Saturday, September 21, 2013

16th Sunday after Pentecost (8 Sept)

A few weeks ago Alison and I watched an episode of Midsommer Murders –
of course it was a repeat that we had seen a couple of times already –
but that is part of the uniquely relaxing character of Midsommer
Murders, I find. Anyway in this episode the drama is set in the local
priory, and the victim is an elderly nun. There are only four nuns to
begin with, so this is quite a rate of attrition, as you can imagine.
Of the three survivors, two are elderly and the third is a young woman
with rather a refreshing blend of contemporary realism and traditional
piety. Of course she is a suspect, especially when some background
checks turn up the fact that her family stands to inherit the priory
if all the nuns kick the bucket – Sergeant Jones is frankly gobsmacked
that a young, intelligent woman would want to do such a silly thing as
spend the rest of her life rattling around in a half-empty priory with
a group of crotchety though blessedly often silent nuns, and I must
say his opinion did receive some support amongst this particular
household of viewers. In one scene the young woman receives a
difficult visit from her mum and dad who leave, sadly bewildered that
their daughter seems to be lost to them. For the record, she turns
out to be very well-adjusted, doing something she believes in and
thankfully, not the baddie.

But it begs the question, especially in our hyper-individualistic,
me-first society: why would you do it? Is this the sort of thing
Jesus has in mind when he tells us, in today's reading – you can't be
my disciple unless you hate your family and even your own life? And
he tells us quite explicitly – following me is going to cost you
everything – don't come along for the ride unless you are prepared to
give up everything you have. It makes discipleship seem a fairly grim
prospect, quite honestly – and especially so when we remember what
lies ahead for Jesus at this point. And he tells us quite bluntly –
you can't be my disciple unless you take up your own cross as well.

So what does it all mean? For a start, is there a different option –
like one stream for super-Christians who want to be disciples and
another stream for the rest of us who really just want to come to
Church on Sunday and live a good life as followers of Jesus without
being out-and-out zealots? Can you be a Christian without being a
disciple? Is Jesus just telling the official 12 disciples what they
have to measure up to but we twenty one centuries later on can take it
a bit easier?

Well, no. We've already heard a bit earlier in chapter 14, a couple
of weeks ago in church – Jesus telling us that you are either for him
or you are against him – I didn't come to bring peace, he says, but
division. From now on, even families will be divided because of me.
And through chapter 14, as we have been reading it through, the
language gets more and more hard-edged. Last week we heard the
criticism aimed at armchair Christians – don't just hob-nob with the
polite set – take your place down amongst the riff-raff and the
ne'er-do-wells and show solidarity with the poor. And then in the bit
we missed between last week and this – the story of the great banquet
at which the official guests prove to be unworthy and so the host goes
out and drags in the marginalised and the misfits. All through this
chapter we are being told that if you want to be God's people your
priorities have to match God's priorities, and if they don't then
God's kingdom will pass us by. If you say you want to follow Jesus
then you have to be prepared to act in a way that is consistent with
what you believe and in today's section we hear, unequivocally – don't
come on board unless you're prepared for what it's going to cost.

Well, but how do we hear this challenge with its slightly disturbing
whiff of fanaticism? If we do want to follow the Way of Jesus
whole-heartedly and with integrity – which is to say, if we do choose
discipleship, than how do we do that and what would authentic
discipleship look like in our day and age? Three times, Jesus tells
us we can't be his disciples without definite decision and without
understanding that discipleship implies definite choices.

So first, he tells us to hate our families. Then he says to take up
our cross. And then to give up all our possessions. What does all
this mean for us? Can his advice even be helpful for us in our
everyday lives? Is there a way of taking it seriously without taking
it literally? Surprisingly, since we generally think of him as a dour
old curmudgeon, the sixteenth century French Protestant reformer John
Calvin helps us to do just that. Calvin used this very passage for
instructing his pastors in Christian living, and he says there are
four requirements the come from Jesus' teaching – self-denial, bearing
your cross, living with the understanding of eternal life, and
properly using God's gifts in daily life.

For Calvin, self-denial didn't mean being a killjoy or a wowser, or
living in a way that denies human flourishing or happiness. What
Calvin writes that self-denial is Jesus' way of setting us free from
selfishness and from the argumentativeness and competitiveness that
comes from self-obsession. The person who fails to deny themselves is
the person who can't see beyond their own self-interest and so is
unable to love either God or their neighbour – self-denial is the
putting of our own needs into their true perspective and context of
loving relationships. Remember the 'rules of the house' – oikonomia
that I spoke about last week? It's the same basic point. Self-denial
means putting your own needs and desires into the context of the needs
of others - remembering that if you take more than you need then you
are failing to love others, including the Earth itself.

To take up your cross, Calvin taught, is the aspect of self-denial
that helps us to understand the truth of God's love within and through
our own suffering. This is deeper though than the oft-heard adage
that 'there's always someone worse off than you' – for Calvin the
cross of Christ is healing medicine for all the hurts and
disappointments of life, as well as repentance and forgiveness for our
failings and the times we turn aside. The Franciscan St Bonaventure
would say that the cross is where all the contradictions and opposites
of life intersect – human suffering is transformed by being brought
together with divine love.

Living from the perspective of eternal life means to have a true
perspective on the here and now, and paradoxically, perhaps, it is
this that enables us to fully appreciate the wonder and beauty of the
present moment. To live in the awareness of eternity is perhaps the
most counter-cultural of all in our death-denying culture, because it
means recognising that our own physical death is not to be feared or
avoided because without it our lives are like a journey that never
reaches its destination. To live from the perspective of eternal life
calls into question our day-by-day decisions and priorities – it means
that we are resurrection people – people who live from day-to-day
informed by where our lives are headed – and that makes all the
difference to what we think is important along the way.

For Calvin the twin foundations of self-denial and bearing a cross, as
well as the perspective of eternity, lead to a reflection on the
proper use of earthly things. It seems we have a basic choice in our
lives – we can use things and love people, or we can use people and
love things! Calvin taught his pastors to live lives of simplicity so
as to love better – but this means taking the middle road! Being free
from the tyranny of materialism means avoiding both over-indulgence
and ostentatious abstinence. Above all, Calvin advises, remember that
the goods as well as the circumstances of our lives are a gift of God,
and that in the way we use earthly things we should remember that they
are blessings to be shared, not assets to be hoarded.

Well we all have our faults. Calvin, perhaps, was just a bit too fond
of burning his opponents at the stake. Interestingly the one
commandment that he neglected to contextualise was the bit about
hating those nearest and usually dearest to us. Jesus, in Mark's
Gospel, has a run-in with his mother and siblings when they come to
bring him home because they think he has gone mad. Family, who should
know us best, sometimes get it wrong! In a loving family, children
are safe to learn and grow – those who love us best can offer the
encouragement and love that we need as adults to live with courage and
integrity in the world – but perhaps Jesus is taking aim at the
temptation to use our families and our family responsibilities as a
proxy or a substitute for the engagement we need to have in the world
and the love we need to have for the marginalised and the excluded.
Loving and wise families are secure enough to encourage one another to
love all who Jesus tells us should be our sisters and brothers.
Calvin, of course, fell at the hurdle of sectarianism – Jesus however
tells us not to define the circle of those we love so narrowly.
Perhaps we need to generalise it a bit – we can't be Jesus' disciples
unless we are prepared to move beyond the cosy nest of parish or
denomination or national identity.

So how relevant today is Calvin's gloss on the teaching of Jesus on
the costs of discipleship? Because the world is beset – perhaps more
than ever before – by inequality that leads to material comfort for
some and poverty, disease and hunger for many. By human wastefulness
and short-sightedness that destroys the environment and uses the
resources of the Earth at an unsustainable rate. By hatreds and
conflict caused by national and ethnic and religious sectarianism. To
be a disciple means to live in a way that takes less for oneself and
gives more to others, that shows solidarity with those who are
marginalised and excluded and all who suffer with the understanding
that this is the suffering of Christ – and to recognise as brothers
and sisters all who God gives us to love – not just some.

Of course there's a cost – because if you live like this then you need
to die to self-centredness on a daily basis. But deep down we
recognise that all we're being asked to die to are the parts of
ourselves that are self-destructive and unloving, and that the way of
discipleship is actually the way towards fulfilment and joy – both for
ourselves and for others. Deep down, we recognise some of the
behaviours and habits of mind that have to go – we recognise some of
the ways we are being invited to live – some of the people we are
being asked to love, So, Jesus asks us – can you afford it?