Most clergy, particularly those who, like myself, exercise a ministry of spiritual direction to others, discover very early on the wisdom of having a spiritual mentor. To put it simply, we are not best placed to assist other people with their own spiritual lives if we are not being supported and challenged on our own spiritual journeys. And I have been very blessed over the years with the wise and insightful spiritual directors who have accompanied me during the different stages of my ministry. I have learned important and different things from all of them.
I have recently started a new relationship of that kind, which has been great because it has invited me to rediscover and reassess some of the most basic elements within the Christian life. Things to do with my experience of God, my experience of prayer, my life of faith, and where the figure of Jesus features in all that. And in particular I have found myself asking why it is that I find the figure of Jesus – the Jesus whom we encounter in the Gospels, so compelling. Part of the answer for me has always been his sheer subversiveness. Like some of you, I was brought up with the healthy and wholesome Sunday School image of ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’; a Jesus who, as a child, was such a model of perfection that, according to the Christmas carol, Away in a Manger, he didn’t even cry when he was woken up by the lowing of the cattle in the stable.
So I must confess that it was rather startling to discover that that is not the Jesus portrayed in the New Testament at all – quite the opposite. In the Gospels we encounter a Jesus who overturns everybody’s assumptions about everything – especially the things that they had all been assuming about God, about the nature of the life of faith, about human flourishing, and about the true and profound and costly nature of love.
Most notably, Jesus called to account the very people who should have been most in touch with those very truths, but who instead consistently ended up getting in the way: actively impeding the welfare of God’s people and, irony of ironies, obstructing their relationship with God. And, before you ask, the additional irony that I myself am now one of those very religious authorities, equally prone to getting it wrong, never escapes me. I have to live with that recognition every single day.
In saying that I am drawn to the sheer subversiveness of Jesus, I do not mean to imply that I take active delight in the anarchic or the iconoclastic for the sake of it – not at all. If anything the opposite is the case.
No, the reason is, quite simply, that if you suspend your disbelief and try actually living it; if you really do put it to the test in lived experience – you discover that the Gospel, and the teachings of Jesus, and everything that he embodied in his ministry, his life, his suffering, and his death turns out to be profoundly and demonstrably true – again, and again, and again. Which is not to imply at all that the Gospel message is either easy to hear, or straightforward to live out. Indeed, even when we have committed ourselves to doing so, the temptation to fall in love with the trappings of religiosity, rather than with God, is ever present – that was where the scribes and the Pharisees came a cropper.
G.K. Chesterton nailed this perfectly when he famously wrote this:
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried. He who begins by loving Christianity better than Truth will proceed by loving his own sect or church better than Christianity, and end by loving himself better than all.
There is a warning to us all here – particularly those of us who invest so much in particular manifestations of the Christian religion.
To follow Christ – which has to be something more than simply church attendance – requires that we all strive to live differently – as individuals and also as communities of faith. It requires that we do our very best to try to live out and to demonstrate the love of God in Christ in all that we say and do. Not only is that absolutely fundamental to the life of discipleship – it is also far and away the most effective way of communicating the Christian faith to others. As has often been observed, the Christian faith is ultimately caught, not taught. Unless people can look at us and perceive the difference that faith makes to our lives, they may never have reason to ask themselves what difference it might make to their own.
And yet, that call to live differently will always pose challenges, even for the most committed amongst us – and we can all be pretty rubbish at it at times. The allure of all that we may stridently profess means little to us, can still lead us profoundly astray: the seductions of money, and status, and achievement can at times be overwhelming. Our own failure to trust God when it really matters, which tempts us to seek security in material wealth; the pride that lurks in our hearts that draws us to say and do things that we believe will impress other people – all of which point to our frailty and sense of insecurity – those kinds of temptations are always there.
And if that is hard enough for us to live out the faith as individuals, how much harder it is to live out that life of faith, to be true to the marvellously subversive call of Christ in our conduct as a community of faith. That, by the way, is not a new thing. One only has to read 1 Corinthians to discover that it was true from the very dawn of the Christian era – the conduct of the Corinthians towards one another was just appalling, on all kinds of levels.
But in an odd kind of way it is rather reassuring. St Bride’s is certainly no worse than most other churches in that respect – and in many respects it is probably a good deal better. But it is a challenge that we all need to attend to: when people look at us, as individuals, and as a community of faith here at St Bride’s, what do they see? What values do they see lived out? What do we proclaim by the way we behave to one another? Do we truly practice what we preach?
I was reminded of these particular questions when I read this morning’s reading from the Letter of James – in which the author is patiently pointing out to the community to which he is writing, that they really do need to look at their conduct. His starting point is to note the favouritism that they show to the wealthy who turn up, in contrast to their treatment of the poor and the poorly dressed. Indeed, the opening sentence of our reading could not be more chastening:
‘My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ’ – because that is precisely what they have been doing.
How we behave really does matter – which is why our reading from the Epistle of James ends with those memorable and challenging words, ‘Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’
In an odd kind of way it is encouraging to know that even those first Christians, people for whom the memory of Jesus was so very recent and so very fresh, also managed to get it wrong some of the time. But if anything, our Gospel reading gives us an even more startling example of that. It is one of the more challenging stories in the New Testament, in that we see Jesus being both rude and abrupt – almost to the point of cruelty to a vulnerable and suffering woman. This is certainly not the Jesus we like to see – and could not be further from the ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ of pious Victorian religion. And, incidentally, I simply don’t buy the notion that in this gospel reading, Jesus was merely pretending to be off with her in order to test her faith. That is not what we see here at all.
But for heavens’ sake – Christian orthodoxy has always affirmed the full humanity of Christ, as well as his full divinity. And if Jesus was fully human, he was perfectly entitled to have the occasional off day! We encounter him here in this reading tired and exhausted, and wanting to shut out the world, and to shut out all the people clamouring for his attention – and yet here is this wretched Syrophoenician woman demanding more of him, when he has had enough. But for me, the very human-ness of his immediate and initial reaction gives me hope, and enables me to come to terms with the occasions when I, too, fall short. What matters is that, in this incident, Jesus then turns and recognises her need; recognises her as one of God’s children; recognises her faith and responds to it. And in the end, it is surely that, that matters.