying with Christ for us and for God’s Kingdom to come.

What is more, many also believe we can ask the saints in heaven to pray for us and that we can bring our prayer requests to them. For those who believe this, the saints offer us more than their teaching and an example of faithfulness, service, and holiness. They are partners with us as we seek to follow Christ.

St Catherine of Siena said to those who were close to her that she could do more for them by dying and going to be with Christ than she could by remaining with them.

Now I realise that the idea of the saints praying for us, and even more of asking them to pray for us, is for many believers quite simply a step too far. And if you don't want to take that step then don't worry. You can, of course, ask me and other believers to pray for you.

But let me ask: if it is OK to ask me or other believers to pray for you, why not ask the saints? As a Church, when we say the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe in the ‘communion of saints’. The word ‘saint’ here is used in the sense of everyone who has faith in Christ, including, but not limited to, those we refer to as saints in a special way. However, it does refer to all the saints, both those in this world and those who are now with Christ.

Whether we ask the saints to pray for us or not is not something that we should divide and fall out over. That would not be honouring the saints. The way we should all unite in honouring the saints is by making sure that we don't miss out on what we can learn from their lives and teaching.

So let us honour God by honouring those in whom he is glorified and who gained the victory by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.

And we do that most when we follow their example and seek to glorify Christ in our own lives.

Amen.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Twentieth Sunday and the Last Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my latest podacst for the Twentieth Sunday and the Last Sunday after Trinity.

The Last Sunday after Trinity 2021

Reading: Mark 10:46-52

When St Mark wrote his Gospel, there were originally no chapter or verse divisions. These were only added a long time after the Gospel was written. Indeed, if you look at an old manuscript of any New Testament document, you will see that not only is the text not divided into chapters and verses, even the words and sentences are not divided. There are no spaces between the words and no punctuation. This doesn’t mean that grammatically there are no sentences; there are. You just have to work them out from the grammar for yourself. The same is true when it comes to the structure of the Gospel. St Mark does have different sections to his Gospel, we just have to recognize them by paying attention to how St Mark orders his Gospel and puts it together.

St Mark begins a new section of the Gospel in chapter 8. We read in chapter 8 of how Jesus takes his disciples to the district of Caesarea Philippi. It is here that Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. St Peter’s answer marks a turning pointing in St Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus. Peter recognizes Jesus for who he is: ‘You are the Messiah’ (Mark 8:29), Peter replies to Jesus.

While Peter has recognized who Jesus is, Peter has not understood what being the Messiah means for Jesus and what, in turn, it should mean for the disciples. Jesus, immediately after Peter’s statement of recognition, explains that he will suffer and be killed, and after three days rise again. Peter cannot accept that Jesus as the Messiah can suffer and be killed, and says so emphatically. He receives from Jesus the famous rebuke, ‘Get behind me, Satan’ (Mark 8:33). Peter, Jesus says, is seeing things from a human point of view, not God’s.

Immediately before going to Caesarea Philippi with his disciples, Jesus heals a blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26). It is an unusual healing. Jesus first heals the man so he can see partially, but not clearly. Jesus then heals him so he can see completely. The healing serves as the conclusion to the first part of the Gospel, and it is a metaphor for where the disciples are at this point in Jesus’ ministry. The disciples can see that Jesus is the Messiah, but they cannot see clearly what this means either for Jesus or for themselves. They can only see things from a human point of view. In the section which follows, from chapter 8 verse 27 to the end of chapter 10, Jesus seeks to open the ‘eyes of their understanding’, so that they can see things clearly from God’s point of view.

After then rebuking Peter, Jesus goes on to explain what things look like from God’s point of view. Not only must Jesus suffer, anyone who wants to be his follower must also deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34).

Jesus will speak of his death two more times in this section of the Gospel. In Chapter 11, St Mark starts a new section by describing Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and with it the beginning of the events of Holy Week that Jesus has been predicting. In his three predictions of his death, Jesus also speaks of his resurrection, but the disciples are unable to get past Jesus’ words about how he must suffer and die.

Each time, after Jesus’ prediction of his death, Saint Mark shows how the disciples not only do not understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, they also do not understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Each time, they only understand things from a human point of view.

St Mark, throughout this section of the Gospel, describes how Jesus has to teach his disciples what being his follower involves. Jesus’ suffering and death are not only about the purpose of Jesus’ ministry, but also provide the pattern for all who would follow him.

The second time Jesus tells his disciples he is going to be killed is as they are travelling back through Galilee from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum. Again, not only do the disciples not understand what Jesus is telling them about himself, they argue over who among them is the greatest.

Jesus explains that they have got it all wrong. Jesus tells them:

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35)

Jesus then to make his point takes a child in his arms. If the disciples are to represent him, they have to be like this child. Becoming a follower of Jesus and being like a child means giving up all rights and status. Using graphic imagery, Jesus tells them that it also means being prepared to sacrifice anything that gets in the way of following him (Mark 9:42-48).

After this, when Jesus and his disciples are in Judea, people there bring children to Jesus. The disciples ‘rebuke’ them (Mark 10:13). Children weren’t seen as important, and the disciples consider Jesus giving his attention to children a waste of Jesus’ time. Jesus, however, is indignant. The children must be allowed to come to him. Jesus uses the children coming to him to teach about the Kingdom of God. Unless a person receives the Kingdom of God as a little child, they will never be able to enter it. If a person wants to enter the Kingdom of God, they must do so as one in no position and with no power to do so.

Immediately after this, Saint Mark illustrates Jesus’ message about what it means to be his follower and enter the Kingdom of God by describing the meeting of Jesus with a rich man.

The rich man who comes to Jesus is genuinely living a good life and keeping God’s commandments. Jesus doesn’t question either his sincerity or his obedience. Jesus tells him, however, that he lacks one thing. The rich man must sell all that he has, give the money to the poor, and then follow Jesus (Mark 10:21). The man has many possessions, and he is clearly attached to them. He goes away shocked and sorrowful. Jesus then shocks the disciples by telling them that it is hard to enter the Kingdom of God and particularly so for those who are rich. Jesus concludes his teaching with the words:

‘But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ (Mark 10:31)

The third time Jesus speaks of his approaching death is immediately after the rich man has gone away shocked and sorrowful (Mark 10:33-34). St Mark describes how Jesus and his disciples are now on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus spells out even more vividly the fate that awaits him there. Jesus will be mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed. But still, the disciples do not get it. And still they don’t understand what being a follower of Jesus is all about.

Instead, two of the disciples, James and John, approach Jesus and ask him to grant that they sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his glory. Jesus tells them they don't know what they are asking. Can they drink the cup he drinks? Can they be baptised with the baptism he is baptised with? They say they can, and Jesus says they shall; but, he tells them, it is not for him to say who will sit next to him when he comes into the glory of his Kingdom. These positions, Jesus tells them, are for those for whom they have already been prepared.

All this severely annoys the other disciples, who are jealous of James and John, and so, yet again, Jesus explains that anyone wanting to be his disciple needs to have a different perspective to that of the world around them. Jesus says to them:

‘… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.’ (Mark 10:43)

Three times Jesus speaks of his death and three times Jesus tells them that following him must mean there is a complete change in a person’s attitude and behaviour. His disciples are to become like him in their service of others. As Jesus says:

‘For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:44)

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has told them they must deny themselves; at Capernaum, that whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all; in the region of Judea, that many who are first will be last, and the last will be first; and on the way to Jerusalem that whoever wishes to become great among them must be their servant, and whoever wishes to be first among them must be slave of all.

Jesus’ teaching about what it means to his follower is absolutely clear. Following Jesus means denying oneself; becoming a child without power or position; removing anything in their life that gets in the way; accepting the cup and baptism of Jesus suffering and dying with him and for him.

At first, the healing story with which St Mark closes this section of the Gospel seems not to be related to what we have been reading in chapters 8-10. Indeed, we haven’t read of Jesus healing anyone for a while. Why does St Mark include this story here?

Jesus and his disciples are now at Jericho. Jericho is a famous city in the Hebrew Scriptures and one of the oldest cities in the world (dated by some to 9,000 BC). Jericho is some 825 feet below sea level and more than 3,300 feet below Jerusalem. It is ten miles northwest of the northern shore of the Dead Sea and, most importantly of all, just twelve miles east of Jerusalem. This is Jesus’ last stop before he gets to Jerusalem.

As Jesus and his followers are leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, hears that Jesus is passing. Bartimaeus starts crying out, ‘Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me’ (Mark 10:47). He may not be able to see, but he recognizes who Jesus is. Many tell Bartimaeus to be quiet. Beggars who have nothing are nothing but a nuisance. Jesus, however, tells them, ‘Call him’ (Mark 10:49). Children and beggars are precisely the sort of people Jesus wants to come to him: ‘the last shall be first’.

Those with Jesus say to the beggar:

‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ (Mark 10:49)

Jesus asks him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10:51). Bartimaeus replies, ‘My teacher, let me see again’ (Mark 10:51). Jesus says simply, ‘Go, your faith has made you well’ (Mark 10:52). Bartimaeus does go. He goes with Jesus. He has become a follower.

All of which is all very heartening. It’s a story with a happy ending before the horror that awaits us in Jerusalem. St Mark, however, wants us to pause for a moment here outside of Jericho and think on what he has been telling us. The fact that St Mark chooses to close this section of the Gospel with a story about Jesus healing someone, especially when there haven’t been any stories about healing for a while, ought to alert us the significance of this story beyond the description of a physical healing.

St Mark uses this story to conclude this section of the Gospel. This story connects with what has gone before and links to what Jesus has been trying to teach the disciples in this section of the Gospel about the Kingdom of God and becoming his follower.

That St Mark intends us to read the story in this way is to be seen in some of the verbal clues he gives us. Let us look then at the story in the light of the events that precede it and the clues that St Mark gives us. We will do this under three headings.

1. The Children and the Beggar

When people bring children to Jesus, the disciples ‘rebuke’ them. When Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, those with Jesus ‘rebuke’ him. The word St Mark uses in Greek is the same. This is the first verbal clue that St Mark uses to link the healing of the beggar with a previous event. In both cases, Jesus overrules those who stop the children and the beggar coming to Jesus. This, as we have seen, has been Jesus’ constant theme: the ‘first shall be last and the last first’. Children and beggars were on the last rung of the social ladder, and anyone wanting to become Jesus’ follower must become like them.

Anyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of God must enter it as a child with no rights or status and as a beggar with nothing to offer. Children and beggars have to receive everything they need to live. We have to receive the Kingdom of God as children and beggars. The Kingdom of God is given to those who come to Jesus knowing that they have nothing to give.

This is good news for children and beggars. When Jesus tells those with him to call the beggar to him, they say to Bartimaeus:

‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ (Mark 10:49)

At every Eucharist Jesus speaks these words to us. At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the first of the ‘comfortable words’ is:

‘Hear the words of comfort our Saviour Christ says to all who truly turn to him: ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden …’

Many of us do feel like we are labouring and are heavy laden. Many people feel crushed and overwhelmed by life. Life is demanding, and we daily face many challenges in it. The technology that is meant to make our life easier often only serves to complicate it further. Many, not sure where to turn, turn to life coaches, counsellors, and the ‘experts’ of the self-help industry, all of whom advise us to turn to ourselves. ‘You can do it’, they tell us.

The Gospel tells us, ‘You can’t do it’. The Gospel tells us that if we want to receive eternal life, abundant life, life with meaning and purpose, then we need to receive it as children and beggars. We need to see ourselves as those who are powerless and helpless. The world tells us to turn to ourselves. The Gospel tells us to turn to Jesus.

We truly turn to Jesus when we come to him as children and beggars. We come to Jesus as those who are spiritually blind and who can’t see the way. Those who turn to Jesus don’t know all the answers, but they believe that he does.

So, if you are seeking for the answers to life’s questions, if you are looking for help and guidance so you can see your way, Jesus says to you:

‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ (Mark 10:49)

2. The Rich Man and the Beggar

Unfortunately, there are many who want to come to Jesus, but who want to come to him on their own terms. They are perfectly sincere and even keen in their desire to be religious. Like the rich man in the Gospel, they run to Jesus and even kneel before him. They have kept all the commandments; they do all the right things. Their life is not a mess; anything but. They have a nice partner, nice family, nice home, nice job; they are holy and happy. But they want to stay that way. How can they be certain that they will be OK after death in the way they are before it? What must they do to be sure of eternal life?

As the saying has it, ‘You can't take it with you’. No, you can’t; death takes everything from us. Jesus, however, goes further and tells the rich man to give away everything he has now. Jesus doesn't tell everyone to give away everything they have, but he does tell everyone that they need to break their attachment to everything they have. We all have to leave behind our love of wealth and material possessions. We all have to come to Jesus as beggars who have nothing.

There is a detail in the story of the beggar that it is easy to miss. When Bartimaeus is told that Jesus is calling him, he throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus (Mark 10:50). His cloak is all he has, and he abandons it to come to Jesus. There is more. Those following Jesus as they leave Jericho are afraid at where the journey is going to lead. Jesus doesn’t ask Bartimaeus to follow him to Jerusalem, but Bartimaeus doesn’t have to be asked. He is going to follow Jesus come what may. His faith has saved him, and he follows Jesus without having to be asked. The rich man is asked but chooses to go away.

Jesus told the rich man he lacked one thing and invited the rich man to follow him. The rich man refused because he wouldn’t let go of his wealth. The rich man came to Jesus searching for answers, but went away shocked and sorrowful because he didn’t get an answer he liked. It’s a warning to us that meeting with Jesus can leave you worse off than you were before.

The disciples were shocked. If a rich man can’t enter the Kingdom of God, who can? Bartimaeus provides the answer to their question. Those who are willing to receive the Kingdom of God as a beggar. Those willing to leave behind even the cloak on their back.

We may not express ourselves in the same way as the disciples, but we think like them. Who, for example, do we look up to? Who do we choose as role models and for the leading positions in the Church? We don’t invite children and beggars to give talks in church, chair our committees, write books, or star in videos. However, the moment a celebrity appears in church or someone successful and powerful comes along, everyone soon knows all about it. What we are saying by our attitude to those who rich, powerful, and popular is that it is those who are successful in this life who are the ones that we trust to lead us into the next. Think about that for a moment and think whether that’s what Jesus teaches.

Jesus, St Mark told us, loved the rich man, not because he was rich, but in the hope the rich man would sell all he had and become a beggar. We don’t today know the rich man’s name; we do know the name of the beggar: ‘many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’ (Mark 10:31).

3. James and John and the Beggar

It appeared as if James and John had left all to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28). They had certainly given up their day jobs and their possessions. They are not far from the Kingdom of God, but they are not quite there yet. The question that Jesus asks the beggar is the same question he asked them:

‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10:36; 10:51)

James and John know exactly what they want Jesus to do for them. James and John want to share Jesus’ glory as they sit on his right and on his left in his Kingdom. They think sharing Jesus’ glory means position and power. Jesus knows it means suffering and death. Jesus tells them that if they want to participate in his glory, they must drink his cup and share in his baptism. Jesus’ glory is inseparable from his crucifixion. Jesus comes into his glory, not after the Cross, but as he is nailed to it. And who is it who gets to sit at his right and his left when he is nailed to it? Two bandits, one of whom enters paradise with him: ‘the last will be first.’

Many want what James and John asked for. They want prosperity, promotion, and for life to be pain free. Jesus instead asks us his followers whether we can drink the cup of sacrifice, service, and suffering.

James and John want glory; Bartimaeus wants mercy. Bartimaeus, the beggar, knew his need. James and John, the disciples, had yet to discover theirs.

We need to discover our need. When we pray our prayers are rarely for eternal life and an increase in holiness, but for a better life and an increase in happiness. God does answer our prayers, and he gives good gifts to his children. The sick are healed and miracles still happen. But what we want is not necessarily what we need. Our need is for mercy; our need is for Jesus.

Our Church is to be a place where people find mercy, where the blind receive their sight, and where people hear Jesus’ words to them, ‘Go, your faith has saved you’.

And so, Jesus asks us: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

The Blessed Virgin Mary said God ‘fills the hungry with good things, but the rich are sent away empty’ (Luke 1:53). Not sent away because they are rich, but because they refuse to admit their need and let go of their wealth on earth, so that they may have treasure in heaven.

If you come to Jesus confident in yourself, certain of your own abilities, and looking for glory in this world, you will go away empty. But if you come to Jesus as a beggar looking for mercy, for forgiveness, and for strength to live your life to the glory of God, you will go away full of good things.

So again, Jesus asks us, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

Amen.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Sundays after Trinity

Here is the transcript to my latest podcast. The podcast is based on the end of the Gospel reading for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity and the Gospel for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Sundays after Trinity

Reading: Mark 10:13-31

In the Gospel reading for my last podcast we read how our Lord, having taken a child into his arms, said that anyone who welcomes one such child welcomes him (Mark 9:36-37). Jesus said this in response to the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest. Jesus told them that whoever wants to become great must become the least of all and the servant of all. The child in his arms showed them what that looked like. Not the sweet innocent child we normally think of, but a child as a child would have been seen in Jesus’ own time: someone weak, despised, and powerless. If as Jesus’ followers we are to be Jesus’ representatives, that is how we too must become, in the same way he became such a one for us.

In our Gospel for this podcast, Jesus expands on this theme just as he will again in our next Gospel reading for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity. This isn't something to the periphery of Jesus teaching; it is central to Jesus’ teaching about what it means to be one of his followers. Our gospel reading contains two well-known stories.

In the first story, people are bringing little children to Jesus, so that he might touch them. The disciples, who share the same general contempt of children as most people of the age did, try to stop this happening. They see bringing children to Jesus as a waste of Jesus’ time. Rather than being troubled with children, Jesus, they believe, should be allowed to get on with what really matters.

Jesus, however, is indignant, and he orders the disciples to let the little children come to him. Jesus then uses the children who come to him both as role models and to teach about the Kingdom of God and discipleship. It is, Jesus says, to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Jesus says to the disciples:

‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ (Mark 10:14-15)

Jesus has previously told his disciples that if they want to represent him as one of his disciples, they must become as a little child. He now makes an even stronger statement. No one can enter the Kingdom of God itself unless they receive it as a little child. Anyone who wants to enter the Kingdom of God must receive it in trust and obedience as one who has no right to it and no power in themselves to gain it.

Initially, the next story doesn't seem to be connected. It is, however, an example of the practical application of Jesus’ teaching concerning as it does a person who wants to find eternal life and enter the Kingdom of God. It is again a well-known story.

As Jesus is setting off on a journey, a man runs up to Jesus and kneels before him. The man wants Jesus to know he takes Jesus seriously. The man is not like the Pharisees who only ask Jesus questions in an attempt to trick him and catch him out. The man’s question is simple and straightforward:

‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark 10:17)

In answering, Jesus begins by questioning the man’s use of the word ‘good’. Surely, Jesus asks, it is only God himself who is good? Jesus then continues by pointing out to the man that the man knows God’s commandments. The man replies that he is kept all of them since he was a youth. Jesus doesn't respond by telling the man he is deceiving himself, or that he is lying, or by giving him a Protestant type sermon about the impossibility of keeping the Law. Jesus accepts that the man has kept the commandments just as St Paul is able to write that he kept the law blamelessly (Philippians 3:6).

Instead, St Mark writes that Jesus looks at the man and loves him. Jesus, in looking at the man, sees someone who is genuine in his desire to please God and find eternal life, but Jesus also sees the man’s need. Jesus tells him:

‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ (Mark 10:21)

What the man lacks is Jesus, and the obstacle getting in the way of him entering the Kingdom of God is his wealth. Jesus tells the man to get rid of his wealth and follow him. Jesus has said that the Kingdom of God must be received as a little child. That means a person must receive it as one with no wealth or status. This goes against everything the man has been brought up to believe. That Jesus has understood the man’s problem is to be seen in the man’s reaction. He is shocked and goes away very upset, because, St Mark informs us, he has many possessions.

It is not only the rich man who Jesus shocks; the disciples are even more shocked by what Jesus says next. In what is a well-known saying, Jesus tells them it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples ask, if that is the case, who can be saved. If it is so difficult for someone who is righteous, respectable, and rich to be saved, who then can be? For humans, says Jesus, it is impossible, but not for God; ‘for God all things are possible’.

Applying Jesus’ teaching here is a real challenge. At first sight, at least Jesus’ teaching about letting the little children come to him seems straightforward enough.

It used to be the case that the church was rather like the disciples. Children, in the past, were not particularly welcome in church. Sunday School was often as much about providing somewhere for the children to go while the adults went to church as it was about teaching them about Jesus. It kept children out of the way, somewhere where they could do no harm, while adults got on with worshipping God.

This has largely changed. We now in the church try to be welcoming to children. I would like to think this is because we are taking Jesus’ words in our reading seriously. It is, however, as much about general trends in society as a whole as it is about faithfulness to Jesus’ teaching.

You often see restaurants and hotels advertising themselves as ‘child-friendly’ or family-friendly’, and we in the church, not to be outdone, also want to be ‘child-friendly’ and ‘family-friendly’ in our approach. Frankly, our new openness to children is largely because we have somewhat belatedly come to realise that if we aren't, then no one is going to come to our churches. Many churches are paying the price in the present for the church’s failure to be ‘family-friendly’ in the past. Congregations, in many places, are now predominantly elderly and ageing. Our past unfriendliness is not, by any means, the only reason why families don’t come to church, but it is a part of it.

Thankfully, there are churches that have managed to change, and which have been successful in attracting and welcoming families. But there is more to being child-friendly than becoming a religious version of Disney. It is all very well giving children a welcome, telling them stories, and keeping them entertained. We need, more importantly, to bring them to a place where they can be touched by Jesus.

Yes, we need to teach children the stories of Jesus, and it is certainly true that if they don't hear them from us, they are not going to hear them anywhere else. Schools, even church schools, don't give much time to teaching Bible stories, even though they are an important part of human history and culture apart from any spiritual value they may have.

Sadly, more often than not, the best we can hope for in schools is the occasional Scripture lesson. Schools are too busy teaching what they consider are the more important subjects to be bothered with what they see as something that children can get on a Sunday, if that is what their parents want. Unfortunately, however, even parents who consider themselves church members often think there are more important things for their children to be doing on a Sunday than going to church. If it’s a competition between a parent taking their child to church or their child receiving football coaching, I wouldn’t bet on church winning.

Teaching Bible stories, then, is important, and it is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. There is, however, an even greater need to teach, not only the stories of Jesus, but also the values and attitudes of Jesus which the stories convey. The values and attitudes children are learning at school and in the world, as well as not being the values and attitudes of Jesus, are often quite the opposite and are even hostile to our faith.

The rich man who lived a good life and was materially successful is far more likely to be held up as a role model for children growing up than the ‘little ones’ who have left all to follow Jesus. How many church schools, for example, in giving career advice, warn children that pursuing certain careers in order to become materially well off and successful will make it harder for them to enter the Kingdom of God?

Worse still, children are being constantly exposed to material that is both dangerous and damaging. For example, kids encounter pornography at a frighteningly young age. We want a world that is safe for our children, but the online world, which is as real to them as the physical world, is anything but safe.

Welcoming children and taking them in our arms as Jesus did needs also to be about protecting them from everything that may harm them and keep them from entering the Kingdom of God. It will also mean teaching the values and attitudes of Jesus, so that they have a firm foundation for their lives. This is a huge and important topic, and much more could and should be said. Suffice it for now to say that we must do more, and do it better, if we are to take seriously Jesus’ words here about letting the little children come to him.

Welcoming children in the way Jesus wants us to welcome them is itself then a big challenge, but Jesus wants us to do more than welcome children; he also challenges us to learn from them. Having told the disciples off for preventing children from coming to him, Jesus turns the tables on the disciples and tells them they must learn from children how to enter the Kingdom of God.

This would have been a completely alien concept to the disciples just as it still is to us. We teach children, not learn from them. In the last podcast, we saw how Jesus teaches that we can learn what true greatness is from children. If we want to be a follower of Jesus, we must become a little one like them. Now, in our Gospel reading, Jesus teaches how we are to gain entry into the Kingdom of God. Jesus again says that we must receive it like a little child, that is, as someone in no position to earn or deserve it.

In some ways, this makes it sound easy and most people think that it is easy. Many think that all you have to do is simply turn up at church when you feel like it and generally be nice to people, and then when you die you will go to heaven. So what Jesus says to the disciples after the rich man has gone away sorrowful really does come as a shock. Jesus says:

‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’ (Mark 10:24)

It is hard for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God and not just for those who are rich. This is something that Jesus emphasizes on other occasions. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus says:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

In many ways, entering the Kingdom of God as a child should be easy. Children, after all, are not in a position to earn anything. Eternal life is to be received as a gift in trust and obedience. But receiving it as a gift, trusting Jesus enough to obey him, is not so easy, and the rich man in our reading shows us just how hard it is.

Firstly, receiving the Kingdom of God as a child means humbling ourselves and accepting our weakness and powerlessness. It means denying ourself. Denying ourselves, as Jesus requires, means more than going without, it means rejecting the idea that we can achieve anything by believing in ourselves. We may constantly hear in the world around us that by believing in ourselves we can realize our potential. Jesus’ followers, however, respond by denying that they have any potential to realize. What we have, we have only in Christ.

Having to receive the Kingdom of God as a gift is a humbling experience. It is humbling to discover that there is nothing that we can contribute to our salvation and that we have to let go of our pride and our confidence in our own self-sufficiency. But unless we do, we will not enter the Kingdom of God.

Secondly, if we are to enter the Kingdom of God, we need to get our attitude to money and possessions sorted out. The church, I think it is fair to say, has found it hard historically to strike the right balance in its attitude to material wealth.

On the one hand, there have been those who have argued that the church should take a negative view of wealth and riches. St Francis, for example, famously renounced earthly possessions and voluntarily embraced a life of poverty, surviving by begging.

On the other hand, there have been the so-called televangelists and the preachers of what is known as the ‘prosperity gospel’, who argue that believing in Jesus will make you happy, healthy, successful, and rich. They boast of their extravagant lifestyle, which, they claim, is a reward for their faith.

Those who are sympathetic to the approach of St Francis can point not only to what Jesus said to the rich man in our Gospel reading, but also to what Peter says to Jesus. Peter says:

‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ (Mark 10:28)

Ironically, those who are sympathetic to the second approach can point to Jesus’ response. Jesus replies to Peter:

‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’ (Mark 10:29-30)

Jesus words could be interpreted as Jesus saying ‘give to get back’. In other words, if you give what you have to Jesus, you will get much more back, and in this life not just the next. Indeed, this is what the preachers of the prosperity Gospel do say.

To understand Jesus’ teaching, we need to look at the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching, and not just quote isolated sayings from it. It is impossible once you do that not to see that Jesus warns his disciples repeatedly about the dangers of wealth.

Nevertheless, there were rich people with possessions among those who believed in Jesus. Jesus didn't ask everyone to give up everything. Jesus and his disciples were themselves supported by women of significant material means and the early church was financed by rich benefactors such as Philemon, for example, who often also hosted church meetings in their houses.

We need, however, to be careful not to use this as a way of justifying greed and the pursuit of riches and wealth. Jesus has some harsh things to say about those who do just that. Jesus not only says ‘blessed are the poor’, he also says, ‘woe to you rich’. And the fact remains that, as Jesus says:

‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Mark 10:25)

As we see in our Gospel reading, Jesus does call some to a life of voluntary poverty. Some are called to sell all that they own. Equally, however, all are not. But even those of us who are not need to take seriously the spiritual danger posed by money and possessions, and be on our guard against it. As St Paul puts it:

‘… in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.’ (1 Timothy 6:10)

Thirdly, and finally, you cannot receive a gift while you are holding on to something else. What we hold onto varies from person to person. For many, like the rich man in the Gospel reading, it is money and possessions. Or, if not the money and possessions themselves, the desire for them. The time spent trying to acquire material wealth can itself be the very thing that keeps us from entering the Kingdom of God.

Invariably, we all have something in our life that threatens to get in the way of following Jesus and which creates an obstacle that prevents us entering the Kingdom of God. We each need to ask ourselves, ‘What is there in my life that is holding me back from following Jesus?’. As Jesus said:

‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell …’ (Mark 9:43-47)

And so again we need to ask ourselves, ‘What do I need to cut off or tear out in my life?’

We need to stop suggesting that following Jesus is easy and, like Jesus, start explaining to people how hard it really is, even if it means that only a few will join us. The reality is that many of us have bought into a version of the prosperity Gospel. Not the crass version that sees faith as a way to get more money, but one that assumes that faith gets you more happiness.

We often talk as if God wants us to be happy, whereas the reality is that he wants us to be holy. Not the sanctimonious holiness that is often parodied and mocked in the media, not the hypocritical holiness of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus criticizes and condemns, but the holiness of being wholly committed to him and which means that we give the whole of ourselves to him.

How we pray shows how we think. If we think that what matters most is that we are happy, we will pray for those things that make us happy. If we think that what matters most is our relationship Christ, we will pray for what brings us closer to him. This, of course, is not to say that being happy and being holy are always incompatible, but that our priority should always be to follow him - wherever he may lead.

Put like this it can sound not only hard but impossible. And if we try do it on our own it is impossible. But, as our Lord says, it is not impossible for God; ‘for God, all things are possible.’

May God make the impossible possible in our own lives.

Amen.

Friday, October 15, 2021

On Women Being Kept Silent in the Church

On this the Feast day of St Teresa of Avila, the following is a post I have written for my Church Facebook Group. I feel it is about an issue of such importance that I also want to share it here.

The Feast Day of St Teresa of Avila

The title 'doctor of the Church' is the title given by the Roman Catholic Church to people in the history of the Church whose work is considered to be exceptional and of great importance for our understanding our faith.

'Doctors of the Church' include such well-known figures as St Irenaeus, St Augustine, and St Thomas of Aquinas. In the Church more widely, there are theologians whose writing is also considered of great importance for the Church. People such as Luther, Calvin, and Karl Barth, for example. Studying the life and thought of these theologians is an essential part of any theology degree and in the training of people for the ordained ministry.

What is obvious at once is that they are all men. The explanation given for this is, of course, that in the past theologians were all men. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are, however, four women doctors of the Church. They are St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), St Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), and St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). Outside of the Roman Catholic Church, you will find it hard to find any women theologians who are considered to be of similar importance to the men, if you can find any at all. This, you may think, makes the work of those women who are recognized by the Church as important theologians all the more significant.

I have recently read, The Dialogue, a book by St Catherine of Siena. It is a book I have found not only helpful, but life-changing. I thought, then, that it would be interesting to read her letters of which some 380 survive. Much of St Catherine's thought and teaching is to be found in her letters. These have been carefully translated into English in four volumes by a scholar who is an expert on St Catherine, and her translation is generally considered the best and most reliable available. So far so good!

When I searched for them on my normal online book provider, I found that they had volume 1 at a much reduced price. More good news! Thinking that it would be worth purchasing all four volumes, I then discovered that, of the other three, only volume four was still in print. Trying other suppliers, including on eBay, I discovered that volumes 2 and 3 are completely unavailable either new or second-hand.

This led me to see whether I could obtain any of the works of St Teresa of Avila. Her work has also been translated into English in three volumes by a scholar who is an expert on her life and work. His translation is generally considered the best and most reliable available. Again, however, the volumes are not easy to obtain. Volumes 1 and 3 are basically unobtainable new, and not easy to find second-hand.

The situation is somewhat better with St Hildegard. This is largely because her writings are of interest more widely outside the Church, given that she was a composer and also wrote extensively about subjects that are important to people who are not themselves believers. Some of her writing is of particular interest to those in what is often referred to as the 'green movement', a movement that is currently having its day. You will, however, struggle to find an authoritative and reliable biography of her by anyone who understands her life and work as a theologian and doctor of the Church.

St Thérèse of Lisieux died when she was just 24, and so does not leave quite the same body of work as her three sisters, but, again, what she did write is not readily available in reliable and accessible editions.

Contrast this with the major male theologians of the Church. Their work is available in multiple scholarly editions in both their original language and accurate translations. Biographies and books about their lives and writings are plentiful. There are also many popular guides to their life and thought written by experts who have spent their own lives studying them.

So, is this another case of sexism in the Church? I think partly it is. But it is not just about sexism. Saints Hildegard, Catherine, and Teresa were all what is known as 'mystics'. That is, they prioritised a direct and personal relationship with God. Theology for them came out of their encounter with, and experience of, knowing God. For them, it was not simply a matter of academic study. 

I recently listened to a radio programme about St Catherine. The way that the people in the programme were talking about her (and they included women) was almost comic. They simply couldn’t understand her. They resorted to reducing what St Catherine had to teach us today to the idea that we all need to stand up for what we believe in. I don’t for one moment think that St Catherine herself would summarise her message to us in that way!

So what am I saying?

Well, firstly, that the neglect of the work and writing of these four amazing theologians of the Church is a terrible loss to the Church. It is all very well for the Church to promote the work of women today when we so ignore the work of women in the past. Is it because we don’t like what they teach? Is it because they are not the right sort of women?

Secondly, and more broadly, we need to stop seeing theology as an academic subject that is separate from our faith in God and our experience of him. Each of these women will not allow us to think about God without also thinking about our relationship with him.

What is needed in the Church is not less theology, but theology that emerges out of an encounter with the living God and which seeks to help us in developing our own relationship with him. Theology is about God, and not about academic careers, university courses, and degrees. Or at least it should be. Saints Hildegard, Catherine, Teresa, and Thérèse show us what theology should look like.

I just wish that what they have written was more easily available for us to read and to learn from.

St Teresa of Avila,
pray for us!

Saturday, October 02, 2021

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podacst for the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity.

The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Sundays after Trinity

Reading: Mark 9:30-50

[The lectionary divides this passage into two and reads it over two Sundays. The assumption behind dividing the passage in this way seems to be that the various different parts of the passage are only loosely connected without a coherent theme or argument to hold them all together. In my podcast, I take a dissenting view. While the connection between the different parts of the passage isn’t spelled out by St Mark, there is, nevertheless, a coherence to the passage that makes it important to look at it as a whole.]

In the podcast for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity, I spoke of how, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter recognised that Jesus was the Messiah. This was a significant moment, one of inspired insight into who Jesus was. Despite this recognition, Peter had not, however, grasped what being the Messiah meant for Jesus. For Peter, being the Messiah meant freeing Israel from her enemies and establishing the Kingdom of God on earth. It was about power and glory.

For Jesus, however, being the Messiah was about suffering and death, and he told his disciples that this was what was going to happen to him. Peter simply could not accept it, and, in trying to convince Jesus that this could not happen to him, Peter became the mouthpiece of Satan and was severely rebuked by Jesus.

Jesus then spelt out to both those who were his disciples and to any who were thinking of becoming one, what it means to be his follower. It means having to live as one who has died, as one who is willing to abandon their own goals, ambitions, and dreams in order to follow Christ on a path of self-denial and suffering. Jesus’ words were no more popular then than they are now.

The disciples can't be blamed for not understanding Jesus. We today have the benefit of living this side of the crucifixion. We have Jesus’ own words in the Gospels and the example of the saints, but, like the disciples, we still don't get it. There are churches that have built their success on telling people that believing in Jesus will make things better for them, and even that it will lead to riches and success. The idea that Jesus is there to help us find self-fulfilment and happiness runs deep in the church. We need to cast the beam out of our own eye, before seeking to cast the speck out of the eye of the disciples.

The disciples at least had an excuse. Everything they had been brought up to believe, and everything they had been taught and heard, led them to believe that the Messiah would be a heroic figure and the coming of his Kingdom a time when all God’s enemies would be defeated. Jesus’ own ministry, in which they now shared, was itself somewhat ambiguous in the message it gave out. Jesus healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed the storm, and fed the multitude. What could he not do? With this evidence and experience before them, how could they think Jesus would suffer, be killed, and his life end in defeat?

What is more, what happened immediately after Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi only confirmed that they were right in their understanding and that Jesus was wrong in his.

Just six days later up a mountain with three of his closest disciples, Jesus is transfigured before them. Moses and Elijah also appear and talk with him. A voice from heaven declares:

‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ (Mark 9:7)

Surely God’s Son is not going to suffer and be killed? Who will listen to him then?

Our Gospel reading begins, ‘They went on from there …’ After the transfiguration and what follows it, Jesus turns his attention specifically to the disciples and to preparing them for what lies ahead. He repeats that he will suffer and die (Mark 9:31), but they are just unable to understand him. They are convinced that Jesus is God’s Anointed, the One they have been hoping for. It is simply beyond them to understand that God’s Anointed must suffer and die, and they effectively block out what Jesus is saying to them. Again, much as we do today.

As far as the disciples are concerned, Jesus is the Messiah. He is going to lead them in freeing Israel from the Romans, just as the Taliban in our own day have freed Afghanistan from the West. This certainty of victory leads them to the same discussion all human groups have. Who is the greatest and most important among them, his followers? Jesus is aware of their discussion and argument, even though they refuse, when he asks them, to tell him what they were talking about.

Jesus tells them that rather than aspiring to greatness, they must aspire instead to lowliness. Jesus says bluntly:

‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35)

Jesus then teaches them about what true greatness in a disciple looks like by using what is an enacted parable. Jesus takes a child and stands the child amongst them. He then takes the child in his arms and tells his disciples that whoever welcomes one such child welcomes him.

This is popularly understood as Jesus telling us that we must welcome children, which we should, but that is not Jesus’ point here. Part of the problem in understanding what Jesus is saying lies in our somewhat romanticised view of childhood. Childhood was somewhat different then to now. Children were property and had no rights. Just as they have no rights today in parts of our world. Many children died in childhood. Children were weak, vulnerable, and powerless. But yet again, we, like the disciples, just don’t understand what it is Jesus is saying.

Commentators find it hard to make sense of what follows this. It isn’t immediately obvious how what St Mark writes all links together and commentators resort to seeing it as simply being about what they call ‘catchwords’. One word in a saying suggests another saying that uses the same word. There is, however, more to it than that, and there is a clear theme running through Jesus’ teaching in this passage that goes beyond the mere use of catchwords.

This passage is about discipleship. The disciples argue about who is the greatest disciple. Jesus explains that if true greatness is their goal, they too must become a ‘little one’. If they do, Jesus tells them, then they really are his disciples. St Mark writes that Jesus says:

‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ (Mark 9:37)

What Jesus is in effect saying is that someone who becomes a servant becomes like him, and what could be greater than that? As Jesus will tell the disciples later:

‘… whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:43-45)

In what at first appears a strange thing to say after Jesus has told them that anyone who welcomes one such child welcomes him, John, one of his closest disciples, tells Jesus about someone whom the disciples have seen casting out demons in Jesus’ name. The disciples have tried to stop this unnamed exorcist because he is not following Jesus as part of Jesus’ group of disciples. Jesus’ words are usually understood to mean that we are to be more inclusive in our approach and that we are not to think that just because someone is not ‘one of us’, they are not a true disciple.

This, however, isn’t the issue here. Jesus has said that anyone who welcomes them welcomes him. Jesus is not wanting to weaken their sense of group identity by encouraging them to have a more inclusive attitude to those outside the group. His aim is quite the opposite; he is instead trying to strengthen it.

Jesus has now stopped teaching the crowds and has turned his attention to teaching the disciples. His disciples are the ‘little ones’ who represent him and who will continue his work. This inevitably raises the question of what Jesus’ disciples’ attitude should be to those who are not one of them. How should they view those who, while not exactly welcoming them, are not opposed to them either, that is, who are not against them?

Jesus takes a pragmatic approach. Jesus quotes a proverb, ‘whoever is not against us is for us’. In referring to himself and his disciples as ‘us’, Jesus again identifies with his disciples. Jesus, however, explains that while the unnamed exorcist is not a part of Jesus’ group of disciples, anyone using Jesus’ name in a positive way, will find it hard later to speak against Jesus. Indeed, Jesus says, anyone who gives even a cup of water to the disciples, because the disciples bear the name of Christ, will be rewarded. The unnamed exorcist may not have given any practical help to Jesus’ followers, but, by his positive use of Jesus’ name, he hasn’t hindered them either and that in itself is something to be thankful for.

Jesus is teaching his disciples how they should regard those who are not followers of Jesus, but who, by their actions, support those who are his followers in their work of telling people about him. Jesus’ followers are to be grateful to those who, while not disciples themselves, support the disciples in preaching the Gospel because the disciples bear the name of Christ; however small, or even unintended, that help may be. When Jesus speaks about how people who help his representatives will be rewarded, he isn’t talking about their salvation, but about the recognition their support will receive. That support may simply take the form of a positive attitude towards Jesus himself or, more substantially, by the giving of material help to his followers.

While such support is to be recognized and appreciated, anyone who causes problems for Jesus’ followers, can, however, expect to suffer the consequences. Anyone who obstructs one of these ‘little ones’ who believe in Jesus will be severely punished. Jesus says it would be better for them if they were to have a very heavy stone hung around their neck and for them to be thrown into the sea.

All support is to be welcomed, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, but opposition will be punished. The commitment of Jesus’ followers themselves is to be absolute. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of what Jesus has entrusted them to do.

As well as warning what will happen to anyone who causes one of his followers to stumble, Jesus challenges everyone to take seriously anything in their own life that causes them to stumble and to deal with it ruthlessly.

Using graphic imagery, Jesus tells them that if their hand or foot causes them to stumble, they should cut it off, or tear their eye out if it is responsible. It is better, says Jesus, to be maimed and enter eternal life and the Kingdom of God than to burn in hell. We should, Jesus is telling us, prioritize our eternal destiny whatever the cost to us now. The word Jesus uses for hell, in Greek, is ‘gehenna’. This was the rubbish tip in the valley of Hinnom to the south of Jerusalem where refuse was burnt. It provided a vivid image of the fate of those who don’t find the eternal life that Jesus offers in his Kingdom.

Jesus closes his teaching here by talking about salt. Everyone he says will be salted by fire. Salt was used as a purifying agent. God will use the fire of hell to deal with any who put obstacles in the way of people who are seeking to bring his Kingdom, but he will also use fire to purify those who belong to it.

There are two possible ways of understanding what Jesus means. St Peter uses the image of fire in his first letter. He writes:

‘… even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.’ (1Peter 1:6-7)

St Mark’s community was experiencing severe opposition possibly the same opposition that St Peter is referring to in his letter. Jesus could be telling the disciples that they are to expect persecution that will both test and purify their faith.

Jesus could also be using the image in the way that St Paul uses it. In first Corinthians, St Paul writes of how the work of God’s servants will be tested on the day of judgement:

‘… the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.’ (1 Corinthians 3:13-15)

Jesus has just spoken of how it is better to enter life maimed than to be thrown into hell. It makes sense, then, to see Jesus’ words about everyone being salted by fire as a reference to the Day of Judgement.

It is perhaps possible to combine these two ways of understanding Jesus’ words. St Paul writes, again in his first letter to the Corinthians:

‘But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.’ (1 Corinthians 11:31-32)

All will one day experience the ‘fire’ of God’s judgement. God in his mercy uses the fire of persecution and suffering to purify our faith now, so that we may be saved from the fire of hell on the Day when all will be judged.

Finally, Jesus tells his disciples they are to have ‘salt in themselves’. They must take seriously the need for their faith and service to be purified. In taking seriously the need to get themselves and their attitudes right, they are to be at peace with one another rather than arguing with one another about who is the greatest.

In this passage, then, Jesus is saying that if his followers want to be great, they can only become great by becoming one of his ‘little ones’, who, like children, have no rights of their own, but who instead live to serve others. Such a one truly represents Jesus and anyone who welcomes such a one welcomes not only Jesus, but the One who sent him. They are to regard positively anyone who speaks well of Jesus or who offers them help in speaking of him.

Anyone, however, who puts an obstacle in their way as followers of Christ will be severely punished. Furthermore, everyone should seek to remove any obstacles in their own life, whatever it takes and however much it costs. God will ensure the purity his Kingdom either by the fire of hell or the purifying fire of persecution or judgement. His followers should, then, purify themselves and be at peace with one another.

But how does all this apply to us today?

Firstly, it reminds us that Jesus has a very different view of what constitutes greatness to that of the world around us. Greatness in most people’s minds is about the success we achieve for ourselves; it is about position, power, and privilege, and it is always tied up with money.

Our role models are the rich, famous, and powerful whose images are everywhere. And as long as they are rich, famous, and powerful, we don't much care what they do to achieve their success. They can actually do something that requires hard work and dedication, or they can simply become famous for being famous. Just like many of the social media stars of our online world!

They might be extreme examples, but they embody and personify the values and attitudes of the society that makes their fame and success possible. These may be our attitudes and values, but they are not our Lord’s. As we shall see, Jesus tells the rich man to give away all that he has to the poor and follow him (Mark 10:21). He tells his disciples that the first shall be last and that the greatest in his Kingdom is the one who is the servant of all.

For Jesus being great is not about what we achieve and what we get, but what we lose and give up. The greatest is the one who is willing to become the least and a servant of all.

Jesus held up a child as a model of what being his follower should look like. Not the sweet innocent child of social media pictures, but the poor, despised, and powerless child that our Lord himself became. As Jesus’ followers, we are to become one such a ‘little one’ like him, and in becoming such a one we represent both him and the One who sent him.

Jesus is not saying that when we welcome anyone who is poor, despised, and powerless that we are welcoming him, as is often argued, but that when we become one of his little ones who believe in him, anyone who then welcomes us welcomes Jesus and the One who sent him. Jesus is talking about what we need to become in order to represent him.

Yes, we must love our neighbour as ourself, and, as the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows, our neighbour is anyone who needs our help, but this is not what Jesus is saying in this passage. Here Jesus is talking about what a disciple should look like, not what those who his disciples minister to should look like. The question here is not, ‘Who is my neighbour?’, but, ‘Who is Jesus’ disciple?’. Again, the answer Jesus gives is that it is ‘one of these little ones who believes in me’. Jesus is not referring to someone who is born poor, despised, and powerless, but someone who, because they believe in Jesus, becomes that way for his sake.

Secondly, it is because such a little one represents Jesus that anyone who helps such a one will be rewarded, but, equally, anyone who places an obstacle in the way of such a one will be severely punished. Jesus’ followers will experience opposition and will be persecuted. We will suffer because of our faith in him and because we reject the world’s standards and way of thinking, but Jesus promises that those who suffer for him will be blessed. Those, however, who cause the suffering can expect the gravest of punishments.

As believers, it can at times feel very lonely and that those who despise our faith are very much in the ascendancy. Society is moving further and further away from the values of Christ and turning at the same time on those who hold them. Jesus tells us that none of it will go unnoticed or unpunished.

We are, then, for our part to be grateful for whatever support we get even if comes from an unexpected source. There are those who are not yet followers of Christ, but who recognize in Christ someone special and significant. They know he has the power to cast out demons. They haven’t joined us yet, but they know enough about Jesus, so that they cannot easily speak ill of the One we follow.

Thirdly, there is, though, no room for complacency. Obstacles come not just from the world outside us, but from within us. Jesus speaks using powerful language about cutting off our hands and feet or tearing out our eyes if they cause us problems in following him. What Jesus is saying is that if anything we do, anywhere we go, or anything we see causes us to sin or prevents us from being obedient to him, we are not to do it, not to go there, or not even to look at it.

Some obstacles to faith are obvious. We know we shouldn’t do certain things because they are wrong in themselves: lying, stealing, killing are all sins, and we know we should avoid committing them. As indeed we should the more socially acceptable sins of anger, impatience, and jealousy. Jesus, however, is not primarily talking about giving up sins, but renouncing and avoiding even those things that are otherwise good in and of themselves if they get in the way of our relationship with him.

Anything that stops us from serving Christ whether it is time spent on leisure activities and interests, or the places we visit, or what we watch on our screens - and the time we spend watching it - is to be sacrificed for him. We are to sacrifice these things knowing that it is no real sacrifice. For it is far better to enter life eternal with him than to enjoy life now without him.

This is a very different type of faith to that being advocated in many of our churches. Preachers encourage us to experience the joys of this life and to make the most of it. Their emphasis is often on the goodness of creation and how it is to be celebrated rather than on its dangers and how it is to be renounced. Yes, God’s creation, and all that is in it, is indeed good in itself, but it may not be good for me, and time spent enjoying it may prevent me from doing the good that I should be doing.

We seek today self-fulfilment and fear self-deprivation. Jesus is challenging us to get our priorities right. St Paul compares the believer’s life to entering a race in which an athlete’s focus is on running the race so as to win the prize, and doing what is needed to run in it, even if it means a believer depriving themself of otherwise good things to do so (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

God has given us role models to encourage us and for us to look to and learn from. The writer to the Hebrews after listing examples of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures writes:

‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us …’ (Hebrews 12:1)

We not only have the example of the saints in the Bible, but also of those in the history of the Church who now live with Christ in heaven. Men and women ‘who loved not their lives unto death’ (Revelation 12:11), and who now surround us, praying for us and urging us to victory.

We may feel lonely, but we are not alone. Christ tells us to take up our cross and follow him. The way he asks us to follow is the way he gone before and in following his way we follow him who humbled himself, took the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:7-8).

May we too humble ourselves and, in his service, find our freedom, and in his death, our life.

Amen.



Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for the Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 8:27-38

In our reading of St Mark’s Gospel, we have, in our Gospel reading for this week, reached a turning point. St Mark has been describing Jesus’ ministry. He has selected incidents and encounters of Jesus with people to illustrate it. Whatever else, Jesus has made an impact.

The reaction of the ordinary people to Jesus has been positive. The crowds have responded enthusiastically both to Jesus’ teaching and to his ability to heal and cast out demons. Everywhere Jesus goes the crowds rush to see him. In our Gospel reading for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, we read how Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute (Mark 7:31-37). St Mark describes the reaction of those who saw it in a way that sums up popular opinion of Jesus. St Mark writes:

‘They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”’ (Mark 7:37)

The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes, however, has been anything but positive. They have already had several serious arguments with Jesus: over his claim to have authority to forgive sins and to interpret God’s Law; over his breaking, as they see it, of the sabbath commandment; and over his rejection of the ‘tradition of the elders’. They can’t deny that Jesus has done some amazing things: they have themselves seen him do them. They have tried instead to explain them away as Jesus working in collaboration with Satan (Mark 3:19-30).

The reaction of the Pharisees and scribes to Jesus is not just about a difference of opinions. The Pharisees and scribes see him as a dangerous threat to what they genuinely believe in. St Mark has told us that they are so opposed to what Jesus is teaching that they have entered into an alliance with the ‘Herodians’ in order to ‘destroy him’ (Mark 3:6).

The Herodians are those who are loyal to King Herod, who is the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee. King Herod has been responsible for the arrest and death of John the Baptist. King Herod himself thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt him, and he is not the only one to think that this is who Jesus is (Mark 6:14-16). Given Jesus’ close association with John the Baptist, the threat to Jesus is both clear and real.

It is important to see Jesus in this context if we are to appreciate where Jesus is at this point in his ministry. Jesus is popular, but the threat to him is very real. Seeing how real the threat is to Jesus helps us to understand the disciples a bit more.

Unfortunately, we have allowed ourselves to get the impression that Peter and his fellow disciples were weak people, even cowards, who had deserted Jesus because they were frightened of dying. This might fit well in sermons in which preachers want to encourage us to be brave and faithful, but it is not the picture of the disciples that emerges in the Gospels.

The disciples have left all to follow Jesus (Mark 10:28), something which Jesus himself acknowledges (Mark 10:29-31). They have been willing to make real sacrifices to follow Jesus out of a hope that he was the Messiah. As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection put it:

‘But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.’ (Luke 24:21)

In the disciples’ minds, Israel wasn't going to be ‘redeemed’, that is, freed from pagan rule, without a fight and this, as Israel’s history showed all too clearly, would mean martyrs and death. If King Herod had not allowed John to go free, why would his attitude to John’s close associate be any different? The Pharisees and scribes know they have a powerful ally in the supporters of King Herod. Jesus’ disciples probably didn't want to die any more than we do, but it is important for us to see that in committing themselves to Jesus, given the hopes they had of him, they must have known there was a strong possibility that they were in real danger.

It is against this background, then, that St Mark tells us in our Gospel reading that Jesus has taken his disciples to the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi itself was a prominent city in the far north of Israel, 25 miles from the Sea of Galilee. Previously, it had been called Paneas, after the Greek god, Pan. King Herod had built a temple there in honour of the Emperor. After Herod’s death, his son, Philip the Tetrarch, was appointed ruler of the Greek-speaking territories to the north and east of the Sea of Galilee. Philip had enlarged the temple dedicated to Augustus, rebuilt and beautified the city, and re-named it Caesarea. It was also a centre of pagan worship. It is against this background, then, that Jesus asks his disciples:

‘Who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29)

As Jesus’ name has become known, there has been much speculation as to his identity (Mark 6:14-16). As St Mark has already told us, some think Jesus is John the Baptist who has somehow returned; others see him as Elijah; still others, as one of the prophets. The disciples report these various opinions of him to Jesus. Jesus then asks them directly:

‘But who do you [in Greek it is plural] say that I am?’ (Mark 8:29)

Peter answers him:

‘You are the Messiah.’ (Mark 8:29)

St Matthew, in his Gospel, records that Jesus told Peter that ‘flesh and blood’ had not revealed this to Peter but Jesus’ ‘Father in heaven’ (Matthew 16:17). St Peter’s statement of recognition, therefore, is a massively important moment.

What, though, did Peter himself mean by it? Peter was saying that Jesus was the One who would free Israel from the pagans whose leader’s temple they could perhaps see, even as Peter spoke. Jesus, Peter believed, was the One who would rid Israel of pagan worship and the Roman rulers who brought it with them, evidence of which was all around them. Jesus would be the One who would turn the pagans instead to worship the God of Israel. The disciples were looking forward to the day when God’s promises to Israel through the prophets would be fulfilled and their oppression would come to an end.

A passage from the Psalms of Solomon, which were written in the first century BC just before the time of Christ, gives an indication of what many people were hoping for:

‘See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God. Undergird him with the strength to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction; in wisdom and in righteousness to drive out the sinners from the inheritance; to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar; to shatter all their substance with an iron rod; to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth …’ (Psalms of Solomon 17:23-26)

‘You are the Messiah’, we have got so used to the words that we miss the sense of excitement that the disciples must have felt. They were going to be the ones who, by following the Messiah, would help set Israel free and get rid of the pagan gods. They were getting ready for the conflict and to fight for their faith, their freedom, and their God. This was why they had first joined John the Baptist and had become his disciples; this is why they were now Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus’ disciples saw themselves in their day much as the Taliban have seen themselves in ours. Rome was the America of its day. Rome had great power. The disciples were just a small group of potential freedom fighters, but they believed Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed. In the past, the Jews, under the Maccabees, had fought and defeated one great Empire. Imagine what they could do with God’s Anointed leading them!

Jesus taking his disciples to Caesarea Philippi is like a leader taking his generals and showing them the enemy’s headquarters and pointing out graphically how their enemy is occupying their land. It is against this background, with emotions running high, that Jesus asks them, ‘Who do you think I am?’. When Peter says Jesus is the Messiah, he is saying, ‘You are the One to lead us against all this and who will rid us of it’.

And in believing that Jesus was the Messiah, Peter was both right and wrong at the same time.

Jesus has himself invited Peter’s answer, and it is obviously the right one. Jesus’ next words, then, come as something of a surprise:

‘And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.’ (Mark 8:30)

‘Not telling anyone about him’ has been a theme in St Mark’s Gospel so far. Of course, it could all be about strategy: Jesus could be waiting for the right moment to reveal who he actually is and so take the Romans by surprise. Jesus, however, does not only order them to keep quiet about who he is. Immediately after they have recognized Jesus for who he is, while the disciples are still on an emotional high, Jesus goes on to say something truly shocking. St Mark writes:

‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mark 8:31)

In other words, Jesus knows he won’t be recognized as the Messiah by those who lead Israel. This is bad news, but, worse still, not only will Jesus not be recognized and experience great suffering, he will be killed. Jesus also says he will rise again, but they probably have stopped listening by this point. How could he, the Messiah, suffer and be killed? It is a contradiction in terms.

St Mark tells us that Jesus says all this quite openly. Peter is shocked, and so he takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter wants to put an end to this sort of defeatist talk. Jesus needs to know that this can’t happen. There was no doubt in Peter and his fellow disciples’ minds who the enemy was. Here, in the region of Caesarea Philippi, they could see the enemy all too clearly. The Messiah was the One who was going to free them from all this.

Jesus, however, shows how strongly he feels about it by rebuking Peter in front of his disciples. Jesus sees the suggestion that he should not suffer as coming from Satan himself. Peter’s words are not just the well-meaning, albeit misguided, words of an over-zealous disciple, but an attempt by Satan to stop him doing what he came to do. It is the way humans think, not God. But Satan knows only too well how humans think and how to get them to do his will.

It is not Pan and the pagan gods or Caesar and the Romans who are the real enemy, the real enemy is far more dangerous, and, at this moment, Peter has become his representative and he, the chief apostle, is leading the attack on Jesus on his behalf.

Having first rebuked Peter, Jesus acts decisively. He calls, not only his disciples, but also the crowds to him. Now is the moment for Jesus to make absolutely clear what following him means and where it will lead. Anyone wanting to become his follower, Jesus tells them, must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow him (Mark 8:34).

What would the phrase ‘take up your cross’ have meant to anyone who heard it? The answer is that it would have struck terror into their hearts. We have grown used to hearing about crucifixion, and crosses are everywhere. We even wear them as jewellery! The image of the Cross itself has little emotional impact on us. This is not how it was in the time of Jesus.

Crucifixion was a terrible way to die. It was used by the Romans to punish and put fear into people. It was an excruciatingly painful way to die. It was also completely humiliating. It was meant to demonstrate Roman power. Not only did the person to be crucified get nailed to a cross, they also had to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. Anyone carrying a cross was someone condemned and as good as dead.

Jesus is telling anyone who wants to be his follower: ‘Yes, there is going to be death’, it is not, however, the pagan Romans who must die, but Jesus’ followers, and Jesus himself is going to lead the way to the place of death.

Jesus is saying that his followers don’t just have to accept death as one possible outcome. If they want to follow him, they have actively to embrace it. They have to take up their cross willingly and deny themselves deliberately. Their goal in life isn’t to be success and glory. Jesus, by using the image of the cross, is telling them that they must live as people who have accepted that there is to be no hope of success and glory in this world, only shame and death. If they are killed physically, it is only the confirmation of a state that already exists.

Some of you may remember the 1995 film, ‘Dead Man Walking’, or have read the book on which it was based. The title itself comes from what was once a traditional phrase used in American prisons to designate men who had been sentenced to death. In the eyes of the law, the condemned prisoner was dead already. When Jesus says we are to take up our cross, he is telling us that we too are a ‘Dead Man (or Woman) Walking’.

It is, however, Jesus tells them, those who seek life, who desire success and glory, and who want to find fulfilment in this world, who are the ones who will lose their lives. Whereas it is those who, for Jesus’ sake, abandon seeking what they want in this life who will gain their life. The disciples must have found this hard to take in and to accept. For the avoidance of doubt, Jesus makes it clear that it is not negotiable. Jesus continues:

‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ (Mark 8:38)

Jesus tells them that they must not be ashamed of either him or his words. Peter is ashamed. It was not how the Messiah was expected to think and speak. And to his shame, Peter has spoken for the enemy. Jesus, however, has now named the real enemies and exposed them: the real enemies are self and Satan.

Satan does indeed know how humans think and throughout the history of the human race, nothing has changed. Satan’s strategy has been the same from the beginning. In the book of Genesis, we read how, in the Garden of Eden, Satan sought to persuade Adam and Eve to turn from God and to turn instead to themselves and to what they wanted. He told them they should not listen to what God had said, but to pursue what they found pleasing and fulfilling.

In paganism, Satan gave humans gods that were a projection of themselves and of their own drives and desires. People worshipped these gods recognizing themselves in them. Satan’s most audacious move, however, is now being played out all around us. Tragically, we have either not seen it or have fallen for it, because, as with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, we find it hard to resist what Satan is offering us. It appeals to our pride, our conceit, and our desire to be free from constraint. In the past, we were offered gods who mirrored our desires and who promised to satisfy them, now we are encouraged to worship ourselves and to follow our feelings.

Recently, I have been reading St Catherine of Siena. Saint Catherine is a 14th century saint. (I will say more about her another time.) St Catherine’s most famous work is her book, The Dialogue. This is a series of conversations between St Catherine and God.

During these conversations, God says to St Catherine, ‘I am he who is; you are she who is not’. When I first came across these words, I was shocked. It seemed as if God was denying that St Catherine had any value or worth as a human being. It was as if God really was the egotistical tyrant that many accuse

our God of being. If I were to say to you, ‘You are nothing’, you would be hurt and insulted. You would hear in my words contempt and rejection. But St Catherine herself heard in God’s words to her the exact opposite.

As St Catherine explains in The Dialogue, what God is saying is that he is our Creator, who has given us life and who is the One on whom we depend for our being. This is not about what we choose; it is something that simply is. As St Paul puts it, God is the One ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). We only have life as we have it in him. We have no life of ourselves. Whether we believe in him or not, like him or not, obey him or not, we cannot exist without him. Even as we are denying his existence, we are dependent on him for ours.

The lie that Satan wants us to believe is that we can have life without God. Satan only cares that we turn away from God. Once we have done that he doesn't need us to believe in him or consciously to worship him, he has already achieved his aim. By turning from ‘He who is’ to ourselves ‘who are not’, we are turning from him who alone can give meaning and fulfilment to our lives. We are, quite literally, turning to nothing.

By seeking the answers to life in ourselves, by believing that we can find meaning and fulfilment in ourselves and our own efforts, by thinking that we have in ourselves the resources we need to be able to pursue our goals and to satisfy our desires, we are putting our trust in he or she who is nothing. A society built on such self-belief is a society built on nothing; it is a society that has chosen death, not life.

Sadly, the Church’s message has become little more than a religious version of this Gospel of self; one that simply tells people what they want to hear. By setting our minds on human rather than divine things, the Church, like Peter, is speaking for Satan and not for God. Jesus doesn’t offer to accompany us on a journey of experience and self-discovery as we follow our dreams, rather he calls on us to follow him on his way of obedience and self-denial as we carry our cross. Jesus warns us not to be ashamed of him and his words. We need as his followers to have the courage to be honest in telling people what Jesus requires of anyone who is interested in becoming his follower.

If God was other than who He is, what Jesus is asking of us would be both frightening and beyond us. St Catherine, however, shows us there is no need to fear. St Catherine writes that not only did God create us and give us life, but that when he created us, he fell in love with us. If God were not love, the trust and obedience that Jesus asks of us would be terrible and terrifying. The One we are being asked to trust and obey, however, is not only the One who created us and sustains us in being, he is the One who loves us and longs for us to turn to him. St Catherine describes God as the ‘mad lover’. He loves us madly and completely, and he has demonstrated that love for us in Christ.

St Catherine is overwhelmed by God’s love for us. How can he love us creatures who are so wretched and sinful?

As I come into his light, I see all too clearly my sin, my failure, my weakness, and my inability to do even the good I want to do. Looking to myself, I am driven to despair for in myself I have nothing, can do nothing, and am nothing. But my hope is not in myself, my hope and trust is in my ‘mad lover’ who loves me despite who I am and what I have done, and who, in Christ, not only offers me love, but also the possibility of becoming who he created me to be.

When we see ourselves as we really are, we find it hard to believe anyone could love us. God, however, loves us despite how unlovable we are. Even though he sees us as we are, sees us better than anyone including ourselves sees us, because he loves us, he has mercy on us, and offers us in Christ forgiveness and salvation. God’s salvation is not only from our sin, but from ourselves.

Jesus said:

‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ (Mark 8:35)

May we, like St Catherine, lose our life for him and in losing it find our life in him.

Amen.