Sunday 23rd August 2015, Trinity 12
Revd Chris Palmer
Please can I have some volunteers (children) to tell me about these bits of paper. What are they?
• Birth certificate
• Baptism certificate
• Confirmation book
• Marriage certificate
• Letters of orders (deacon & priest)
Each of these is about my vocation – what it means for me to be human, to be a Christian, to be in relationship. And all of them (possibly apart from birth certificate) are also about commitment, the promise to follow, to love, to serve.
Today’s readings are about commitments. Let’s just recap:
The Old Testament reading is the story of one of the great covenant rituals in the Bible. The drama of the story is somewhat neutered by the selection of verses. In the full version, Joshua recounts at length all that the Lord has done for the people, and then asks, ‘so who will you serve?’ And they say, ‘we will serve the Lord’. Except that’s not quite the end. He says, ‘No you can’t. He’s too holy for you.’ And so they protest their commitment. And he says, ‘then put away your foreign gods’. And he creates a ceremony to mark their exclusive worship of God. Because God cannot, will not, be one of the options in our lives; he asks for our whole allegiance.
And then there’s the Gospel reading. Jesus’ teaching is hard and off putting; many leave him. Jesus doesn’t dumb down the message to make it more palatable. And Jesus challenges even the twelve apostles, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ And Peter says, ‘Who could we go to? You have the words of eternal life.’ Peter recognises that despite the cost of following Jesus, Jesus offers the only true reality, the only firm foundation for living.
In all of our lives there are moments of solemn commitment, whether in sacraments – like baptism and confirmation and marriage – or sometimes just in moments of conscious choosing. For me to be a Christian was a very conscious decision when I was 12. Or there’s the moment you say ‘I love you’ for the first time, or ask someone to marry you; and our cultures even created a stereotyped ritual for that: romantic venue, go down on one knee, bring out a ring…
But these moments of commitment, these rituals of vocation are not enough in themselves. We know that the decision for follow Christ, the decision to be in relationship, the decision to respond to God’s call in a particular way is one we have to make new each day. Each moment of our living we are called to live the commitment that we make – because God’s commitment to us is renewed each moment.
And this daily patient living of our calling, of our relationships is so much more difficult than the extravagant gesture of ceremonies to mark baptism, or marriage, or ordination. I think in a sense it’s summed up nicely in today’s Collect:
‘Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray…’
When I hear that, I know in my bones how true that is for me. It speaks the reluctance I so often have to intentionally engage with God. And that reluctance is reflected in other ways too beyond just prayer: in engaging with family or tasks I find tedious even though I believe they are important and part of my calling, or even choosing activities that are life-giving for me, or making the effort I need to promote the good of the planet or the well-being of society, or challenge prejudice in myself and others.
And the answer to this reluctance isn’t merely, ‘try harder’ – as good as that is. It is to recognise that even the living of our vocation is a work of grace, an action of God within us. We know this, of course, if we think about human friendships: it’s easier to give time and help and love to someone who shows these things to us. Love prompts love, commitment prompts commitment. At its best relationship is a virtuous circle in which each loving moment creates the next encounter, the next commitment.
Of course in human relationships the opposite can also be true: you can get into a vicious circle in which resentment and recrimination feed each other. But of course with God it’s not like that, because God is not subject to the same destructive tendencies. He stays faithful, loving, present, serving, giving, whatever we do.
The Old Testament story of God and Israel from the moment Joshua makes this covenant is one of Israel repeatedly failing to live up to the promise they make, following other gods, rejecting God’s desires, rejecting justice; but at the same time God remains faithful; he stays there for them. Sometimes his faithfulness is tough love: ‘You only have I known of all the families of the nations; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.’ But it is always true that God’s unswerving love is the motivating force that enables them to return to commitment.
And that unswerving love is embodied in Jesus of Nazareth. For his contemporaries Jesus was something of an enigma, the populist teacher and healer, who seems at moments to push people away through the hardness of his teaching, who chooses a deliberate path of confrontation and a lifestyle that was offensive to many. But for those who had the insight, he provokes the response, ‘Lord to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’
The recognition that the deepest truth is found in Jesus becomes the motivating force in our commitment too. But Jesus is so often confusing. He feels remote or alien. Or he’s surrounded by too much familiarity; the old stories no longer have the surprising edge. Or we can’t get beyond the Victorian pictures (see my baptism certificate) or the polite translations of the scriptures to the radical, disturbing, different Jesus. Or we’re frightened that to encounter Jesus will call us to change, and so we keep him within the bounds of church or the pages of the bible.
But when we do let God in, let God love us and love God back, this becomes the power that inspires our living. Fr Pedro Arrupe was the much-loved and influential superior of the Jesuit order from the 1960s-1980s. This poem is attributed to him:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.