s055g11 Sunday 22 28/7/2011
'let them deny themselves and .. follow me' Matthew 16.24
This is one of many passages that serve to deny any suggestion that we personally will benefit from our following Christ.
I was interested to hear one of my favourite preachers speak about the Canaanite woman who wanted Jesus to heal her daughter possessed by the demons (Matthew 15.20). It was the comment that Jesus came only to the house of Israel. And I realised that Jesus began to see, through bitter experience, that his mission to the house of Israel was doomed. The people with whom Jesus worshipped every Sabbath, those who could name the other members of his family were scandalised when Jesus suggested that God cares for people other than the ancient people of God and that God was found in ordinary life rather than just scripture and synagogue. The disciples wanted to act as gate-keepers to Jesus as if it was all going to revolve around them.
The devout and the orthodox didn't get it, those he had known all his life didn't get it, his disciples didn't get it - but precisely when all these people to whom he was sent didn't get it, Jesus was besieged by crowds who did get it, besieged by an unclean woman who did get it. For all Jesus may have thought that he had to keep the message directed towards the house of Israel, it seems he was given no choice but to see the message widened.
And the same paradigm happened to Peter, who was led, step by painful step, to realise that the Gentiles were included (Acts 10.34). He, the reluctant Jew, was confronted by the enthusiastic outsider.
And precisely the same problem was always in front of Paul, who in Romans declares: 'I wish that I could be accursed for the sake of my fellow Israelites ..' (9.1-5) Instead of persecuting outsiders he was called to accept others who actually wanted to be included.
The problem with the gospel is that those you would least expect to get it do and those who you would most expect to get it don't. Which, now I think about it, is one of the reasons I have been sceptical of church triumphant theology. This seems to me to be a real mark that we've got it wrong.
One of my favourite hymns when I was a young choir-boy was: 'Guide me O thou great Redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak but thou art mighty, hold me with thy powerful hand. Bread of heaven .. feed me now and evermore.' And I begin to see how the church has taught me to be concerned about my own safety, my own salvation - when we should be teaching people to forget about their own personal salvation and get on accepting and welcoming others.
And time and again, as I read the psalms, I hear them concerned with personal safety and personal salvation - often at the expense of others.
For it is not just that I won't personally benefit. Whether I personally benefit from the gospel or not is small fry in comparison to whether the organization exists for it's own benefit, for this happens, supposedly, in the name of god. When outsiders see the church seeking to perpetuate its own existence, they realise that the church is not being true to its founder.
So the church finds the gospel, not in its solemn deliberations over the interpretation of scripture, but in its acceptance of the contributions of those outside the church.
And it is an eternal conundrum, it is God eternally calling us out of ourselves, personally and organisationally, as Jesus was called outside himself, personally and nationally. It is this calling us out of ourselves that is the gospel, and it is as hard for me, personally, as it is for others. It is as hard for me as it is for the church corporate.
And I come to think that this is one of the most subtle of temptations, to seek to perpetuate oneself eternally. The church colludes in this temptation, offering us 'eternal life'. It is the ultimate in personal success.
In my life in the church I have often observed how easy it is to raise money for a new building, but how difficult it is to raise money to pay the minister. I am convinced that the rise of Pentecostal churches over the past 50 years has been precisely because these offer people an opportunity to contribute towards the building of a new structure, something where they can point to a particular brick with 'their' name on. The unforgivable sin of any minister is when he or she suggests that that structure is obsolete and needs to be replaced. It offends our desire for immortality. The trouble with our Anglican Church is that the structures are there and now can only be admired and perpetuated, not changed in any way.
Suddenly the whole focus of the church is not on the gospel found 'out there' but perpetuating my, and our, surrogate eternal life. Are not these words, about denying ourselves directed towards us, too? Or are the words of scripture only for others - that others should deny themselves and come to church to perpetuate my version of the church?
Of course the church is welcoming - for the perpetuation of the church depends on me and us being welcoming. But the perpetuation of the church is not the object of the exercise, but our recognition of the gospel is incomplete without the perceptions of those outside.
For people continue to come and it seems they are welcomed while they are seen and not heard, but they are given short shrift when they seek to make their own contribution.
So then, what is eternal life if it is not some form of personal immortality? - a personal reward for a life of sacrifice? Surely we ought to be rewarded for getting up every Sunday morning and attending church and listening to boring sermons rather than staying in bed and having a decent sleep-in. This is a real question. I confess I am amused that the opening sentence for morning prayer on Sunday morning is 'Awake sleeper; rise from the dead, and Christ will shine upon you'. (NZPB p58)
Eternal life is nothing then if it is not corporate. Eternal life is the church incarnated into society, it is us following Christ and being, (often forced), brought back into society. It is us, the sheep which has separated ourself from the flock of society, being found by the good shepherd, slung around his shoulders and brought back to the flock of humanity. The devout and the orthodox of Jesus' day got the meaning behind this story and had Jesus killed for it, for they did not want to be brought back into humanity. And often the devout and the orthodox of this day do not want to either. But we spiritualise the words of Jesus so they apply to others and not to us.
People, others, want to be accepted, included, and their contribution honoured. The church, on the other hand, spends its time with their noses in scripture defending their personal take on the faith, and effectively excluding others. We do not have to talk about Jesus, we have to allow that Jesus is already in their lives and that they have a truth to convey to us, a truth about being open to others.