Sermon for Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
“And he chose twelve, that they might be with him . . .” Mark 3:14
Being with Jesus Is the Christian Life – it Is Christian life. Through Baptism we respond to His call to be with Him, He is our food in Scripture and Eucharist, we are with Him as our teacher that at the last we might be with Him. Being with Jesus is the beginning, the middle and the end of our faith.
Yet we tend to think of ‘being with Jesus’ as purely the End – as something for afterwards – not for ‘the time of this mortal life’, as the old prayer book it. In the time of this mortal life we tend to think almost exclusively in terms of ‘Jesus being with us’. And of course it is true, He is with us according to his promise, now and to the end of the age, but he is with us because we are with him. His coming to be with us, as at the first with the disciples, was that they might be with Him. And the two are not the same. If we think of being with Jesus in terms of His being with us, then where we go, he goes. But this is not the life of discipleship, it is not the Christian life. That Life is to go where he goes. To seek Him that we might be with Him, to only want to be where he is. ‘The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’ We do not know where Jesus is going, but we know that we want to be with him, so where he goes, we go also [cf John 14]
Jesus comes to us, that we might be with Him, alongside Him, as his disciples, learning from Him. In Eugene Peterson’s memorable paraphrase, to ‘learn the rhythms of unforced grace’, that way of Life that is Rest.
But the problem is this, that our lives are so fixed. It is far easier we think, more convenient to us and our lives that he is with us and goes where we go. Our schedules after all are full of ‘Important things’ . . . all these things we have to do, that we must do, that we should and ought to do . . . we find it hard to think of any life but our own and so the idea of leaving our life that we might be with him seems ridiculous, and so we may stay fixed and stuck.
“To what will I compare this generation.” John comes, the forerunner, preparing the way of the Lord. He seems harsh and austere – playing his dirge – we don’t mourn our sins and those things which keep us from their Kingdom he announces. He comes neither eating nor drinking and – not given to fasting and repentance we say he has a demon. ‘Lighten up, John!’.
Then comes the king, Full of that Life which repentance prepares us for. Jesus comes playing a flute, but Our life is a series business, no time for dancing, we can’t leave our nets – all that feasting – Who has time for partying with the world the way it is?? Neither hot or cold – Lukewarm
Jesus calls us to Life in its fulness, to be with Him, to Go with Him, to Learn from Him and perhaps to our ears it is too much. Dante in the Divine Comedy says that those who enter purgatory need to rest for they are too weak as yet to enter the fulness of God’s presence . . . and so, the world carries on in the way it always has and we search around looking for the culprits . . .
On the evening of June 3rd, I was in London. Walking with Rose and Andy, in the lowering sun on the millennium bridge, the footbridge which crosses the Thames in London from the Tate Modern to St Paul’s Cathedral, it was a `Beautiful’ evening. It was warm, crowds of people were just enjoying the view, having a relaxed time.
The following morning I returned to St Paul’s the 8am Eucharist – but now the mood was far from relaxed. About 90 minutes after we’d been on the Millennium bridge, just a couple of hundred yards away some men had driven into the crowd in a van and leapt out with knives. Before they were finally shot dead by armed police, they had killed eight people, several of them visitors – who knows, perhaps people we’d been walking with earlier. ‘Ah!! Goes the media and we join in – there are the culprits . . . if only we deal with people like that! but what is the Gospel of Jesus for ‘people like that’
Well at the eucharist, The Dean of St Paul’s, David Ison, who had once been my spiritual director, answered that question. Speaking to a congregation made up in large part of visitors, he reminded us of all that we were gathered on a site where Christian worship had taken place for 1400 years. It had seen famine, plague, fire, it had been bombed by the Luftwaffe. And yet it still stood as testimony to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He then made reference to an earlier attack, in Egypt, where 24 Christian pilgrims, men women and children on their way to a monastery were taken off their bus at gunpoint, called to renounce their faith and shot when they refused. In response the European Bishop of the Coptic Church had written a letter in which he said he had often addressed his words to those who were the victims of such atrocities, and their widows and bereaved families, but he said, and I quote ‘This time however, I feel a need to address those who perpetrate these crimes.
You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved.
You are loved by God, your Creator, for He created you in His Image and according to His Likeness, and placed you on this earth for much greater things, according to His plan for all humankind. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, Who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.’ ‘You are loved by me and millions like me, because we believe in transformation’
The gospel of Jesus Christ is about the transformation of the world – a different story for a world given over to death and despair. Life and Hope in the Name of Jesus. But that story only takes root and becomes visible in the world as people let go of their stories and go to be with Jesus. People who have gone to be with Jesus bear a witness to this different Story, the Truth of our existence.
We look out at the world, seeing it needs to change, it’s as plain as the nose on your face – but do we recognise that if the world is to change, we cannot stay the same. If there is no community which bears witness to this other life, perhaps it is no surprise the world doubts that there is any alternative? Perhaps this is why when John announces the coming King and calls us to prepare ourselves and change, and when the king comes – we are curiously unmoved. Jesus is close to incredulous. He goes on, “ Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! If my miracles and been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they’d have repented in a flash! And as for you Capernaum – did you not see anything??? I tell you that Sodom, yes even Sodom would have had a change of heart if it had seen what you saw”
The Call to change comes first not to those far away, not to those who are strangers to the message – it comes to a people who should know, God’s people. This generation, Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum . . . God’s people – ‘He came to those who were his own and his own knew him not . . .’ God’s people did not recognise their King, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey . . .
Unbelief. Well not all of them. These things were hidden in the gracious will of the Father from the wise and intelligent and were revealed to to infants – to those whom the Father chooses to reveal the Son. There were some who went to be with Him, but to be frank they weren’t much to look at in the eyes of the world. Like their bedraggled King, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt the foal of donkey, they didn’t look out of place.
At the heart of the rejection of the Christian message in the early days two things stood out and in different ways continue to stand out making it unique
A dead Jew on a cross wasn’t sophisticated or intelligent enough for the Greeks and was an abomination to the Jews. It didn’t fit in with the way people saw the world . . .
And secondly, no one believed that human hearts could be changed. ‘ We need new laws!’ ‘Society must be changed!’ but human hearts??
The gospel proclaimed the ultimate miracle, the transformation of the human heart . . . and let’s be clear, we have trouble believing it ourselves. After all, who felt the deep truth of the words of the Coptic Bishop?? You people, who killed innocent men women and yes, children, you are loved . . . and we say this because we believe in transformation. Perhaps it is no wonder the world laughs
Well I told the first part of this story on Wednesday at the Eucharist and promised I’d conclude it today, so for those who have been patiently waiting, here was the end to David’s sermon. ‘We as Christians believe in the transformation of the human heart. We gather today in a building dedicated to St Paul, the first great evangelist of the Church, who spread the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ across so much of the then known world. St Paul let us not forget first comes to our attention because he gives assent to the murder of the first Christians and is converted on his way to Damascus, ‘still breathing out threats and murder . . .’ St Paul is a murderer who is transformed – by being with Jesus. It is how we are all changed, by accepting the invitation to be with Jesus – close with Jesus. Taking his yoke and learning from him
Come to me . . . all you who are weary and heavy laden . . . worn down by the effort of trying to live what you call your own life, weary of that internal conflict which Paul knew so well ‘So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ . . . Hear the words of Jesus – Come to me and I will give you rest. Learn from me. To learn Jesus is to learn Rest. It is to move from the exhausting business of trying to have life on our own terms, trying to fix the world – to simple obedience to him, learnt as we accept the gift of His yoke. it would be a familiar picture to Jesus first hearers. The young untrained ox, yoked to the older experienced one. So that the young one might learn from their elder brother.
Yoked to the one who only does what he sees the Father doing – it is a rather intimate picture. Imagine yourself as that young ox, joined to the Older one – you smell it, you feel its warmth, you hear its breath, perhaps even breathing it in yourself as you sense its strength, the yoke transmits its movements, from time to time you feel the yoke as you are still learning, but the affection grows and the rhythms of unforced grace are slowly learned. You grow to love the Yoke of obedience for you Love the one who has yoked himself to you. This is what it is like to be with Jesus, profound intimacy, learning from Him, day by day and being transformed into his likeness, feeling Him, knowing Him.
This intimacy of friendship, made possible through the Cross where God was reconciling the world to himself – the World which kills Him, the World which kills His people. In the flesh of Jesus, God takes that awkward sinful flesh with which Paul is so familiar, which seems determined to go the hateful and wrong way, and transforms it into the body and blood of the One who only does what he sees the Father doing. From the chaotic shapeless Stress and Strain and Hurt and Pain, to the rhythms of unforced grace.
John in his gospel, the one who lies close to Jesus at supper, hearing his breath and the beat of his heart puts it like this ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’ He has called us His friends – he makes us his friends and invites us to be with Him
Take my yoke – learn from me – for I am gentle and lowly of heart – and you will find rest for your souls – and the world will see its true King. Amen