Sermon for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
‘Make every effort to enter in at the narrow gate,
for many I tell you will try to enter and will not be able to’
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned at the end of the sermon the Church in Syria – which is undergoing the most horrendous persecution imaginable. To many of us no doubt, inculcated as we are in a secularised understanding of our faith, this may well seem to us to be little more than just another example of what is called ‘Religion’ gone bad – but is it? Or is there something far more consequential happening? For as I briefly set out last time, the Church in Syria is no ordinary Church – it’s not just another church.
The Scriptures tell us that St Paul, following his conversion set out to preach the gospel in Damascus which of course is in modern day Syria, and the Church which sprang from that teaching remains there to this day. Some of the oldest Christian writings, the New Testament aside come from that Church, most notably the letters of St Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, whom the Tradition teaches was himself a disciple of our own St John the Evangelist. These letters were written around the turn of the first century. Liturgically it has hardly changed for nearly two thousand years, and its language ‘Syriac Aramaic’ is thought to be the language which Jesus himself spoke.
The idea that there is nothing more troubling in the mass martyrdom which is being inflicted on this church than the World describes as Religion gone bad is, I suggest a failure to grasp the significance of the attempted anihilation of the One Church which can truly trace its ancestry directly back to the Traditions of the Apostles. Because they have barely changed
Compare and contrast the church in much of the West – by the Way there are Syrian Orthodox in Dunedin – here Churches left right and centre are driven along by the waves of history – changing form and shape to match the current culture. Seeking to be ‘Relevant’. Over just the last 20 years or so we have seen a whole raft of ‘new forms of church’ or new movements of church – one after the other after the other – seeker sensitive church, messy church, emergent church, liquid church, purpose driven church – and I’m sure folk could come up with other multiple variants – all established on an erroneous proposition, that is we come up with a ‘culturally relevant’ form of worship – people will flock in and become disciples of Jesus . . . but actually they don’t.
Which when you think about it isn’t all that surprising, firstly because it starts from a false premise, that Worship is all about the worshipper and not The One whom we Worship. Worship which is moulded to the worshipper cannot fail to be idolatrous – what is revealed is not the Living God, but the reflection of the worshipper.
I remember in one of my churches a middle aged lady used to go on at length about needing worship music which would ‘get the young people in, the sort of music which young people enjoy today’. Well that is problematic 🙂 For ‘Young people’ are not a coherent group – I know some young people who enjoy Bach, others who like Garage music – a growing number it seems, although I may be wrong who have little or no interest in music at all. Whilst it is not difficult to stereotype the attitude of consumer churches in terms of the French Revolutionary who saw the mob pass the sidewalk table at which he was drinking his coffee and said ‘They are my people! I must follow them!’ in reality the situation is even more absurd than suggested by that example. One who seeks to follow culture, be it musical or otherwise, is going to find not one, but a plethora of mobs going in 101 different directions – and consequentially following the one that most mirrors their own prejudices. Church in our own image.
I remember another young man in the village where I was Priest telling me not long after I’d arrived – ‘The Church needs to get with it’ To which the only logical response is ‘With which ‘It’ should the Church get?’
The Antiochene Orthodox Church should give we Western Consumer Christians pause for thought. They have lasted 2000 years without seeking to ‘get with it’ – in modern terms wwe might call them anachronistic, for they are utterly irrelevant – yet it is they who are the focus of yet another wave of terrible persecution, one which unlike any previous may possibly lead to their extinction. Apparently the only way their light could be extinguished through murder, sometimes crucifixion – bearing eloquent witness to their Lord, for whose sake they have lost all things.
Which brings us to our Lord Jesus HImself – who shows what is to our eyes a remarkable disinterest about accommodating himself to his hearers, rather unflinchingly calling his hearers to shape their lives to his.
Over and over and over again in the gospels, we hear Jesus speaking words which seem almost to be designed to drive people away. He says that he speaks in parables so that people ‘may not understand’!! He goes on ‘none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all you have’ – the sort of saying which left St Ignatius, even as he made his away across the East towards his martyrdom in Rome questioning whether even he, who had sat at the feet of St John was truly a disciple of Jesus. How nonchalantly the modern Christian assumes that he or she is a follower of Jesus . . .
Or again the encounter of Jesus and that young enthusiastic man – ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He says he has kept all the commandments – he’s kept his nose clean and led what to his surrounding society looks like a ‘good life’ – but Jesus tells him, if you truly want to be healed, sell your possessions and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven, and then follow me . . . and he went away sorrowful for he had many possessions. And Jesus turning to those who were following him told them ‘truly I tell you – it is harder for a Rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven, than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle’. The one thing Jesus didn’t do was run after him and try and change his teaching to adapt itself to the young man. Actually his teaching was perfectly adapted to him – he gave him the Truth – for He is the Truth.
Or Jesus response to the question ‘Lord will only a few be saved’ responds saying – ‘Make every effort to enter in at the narrow door, for many will try to enter and will not be able’ – how alien these words sound to our understanding of Jesus – it perhaps is not going to far to say that we imagine saying, ‘broad and easy is the way that leads to life and many their are that find it – for after all, all that is required is that we are true to our own version of the truth – but hard and narrow is the way that leads to destruction, because after all, most people are good . . .’ We find the words of Jesus an embarrassment and give people almost the directly opposite message. We think the words of Paul about fighting against powers and principalities odd – hey Paul! Dont be ridiculous mate – what’s all this about the quenching the flaming arrows of the evil one?? That’s SO medieval . . . and in smug contentment at our modern way of looking at things we stroll away, and from somewhere we hear muffled laughter . . .
We remember that this gospel reading comes at the end of a long sequence leading on from the feeding of the 5000. In the wilderness . . . Jesus begins by challenging those who have flocked after him ‘you’re only here because I filled your bellies . . .’ Someone, laughing sidles up to him and whispers in his ear . . . “Hey – just keep giving them bread – look at the crowd you’ve got – don’t get all spiritual on them. 5000 – a church of 5000!!! think of that!!! Go on – turn these stones into bread . . .” Who we might well ask is this peddler of Relevance??? “Do something to draw the crowds!! Bring them in Then you can stick them with the hard sell, when you’ve got them gathered – put on some spectacular show – jump off the Temple even!!! Or . . . look Jesus – you really need to get with it – and I’ll see they turn up for you Sunday after Sunday . . . just follow the techniques, get yourself a decent strategic plan, it will all come right, just do what I tell you, here by my book, here’s the strategy!!” – Or to translate and unmask the god of this age, “just bow down and worship me . . .”
But Jesus is not listening to Satan, Jesus caps of his unpalatable [sic] teaching with these words – Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. Jesus seems curiously unconcerned with trying to put the message in terms that are easy to take on board – Rather he confronts us with the Truth and once more we see Jesus as the Church Growth Failure he is, with his stubborn refusal to ‘get with it’, to be ‘Relevant’ When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” And Jesus’ pastoral response?? You think This is difficult to accept??? This is just the beginning!! Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. This message you reject – my words are Spirit and Life . . . But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” 66Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
From 5000 to . . . 12 . . . nice work Jesus . . . but he hasn’t finished. “Do you also wish to go away?” For he knows that amongst the few who are left is one who will betray him, one who will deny him. Peter at least speaks the Truth we all need to hear and know deep within our hearts – “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. None will be saved without at first recognising this Truth, That Jesus body is Real Food, That Jesus Words are Words of LIfe – however much they seem pointing in exactly the opposite direction – for the way to Life is through our dying to ourselves, The way to life is through the Cross of Jesus and our taking our own up in self denial – try and sell that as an idea for a new church . . . So much if not all of this contemporary frenzy with ‘new forms of church’ has one root and it is a Rotten root. The root of ‘we must do something to survive . . .’ But the way to Life is only found in and through the Cross of Jesus – through our dying to ideas about relevance or 101 other deceitful messages whispered in our panicking ears . . .
Through the Cross comes Life. As Jesus looks at the 12 he knows that one will betray him, one will deny him, and nine who will forsake him. At the Cross, the only disciple is John . . . At the Cross Jesus says to Mary his Mother about John, behold your son – and to John, behold your mother. It is the disciples who goes to the Cross, who becomes the seed and pillar of the Church, the body of Jesus Christ.
The Way of Jesus has nothing to tantalise our consumer sated appetites. It has no USP – like its Saviour there is nothing in her that we should desire her – the Church that bears his name has no business chasing after the herd of cats that are our modern consumer preferences.
The Syrian Orthodox Church does nothing to draw the crowds, it never has – yes it does send out missionaries – and today there are from that first church 4 million believers world wide, even here in Dunedin!, but it has done nothing to adapt itself to the world around – rather by patiently and at times such as this, under fierce persecution, worshipped God in Jesus Christ through the Word and the Sacrament, Words of Life and the Bread of eternal Life. It has not turned to left or right, but rather enduring, to the end, faithful perhaps to The Very End.
May God in his infinite love and mercy grant that we too may be drawn in truth to Jesus Christ – and may we not be found wanting when he comes