Sunday, March 08, 2009

Living the language of love (a sermon)

Have you decided to give something up for Lent? Imagine giving up chocolate - then going to a meal with someone - and then the after dinner mints get passed around - and the host says "go on, just one, doesn't make much difference...." Your host is Satan!! At least, that's the conclusion I draw from this morning's gospel (Mk 8.31-end)

What we have here is an example of social pressure - and this is Satan, for this is what Jesus is resisting. Consider that Satan is the accuser, the prosecuting lawyer in a court case; he is also described as being the prince of this world, you could say that he holds sway over the court of public opinion. And sometimes the pressures of public opinion can be severe - if you stick out then the finger will point at you; it can be much safer to go with the flow and keep your head down. Jesus criticises Peter for confusing the things of God and the things of man - it is the latter where the Satan holds sway.

Social pressure has ways of disguising itself, and is often couched in the language of 'should' and 'ought' (and even 'you should be ashamed of yourself'). I want to suggest that we need to exercise a Godly suspicion when this language is used. Sometimes what is being recommended with a should or an ought is of God - eg, 'you should pray more' - but sometimes it isn't. I'd like to propose a way of discriminating between when the 'shoulds' are good, and when they are otherwise. The simple question is: can the 'should' thought be rephrased in terms of the great commandments?

The first and greatest commandment is to love God, to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength. This comes first and is the most important command. I see it as intimately bound up with vocation, the sense of who we are before God and who God is calling us to become.

And the second command is alike, namely this: we must love our neighbours as ourselves; in other words we are called to share the love of god with each other, to look after each other and care for each other, to nurture each other and forgive each other - so that all might enjoy the life that God intends for us.

Let me give you two examples which may make things clearer. Imagine a musician, say a teenager, being exhorted to practice his instrument by his parents. Perhaps it was an expensive instrument and the parents say 'we've spent so much on your music lessons you should be doing more with it'. Contrast this with the thought: 'I have a gift from God and it fills me with joy to play my instrument - I am more myself when I am playing than when I'm not'. Both forms of language might lead to the teenager playing the instrument, but only one is inspired by love.

On the latest U2 album there is a marvellous song which contains the words (it's effectively a song of praise addressed to God) "I was born to sing for you". When Bono is singing that he is expressing his vocation, he is being the person God has called him to be. My point is that if we can't rephrase the 'should' into something which inspires and enables life then it is just social pressure and is Satanic.

A second example: imagine a middle daughter who has taken on the principal burden of caring for an elderly aunt despite having other siblings equally connected. And the request comes in to go and visit to do her shopping. Is this a 'should'? "You ought to go and do it because if you don't nobody else will"? Or is it actually "I love my aunt Nellie, I enjoy seeing her and I don't want her to experience hardship." If we can rephrase the 'ought' into something that allows us to experience the joy of loving someone else, the joy of caring for someone else, enabling them to life and to flourish - then it is godly; but if not, it is just social pressure, and, worse, it opens up scope for being abused.

So this is the challenge: to rephrase 'should' and 'ought' into the language of love. In part it is about examining our motivations: am I pursuing this course of action because it is loving, or am I simply giving in to being pestered? or to gain approval? or because I'm afraid of disapproval? The core questions we must explore are: is this enabling me to become the person that God is loving me into being? Is this enabling me to share the love of God with someone that I love? and, if we're really saintly - can the boundaries of my loving be broken down just a little bit more so that I can love more widely than I have done as yet...?

Which brings us back to Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. I love this little verse 'he spoke plainly about this.' It's a strange thing to have in a written text which has just said pretty clearly what Jesus was saying. The passage only makes sense if you think of it as something spoken and written down; think of Peter sharing his memories with Mark and emphasising 'he spoke plainly about this'.

In the story - and it is something I'm sure Peter would have remembered painfully clearly - Peter is voicing social disapproval, but why is he doing this? Because to be killed by the authorities would, in worldly terms, show that Jesus was not from God - "cursed be he who hangs from the tree" (Deut). It would have been against Scripture!! We need to be aware that sometimes even the Bible can be used for worldly purposes, as it was, for example, when it was used by the Southern states to defend the institution of slavery. We need to read the Bible with the Holy Spirit by our side, and remember that the Holy Spirit is the defence counsel in the law case, he is there to defend us and we can leave the arguments about social pressure to him. If we are following God then the Spirit will be with us, and we don't have to worry about defending ourselves in terms of public opinion.

Which must have been a comfort to Christ at this time, when he was preparing to take up his cross - and what does the cross symbolise, this tree upon which he was hung that, in Paul's words, allowed Christ to become a curse for us? What does it mean for us to take up our cross? It means that, if we follow those two commands, if we abandon the language of 'should' and 'ought' and start to live the language of love; if we allow the love of God to shape us and enable us to share that love in the world - then we will come into conflict with the world. We will become light shining in the darkness and those that cling to the darkness will resist. Then, the form that the resistance to us takes, when we are pursuing the will of God in our lives, that is the shape of our cross. And we must each take up our own cross in this life.

Sometimes clinging to the darkness can seem the most righteous thing: it is what we should be doing, it is what we ought to be doing. From our reading, "the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law", these were not rabidly evil people, as if, were we only to look clearly, we'd see the horns sprouting out of their heads. They were people like us; perhaps I should say they were people just like me, put into a position of religious authority and given responsibility for keeping the system going. I don't doubt that, at least for most of them, they felt that in opposing Jesus they were doing the right thing; "it is expedient that one man should die for the people".

Yet Jesus had this specific vocation, this claim upon him from the Father, which he never allowed to break. That is why he was without sin - sin is simply anything which breaks our relationship with the father, anything which disrupts our obedience to the first commandment - and Jesus never allowed that relationship to be broken. Jesus was true to his vocation to the bitter end. He could have gained the whole world, but the world would not have been enough. In the same way, each time that we give in to social pressure we lose a little bit of our souls - and what does it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our own souls?

Jesus came to set us free, to become children of God. What this means is that we allow God to take charge of our lives, that we live as his children, as heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ. Then, if we walk in his path, we take up our cross and follow him - then we can share in his ultimate victory, and enjoy a risen life with Him.

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