by Francis Gardom
This talk will not be solely about the Person of Jesus or his Work and Teaching but rather about the different ways that people responded to them both during the years of the incarnation, and how they continue today to respond (or fail to do so).
For if the Christian faith is about anything at all it is about God’s love made manifest to us in Jesus Christ, and our response to him as a result of this manifestation.
“We look to Jesus”, the writer to the Hebrews says, “as the author and perfecter of our faith.”
Not simply as a person to be admired and emulated (though he is that); not just as a great teacher and healer (though he was both of those things too); but we look to Jesus as the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity, whom it is possible to know, to love and to believe in even though we have never met him in the flesh.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the majority of people for whose benefit the books of the New Testament, Epistles, Gospels and the Apocalypse, were written were those who had never actually met Jesus in the flesh. As St Peter says in his first epistle (1 Peter 1:8)
Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith even the salvation of your souls.
St Peter, like St Paul, is in no doubt that salvation of our souls is the purpose of God for us and the underlying reason for the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. They are also in no doubt that this salvation, whilst being the free gift of God to those who believe, is also something which can be refused or ignored by us.
Do let us be clear about this. If free-will means anything at all it must include the freedom to reject tout court the Giver of that freedom himself. There is in fact no middle way between accepting and rejecting. Christianity is a binary matter, that is, something to which in the end you and I can either say Yes or No to – but not Yes-and-No. Doubtless it’s very un-Anglican of God not to have provided a “middle way” for us, but in this matter, as in some others, it would appear that the Almighty is profoundly un-Anglican in his attitude.
It’s not for us, of course, to say for certain whether any particular person (except ourself) has finally said Yes or No to the love of God. But if freewill is the gift of God, then, at least in theory, that freewill can just as easily be invoked to refuse or negate the other gifts which God has to offer us, the gift of salvation included, as to accept them.
That some people today, perhaps most people, appear to make such a rejection should come as no surprise to us. St John tells us in John 6:66 “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him”. Note the phrase “many of his disciples“. These were not just hangers-on but those who had followed Jesus in the flesh and got as far as to have built up with him a relationship of being disciples who took offence at what he had to teach them.
Then there was Judas Iscariot. Whatever may have been his ultimate destiny or state it is certain that at a critical stage he turner right away from following Jesus in the path of the Apostles and became instead someone who “sent himself out” in order “bring to Jesus” precisely those people who had already rejected his ministry, the High Priest and the Sanhedrin.
Mention of them reminds us that there were many others who were not even prepared, it would seem, to give Jesus a hearing, and this included the religious hierarchy of the day. With the exception of Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus, who were prepared at least to keep an open mind about him, the majority of the Religious Establishment, to a man “took agin him”.
It’s worth pausing at this stage to ask ourselves why these men in particular, men professionally committed to the Law and doing the will of God, should have developed such closed minds that they could not, or would not, see in Jesus the fulfilment of all that they had been taught to look for by the Law and the Prophets and which they in turn had taught others to expect.
Why were such men so blind? Let me suggest that at least part of the reason was that they were Running a Show.
It must have been far from obvious to them that the teaching and works of Jesus, let alone his personality was ultimately compatible with the Show that they were trying to run. It was one of their number, remember who said about the profound impression which Jesus was making on ordinary people of his day “behold how ye prevail nothing, the whole world has gone after him!”
Moreover, even were it possible that this new teaching could in some way be integrated into their own, their own position in the new Show which must inevitably supersede the current one was by no means an assured one.
In other words they must have felt deeply insecure about the whole matter. If these twelve Apostles, some of them ill-educated, none of them nobly-born, were to be included in the hierarchy of this new Establishment, would it not be likely that there would also be some redundancies taking place? And what position would this Carpenter-man hold in the new dispensation employing as he did all that priest-talk about sacrifice and bread of life and forgiveness of sins. Why, the man talks as if he were of the Tribe of Levi whereas we know he is only a jumped-up itinerant preacher from the Tribe of Judah (“of which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priesthood”).
Underlying their hostility to, and rejection of Jesus lay a deep sense of insecurity. And I would like to put it to you that a similar sense of insecurity lies behind a good deal of the apparent indifference of people towards Jesus today. So let us look a little more closely at what security and its counterpart insecurity does to people.
Security has been said to be “man’s greatest enemy”; but that is an over-simplification. Without some degree of security everyday life becomes impossible even at the simplest level. So man’s craving for and addiction to security are by no means a desire for something which is bad in itself. Whenever security breaks down, civilization begins to disintegrate, it’s “every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost”, the weakest are trampled over by those who are less weak, not out of callousness but from the animal instinct for survival.
But security, once attained, becomes a god, and therefore an actual rival to the One True God. It’s hardly surprising therefore if the Religious Establishment, in every period of history, should be deeply antipathetic to, and suspicious of, any presentation of the truth which makes their position less secure, or even appears likely to do so. The most telling argument of Caiaphas was the one which hinged upon the danger of the Roman authorities doing a clamp-down on their hard-won religious privileges.
Security, like wealth, is a relative business. Nobody in his right mind expects to be absolutely secure in this life, although it’s surprising how many people assume that certain things will “always be there”. As one example of this, the death of Princess Diana struck a mortal blow at many people’s lives in the sense that a landmark was suddenly taken away from them. Whatever people thought about Diana the fact was that she was, and always would be, “just there”; and then, all of a sudden, she wasn’t.
The extraordinary manifestations of grief which ensued bore every mark of a people who had been emotionally “knocked for six” by the tragedy and their security deeply damaged, rather as if they themselves had been in the car that crashed. They were disorientated because that landmark in their lives had been peremptorily removed.
Now if people en masse respond to the forfeiture of their security, even if it is caused by the death of someone they have never met, it seems hardly surprising that those like the Sanhedrin who saw their job as being potentially put on the line by Jesus should have developed their own defence mechanism by shutting their eyes to the Truth which he personified.
Is it surprising then that when people today “encounter Jesus” whether it be in a Church service, by dipping into the Bible, or in the person of a friend who is one of his disciples, that they should quickly become aware of the dangerous ground that they are treading on? For many people today, security is what they most covet for themselves and for their family and, having acquired a measure of it they cling onto it for dear life. How very understandable then, when Jesus Christ offers them a different sort of security, which may involve the surrender of that which they have so often painfully achieved, that such people should look twice and even three times before getting themselves tangled up in anything so dangerous and unpredictable as becoming a Disciple of Jesus, whose first gift to anyone is the Sign of the Cross.
If this goes some way towards explaining why potential Seekers after the faith are deterred today, it may also help to explain why, amongst those who have accepted his call to serve him in the Sacred Ministry of Apostleship and Priesthood there are rather fewer “heroes of the faith” than there were, say, a hundred years ago. People sometimes ask where the Stantons, Maconochies, Tooths and Dennisons are today. Why are priests nowadays so hesitant “boldly to rebuke vice and to suffer for the truth’s sake”, and why are the lower levels of the ramparts so comparatively overcrowded with people keeping their heads down?
Part of the explanation, I believe, is that today’s priests have become relatively (but only relatively) secure, and like their lay counterparts that security is something too dear to them to be lightly surrendered.
By contrast the heroes of yesteryear were often either those who had nothing to lose by standing up and fighting for the faith, or else they were men of substantial independent means who could afford to cock a snook at the establishment and get on with the job for which they had been ordained. If the worst came to the worst those with private means could weather the storm; whilst those without two pennies to rub together could easily find a niche for themselves in the clergy house of a sympathetic parish where as single men with a deep sense of their divine vocation they too could carry on with the task to which God had called them.
Today it is rather different. Men of means and men without means are both equally rarae aves in the ordained ministry, and it is to the Welfare State that those in financial difficulty are urged to turn rather than the wealthy benefactor or sympathetic parish. Besides which, many more priests today are married, with young families, and it can never be far from such a priests mind that the sufferings and forfeiture of security which “standing up and fighting” might engender for him as a single man are not strictly comparable with the ones he would be faced with in reality.
I mention this, not to condone the present climate of fear and anxiety which serves to keep people’s heads “below the parapet” but rather to make the point that many a “spiritual” crisis (the duty to stand firm in the face of error and the fear of so doing) may have its origin an a very mundane and earthly crisis, the paradox of security. Too little security and we are reduced to the level of passive spectators; too much and that security displaces Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour.
Since spiritual crisis may have such mundane, personal origins this leads on to another observation. Too little account is often taken of the great diversity of personality which exists in mankind.
It was not Sigmund Freud who discovered this, but the French physician Galen, many centuries before who observed that men’s behaviour was heavily influenced by the kind of people they are. In other words our response to anything or anyone (Jesus Christ included) may depend upon (as Galen termed it) our prevailing humour.
Galen’s four categories of humour, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric and Melancholic remain as accurate a description of human character today as when he invented them 1800 years ago. Of course people share a mixture of these four humours, and I believe that it is possible by grace, significantly to change their mixture within ourselves, but in any given person one or other of these will be found to predominate. So in helping people to respond to Jesus we ignore at our peril the kind of person we are dealing with.
Yet ignore them we often do. We argue that there simply is not enough time to discover such things about all the individuals whom, for instance, we are preparing for confirmation. But that, in some cases at least, may be precisely why they lapse so soon, namely that we have been exhorting them to respond to the call of Jesus Christ in a way that is totally alien to their nature.
Jesus is, we must presume, equally “accepting” of all those who “seek to worship him in sincerity and truth”. He takes us all, with our prevailing humours, and makes disciples of us. What he does not do is to insist that we should conform to one particular pattern of discipleship before he will accept us. He may indeed seek to change or modify our prevailing humour insofar as he sees it to be a hindrance to our discipleship; but there is not question of change-for-change’s sake.
Let us look at the way in which he dealt with two very different people, the Rich Young Ruler and the Woman of Samaria at Sychar.
He had some pretty trenchant things to say to both of them about their respective lifestyles; to each he issued an appropriate challenge which differed one from the other. In their two responses to these challenges we can see the paradigm of peoples success and failure to respond to him.
The woman responded to his challenge “Go, fetch…” by bringing all her friends an relations to “come and see Jesus”. As a result of her ministry they came, they saw, they believed for themselves.
As second- or third-class citizens the Samaritans lacked the confidence of the Orthodox Jews. No doubt they compensated for this by an excess of that rather bogus confidence which comes naturally with feeling oneself an outcast. But Jesus invited them to have confidence in him, and as a result that very thing which Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, the pillars of orthodox confidence were unable to bring themselves to do for fear of the insecurity that would result, the Samaritans, the bottom of the heap in the confidence stakes, did spontaneously.
By contrast the Rich Young Ruler was a man of excessive confidence: confidence in his financial security. Jesus challenged him to relinquish that confidence and security in favour of a different and more lasting sort which would endure for all time and eternity.
But the young man, perhaps for the time being, perhaps, who knows, for all eternity, was just not willing to bring himself to make that exchange of security-in-riches to security-by-grace and faith.
If Jesus reckoned that people’s natures and circumstances had to be taken into account in seeking to attract people into discipleship, it behoves us to be aware at least that such discretion may be required of us. Now it would be foolish to suggest that all of us can, like St Paul, “become all things to all men that I may by all means save some”. It’s just not given to any one of us to have perfect rapport with people of every kind and humour. Such a consideration should not, of course, deter us from “doing our best” with anyone who seeks our advice or help; but it does involve us in the recognition that we are not, and are not expected to be omnicompetent as spiritual directors. We should never be reluctant to refer on to someone else anyone whose spiritual problems in relating to Jesus are beyond our own competence to deal with.
The keyword is confidence. The middle four letters of this word spell “fide” which means “by faith”. In Jesus we have confidence to pray to God as “Our Father”.
Spiritual direction, evangelism, catechesis. Those are the buzz-words which are doing the rounds today. Don’t despise things that buzz, by the way. Some of them make honey, and most make themselves useful by pollinating the plant world); to these four words we must add a fourth, confidence.
Not the complacent confidence of the evangelical who says “I’m saved so what is there to worry about”; not the self-satisfied confidence of the catholic who says “My Church has the true faith and yours hasn’t”; not the easy-going confidence of erstwhile Anglicans who say “Soul, thou has much goods laid up for many years: take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry”
No, the confidence we are seeking to inculcate, and the true security which depends upon it are those spoken of by St Peter (1 Peter 3:15)
Sanctify the Lord your God in your hearts: and be ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you the reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and reverence
Meekness and reverence are the precise opposite of the arrogance that characterises the (admittedly caricatured) examples of confidence, evangelical, catholic and anglican which I gave a few moments ago.
But St Peter’s words, “Be ready to give an answer suggests the fundamental confidence of the Christian disciple who has found the right way for himto respond in prayer and sacrament and the other duties which discipleship involves, to the love of Jesus Christ and his saving grace and who can say with perfect sincerity:
I know him in Whom I have believed