Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Last week there was an article in the Evening Standard, that claimed that in inner London in certain circles the Christian faith is actually becoming cool and hip – not words I use very often, not in that sense anyway. This hipness doesn’t seem to have reached the suburbs yet by the way – at least not Richmond, though perhaps I’m out of touch.
And I suppose that Christianity being cool has got to be a good thing. I guess that most of us come to faith for imperfect reasons, as it were. And coming to God because he’s cool or fashionable seems pretty imperfect to me. But if it means people take God seriously, then fine.
I’ve long suspected that what prevents most people from taking the Christian faith seriously is that it has a reputation for being profoundly uncool and unhip. In effect they think that being a Christian would be bad for their image.
Occasionally I hear someone on the radio say something that could be interpreted as being vaguely Christian. Then they’ll hurriedly say something like: ‘not that I’m a Christian, you understand’. As if they couldn’t bear the thought of someone jumping to the conclusion that they were actually a Christian! That would obviously be just too awful for words!
Too often, it seems to me, we live our lives in other people’s heads. That’s what, in my view, this apparently pretty widespread desire to be famous is. We crave people’s good opinion, their admiration, even their envy. Often we want other people to think that we’re better than they are. We want to have some kind of power over them. But of course, by craving their good opinion we do the opposite – we are giving other people power over us.
In our Gospel reading Jesus talks about the spiritual value of not wanting to be the greatest. And he’s not just talking about political power. He means all those games we play to gain the admiration of others. They’re a form of power-seeking. In our heart of hearts we know it’s nonsense but we’re in many ways addicted to the good opinion of others.
We make life into a kind of competition. And even if we can’t win it, we certainly don’t want to be among the stragglers and the also rans.
Even being good, morally good, can become a sort of competition. Look at me, we may think to ourselves. Look how big a proportion of my money I give to charity. Look how many old ladies I’ve helped across the street this week. Look how humble I am. Golly, I must be just about the most humblest person in the whole parish, if not the whole diocese. We may not say such things out loud, but that doesn’t mean we don’t think them – even if it’s only semi-consciously.
It’s not a bad thing to want to be a good person. Now, it’s easy to want to appear to be good, but, if you really want to be a good person, here’s some advice I picked up from somewhere: don’t even try. Don’t try to be good; don’t try to be loving; don’t try to be humble; in fact, don’t try to be anything. Because, if you’re trying, it’s most likely your ego that’s doing the trying. When the ego is taking its exercise, it doesn’t leave much room for the Holy Spirit.
It’s like the old proverbial bump in the carpet. Press it down in one place and it will just pop up somewhere else. The ego is an expert in popping up somewhere else. Just when we think we’re being a thoroughly good egg, we realise that actually our real motivations are thoroughly self-centred.
Don’t misunderstand me. It’s a good thing to want to be good. But it’s not easy to really, really want to be good.
Of course, when I say ‘don’t even try’, I’m exaggerating. There’s a place for effort and the will – they’re part of being human – but it’s a subordinate place.
I reckon the only way we achieve goodness is by letting go and allowing God to love us. That’s what he’s doing anyway, we just don’t see it. We need to open ourselves up to the love of God at every turn and crossroads in our lives and in every nook and cranny of our hearts.
And I only know three ways of doing that: prayer, more prayer and even more prayer – putting yourself in God’s presence and letting him love you and change you, as he wills, not as we will. That’s all it is. It’s far too simple. It’s so simple it’s incredibly difficult. We think it has to be more complicated than that. But it isn’t.
Sometimes we’re afraid that God may be angry with us if we’re not good. As I think the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr says somewhere: God doesn’t love us because we’re good, he loves us because he’s good. I’m going to say that again. It’s so true, it should be in the Bible. God doesn’t love us because we’re good, he loves us because he’s good.
We don’t earn God’s love. He knows of what we are made and he still loves us infinitely. He loved us in the past; he loves us now and he’ll love us in the future. Once we get that knowledge firmly and permanently embedded in our heads and hearts, the rest will follow like night follows day. It’s the only way. We don’t pull ourselves up morally by our own moral bootstraps.
By now you may be asking yourselves: where does Bartholomew fit into all this? We’re celebrating one of the apostles and you haven’t even mentioned him. Well, the truth is, we know next to nothing about Bartholomew. You may have noticed that our readings don’t even mention his name.
But perhaps that’s actually a positive thing. Perhaps Bartholomew took Jesus’ teaching to heart. Perhaps he just didn’t want to be the greatest. Perhaps he was content to be one who serves. Perhaps he was content to be an also ran. Perhaps he was content to be unknown, to be merely a name. Perhaps he knew that all that stuff about power and status didn’t matter one jot. Perhaps he’d seen the truth in that verse from Isaiah that we heard, where God says:
I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no saviour.
Perhaps he’d realised that we are only saved by God. We don’t save ourselves and we’re certainly not saved by how great or wonderful we may think we are in our own eyes or in the eyes of others.