Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Sunday next before Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent.

The Sunday next before Lent

Readings:

Exodus 34:29-35
2 Corinthians 3:12-4.2
Luke 9:28-43

For our Gospel reading for the Second Sunday before Lent, we read St Luke’s account of the Calming of the Storm. After relating this event, St Luke describes both Jesus’ healing of the man with demons in the country of the Gerasenes (Luke 8:26-39) and the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40-56).

In a significant development, St Luke also describes how Jesus sends out the 12 men he has chosen as apostles to proclaim the Kingdom of God, giving them power and authority over demons and diseases (Luke 9:1-6). News of all this reaches King Herod who, having had John the Baptist killed, doesn’t know what to make of what he hears (Luke 9:7-9).

When the apostles return from their mission, Jesus takes them away privately to Bethsaida. The crowds, however, find out and follow them. Jesus welcomes them and then, as the day draws to a close, performs one of his most famous miracles, feeding 5,000 ‘men’ with five loaves and two fish (Luke 9:10-17).

In an important passage (Luke 9:18-27), St Luke then relates how Jesus asks his disciples who the crowds say that he is. There are various ideas circulating about his identity. When Jesus asks who the disciples themselves say that he is, Peter replies that he is the ‘Messiah of God’ (Luke 9:20). Jesus commands them not to tell anyone and warns them of the suffering that lies ahead for him. He uses the prospect of his own suffering and death to teach them what it means to be his disciple. Anyone wanting to be his disciple must also both be willing to deny themselves and also be prepared to suffer. A disciple’s focus is not to be on themselves and this life, but on Jesus and the life to come. One day Jesus will come in glory and, Jesus says, anyone who is ashamed of him now, he will be ashamed of when comes.

Jesus closes this passage by telling them that some who are there with him will not die ‘before they see the Kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:27). This is a saying that has caused much discussion and argument. What did Jesus mean and when would they see the Kingdom of God? Did Jesus, for example, expect the Kingdom of God to come in his lifetime and did he simply get it wrong?

This brings us to this week’s Gospel reading about what is known as the Transfiguration and what happens immediately after it. The fact that the Transfiguration immediately follows this saying of Jesus about some not dying before seeing the Kingdom of God suggests that for St Luke (and indeed for the other Gospel writers as well) this saying is, in some way, fulfilled in the Transfiguration itself. The Kingdom of God and the coming of the Son of Man are all fulfilled in the person of Jesus himself. The transfiguration anticipates the future coming of Jesus in glory. The coming of the Kingdom of God and the coming of Jesus are ultimately one and the same event.

St Luke links all these sayings of Jesus and the Transfiguration by writing that it was ‘about eight days’ later that Jesus took with him three of his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John, and went up a mountain to pray. We have no idea which mountain it was, but that hasn’t stopped people speculating! Mount Tabor is the traditional site, but we simply do not know.

While Jesus is praying, his appearance changes. Moses and Elijah appear ‘in glory’ to talk with him about his ‘departure’, which Jesus is to accomplish in Jerusalem. The events that lie ahead of Jesus are known to him. The disciples are near sleep, as they will be in the Garden of Gethsemane when the time of Jesus’ departure has arrived. The impression St Luke gives us is that the disciples are overwhelmed by what is happening. But, despite this, they see Jesus’ glory and the two men who are with him.

Peter who doesn’t know what to make of all this but, sensing that something very special is taking place, suggests making three ‘dwellings’, one for each figure, Jesus included. As Peter is still speaking, a cloud overshadows them. As they enter the cloud, they are terrified, and from the cloud there comes a voice that says the well-known words:

‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (Luke 9:35)

When the Voice has finished speaking, they see that Jesus is now alone.

We are not told how Peter knew the two figures were Moses and Elijah. However, that Peter thinks that Jesus is their equal and wants to build Jesus a dwelling alongside Moses and Elijah shows the esteem in which he holds Jesus. Moses and Elijah are the two towering figures of the Hebrew Scriptures, and both are recorded as having met with God on a mountain. Some commentators say we should see Moses as representing the Law and Elijah, the prophets. It isn’t clear, however, that this is St Luke’s own understanding of the appearance of Moses and Elijah. There is, though, no doubting the importance of their meeting with Jesus.

But Jesus isn’t simply a continuation of the great figures through whom God has spoken in the past; this is something entirely new. The Voice tells them they are to listen only to Jesus and to see only him. One of the best commentaries on this, albeit not written for that purpose, is the opening of the letter to the Hebrews:

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.’ (Hebrews 1:1-3)


After this mountain top experience, the disciples have to come back down to earth. The day after, when they have descended the mountain, Jesus is confronted by a crowd and a problem. A man has a son who is demon possessed. The father tells Jesus that he has begged Jesus’ disciples to cast it out, but they have been unable to do so. Jesus then responds quite severely. Jesus says:

‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ (Luke 9:41)

It is not immediately clear who Jesus is speaking to, but it certainly includes the disciples, who lack the faith needed to deliver and heal the boy.

Jesus may have been transfigured on the mountain. The three disciples who were with him may have seen the glory which will one day be revealed for all to see, but for now they must live by faith as they confront the forces of evil in the world.

I want to think about what this can teach us under three headings: transcendence, transfiguration, and transformation.

1. Transcendence

The phrase ‘mountain top experience’ is often used to describe an intense spiritual experience. Mountains in the ancient world were considered places where the spiritual world was the closest. The idea that mountains are spiritual places still lingers in our collective consciousness, but we generally recognize that genuine spiritual experiences can occur anywhere.

In the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, who appear in our Gospel reading, are both famously associated with mountain top experiences. Such experiences in the Bible are accompanied by an overwhelming awareness of the presence of God and of his holiness and greatness.

This awareness of the presence of God is not something that can be manufactured. Our worship, nevertheless, should be open to it and encourage us to be receptive to the possibility. There is, I think, a small but growing dissatisfaction with the shallowness and emptiness of many of our services. This is reflected in the number of people being drawn to the Latin Tridentine Mass and the liturgies of the Orthodox Church that have at their heart the recognition of the otherness of God.

There is certainly a challenge here. In the past (and certainly in Anglicanism in the past), reverence was often confused with formality. When liturgical reform got under way in the 20th century one of the criticisms from those who wanted to keep with the old was that the new liturgies were shallow and irreverent. But what was often meant by this was no more than they didn’t follow the traditional way of doing things. It needs to be said that often the traditional way of doing things was stuffy, rigid, formal, and unwelcoming. They were, I am afraid, more expressive of a certain middle-class ethos than they were of an openness to the Spirit of God.

This has largely changed. Some services are now so informal that it is hard to tell they are services at all. Others have become so focused on the experience of the worshipper that it is hard to see exactly where God fits in except as the supposed provider of emotional highs. In Hong Kong, not so long ago, one church advertised tickets for sale to a ‘worship experience’. Services have become concerts, so why not sell tickets to them?

Some, myself included, find ourselves in a difficult position. I cringe when I hear talk of ‘worship sets’. I find it disturbing that ‘worship leader’ has become another term for someone who leads the singing and whose job it is to make sure everyone has a good time. But the last thing I want is a return to the sort of services that were once all too common in Anglican churches particularly: cold, formal, and yes, boring. I still to this day have unpleasant flashbacks whenever I hear Anglican chant. I freely accept that the role of the contemporary worship leader is no different to the traditional Choir Master, who also is often more concerned about the musical experience of the Choir and congregation than they are of the worship of God. Bands or organs, choruses or anthems, ultimately there is no difference. They are often all about us and not about God.

But worship is not, or at least it should not be, about us having a good time or enjoying the service. What matters in worship is not what I want, feel, or like, but God.

Worship should always have at its focus the person and presence of God, and that means it will not always be enjoyable or comfortable. Indeed, it will often be deeply disturbing and demanding as we, weak and miserable sinners, find ourselves exposed and confronted by the holiness and majesty of God. Worship will also build us up, strengthen us for service, and, at times, even be enjoyable, but it will, at the same time, always be painful and challenging, and it should always be about God.

At the transfiguration, God’s transcendent presence was experienced during prayer and for the three disciples who were present, it was both overwhelming and disorienting. At the end, the only response there could be was silence, something that many modern day worshippers have yet to experience in all the noise that passes as worship.

2. Transfiguration

The disciples had committed to following Jesus because they were convinced that he was, as St Peter puts it, the ‘Christ of God’ (Luke 9:20). What exactly they themselves understood by this, we don’t know, and they probably didn’t either – not fully. It certainly, however, involved the nation of Israel, the defeat of her enemies, and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. There would also be many blessings and benefits for those who were on the Messiah’s side. The Messiah was a Davidic type figure who would lead Israel as God’s people against those who opposed her and oppressed her. It involved more than this, but not less.

The Messiah himself would, by definition, be an amazing person. He would be a God-anointed person, someone whom God was with in a special way, but human, nevertheless. As I said in the sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, Jesus, when he was growing up, seemed all too human and not particularly special. That was the problem for the people of his hometown of Nazareth. Jesus was asking them to believe that he, an ordinary local lad, was the One spoken about in the prophets. You can understand why they might have had difficulties with believing this, even if trying to kill him might seem a bit of an over-reaction!

Jesus, by healing people and casting demons out of them, not to mention his miracles such as the Calming of the Storm and the Feeding of the 5,000, seemed to fit the job description for the Messiah. The problem was that Jesus seemed reluctant to apply for the job and unwilling to capitalize on people’s enthusiasm for him. Jesus told his disciples not to tell anyone who he was and people, such as Jairus whose daughter he healed, were told to keep quiet about what he had done for them (Luke 8:56). That didn’t seem the way the Messiah should behave. Surely Jesus, if he really was the Messiah, would want everyone to know this was who he was?

Now, to make matters worse, Jesus has started talking about defeat and death. Is this to be put down to an understandable and all too human fear of failure on his part?

The Gospel writers all make clear that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah. In fact, so central was this conviction in the early Church to the faith of believers that the title ‘Christ’, which means Messiah in Greek, became part of Jesus’ name. But Jesus was a very different sort of Messiah to what they had been expecting, and it was only after his death and resurrection that his followers were able to work it out and understand it. What is more, the title ‘Christ’ was not sufficient by itself to describe who he was.

Who then was he? This was the question that the disciples had asked themselves after Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee (Luke 8:25). Now on the mountain three of his closest disciples are given a brief insight into his true identity as he is transfigured before them and his glory revealed. This is God’s Son, not just in the sense that the Kings of Israel were God’s Son, but in a unique and exclusive way.

The disciples when they see Moses and Elijah assume that Jesus must be a figure like them. Special, but human; another great prophet certainly, and one to be honoured alongside the great prophets in Israel’s history, but not fundamentally different to them. St Peter suggests the equivalent of a ‘chapel’ in honour of each figure, but he doesn’t know what he is saying. This is God’s Son. Moses and Elijah have fulfilled their role and played their part. Honour is indeed due to them and they appear in glory to speak with Jesus about what he has been sent to do. Now, however, it is to God’s Son alone that the disciples must listen.

The challenge to us should be clear. We too want a human Jesus. We are happy for him to be a teacher, a prophet, someone exceptional even, but still human and just one among many. We want to be able to get our truth where we find it whether from Moses or whatever other prophet we find congenial to us. But Jesus isn’t another prophet or teacher, he is God’s chosen Son, and it is to him we must now listen and no-one else. As we see Jesus transfigured and his glory revealed, we need to regain our confidence in him and listen only to him.

3. Transformation

All this can seem somewhat theoretical and even irrelevant to us, and, of course, we think everything has to be relevant and relevant to us here and now. In fact, it is intensely relevant to us. St John writes:

‘Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2)

One day we will be like Jesus himself. St Paul goes further and writes in our second reading that even now we are being transformed into the image of Christ. St Paul writes:

‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another …’ (2 Corinthians 3:18)

This section of what is known as St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is really quite remarkable, and draws on imagery taken from the experience of Moses and the people of Israel. When Moses came down from the mountain having been in the presence of God his face glowed. In order to spare the Israelites any anxiety that might come from having to look at him, Moses covered his face with a veil to hide it.

Using this image of a veil, St Paul writes that when people now read the Law, it is as if there is a veil to prevent them from understanding it. It is only when people turn to the Lord that the veil is removed and they are able see, albeit imperfectly, the glory of the Lord in it.

Having applied this image of a veil preventing people from seeing God’s truth in the Law, St Paul extends the image to all unbelievers and not just those such as the Jews who read the books of Moses. St Paul tells the Corinthian believers that he openly states the truth (2 Corinthians 4:2). Why then don’t more people respond? Why do so many seem not to be able understand it? St Paul explains:

‘And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)

God himself must shine his light into lives. We need God to reveal the glory of Christ to us. It is as God does so that we not only see Christ’s glory but are transformed by it.

Sometimes when we preach the Gospel, although it is preached faithfully and clearly, it seems as if there is something that is holding people back and preventing them from understanding what is being preached and from coming to faith in Christ. That something is a someone. And the someone is the ‘god of this world’ who has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they are unable to understand what we are saying no matter how hard we try or how clear our proclamation.

No amount of debate, preaching, or argument, no matter how good and well-presented, can of itself get through to people with the truth of the Gospel. God needs to work an act of creation each time. The knowledge of the glory of God is in the face of Jesus Christ, but we need God to shine his light into the darkness of our hearts for us to be able to see it.

How we hate being told this! We want more than anything to believe we are free to choose, that any decision about whether or not we have faith in Christ is ours alone to make. The truth is that if we are left to ourselves to make the decision, we will never make it, because we are not free to make it. We don’t have free will, God must free our will by his Spirit for ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom’ (2 Corinthians 3:17). Otherwise, however, we are bound and blinded by the ‘god of this world’: unable to see, unable to believe, and unable to understand the truth of the Gospel. The boy possessed by a demon in our Gospel reading is a dramatic example of the demonic hold the god of this world has on people.

The Spirit, however, enables us to see the glory of God in Christ, and he works in us the transformation we need to share in the image of Christ and to become like him. This transformation begins when the Spirit frees our will, so we can come to faith in Christ and see his glory. We are, even now in the darkness of this world and in the frailty of our humanity, experiencing the glory of Christ transforming us and changing us from one degree of glory to another, but it won’t be until Christ returns that our transformation will finally be complete. Until then, as St Paul writes:

‘… we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7)

We are not, St Paul tells us, to expect life in this world to be easy. St Paul knew what he was talking about. He writes of being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. Despite all his suffering for Christ, he can describe it as a slight momentary affliction which is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure (2 Corinthians 4:17).

What St Paul writes in 2 Corinthians reinforces what I was saying in the sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent. What happens to us here and now is to prepare us for our life hereafter. Our hope lies not in this world, controlled as it is by the god of this world. No, as St Paul writes, we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain was a unique historical event that revealed his glory to his three disciples, but we too have been given to see his glory and to be transformed by it. We face many challenges in this life and often much suffering and pain, but as St Paul says in our reading ‘we don’t lose heart’.

May God grant us to experience his transcendent presence in Christ as Christ is transfigured before us, and experiencing it, may we be transformed by it from one degree of glory to another.

Amen.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

The Second Sunday before Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent.

The Second Sunday before Lent 2022

Reading: Luke 8:22-25

In our Gospel reading for the Third Sunday before Lent, we read, firstly, of Jesus’ selection of the twelve disciples who were to be his apostles and then, secondly, the introduction to Jesus’ teaching of his disciples, which is commonly known as the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:12-26). This actually takes place on a plateau on a mountain and is St Luke’s version on the Sermon on the Mount.

Since then, much has happened in the Gospel. After returning to Capernaum, Jesus heals a centurion’s son from a distance, praising the centurion’s faith as he does so (Luke 7:1-10). Jesus also visits a town called Nain, which is about 9 miles south of Nazareth, where he restores a widow’s only son to life, while the dead son’s funeral is taking place (Luke 7:11-17). Jesus answers questions about his identity from John the Baptist who is in prison and who wants to know whether Jesus really is the One who they have been waiting for. Jesus tells those whom John has sent on his behalf to report back what they see. Jesus speaks highly of John to those who are with him, but tells them that though John is a great prophet, anyone in the Kingdom of God is greater than him (Luke 7:18-35)!

Then, at dinner with a Pharisee called Simon, Jesus pronounces forgiveness on a woman with the reputation of being a sinner, who is weeping at his feet. Jesus criticizes Simon the Pharisee for criticizing the woman as he does so! It is those who have been forgiven much who love the most (Luke 7:36-50).

St Luke describes how Jesus goes on tour through the cities and villages proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God (Luke 8:1-3). St Luke gives us an interesting insight into the tour arrangements. St Luke tells us that the 12 apostles go with him, but so too do a group of women, including St Mary Magdalene, who, we are told, provide for Jesus and his disciples out of their resources. The women are not described as disciples, but they do finance their work!

As an example of Jesus’ teaching, St Luke gives his account of the Parable of the Sower together with Jesus’ explanation of why he teaches in parables as well as an explanation of the Parable of the Sower itself (Luke 8:4-15).

Jesus closed his teaching of his disciples on the mountain by telling them they should not only call him Lord, but also do what he says (Luke 6:46-49). St Luke reports how Jesus again stresses the importance of both hearing and listening carefully to what he says (Luke 8:16-18). Then, when his mother and brothers come to see Jesus, Jesus emphasizes this message by telling everyone that his true family is everyone who hears the Word of God and does it (Luke 8:19-21).

Being with Jesus must have been quite roller-coaster ride. You never quite knew what he was going to do or say next. Whatever else being with Jesus was, it certainly wasn’t boring.

Throughout St Luke’s account, we have been reading how Jesus teaches the importance of having faith. Jesus draws everyone’s attention to the faith of the centurion, for example, and he tells the woman who comes to see him at Simon the Pharisee’s house that it is her faith that has saved her. Faith involves both hearing and doing Jesus’ words. It is not, however, quite so easy as it sounds!

This brings us to our Gospel reading. It is St Luke’s account of the Calming of the Storm. We read St Mark’s account of the Calming of the Storm last year for Third Sunday after Trinity (Mark 4:35-41). (I don’t want to repeat everything I said then, but would encourage you to read the transcript or listen to the sermon online!)

The story is very well-known. Jesus, wanting to go from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other, gets into a boat with his disciples and tells them to set sail. Jesus falls asleep as they are sailing across the lake. Suddenly, a storm sweeps down on the lake and the boat starts to sink. Seeing they are in danger the disciples, in a state of panic, wake Jesus up, shouting:

‘Master, Master, we are perishing!’ (Luke 8:24)

Jesus wakes up and rebukes the wind and waves restoring calm. But he does not leave it there. He asks his disciples simply, ‘Where is your faith?’ The conclusion to the story is important. St Luke writes:

‘They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”’ (Luke 8:25)

What are we to make of this story? It is even harder for us today to believe that Jesus could calm the storm than it was for the disciples. The disciples, in common with most people in the ancient world, believed that such things could happen. For Jews, God was the One who did amazing things. Their escape from slavery in Egypt was because of the amazing intervention of God in parting the Red Sea. The Hebrew Scriptures just take it for granted that God can work what we call miracles. Pagans too believed that their gods could work wonders.

The physical world wasn’t a closed system to people and neither was it all there was. The spiritual world of the gods was as real to them as the physical world. It was still amazing when miracles took place, but there was no philosophical reason why they could not happen. To put it another way: their worldview allowed for such things.

Ours, however, does not. Even if we believe that Jesus did indeed calm the storm, we don’t quite know how to fit it in with what we know of the laws of nature and our understanding of the physical world. Explaining such things is a bit embarrassing to be honest. Best, then, not even to try!

This is why many if not most sermons on this passage will ignore the issue of whether Jesus really did calm the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee and will focus instead on the meaning of the story for us today. Needless to say, its meaning, as far as preachers will be concerned, doesn’t have anything to do with changing the weather. So rather than discussing what actually happened, the story will be treated as more of a parable that teaches us about the need for faith.

The Gospel writers would be the first to admit that Jesus’ miracles have a deeper, even a symbolic, meaning. They would not, however, see such a symbolic meaning as an alternative to taking the story literally. Not taking the story literally, of course, totally misses one of the points of the story. It is precisely because Jesus can calm the storm and do other equally amazing things that we can be sure he is someone we can have faith in. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the crowds:

‘If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’ (John 10:37-38)

We, however, claim to believe that the Father is in Jesus, it’s just his works we are not sure about.

And so, in many sermons, the storm on the Sea of Galilee will be seen as a metaphor for the storms of life that come down on us all without warning at various times in our lives, often when we least expect them to. The message of the story on this understanding of it, then, is that we should have faith that Jesus can calm the storms in our lives. Preachers will tell their congregations that when we are going through difficult times such as sickness, tragedy, or bereavement, it may sometimes feel as if Jesus is asleep and doesn’t care. We too may think we are going to perish. But, they will tell us, what we need is to hold on to our faith in Jesus and he will calm the storm.

It is a very encouraging message and one that is designed to give hope. There are, however, problems with it, apart, that is, from the fact that all too often Jesus doesn’t calm the storms in our lives; indeed, sometimes he seems to be the cause of them.

While we may think that the story as metaphor approach to St Luke’s account of the calming of the storm gets us out of having to discuss the difficult issue of whether Jesus changed the weather, it, in fact, lands us with even more difficult issues to deal with. After all, if we believe in ‘God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth’, which, after all is a belief that is pretty much fundamental to our faith, then, in theory at least, he should be able to have some influence on the earth’s weather systems.

Believing that God is the Creator of all means we can at least explain why we believe Jesus could calm the wind and waves. But how do we explain that Jesus doesn’t always calm the storms of life? How do we explain that believers get sick, are killed in accidents and disasters, suffer bereavement, and experience all the other pain and problems that are common to humanity? How can our Father allow such things to happen to us and do nothing about them? The parable approach would be great if its message were true. The truth is that it doesn’t seem to be. Explaining why God doesn’t calm these storms of suffering is much harder than explaining how Jesus as the Son of God is able to calm the weather.

So, rather than finding we have escaped the problem of the storm, the parable approach creates a veritable storm of questions and problems. We need to try another approach to the story.

I want then to approach the story by looking at three things that are said in the story.

1. Who then is this?

St Luke describes the disciples’ reaction after Jesus has calmed the storm. St Luke writes:

‘They were afraid and amazed, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?”’ (Luke 8:25)

The biggest problem with our worldview isn’t that we don’t believe in miracles, it’s that we do believe in ourselves. That is to say that we think everything needs to be about us. So, of course, we think that Jesus doing something amazing should be to show us what he wants to do for us. St Luke’s conclusion to the story, however, focuses not on what Jesus can do for us, but on Jesus himself.

The disciples had been concerned that Jesus didn’t care that they were perishing in the storm. At the end of the story, they realize there are more important things to worry about. Jesus challenges them to think about him and who he is. Jesus’ works are meant to tells us something about Jesus and who he is. What matters, then, is what decision we come to about him and what we decide to do as a consequence? What does or does not happen to us is secondary to this. If this seems a bit hard, then we need to go back to what Jesus says to his disciples on the mountain. Jesus says to them:

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.’ (Luke 6:22)

As we saw in the sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent, Jesus is telling his disciples that they should prioritize their relationship with him.

‘Who then is this?’ the disciples ask each other. Their worldview may allow for such things to happen; they, nevertheless, are still not used to being part of them when they do. The disciples have heard Jesus preach the good news of the Kingdom of God, forgive people’s sins, and claim authority over the Law. They have seen him cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead. Now they have seen him calm the forces of nature. Who is this indeed?

Everything that they have heard and seen would suggest that they are in the presence of God himself. The scribes and Pharisees ask, ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (Luke 5:21). It’s a good question. The only problem is that Jesus seems to be, well, so human. That was the problem that people had at Nazareth. Nothing about Jesus and his behaviour growing up led anyone who knew him when he was growing up to think that Jesus was anything other than a nice, local Jewish lad.

The disciples were following Jesus because they believed he was something more than this, but that more didn’t mean that they thought he was anything other than an exceptional human being. Jesus was, after all, asleep in the boat, just as you would expect anyone to be after a hard day’s work. After Jesus has calmed the storm, however, they are not so sure: ‘Who then is this?’, they ask.

Jesus didn’t fit any of the normal categories. He still doesn’t. It sometimes amuses me the way that New Testament scholars hunt around for first century categories to use in an attempt to explain where Jesus fits in his historical context. And some of them have some truth in them: Rabbi, prophet, Messiah, charismatic wonder-worker. Jesus is all of these things, but he is more.

The Church took some time to work out its answer to the question of who Jesus is. They needed to find a way to explain how Jesus could be at the same time both human and divine. How could be asleep in the boat, tired out, one moment, and then calming the wind and waves the next? Having, however, settled on an explanation at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that affirmed both his humanity and his divinity, it was to be his divinity which dominated the Church’s thinking about Jesus in the years ahead. Jesus was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, the Lord of Lords, and King of kings. The divine Jesus became remote. He was one of us in name only.

It has been partly in reaction to this that the Church, in recent years, has preferred to stress Jesus’ humanity. We have emphasized those aspects of his character that demonstrate just how human he is. We see him as in every way like us: getting hungry, tired, sad, angry, and with all the other appetites and emotions common to humans. We find that the Church’s doctrine of the ‘two natures’ of Christ, human and divine, and this talk of his divinity both make him seem less human, so we have stopped talking of Jesus in this way. We focus now on his humanity and quietly ignore his divinity.

But the Church’s belief in Jesus’ two natures and its talk of his divinity, how he is God Incarnate, doesn't make Jesus less human, nor does talking about his humanity makes him less divine. He is both. Jesus is unique: that's rather the point. Jesus isn't just a teacher, prophet, or charismatic figure, no matter how special; he is the Word made flesh (John 1:14).

Who then is this? The One who created the forces of nature can calm them. We need in our own day to rediscover the divine Jesus, not at the expense of his humanity, but so we can more properly appreciate it. And having rediscovered it, we too should feel a sense of fear and amazement.

2. He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’

So, what about the storms that hit us without warning in life? The message of this story isn’t that Jesus stops the storms coming, nor even that he calms them when they do, but that when they come, we should have faith. This is not faith that Christ will make them go away, but faith that Christ will help us to get through them. Our faith is not meant to calm the storm; it is meant to calm us.

This will only happen when we are sure that Jesus is the One who has power over the wind and waves and everything else in this world. This is why the most important thing for us to do is to answer the question, ‘Who then is this?’ for ourselves.

If we don’t think he is One who can calm the weather, then we do, indeed, have a problem. All too often our faith Jesus is a bit like a cuddly toy: something to hold on to when we get scared in the darkness, while knowing that it is just toy. Our faith in Christ needs to be real and rooted in our knowledge of who he really is.

Our faith in Christ is faith in One who has authority over all things. Knowing that everything, including the darkness, is subject to him and that nothing can happen outside his will means we know we are not at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Faith knows that all things including the bad things all work together for good to those who love God (Romans 8:28) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).

Now believing this when we are suffering, scared, and sorrowful is not easy, but the right question to ask ourselves when we experience pain and hardship is Jesus’ question to his disciples. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Where is our faith?’ Not where is our faith to make it go away, but where is our faith to keep going? Where is our faith to believe that God knows best, has a plan, and will work all things out?

Too many want nothing to do with God in their normal everyday life, but then when trouble comes want to be able to turn to him for help. But faith doesn’t work like that. Faith isn’t just for when we encounter storms in life; faith must be our life.

Faith is not something that can be kept in the cupboard for a rainy day, something we can turn to when we don’t know what else to do. Faith is about a relationship with God in Christ. A relationship that not only helps us through the troubles and storms of this life, but which becomes stronger because of them.

3. Master, Master we are perishing!

Although the disciples didn't realise it at the time, they were exactly right in thinking they were perishing. But it was not the storm that was the biggest threat to them. St Mark has the disciples’ words to Jesus as a question. St Mark writes that the disciples ask Jesus:

‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4:38)

It is because Jesus cares that they are perishing that he is there with them in the boat and why he will go on to do what it is that he came to do, what his Father sent him to do. St John writes:

‘For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

St Paul writes to the believers in the Church of Corinth that he has passed on to them as of first importance what he also has received, namely, that ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3).

This idea the Christ came to die for our sins, and that this was what his coming was all about, is one that is now often seen as being about just one aspect of what Jesus came to do or which is even an idea that has been dropped altogether. And yes, it is, of course, true that Jesus is concerned with more than just our sins, but he is not concerned with less.

Many in the Church want to focus on what they see as Jesus’ example and teaching, that is, on how we should live our lives to make a difference for good; for example, by working for such things as justice, equality, diversity, and inclusivity, here and now, in this world. But we cannot do any of these things until our sin has been forgiven and Christ has given us new life. Instead of talking about sin, many want to concentrate instead on God’s inclusive love for all and on how he welcomes all people to come to him. God does indeed love and welcome all to come to him. But he wants them to come to him, so they can find forgiveness of their sins in Christ who died for all our sins, and that cannot happen while we insist on claiming we have no sin. St John writes:

‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’ (1 John 1:8)

We cannot follow Christ’ example and teaching while we persist in our sin. We cannot live good lives while we are slaves to sin. And it is human sin, our sin, that causes injustice and inequality in our world.

We have to face the reality of our predicament and we have tell people the reality of theirs. The good news is that in Christ, and in Christ alone, there is forgiveness and hope. This may not be a message either we or those we tell it to will want to hear. We may prefer what sounds to us a more positive message, and faith brings much that is positive and life-affirming, but we have to first face the truth that we are perishing. St Paul writes:

‘For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:18)

I am very conscious that talk of sin and its consequences, and not least the fact we are perishing because of it, is something that is hard to get people to take seriously. In our own day especially, it sounds like foolishness to most people and that includes, sadly, many in the Church. We can see the effects of sin all around us in broken lives and communities, but we are unable and unwilling to see that it is our sin that is the cause.

It is because such a message is seen as foolishness that we are tempted as believers to look for a more positive message to offer people instead. It is a temptation we must resist. Our task is to tell people the truth of the Gospel and that includes telling them the truth about themselves. We can do this best by telling them the truth about Christ and the forgiveness that he offers. For it is only as we see him as he really is that we see ourselves as we really are.

The disciples were afraid and amazed by Jesus. As his disciples today, we too need to be afraid and amazed by him for it is in that fear and amazement that we will find the faith we need to face the storms of life and to reach out to those who are perishing around us with the good news of forgiveness in Christ.

May our Lord give us the courage and the faith to do so.

Amen.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

The Third Sunday before Lent (Septuagesima)

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent.

The Third Sunday before Lent

Reading: Luke 6:17-26

In our Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday before Lent, we read of how Jesus called the first disciples to follow him. Before this, St Luke has described Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing, which is focused on the synagogues of Galilee and Judea. After the calling of the first disciples, St Luke continues to describe the healing and teaching ministry of Jesus, but there is an important shift in emphasis. Before examining this shift, I would like to repeat something I said in the sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent about the way in which St Luke has written his Gospel. I said:

‘When St Luke writes in the Prologue to Theophilus that he is giving Theophilus an ‘orderly account’ (Luke 1:3), St Luke doesn’t mean a chronologically ordered account. His account is orderly, but the order is a theological rather than a chronological one.’

We see this illustrated very clearly in the different stories that St Luke goes on to relate following his account of the calling of the first disciples. The different phrases St Luke uses to introduce each of the stories serve to stress that the stories are not in any particular chronological order, but have been selected for a different purpose. There is an order and logic to the selection, but it is not temporal.

St Luke, then, introduces the Healing of the Man with Leprosy (Luke 5:12-16) with the phrase, ‘Once when he was in one of the cities …’ (Luke 5:12); the Healing of the Man who is Paralyzed (Luke 5:17-26) with the phrase, ‘One day while he was teaching …’ (Luke 5:17); the Call of Levi the Tax-Collector and the Discussion about Fasting (Luke 5:27-39) with the phrase, ‘After this he went out …’ (Luke 5:27).

Following this, in chapter six, St Luke descries two incidents, both of which occur on a sabbath. He again uses similarly vague introductions. The first, which describes what happens when Jesus’ disciples pluck corn to eat on the sabbath (Luke 6:1-5), begins simply, ‘One sabbath …’ (Luke 6:1). The second, which describes the Healing of the Man with the Withered Hand and the reaction to it (Luke 6:6-11), again likewise begins, ‘On another sabbath …’ (Luke 6:6).

What all these different stories have in common, apart from the way they are introduced, is that they also give details of Jesus’ interaction and relationship with the religious people, primarily with the Pharisees. It is this that lies behind St Luke’s selection and ordering of them at this point in the Gospel. St Luke wants to make clear the difference in Jesus’ approach to people to that of the religious teachers. St Luke also wants us to see how the religious people react to Jesus and his ministry.

So, the man who is healed of his leprosy is sent by Jesus to show himself to the priests ‘as a testimony to them’ (Luke 5:14). It is worth noting that this phrase can be translated ‘as a testimony against them’. Most commentators don’t favour this more negative translation, but there is in any case a note of tension in the story. By touching the man with leprosy, Jesus would normally have rendered himself unclean, as it is, rather than Jesus being made unclean by touching the man, it is the man who is unclean because of his illness who is made clean by Jesus’ touch. Jesus tells the man to go to a priest and do what the Law requires. By sending the man to them, the priests are put in a position where they will have to decide what they think about Jesus. Has Jesus cleansed the man or not?

It doesn’t take the Pharisees long to decide what they think of Jesus. When Jesus tells the man who is paralyzed that his sins are forgiven, the Pharisees question Jesus’ authority to forgive sins and see Jesus’ words as blasphemy. Jesus puts them on the spot by asking them which is easier: to say to the man that his sins are forgiven or to heal him. To demonstrate his authority to forgive sins, Jesus heals the man in front of them.

There’s not much the Pharisees can say to that, but when Jesus calls Levi, a tax-collector to follow him, and then attends a banquet at Levi’s house that Levi holds for Jesus, which is attended by Jesus’ disciples and all Levi’s tax-collector friends, the Pharisees have a lot to say. The Pharisees ask why Jesus’ disciples eat with such bad people. Jesus answers this question relatively easily: he has come to call bad people to repent. What can they say to that?

Quite a lot it seems. The Pharisees ask why Jesus’ disciples are eating and drinking in the first place. Why they are not fasting like John the Baptist’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees? Jesus’ answer is quite provocative, he talks of how wedding guests don’t fast while the bridegroom is with them. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the coming Kingdom of God is pictured as a wedding feast and God himself is the bridegroom.

Jesus gives the Pharisees further cause to question him. When Jesus’ disciples pluck corn on the sabbath, an action the Pharisees see as a work, Jesus defends their right to do so because he, as Lord of the sabbath, is in a position to give them the permission they need. But to be Lord of the sabbath would mean to be Lord of the Law itself.

So far, the Pharisees have been questioning Jesus; now Jesus questions them. Jesus enters a synagogue on a sabbath. We are not told where the synagogue is just that there is a man there with a withered hand. The scribes and Pharisees watch Jesus, not because they want to see Jesus heal the man, but so they can accuse him if he does. Jesus asks them whether it is lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath. Jesus then dramatically heals the man in front of them. It is a direct challenge to them; they know it and they are furious. Their mind is now made up about Jesus, and they discuss what they can do about him – and not in a good way (Luke 6:11).

Jesus has claimed to be able to forgive sins, to have come to call sinners to repentance, and to be both the divine bridegroom and the Lord of the sabbath. As Lord of the sabbath, he gets to decide what is or is not lawful on the sabbath. Jesus is not saying that the Law is wrong nor is he encouraging anyone to break it; he is, however, claiming an authority over it. This puts him on an inevitable collision course with the Pharisees who see themselves as the guardians of the Law.

It is worth noting, however, that while St Luke gives us a clear account of where Jesus and the Pharisees differ from each other, St Luke also makes clear that the Pharisees take Jesus seriously. This, in many ways, is the real problem. They can’t just dismiss him. Again, is also worth reminding ourselves that not all the Pharisees, despite their doubts, are hostile to Jesus. They clearly think it is worth engaging in dialogue with him. The Pharisees don’t have a problem with Jesus healing people – why would they? They do, however, have a problem with his attitude to the Law and to those outside it. The sabbath symbolizes the Law as a whole. As far as the Pharisees are concerned, Jesus’ attitude to the sabbath reveals his attitude to the Law in general.

All of which is important as the background to our Gospel reading. When Jesus is discussing the question of fasting with the Pharisees, he tells them a parable about how no-one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and sews it on to an old one (Luke 5:36). Similarly, says Jesus, no-one puts new wine into old wine skins. There is, though, a problem and Jesus points it out:

‘And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, “The old is good.”’ (Luke 5:39)

The Pharisees like the old wine. It’s understandable: their power and position depend to a significant extent on it.

New wine, however, says Jesus, needs new wine skins (Luke 5:38). And, in our Gospel reading, we see Jesus creating the ‘new-wine skins’ for the new wine he has come to give.

This is a highly significant moment in Jesus’ ministry. St Luke highlights it by telling us that Jesus spends all night up a mountain in prayer. Having prayed all night, Jesus then chooses twelve men from his wider group of disciples, whom he then names ‘apostles’. Israel, the people of God, had been founded on the twelve patriarchs. It was to the twelve tribes of Israel who were descended from them that God had given the Law through Moses, also at a mountain. Since then, however, because of their sin and rebellion, God’s people have been scattered, in exile, and oppressed.

Now, here at this mountain, Jesus reconstitutes the people of God by choosing twelve men to be the foundation on which he will build what will become his Church.

Jesus comes down with those he has chosen to a level place, where a great crowd is waiting for him. The crowd is from all over Judea, Jerusalem, and beyond it. The crowd have come to hear Jesus and to be healed from their diseases. Jesus heals them and allows them to hear him, but it is to his disciples that Jesus speaks.

Jesus begins by describing those who are blessed. They are those who are poor, hungry, and weeping now, Jesus says that they shall receive the Kingdom of God, their hunger will be satisfied, and their tears turned to laughter. For those who are rich, full, and laughing, however, there is only the promise of woe to come. There will be no consolation for them they will be hungry and mourn and weep.

This is the introduction to St Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Both versions are much misunderstood. This is not general ethical teaching for the world, but Jesus’ manifesto for the Kingdom. It is for those who are part of that Kingdom and who have joined it by becoming one of Jesus’ disciples.

Jesus begins by telling his disciples what a good decision they have made. The poor and the hungry who weep are Jesus’ disciples. They are not those in general who are poor, hungry, and weeping, but those who are so because of their commitment to him. The poor are not simply those who don’t have any money, but those who find themselves excluded and despised because of their commitment to Jesus. Paradoxically, the poor in this sense includes those who are otherwise materially well-off, but who lack ‘social capital’. Tax-collectors like Levi, for example.

Jesus pronounces four blessings and four woes. The word blessed is often translated ‘happy’. This is not the happiest of translations. The Greek word St Luke uses conveys more than what is meant by the English word. Although the Greek word doesn’t exclude the idea of happiness, it has much more to do with ‘well-being’. Something that in our own day is much sort after but which remains as elusive as ever. Hence the reason that people are willing to spend huge amounts of money trying to find it and, why, it should be said, there are also those who are making equally large amounts of money by claiming to be able to show people how a state of well-being is to be found.

More often than not, what is sought and offered when people seek well-being is material prosperity, physical satisfaction, happiness, and popularity. In other words, the very things that Jesus says will bring woe to people.

The four blessings and the four woes don’t refer to four different types of people who are blessed and four others who suffer woe, but in each case to one type of person and to what characterizes them. Jesus is describing the person who will be blessed and the person who incur woe.

The word ‘woe’ carries the idea of judgement. St Luke will describe how Jesus in his ministry will pass God’s judgement on those who reject God’s offer of forgiveness and who think they have no need of it; the Pharisees, for example, who are satisfied with themselves and don’t think need any outside help. They are like their ancestors who persecuted the prophets because the prophets told them things they didn’t want to hear.

God’s blessing, however, is for those who know their need and who trust in Jesus, even though it means suffering for him now. This is so important. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples that by becoming his disciple they will become rich, satisfied, and happy, as though Jesus is offering a religious version of what the secular life coaches claim to be able to help people to achieve. The blessings Jesus offers are still yet to come when God’s Kingdom comes. Now, in the present, however, Jesus’ followers are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed precisely because of their trust in Jesus.

Jesus, in our Gospel reading, is making clear in plain language what following him means. This isn’t a charter for social revolution or change. It is not a manifesto for political and social action but a straightforward statement of fact. Jesus is describing what it means to be his disciple. It means being poor, hungry, sorrowful, and ill-treated. This will continue to be the reality for a follower of Jesus until Jesus returns. While they wait, Jesus’ followers can take comfort from the fact that though poor now, God’s Kingdom belongs to them; though hungry now, they can feed on Christ; though sorrowful now, they can experience God’s comfort.

Jesus, by beginning his teaching of his disciples in this way, is setting the scene for the teaching he will go on to give them on how they are to live while they wait for his coming.

I want to think about what Jesus’ teaching has to say to us today using three words: orientation, outlook, and opposition.

1. Orientation

Any introductory course to the Gospels and the teaching of Jesus will talk about their ‘eschatological’ character. The word ‘eschatological’ refers to the ‘last things’. It is a somewhat slippery word. It is, however, used by scholars to describe how, in the Gospels, the Kingdom of God is about the future reign or rule of God being made present in the person and teaching of Jesus. To use a common phrase: the Kingdom is ‘already and not yet’. The Kingdom of God is already being realized, that is, made present, in Jesus and in his teaching, but not yet completely. It has still to have its final consummation in the future.

All this is relatively uncontroversial. It is, however, when it comes to asking what it means in practice that it all gets a lot more difficult. For some, it is the present reality of God’s Kingdom that matters. Some interpret this present reality in purely individual terms and talk of all the blessings that we can now enjoy as believers. Some believe in what is known as a ‘prosperity Gospel’. In this version of the Gospel, believing in Jesus means that even now, because of our faith, we can enjoy riches, material well-being, and happiness.

Others want to take this idea of the Kingdom being realized in the present, but to apply it socially and politically. Our job, as believers, they think, is to work for peace, justice, and equality in society. Going to church can, as a consequence, often be like going to a political meeting. Jesus’ Kingdom, they believe, is to be made present, here and now, by us. We can do it, they argue, because of what Jesus has done, knowing it is what he wants us to do. Preaching the Gospel, on this view, is less about saving sinners and more about announcing the presence of the Kingdom. It is the prosperity Gospel again, only this time for society as a whole rather than individuals on their own.

The problem with this approach, in both its social and individual versions, is that Jesus himself doesn’t seem to have taken it.

Jesus, for example, refuses the Devil’s offer of the power that would have enabled him to establish his Kingdom on earth (Luke 4:5-8), and Jesus specifically tells Pilate that his Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). The normal response to this is the argument that the resurrection has changed all this. We live, we are told, on this side of the resurrection. Good Friday is behind us, and Jesus now reigns in glory. Our task, as his followers, is to make known that his Kingdom has come and to work to make it present.

Ironically, it was precisely this sort of thinking that led the Church in the past to behave in a manner that people who think this way in the present so detest. It was, for example, the idea that God’s Kingdom could be made a political reality on earth that led to the creation of Christendom, to the Church’s support of colonialism, and to all the evils that went with both.

Jesus’ first followers, who believed passionately in his resurrection and ascension, also do not seem to have thought this way. St Paul writes that we will only experience future glory if we suffer with Christ in the present (Romans 8:17). He describes, often in graphic detail, what that means for him personally, and it is not riches, material satisfaction, and happiness. Anything but.

The coming of God’s Kingdom on earth is something Christ’s followers long for, but it is something that only God himself can bring about. We don’t work to make it happen; we pray for it to come. In the meantime, we wait patiently for it.

This means that we are to have a future orientation as believers and as a church, but, more than that, it means we are also to have an ‘other-worldly’ orientation. We look for rewards, not primarily in this life, but in the life to come. This is an idea that is not only alien to the church today, it is one that is hated. It is, however, I would suggest, fundamental to Jesus’ own teaching and to that of the New Testament writers.

We are to live our lives now in the hope of Christ’s future return by orientating them to the world that is above. This is what Jesus means when he tells his disciples to ‘store up treasure in heaven’ (Matthew 6:19-21) and what St Paul means in his letter to the Colossian believers. St Paul writes:

‘So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’ (Colossians 3:1-4)

We need to be far more focused on the heavenly dimension of our life in the present and far less concerned with the earthly. ‘For where your treasure is’, Jesus says, ‘there your heart will be also.’ (Luke 12:34)

The outcome of having such an orientation is that it helps us sort out what really matters in the present. We instinctively assume that it is our life here and now, in this world, that matters; it doesn’t. That’s the whole point of the blessings and the woes that Jesus pronounces. It doesn’t matter if people hate, exclude, revile, and defame us on account of our faith in Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells us, we are to rejoice. Why? Because our reward for suffering for him in this way is great. Where is our reward? Jesus could hardly be clearer. He says, ‘Surely your reward is great in heaven.’

St Peter expresses this orientation on behalf of all the New Testament writers when he writes of how, through the resurrection of Christ, we have a hope and inheritance that is being kept for us in heaven until the last time (1 Peter 1:4-5).

2. Outlook

This doesn’t mean that we reject the creation as bad or unimportant. The creation is good because God made it good. But it is itself in need of redemption. This world in which we live has become corrupt having fallen under the power of sin and the Devil. This means that the values and attitudes of this world are also corrupt, which, in turn, means that any human worldview is also corrupt. Any human worldview will always have the desire for independence from God at its heart, no matter how sincere or how idealistic it may outwardly appear. A follower of Christ cannot, therefore, ever afford wholeheartedly to embrace any human philosophy, political ideology, or system of social thought.

But it also means that no attempt to impose Jesus’ teaching on human society will ever be successful. Only Jesus’ followers can follow Jesus’ teaching and, even then, we only do so imperfectly. Does this mean that we should give up completely making any effort to try to change society for the good? Not necessarily, but it does mean that such efforts cannot be our main focus.

We should, of course, seek to love our neighbour as ourself (Luke 10:27) and to do good to all people (Galatians 6:10). We should seek to restrain evil and to expose it when we can (Ephesians 5:11). But more importantly, we should seek to model the values and attitudes of the Kingdom in our own life and in the life of the community that Christ established, which is his body, the Church.

The Church is meant to show what God’s future Kingdom will be like. People seeing the Church should see a trailer for the coming Kingdom of God. We should provide people with a preview, so that they can judge for themselves whether they want to belong to it or not. We want people in seeing our good works to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Sadly, however, rather than glorifying our Father in heaven, many will want to do to us what they did to Jesus. They will, as Jesus puts it, hate, exclude, revile, and defame us for that’s what they did both to the prophets who came before Jesus and to his followers who came after him. It’s what they did to him. It’s what they always do. Why don’t we get this? Jesus could not have put it more clearly. Jesus said:

‘If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.’ (John 15:18-19)

This world can never be righteous because it can never accept the Righteous One. It is pre-programmed to crucify, not only Jesus himself, but anyone representing him. We are, then, to abandon all hope that the world will either like us or think like us. It should not concern us. What should concern us is making sure that we don’t think like it.

Tragically, though, that is exactly how we do think. Having abandoned a heavenly orientation, we have also adopted a secular outlook. Our worldview is oriented to life in this world and in finding happiness here and now rather than being oriented to the world to come and to finding blessedness hereafter. This false orientation has been starkly exposed by the pandemic.

A secular outlook doesn’t dismiss religion altogether. It relativizes it. It sees religion as just one more activity amongst many. It may be a part of life, but it is not life.

So when, for example, it comes to deciding appropriate social restrictions during a pandemic, it seems only reasonable to the secular authorities to close churches alongside other leisure and non-essential venues. I suppose this week we ought, at least to be grateful that, when more closures of venues were ordered, churches were mentioned alongside hair salons. After all, for most people getting a haircut is more important than prayer. Harsh? I notice that when the closure of hair salons and churches was announced, there were immediately queues outside the salons to get a haircut before the closure came into effect. I did not notice any queues outside churches to pray.

I don’t blame secular society for this. Those who belong to it do what is important to them. But I do question the churches’ acquiescence in all this. The churches’ response to the closures is that we want as churches to do our bit in helping to control the virus. Very commendable. But is it not possible for us to do our bit without closing our churches and denying people access to the body and blood of Christ? I merely ask.

In our Gospel reading, we see how Jesus spent the night in prayer before choosing his apostles. Surely, for a follower of Christ, going to church to pray is the biggest bit we could do in the pandemic? Secular society is doing its best to keep restaurants and cafes open. So, I can go to Starbucks for a coffee on Sunday but not to church to pray. That’s because secular society sees this world and material well-being as all-important. It’s a shame that so many in the churches do as well. Jesus said:

‘Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28)

Jesus said:

‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”’ (Luke 4:4)

This, then, is what I mean by outlook. For the follower of Christ, the last place we should want to see shut down, in a pandemic or any other time, should be the church, and if you don’t get that, then quite frankly, you need to rethink your worldview.

3. Opposition

As I have said, it should not come as any surprise to us that the world is opposed to those who follow Christ. Jesus warned us often enough that that would be the case. Again, in our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us we are blessed when we are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because of our faith in him. This, of course, is not nice when it happens, and while there have been believers in the past who have sought persecution, most of us don’t want to be hated and nor should we want to be. But when we are, it should not worry us. What should worry us and cause to think is when we seem to be popular with the world around us. ‘Woe to you’, says Jesus in our reading, ‘when all speak well of you.’

We know that Jesus himself was crucified. We know that many of his first followers were killed for their faith in him and that many more were to follow them to their deaths. We know that faith in Christ can lead to all this and more. But instead of being inspired by those who have died for Christ and by their example, we often seem more concerned about our reputation and our desire to be liked.

We understand that it is never going to be possible to get all people everywhere always to speak well of us, so we try instead to persuade all those who matter to be our friends. We choose our alliances. We tell ourselves that these are about seeking to work with those who don’t share our faith to influence the world for good. They truth is that they are often also about our longing for position, power, and popularity in the world.

Jesus challenges us to decide whose side we are on. If we are on his side, it will mean suffering now and glory later. We need to be very clear that the opposition the followers of Christ face is not just about isolated outbursts of persecution. The persecution of those who speak for God has a long history.

Human history is about what God is doing to bring his plan for us and his creation to completion in Christ. From the beginning, this has been resisted by the forces of evil in creation with which we as humans have willingly aligned ourselves.

This idea of history being about what God is doing is itself alien to us. History we like to think is about us and about the choices we freely make as human beings. They may be bad choices at times, but they are always our choices. God’s role in all this is to respect our choices, to be there to help us when we make the wrong ones, and to work with us to make the world a better place.

We are so anxious to assert our freedom that we are unable to see the extent of our imprisonment and how we are controlled by forces beyond our control. For most of our history, we have been slaves to sin and to evil. This does not mean that we have no choice just that those choices are always limited by our sinfulness and are manipulated for evil by the power of evil in our world.

In this struggle between God and evil, there is no neutral ground. The rise and fall of nations, wars and rumours of wars, the election of governments and world leaders, natural disasters, scientific discoveries, technological developments, human ideologies, political movements and philosophies, all these and more besides are caught up in this drama of history, and all have been given a part to play in it. We celebrate our achievements as humans failing to see that everything we touch is tainted with sin and is influenced by evil. We boast of our achievements not knowing our powerlessness. We proclaim our freedom failing to see our enslavement.

It is in this light that we are to see the opposition we face as Christ’s disciples. As the Devil resisted Christ and sought to destroy him, so too he resists us and seeks to destroy us. As St Paul writes:

‘For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.’ (Ephesians 6:12)

There is much more that could and should be said about this struggle, and I am only too aware that most churchgoers today see this sort of talk as na├»ve and foolish, belonging to earlier primitive and unenlightened times when we knew no better. The Gospels, however, stress that Jesus didn’t just teach and heal, he cast out demons. He confronted evil, which he saw as being very real and personal. He took evil seriously, and so should we.

But not more seriously than we take God.

For in this cosmic battle against the forces of evil, in which we are all involved for good or evil, the decisive battle has been won by Christ on the Cross. The victory is certain, but the war is far from over. Our hope of glory still lies in the future, but we know that as we look forward to the day when our salvation will finally be revealed that in the meantime, as again St Paul writes:

‘… all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28)

Here and now, we are poor and hungry, and we weep as we are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed because of our faith in Christ, but in all our suffering we know, as the Blessed Virgin Mary knew, that our God is the One who exalts the humble and meek and who brings down the mighty from their seats (Luke 1:52). One day, Christ will return, and we too will be exalted, God’s judgement will take place, and God will be all and in all.

Until then, we are to wait patiently, pray earnestly, and work tirelessly, as we take up our cross and follow him who loved us and died for us, and who promises to be with us always to the end of the age.

Amen.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

The Fourth Sunday before Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday before Lent.

The Fourth Sunday before Lent

Reading: Luke 5:1-11

As we saw on the Third Sunday of Epiphany, St Luke chooses to begin his account of Jesus’ ministry with Jesus’ visit to his hometown of Nazareth. St Luke has previously described both Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and his temptation by the Devil in the wilderness. St Luke knows that Jesus has been engaged in ministry, particularly at Capernaum, before his return to Nazareth. Indeed, St Luke gives a summary statement of Jesus’ ministry before going on to describe what happens in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-15).

After Nazareth, St Luke writes about a visit Jesus makes to the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus demonstrates his authority by freeing a person possessed by a demon (Luke 4:31-37). After this, Jesus goes home with Simon Peter to Peter’s house in Capernaum. Here Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law who is ill with a high fever (Luke 4:38-39). In the evening, as the sabbath comes to an end, Jesus heals those who are sick and casts demons out of many people (Luke 4:40-41).

Not surprisingly, the next day the people in the village don’t want Jesus to leave and try to persuade him to stay with them (Luke 4:42). Jesus replies:

‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ (Luke 4:43)

At Nazareth, the people try to get rid of Jesus by killing him; at Capernaum, they try to keep him with them. Jesus’ sees both as attempts to prevent him from doing what he was sent to do. St Luke concludes:

‘So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.’ (Luke 4:44)

This is an interesting verse as in the first three Gospels Jesus’ work in Jerusalem and Judea is only described towards the end of his ministry. When they were copying the Gospel, some scribes, aware of this, altered the phrase ‘synagogues of Judea’, to ‘synagogues of Galilee’, but ‘synagogues of Judea’ is the better reading (Luke 4:44). This means that although St Luke doesn’t describe any of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem and Judea until the end of his Gospel, he is aware that Jesus ministered in Judea throughout his ministry after his baptism.

All this gives us an important insight into the nature of the St Luke’s Gospel. When St Luke writes in the Prologue to Theophilus that he is giving Theophilus an ‘orderly account’ (Luke 1:3), St Luke doesn’t mean a chronologically ordered account. His account is orderly, but the order is a theological rather than a chronological one. St Luke has selected events and teaching from Jesus’ ministry in an attempt to convey to us what Jesus was like, what he did, and what he taught.

Ironically, it is often said of St John that, in his Gospel, St John is ordering events for theological reasons. Ironically, St John may present a reasonable chronological structure for Jesus’ ministry, while it is the first three Gospel writers who write and structure their Gospel with other aims in view.

For example: I take many funerals, and, at a person’s funeral, there is normally a eulogy when someone close to the person who has died will speak about them. There are two types of eulogy. In the first, the speaker will go through the life of the dead person and give a short biographical outline of it, talking about the deceased as they do so. In the second, however, the approach will be more topical. The speaker will attempt to describe various aspects of the deceased person’s character and will illustrate them with stories from the deceased’s life. These stories will be arranged around what the speaker wants to say about the deceased rather than in the order in which they took place. This is St Luke’s approach in his Gospel.

St Luke indicates that this is his approach by how he links together the different stories about Jesus. So, in our Gospel reading this week, St Luke begins:

‘Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God …’ (Luke 5:1)

The calling of Peter and the other disciples that St Luke goes on to write about may have happened before or after the events St Luke has previously described. It probably happened before them, given that it was Peter’s house that Jesus went to after attending the synagogue in Capernaum. But, while it would be interesting to know when it happened, that is not St Luke’s concern. Having begun his account of Jesus’ ministry by giving us an idea of what Jesus’ ministry was like, St Luke now wants to describe how Jesus calls the people who are going to be his witnesses after his death and resurrection, and who will continue his work when he has returned to the Father. Although not in order chronologically, it makes sense logically, from St Luke’s perspective, to describe the disciples’ calling now.

In our reading, the focus is on Peter, who will become the leading apostle. It also mentions James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who together with Peter form the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. Jesus has by now become well-known, and he is attracting a crowd wherever he goes. St Luke describes how, on this occasion, Jesus is by the sea of Galilee, also known as the lake of Gennesaret. It is some time in the morning and the fishermen have returned from fishing all night without, it seems, much success, and they are busy attending to their nets.

In order to address the crowd who have gathered to hear him teach, Jesus gets into a boat belonging to Peter and asks Peter to push it out from the shore. In this way, Jesus can address the crowd. ‘One good turn deserves another’, and Jesus tells Peter to put the boat out into the deep water and let down his nets. Peter is naturally sceptical about what Jesus tells him to do, having spent all the night fishing without catching anything. Nevertheless, out of respect for Jesus, he agrees to do as Jesus tells him.

To the amazement of Peter and those who are with him in the boat, they catch so many fish that they have to signal to James and John, who are Peter’s partners, to come in their boat to help them bring the catch to the shore, and even then, they only just manage to do so without the boats sinking.

Peter is overwhelmed by this and experiences an awareness of his own inadequacy in the presence of Jesus. Falling before Jesus’ knees, Peter says to Jesus:

‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ (Luke 5:8)

Jesus, however, reassures Peter telling him not to be afraid, promising Peter that from now on he will be catching people instead of fish. The story concludes with Peter, James, and John leaving everything and following Jesus.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the Gospel writers, each in their own way, simply give us a thumbnail sketch of the calling of the first disciples. The full picture, however, is likely to have been much more complicated. St John suggests that this is the case by telling us that the fishermen were originally disciples of John the Baptist who meet Jesus through their mutual association with John (John 1:35-42). It is possible that they all knew one another even before this. We simply don’t know and can’t know.

What we do know is that these disciples were fully committed to Jesus, so committed that they were prepared to leave their day jobs to follow him. It is a commitment that Jesus will himself acknowledge. I say this because we tend to judge the disciples in the light of their abandonment of Jesus when he is arrested. Whatever their faults, Jesus chose and called them, and they responded in commitment to him.

In commenting on this passage, I want to address an issue that has been bothering me for some time now. I have become increasingly dissatisfied by the way we as a church as and as individuals approach our faith. For some time now, I have felt that we need to re-evaluate how we seek to follow Christ in the age in which we live. I want to suggest that in this passage St Luke provides us with the basis for such a re-evaluation. I also want to point to what the outcome of such a re-evaluation might be. I will do this by highlighting three phrases from the passage, though, taking my cue from St Luke himself, not in the order they occur!

1. ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ (Luke 4:5)

Much of our church life is disturbingly superficial. Church, whatever else it may be, should be about an encounter with God. Such an encounter, no matter what benefits it might ultimately bring, needs to have at its heart an awareness of the holiness and majesty of God. If such an awareness is genuine, it will always be accompanied by an equivalent awareness of our own sinfulness, weakness, and inadequacy. Indeed, one can tell the extent to which we are aware of God’s presence by the extent to which we are aware of our own sinfulness.

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah has a vision of the glory of God, his reaction is one of despair and fear. He says:

‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.’ (Isaiah 6:5)

St Catherine of Siena, who I have mentioned in previous sermons, related how the Lord said to her:

‘Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fullness of grace, and truth, and light.’ (Raymond of Capua, The Life of Catherine of Siena)

Any experience of God that does not lead to this self-knowledge of our own nothingness is not an experience of God. Such an experience of God and knowledge of ourself, however, cannot be induced, and we should avoid pretending we have it, while not believing or feeling it. Instead, we should ask God to grant it and then reflect on our own faith and the way we worship and function as a church in the light of it.

For what were originally good reasons, the emphasis in the church today is on openness, welcome, and friendliness. Our approach to church life is based on a relaxed attitude in worship and a positive acceptance of each other. This was once a much-needed corrective, particularly I have to say for Anglicans, whose churches were often cold, formal, and judgemental. In the past, our churches were anything but welcoming.

I still remember the first time I went to an Anglican Church as a young teenager. Whatever word you would use to describe the experience, ‘welcoming’ would not be it. We have been right in our churches to seek to correct this. But we have done so using the techniques of businesses who seek customers rather than of a God who seeks sinners. We have sought to make God more user-friendly and approachable. In the process, familiarity has bred contempt.

Instead of God being the holy and majestic God of Isaiah’s vision, the God who is and whom we need to exist, as St Catherine describes him, we have made him into a God who himself sounds needy. We give the impression that God is happy if we simply turn up to see him from time to time and who is just grateful when he can feel he is useful. God loves us, but he doesn’t need us. He wouldn’t be God if he did.

In our desire to be seen to welcome and accept people, we give the impression that God is willing to accept anything from those we welcome as long as they make the effort to come to church when they feel like it. Yes, as we will see as we read through St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus does welcome sinners, and he goes out of his way to do so. He is severely criticized by the religious people for it. Later in this chapter, when Jesus goes to the house of Levi, the tax-collector, for a meal, we read of how the Pharisees question why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus answers:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ (Luke 5:31-32)

But it is sinners that Jesus calls and the sick that he heals. To respond to Jesus’ call to sinners, we need to know that we are ourselves sinners. To be healed by Jesus, we need to know we are sick.

Our strategy as a Church so often seems to be to reassure people that they are not only welcome but well. But those who are well have no need of a physician. They have no need of Jesus.

One encouraging sign at the moment is that some young people are seeking more in worship than a happy atmosphere, a friendly get-together, and a lively sing-song. A few, and it is only a few at the moment, are seeking more from church services than to be made welcome and entertained. Evidence for this is to be seen in the numbers attending worship in churches using the Tridentine Latin Mass and in those who are joining the Orthodox Church, whose worship is anything but easy.

Worship is about the God we worship. Our worship should bring us into his presence and that will not always be a pleasant or initially a happy experience. If it is real, it will result in us, like Isaiah and St Catherine, becoming aware of our sin and failure. In this self-awareness, we will be frightened and fearful, sometimes terrifyingly so. It is then, and only then, that we will hear Jesus speak the words that he spoke to St Peter who had fallen, terrified before him:

‘Do not be afraid …’ (Luke 5:11)

These words, however, will have no meaning for those who are not afraid. They are not for them, but for those who dare to risk opening themselves to God; they come as words of absolution with the offer of peace and forgiveness.

2. ‘Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”’

Jesus told Simon Peter not only not to be afraid, but also what would happen next. From now on, St Peter would be catching people. The fear of God leads to forgiveness from God, which, in turn, leads to being sent forth by God. An encounter with the living God gives us an awareness of both who God is and of our own absolute need of him. Our experience of the love of God can only lead to us wanting to share that love with others who also need God. St Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth that the love of God compelled him (2 Corinthians 5:14) and that knowing the fear of the Lord he sought to persuade others (2 Corinthians 5:11).

It was this same love and fear that compelled and motivated the first believers; it drove St Catherine in the 14th century; and it has driven many others before and since.

Paradoxically, alongside the present-day desire in the churches to be welcoming and accepting of people there is an increasing reluctance to reach out to people outside the Church. We find the idea of ‘catching’ people both distasteful and offensive.

Accepting people, we argue, means not only accepting them in their sin, but also accepting their beliefs. We are highly critical of the church missionaries in the past who were sent from those parts of the world in which there were churches to places where there were none. We condemn those who went to countries that were foreign to them with the intention of converting people and establishing churches for those who were converted to belong to.

It has become routine to accuse these missionaries of being guilty of not simply being messengers of Christ who spread the Gospel, but of being agents of western imperialism who spread western culture. The missionaries were certainly from the west, and being from the west they inevitably brought their culture with them (how could they not?). Many, however, were often more aware of the dangers of doing this than today they are given credit for. Whether what they did was quite so reprehensible, as modern-day critics of western civilization believe, is at least a moot point.

We now, however, go even further in our criticism of the missionaries. We argue that the missionaries in going to other places should not only have been more conscious of the dangers of confusing the Gospel and the culture they came from, they should not even have gone in the first place. Alongside this criticism of the missionary effort of the past, there goes an unwillingness to engage in it in the present.

Not only do we now think we should be welcoming towards people who do not share our faith, we think we should affirm them in theirs and even celebrate their faith with them. The missionary project of preaching the Gospel to people of different religions in the hope of converting them to the faith of Christ is today largely dead. Instead, we now have inter-faith dialogue and services of ‘multi-faith worship’.

Mission, which was once understood in terms of converting people, has itself been converted into something else. Mission now is not primarily about ‘catching’ people spiritually, but serving them materially. More often than not, it’s not about ‘catching’ people at all. We may see the value of helping those who have no particular religious affiliation to develop a personal spiritual awareness, but we are fearful of giving the impression that we are putting any pressure on them to do so. What people choose to believe must, we think, be entirely their own decision.

So, instead of actively trying to ‘catch’ fish, the most we are prepared to do is to wait patiently by the side of the lake in the hope they will swim into our own little pool. We will make it as nice as possible for them while they are there, so that they might want to stay or at least will want to swim back to it from time, when, that is, they are not exploring other parts of the lake.

This was not how Jesus saw his own mission, and it should not be how we see ours. Our faith in Christ is not simply one possible religion amongst many. The Church is not a place where people can find their own truth, but where they meet him who is the Truth. We, like St Peter, are given the task of bringing people to Jesus, who calls sinners to repentance and who alone can heal those are sick.

We should no more affirm the validity of other religions than a doctor should deliberately prescribe the wrong medicine or ineffective cures. We want to heal the sick, but we do that by offering treatment that works rather than false cures that do not.

Isaiah was sent by God with the command to tell people the truth that God had given him, regardless of whether they believed it or not. Indeed, Isaiah was warned that they would not believe him or accept his message. Jesus applied what God said to Isaiah to his own ministry, as did St Paul to his, and as we should to ours.

Witnessing in truth to him who is the Truth will make us unpopular. We will be mocked, scorned, and ill-treated. Some of us may even pay for devotion to him with our lives or, at least, with our livelihoods. But we should already know that may happen. Isn’t that what Jesus said that his followers must expect?

Jesus has called us to catch people. The very nature of the command itself tells us it won’t always be easy. But Jesus didn’t promise it would. He never does.

3. ‘But at your word I will let down the nets.’

I am arguing, then, that we need to rediscover both as a church and as individuals an awareness of the holiness and otherness of God and in that awareness to become aware of our own sinfulness and dependency on him.

Such a rediscovery would, I believe, have far-reaching consequences for us in our life as a Church. Not least, it would challenge us in the churches to end our relentless pursuit of relevance, acceptance, and influence in the world. It would also, I believe, lead to a renewed sense of mission. Not mission as it is now understood, where the church is little more than a religious welfare agency catering primarily for people’s physical needs. No, mission in the sense of wanting to convert people, to call sinners to repentance, and to cure them of their sickness by offering them the forgiveness of Christ. What Jesus describes in our Gospel reading as ‘catching people’.

For us as individuals, rediscovering the greatness and glory of God would have far-reaching consequences for how we see ourselves, encouraged as we relentlessly are to believe in ourselves and our abilities. It would lead, I again believe, to a new desire to serve him unconditionally, one that all too often is missing in our lives.

Isaiah, after his vision of the glory of God, willingly and without hesitation responds to God’s call for someone to go for him: ‘Here am I; send me’, he answers (Isaiah 6:8). St Peter, St James, and St John likewise respond, leaving all and following Jesus.

After an encounter with the reality of God in Christ, nothing else seems real. This is because, in a sense, nothing else is real. What exists, including each one of us as individuals, exists only inasmuch it exists in him. The history of the human race has been one long attempt to deny this truth as we seek to assert our independence and break free from God. St Paul writes:

‘… for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’ (Romans 1:21-22)

We, as humans, are so pathetically proud of our feeble and limited intelligence. We don’t need God, we tell ourselves. God is for those without the strength to cope for themselves or without the education or understanding to know better. The Psalmist responds simply:

‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”’ (Psalm 14:1)

Jesus challenges us to let go of our own understanding and learn to trust in God. This is not a call to abandon our minds or to reject a thinking approach to our faith; it is to assert that our reason, intellect, and understanding on their own can never lead us to God.

Imagine going to the doctor who after giving you some tests explains that you need medical treatment. You feel fine and don’t understand why you have to take the medicine the doctor wants to prescribe. But you trust her and have confidence in her judgement. You know that she understands more than you and so you take the medicine. It is this way in many areas of our lives. We don’t necessarily have the knowledge or expertise to make various decisions on our own, but we trust the advice of those who do. Just because we don’t fully understand doesn’t make our trust irrational. So too with God. God alone knows all and he can be trusted, whether we understand what he tells us or not.

‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing’, St Peter says to Jesus when told by Jesus to put out his boat into the deep and let down his nets. What Jesus tells him to do makes no sense. St Peter, St James, and St John are experienced fishermen. If there had been fish to catch, they would have caught them. Jesus is a carpenter by trade; what does he know?

‘But at your word …’

St Peter doesn’t understand, but he obeys.

To such a faith, you and I are called. We too often don’t understand, but we still must obey his word because we are following him who is the Word, the One through whom all things came into being, and without whom not one thing came into being (John 1:3). He is the Word made flesh in whom we meet the God who is and ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).

To leave all for Christ is to leave that which is nothing for him who is everything.

May God grant to us all the grace we need to do so.

Amen.