Alison Joyce Rector of St Bride's Church Fleet Street London

‘Don’t tell anyone!’

Written by
The Revd Canon Dr Alison Joyce
Rector of St Bride's
Sunday 27th August, 2023

I do love the fact that the Christian Gospel is so gloriously subversive, constantly confounding our expectations and overturning the assumptions of the secular world.

The other day I was musing on what on earth a business expert of our own era would make of the mission and outreach strategies adopted by Jesus, John the Baptist, and St Paul. Because I can just imagine that modern commercial guru, head in hands with despair, saying to them, ‘Guys – guys – you really haven’t got the hang of this, have you!’

Take John the Baptist, for example. He feels overwhelmed by the need to alert the people of Israel to the fact that the promised Messiah is about to appear in their very midst, and to urge them to repent and prepare themselves for this earth-shattering event. The obvious thing for him to do would be to use the most public platform available to him, to maximise his audience – the steps of the temple in Jerusalem would be a logical choice. Whereas, what John the Baptist actually does is the exact opposite: he goes out alone into the depths of the dangerous, barren Judaean wilderness, where there are no people at all, to proclaim his message there. Weird, or what?

And what about St Paul, the greatest missionary that the Christian Church has ever known. How does he persuade people to come to faith in Jesus Christ? Does he offer them the prospect of a comfortable and secure existence, blessed with success and happiness. No, the exact opposite: he knows that to follow the crucified and risen Christ is to embark on a path that is likely to lead to danger and persecution – indeed, everywhere that he himself goes on his missionary voyages he generally has rocks thrown at him and is put in prison. But the truth that he has encountered in the living Christ is of such life-transforming significance that for him ultimately none of that matters a jot. However, as a marketing strategy it is a little unusual, to say the least.

And what of Jesus himself? One of the most distinctive characteristics of his ministry were the extraordinary miracles that he performed: the most tangible evidence that he was indeed no ordinary man – his authority is divine authority. The miracles testify to the fact that he was indeed the long-awaited Messiah.

So it is surely beyond weird that, instead of showcasing these mind-blowing events, Jesus frequently does the exact opposite (especially in St Mark’s Gospel, which is the earliest of the four). Because Jesus routinely swears the grateful beneficiaries of his miraculous healings to absolute secrecy – they are to tell nobody of what he has done for them.

And we see a variation of the same theme in today’s Gospel reading. At long last Simon Peter recognises the truth about who Jesus truly is: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ he declares. At which point Jesus strictly charges the disciples not to tell anybody. What? Why keep it hidden? Where’s the sense in that?

And, still on the subject of today’s Gospel reading, I am certain that our modern business guru would also take exception to Jesus’s extraordinary lack of judgment in recruiting his senior management team. Because, of all people, it is Simon Peter whom he designates the rock upon whom he will build his Church, and to whom he will entrust the keys of the kingdom. Yep, that would be the same Simon Peter who is generally the last person to grasp what is going on, who frequently misses the point, and who, for all his protestations of undying loyalty, will do a bunk and then deny even knowing his Lord on the night that Jesus was arrested. A strange choice for a CEO, surely!

And yet, despite the fact that every feature of their marketing strategies was guaranteed to fail catastrophically and made no sense whatsoever – what those three figures achieved was so staggeringly successful that the course of world history was changed for ever. Which is also the reason why, two thousand years later, we are all sitting here today.

So it is all the more paradoxical that the Church, when actively trying to promote the Christian faith and persuade people to become disciples in far more sensible ways, has frequently ended up keeping Christ hidden. Some of you may have heard me quote before the wonderful poem by Steve Turner called ‘How to Hide Jesus’:

There are people after Jesus.
They have seen the signs.
Quick, let’s hide Him.
Let’s think: carpenter,
fishermen’s friend,
disturber of religious comfort.
Let’s award Him a degree in theology,
a purple cassock
and a position of respect.
They’ll never think of looking here.
Let’s think:
His dialect may betray Him,
His tongue is of the masses.
Let’s teach Him Latin
and seventeenth century English,
they’ll never think of listening in.
Let’s think:
Man of Sorrows,
nowhere to lay His head.
We’ll build a house for Him,
somewhere away from the poor.
We’ll fill it with brass and silence.
It’s sure to thrown them off.

There are people after Jesus.
Quick, let’s hide Him.

So let’s untangle some of these threads, starting with our three Biblical figures. How did they manage to be so astoundingly successful by doing the very opposite of what common sense and indeed professional wisdom would dictate?

John the Baptist was addressing people for whom life was a struggle; those who were spiritually starving; those who were beset with fear for what the future held; those who were in desperate need of hope. And the reason why they went out into the wilderness in their droves to be baptised by him, was because they recognised his authority. His was the authentic voice that drew people. And his way of life: austere in the extreme, and utterly dedicated to the service of God, demonstrated without a doubt that he was the real thing. He lived what he believed.

And what of St Paul? It is so easy for people to believe mistakenly that the point of having a religious faith is to obtain a kind of celestial insurance policy against bad things happening – or to get what you want in life through divine intervention – so that if God doesn’t deliver on such demands, faith must be a complete waste of time and God obviously doesn’t exist.

But Paul’s absolute faith in the crucified and risen Lord introduces us to a very different kind of faith from one that is founded upon such ego-centric wishful thinking. Because it seemed to Paul patently obvious that if you are going to follow in the footsteps of the crucified Christ, that is a path that will inevitably lead you into dark and challenging places – how could it be otherwise? He himself went from place to place, where he was generally met with beatings, imprisonment, and death threats – and yet, what does he do in prison – he sings hymns of praise to God – because he knows that he has experienced something of such earth-shattering significance that nothing else matters as much. His fears count for little.

The life of discipleship can be extraordinarily costly sometimes, because properly understood it is a call to live in the light of the love of God, inspired by his Spirit – and the power of love defies rational explanation; because love tears down walls and inspires the most unlikely of people to do the most insanely courageous of things. St Paul lived what he believed. And people saw that. And his conviction was contagious.

And what of Jesus’s bizarre insistence that the very people whom he heals and those who actually recognise him for who he truly is – are tell nobody of what he has done, or to reveal his true identity? Over the years, Biblical scholars have come up with various theories about this strange phenomenon – including the suggestion that the motif might actually be a later addition by the early Church. But it seems to me that there is probably a much more straightforward answer that is wholly consistent with the character of Jesus’s earthly ministry.

Because people are so easily drawn to the wrong kinds of things: to the allure of spectacle; the promise of quick fix solutions to life’s problems. Jesus was not remotely interested in the numbers game – what mattered to him was the encounter he had with each precious human life, however broken; however marginalised. Because his ministry was a ministry of love. And love cannot easily be contained. It always spreads outwards.

Sadly, the Church has not always been good at keeping that message of love alive at its heart; just as we Christians have not always been good at living it out in our own lives. I keep that Steve Turner poem close to hand because so many of the things it questions are things that matter to me: our form of worship; our amazing music tradition. And despite that poem these things do have a place, because the structure of our worship and the beauty of music, and the tangible nature of the sacraments, can help us to get hold of what might otherwise feel to be abstract notions, and bring us in touch with the divine. But they must never end up being ends in themselves, as I observed last week.

As a church, and as individual disciples, we must remember to strive always for that authenticity; strive to keep our focus on God, recognising that having faith is not a guarantee that life will become easier – although it will certainly become far richer, far more meaningful, and far more replete with goodness and grace. And although there will always be moments when we feel afraid, it will also enable us to explore a life that is no longer defined by fear.

Because ultimately the glorious, boundless, and unending love of God subverts everything. And thanks be to God for that.


congregation sitting for service


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