Sermon for High Mass Trinity 2 Sunday Sunday 30 June 2019
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 2 Proper 8
Beginnings and endings tell us a lot about what comes in between. Today’s Gospel marks the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, from which we’ll hear nineteen short episodes over the coming weeks. We all know how this one ends. But we don’t always sufficiently notice the beginning.
As this journey begins, Luke shows Jesus facing a number of questions. The first people he meets on the road are inhospitable Samaritans, who regard Jerusalem as the wrong destination. Why should they be gracious to a group of Jews who are travelling to a theological mistake? Two of Jesus’ disciples think that the correct response to such religious difference is to incinerate their opponents. Jesus doesn’t think much of a pastoral strategy that cannot be distinguished from a holocaust. His answer is to keep moving and not be distracted from his ultimate goal: Jerusalem.
As they journey on, Jesus is questioned by three prospective disciples. Jesus warns the first that to follow him means following an itinerant who has nowhere to lay his head, a clear warning that a lack of hospitality will continue to be a problem. The second and third questioners want to follow Jesus, but hesitate before prior claims: one has to bury his father; the other has to say goodbye to his parents. In Judaism family loyalty is a matter of religious duty. But Jesus says ‘no’ to these quite proper prior attachments which call people back to the home they have left. To be freed for his mission the disciple must be freed from past ties. For the sake of the kingdom the disciple may have to set aside security, duty and affection.
Elijah’s call of Elisha (our first reading, 1 Kings 19.15-21), offers a point of comparison. Elisha says, ‘let me kiss my father and my mother and then I will follow you’: he is allowed to do both. Elijah’s call to Elisha can be added to existing responsibilities. Jesus’ call is different: all existing responsibilities are to be questioned. They may be given back as part of calling, but only part of it, enclosed within it, subordinated to it.
Also, Elijah’s mantle falls upon Elisha. Elisha is allowed to succeed Elijah, become a prophet like his master when the latter finally departs. But when Jesus ascends to heaven, his followers do not replace him. They remain followers, and he remains present as their living Lord.
Here is what we glibly call Christian ‘discipleship’. Having found a name for it we generally then ignore it and get on with daily life, trying to keep at our prayers and attempting ethical behaviour guided by Christ’s life and teaching. But this gospel, if read literally, doesn’t allow that compromise.
Literal reading is, as always, the first thing to interrogate. When I was working in Sydney, in a moment of undoubted madness the Archbishop asked me to join his doctrine commission. This comprised about 10 extremely hard-line evangelicals (it felt like 100), including soon-to-be Archbishop Jenson … and me. The main agenda-item for my first meeting in this lions’ den was the Christian theology of work. The English Bishops had just published a document on this topic, all about responsible Christian behaviour in the workplace, carefully placed in a Trinitarian relational framework. I went to the meeting having read this document carefully, only to discover that not only had they never heard of it, but that the pressing issue for them was whether bible-believing Christians could conscientiously undertake any work that was not ministry for the gospel. As so often in my life I realised I was stuck in the wrong room.
But that is precisely the challenge which Jesus poses at the beginning of his journey: the disciple is called to be free of other attachments. This is the classic justification for clerical celibacy. That’s going well isn’t it? I have come to recognise, having ministered both as a married person and now a not-married person, that there is a big difference. The question, to which each of us will have a different answer, is whether one’s humanity, one’s personhood, can survive the lack of attachments for the sake of the gospel that Jesus seems to require. I guess that not one of us in church this morning passes Jesus’ absolute test. So should we just go home now? If not, we do need to work out what to do with this.
The answer is not, clearly, the Sydney doctrine commission’s first suggestion (which incidentally didn’t quite convince even them) that the only true Christians are in full-time ministry. That’s just a new protestant clericalism. Also bonkers. But no matter how much we try to ignore it, or play it down, the call to simplicity of lifestyle and detachment are large elements of the teaching of Jesus and, maybe more importantly, the way he lived his own life, which he calls us to follow.
Many preachers blast off in loopy-land when they proclaim lessons from this teaching. Jesus’ words have a radical edge that must not be blunted, but if all Christians everywhere lived this teaching literally we would constitute a family of happy but homeless people, surrounded at a safe distance by decomposing loved ones. Even Sydney diocese doctrine commission worked that out. Eventually.
Some Christians are given the gift of living very simply for the sake of the Kingdom, whether in traditional religious communities or newer experiments (which usually turn into religious communities if they have any true life in them). To the degree that this gift brings life to them and those around them, it is a wonderful sign of God’s kingdom.
I am happy to admit that doesn’t come naturally to me. And I have too often witnessed at close quarters the corrosive effects of meanness and judgmentalism dressed up as an ethically simple life, when it really expresses a fear of living generously, or an inability to rejoice in others’ happiness. But I have also to face up to the real challenge of Jesus’ teaching here. As often there’s a paradox. Because Jesus also calls us to community, the church: relationships which are differently familial from ties of blood and marriage. And notice that while he issues these confronting challenges, we aren’t told that any of these three failed to follow him; just that he challenged their level of commitment, told them it would not be as easy as saying the words.
It’s about attachment and priorities (‘seek first the Kingdom of God’). And it’s not just about money. We are also called to detach ourselves from memories, which can be cluttered with anger and a desire for revenge; from the demands of work, which keep us from being with those we love and are often of questionable value anyway. And we are called to be generous with our time, talent, hospitality and compassion.
Previous generations have strayed from the challenge of this Gospel in obvious ways. Grand cathedrals, courtly behaviour, cultivation of the establishment (the special temptation of the Church of England) were said to reflect on earth the reign of God. In our age these props are falling away, one by one, rather quickly. I believe that the challenge in our day is to be more awake to who we are in the world; to live the gospel in the personal, local and particular ways that make it self-evidently valuable to those who observe us.