Reading Luke 14: 25-33
Preacher The Revd Alan Sykes
We’ve just experienced the 2016 version of the Olympic Games and we got used to stories of athletes and swimmers and cyclists and exponents of taekwondo making great sacrifices in order to have a tilt at winning a gold medal – or maybe 2, 3 or 4 gold medals.
If you want to be a top-flight sports-man or -woman, you’ve got to be prepared to really put your back into it. Gone are the days when a rank amateur, who has done hardly any training, could turn up and expect to be a contender. Perhaps those days never existed.
All of us know the theory of giving something up in order to gain what we perceive to be a greater good. We save up for that holiday of a lifetime or that new car with the really powerful engine.
Gold medals, holidays, cars – these are relatively trivial matters in the great scheme of things.
It seems to me that the greatest, the most un-trivial, thing in life is to find union with God. I don’t think that a greater good could even be conceived.
So the question raises its head: if we agree that union with God is the greatest conceivable good that there could possibly be, what sacrifices are we prepared to make in order to achieve it? Are we really serious about it?
That’s the question that lies behind today’s gospel reading. Jesus’ demands seem shockingly extreme: you must hate all the members of your family; you must give up all your possessions; you must carry your own cross. Don’t forget that in the Roman Empire the cross was a means of painful and ignominious death.
Those are extreme demands by any stretch of any imagination. I expect you’re wondering whether I think we need to take them literally.
Well, we’ll come back to that later.
I’d like to move on in the meantime by highlighting another saying of Jesus. Jesus is quoted as saying the following – or something very similar – six times in the gospels. So it must be important. This is the version in Luke 17:
Whoever seeks to gain their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will keep it.
By which I think Jesus means that the way most of us live our lives most of the time is not in accordance with who we really are. We live our lives at a fairly superficial level but essentially that’s not really us. We’ve lost touch with our real selves.
The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton coined the phrase the false self to describe the person we try to be most of the time. The false self constructs for itself a completely illusory self-image which we are continually striving to attain or, if partially attained, to reinforce – success, wealth, status, popularity, beauty, power of one sort or another. Notice that those aren’t bad things in and of themselves. Typically, the false self wants to be well thought of by others – and to think well of itself. It’s a life of self-obsession.
The false self stands in contrast to the true self.
Merton says this:
[The false self] is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God —because Truth, Light — knows nothing about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.
My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love— outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
He goes on:
All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life around which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honour, knowledge, feeling loved, in order to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real.
But it remains nothingness.
The true self – that which we really are – is based on love and in it there is no hatred or contempt or even indifference – and no self-hatred or self-contempt either. It’s the very life of God living within us. That’s who we really are.
So, to use Merton’s terminology, Jesus in our gospel is exhorting us to find our true selves.
We may not literally need to carry a cross – a symbol of death – but we do need to find the way to a greater life away from the diminished life of the false self.
We may not literally need to hate our family but we do need to transcend our limited, ego-tainted affections in order to find a deeper, wider and even stronger love for God and all our fellow human beings. That way we will actually love our families better.
We do not literally need to give away all our possessions but we need to die to our possessions. We need to cease being possessed by our possessions. If we can do that, we possess everything – though of course in a quite different way.
One of my favourite theological writers is Richard Bauckham. He’s a New Testament scholar but he writes on a wide range of topics. He says this (and it’s another lengthy quote):
In the current concern about religious violence people commonly claim that it’s religious “extremists” that are the problem. People who are moderate about their religion are OK, it is implied. It is when people take their religion too seriously that they begin to threaten the rest of us.
I do not buy that approach. There is nothing moderate about loving God with all our heart and all our soul, all our mind and all our strength – as the God of Israel demanded and Jesus heartily endorsed. There was nothing moderate about Mother Teresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or any of those people Christians have recognised as saints. Mother Teresa was surely a religious extremist, extreme in her love for God and her devotion to the poor.
What we need according to Bauckham isn’t fewer people who are extremists in that they love God with all their hearts and love their neighbour as themselves – we need more extremists, people who have really discovered what life is about and go for it with everything they’ve got.
That, I’m convinced, is what Jesus is driving at in our gospel reading. There’s a lot of rhetoric and exaggeration in there. What he’s saying fundamentally is that our love must not be limited. Our love needs to be broadened and deepened and strengthened so that it includes everyone and everything.
Love for God is the bedrock on which that ever broadening, ever deepening, ever strengthening love must be founded. Unless it’s founded in God, that love will be a mere imagined fancy – unreal because it’s founded on emptiness.
So, yes, Jesus is being extreme. He was extreme in his love for God and for his fellow human beings. And he wants us to be extreme as well. By sacrificing our false self we find our true self, which is nothing other than a being in union with God.