I managed a wry smile the other day, when one of those surveys was published in a daily newspaper. It concerned the state of school pupil’s knowledge of literature. Apparently, children know a lot more about television than books, so much so that this forms the fundamental basis for their archive of memorable quotations. So, whilst few seemed to know where ‘friends, Romans and countryman’ comes from – (Up Pompeii, I thought, but apparently its Shakespeare) – most pupils can recite the pithy wisdom of David Brent, the eponymous hero of The Office. One of his quotes is this: ‘just accept that in life, some days you are the statue; on other days, you are the pigeon’. Wise words, indeed; especially as you prepare for public ministry. Anyway, at the risk of deploying another cliché, this sermon is a game of two halves. Here’s the first.
The gospel of John, in telling of the foot-washing by Jesus (Jn. 13) concludes with one of the more memorable quotes from scripture: ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Spending much of my life, as I often do, reading essays and theses, I am continually struck by the declining standards in English language. But don’t worry, this is not going to be a rant about how things used to be or could be. I am simply opening up in this way to make a point about how vital it is to pay attention to details, particularly in texts. And also to say something about the value of learning to read between the lines.
In her best-selling book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss draws our attention to how the sense of sentences can be altered by tiny and apparently inconsequential omissions. For example, if you omit the hyphen from extra-marital sex, you get a rather different cadence of what might be on offer later this evening. Equally, she adds, it is only with the introduction of a hyphen that the pickled-herring merchant can hold his head high. But what has this to do with us?
I mention this all for one simple reason. We often read texts – sacred and secular – through the sieves or lenses that others have bequeathed to us. We rarely stop to question whether the text, read freshly and without the overlaying interpretations and modifications of others, can mean something else for from what everyone else once assumed it to mean. Such problems don’t merely occur in religious traditions. You can find plenty of examples in various professions, or in the complex business of statecraft.
And we face this problem squarely with this text. It is arguably the greatest commission we have from Jesus: we are told we are his friends; and we are called to follow his example. Granted, other words from Jesus might just as easily make a claim to be the great commission. What about ‘love your neighbour as yourself’? Or ‘turn the other cheek’? Or ‘whatever you do for the least of these, you do also for me’? To put this more personally, and to put it to you: what is your Great Commission? What sends you out into the world, with hope and joy, and a mission to transform it?
The Christian faith contains a number of competitive theories as to what its main priorities should be. But there is a common thread that runs through them all, and it is this. Out of the ashes of Good Friday, of failure, defeat and tragedy, hope and new life are born. And the disciples are to be the ambassadors of the new hope and transformation that is wrought in the person of Jesus. And this role is one that is primarily predicated on developing a dynamic sense of vocation.
The resurrection, in other words, is something that does not draw disciples so much into a new sect, as it does send them out into the world, with joy, conviction, and a desire to serve the world and the needs of others in the name of the living Christ. And critically, this is done in love: it is not a task; it is an entire reconfiguration of one’s life. You see, you cannot really command people to love. That’s the catch. Love is for falling into. It is a state of being, as well as doing.
Many of us who work in caring professions – perhaps especially in the church – are faced, daily, with a simple dilemma. How do we begin to complete and apply the task that our forebears bequeathed us? How do we bring resurrection and transformation to the base materials, situations and people that we are here to serve? How do we heal the sick, comfort the lost, illuminate the confused; bring hope, joy, peace and wisdom to those who are searching for or needing health and completeness? Or love another?
Invariably, the things that inspire us – and here I choose my words carefully – are not the formal rules, regulations and codes that often govern our professions and institutions. I, for example, do not get especially excited by reading canon law, the Ordinal, or the Bishop’s latest ad clerum. What motivates and inspires me in my life is the example of others. What is set out and lived in the life of others is what can transform us, and make us into better people ourselves. One Saint, in his own charge to his community, says: ‘go and preach the gospel throughout all the world. If absolutely necessary, use words…’.
A popular story from World War Two tells of a Romanian Christian who found himself imprisoned at Belsen, and deprived of all he needed to sustain his faith: no crucifix, bible, icons, devotional books, corporate worship or knotted prayer beads. So he prayed in secret – that he might respond to the call of love. He found himself spending time in the camp with the sick, the starving, the diseased, the dying and the betrayers – all those who were shunned by others. One day, as the camp drew close to liberation, an atheist – a priest, in fact, who had his faith shattered by the experience of war – came to see the Romanian and said, ‘I see how you live here. Tell me about the God you worship’. And the Romanian replied: ‘He is like me’.
I wonder which of us could reply: ‘he is like me’? You see, it’s the example that makes the difference, not the ideas; the praxis, not the theories. And as we think today about those about to be ordained, we remember that no matter how the training and formation has been, the call to discipleship remains compelling simple: to be like him. To love one another as he loves us; to bear fruit that will last.
And so, briefly, to the second half, where I want to say a little more about what Jesus calls the ‘fruit that will last’. Religion is the spiritual hinterland that lies in between God and humanity: it is the place of encounter and of reordering. So although many of our assumptions about what constitutes faith and discipleship are relative, God is absolute. Which is why it takes a lifetime of discernment to understand and practice the Christian faith. Living the holy life is partly about separatism, and partly about engagement. It is partly about giving, and partly about receiving. It is partly about casting away, and partly about gathering. George Herbert (1593-1633), in a famous passage on sermons, tells us:
‘sermons are dangerous things…[nobody] goes out of the church as he came in…the parson procures attention, but the character of his sermon is holiness; he is not witty, or learned, or eloquent, but holy…by choosing texts of devotion, not controversy, moving and ravishing texts…and by dipping and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come out of our mouths, and truly affecting and cordially expressing all that we say…when thou so teachest, we are all scholars…’
Herbert, although powerfully aware of the value of words, also knew that examples spoke even more powerfully. And I suspect that what people are crying out for is examples of faith that are simultaneously engaged with the world and yet apart from it; in the world, yet not of it. Who are able to offer the kind of love and authenticity that is quite apart from any of the usual personal qualities that one would normally encounter. An American Roman Catholic priest recently gave an interview to The New Yorker magazine in 1999, in which he commented on the crisis of belief, conscience and morale in the Archdiocese of Boston during the past few years:
‘People today are looking for authenticity, not just some kind of religion where you go in on Sunday and punch your card, performing your obligation…they are looking for a framework for their lives, inspiration to go on, to be decent…to be good citizens and good people’.
The drive and hunger for real authenticity is what many would identify as the key location for the re-awakening of discipleship. A pie-in-the-sky piety feels elitist and disconnected; but its rejection by modern society is not a turning away from discipleship. On the contrary, I want to suggest that society remains enchanted by deep and engaged discipleship, and its capacity to transform the world.
In the Christian faith, true religion is judged not by its seeds, but by its fruits. Christianity is known by what is reaped, not what is sown; love, holiness and discipleship are found in the bounty of harvest. Faith is not judged by its origins, but by its ends. Thus, Christians only have one thing to invest: their lives. The only possession we have – ourselves – is asked to be surrendered. And we cannot truly give, until we give up ourselves. And we cannot love unless we first know that we have been loved.
Surely this gospel is too demanding? Brother Roger of Taize used to reply to just that question with these words: ‘Il ne demande pas trop – mais il demande tout’. (‘He doesn’t ask too much – but he asks for everything’). Or as Jesus put it, ‘love one another – as I have loved you’. Our calling is no more and no less than following him, and becoming like him. So here is my charge: seek God’s wisdom; live a holy life; pray ceaselessly; love your people strongly and tenderly; and go in peace to love and serve the Lord.