My late father-in-law was a very dear man, and also a thoroughly good, kind, and holy one – but he was also a tad set in his ways. To the extent that some of his assumptions were so entrenched that they were almost impossible to dislodge. Which could, on occasions, cause some rather unfortunate misunderstandings.
Take, for example, his absolute conviction that it was a truth universally acknowledged that all young children absolutely love baked beans, and would rather eat them than anything else. Unfortunately, I managed to produce two offspring who really didn’t like them at all and would sometimes refuse to eat them. But could I get the message across to my wonderful father-in-law? Not a hope. So, whenever we went to visit, we would regularly be greeted by him with immense warmth and delight – and the news that the evening meal was ready – and he had got in some baked beans for the girls.
‘Ah,’ I would say. ‘I’m so sorry, but they are not actually very keen on baked beans. I don’t suppose there is anything else they might have?’ ‘Oh, absolutely no problem at all’, he said – you see, I bought plenty of beans – they can have as much as they like.’
But that was as nothing to one particularly memorable conversation I had with him, after I let slip one day that, because a friend of ours who was coming to us on Christmas Day happened to be vegetarian, we would be having a vegetarian Christmas dinner that year. He simply could not process that information – and the ensuing conversation went something like this:
Father-in-law: ‘So, your friend will be having vegetarian while you eat the Turkey.’
Me: ‘No, we are all going to eat vegetarian.’
Father-in-law: (looks puzzled, but suddenly light dawns): ‘Ah, so you’ll be having the Turkey after the vegetarian food.
Me: ‘Nope – we are all eating vegetarian.’
Father-in-law: ‘So, when are you eating the Turkey then?’
Me: ‘We are not having Turkey at all – we are all eating vegetarian.’
Father-in-law (completely baffled): ‘So what are you doing for Christmas dinner, then?’
Now, what I always found interesting and perplexing about these exchanges was that the basic ideas that I was attempting to communicate were actually remarkably simple: that my children didn’t like baked beans, and that, unusually, we would not be having Turkey for Christmas. But he could not get his head round either of them because those concepts were so far removed from his fundamental assumptions about how the world works – hence his utter incomprehension.
In similar vein, I sometimes reflect that the single biggest problem that people have in getting to grips with the Christian faith is not that it is difficult or complicated – on the contrary, it is incredibly, astonishingly and radically simple. The difficulty is that what Christ taught goes so completely against everything that the world assumes is the case that it can be hard for people to set aside those assumptions and do the necessary and radical re-think – still less, suspend their disbelief long enough to give it a go. Because once you do make that basic step of starting to see the world through different eyes – through the eyes of Christ – then suddenly it all begins to make perfect sense, contrary to everything you are expecting. But the difficulty that people have with understanding what the Gospel is all about is not a new problem. On the contrary, it goes back to the time of Jesus himself.
One might easily assume that the disciples had it easy – after all, they had Jesus in their very midst; they followed him; they watched him; they listened to him; they saw him do remarkable things. And yet, as we see in today’s Gospel, they still found it unimaginably hard to get their heads around the fact that Jesus did things very, very differently.
Let me set the scene for our Gospel reading. Jesus is travelling with the disciples towards Jerusalem. He has already explained to them, very explicitly, on two separate occasions, that it is his destiny to be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, who will condemn him to death, and give him to the authorities who will humiliate him, torture him, put him to death – and after three days he will rise again. But just so they really do get it, he then takes them aside for a third time and explains it to them all over again.
And yet, believe it or not, it is immediately after he has done that, for the third time, that two of his very closest followers, James and John come up to him and make the following request:
Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,’ they say to him. And he replies: ‘What is it you want me to do for you? And they respond: ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left.’
At which point it is not hard to imagine the inward groan as Jesus thinks to himself – ‘O my life – they still haven’t understood anything!’ After all this time they still think it is all about glory and high office – if they really could get their heads around what it is that lies ahead for me, the very last thing they would be doing is insisting that they were in the very thick of it, too.’
And so, he says to them very patiently: ‘You do not understand what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with?’
‘Yes, of course’, they reply – still not understanding anything at all.
So, Jesus says to them – ‘OK: the cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised. But to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant …’
When dealing with the things of God, we should be very careful about what we ask for – because we might well be given it – only to discover that the end result is not at all what we are expecting.
It is so tempting to deride James and John for their blindness and lack of comprehension. But are any of us really much better? Even within the Church’s ministry there are clergy who are utterly seduced by the temptations of status and high office, or embittered because they think they have been overlooked. Or simply regular churchgoers of all denominations who behave towards one another in ways that are completely inconsistent with the charge that Jesus gave to us, to love one another.
So what is the Gospel all about? Jesus teaches us that we are loved and forgiven totally and utterly and absolutely, for no other reason than we are his precious children. All we have to do is to open our hearts to receive that love – and as a result have the chance to start living in a different kind of way, no longer imprisoned by the rules and expectations of a world that values the superficial, the corrupting, and all the things that slowly drain the life away from us; things that are so seductive, but ultimately mean so little.
Instead we are charged to learn what it means to live a life of love. And although that is a very costly journey – a journey that brings with it none of the kinds of rewards that the world recognises and values – nevertheless, it is the one journey that will bring us true peace and true freedom.
The life of love that Jesus embraced led him ultimately to the cross, where he drew to himself the very worst evils of which human beings are capable of inflicting upon one another, and he did so in order that the cycles of violence and counter-violence could at last be broken. Because however great the evils that were flung at him, in the end the love that he personified was the greater. It was the kind of love that that requires us to re-think absolutely everything we ever thought we knew about what truly matters in life.
In the words of a W.H. Vanstone poem, later turned into a hymn, that I turn to often:
Drained is love in making full,
Bound in setting others free
Poor in making many rich,
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore he who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be.
Here is God, no monarch he,
Throned in easy state to reign.
Here is God, whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.