5 September 2010
10.30 Communion Woodchurch
Rev’d Paul White
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was training for ordination I distinctly remember a conversation I had one day with my spiritual director who, as I may have mentioned before, was an extremely wise and perceptive Catholic Nun.
She once asked me whether there were any parts of the bible that I found difficult to understand or particularly troublesome. I think the point of the question was that if I had said:
“No, I have no problems understanding or applying any of the bible – I find every verse to be nothing less than immediately uplifting, in fact I cannot open my bible at any page without being overwhelmed by joy and the need to sing!”
Had I said that then she would have known one of two things – either that I had not actually read all of the Bible or that I hadn’t been paying proper attention when I read it.
So I said, quite truthfully, that there are plenty of bits in the Old Testament which can be less than obviously joyful – the book of Numbers contains some cracking lists of cutlery which, no matter how many times I read them, fail to lift me closer to the heart of God. More seriously there is plenty of stuff in the Old Testament such as the history of Israel carrying out what looks like ethnic cleansing in the book of Joshua for example which is difficult to understand from the context of a God of Love.
So my spiritual director and I agreed that the Old Testament contains plenty of material which needs careful thought and prayer to even begin to be understood in a Christian or a modern context. Which is, of course, only one reason why we should always be careful about picking and choosing verses out of context to simply support our points of view now.
But then she asked me whether there is anything in the New Testament which caused me particular concern. Now you have to remember that at this stage I was still on a journey to ordination and was still wrestling with what that kind of discipleship meant in the context of my young and growing family.
And so my answer, which again was quite truthful, was one of the verses from today’s gospel reading:
“Whoever comes to me, and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Now I don’t want to get all yucky and sentimental but I love my mum and dad, I love my children, I love my sister, I don’t have a brother but I have about three brothers in law and I love them all (in a manly kind of way) and I even love life itself. I was and am continuing to try to be a disciple of Christ but here is Jesus and he seems to be saying that I can’t be his disciple unless I hate all these people, the people who brought me to life and the people who give me life day to day. So yes, I found that a difficult verse, but not only difficult for me personally but difficult to reconcile with a God who commands us to honour our parents and a Jesus who said that we should love our neighbours and that anyone who even calls their brother a fool in his heart has committed a great sin.
And my wise and perceptive Spiritual Director pointed out that it is not about hate at all, but rather about priorities. It is not that we are called to hate our families or our lives but, rather, we should not allow our natural love for these things to take first place ahead of our desire to draw close to God by following Christ.
Matthew 10:37 has a slightly different account of the same saying which makes this a little clearer:
37“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me”
So if you are a parent having a tough time with teenagers, or the other way around today’s Gospel reading does not allow or command you to hate them as a part of your Christian duty.
Today’s Gospel reading is not really about how much we love our family but, rather, it is about how much we seek to love God, to be his disciples and how seriously we take the cross and its demands. We try, I hope, to have fun from time to time in Church and we should always be a joyful people but we should not allow that fun and joy to detract from the serious message of the cross and what it means to be a people who are called to follow the bearer of that cross.
Last Thursday was the celebration of the Martyrs of Papua New Guinea. When the Japanese invaded Papua New Guinea in 1942 a total of 333 Christians of all denominations were killed for their faith. They were a mix of priests, evangelists, nurses and teachers who all refused the opportunity to be evacuated before the invasion and who stayed with their congregations, patients and pupils because that is where God had called them to be. As you can imagine there were plenty of horrific stories from that invasion but I was particularly moved and challenged by the stories of priests shot while celebrating the Eucharist. People, quite literally, gave their lives doing and in order to do what we so easily take for granted. I have no doubt that each of the 333 had families that they loved and with whom they would have loved to have grown old but they were also disciples who took the message and the demands of the Cross seriously and, ultimately, they placed their love of God and their discipleship first. As we will know that is only one example of many many stories of Christians being prepared to die for their faith which reaches back to the early Christian in the Roman arena and, of course, to Jesus himself on the cross. Jesus loved his family, and he ensured that his mother was taken care of after his departure but still he went to the cross.
We sometimes think that as people of faith we have it hard in this country because we live in such an atheistic age, an age in which anything seems to go and in which so much air time is given to Richard Dawkins and his ilk knocking Christianity. But the fact remains that no one has asked us to give up our lives for our faith and it is both interesting and challenging to speculate what we might do if a fictional invading army came into church right now and demanded that we recant our faith or pay with our lives. What would you do? What would I do?
If we are uncertain of the answer, as I suspect many of us are for a variety of reasons including love of family and love of life, then is that because we have it hard as Christians in this country or is it because we have it too easy? Has the mettle of our discipleship ever really been challenged? Are we still spiritual weaklings and infants compared to those who have known what it means to define ourselves by our relationship to God through Jesus?
What is holding us back from putting God above all things and really being people of faith, true disciples of the man who went to the cross and rose again? I suspect it is exactly those things that Jesus identifies are being bars to discipleship: putting the love of family, the love of our own life and even the love of our material possessions above our desire to know God.
Before we say the creed let’s each take a moment to think about how we can reorder our priorities in some way this week to put God first so that by this time next week we can honestly say that we have been better disciples of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.