Thursday, 5 March 2015

Lent 2: Whatever it takes...

Last week my husband, Philip, was taking part in an orchestral rehearsal, as he does. The rehearsal was taking place in a school in London.  It was a splendid building, and clearly the school was trying its hardest to inculcate in its students an ethos of hard work. To this end, they had decorated the school with inspirational slogans, painted on the walls. The one which confronted Philip as he rehearsed said, in large letters. “Whatever it takes…” That was all, “Whatever it takes…”

Now, I get what this was trying to say. It was meant – I am sure – to be an encouragement to its pupils to put all their effort into their school work, but Philip wondered, and so do I, whether the school had really thought this through.

There were two problems with this slogan. First, you have to ask, “Whatever it takes to do what?” It is only a good idea to put your whole self into doing something if the thing you are doing is worthwhile. Jihadi John has put his whole self into something he believes in. He’s done “whatever it takes” to achieve his goal. Unfortunately it is ISIS and its campaign of terror. We might want people to be aspirational, but what do we want them to aspire to?

The second problem with the slogan was what it  by “Whatever”  in “Whatever it takes…” Did it mean that students should push aside others in their rush to achieve their goal? Did it mean that if a student could get where they wanted by low cunning and cheating, they should do so? I can well imagine some enterprising youngster presenting homework they’d copied from someone else with the cheeky observation, “well, sir, you did say ‘whatever it takes’, and that was what it took!”

That may all sound rather fanciful and far-fetched, and perhaps it is, but it highlighted for me the danger of slogans and inspirational quotes if we use them unthinkingly. That caution should extend to Bible verses too. Take the one we find in our Gospel reading today. “If any want to become my followers” says Jesus, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” It is a powerful, stirring call to discipleship – there are no half-measures here - but if we don’t think about it carefully it can lead us up some very dark alleys indeed. These are the kind of words which fuelled the Crusades, holy wars – Christian jihads – which caused slaughter and misery. They are the kind of words which have encouraged people into joyless repression, giving them the idea that what God wants, more than anything, is for us to be having a hard time, carrying crosses for the sake of it, depriving ourselves of comfort and pleasure. “Whatever it takes…” people have muttered to themselves grimly as they have hurt and damaged themselves and others in the pursuit of a completely false idea of holiness. It is the delusional, confused thinking of the ISIS fighter and the suicide bomber, who imagines they are dying in a noble cause, so it doesn’t matter what collateral damage there is.

I don’t believe Jesus meant us to take his words that way, but if that’s the case, then what did he mean? Perhaps it would help us to ask the same two questions of these words as I did for that slogan on the school wall. What end are we supposed to be aiming for, and what means should we use to get there?

Undoubtedly Jesus  wanted people to be wholehearted in their faith, wholehearted in their commitment, but what was that a commitment to? Peter thinks he knows. His vision of the future is of a time when Jesus will sit on the throne of Israel, a victorious king who has swept the Romans out of his nation. When Jesus starts talking about suffering and dying, he is aghast. Surely that can’t be right, and it will put the crowds off completely! He takes Jesus aside to try to persuade him to come up with a more upbeat message. But Peter just hasn’t understood what Jesus is about, and he wouldn’t be the only one. He is measuring the success of Jesus’ mission the same way he would measure a night’s catch as a fisherman, by how many fish there are in the net. If people are following Jesus, listening to him, supporting him, then that’s all that counts, never mind why they are doing so. It’s a temptation we all fall into, to gauge how we are doing by how many friends we have, how many “likes” on our Facebook page. I might try to assess the health of the church by looking at how many people come to worship. But all that really tells us is whether people agree with us, not whether we are right. The record of history shows countless examples of despots and dictators who had a huge following – Hitler was elected to his position as Chancellor of Germany, after all. “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on earthly things” says Jesus to Peter. The kingdom of God just doesn’t look like the kingdoms of the world. God’s success criteria aren’t the same of those of a business or a club.

When Jesus dies on the cross the crowds that followed him so enthusiastically earlier are nowhere to be seen. As Jesus hangs on the cross you wouldn’t know he had ever been popular at all. We know that Resurrection is just a few days away, but even then Jesus appears just to small numbers of people. It’s not the triumphal takeover that Peter, and many others would have been expecting from God’s Messiah, and yet his death and resurrection have had more impact on the world than almost anything else in human history.

That’s why Jesus warns his followers that if they really want to come after him, to walk in his way, they need to be reconciled to the fact that it may involve crosses for them too, things that look like failure. We need to be careful how we measure success, this passage warns. Jesus talks about the risks of gaining the whole world but losing our lives. The Greek words he uses are revealing. The word for world is “cosmos” and it really meant the created order, what you see in front of you , the material stuff of life. There was nothing wrong with it – it was made by God – but it was just stuff. We get our word “cosmetic” from the same root, something that looks good, but may only be skin deep, and is transient and temporary.
The word translated as “life” is “psyche” – it’s probably better translated as “soul”. It is the essence of ourselves, but specifically in Jewish thought it is the essence that was breathed into us by God.
In the story of the creation of Adam from Genesis 2, God first makes a man out of the dust of the earth, a mud-pie creature, essentially. It is fine, but it’s not alive. So God breathes his own breath into him and Adam becomes, according to the Hebrew a “nephesh” a living man. His soul isn’t just a spiritual part of him, it is a divine part of him, the part of him that comes from God and is of God and belongs to God. It might seem paradoxical but to be really human you have to have this divinely gifted soul within you. 

So Jesus is saying that it’s no use if you have all the riches the material world can offer, if you haven’t got, in here, the presence of God which brings you his life. And if you have that life of God within you, you will find that the prizes of power and wealth and popularity don’t really matter that much anyway.

Jesus said that he came to bring “life in all its fullness” . That’s the only aim worth pursuing, for ourselves, for the church, for the world.   Not numbers, not wealth, not prestige, but life. That is what the Kingdom of God is all about .

So if that is our aim, what are the means by which we achieve it? There again, Peter has missed the point. Later on he will be the one who reaches for a sword to fight off the guards who come to arrest Jesus. He thinks the kingdom will be won with the tools and in the ways earthly kingdoms come into being, by force, by political strategy, by manipulation. He hasn’t understood what Jesus has been saying about it starting in small and gentle ways, with things the size of a mustard seed or a grain of wheat or a tiny piece of  yeast. He hasn’t understood that it isn’t won by overthrowing the might of Rome, but by overthrowing the selfish and judgemental impulses in our own hearts. He‘s missed the bit where Jesus talked about removing the beam in your own eye before complaining about the speck of dust in someone else’s, as we all so often do. “Consider the lilies” Jesus has said, “who neither labour nor spin, and yet God clothes them more beautifully than King Solomon” You don’t need anxiously  to protect your own position in the world, says Jesus to him, and to us, because you have the only position you really need, held securely in the hands of God. You don’t need to be top of the human heap, because you are the apple of God’s eye already.

The route to that aim of “life in all its fullness” starts within us, as we learn to pay attention to what needs to change in us, so that we can learn to love because we know that we are loved. In the end, this passage isn’t so much about our commitment to God, but God’s commitment to us, which is total and faithful, just like the covenant he made with Abraham in our Old Testament reading. He gives “whatever it takes”, in the person of Jesus who gave his life out of love for us, and only when we know that can we healthily give “whatever it takes” to him. In doing so we can afford to lose everything the world might offer us, if that is what it costs to live with integrity, because we are rich beyond our wildest dreams anyway, rich in the love of God who will never let us down.

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