All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 21 September 2014

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 21 September 2014

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

A young man, whose parents had died leaving him a large inheritance, went to church one day in the city of Memphis.  This was in the second half of the third century, so it was Memphis in Egypt not the one in Tennessee. During the service he heard same the passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel as was read earlier in this service, with Jesus’s words to the rich young man: “Go, sell your  possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19.21)

He did just that with his inheritance and went to live alone in the desert as an anchorite, a solitary ascetic, spending much of his time in prayer and study; earning his living by making baskets.

He lived in complete solitude for 20 years.  The severe spiritual and physical temptations, he experienced, made him aware of the dangers of solitude for the unprepared, and, as disciples gathered round him, he organised them into loosely knit communities and exerted a certain authority over them. He initiated a form of monastic rule where

  • the common life,
  • prayer 
  • the rule of a superior
  • and fraternal love

proved more secure means of holiness of life than eremitic practices. 

He is known to us as St. Antony of Egypt, venerated as the founder of Christian monasticism.

Let’s turn our attention back to the rich young man in the gospel passage. He seems an idealistic type.  He asks Jesus, “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” as though there were just one clear path this renowned teacher could set him that would make the gaining of eternal life absolutely secure. 

Jesus begins by taking up the idea of “goodness,” applying it solely to God. Then he sends the man back to the Torah – the Jewish law – summed up in the Ten Commandments.  When the young man presses his question further, “Which ones?”, Jesus quotes the “Second Table” commandments ( those dealing with the neighbour), adding to the commandment about honouring one’s parents a further positive command from Leviticus 19.18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  

We see him moving the man away from the rather individualist concern reflected in his initial question. , to a more outward-looking view focussed on the neighbour.  The young man’s protestation that he has kept all these, and his persistence – ‘What do I still lack?” convey the sense of seeking something beyond the Torah way. Jesus seems to agree, because he goes on to issue a majestic invitation: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

It is not clear how we should understand “perfect” here.  What does it add to the keeping of the commandments which Jesus has pointed to as leading to eternal life, and to which he had added the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself, later indicated as the second of the commandments upon which “hang the whole law and the prophets?”  Is a ‘perfection’ being described here over and above the keeping of the Torah, even in this radicalised way? 

In the Jewish thought world presupposed by Matthew’s gospel “perfect” has particular reference to observance of the Torah. By inviting the young man to sell all and “come, follow me” Matthew’s Jesus is adding to the essential definition of “perfection” the following of himself in discipleship.  From now on, there can be no Torah perfection that does not include following him in dispossession from all sources of security except radical trust in God. The “good thing” the young man should do is to surrender himself totally to the One who alone is good.

For the young man, however, the cost is too high.  The grief that accompanies his departure shows that in his deepest self he wants to take up Jesus’ invitation, but his many possessions in fact possess him.  Unlike the man who found treasure in the field, or the merchant who found the pearl of great price, he lacks the freedom to “sell all” in order to obtain the kingdom.

The young man’s dilemma leads into Jesus speaking to his disciples about the blockage wealth creates for entrance into the kingdom of heaven.  The saying of about the camel and the eye of the needle is a piece of hyperbole, comic exaggeration, meant to shock hearers out of complacency. It works with the disciples. They protest that what Jesus has just said would exclude almost everyone from salvation.  He points out that salvation is a divine gift not a human achievement. By placing their security in something less that God (wealth) human beings block their access to divine power and goodness. Hence the “difficulty” being attached to wealth creates in regard to salvation. The only wise thing to do with wealth is to give it here and new to the poor, thereby converting it into currency viable in the kingdom – “treasure in heaven.”

Peter’s observation that he and the other disciples have in fact done what the young man declined to do – left everything to follow Jesus – leads Jesus to assure them of their treasure in heaven.  They loss they suffer here and now is vastly exceeded by the “hundredfold” that awaits them following the great reversal at the end of time.  Only in the light of that reversal does the kind of life they have embraced make sense. s

An age-old question is with us still: Is the call to radical discipleship – “perfection” – Jesus issues to the young man something meant for a special category of followers, or whether it applies to all believers without discrimination? 

In recent years, interpreters, Catholic as well as Protestant, have scrambled over each other to distance themselves from any suggestion of a special category – the kind of thing which led the Catholic tradition spoke of “states of perfection.” (monks, religious and clergy) distinct from the ordinary mass of the faithful.

The pendulum needs to swing back a bit, if we are to recover a balance. On the one hand, the fact that Peter goes on to point out that he and the other disciples have done what the young man did not – left all things and followed Jesus – does suggest that Jesus is speaking more generally. On the other hand, when we look at the list of what leaving involves (v29) – not only houses, siblings and parents but also children – clearly what is in view is the itinerant life of Jesus and his immediate disciples in the towns and villages of Galilee.  There is no way that a community like that of Matthew, which saw itself as living for at least several generations could require such radical abandonment of family life from all its members. Counter to Jesus’s own words and actions in the section immediately before (19.13-15), “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven,” children could have no place in such a community.

Matthew sees Jesus’ invitation as applying to all in some respects and not in others. It applies to all in the sense that salvation is entirely the gift of God that comes to us in Jesus.

It further applies to us all in the sense that reliance on wealth for security gets in the way of the radical trust in God incumbent upon all who enter the kingdom.  Those who retain some measure of wealth and adopt family life must come to terms in other ways with this inner requirement of the kingdom of heaven. 

But as the history of Christianity has shown, there will always be some who hear Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man as addressed literally to them.  They take on a pattern of discipleship more closely patterned on that of Jesus and his immediate disciples, with its radical poverty and dependence on the hospitality of others for support. 

The two applications of what Jesus says are not mutually exclusive. 

And that brings us back to St. Antony of Egypt, and the better-known Francis of Assisi. Such individuals have inspired others to follow them. So the Church has had monastic and other religious orders.   Their history, with recurring reform movements when compromise with wealth and status seems to have gone too far, demonstrate that the call to radical dependency is not an easy one on any age.

The Archbishop of `Canterbury has stated that one of his priorities is the renewal of the religious life. There has been a gathering of Anglican religious superiors at Lambeth Palace, and now young people are being offered the opportunity to experience something of the religious life there.

Archbishop Justin, as is well-known, comes from a charismatic-evangelical background, but he is also a Benedictine oblate – that is an associate of a monastic community who share something of its life and rule.

The Reformation reacted against the two-tier view of the Church in which the religious were first class citizens and everyone else, second-class. The religious life in England came to an end with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. This was a shameless piece of asset-stripping by the crown seeking to reinforce its power at the expense of a monastic movement grown over-wealthy.

The life was restored in the Church of England by the Oxford Movement. It was restored in places like this, where the all Saints Sisters of the Poor were founded by the Vicar, a married man, and Mother Harriet, of what became one of the largest communities in the Anglican Communion. Those of you who come here to Evening Prayer during the week, or Morning Prayer on Sundays, will know that for years now we have been praying for our religious communities each day, using the cycle of prayer they have produced. Like many communities in both Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches it is now much reduced. The reasons for this are too complex to explore in a sermon.

But the monastic life continues to give birth of new forms – some based in one denomination –like the Benedictine Jerusalem community which began in a run-down church in Paris. Its brothers and sisters do not live in a cloister but in flats in the area. They mostly have secular jobs. They share their worship with others who live and work in the area.  Other communities are ecumenical – like the monasteries at Taizé in France and Bose in Italy, which attract so many people, especially the young, or the Chemin Neuf community with members now living at Lambeth Palace.

In our own church, the Benedictines at Mucknell Abbey, brothers and sisters, and one of the brothers a Methodist minister and another, a former weekday worshipper here, who discovered the religious life by reading a leaflet about in church here.  They sold the large Victorian monastery in which the community had been established in cooperation with an elderly group of nuns, and moved to a new home in which they could live an environmentally sustainable lifestyle, as an expression of monastic simplicity.

Other communities of people involved in what is called the “New Monasticism” in which people, married couples as well as single people band together in communities under a rule, often living in places on the margins, the “Fresh Expressions of Church” movement are exploring ways in which some kind of monastic life in which people make temporary vows can serve the mission of the church.

The two approaches to Jesus’ call are not mutually exclusive. The call to radical discipleship in the monastic or religious life, serves as a living reminder to the whole Church of its call to be with Christ in the poor and to live in radical dependency on the grace of God. A Church which lives such a life will itself produce more people who are prepared to follow Jesus in the religious life.

I cannot know whether anyone who heard the words of Jesus to the rich young man this evening will leave this church and seek to follow Jesus in the religious life. I can hope and pray that we will all look afresh at where we locate our security: is it in God or in our possessions?  Will we re-evaluate our attitude both to God and to our possessions?  Will he see the latter as gifts of the former – to be used for his glory?  Will we follow him?