Tag Archives: discipleship

17 March – Chasing the wind

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Lent 2

Ecclesiastes 8:14-17
Psalm 27
Luke 13:11-35

In a sentence:
We are not called to chase the wind but to become the wind

Human history – the sphere of decision and action – is the sum of our responses to the world as we see it to be, or imagine it to be, or as it has been described to us. The world works – or is supposed to work – in particular ways, and history is what happens as we anticipate and respond to that perceived order of things.

The problem is – as Qohelet and we know well enough – that things don’t always go as expected. And so, as an example from today’s text: there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. We don’t have to look far to confirm this. As a righteous response to what we have heard from God, we might go to prayer in the mosque, or the church, and find ourselves not in heaven but in hell.

This violation of what would seem to be the appropriate order is part of what Qohelet means when he names as ‘vanity’ our attempts to manage life. Such vanity is not a matter of stupidity or foolishness but has to do with the nature of things: ‘no one knows what is happening under the sun’, we have also heard from him today.

‘No one knows’ because the true order of things – which we never quite grasp – manifests itself among us with the character of ‘wind,’ which cannot be held still to be measured or calculated. And so history – our effort to discern the order of things and to secure ourselves – becomes a matter of ‘chasing after wind’, one of Qohelet’s favourite phrases.

Through Lent we’re reading Qohelet in dialogue with the set gospel for each Sunday to see how Qohelet illuminates the ministry of Jesus, and vice-versa. At first sight, the relationship between the two readings today might seem pretty obscure, but let’s see…

Jesus receives visitors from the Pharisees who carry a warning: King Herod seeks to kill you. In response, Jesus names Herod ‘that fox’ – the cunning one, the calculator, the strategist. As a ‘fox’ Herod suddenly looms large as Qohelet’s vain schemer – the one who thinks he or she knows the order of things and plots a future according to that knowledge. Herod’s calculation has measured Jesus and plotted a future without him. Again we might think of angry men with guns in a mosque.

What Jesus doesn’t do in response to Herod is enter into a reactive scheme of his own. Jesus has no plan. We heard last week of his temptation in the desert, in which he is offered a number of strategies for making his case as Messiah to the people – feed them with bread; impress them with miraculous demonstration; let the end justify the means. Each one of these would be in its own way the kind of vanity which Qohelet decries: an attempt to catch the wind.

To all of that Jesus answered no, and the same answer is implicit in his response to Herod. Rather than a counter-strategy, Jesus sends the messengers back to Herod: ‘Go tell that fox, I am the wind. I must be on my way, and he will not catch me until he can say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”’.

The true order of the world which Qohelet names the wind is Jesus himself. Everything we chase after – everything which matters – looks like Jesus. Here is what we strive after and what we cannot catch. This is what we seek in our churches and our mosques and our synagogues, our universities and our stadiums and our shopping centres, in our sea changes and tree changes and mid-life crises. Whether we go to these places in order to ‘pray’ according to the pattern of that particular place, or go there to kill, in all this we are chasing the wind, trying to catch up with God, and so with ourselves.

What hope is there for us? Only the hope which is Jesus himself, one of us and yet the wind, tangible yet ungraspable, what we work so hard for and yet an unearned gift.

Qohelet’s answer to those who exhaust themselves chasing after wind is sometimes criticised as defeatist, a mere resignation in the face of life’s difficulties, even self-indulgent. We heard this morning:

I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

Read most positively, Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ is a letting go of our ever-frustrated attempts to catch the wind. It is a coming-to-terms with life as it just incomprehensibly is. In a world which runs in the way that Qohelet describes – from pillar to post, from prayer to cold-blooded murder – in such a world Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ amounts to becoming something like the wind itself – an incomprehensible contradiction of what seems to so many to be to be natural purpose of life: chasing what cannot be caught because we cannot grasp what is happening under the sun.

For the gospel it is the same, although we have a different way of saying it. The gospel draws links between the body of Christ which was Jesus’ own body before Herod and on the cross, and the body of Christ on the communion table, and the body of Christ which we are made to be as we receive him in the bread and the wine. To become entangled with Jesus, then, in the way that we are called to be, is not a matter of making sense of the order of the world, not a matter of chasing after wind. It is a matter of becoming, in him, the wind.

This is not a solution to the problems of life under the sun; ‘solutions’ (so-called) are a chasing after wind, as will be almost everything which is said in response to last Friday’s horror. Jesus is not a solution to the shocks which life sometimes presents but it is an answer to them.

Jesus must haste to Jerusalem because that is – vanity of vanities – where the prophets die. His mode of being does not solve the problem. The catastrophe of the cross, of the just being treated according to the conduct of the wicked, is not averted. But is catastrophe and not tragedy. Jesus has already died to Herod and Caiaphas and Pilate in his commitment to continuation on the path that God set before him, wherever it might lead. The cross is the sign that Jesus is no chaser after wind; he is the wind, the free one, despite everything which happens to him.

Jesus’ commitment is Qohelet’s ‘enjoyment’ – not hedonistic indifference but the embracing of a way of being which will strengthen us ‘in our toil through the days of life that God gives us under the sun’.

Do we not need such strength, to toil, to resist, properly to enjoy and to grieve, according to the season?

In our baptism, we entered into the death of Jesus himself – not simply the death he died on the cross but that death to chasing the wind which was the mark of the whole of his life.

Let us, then, look to Jesus not as yet another a chasing of the wind,
but that we might further grow into our baptism by learning the wisdom he is,
and begin to become for the world what he is becoming for us.

23 September – Dying to live

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Pentecost 18

Isaiah 51:1-6
Psalm 138
Mark 8:31-38

In a sentence:
That the life of Jesus, even the cross, is true life

Our gospel reading for today – the second part of what was set for last week – is often identified as a turning point in the telling of the story of Jesus.

Up to this point in Mark’s narrative, the question of Jesus’ identity has been constantly in play; now Jesus hears the word ‘Messiah’ on Peter’s lips and seems happy to allow it to go unchallenged – the identity of Jesus is established.

The narrative now turns from establishing Who Jesus is to the Whither and Why of Jesus. The confession of Peter, then – (heard last week) – together with the new orientation toward Jerusalem and the cross, are a turning point in the story.

But there is another sense in which this passage is pivotal. This is in that the story is not merely a story – an account of what Jesus did, and then did next. What Jesus did and what happens to him is now extended to what will happen to those who would count themselves his disciples: ‘those who would follow me must deny themselves, take up their own cross and follow.’ This amounts to those disciples ‘losing’ their life also.

As confronting as it is, we must see that this is not a simple recognition by Jesus of the familiar way of things – that, if he gets whacked, so also will his followers. Suffering by association happens often enough but how the politics might unfold is not a central interest of the gospel; it is only the background.

The link between the cross of Jesus and the cross of his followers speaks to the nature of the work which Jesus does in the first place, and where he does it. The work of Jesus is perhaps not best characterised, in the first instance, as ‘saving’ us. His first work is to live the life of a free human person, open to God and open to those among whom he is placed. We’ve noted before (e.g., Sunday July 29 2018) that the cross of Jesus is not the point of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ life is the point of his life; this is what an open human life looks like.

The call to follow Jesus, then, is not a primarily a call to hard work or to suffering, as if such things in themselves were redemptive and even if it will involve suffering. The call is primarily a call to life – eyes and heart wide open to the dangers and the possibilities of a human life, and taking up the richest of those possibilities despite the dangers. Taking up one’s cross is living – truly, freely, openly, lovingly – in the time and place in which we find ourselves. Anything less than this is what Jesus calls losing our life, even if our hearts are still beating. It is to be a shadow, a hollow casing for an experience which should have been there but has been eroded away by ignorance or fear.

And so today’s reading from Mark is a turning point not only because the story changes direction here, but because Jesus’ own calling is revealed also to be our call. Peter’s objection last week – that the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus could not possibly happen – was an objection not only that the Messiah was above all this. Peter rejected any notion that such might also be the fate of Peter himself.

For there is something ‘distant’ about the Messiah in Peter’s unbaptised understanding. For him – and for us whom he represents – the saviour is a ‘thing’, a prized possession which we hold, a charm which protects us from whatever threatens, an airbag against colliding with life. Such a charm changes the world but it does not change us. This is what merely valuable things do; at best they confirm us but they do not change us.

In a poem fragment from John Donne he speaks of the difference between this and the twist the gospel requires of Peter’s understanding; (writing of Christ:)

He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.
(‘Resurrection, Imperfect’)

‘He was all gold when He lay down’ – that is, as gold, he was a valuable thing, a purchase on the world, a security: ‘you are the Messiah, and such things can never happen to you’.

‘…but he rose / All tincture’. A tincture is a substance used to colour a metal – to change its appearance. Donne’s point is that Jesus is not simply precious – which is what Peter holds. Rather, Jesus makes us like him, although not merely in appearance: for Christ does

…not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e’en sinful flesh like his.

The call of Jesus is not that we believe in him, in the sense of believing a thing about him. We do not believe merely that he is ‘gold’. The call is to become before God as Jesus himself is before God: to become flesh like his flesh.

If this is the call of God, then it is also the gift of God.

This is why we speak of the church as the body of Christ. The church is not merely ‘a’ body – a body politic. It is this body: the body of Jesus. (From the weekly liturgy:) ‘Let us receive what we are, let us become what we receive – the body of Christ’: the emphasis – and this is your part to emphasise! – falls on those last two words.

Acknowledging that this is not always a comfortable gift, St Paul puts it this way:

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8.28; cf. also 2 Corinthians 3.18)

This is not different from what Jesus describes in his talk about taking up our cross. To follow Jesus – even in costly ways – is to begin to look like him, to be free as he is, to be open to God as he is.

To follow Jesus is to have the things we might normally fear – which is death in all its lived forms – behind us.

To be growing into such a life, then, is to begin to look like someone who has been raised from the dead.

And when that kind of thing happens, not merely the gospel narrative but the world itself comes to its own turning point, and changes forever.

Let us, then, take up the call to follow wherever Jesus might lead, and watch God transform the world.

25 February – How not to fall on your face

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Lent 2

Genesis 17:1-10, 15-19
Psalm 22
Mark 8:27-38

Conventional wisdom has it that falling on your face is, generally, not a good idea.

And yet in our story this morning, in which God repeats the covenant promise to Abraham, the patriarch falls on his face twice – once for better, once for worse.

For the better, Abraham’s first fall is in holy awe. God declares ‘I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous’. This is, for Abraham, a very good thing. Falling on his face is an appropriate response to the presence of one whose intention is sheer, overwhelming gift.

But then, for the worse, Abraham falls on his face with laughter at the suggestion that he and Sarah would now share a child. This is not happy laughter but derisive, and Sarah later laughs in the same way (Genesis 18.12ff). ‘Come on God, let’s not be silly’, and he takes God aside to show him Ishmael: ‘The son I already have can be your means.’ And God says, No. So much for at least one human reception of divine gift.

Yet, when we swing across to the gospel we see the same dynamic. In response to the question about the identity of Jesus, Peter apparently answers perfectly: You are the Christ. In Matthew’s more expansive account Jesus congratulates Peter for recognising who Jesus is. We are here at the midpoint climax of Mark’s gospel: Jesus accepts the title ‘Christ’, and the very next episode is the Transfiguration of Jesus: This is my Son; here is the sheer gift of the God. Peter’s declaration is a falling down moment of holy awe, even if he remains upright.

But then comes the derision. Jesus tells of his coming rejection and suffering at the hands of the people and Peter takes him aside and begins to rebuke him – another falling down in mocking laughter. And Jesus says, No.

If, on account of their significance in the biblical stories, we were to take Abraham and Peter as types – as models or patterns – of how the holy people receive the holy God – then there is something about us which both enables us to recognise God, and causes us not to.

What are we to do with this? I’ve titled this sermon, How not to fall on your face, to which we now come: the ‘application’ of what we’ve seen in the readings today.

It hurts just as much whether you fall on your face with holy awe or with derisive dismissal of God’s proposals. But there is a difference between the pain of these two falls: one is God’s gift and the other is God’s curse.

The gift is the shock which wakes us up in the way that only a fall can. And we need to be woken up, sleepwalkers through life that we are.

The curse is God’s response to our presumption to speak too quickly. Having just woken and opened our eyes, we imagine they are already adjusted to the light. No longer asleep but blinded, we find God to be a stumbling block and we hit the ground again, now unnecessarily.

Falling on your face for the better is an entirely appropriate response to a God whose approach fills and illuminates and completes far beyond your wildest dreams.

The way to avoid falling on your face for the worse is simply not to get up after the first fall. Presumably Abraham recovered from his initial shock and climbed to his feet before he hit the ground the second time. For Peter, the difference between a fall for the better and one for the worse is the difference between answering a question Jesus had asked him and presuming to answer a question Jesus had not asked.

Christian discipleship is about not getting up after falling on your face that first time. This is what it means to take up a cross and follow Jesus.

This is all metaphorical, of course. I’m not talking about ‘giving up’ or refusing ‘to get back on that horse,’ or staying on the ground as a doormat for others or even for God. It is important to counter such defeatist mindsets when we meet them but we are far beyond the power of positive thinking here.

Carrying our cross, or falling on our face for the better, is a matter of adopting an appropriate posture before a God who draws the world as it is into the world which is promised by such crazy means as a Geriatric Conception (let alone a virginal one) and a crucified Christ. For these are the same thing: God pressing through what we believe him to be, to become the God he wills yet to be.

To take up a cross and to follow Jesus is to look up from the ground and to blink into the light at the sight of an impossible child in an impossible place – Jesus on the cross. It is to let the light which that sight is slowly to wash out the shadows, slowly to come into focus. It is to see that the last thing God should do is the only thing God does.

To take up our cross and follow, or to remain prostrate in holy awe, is to live in thanksgiving, that even the unholiness of the holy people of God is no barrier to the overwhelming gift of God.

According to your preference, then: Take up Your Cross and, or just Fall on Your Face, and watch as God calls into existence things as yet unimagined and raises the dead – even us.

21 January – God’s new soundtrack for our lives

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Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 7:29-32a
Psalm 62
Mark 1:14-20

It is very strange to watch a movie with the soundtrack turned off. You see the action and hear the dialogue but the clues as to how to interpret it all are missing. For the soundtrack serves to tell us how to “feel” about what we are seeing.[1] It colours our experience of the drama.

From Paul we have heard this morning not, of course, about soundtracks but about the way in which Christians live most faithfully.

…let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.

Live “as if not,” Paul counsels, although this is not a stoic counsel. He proposes here not a detachment from the world’s challenges and disappointments but rather an awareness of what time it is:

…the appointed time has grown short… the present form of this world is passing away.

What has happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus causes a re-reading of the time in which we live, and so a re-reading of the end or goal towards which we are living. To live “as if not” is to change the meaning of what we see and do. It is to change the soundtrack behind the action of our lives.

The action itself doesn’t much change, at least to begin with. Our relationships continue, our sorrows and our joys, our buying and selling and the other dealings which make up our lives. But a changed sense of the times, and so a changed sense of our end, changes also how we experience what happens around us.

And so Paul does not say Do not mourn but mourn “as if not”: for there is a joy in Christian conviction which colours all passing sadness. He does not say Do not rejoice but rejoice “as if not”: there is a realism in Christian conviction which recognises that the Kingdom is not yet fully come. He does not say Do not deal in worldly things but deal “as if not”: as if they were not merely worldly things but realities within which God might dwell, with blessing.

For the times, and the world in time, are different if Jesus is Lord: they are not closed in on what we can only see. This is why we can tell the story of a crucified man “as if not” an abject failure but the very triumph of God. It is why we can eat and drink “as if not” bread and wine but the very substance of God’s life with and for us. We can see in what we have not possessions but common wealth. We can see in another’s need not merely their misfortune or fault but our responsibility.

Christian discipleship is life to a particular soundtrack, a particular set of interpretations. It is an experience of life as charged with God, coloured by God, resonating with more than the old sound track will allow us to hear.

And, in the end, the change of sound track will be involve more than simply a different beat, a different mood. The action itself will begin to change because of the different experiences. Different relationships will develop, different experiences will cause mourning or joy, different things will be bought and sold, because values shift when the times change and the end is something different. To live “as if not” is to begin to change the world. Live like this, Paul says.

When the psalmist declares You, Yahweh, are my God, and Jesus calls Follow me, we hear precisely what we’ve heard from Paul: live as if the world where not what you have imagined so far but according to God’s own imagination.

And the world will move.

And you will begin truly to live.

By the grace of God, may this world and life be ever more fully ours, to God’s greater glory and our richer humanity. Amen

[1] For a demonstration of how easily a story can be manipulated with a bit of careful cutting and a different soundtrack, it’s worth looking at some of the spoof movie trailers on the internet, casting such as Mary Poppins or Frozen as horror movies, or The Silence of the Lambs as a romantic comedy.