The readings today present a challenge to all of us – perhaps especially to those who feel overly secure and established in our church attendance and dare I say it – perhaps a little too confident in our faith or at least taking it too much for granted. We are warned that whilst we may engage in the outward forms of religion, whilst our faith may show on the outside, we need to ask ourselves how much we have been changed, converted on the inside? How much of our life, how many of our decisions and our choices are taken because of our faith rather than despite it? Might it not be that there are those who may be judged on the surface to be less worthy, are in the eyes of God closer to his ways, closer to the paths of his son than we by comparison chose to follow. It is a question from the very beginnings of the Jewish faith, long before Christ came into the world and it continues to challenge us as we seek to follow in his ways.
It is all too easy in our daily strivings, in our aspirations and the enjoyment of what we are and what we have – to leave God out of the equation. To somehow think that our life is somehow in a separate existence, rather like the labourer’s in the vineyard – in a world of exchange and negotiation, of worldly concerns and worldly solutions. Where we owe everything to our own efforts, perhaps a bit of luck and good or bad genes and to what we have been able to wrestle away from an impersonal world of work. But that is to forget, as the eminent American protestant theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich said, that God is the very ‘ground of our being’.
Forgiveness is a much mis-understood notion. All too often Christians can be accused of being a naïvely misguided patsy if they advocate forgiveness, or hypocrites if they display any anger. On the one hand idealistic, unrealistic and culpably weak and on the other hand unwilling to live the gospel they profess. So where are we to find some sense of balance, and the true virtue of which Jesus speaks?
The essence of prayer is not asking but offering, not self-seeking but self-dedication. That is not to say that our own personal griefs and doubts and fears should not be placed before God, quite naturally if we have embarked on a conversation then all manner of concerns will rightfully crop up. What we do know, and this relates to the experience of any who have truly been through the wonderful highs and the most terrible lows of human life, is that in the last resort we pray because we must, because the needs and yearnings of our hearts cannot be hidden away or repressed without damaging the very core of our human natures.
Our cross may be one of drama and obvious pain, or it may be a burden borne quietly and without complaint over many years. It may be one big task or many smaller ones. It may be presented suddenly as a clear choice, or we may look back and realize that is what we have been carrying all along. We may feel that it is something thrust upon us or something we have chosen to do. But of one thing we can be sure, all Christians, all disciples of Christ have a cross of some kind to bear.
A lot of people have said a lot of different things about Jesus, probably the man about whom more is written than any other in history. But in all that clamour, in all the debate, in all the speculation and claim and counter-claim across time, and across different cultures and creeds – the vital question he asks of each of us is – ‘Who do you say that I am?’. The answer says as much about ourselvesves, as it does about Jesus. Some questions are defining, some answers decide how we live the rest of our lives.
In the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman did her challenge actually teach the teacher? Did the ‘dog’ teach the master? Anyone who has taught will tell you that we can learn, as much as we impart, from those whom we teach. It’s certainly an intriguing thought that Jesus may have been caught unawares and his thinking changed by her challenge, that she brought him up short and reminded him of the true implications of his own teaching and that of Isaiah, to which he referred so often. And her rebuke still calls to us today.
The sea, for the people of biblical Palestine, was a terrifying prospect, for without any compasses or reliable navigation aids, to be hopelessly lost at sea was an ever present danger. The sea resounded in their minds as a symbol of man’s powerlessness in the face of overwhelming forces. Even today we should rightly fear its awesome power and know that it describes both our limits and our need of hope when all else has failed.
In today’s gospel from Matthew we hear the story of the loaves and he fishes, and in the sermon we confront a much debated question head on. Did Jesus really feed five thousand men (plus women and children) from just five loaves and two fish? Ironically the least satisfactory answers to that question are either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
This week we look at Paul’s letter to the Roman 8.26-39. The reason for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, was not to create a new clique of the chosen, to the abandonment of all others; it wasn’t to offer a blood sacrifice to an ancient God of anger and vengeance in order to spare us eternal torment; it certainly wasn’t to exclude the very people Jesus had come to teach and emancipate from older, more dogmatic, harsher expressions of faith, but to witness to a new openness and a new way of relating to the divine and the holy.
Over the centuries Christian communities have taken a wide variety of stances when faced with unbelief and rejection, but many have been tempted to adopt a divisive and judgmental approach. At face value, today’s gospel parable has been interpreted by some individuals and churches as condoning such an approach. However, they have paid insufficient attention to the countervailing patience and forbearance demanded in the parable of the wheat and the tares, and indeed the inherent warning. We are simply not wise enough, we are told, we have neither the depth nor the length of vision, to tell between what deserves to be saved or discarded.
A seed is one of the miracles of life – within that kernel is contained all the genetic information, all the instructions, all the raw material for abundant life, for fields of corn, acres of wheat, orchards of apple trees, a wine harvest, the food to provide for an entire planet – all there in microcosm; essential, teeming with all the possibilities of life. Jesus compares the fate of seeds, filled with life, but dependent on where they fall in order to bear fruit, to the fate of his message in the hearts of those who hear it, the people of his time and by inference all of us today. What kind of home are we for the seeds that he sows? His message of faith, hope and love – just how well do they fare with us?
The message of John the Baptist was stern; acknowledge your sinfulness, repent, or face the punishment to come. John himself was reclusive, self denying, almost self punishing. Jesus was a very different kind of man, and told a very different story. He loved his friends, he enjoyed a glass of wine, the company of others, and he felt no need to distance himself from those deemed disreputable by the overly pious. But they both found their teachings accepted by some, yet rejected by many. John was seemingly too severe, Jesus apparently too sociable – one might ask, was the problem to do with the teachers, or those who did not wish to be taught?
The sermon today looks at St Peter and St Paul, two dedicated, resourceful and committed men, but very different. Paul was a like a graduate of one of the elite Universities of his day, educated in the city of Tarsus. He had been tutored by the famous leader of the Hillel School of Rabbis called Gamaliel. Peter, by contrast, was someone whose formal education had ceased probably at what we’d call the primary school stage. He was a fisherman, married with a family, but unlike Paul, who had started out as a persecutor of Christians, he had known and actually worked alongside Jesus during his earthly ministry. Whilst Paul was a man of letters, eloquent, persuasive, perhaps more so on paper, Peter relied more on his personality – his letters in the New Testament betray his discomfort with long treatise. And the tensions between them and the different priorities and approaches they espoused, are still being played out in Christianity today.
In today’s gospel Matthew speaks of what some scholars call – ‘the cost of discipleship’, and others name – ‘the conditions of discipleship’. And harsh, indeed unnatural, impossible, conditions they can seem to be; but Matthew in reporting, perhaps partially shaping the words of Jesus, is making a particular point – about the priorities and the boundaries within which love is all too often acted upon. The condition of discipleship of which Matthew speaks, is therefore not to love our loved ones less, in fact paradoxically, it is to love them even more deeply, but only through first acknowledging some hard truths about our compromises and limitations.
In contrast to the cruelty of the Roman Empire, today we do not condemn Jesus, or attack him, or seek his death – why would we need to it has already been done for us? Today we are much more subtle, after all we have had two thousand years to learn how to deal with him. Reverently, devotedly, lovingly and with great care we take his teachings and mould them into a shape and size that we prefer. We contain and constrain him within the bounds of ‘common sense’, ‘living in the real world’, ‘taken in moderation’ and all the other rationalisations that we can think of to keep him safe and compatible with how we prefer to live our lives. But we know in our hearts, that this is not how we are meant to be.