Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
John Pridmore, former Rector of Hackney, now retired, once wrote about a conversation he’d had with an archdeacon about Simone Veil, the French philosopher, mystic and political activist. The archdeacon said she was a saint – but then added ‘totally barking, of course’. Sounds insulting, but not as derogatory a comment as you might first assume. His reason for saying it was that he felt Simone Veil was one of those extremely rare Christians, who, believing what Jesus teaches is true, actually did what he said. That archdeacon, said John Pridmore, was only voicing aloud what most of us probably think: that you would need to be sectioned if you took Jesus at his word and lived the way he said we should: turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, bless those who persecute you, do good to those who hate you, put the interests of others before your own…. and, in today’s Gospel, hate your family and give up all your possessions.
Luke’s Gospel has more than its fair share of things we might wish Jesus hadn’t said. Clearly Jesus’ call to discipleship makes it clear following him is no easy option. ‘Count the cost of following me’, he says, and then adds a warning, ‘It will mean bearing your own cross’, a phrase which really hits home, because at this point in the Gospel, Jesus is continuing relentlessly on his way to Jerusalem and, eventually, to his own cross.
These difficult and demanding sayings highlight just how hard it is to put Jesus’ words into practice. Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t seem to be able to get much of a handle on it all, and I’m not sure we’ve made all that much progress despite 2000 years of Christian history in between. Luke portrays a Jesus who frequently subverts common assumptions about where real authority and human loyalties truly belong. It seems it is not in the possession of a land, so central to Jesus’ own Hebrew history and identity. Nor in religious institutions, where the focus is too often on preserving their own power and influence (and despite the importance of the Temple). It isn’t even in your blood family, despite the fact that the family lay at the very heart of Judaism. It is found in resetting your priorities and expanding your vision of who belongs in your land and your religious community and, indeed, your family. In Luke, especially, Jesus says to his followers: you are to be different. This Gospel speaks of a new kind of authority found in love of God and neighbour, the summary of the Hebrew law.
Prevailing human understandings of power and authority – as opposed to Jesus’ more radical ideas – did eventually find their way into the institutional Christian church. Indeed many would argue it all went wrong for Christianity once it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. For similar reasons, some might argue today for the disestablishment of the Church of England. For despite some clear advantages, there are also many potential pitfalls when religion is perceived as an arm of the state, too close for comfort to those powerful institutions which hold sway over the lives of so many people. Unfortunately, for too much of its own history – perhaps especially in Western Christendom – the retention of power and control have been fairly central to the church’s identity. That hasn’t entirely disappeared, though it has certainly waned nowadays – in line with the influence of the church itself. In the newer climate of rationalism, secularism and suspicion we inhabit today, the church often finds itself (sometimes through its own fault) lumped alongside other institutions people have become disillusioned with or cynical about: perhaps the EU, politicians, the police, the financial sector, or the media, to name just a few.
Had he been speaking in our society over the past few years, Jesus’ observations might well have included: You know that the bankers of today lord it over the economy, while making sure their personal nests remain well-feathered; and media bosses, ignoring the consequences, allow people’s grief to be invaded and hound those who are later exonerated; and the power and influence you accord to celebrities can lead to widespread abuse of some innocent and vulnerable people. In the spirit of the Gospel, you can almost hear Jesus saying to his followers now: you are to be different. And the questions keep on coming for us individually, as well as our institutions. What Jesus says confronts the way we conduct our human affairs to the very core, from international conflicts, the global economy and aid for the poor, the pressures on the environment, media influence, through to local politics, and the ways people treat each other at work, at home and in their neighbourhoods. Wherever people are prone to dominate or exploit others, or the wider environment, that insistent voice continues to say: you are to be different. The Jesus philosophy urges us to reconsider the way we order our society and its institutions, and our relationships with each other.
How willing are we, I wonder, to take Jesus’ radicalism on board, especially when it makes demands on us personally? It sounds good in theory, but are we really up for re-modelling our lives on the Jesus we meet in Luke, and all that might entail – even at the risk of being labelled ‘barking’? And, in the church, how far does our common life mirror the picture in today’s Gospel? In the church, as well as in other areas of our community life, we have in recent years been made aware of just how much damage can sometimes been done by those who have abused positions of influence and the trust of those over whom they have exercised authority. People have been demeaned, humiliated and left scarred – physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually – because they have been told to turn the other cheek, even when that leads to further violence or exploitation. They have been taught to go that extra mile, even when that mile never comes to an end. They have been taught to honour people in authority over them, and not to ask questions. Misplaced obedience has too often led to the abuse of those who were among the most vulnerable.
In complete contrast, Jesus’ ministry seems to have been marked by the asking of many questions – of his society and his religious tradition. His primary obedience was to God: not to the religious establishment, not to the political authorities, not to his own family or his disciples. His approach led to him being tormented, persecuted, ostracised and, in the end, killed, for his alternative vision. His philosophy, as the Gospel makes clear, included a welcome for the outsider, a radical embrace of the routinely rejected and marginalised, a root and branch challenge to the way his society functioned, and a subversive interrogation of his own religious tradition – all summed up in the priority of love for God being made real in love for neighbour. This is no wishy-washy love, but a tough love which demands that people be willing to re-shape the world around them, with a particular emphasis on the poor and the excluded; to challenge the priorities of their society and its authorities; to ask questions of the status quo rather than merely acquiesce with it; and to reform their religious life in order to prioritise basic humanity, as opposed to skewed notions of authority or self-serving rules and regulations. And it may well prove costly, as the twin parables in today’s Gospel make clear: ‘don’t start to build a tower you can’t afford to finish; don’t wage a war you don’t have the resources to win’. We are being asked to see the vision through to reality, and it may well be a long haul.
If our Christian discipleship doesn’t appear to have cost us very much, then perhaps, in the light of Luke’s Gospel, we should be asking ourselves why that is. Because the followers of Jesus are urged towards a personal transformation, potentially leading to transformed communities, religious institutions, societies and, ultimately, a more expansive notion of family and, therefore, a different kind of world. And lest we think all this really is barking, or beyond the sphere of our miniscule influence, the reality is that it begins, often in the smallest of ways, with each of us, here and now. And, as Jesus makes plain, it is nothing less than the work of God.