Friday, September 16, 2022

Humbled To Be Exalted

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast, Humbled To Be Exalted. It is based on the Gospel reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity.

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Luke 14:25-33

Last week in the Gospel reading for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, we read about Jesus’ visit to the house of a Pharisee for a meal on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1-14). Jesus heals a man in front of the Pharisees, even though it is a Sabbath and knowing that healing someone on the Sabbath is something that they disapprove of. Then when Jesus sees how the guests at the meal all want the best seats, Jesus tells a parable about where to sit at a wedding banquet (Luke 14:7-14). Rather than sitting in the seat highest in honour, you should, says Jesus, sit at the lowest seat. Those who sit at the highest seat can only be asked to move down, whereas those in the lowest seat can only be asked to move up.

Taking the seating at a wedding banquet as an example, Jesus is seeking to illustrate a fundamental principle. Jesus says:

‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ (Luke 14:11)

Turning to his host, Jesus tells another parable about a man who invited the poor, crippled, blind, and lame to the dinner he was holding because those he originally invited all made excuses for not coming (Luke 14:15-24). Jesus seeks to encourage the Pharisee to be more outward looking and inclusive in his approach to people.

Now in our reading this week, we are told that large crowds are travelling with Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem. In the parable that Jesus told his host, those invited all made excuses for not coming; the crowd, however, are coming, but they have little appreciation of what coming to Jesus entails. Jesus spells it out in no uncertain terms for them. Jesus says:

‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14:26-27)

The crowds with Jesus are caught up in the excitement of the moment. Jesus is doing amazing things and making a huge impression, so much so that even the Pharisees want him to come for dinner. Jesus is a celebrity, and celebrities always attract crowds, regardless of what people think of what the celebrity has to say. But Jesus does want them to think about what he has to say. Jesus tells the crowds two parables to encourage them to count the cost and think about what following him really means.

In the first parable, Jesus asks what man, if he is planning to build a tower, won’t first try to work out the cost to see if he can afford it. If he doesn’t, he may find that having laid the foundation, he can’t manage to keep building and will have to stop. Having to abandon the project will mean people ridicule him.

In the second parable, Jesus describes how a ruler going to war will first work out what the chances are of his army beating the army of the ruler coming against him, especially if the opposing army is significantly larger. If he doesn’t think he can win, he will seek to negotiate a peace.

Having told the two parables, Jesus draws a conclusion. You would expect the conclusion to be that a person should count the cost of becoming a disciple before deciding whether he wants to be a disciple. And while that is basically what the conclusion is, Jesus doesn’t put it quite like that. Jesus says:

‘So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.’ (Luke 14:33)

Jesus tells them straight what the cost is of becoming a disciple, which is everything a person has.

Jesus then uses another illustration. Jesus asks how, if salt loses its saltiness, its taste can be restored (Luke 14:34). If it no longer tastes like salt, then, says Jesus, it is no use to anyone. It has to be thrown away. If a person tries to be a disciple without giving up all they have, they too will be of no use. A disciple is to love Jesus more than anyone or anything else, their own life included, and loving him means sacrificing everything for him.

The crowds are travelling with Jesus. If, however, any of them are to follow him and become his disciple, they need to decide whether they are willing to let go of all that they have, or they will pay a dreadful and high price.

We in the Church, and in the Anglican Church especially, don’t go in for this way of talking. It sounds too extreme and fanatical, and Jesus doesn’t want us to become fanatics, does he? So, we argue that Jesus is just putting it this way for effect and to make a point. There is, of course, the somewhat embarrassing fact that some people have taken Jesus’ words literally and have succeeded in living up to them, often making a great impression in the process. We deal with this by calling such people saints, thereby implying that this sort of commitment is just for a few select people.

Jesus, however, doesn’t say that anyone who does not carry the cross and deny themself cannot be a saint; he says they cannot be his disciple. By limiting Jesus’ words to the few, we have become a church of spectators rather than followers. We have accepted that many church members will simply come on Sunday, watch what is going on, perhaps pay to keep the show going, and then get on with their lives the rest of the time. This may seem as if I am being unfair, and I accept that there are those whose faith is much more than this. But many bear more than a fleeting resemblance to the crowds Jesus speaks these words too. Jesus wouldn’t accept people only coming along for the ride, and nor should we. What is more the challenge of the times we are living through needs disciples, not spectators.

Here in Hong Kong, we have, in the past few years, lived through the protests, and we are still living through the pandemic. It continues to be a time of social unrest and uncertainty. Many have had enough, and they are leaving while they can, hoping the grass is greener in England’s pleasant land or in other countries willing to take them.

They may be in for a shock. The United Kingdom, for example, is facing an unprecedented cost of living crisis, with strikes and civil unrest back big time. Europe, in general, is experiencing the cost of what has become a proxy war in Ukraine. Many of us grew up during the Cold War, when we lived with the constant threat of nuclear war. Ironically, the threat of mass destruction kept the peace in Europe. Now that the European nations have returned with America’s help and encouragement to their former warring ways, nuclear catastrophe is again back on the cards.

Apart from nuclear catastrophe, we are also facing a climate crisis. We have been shown this week what climate crisis looks like. We have seen the terrible pictures from Pakistan. Temperatures of 53 degrees, causing melting of Pakistan’s 7,000 glaciers, and monsoons, five times as heavy as normal, have put one third of the country under water, causing devastating suffering.

Finally, in these examples of doom and gloom, I would just mention Taiwan, which has all the potential to make the war in Ukraine look like a local skirmish.

So, what’s my point? My point is that all these different headline events combine to create a climate of fear and uncertainty that affects all our lives and how we see the future. We are faced with political uncertainty, an ongoing pandemic, financial instability, climate crisis, and war. It is no surprise, then, that some are calling for a great ‘reset’, with the calls themselves leading to all sorts of conspiracy theories, only heightening the sense of fear and uncertainty.

The hope, of course, is that the fear and uncertainty will pass. The hope is that political leaders will appear who are both competent and wise; that vaccines will enable us to put the pandemic behind us; that the central banks will get on top of inflation; that there will be the social and political will to tackle climate change; and that peace will prevail in Ukraine, and war be averted in Taiwan and the other flash points in our world.

It seems a tough ask! And some of the threats are greater than humanity has had to face before. Human history, however, leads us to think that it is possible for us to overcome the challenges we face, even if it is at a cost. Jesus warned his disciples that such things would happen, but it didn’t mean that that the end was about to come (Luke 21:9-11). Whatever happens, and even if we get through the present series of crises, we are, nevertheless, living through a time of great change. The changes that are taking place at the present time pose challenges that are considerably bigger and far more significant than even those caused by the events that are in the headlines at the moment.

We have, in our day, become used to the idea of rapid change, even though such rapid change is a comparatively recent phenomenon in human history. We haven’t, however, appreciated the significance of the changes we are living through and what their consequences are going to be for us all. I would just highlight three areas by way of example.

1. Technology

Computers have already changed the way we live, but we have not seen anything yet. I was ordained in the year that the first desktop PC came into production. It promised to be a useful tool. Now we are controlled by the PCs we call phones. And if that seems extreme, try going without your phone for a day and see how you get on. Soon computers will beat us humans at every task they perform.

The growth of AI, artificial intelligence, is going to have huge social consequences that will affect us all. It won’t just be factory workers who will find themselves replaced by robots; all the professions are going to be heavily impacted. Whether it is in the hospital operating theatre or in the school classroom: the robots are coming!

As we start a new school year, if you look at what children are being taught in school and the curriculums that teachers are currently following, it is clear that we are preparing the children for a world that will not exist when most of them leave school. The jobs of today will not exist tomorrow. Schools are wasting their and our children’s time by failing to prepare them for what life will be like when they come of age.

2. Transhumanism

As the saying goes, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ Our love affair with technology is leading many to reimagine what it means to be human. Already for many young people, the virtual world is the real world with the physical world a pale shadow of it. It is so much more exciting in the ‘metaverse’ where you can be who you want to be without the limitations of your physical body.

There are those who want to take this to a whole new level with talk of ‘body augmentation’ in the form of brain microchips and mind controlled prothesis. And this is not to mention the possibilities offered by gene editing technology. Already some philosophers are speaking of a post-human existence.

Transhumanism, the merger of human and machine, which was once science fiction, is already a present reality. Doubtless there will be benefits, but, in any case, it is happening too quickly for us to evaluate the risk or to exercise any control over it. As with anything new, it seems exciting and to offer fresh and fantastic opportunities. By the time we realize the dangers and the cost, it will be too late. It amuses me seeing people protesting at what they see as the loss of political independence, while happily sacrificing their personal independence to an app on their phone that controls not only what they do but how they think.

And this is just the beginning. The clunky virtual reality headsets of the present will before long become museum pieces as they give way to implants and developments yet to be imagined.

3. Transgenderism

Transgenderism brings together many different social trends and movements. ‘Transgender’ was once (that is, three or four years ago), a term that defined people with a particular and distressing psychological condition. Now it is being presented as both a philosophy and a lifestyle choice. When you have politicians telling you that they do not know how to define what a woman is, then you know it is time to pay attention. And when J K Rowling is excluded from a Harry Potter reunion because she insists that the definition of a woman is in some way related to a person’s biological sex, you know you are living through significant social and cultural change.

Transgenderism doesn’t just affect the very small number of people who, sadly, are born with gender dysphoria. Transgenderism represents the logical outcome of our philosophy of Self. This teaches that we don’t have to be who we are told we should be, not even if we are told it by our own bodies. We are encouraged to believe that we can be both who we feel ourselves to be and who we want to be. It is argued that all of us get to choose who we are and, for those who think like this, fundamental to who we are and who we might want to be is being able to choose our gender.

This is why it is so important to transgender activists to control what is taught in schools and to change the school curriculum, so that, from the very beginning of a child’s schooling in kindergarten, it reflects transgenderism’s philosophy of Self. They don’t want a child to grow up thinking that who they are is in some way determined by factors or forces external to themself. Many in Hong Kong think that all this is something confined to the West, but which doesn’t affect us here in Asia. In response, I would just ask you whether your child likes Disney. If they do, then you are already affected by it.

By now, you may be wondering whether this is a sermon or a somewhat feeble attempt at social commentary, and what, if anything, it has to do with our reading.

I have been of the conviction for some time now that when it comes to the message that we in the churches are preaching, it all too often sounds as if we are simply taking the tune we hear being played in the world around us and giving it a theological remix. What comes out and what people hear may have religious flourishes, but it is recognisably still the same tune!

In these uncertain and changing times, we need a robust faith if we are to rise to the challenge they present. Jesus tells us in our reading what such a faith looks like. It has three central characteristics.

1. Relational

Jesus says, ‘Follow me’. We cannot know what God wants of us until we know God, and knowing God is not the same as knowing about God or going to places that talk about him. St John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). In other words, God really has made knowing him something personal by becoming a person just like us. Our commitment is first and foremost to a person, for it is in this person that we meet with God. Our faith, then, is, or should be, faith in a person, who calls us to follow him.

This means that until we meet this person and enter a relationship with God through him, everything else is ultimately unimportant. This includes our beliefs and theology; our good works and acts of charity; and our churches and all their activity. All too often, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, there is the danger of allowing these otherwise good things to be the very thing that keeps us from meeting, close up and personal, the very one that they should all be for.

It is, of course, far easier and far less demanding for us to believe and do things, than it is to enter a relationship, which involves every aspect of who we are - body, mind, and spirit - and which engages us at the deepest level of our being. But nothing less will do.

2. Radical Commitment

A relationship with God in Jesus involves us making a radical commitment to him. This is what Jesus is getting at in our reading. Jesus says that anyone who comes to him and does not ‘hate’ even those who are closest to them cannot be his disciple. We try to soften these words of Jesus by explaining that Jesus uses the word ‘hate’ for effect. What Jesus really means, we tell ourselves, is that we should love him more than anyone else. The trouble is that having softened Jesus’ words, we then conveniently forget them and get on with loving people and things other than him.

I don’t know if you have come across cosplay. The word ‘cosplay’ is a word made up from the two words, ‘costume’ and ‘play’. Cosplay itself is when people dress up as their favourite fictional characters or superheroes and meet up with other cosplayers. There are all sorts of conventions and events for those who like cosplay, and many people take part in it.

Cosplayers take what they do seriously and often spend significant amounts of money on it, but they know it is just what the word says: play. It’s great to do at the weekend and on special occasions. It is also fun to meet up with fellow cosplayers, but the rest of the time the cosplayer reverts to their true identity. For some, church is a religious form of cosplay. It’s something they take seriously and enjoy doing, and they have many friends they enjoy doing it with, but it is separate from the rest of their life.

Jesus is warning the crowds and us that following him is not a game. It’s serious, so serious that Jesus warns against rushing into it. He encourages anyone thinking of following him to consider carefully what it means and what it will cost. ‘Whoever does not carry the cross’ cannot be my disciple’, says Jesus. Those who were to be crucified were made to carry their cross. Anyone carrying a cross was as good as dead. In the United States, anyone on death row was said to be a ‘dead man walking’. Jesus’ followers are to be dead men and women walking. We have died to all that holds us in this world and keeps us from following Jesus.

Is this the commitment we in our churches we are calling people to? To ask the question is to answer it. We are happy if they simply turn up to church on a Sunday, with no questions asked. Jesus is asking for more of people, much more. We each individually need to make the radical commitment that Jesus calls us to and then encourage others to do the same.

3. Rooted in the Past; Reoriented to the Future

Aware of the changes we are living through, many in the Church have argued that the worship, beliefs, and ethics of the Church belong too much to the past and are no longer relevant to the age in which we live. Our faith, they argue, needs substantial revising and updating.

Paradoxically, however, if we are to face the changes and challenges we are living through with confidence and hope, then we need now, more than ever, to be rooted in the past. Fundamental to our faith is that God has revealed himself at a specific point in human history in the person of Jesus. St Paul writes that when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son born of a woman (Galatians 4:4). St Paul describes the Church as built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).

Our faith, then, should be rooted firmly in the past, but at the same time reoriented to the future, not to this world and how it sees its future, but to God and the future he has planned for those who love him, a future that the creation itself will share in (Romans 8:22-23).

As we saw in the reading and sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, Jesus instructed his disciples to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man (Luke 12:35-40). He warned them that the Son of Man would return at an hour they did not expect and that they needed to make sure that they were ready for when he did come. Jesus also warns those who think that they have nothing to worry about in the present. It is for people who think like this that Jesus told the parable of the rich man who thought he had everything he needed for a very comfortable life in the present and for years to come. Jesus says that on that very night, God said to him that his life would be required of him (Luke 12:20).

Jesus did not return as quickly as many expected him to, and he still has not returned some 2,000 years later. So, instead of making sure we are ready for his return and preparing for our death in case we die before he comes, we get on with living and enjoying our life in this world. We have a very here and now sort of faith. God, we argue, wants us to enjoy our life in this world and to do what we can to make it better and more enjoyable for those around us.

Our faith, rather than looking to the future, is geared to life in the present. We justify this emphasis with a theology that places us at the centre and in which God, if he exists, exists to make us happy and to give us help when need it. Jesus, however, simply does not talk like this. We may want him to, but he doesn’t. He talks instead of us being dead in the present and tells us to give up all our possessions. After all, if we are dead, we don’t need them.

We find this very hard to understand. Surely Jesus doesn’t mean that we should literally give away all that we have? That, we think, may be what he requires of the few, those who are to become saints, but not of most of us. So, rather than ask what Jesus does mean by these words, and they are pretty much central to his teaching, we just ignore them and get on with inventing a way for us to believe in Jesus without his words having to make too much difference to how we think and live.

Jesus is not, I think, saying that everyone who follows him should sell all they own, but nor is he saying they should hold on to what they have. How can both be true? Well, we know that Jesus did not ask, for example, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, whom he loved and called his friends, to sell all they had (John 11:5). He didn’t ask this of many who believed in him. Jesus did, however, require those who believed in him to be willing to do so if he asked them to (Mark 10:21) and to be detached from their possessions if he didn’t. This is what Jesus meant when he said to Martha that Mary had chosen the better part, which would not be taken away from her (Luke 10:42). Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet, rather than worrying about all the things that Martha was concerned about, had got her priorities right.

In human relationships, a parent will sometimes say how they have given up everything for their children, or a spouse will claim to have done so for their partner. They may mean that they have actually sold all that they have, so that they are left without anything, but more usually what they mean is that they have put their children or their partner before everything else, themselves included. A lover in expressing their love for another person will declare their willingness to give up everything for the one they love. What they are saying is that everything else has ceased to have any value to them by comparison with their love for the other person. They would willingly sacrifice all that they have if called upon to do so for the one they love.

Jesus tells the crowds that none of them can become one of his disciples, unless they give up all that they have. As Jesus travels to Jerusalem, those wishing to follow him will literally have to give up all that they have. But for many, now as then, letting go of all that they have means letting go of anything that keeps us tied to the present and prevents us from following Christ. Rooted in God’s past revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and built on the foundation of those he chose, we are to look forward with confidence to the future, knowing that the future belongs to God.

A robust faith for the present is, then, one that is relational in character, radical in its commitment, and rooted in the past while being reoriented to the future.

May God in his grace and mercy grant us such a faith.


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