David Barton’s Sermon for 27th September:
Well, a fierce sort of Gospel! “Everyone will be salted with fire”. It comes from the fact that when people made sacrifices in the ancient world, they threw salt on to the fire. Salt was expensive. Jesus uses it as a way of saying “The life I call you is a costly one. It won’t necessarily be easy.” I’ll come back to that later.
A month ago I tried to give a thumbnail portrait of Jesus in his lifetime – essentially my picture, but I hope it might help you form yours. We need a coherent portrait of Jesus – as far as we can make one. And we need to know, not just what he was like then, but why he is so important to Christians, now. Why is it that someone, who lived two thousand years ago, in an unimportant village in an obscure part of the Roman Empire, who was executed as a criminal on the outskirts of Jerusalem, has such a powerful influence on Western religion and culture and art – even reshaping the calendar by which we measure our years? And his active life was so short!. The Buddha taught for forty years, Muhammed a quarter of a century. For Jesus there was a mere three years of preaching and teaching. And yet………. he has had an extraordinary impact. Why?
Well, the real reason is not one that troubles our society very much – though it still concerns the majority of the world population, and historically has concerned everyone – has to do with the question about God. Who is God? What is the nature of God? That’s the question round which the New Testament was written. The society Jesus came from saw God as a stern, perhaps even harsh judge. Jesus – in contrast to any current ideas, Jewish or Pagan – spoke of God as loving, forgiving, intimate and deeply concerned about each one of us. For the writers of the New Testament that was the startling thing. And the more they pondered it the more the first Christians found themselves driven to what was for them a startling conclusion: that the nature of the God who Jesus points to must be something like the nature of the Jesus some of them had loved and known. Jesus way of being, his words, his actions, his reactions all make clear to us what God is like – who God is.
Now you can dismiss that as fantasy if you like. But I too find myself challenged by this thought. Never mind about what our society thinks. There is still a question here for me. Do I look onto the world and see it shaped by impersonal, utterly random forces? You and I mere specks in a vast, impersonal universe? Or, in a way utterly beyond my understanding, is its central mystery a mystery of compassion? The more I study the gospels, the clearer it becomes that the significant thing about Jesus is that he claims nothing for himself. Always he points to a life and energy that flows through him. And I need to take account of that, because it is so clear. When I look at him I am seeing how the mystery at the heart of everything, who Jesus names as God, cares for our suffering, searches for the lost, accepts them, understands them, forgives them. And more than that: this is not a God who ever chooses power. The God Jesus points to is prepared to be weak. And he shows us that this mystery, this God, is always with us, however tough things are. And because of that we can face the hardships of life and the mystery of death. That is what Jesus reveals in those three short years, and I don’t think the belief or non belief of this or any other society can ever change that. Frankly, it challenges us.
And here is the other thing. Once we understand that about the life of Jesus, then it is clear that the way we will understand the God that Jesus reveals is not by “thinking it through”, but by living it out. You see Jesus did not found a church, or a school of philosophy, or anything like that. Nor was he trying to give the world a “true religion”. What he wanted to do was launch a movement to promote his plan for a better world – something he called the “reign of God”. God for Jesus is not a concept, or a theological or philosophical idea. God is a living reality. Jesus lives God. And the early Christians discovered that the more they did that, the more absorbed they became in the mystery at the heart of everything.
This may sound simple. But it really is the heart of it. Faith in Jesus is about believing what he believed, living what he lived, and caring about what mattered for him. It is about treating people as he treated them, seeing life as he saw it, praying as he prayed, and sharing hope with others as he shared it. The first disciples discovered – and I have to say I have discovered – that when we do that we are carried into the heart of the mystery Jesus proclaimed. And it is all that he says it is, in terms of both challenge and joy.
And there a little thing here about the name we have “Christian”. When Christianity spread into the Roman world, the Jewish title of Messiah for Jesus was abandoned and instead – largely under the influence of Paul – he was called Christ. The word means “Liberator”. Jesus’ early followers were not unhappy to be called “Christians” which really means “liberators”. We might want to think about that. If we are called Christians then we are in some way “liberators”. And what that means is learning somehow to begin to see – at least a little – through the eyes of those who suffer. It asks us to be inclusive, to develop a sense of acceptance. To be on the side of those who are marginalised. Following Jesus means shaking off our indifference and living with compassion – by which I mean, not our own caring, but letting some of the profound compassion of God flow through us as Jesus did.
I don’t pretend any of this is easy. And it got Jesus and many of his followers into trouble. We are not to forget that Jesus ended up crucified. You see why Jesus says, we are to be salted with fire! But cost is not the only thing in the Christian life. We also discover the joy and wonder and pleasure in life that Jesus so clearly found. It’s both these things, at once.
Two Sunday’s ago I was in Florence, and Soozy and I went for Mass to The Abbey Church of San Miniato. It’s Florence’s most beautiful church – the same age as Iffley but utterly different. It’s marble and mosaic glisten in the sunshine outside, and inside mosaic and marble reflect back the light of the candles.
The Prior of the monastery preached. Our Italian is pretty sketchy, but it was clear that what he was preaching about was the refugee crisis, and it was a sermon that held the rapt attention his large congregation. And many met with him afterwards, presumably to talk about what they might do together. In Italy you can’t get away from the refugee crisis. It’s in the headlines of the papers everyday, and in Florence – and to a lesser extent Bologna – there are refugees on many streets, just begging. We found it very painful sometimes.
As I listened to this impassioned sermon, picking up what I could of what he said about the need for practical compassion, I was deeply aware that we are all called by Jesus into that place where he left us on the night before he died: caught between crucifixion and resurrection. It is impossible not to feel the tragedy of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. Nor can we escape some responsibility in all of that – we are part of the West whose democratic government’s failed military interventions contributed to this disaster. That’s our share in crucifixion. We helped drive in the nails.
But at the same time I was aware that I sat beside the woman I loved, in a truly holy place, and that I was, along with all the people around me, loved, accepted, forgiven by God. And that in all of that I had – and have – a foretaste of the resurrection and its joy.
In following Jesus, this is the place to which he draws us.