The Joy of Being Wrong - St Bride's: Reflection

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The Joy of Being Wrong

John 1:43-51

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43 The day following Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto him, Follow me.

44 Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.

45 Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.

46 And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth? Philip saith unto him, Come and see.

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!

48 Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.

49 Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.

50 Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.

51 And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.

The Joy of Being Wrong

Of all the books that I have in my rather extensive collection, the one that perhaps has the best title out of all of them, is this book by the Roman Catholic theologian James Alison, which is called, rather wonderfully, The Joy of Being Wrong.  The Joy of Being Wrong!  What an intriguing thought.  And it is the title of this book, rather than its content, that I am interested in exploring with you this morning.

You see, most of us, I'm sure, will know all about the Joy of Being Right: there can be few things more profoundly satisfying (and, I have to say, more spiritual perilous) than being proved right about something - particularly in the context of a heated debate.  It is spiritually perilous because of course the temptation to give into the kind of smug self-righteousness that enjoys saying, 'I told you so', and rubbing it in, can be almost irresistible.

Conversely, we live in a society in which it can often seem that one of the worst things that can ever happen to anybody - particularly to an individual who holds public office - is for them to have to change their mind about an issue or a course of action.  It is only very rarely, for example, that we ever hear politicians openly admitting that they have got something, or someone, completely wrong.  Because anything that can be branded a 'U-turn' is automatically assumed to be a sign of weakness or failure.

Whereas, in fact, if you think about it, changing one's mind about something is not necessarily a bad thing at all.  Because the realization that we have been wrong, rather than being a weakness, must always, at some level, be a sign of growth; an indication that we know more now than we did before - and that we are wiser as a result.

And I have to say that in the past, I myself have been spectacularly wrong about all kinds of things - usually as a result of my own misplaced assumptions and prejudices.  

For example, as a young adult, I can remember stating quite clearly and categorically that I was prepared to live just about anywhere in the UK, so long as it wasn't Birmingham.  I have since learnt to be very careful about what I say, because the Almighty God has an interesting and somewhat perverse sense of humour.  So having ended up spending no less than twenty four very happy years in that wonderful, but much maligned city, I am now one of Birmingham's staunchest defenders.  But the important thing to note is that it took personal experience to change my perception, and to allow myself to see beyond my own misplaced and ill-informed prejudices.  And thank heavens it did: for that is the Joy of Being Wrong.

The idea that we need to be liberated from our mistaken convictions, and indeed our misguided actions, is as true of the life of faith as of anything else.  One of the most powerful Biblical examples of this is the event that we shall be celebrating here next Sunday - the conversion of the apostle Paul, who turned from being the most savage persecutor of Christians, to becoming the most passionate and successful Christian evangelist of all time.  The Joy of Being Wrong.

And in our gospel reading today, we hear how Philip goes to Nathanael and tells him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote ... it is Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth."  Now just imagine for a moment what that must have sounded like to Nathanael.  It would be a bit like me standing here and saying to you all: "Excellent news everyone: we have found the Messiah.  His name is Trevor, and he lives in Hillingdon."  (And incidentally, just in case anyone thinks I am being unduly rude about Hillingdon, I selected that example because it happens to have been my own birthplace.)

So, little wonder that Nathanael is incredulous: "Nazareth?  Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Nathanael is clearly both unimpressed and unconvinced.  But Philip's response is both direct and devastatingly simple: "Come and see."  So Nathanael goes with him, and he meets Jesus: there is that moment of astonishing encounter and recognition, as a result of which Nathanael's scepticism evaporates in an instant.  The Joy of Being Wrong.  And sometimes we also have to follow the advice of Philip and do what Nathanael did: suspend our utter disbelief and just go and take a look.  Go and see for ourselves, so that we too can discover the Joy of Being Wrong.

Thirty years ago, when I was a theological student, I spent a month living and working in a very tough inner-city parish in Sheffield.  Near the city centre was an enormous block of flats: a sheer cliff face of glass and concrete, which housed nearly a thousand people.  Back in the 1980s it was a truly terrible place: there were cracks in the masonry; the lifts and the waste-disposal system frequently didn't work; it was infested with vermin, and the basic safety of the building itself was in question.  It was a dumping ground for people with addictions, and psychiatric illnesses, and for what were described as 'problem' families.  In those flats I saw a level of squalor, and despair, and fear, and degradation on a scale that I had simply never encountered before.

It was deeply disconcerting.  But if I am brutally honest (and I tell this story against myself), the thing that disturbed me most of all was the thought that was running through my head.  Because I caught myself thinking this: "Thank God that I don't have to minister here.  I mean, what on earth do I have to offer to these people that is of the slightest possible use to them?  These people don't need ministers of religion - they need somewhere else to live.  And some of them have lives that are so shattered and disturbed that they really do seem to be beyond help.  Thank God that it's not my responsible to deal with this situation."  I was both disturbed and ashamed to catch myself thinking such things, but think them I did.

And then I met Sylvia.  Sylvia was a tough, chain-smoking Yorkshirewoman, who had been living on the very top floor of that terrible block of flats for about ten years.  And for her, it was neither a happy nor an easy place to live.  She hated the violence and the filth and the terrible things that she saw people doing to themselves and to one other.  And yet, there in the window by her front door was a little card, clearly visible to anybody passing by, containing those famous words from John's Gospel: "Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life."

People in need went to Sylvia.  Women who were threatened by their partners; anybody who needed medical advice, or assistance when they had complicated forms to fill in.  If ever a police officer on duty in the flats found himself alone and in a tight corner, he know he had somewhere safe to go.  Sylvia collected the bits of furniture people sometimes left behind when they moved on, to help new residents who would often turn up with nothing.  

Given the troubles she had in her own personal life - which were considerable - it would have been very easy for Sylvia to say, "these people are not my responsibility; I have problems enough of my own." And she knew better than most of us, just how hard it can be to love one's neighbour - because her neighbours really were the kinds of people whom it is most difficult to love.  But somehow, she was always able to hang onto her conviction that however damaged, or distressed, or disturbed her fellow residents were, they were still precious in God's sight; and she regarded it as her task to try to extend the hope of new life in Christ to each one of them, regardless of who or what they were.  And word got out about Sylvia, and people knew that to find her, they just had to look for the little card in her window.

When I got up to leave, Sylvia showed me a picture that had been drawn by an eleven year old Muslim boy called Gamal, who lived in one of the neighbouring apartments.  It showed the huge block of flats, drawn very carefully and in great detail.  And by its side, as tall as the flats themselves, his hands reaching out towards the building, Gamal had drawn the figure of Jesus.  

It was Sylvia who had made Jesus real to Gamal: not by what she said, because she wasn't in the habit of talking about her faith very much - but by what she did, and by who she was.  Those words from John's gospel on the card in her window had become meaningful to those around her because, by the grace of God, her life proclaimed them to be true.

As a naïve young theological student, I had arrived at those flats thinking, what possible point could there be in trying to take the gospel into a place like that?  Like Nathanael, I had to suspend my skepticism and go and take a look, and to be ready to learn something that would overturn all my assumptions and my prejudices.  And what I discovered was the Joy of Being Wrong.


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