Sunday 8 September 2013
St Mary’s Hadlow
Readings: Philem. 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips this morning reveal something to us of your written word, and so lead us ever closer to your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When I was going through the process of being selected for ordination I used to have regular meetings with both my Diocesan Director of Ordinands and with a spiritual director, who was a wonderful Catholic Nun. At different points they both asked me a very similar question:
“Are there any parts of the bible that you struggle with or find particularly challenging?”
Now there may be some amongst us today who are so close to heavenly perfection that you would be horrified by such a question, and maybe they wanted me to express my forthcoming sainthood by proclaiming how the Word of God filled me with untrammelled joy no matter which passage I turned to. Maybe. Or maybe the truth of the matter is that unless we sometimes have to struggle with and be challenged by the word of God, unless it sometimes makes us look very closely at both the text and, more importantly, at ourselves and our preconceptions then perhaps we are missing the point.
So when the DDO and my spiritual director asked me that question I did not pretend to be a saint, after all they knew I was a lawyer, but rather I answered honestly and said that I found many parts of the Old Testament challenging to understand but in relation to the New Testament and the sayings of Jesus I found today’s passage from Luke particularly troublesome:
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Now if it had spoken about Mother-in-Laws that would have been a different matter entirely and I would be bound for glory with no further ado.
I said that I love my mum and dad, I love my wife and kids, I love my sister, despite her annoying laugh, and for all those reasons I don’t hate my life – can I really still be a disciple of Jesus? Does discipleship really start with hating one’s family? Quite apart from anything else, how does this accord with the fifth commandment to honour your father and mother? I accept that honouring may not be the same as loving but it seems a very long way from hating and it seems a bit weird, to put it mildly, that Jesus seems to be suggesting that this is where discipleship starts.
Because of my history, if you like, with this passage and because I knew that it produced such strong reactions in me I guessed that others would have similar thoughts. So, as part of my preparation for this sermon I decided to do something which is both obvious and yet still quite unusual. I sent an email to all the members of the PCC and asked what they thought about the passage, what questions or thoughts or concerns did it give rise to in them? I have to say that I got back some fantastic responses, some of which I shall look at anonymously in a moment.
But before I go any further I also have to say that this exercise of asking people what they thought of the passage and allowing their questions and thoughts to form part of the sermon writing process seems to me the only valid way to treat adults in this day and age. We live in a literate and interactive age and people may have questions about the bible which the preacher hasn’t even thought of. So what I would like to do from now on is simplicity itself. On your pew sheets you will always have the bible reading for the forthcoming week and you also have my email address and Clifford’s email address. From this week on why not read the passage for next week and send us your thoughts or questions on the passage? Not everyone needs to do it every week, it would be a bit un-manageable if you did, but if there was something that particularly struck you then I am sure that we would both love to hear from you. If preaching is to be meaningful then it should be answering people’s real questions and that seems to me to be a good way to start – so please do, I shall remind you again.
Turning back to today’s reading I am glad to say that the PCC members were as shocked and challenged by Jesus’ words as I was and am. One said that the language used by Jesus was “jarring and terrible” and I think that everyone was shaken up by it. Another asked whether ‘hate’ was even an appropriate English translation of the Greek and pointed out that “The Message” bible uses the phrase “to let go” as in ‘whoever does not let go of father and mother’ and so forth. Whilst this would certainly let us off the hook, in one sense unfortunately The Message is not a strict translation but is a paraphrase of the bible – in the Greek the word used is ‘misei’ which translated strictly as the verb ‘to hate’ so we can’t get out of our dilemma that easily. But of course we are meant to be shocked and shaken and jarred because Jesus was challenging those who were following him then as he challenges us now to really think about this journey that we are on.
Let’s look at the passage a little more carefully. Who is Jesus actually speaking to when he says these difficult words? If we look at v. 25 we see that he was not speaking to the original group of disciples but to a new crowd:
“Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them..”
Who were these people, what did they want from Jesus? Were they out for an afternoon stroll and thought they would tag along with the crowd to see what was going on? Did they want to hear Jesus speak and then pop home again for tea? Did they want to join a political insurrection? Did they perhaps want to follow this man out of vague interest and simply see where it all lead?
Well, Jesus knew where he was heading and he knew what would befall those who followed him most closely:
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus knew that he was not out for an afternoon stroll in the park – he knew that his earthly ministry would culminate not in worldly glory or reward but in him carrying the cross to Golgotha and he knew that many of those who formed the church following the resurrection would also face their own Golgothas. He wanted to tell this large crowd of people loud and clear that following him was going to be hard and that they had to make sure that they were ready to pay the price.
And then in verses 29 to 32 gave a couple of parables to illustrate the point further. A couple of members of the PCC were not sure of the relevance of these and that Is fine, because the point of parables is that they don’t always address the issue head on but rather go around it in a story-telling, parabolic fashion. First Jesus gives the example of a man who sets out to build a tall tower but who only gets as far as digging the foundations before he runs out of money and can’t go any further. Anyone who has watched Grand Designs may well be able to think of episodes where the ambition of the participants far outstrips their budget and you end up shouting at the telly: “Why didn’t you count the cost first!” or words to that effect.
And in the second parable Jesus says that no capable King would go to war unless he had worked out the odds of winning first. One member of the PCC made the point that in these days of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria that this parable is just as relevant now as it was then. You count, or at least try to estimate, the cost first and only commit yourself to the battle if you think you are willing to pay the price.
What is so wonderfully counter-cultural about this passage and others like it, I am thinking particularly of John 6 were many disciples turned back because of the hardness of Jesus’ teaching that unless we eat the body and blood of Christ that we have no life in us, is that unlike much of the church today Jesus is not interested in having large numbers of followers for the sake of it with the promise that everything is easy peasy and challenge free. It seems to me that the Jesus we encounter here, with the encouragement to despise both family and possessions, is the Jesus who inspired the Desert Fathers and Mothers to withdraw from the world and to live lives of asceticism – these were the founders of monasticism – the first monks and nuns, and that movement is still alive and well within the church. I know that some within the church can’t see the point of monasteries but I always say that if you believe in the power of prayer then you should see the monastery as a power station of prayer.
But even most monks and nuns don’t hate their families and most of us aren’t called in that direction so what does this passage mean for us and can we even be real disciples, given what Jesus said?
Firstly I believe that the word ‘hate’ was used primarily for its shock value. It was meant to make us stop and think and it is clear that that is what it did.
Jesus did not hate his mother – when he handed her over to the care of another disciple it is clear that he loved her and wanted her to be looked after. But, and this is the point, Jesus did not let his attachment to his mother overwhelm his own discipleship to God the Father. The cost had been counted first and it was known from the start that Mary would suffer grief.
One comment from a PCC member which I thought was great was this:
“I think that it is not the fact that Jesus wants you to hate your family, your life and indeed yourself before you can be a disciple but in fact hate your life in its entirety without Jesus in it.”
I love that – it makes the point so well that Jesus is not seeking half hearted or luke warm followers who are happy to follow him for a bit but who keep back the majority of their lives from the transforming power of being a disciple. Jesus does not expect his followers to be sociopaths who hate their families nor are we all called to be ascetics living without possessions. However if we are to follow Christ whole-heartedly we have to be prepared to let the love of Christ take precedence over all other attachments. As another PCC member said: “Jesus wanted prospective disciples to know that the Kingdom of God transcends all.”
So where does this leave us? I know that some who considered the passage were left a little downhearted in the sense that Jesus seems to set such a high hurdle of commitment and dedication that it seems impossible for mere mortals to make the grade. I can understand where they are coming from, which is of course why I also picked out this passage in conversation with my DDO and spiritual director. And the point they both made is, of course, that no passage on its own represents the whole of the Gospel. No, we can’t reach perfection on our own and in our own strength and that is where the grace of God, the power of the Holy Spirit and communion with the body of Christ each play their role in lifting us above what we think we can do and helping us to become the people and the disciples that God knows we can be.
If we are prepared to pay the price and to let God fully into our lives then the Kingdom of God awaits. And what that may mean we shall have to explore further another time.