GK Chesterton once said “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been tried and found too difficult”
There’s a temptation to think that these words are aimed at an audience outside of the church, but Chesterton was a wise old owl . . . he knew the reality of the Church well enough not to romantically imagine ‘here are the people who get it . . .’
Judgement begins with the people of God, those who have the sacred scriptures, those to whom God offers the Spirit and the Eucharist . . . those without excuse
‘Jesus is coming for his church’ we hear . . . and those words should give us pause
I once had a church that over ten years I had helped to get along without me . . . then I left. Unfortunately they appointed a new Vicar who took charge and made himself indispensable . . .
I’ve always struggled with the idea of being ‘a Vicar’. I remember telling my own Vicar that no one should be a Vicar as Vicar was from the word ‘vicarious’ – in the place of . . . Jesus
Although that isn’t its actual historic meaning – the Vicar replaced the Rector – all the same the idea that the people of God need ‘someone in charge’ has a very very long history, and God’s rejection of that is the heart of the message of Easter, now made most clear as Jesus goes to be with the Father.
Down through the years Israel had wanted one thing above all else – ‘a king, then we can be like the other nations’ As Samuel the prophet tears his hair out, God speaks to him – it is not you they are rejecting, it is me. Whenever we hear a call for leadership in the church it is the same – God is being rejected and the way of Jesus abandoned. As Bishop Kelvin used to say ‘those who cry out for leadership want someone to support their position’
But, to use a not inappropriate metaphor, Ascension Day is the day that Jesus says to His church, ‘now it’s time to put on your big boy pants’.
For three years Jesus has been showing the disciples the Way – His Way . . . They have squabbled – they have fought for power – Jesus has shown them His way laying down his power . . . which leaves them speechless and uncomprehending, and on Easter morning plain terrified.
He was only here for a season – The work has been finished upon the cross he reminds his disciples. Sins are forgiven. It is time to grow up and follow me in laying down your power . . .
Yet, to develop Chesterton’s words – it is not that following Jesus has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has been found too hard and not tried . . .
For the way of Jesus is Very hard, but not in the way we think. It is not hard in the worldly sense that we have to flog ourselves to death in His service. After all Jesus says ‘Come to me, and I will give you rest’
Back to why Vicars are a bad idea . . . Those of you blessed with children know all about this. “Muuum . . . johnnie said a bad word! Susie hit me! ” Dealing with children is dealing with the inability of children to grow up and live authentic human lives. It requires ‘a parent figure’ who is ‘in charge’ and judges between one person and another . . . yet Jesus said ‘man, who appointed me as a judge between you . . .’ Hey, Jesus – aren’t you here to tell people how right I am?
The story of Israel in the wilderness is a story about children. Moses is worn out because all the people bring their disputes to him . . . “so and so did this, or that or the other.” But all of that came to an end on the Cross. There, the Judge dies . . . The King dies . . . The Cult of the leader is demolished.
Now there is only the Life of God, or death – except the Way of God looks like death to us and that’s our problem
Sometimes in ministry someone says something which reveals that they have seen the way of Jesus and rejected it, whilst still holding on to their self-righteous ‘Christianity’.
I remember well how at a Christian basics group I ran a young woman, the eldest of three sisters, on hearing the story of the Prodigal and how the Father went out to bring him home and dress him in the best robe, “After all he had done!” cried out “That’s not fair!” BLessed was she who heard. For once the horrible message of Jesus had struck home.
“Horrible message?” Yes, that is how it appears to us, the way of death, the Cross in all its ghastliness confronts us.
Another example – Corrie Ten Boom – whose family hid Jews from the Nazis in wartime Holland. Eventually they were betrayed and taken to Ravensbruck Concentration camp where with her beloved sister Betsie, who dies there, she conducted worship services and led many to the way of Jesus
After the war Corrie had a remarkable ministry – she went all over Europe preaching the gospel of forgiveness. As she recalls that message and ministry was most powerful in Germany and it was there one day she was confronted with the “Horrible” message of Jesus. After preaching in a small church a man whose face was radiant from this the transformation this message had worked in him came to her to thank her. As he held out his hand she recognized him, one of the SS officers from Ravensbruck. He had been set free by the announcement of the gospel . . . but had Corrie . . . well you can read all about it in The Hiding Place.
The counsel of Jesus is clear and terrible at the same time. I have known Christians ignore it. ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, go to them in private and show them their fault’ . . . “What? Grovel before that person? Humiliate myself?!” The horrible message of Jesus strikes home . . . His Life giving message is about dying . . . Notice Jesus did not say – “if your brother or sister sins against you, go and find the church leaders and get them to deal with it, as in the days of Moses. Get them to grant you justice!” The Judge is Dead – so is The King . . . No now it is the Way of Jesus – laying down your life, your dignity for the lost person. ‘insofar as it lies with you be in fellowship with your brothers and sisters’
This person had really heard the horrible Gospel at last. only one goal, to seek and to save the lost. To that end he will suffer the utter humiliation of the Cross ‘to win them back’ What does he seek above all? Restoration of relationship. That is all that matters. Without Reconciliation there is no justice. Reconciliation is the undoing of Sin – as St Paul puts it, it is ‘the gospel of reconciliation’ – to go out to those who have cut themselves off and so are dead, and restore them to fellowship . . . But pride gets in the way – ‘they’ve gone too far’ – or just further than you or I will go. So we leave JEsus to do it, but we turn round and . . . well he’s gone . . .
The end of all the old ways is the Cross. There Jesus dies. For a few brief weeks he appears to his disciples, reminding them of all that he has said – because he is going to the Father. Today he has gone away.
On the Cross the old way has come to an end – now there is only the way of Life, the way of the Spirit, the way of Jesus which looks like death. Yet we don’t want to hear this for as Paul says ‘the way of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing’
So, we try and find another Jesus to be “Father”, even though Jesus said – ‘you will call no one on earth “father”‘ Or in that vein we might add ‘VIcar’, or ‘Church Leader’. In the early days of the church, it is notable that the letters written to the churches are written to ‘all the Saints’, and the leadership is not mentioned, if of course it exists, and we should be wary of reading it back into the text . . . The Risen Christ addresses his letters to ‘the angel’ of each church and commands that We hear what the Spirit is saying to the church . . . but it is hard to grow up. It is hard to trust God to work in our brothers and sisters – yet that is the Only Way
That is why the Church has one thing to be given to – to pray for the gift of the Spirit. To pray that where there is death, Life will blossom. For apart from the Life of Jesus the Way of Jesus is not hard, it is impossible. Jesus has gone . . . Jesus has gone. It’s time to get those big boy pants out of the cupboard