Preacher: The Ven Simon Burton-Jones, Archdeacon
28 August 2011 (Tenth Sunday after Trinity)
During the holiday season it’s possible at least one person here has read a novel by Nick Hornby, whose stories revolve round the dilemmas of liberal, urban neo-lads living in large terraced houses in fashionable parts of north London within walking distance of Arsenal’s old football ground. One of these novels: ‘How to be Good’ meditates on the title’s dilemma. In a world where we have a surfeit of everything and where we mix with people who are as comfortably off as we are, what kind of good do we have to do to be a good person? The alarming earnestness of the couple in the story, who encourage other local residents to put up homeless strangers in their own homes produces hilarious results and underlines the hypocrisy of saying we care about others but showing no interest in following through the logic of that. In truth, the book makes uncomfortable reading for everyone.
People generally make the assumption that Christianity is all about trying to be good. Although there is truth in this, it does not do justice to the subtlety of the faith as it has been revealed. The Christian faith is essentially about a series of relationships: with God, in the first place, and with others. In one sense, all the anguish and imagination that has been spent on trying to interpret the purpose of life has been answered for us in a sentence so disarmingly simple that we miss its significance. We should love God and love our neighbours as ourselves. We can choose to turn our back on the primary relationship with God or we can warmly embrace it. We can even have a fickle on-off relationship with God like one of those new lads has with their girlfriends in the typical Nick Hornby novel. But once we choose God, he changes us from within with his life-giving Spirit. To know God, then, is to be remade in his likeness, which is good. Hence the outcome of saving faith in God should be a changed life which is touched by goodness. If Christians collectively cannot demonstrate this, why should anyone else believe the Gospel is true? This is a calling we cannot duck, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us all feel.
To speak of being good, however, invites the common charge of hypocrisy. The put-down: ‘call yourself a Christian!’ is one most of us have been subjected to at some point. At times the allegation is unfair, but sometimes it indicates we have in some way failed to live up to what we claim to believe. The painful feelings of failure which can accompany such an encounter can be demoralising and inhibit our witness to Christ - but we should resist that urge. There are, in fact, good grounds for suggesting that hypocrisy is a failing we have to tolerate in society if we are to better ourselves. A stronger case can be made for people aspiring to live better lives and running the risk of failure than of not even trying simply to avoid being branded a hypocrite. We need ideals for a good society to flourish and not wither.
Jesus is unsparing in his description of the calling of his people. ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’. We are unfamiliar with the rituals of capital punishment today and lack the vivid picture of impending death which those who listened to Jesus in Roman times would have obtained. To carry a cross then meant you were a dead man – as surely dead as the so-called dead man walking in transit from the cell to the execution chamber in a US prison. Those who follow Christ die with him at his crucifixion. Their old way of life is irretrievably left behind and they become new people. Yet in dying with him they are also raised to new life with him. As St. Paul says: ‘you are not your own; you have been bought with a price’. This is dramatic, uncompromising testimony. To be a Christian is to be inhabited by someone else. Many Christians struggle to identify with this transformation. They are rather vague and fuzzy about the terms of God’s possession of them – rather like a borrower who hasn’t understood the implications of the mortgage lender’s rights over the property they live in. Yet this is their new identity.
Jesus goes on in Matthew 16 to say that ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it’. The Gospel is counter-intuitive: at times it suggests the very opposite of what we would expect and its approach to happiness is one of these. Our culture places the pursuit of personal happiness at the top of its agenda and hints that it is something we are entitled to. Sometimes the Church is seen to condemn this goal because it is thought to be at odds with the cross. But the truth is more subtle than that. Jesus did not say that the pursuit of happiness is wrong. It is a natural human aspiration to be happy. It’s just the path to happiness leads through the cross, not round it. A true sense of fulfilment is found by giving our lives away.
This calling is under great strain today. Putting other people first is a lot easier to do when we live in a community which feels the same way. For when we look after someone else’s needs in such a place we know we can rely on someone else to look after ours. The problem with a self-orientated culture is when it is thought acceptable to make choices without worrying about the impact these will make on others. If we are not careful this descends into a vicious circle where people look more and more to their own interests because they know no-one else will. A Christian fellowship should witness to a different way, but we can only begin to do this when we recognise and deal with our own failing to think about the prior needs of others.
Social surveys show that people are unfamiliar with the meaning of the Christian cross today. Some may not appreciate the symbolism of a wooden cross, but they will understand its values when they see them lived out in a particular community. As the saying goes, if you want to know what someone believes, look at what they do, not at what they say.