A Sermon preached by Canon Anthony Phillips on 4th September 2016
Trinity 15– Luke 14: 25-33
In 1958 the Archbishops appointed a Commission to revise the Psalter under the Chairmanship of the then Bishop of Bradford, Donald Coggan, himself a Hebrew scholar. Members of the Commission included the Organist of St.Paul’s Cathedral, John Dykes Bower, C.S.Lewis and T.S.Eliot and the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University – a specialist in Hebrew philology. Their remit was to produce a revision of the text designed to remove obscurities and serious errors of translation in the much loved Coverdale version.
When the result was published all hell was let loose. For most people and certainly the media the only psalm with which they were familiar – the psalm sung at endless funerals – was Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd. As you will well know, in Coverdale’s version verse 4 reads: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me: they rod and thy staff comfort me’.
Nothing prepared the authors for the reception their version of this verse received: ‘Yea though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff comfort me’. The psalm says nothing about physical death. But that did not deter those protesting at the loss of something very dear to them. The Revised Psalter sank without trace and when Common Worship appeared the compilers cravenly restored Coverdale’s translation of verse 4.
Why were the authors of the Revised Psalter correct? They recognised that in this Psalm death was being used as a superlative as it often is in English. Her cooking is deadly: he was frightened to death. You may even go home saying ‘That sermon bored me to death’ and still survive to eat a good Sunday lunch.
What concerned the Hebrews was life not death. Even in Jesus time only a section of Jews believed in life after death and the psalm is certainly older than that. It pictures God as a shepherd caring for his flock. Even when he leads them through the darkest valley where robbers and wild beasts may be lurking, he will ensure their safety.
Psalm 23 is then a wonderful affirmation of faith to utter during the ups and downs all of us experience. Whatever dangers, doubts, depressions in which we find ourselves, we know that God will safely guide us through the darkest places we encounter, whether in body or mind. ‘Yea though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil’.
You may think that all this is rather pedantic. After all Christians believe in life after death and death is the thing we all fear most. Its then we need God’s protection. There is nothing stopping one continuing to use the psalm at funerals but what concerns me is to ensure its widest use for it is a real support in life’s difficulties. The next time you are in a dark place recite Psalm 23.
And correct translation does matter as the rendering of Luke which we heard in the Gospel reading to-day makes only too clear. Can any of you imagine that Jesus actually told the crowd to hate father and mother? Does not that bedrock of the Hebrew Scriptures, the ten commandments, enjoin us to honour our father and our mother.
What determines the meaning of Jesus’ saying is of course the Hebrew word here translated as ‘hate’. Behind this Greek verb lies a Semitic expression which indicates preference by means of opposites as in I prefer gin to sherry. For instance in Romans 9:13, the sentence usually translated ‘Jacob I loved and Esau I hated’ should properly be rendered, ‘I preferred Jacob to Esau’. We should then understand Jesus
saying that anyone who prefers his parents to him cannot be his disciple. That this is correct is confirmed by Matthew’s rendering of the same saying: ‘No one is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me’ (Matt. 10:37).
Jesus is teaching what discipleship means. He is driving home its essential meaning that nothing must be preferred to following him. Not even that basic commandment to honour one’s father and one’s mother must come between the disciple and Jesus. This is what taking up the cross means. In fact to be a true disciple one must not only follow Jesus but be him. What was appropriate for him is to be appropriate for the disciple.
So throughout the Gospels we find Jesus refusing to conform to the normal expectations of a son’s response to his mother. Right at the beginning of Luke’s narrative, the twelve year old Jesus tells his worried mother and father who have been searching for him for three days and find him in the temple: ‘Why did you search for me? Did you not know that I was bound to be in my Father’s house?’ And later when Jesus is teaching, Luke records that having been told that his mother and brothers were outside wanting to see him, he replies: ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it’. Further John records that at the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus’ mother points out that the wine has run out, Jesus abruptly answers ‘That is no concern of mine. My hour has not yet come’. But when that hour did come, from the cross itself, Jesus made provision for his mother’s care entrusting her to the beloved disciple.
But Jesus has no doubt about the demands discipleship will make. So with the two examples of a man building a tower and a king going to war, he urges those who wish to follow him to consider very carefully whether they are up to it. Being Jesus is no easy task, yet that is what the call to discipleship involves.
So Luke concludes this passage with the injunction: ‘If you are not prepared to leave all your possessions behind, you cannot be my disciples’. The Greek word translated ‘leave’ is rare and literally means ‘say good-bye to’. Following Jesus means a total renunciation of all that one has hitherto relied on. It is entering into a new life where nothing must come between following Jesus and the old life, where dependency must be on Jesus alone. So the rich young man fails to follow Jesus but as Matthew puts it ‘went away with a heavy heart’ (Matt. 19:22). The cost of discipleship was too much for him.
Where do we stand in all this? Luke certainly thought we should divest ourselves of all our possessions. So earlier in his Gospel, he has Jesus saying: ‘Sell your possessions and give to charity. Provide for yourselves purses that do not wear out, and never-failing treasure in heaven, where no thief can get in, nor moth destroy it. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Luke 12: 33-34). And early in his second volume, Acts of the Apostles, we read: ‘The whole company of believers was united in heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own; everything was held in common’ (Acts 4:32).
To-day those called to the religious life follow these early Christians, not only in forsaking worldly possessions but exclusive relationships too whether with parent or spouse. It is though clear from Acts itself that such a way of life was not widely followed. Indeed it is impracticable for all who follow Christ to do this. But that does not let us off the hook. If we are to be true to Christ, nothing must be allowed to come between us and our discipleship. That may involve a break with parents or the surrender of security in a good job with pension. It may mean disposing of wealth. For everyone the way of the cross will be different. But no one should imagine that it may not be costly in personal relationships or worldly ambition and desires.
Shortly we shall all go to the altar to receive the body and blood of Christ and return from it as Christ bearers. That means that all we do and say must reflect him. We must allow no preferences to come between him and us. Of course we shall fail which is why we shall again have to seek his forgiveness. But trying and failing is very different from not trying at all. Being a Christian is hugely risky: you never know where it will lead or what it will demand whatever age you are. The one thing I have learnt is that God is a God of surprise. But there is nothing more fulfilling than to embrace Christ and be embraced by him. So in confidence we approach the altar pledged to prefer Him to all that might divide us from him. And in confidence we go out into his divided and distracted world ‘in the power of the Spirit to live and work to his praise and glory. Amen’.