Sometimes, when I read the Bible, I get a sense that it was written for people better than me, or at least different from me. Some of the most lyrical passages are beautiful and awe inspiring, but they also leave me feeling a little bit defeated somehow too.
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans seems a bit like that, and the text from Matthew’s Gospel too. ‘If it is possible’, Paul says, live peaceably with all. Well, I think I want to say that it it isn’t really possible, always. And the rest of that passage, the one you have printed out before you perhaps, is so wonderful, but just not quite possible for all of us all of the time. I don’t think we do always love as we deeply as we might, we don’t always manage to be glad in zeal or ardent in spirit. I know I don’t always contribute to others as much as I could or welcome strangers – let alone in this time of Covid-19. I don’t always bless those who make my life difficult and I don’t suppose you do either. And sometimes I’m not in harmony with everyone. And I’m not sure that’s possible for anyone… Paul seems to live in a world I don’t quite recognise. But perhaps that is the very point. He is not so much ticking us off for our very human failings, but showing us a world that’s really radically different from this one and inviting us to imagine what life could be and what life will be, in the different world, different from this one, that we call the Kingdom of God. I think, if we can read a passage like this, in that way, then we can begin to accept it as a gift rather than as an inducement to guilt and defeat. It’s not just telling us what to do, but showing us a glimpse of the world to come in which living like this might be possible.
The text about denying yourself and taking up a cross is perhaps rather the same. I’m not sure I could expect any of you to volunteer for crucifixion. I very much doubt that I could find it within me to deny myself that much. Perhaps you can remember that scene in the film The Life of Brian when a rather effete Roman soldier asks people in the queue, ‘Crucifixion?… Good, this way….’ I would just say no, and opt for a different choice, and I guess you would too, unless you are really very strange. But what would it be like to live in a world where people would be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others? What would it be like to discover those who could put others first in that way, those who could forgive those who did this to them and embrace death in the place of another? In the world we live in now there have been, and no doubt there are, some remarkable people who have found this possible. I think of Max Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan priest who, at Auschwitz, volunteered to die in the place of a stranger. There is something awe-inspiring about someone like that. He gives us a glimpse of a world different from this one, so much in contrast with the realities of the world we know now.
And here I think, again, is the key to understanding these very challenging passages. We should not feel guilty that our world, and our own experience, is not like this yet. But we should feel joy that a new world, that is like this awaits us, by God’s grace.
Perhaps the truth is that we have lost sight of the way in which Christianity, the way of Jesus, is not in the world’s terms ‘normal’. It isn’t common sense or common practice or even just common human decency – it’s much more radical and different than that. It’s about looking for and beginning to live in a quite different world from the one all around us. It looks mad and impossible from the outside, but as a hope for the future, as a sign of what God is bringing, it is our goal.
I once worked with a wonderful Christian teacher, called Alan Kreider, who was a Mennonite, from the more radical side of the Reformation. I remember vividly a lecture he gave in which he showed us how the early Christians were regarded as very strange by the Roman Empire. They were not ‘normal’ people. They practised the sharing of possessions. They refused to fight. They forgave their enemies. Christianity became of course the ‘normal’ religion of much of the known world and we forgot how radical and strange and challenging it is. It is so strange that we can’t do it on our own, we are unlikely to be able to practice it wholly in any time of the present order, but we can look forward to the time when God will bring a new world. Christianity is not ‘normal’ and so it’s no wonder we are struck by passages of scripture, like the Beatitudes or the Magnificat, that make that clear.
I imagine that we all get used to forgetting how strange Christianity is, until something reminds us, and it can be the oddest of things that do it. A little while ago I watched a Peter Sellers film called Heavens Above!. Perhaps some of you have seen it? It’s one of those black and white comedies (a bit like Kind Hearts and Coronets) and it was made in 1963. It caused quite a stir at the time apparently. The story is that there are two vicars with the same name (Rev John Smallwood) and the ‘wrong’ one is accidentally appointed to the English country town of Orbiston Parva. The new vicar, played by Sellers, takes Christianity very seriously and his charity and forgiveness quickly set him at odds with local people. He appoints a black dustman as his churchwarden, he takes into the vicarage a large family of travellers, and he persuades the local landowner to provide food to set up something that we would call a foodbank. But local people take advantage of the scheme and soon the local traders are up in arms as they have lost all their customers. Smallwood is naïve, people are people, and chaos ensues. The Bishop intervenes and, in the end, Smallwood is made ‘Bishop of Outer Space’ and when the intended pilot of the first rocket gets cold feet, Smallwood takes his place. He is last heard broadcasting a sermon over the rocket’s radio. It’s a very British, and very funny, film – and just about everyone in acting at that time is in it. You can even spot Ludovic Kennedy interviewing Smallwood for the BBC. But it certainly shows how far we are from being a world in which it’s easy to practice Christianity. Smallwood might tick just about every box from Romans 12:9-18, but he ends up an outcast from the world.
This week I found on BBC I-player a documentary about the Bruderhof Communities. I had heard a little about them when I was working at Christian Aid, but this revealed much more than I knew. They are Christian communities; rather like monasteries only with families. They share all their possessions and have no personal property. They worship, eat together, make a modest living together, practice peace and are content to live outside the normalities of the internet, consumerism, fashion etc. They seem benign, generous, and certainly alternative. And yet, I was sad to see that the women dress in drab outfits (for modesty) and cover their hair, that roles in the community are very much gender defined, and that they could not tell the reporter how decisions are made in the community except to say that it was not democratic. Again, they are not perfect… and we shouldn’t expect them to be. Just as we are not perfect either. All of us who bear the name Christian are at the same time redeemed and sinners. I imagine we can all say Amen to that.
But the gift and promise of the faith we share is that while we live in this world, we don’t quite belong to it, and we are already becoming citizens of a new world.
It’s a while since I’ve given you a quotation from my beloved Rowan, but here is one at last. In a conversation about, of all things, theological education, Rowan Williams says that learning to be a Christian is to know..
“….more about the world that faith creates, or the world that faith trains you to inhabit. …It’s not about a set of issues or problems, it’s about a landscape you move into—the new creation, if you like. You inhabit this new set of relationships, this new set of perspectives. You see differently, you sense differently, you relate differently.
(to be a Christian) is to be taken back to that moment of bewilderment about the …..the distinctiveness or the strangeness of being in this new Christian framework. (It) is familiarizing yourself with how people have found their way around that landscape with the perspectives they’ve occupied and then learning to pitch your own tent, as one might say, in that territory”
I think that the passages we’ve heard today are describing that new landscape that we’re called to move into. They don’t tell us off for not being perfect, but they offer us a glimpse of a world different from this one and offer us the chance to begin to step into it. To receive a telling off and to be burdened with guilt is a burden for anyone – but to be offered a glimpse of a new landscape, a different and better world, is a gift, an invitation and a promise. Let’s receive that gift and promise and say, Amen.