A sermon preached by Mark Ward at Mattins, Breamore, 26th June – ministry, rejection, and the way of love.
Today’s gospel is probably one of the most difficult 12 verses we come across because it puts out a huge challenge.
“Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,
Beneath thy contemplation sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, O I know not, what joys await us there,
What radiancy of glory, what bliss beyond compare.”
So says the hymn-writer. Well for Jesus Jerusalem was the golden. He had been ministering for about two and a half years and he knew he was on his way back to his father. This was the beginning of a 6 month journey which would ultimately end in his death on a cross. Jerusalem was only 3 days solid walk, maybe 50 or 60 miles but it took Jesus almost 6 months as he stopped to speak to people along the way. But it clearly says right at the beginning of our reading “As the time drew near when Jesus would be taken up to heaven, he made his mind up and set out for Jerusalem.
So here he is – he knows where he is heading for, he sees Jerusalem as the holy of holies and this must be a huge challenge full of emotions.
So perhaps it is no surprise that when people come up to him he is quite pointed in his remarks – this really means something – he is following the pathway of his father – he is the servant being called home.
James and John get it in the neck first. Jesus has been rejected by a Samaritan village and the brothers are very cross and they suggest that they call down fire upon the village and destroy it just as Elijah had done in the past. Remember these two are known as “the sons of thunder”, they leap to the most fiery conclusions rather than considering the situation properly. Jesus has been teaching them about love for over two years so no wonder he tells them off – “haven’t you heard a word I have said? My way is a way of love, not a way of war, if they don’t want us to go there, well that’s their loss”. So he wants to concentrate on where they can be heard and the positive things they can do.
And then we move on to the very tricky stuff. First a man comes along and declares he will follow Jesus anywhere, and he doesn’t mean he will take interest in what Jesus is doing or nip along each weekend, he says to him, I’m in, a bit like the old Martini advert, any time any place anywhere. Jesus says to him, “well if you say that you’d better mean it because I have nowhere to call home, if you come then this is true commitment”.
As if to prove this he then says to two more people, “why don’t you come along?” Both of them appear to have pretty good reasons why they need to do something before they leave. The first wishes to bury his father, now this was one of the most sacred things anyone could do to meet the fifth commandment – honour thy father and mother. But Jesus says to him, what I am doing is even more important than that, because of course he had narrowed the commandments down, love God and love each other – that is the living not the dead – Paul quotes this in the Galatians passage. There is an argument that the man’s father was old and not yet dead and thus it really was an excuse but even if it wasn’t Jesus was really testing his commitment.
The other man just wants to say goodbye, which again seems a very reasonable request. I guess he could have sent a message but would you head off without seeing your family first, I’m not sure I would. But yet again Jesus says, “look following me is the absolute ultimate, there is no choice, either you come willingly now, or stay here because you don’t have the commitment. I think he worries that the man will pine for his family simply by his last words, those who look back behind the plough are no use to God. In those days the ploughman had to ensure he watched exactly where the beasts were treading otherwise they would have ploughed some very wiggly lines.
So, what does this mean for us? The Galatians passage talks about us being free – let the spirit direct you and you will be free of human desires, I guess including saying goodbye to your family and burying your dead.
Jesus isn’t physically here so we aren’t on a physical journey. There have of course been many who have taken journeys to mission to people around the world and it has come full circle as we have people who come to mission to us from those places we went to over past centuries, but in general we don’t travel in the name of God to find converts. And you could argue we don’t need to because on average in this country 2 people out of every hundred will be in a Church of England church with another 8 in other denominations which leaves us 90 out of every hundred to speak to and bring back, 9 out of every ten people.
If you thought you were going to escape the PMAP this morning, well too bad I’m afraid, you aren’t! Strategic principle 3 says we need to reach out to the community where they are. I guess I could hand over to you now to tell me what you have already achieved to do that since you completed the PMAP in November, but maybe I will save that for another day. However it is clear that if we don’t go out there we will as a church, die. If we are not relevant then why should we expect anyone to come here?
The ministry team has been struggling to come up with a baptism service which all those who are involved in can sign up to. So suppose you have a family where grandma and grandpa are believers and go to church, and they want their grandchild baptised – mum and dad don’t go to church but they don’t want to hurt the parents’ feelings so they choose some Godparents from their friends and everyone trots along to church and then the priest says “do you believe in trust in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit” – what do the parents and Godparents say? Quite often a mumbled “yes” and on we go, water over head well behaved baby or huge yelling, photos, cake, some bubbly and a good old knees up afterwards, shame about that slightly embarrassing bit. Well you could argue people who come to church have to accept that’s the way it is and if you don’t like it, don’t come, or alternatively we could try to find a way to allow people to say something they actually mean and not feel ashamed or embarrassed by having said it. I don’t know the answer, in fact I think I’m slightly in the former camp, but, hats off to my colleagues who want to try to make us more approachable and relevant in the hope that mum and dad might continue to bring the baby next week and the week after because they felt loved. The team has also suggested that if the baptism isn’t in a service the congregation ought to get off its backside and come back to church to be there and properly welcome the family and the child. Does that sound a bit too much to expect – well that was my reaction, but having read this gospel it’s a challenge isn’t it – what do I really believe, where is my real faith – for if it is the biggest thing in my life then I should be saying – of course I’ll be there – I will reach out to that family who maybe hasn’t really understood, and who value the service less than the cake and champers, and I will try to show them by my deeds that I love them and God loves them, and who knows, maybe they will respond. Makes you think doesn’t it?
And that’s the point really, our human desire is to go to church and then get on with sitting listening to the cricket, doing the garden, going for a walk in the forest, meeting friends for lunch, because we have done God until next week, or as some people have been honest enough to say to me, or until there is a service in my own church again in three weeks’ time. Until then I will pretend it isn’t Sunday rather than put myself out and go to another church – and that might even be Hale to Woodgreen, which isn’t the largest excursion is it! Our human nature soon takes over.
I guess I am lucky, I work for a Christian organisation that meets and prays together every day so I meet God 6 times a week without having to think about it, but I wonder how good I would be left to my own devices. And I’m also fortunate that much of the work I do is with other Christians, meetings often begin with prayer and emails often end with a short blessing offered by the author, reminding me that I am always in God’s service, not my own. Living up to it and succeeding, failing to turn my back on him isn’t easy. I can find a hundred excuses that seem as good as those the men offered Jesus and I can justify them to myself over and over, but each time I do, I fail.
I can’t make this passage any less tricky or any less of a challenge. All I can say is that we are very fortunate that when we get it wrong we can ask to be forgiven and have another go.
So I wish you good luck and I pray that we all have sufficient of the spirit in us to take us on that journey, and to reach out whether it’s in here or out there – for it isn’t easy. Amen.