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’. An insult, 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, invite those you know can never return the favour, do good to those who hate you, put the interests of others before your own, take the lowest seat at the table, be the servant of all…..
I’ve sometimes recalled that archdeacon’s comments before some important church service, when earnest discussions take place in the vestry beforehand about who should process before whom when the service begins, and who should sit where in the sanctuary. Such discussions remain largely uninformed by the Gospel that someone prominently placed in that procession will shortly be reading. And don’t get me started on titles: who is the Most Reverend, or Very Revd., or Right Revd., or The Venerable, or just a plain old Reverend? It all seems so far removed from the sort of story we hear in today’s Gospel.
Two key words leap out of today’s readings from St Luke and the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘humility’ and ‘hospitality’. They both say something significant about Jesus’ teaching, but they also highlight just how difficult it is to put that teaching into practice. Jesus’ contemporaries didn’t seem to be able to get much of a handle on it, and I don’t think we’ve done any better despite 2000 years of Christian history in between – in fact, possibly because of 2000 years of Christian history, particularly as it has been seen in the institution of the Church. Why do I say that? Because Jesus subverts common notions of power and authority. For him, these had nothing to do with thrones, places of honour at the dinner table, or hierarchies: quite the reverse. Jesus said to his followers: you are to be different. The Gospel speaks of a new understanding of power built on service, and strength being found in apparent weakness. Prevailing human understandings of power and authority – as opposed to Jesus’ more radical ideas – did eventually find their way into the institutional 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. 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. What Jesus says confronts the way we conduct our human affairs to the very core, from international conflicts, the global economy, 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 that humility and hospitality are to mark the way we order our society and our relationships with each other. And that real power, paradoxically, is made perfect in weakness.
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 modelling our lives on Jesus the servant and all that might entail, even at the risk of being labelled ‘barking’? And, in the church, how far do our common life, our structures and our decision-making mirror the picture in today’s Gospel? Humility often implies being servile, weak, passive and dependent. A humble servant is one who has to obey the authority of a superior. In various areas of life, including, tragically, the church, 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 power. 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. Vulnerability, hospitality and generosity have been abused in what too often turned out to be misplaced obedience.
By complete contrast, Jesus’ notion of servanthood, of humility, implies true freedom. From the evidence we have, Jesus asked many questions and was obedient only to God: not to the religious establishment, not to the political authorities, not to his own disciples. His perception of his role is summed up in his statement that ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ This takes practical form in the washing of his disciples’ feet.
But although Jesus came as a servant, he refused the ‘doormat’ label. His approach led to him being tormented, persecuted, ostracised and, in the end, killed, for his new vision of power and authority being made real in humility and in service. 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 questioning of his own religious tradition – all summed up in the priority of love for God being exemplified 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 in terms of economics, politics and justice, 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.
Above all, the Gospel calls all of us, as Jesus’ followers, to a personal transformation, grounded in humility and hospitality. Humility: surrendering of the self, and hospitality: openness to the other, which can potentially transform societies, institutions (churches included) – politics, economics, individual people – local communities and, ultimately, the world. And lest we think this really is barking, or beyond the sphere of our miniscule influence, the reality is that it begins with each of us here and now, for, in the Jesus economy, even the smallest act of humility and hospitality is nothing less than the work of God.