Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
20 March 2008, 20:00 (Maundy Thursday)
John 13: 12-17
Many years ago the Times Newspaper ran a famous competition which resulted in, arguably, the most famous letter to a newspaper. They asked people to write in with answers to the question “What is the major problem in the world today”?
GK Chesterton, the novelist and writer, simply replied “Dear Sir, I am. Yours faithfully”.
It wasn’t just a very clever answer, it was making a vital point. The root of so many problems is, quite simply, me - the tendency we all have to see ourselves and to put ourselves at the centre of everything that is going on.
Many of us have a difficulty with this. We like to see ourselves as, basically, unselfish people, but it only takes a little bit of honest reflection to see that even our noblest acts can often be motivated by selfishness.
Tony de Mello, the celebrated speaker and writer on spirituality wrote a book called Awareness in which he was utterly brutal about this. Even our most unselfish actions, he says, are motivated by selfishness.
I remember years ago, talking to a man whose life and ministry I admired for its integrity and spiritual depth and he said to me. “I wish I could love my wife properly, to love her for herself and not for just what I can get from her”. Even in our noblest moments, our moments of love, we can be driven, unconsciously or, perhaps, sub-consciously by a motivation, a need, a desire which is ultimately centred around ourselves and not as we might think it is, around the needs of others.
If you asked that Times newspaper question “What is the major problem in the world today” of the Bible, then the answer it gives you is simple – pride. By which it means the temptation for our thoughts, our words and our actions to centre, ultimately, around ourselves. Around me.
Now I could talk for hours about why I think this insight from the Bible, which GK Chesterton picked up in that wonderful letter, goes straight to the heart of the matter for our world, for our lives. I could argue persuasively that this is the source of all of our pain, our violence, our disappointment. The root of so much injustice and depression and jealousy.
And, if you can come at least part of the way with me in agreeing that pride is the major constituent of our human existence which we have to contend with if we want a better world, then it is immediately obvious that, if we want to change things for the better, we have to start with ourselves.
But how can we change as individuals? What can we do about this? Again, I think the Bible has two answers here.
At one level, we can’t do anything about this. Only God can. God’s answer to a world where we all live with ourselves at the centre was to send his son Jesus Christ, who lived his life in totally the opposite way. He was the man for others. His life was marked by humility, unselfishness, sacrifice, and service. His was a life laid down for others.
There is redemption here for a world gripped by pride. When we say that he died to save us from our sin, this is what we are talking about. He died to save us from the grip of pride. So, at one level we can do nothing about this. We can only accept what God has done for us, as a gift.
But, at another level there is plenty that we can do. We need to live in such a way that thinking of others, putting others first, centring our lives around the needs and concerns of others, seeing to somebody else’s interests before our own, becomes a habitual way of life. We need to make sure it gets into our bloodstream. We need to learn the discipline of serving others and of turning our lives inside out.
This comes straight from the lips, the words and the example of Jesus himself. The Son of Man came, not to be served but to serve, and it is exemplified, of course, in the traditional reading for Maundy Thursday, the washing of the disciples feet. “I have given you an example, do the same”.
Living a life of service is central to Christianity. It is so important because, as we serve others, we change what is at the centre of our lives. Life no longer revolves around us, it revolves around others. This is rather like slowly changing the polarity on a magnet. Service changes the magnetic polarity within us. No longer does everything get sucked in to feed our own needs and desires, but we become turned outwards, pushed outwards, to the needs and desires of others.
And, as others become the centre, we discover that living for others is to experience freedom. Living with ourselves at the centre is, actually, a kind of slavery. Looking after number one is, in fact, the worst thing we could do for ourselves. If we want to discover freedom, joy, satisfaction and real fulfilment these things need to be found in serving other people.
Service helps us to discover this. It liberates us, it changes us and, in the long run it helps us to make God the centre of our lives, not ourselves and, if it is argued, that in finding freedom through laying down our lives we are doing nothing more than serving ourselves by another means, then I for one can live with that tautology. When Jesus says that those who lose their lives will find them, it seems to me he is making precisely this point.
Those of us who recently returned from a trip to India were struck in a very forceful way by the generosity of the people we met out in the villages. People who had so little of the world’s earthly goods. People who were experiencing grinding poverty and could have been forgiven for centring all of their attention in on themselves.
But, what we discovered there was a glorious liberty in the way that they lived. A generosity of spirit which gave up even the little that they had in order to welcome us. A happiness and contentment in life which was borne not of the things they had, but of the things they were able to give away to others. A genuine contentment which found its root in the hospitality, generosity and service of others.
If we had gone over there thinking that there was much that we may be able to bring to a link between the two cathedrals, then we very quickly discovered that we had so much more to learn, and so much more to receive from them, than we had to offer in return. This is a way of living which seems so much closer to the way that Jesus suggested human beings could, ultimately, flourish and find happiness.
On the way back from India, on the plane, I passed the hours by reading the Abbot of Worth’s book Finding Sanctuary which was based on the programme The Monastery. Catherine mentioned this at the beginning of Lent in her address on Ash Wednesday. The Abbot of Worth’s book suggests that the very first step to finding sanctuary, to discovering that place where you can meet God in a very real way, is by laying down the carpet of virtue within your own life.
This is simply another way of saying that the more we practice the discipline of living for others, the more we edge ourselves out of our lives and make space for God, and in that we may begin to become less of a major problem for the world today and more of the world’s solution.