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.

Thursday, September 09, 2021

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 7:24-37

For our Gospel reading this year, year B in the lectionary, we have been reading through St Mark’s Gospel. We paused our reading of St Mark’s Gospel when we got to the feeding of the 5,000. For five weeks over the Summer, we read instead the account of the feeding and of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum following it in St John’s Gospel, chapter 6. We have now returned to St Marks Gospel, and last week picked up St Mark’s narrative in chapter 7.

At the end of chapter 6 St Mark’s Gospel, immediately after St Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, St Mark tells us that Jesus is attracting considerable attention (Mark 6:54-56). Everywhere he goes people rush to see him. The reason for their interest in him is that they want to bring the sick to him for him to heal them. This reason for their interest in Jesus is understandable but it is limited. The crowds are not so much interested in Jesus as in what he can do for them and what they can get out of him. Jesus still meets their needs, but this is not what he wants from them. Our Gospel reading this week shows us the response Jesus is looking for.

In chapter 7, St Mark tells us that as well as becoming popular as a healer, Jesus is causing controversy and making enemies. Ironically, the opposition to Jesus comes principally from the religious leaders and those in authority. Here, in chapter 7, the opposition is from the Pharisees and scribes. They were people who placed a great deal of emphasis on God's Law and on keeping God’s commandments. St Mark, earlier in his Gospel, has described how Jesus has already had arguments with them over the sabbath commandment and over who has the authority to forgive sins. Jesus has claimed for himself the authority to interpret God’s Law and to forgive sins. In chapter 7, we see how Jesus uses this authority in a way that may not seem such a big deal to us, but which was both revolutionary and shocking in Jesus’ own day.

The argument between Jesus and the Pharisees and scribes begins with the Pharisees and scribes asking Jesus why his disciples do not observe the ‘tradition of the elders’ (Mark 7:5). Nowadays, when we hear the word ‘tradition’, we tend to react negatively to it. We see tradition as being about binding us to the past and limiting what we can do in the present. This is not how tradition has always been seen, and it certainly was not how the Pharisees and scribes saw it.

Tradition, for the Pharisees and scribes, contained guidance and teaching on how God’s Law was to be interpreted and observed. Tradition had authority and was to be respected. Tradition not only contained guidance on, for example, how to keep the Sabbath, but on every aspect of everyday life. It included rules and rituals that needed to be followed. These applied to everything from eating a meal to going to the Temple to pray.

The argument, in chapter 7, centres on what rules and rituals should be followed when preparing and eating food. St Mark writes that the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly. We know all about washing our hands ‘properly’ at the moment because of the pandemic. Properly for the Pharisees and scribes, however, doesn't mean in the right way hygienically, but in the right way religiously. There was a religious way of washing hands before meals, and not only hands, but also the pots and pans the meal was prepared in and the places where it was eaten.

Now this was all done sincerely and out of a desire to keep God's Law. The desire to get the rituals right came out of a desire to demonstrate obedience to God’s Law. It often led, however, to a focus on external acts and what people did outwardly at the expense of the inner motivation and obedience that the rituals were meant to reflect.

By focusing on the rules and rituals, the Pharisees and scribes had forgotten that the whole point of the rules and rituals was to lead people to a greater obedience to God and to his Law. The point of the ritual was not the ritual itself, but what it expressed. Unfortunately, all too often with ritual, the original meaning of the ritual is lost in the desire to make sure the ritual is observed. Hence, the phrase ‘empty ritual’. The rituals that the Pharisees and scribes observed were originally intended as a way for the people of Israel to worship and express their faithfulness to God. These rituals had, however, been elevated to the same status as the commandments of God.

This was certainly how Jesus saw these rituals about ‘washing’ that the Pharisees and scribes were so concerned about. What originally had been meant to express love and devotion to God had become something that was done without much thought being given to it.

Imagine for a moment a couple falling in love. Every month they go to a certain restaurant for a meal together. He always buys her a flower. This ‘lovers’ ritual’ continues long after they have met. After several years, though, it becomes just a routine that they go through. This is how Jesus saw the rituals his disciples were criticized for not keeping, but which the Pharisees and scribes saw as so important. Quoting the prophet Isaiah to describe the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus says:

‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ (Mark 7:6-7; see Isaiah 29:13)

The Pharisees and scribes believed that failure to keep these rituals defiled a person, that is, made them unfit to come into the presence of God. It excluded them. Jesus tackles this head on. It is not failure to observe outward rituals that defile a person, Jesus tells them, nor even what a person eats. Nothing, says Jesus, going into a person from outside them can defile a person. The issue is what comes from within. And Jesus gives quite a comprehensive list of the unclean things that come from within, and which defile a person. The list includes theft, murder, and sexual sin, but it also includes evil thoughts, envy, and pride. Dealing with these unclean things, says Jesus, is far more important than how you wash your hands ritually.

Somewhat buried away in all this, is what, in English, is a six word comment by St Mark on what Jesus’ words mean. St Mark writes:

‘Thus he declared all foods clean.’ (Mark 7:19)

For many of St Mark’s original audience, these words would have come as something of a verbal bombshell. This idea of ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ food is one we find hard to understand today. We understand the idea of ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ food. And we know that some people, for various reasons, prefer not to eat meat at all. ‘Clean’ and ‘unclean’, however, is a religious concept. The Jews divided food into ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ categories – they still do – and unclean food was, and is, not to be eaten. We are all familiar with the concept of ‘kosher’. Kosher refers to the right food prepared the right way.

Jesus’ implied abolition of this concept was revolutionary. Again, we don't get today just how emotionally shocking was the idea that it did not matter what you ate. Jews, during the period of the Maccabees, for example, had been prepared to die rather than eat pork. Indeed, this was an issue that was to cause a great deal of controversy in the Early Church itself.

The question for believers in the Early Church was, ‘Should Gentiles who became believers be required to keep the rules about food in God's Law?’ St Mark clearly was on the side of those who thought they shouldn't. St Paul took a remarkably liberal view for someone who had been a strict Jew. St Paul taught that it was up to the individual to decide for themselves before God whether they observed them or not (Romans 14:1-9). St Paul himself agreed with St Mark that all foods were clean, but, as believers, he felt that we should respect each other’s choice in the matter. At the same time, St Paul believed this was a two-way process. Those who thought some foods unclean should respect those who believed that all foods were clean. But equally, those who thought that all foods were clean should respect those who believed that some were unclean.

But does it matter? Well, it did and it does. It is only a small move from thinking that some food is unclean to thinking that the people who eat it are also unclean. What follows next is the belief that not only should you yourself not eat unclean food, but that you shouldn't meet or associate with those who eat it either.

St Paul bluntly tells believers in Rome, who were dividing into groups based on whether they only ate clean food or ate all food, that they were to ‘welcome one another’ (Romans 15:7). What they believed about the food they ate was not to be a defining issue. What counts, St Paul writes, is glorifying God and loving each other.

This was something that the Pharisees and scribes found difficult to understand. For them, not eating unclean food was about obeying God. It was a lesson that even St Peter himself had to learn, and it wasn’t an easy one for him to learn. It took a vision from God, repeated three times, to get the message across to him, and this was after he had been with Jesus for three years.

The story is a well-known one. It is told by St Luke in Acts, chapter 10.

St Peter, St Luke tells us, is on the roof of a house in Joppa, praying at midday. He feels hungry and falls into a trance. While in the trance, Peter receives a vison of a sheet being let down from heaven with all kinds of animals on it. A voice tells him to get up, kill, and eat. Peter refuses, responding that he has never eaten anything unclean. The voice replies:

‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ (Acts 10:15)

This happens three times.

Peter is puzzled by the vision and doesn’t quite know what to make of it. At that moment, some men come from Caesarea who have been sent by a Roman Centurion, a Gentile called Cornelius. Cornelius has himself been told in a vision to send for Peter and has been given the directions for finding him. The Holy Spirit tells Peter that he must not hesitate to go with the men for the Holy Spirit has sent them. What Peter says to Cornelius and his household when he arrives at Caesarea is particularly interesting. Peter’s words are:

‘You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.’ (Acts 10:28)

Peter understands that his vision was not simply about which food he should find acceptable, but also which people. If a person is acceptable to God, they must also be acceptable to Peter and to the Church. Not only is Peter not to call any food unclean and, therefore, not fit to eat, Peter must not see anyone whom God has called to himself as unclean and unacceptable to God either. God goes on to show Peter how people Peter previously thought to be unclean are now called by God to faith in Christ. As Peter is telling Cornelius and his household about Jesus, God baptizes Cornelius and his household there and then with the Holy Spirit in the same way as Peter and his fellow believers were themselves baptized in the Holy Spirit.

Which brings us at long last to our Gospel reading this week. Jesus is in Tyre, a port on the Mediterranean Sea, northwest of Galilee. A Gentile woman of Syrophoenician origin approaches him. The woman has a little daughter who has an ‘unclean’ spirit. She begs Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus’ response to her request is somewhat shocking: he refuses. Jesus says to her:

‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ (Mark 7:27)

Jesus effectively tells the woman she is a bitch who doesn’t deserve to be fed. Preachers often try to soften Jesus’ words by arguing that Jesus is trying to test her or lead her to faith. We respond like this to Jesus’ words because we don't take seriously the fact that the Jews were and are God's people and that Jesus originally ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11). It is only after Jesus’ death and resurrection that salvation will be offered to the Gentiles as well. This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘Let the children be fed first’.

The woman in her reply doesn't dispute this. But even though it is the children's time to be fed, the ‘dogs’ can still eat the ‘children’s crumbs’. The time is coming, however, when those who are regarded as no better than dogs will themselves become children and eat at the same table as those who were originally God’s children. But that time is not yet. Jesus, however, by effectively announcing that all food is clean, also points to the day, which is coming soon, when all people will be clean.

We must not minimise the historical significance of this. Jesus came to God’s people the Jews. He came for the world, but he didn’t come to the world; he ‘came to his own’. God sent him first to those he had himself chosen and had separated from all other people. The laws the Pharisees and scribes sought to keep were God’s laws given by God himself, and while the Pharisees and scribes had wrongly interpreted them, and had missed the point of many of them, they were still God's laws.

What God has done in Christ, however, is to end his own Law, and, in ending it, has welcomed all people who trust in his Son into his family. This was both huge and controversial then and it still is today. Only recently, Pope Francis, no less, got into a lot of trouble for saying something similar. Can you imagine how much more trouble St Peter and St Paul got into for saying it? Indeed, St Peter after his visit to Cornelius’ household is called to give an account of his actions to the Church in Jerusalem. Believers there are shocked that St Peter has met with Gentiles and has eaten with them (Acts 11:1-18).

St Luke tells us that those who heard St Peter’s explanation ‘glorified God’ when they heard it (Acts 11:18), but we know that it took them a lot longer to accept and come to terms with it. We learn from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians that even St Peter himself took time to understand its implications completely. What to us today now seems obvious was to be a major source of controversy and division in the Early Church. We see this controversy and division reflected in some of St Paul’s letters.

While today we don’t decide whether someone is acceptable to God based on whether they are a Jew or Gentile. We do still, mentally at least, divide people into clean and unclean groups, that is, into groups composed of those who are welcome to join us and those who are not. We know only too well, for example, that racism in the Church has led to people of certain races being discriminated against and excluded from the Church.

I think the Church today has recognized this, in theory at least. Most churches now go out of their way to be seen to be inclusive and welcoming. However, in their enthusiasm to be inclusive and welcoming, they often end up distorting the message of the Gospel. The Gospel tells us that all are included in the Gospel invitation and that all are welcome to respond. But while we are invited to come as we are, we are not welcome to stay as we are. St Peter, when speaking to Cornelius and his household, puts it this way:

‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.’ (Acts 10:34-35)

But how are we to do what is right in order to be acceptable to him? Our problem is the problem that Jesus describes in St Mark, chapter 7. It is not external things that defile us; it is not about where we are born, our social background, and all the other things that are used to exclude people. It is what we are in ourselves that is the problem. ‘Out of the heart’ of each one of us comes what it is that defiles and excludes us. We come to Jesus as people who are defiled by who we are and by what is in us, and Jesus invites us as defiled sinners. But if we want to go on with Jesus, we need to be cleansed from our defilement.

This is a message that the Church, in its understandable desire to be inclusive, has, both consciously and unconsciously, decided to ignore. The Pharisees and scribes were too exclusive in their approach; we have become too inclusive in ours. It's not that we should exclude anyone from coming, but that anyone who does not respond to the Gospel in the way Jesus says they must, excludes themself. In Jesus’ Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), one of the many who were invited did not wear the right clothes and was thrown out.

The Gospel invitation and welcome is to all people, but it is an invitation and welcome, not only to come, but also to change. St John writes:

‘If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.’ (1 John 1:6-7)

No one is unclean in the sense of being excluded from the invitation that God offers in Christ. But we are all defiled, and in need of the cleansing blood of Christ, so that we can become acceptable in his sight. We need to be washed, cleansed by his blood, and set free from the things that defile us, so that we can begin a new life in the power of his Spirit. This is the message that we have been thinking about over the Summer as we looked at Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. It is only Christ’s body and blood that makes it possible for us to come into God's presence and which enables us to stay there.

The message that Jesus invites us to come to him and to be changed by him because all of us are not acceptable to God as we are and are incapable of doing anything about it, is not a message we welcome. We want both to come as we are and to stay as we are. And even if some change is needed, we want some say in how we change and to be given credit for doing so.

This is why, like the Pharisees and scribes, we like rules and rituals. They give us a feeling of control and of superiority. Control, because we get to do something worthy of praise; superiority, because we feel we are better than those who don't keep the rules and rituals. Rules and rituals give us something to boast about. More than that, our rules and rituals also let us take control of who is and who is not acceptable. Even when the rules and rituals are God’s, we want to be the ones who enforce and interpret them. Often our interpretations are just that: our interpretations.

In her desperation and need, the Syrophoenician woman came to Jesus with an open heart and on Jesus’ terms. The Pharisees and scribes insisted that he come to them on theirs. She accepted that she had no right to Jesus’ help, but, relying on his generosity, was grateful for his mercy. The Pharisees and scribes thought they needed no help, but, relying on their rules and rituals, trusted their own judgement. Jesus came unto his own, but his own received him not.

Jesus told those who were gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum that he was the ‘bread of life’ (John 6:35). Unwilling to admit their need, God’s own children rejected all that he offered them. The Syrophoenician woman, knowing her need, was happy to receive any crumbs that fell from the children's table.

Today, Christ doesn’t offer us crumbs, but his very self. To all who now receive him, who eat his flesh and drink his blood, he gives the power to become children of God.

May we, then, by eating his flesh and drinking his blood, receive the eternal life he promises to all who believe in him and may we welcome as bothers and sisters all those who also believe – whoever they are.

Amen.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity.

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

In this week’s church service, we commissioned our Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo teachers for the year ahead. This week, schools are officially starting back after a somewhat unusual summer vacation. The new academic year will begin, although, in the Vicarage, it doesn't feel as though the old one ever ended. I imagine it has been like that for many parents. As the new school year begins, however, no matter what disagreements we may have, one thing I think that we can all agree on is the importance of education.

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, famously said in a speech in 1996 that his three highest priorities in government were ‘education, education, education’. It was a memorable, if somewhat meaningless, sound bite, but it was one that he could utter without too much fear of being contradicted. Education is universally seen as the key to prosperity and success both for children individually and for society as a whole.

It is this universal recognition of the importance of education that has made it such a focus of political attention. Here in Hong Kong, the National Security Law has led to an increased emphasis on the importance of National Education. Schools are under instruction to teach their students about what it means for Hong Kong to be a part of China and to give greater emphasis in the curriculum to Chinese history and culture.

Whatever we may think of this, the Central Government is only recognising what philosophers first said long ago. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher in the 4th century BC, said, ‘Give me a child until 7 and I will show you the man’. As is well-known, the Jesuits also said something similar.

There are those who think that education should be exclusively about children being taught the academic subjects of the curriculum, this and nothing else. The reality is that education never has been just about academic learning and, what is more, it never can be. Educationalists speak of the ‘hidden curriculum’. As well as the formal subjects that all schools say they teach, they also teach beliefs, values, and attitudes, whether they intend to or not.

Some schools are entirely upfront about this. They make it part of their mission to impart more than academic learning and they give thought and attention to what they are trying to achieve. Others don't make much of what they teach outside of the formal curriculum, deliberately or otherwise, but they do it, nevertheless. What the Central Government realises is something that political and religious groups have always realised, namely, that what you teach a child, intentionally or unintentionally, will inevitably affect the person they become and how they think as an adult.

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of children being taught politics or religion in school. But children do need to learn beliefs, values, and attitudes, and these have to come from somewhere. The question is not whether children are taught at school what to believe and how to behave, but what they are taught about both.

What, then, should be our attitude as followers of Christ and as a church to what and how our children are taught? Frankly, as a church, we have rather shot ourselves in the foot over this. We are very sensitive in the church to the accusation that we are indoctrinating children by our involvement in schools. Consequently, we do what we can to show that we are not like some of the religious cults we read about, and we go out of our way not to force anyone to believe anything.

We think that it is OK to teach children Bible stories in special Scripture lessons, and we don't think that anyone will complain if we tell children that they should be nice to people. After all, isn't that what all good people believe anyway, whether they are religious or not? However, we go very easy on God and on what we believe, so that we will not be accused of being bigoted and dogmatic or of trying to brainwash children.

The result is that church schools are often little different to their secular counterparts. Certainly, the academic curriculum in most church schools is the same as that in their secular equivalents. Children are taught the same things in the same way by teachers trained in the same places. The main contribution of the church lies in providing people to serve on school management committees.

I am not, as a school manager myself, suggesting that this is unimportant, but, again, what we do as church managers is often not all that different to what non-church managers do.

This is not the time or place to talk about what a church school should be doing or about the way it should be doing it, although it is a temptation I'm having to work hard to resist! I would just say, however, that while we may be determined, as the church, to be seen to be impartial and not to be using schools as places to spread our faith, others are not so shy about using them to spread theirs. While secular society may not like religious dogma being taught in schools, it is not so reticent about secular beliefs, values, and attitudes being taught in them. And the teaching of secular beliefs, values, and attitudes in schools goes a lot further than simply encouraging children to be nice.

At the moment, many people in Hong Kong are worried about the effect the introduction of National Education will have. I have to say that there is a lot more about what our children are being taught for parents to worry over than National Education and their children learning about China and Chinese history and culture.

In Hong Kong, we remain heavily influenced by and dependent on western ideas about education. Many schools go so far as to boast that they are following a British or American curriculum. Certainly, in teacher training, many of the ideas and literature upon which teacher training is based come from western universities and faculties of education. What I don't think many people realise is the extent to which the ideas coming from these institutions, and which are finding their way into what is taught in school, are not only not sympathetic to faith in Christ but, I would argue, diametrically opposed to it. Not only is talk of God frowned upon, there is often open hostility to very idea of God. Indeed, many would see education as being a tool for liberating people from what they see as superstitious and harmful beliefs.

Many of those who value a western style of education are simply unaware of what western education has become. A recent appointment at Harvard University serves as a parable for what is happening in western education in general.

Harvard University was founded by the Puritans in 1636. It was named after Pastor John Howard who endowed it. Its original purpose was for the education and training of the clergy. For some 70 years, all its Presidents were pastors. In 1692, it adopted the motto, ‘Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae’, which translated from Latin means, ‘Truth for Christ and the Church.’ This became simply, ‘Truth’; Harvard’s motto today.

Harvard has some 40 chaplains responsible for the spiritual care of its students. They are drawn from a variety of religious traditions. In 1974, a humanist and atheist chaplain was appointed for those who wanted to be spiritual without believing in God. Last week, the present humanist and atheist chaplain, Greg Epstein, was appointed the Chief Chaplain. He is the author of a book entitled, ‘Good without God’. His appointment was endorsed by all the chaplains.

Who the chaplains choose as their Chief Chaplain is, of course, up to them, but the story of Harvard serves as a parable about western society in general. What originally began out of faith in God, first became secular, and has now become its opposite.

The chaplains may all have been agreed on the appointment of an atheist as their Chief Chaplain, but they don’t all agree about God or even about whether there is a God. So, presumably, in making this appointment, they don’t think belief in God is all that important for those they care for. God, it seems, has become an optional extra even for those responsible for people’s spiritual well-being.

This is one reason why many in the West itself are now taking their children out of state schools and are teaching them at home themselves. Some 11% of children in the United States are now being homeschooled. We can expect there to be a backlash against this from those who are ideologically opposed to religious ideas and to giving parents the freedom to decide how their children are brought up. Indeed, a Harvard law professor, Elizabeth Bartholet, has called for an outright ban on homeschooling in the United States.

One thing many activists who are not religious can't stand is being denied the opportunity to teach their own ideology and beliefs to your child. They not only see the problem as being that children are being taught their parents’ beliefs, but that they are being denied the opportunity to teach the children theirs.

Regardless of what we think about homeschooling and parental rights in the matter, there is not that much that we can do about it here in Hong Kong. Homeschooling in Hong Kong is effectively not allowed, and the system is not going to change any time soon.

This makes what we're doing in Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo so important. It’s just a given that children are not going to be told, in school, the whole truth about the world and how it came into being. They are not, in school, going to be introduced to faith in Christ. And they are not, in school, going to be taught in any depth about what it means to live for Christ. If we leave educating our children to the educationalists, our children will be deprived of what is most important in their education.

In announcing our service this week on Facebook, I posted a picture of a child with the caption: ‘If we don't teach our children to follow Christ, the world will teach them not to’. Many parents, however, often for the best of motives, will sometimes question whether it is right to teach our children to follow Christ. They ask, ‘But shouldn't I leave it for my child to decide for themself and wait until they are old enough to make their own decision?’ I don't doubt the sincerity of many who take this attitude, but just think about it for a moment.

As a parent, you decide where your child is born, grows up, and goes to school. You decide what food they eat, what clothes they wear, and even who their friends are. Every important decision affecting your child’s life and upbringing is taken by you. Why is your child’s faith so unimportant that you feel it is OK to leave it out? Is it because we ourselves have believed the lie that faith in Christ is not really that important? Is this the reason we allow other things to come before sending them to church on a Sunday?

The baptism service has these words in it:

‘Children who are too young to profess the Christian faith are baptized on the understanding that they are brought up as Christians within the family of the Church. As they grow up, they need the help and encouragement of that family, so that they learn to be faithful in public worship and private prayer, to live by trust in God, and come to confirmation.’

There will come a time when your child will indeed have to decide for themselves. The time will come when they will get the chance, formally or informally, to confirm their faith. But we need to give them exposure to that faith now, as they are growing up, so that they at least have the opportunity to confirm it - or not, if that is their choice - when they are older.

If we don’t give them this exposure, then, when the time comes, there will be nothing for them to confirm. Make no mistake, the number of young people leaving school describing themselves as ‘nones’, that is, as having no religious affiliation of any kind, is high and growing all the time.

Faith in Christ is not an optional extra for those who have come to know him. Jesus spoke about the wise and foolish men and how they built their houses (Matthew 7:24-27). One built it on the sand, and, when storms came, it fell down. The wise man built his house on the rock, and it stood fast. Jesus said that those who were wise built their life on his teaching. As those entrusted with the education and upbringing of children, we should want to give them the opportunity to build their lives on the Lord Jesus Christ and on his teaching.

What, then, we are committed ourselves to in our work with children is something that will have long lasting consequences for our children. Faith in Christ is not just about our children's life here and now in this world, but also about their life hereafter in the world to come. Here and now, they will only be properly educated if they learn about the God who made them and who cares for them. They will only be able to live happy and fulfilled lives if they grow up knowing the One who gave them life. They will only have lives that make a difference and are of benefit to others if they are taught the values and attitudes they need for them to make a difference and to be of benefit to others.

St Ambrose, in the fourth century, said:

‘When we speak of wisdom, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking about Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking about Christ. When we are speaking about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking about Christ.’ (Explanation on Psalm 36, 65-66: CSEL, 123-125)

Faith in Christ is not a separate subject that can be included or left out of our children’s education at will. It can’t be confined to an occasional Scripture lesson or a weekly religious assembly. Faith in Christ needs to be central to everything they learn and an essential part of their education.

The responsibility for ensuring that they get this education lies, not with the school, but with their family: both their biological family and their spiritual family. As the family of God, we have a God-given responsibility to support our families as they raise their children and a God-given responsibility to children as members of our family the church.

Our work with children is a fundamental and vital part of what we do as a church, and it makes what we are entrusting our Sunday School, Junior Church, and Credo teachers to do, so important. It is no good leaving it until the children are older and hoping it will all turn out alright. By the time they are older, it may be too late.

Yes, we want our children to decide for themselves to follow Christ and to confirm their faith in him when the time comes, but they need to be told and taught about that faith, and they deserve to be given the chance to grow up knowing Christ for themselves. Jesus told his disciples off for turning away children. He took the children in his arms and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16). What we are attempting to do at Christ Church is to follow our Lord’s example. Our children are not the church of tomorrow; they are very much a part of our church today.

And so today, let us commit ourselves to educating our children and bringing them up in the faith of Christ to know Christ, so that they can decide to follow Christ and, we hope and pray, one day to confirm for themselves their faith in him.

Amen.