Sunday 27th September 2015, Trinity 17, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
Little children think that the whole world revolves around them. It’s a survival technique, of course, a means of making sure you get fed when you need other people to provide for you. But as we grow up we learn that actually we’re just one of many. In fact I remember quite clearly the day I realised I wasn’t the only Christopher in the world; it was disappointing. And as we learn the vastness of the universe and the extent of time, we realise just how little and incidental we are within the vast scheme of things.
But the mind-set of thinking the universe revolves around us can linger far longer than it should. In all of our lives it comes out as a need to control and manipulate the world around us, so that we are the focal point.
Well, Jesus’s disciples are rather in that way of thinking in the Gospel reading. They think they are the definition of God’s work. ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ In other words, unless someone becomes part of our movements, professes allegiance to our community, and becomes obedient to our will – they really shouldn’t be doing these good things. And that’s the point. Because they’re not complaining that he’s a sinner or a danger. He is doing the same work that Jesus and his followers are doing… and the disciples are cross because they can’t control it. They are not the centre of the spiritual universe.
For us too this is a constant danger. I think it’s been a danger for the Church of England, unfortunately. Having had a historic place of privilege in our society – in government, in delivering education, in influencing debate – the church can feel and act affronted when those of other traditions or faiths gain influence in these areas. Pride is wounded; position defended.
And it’s a danger for us as individuals too, in many contexts. Those who were the movers and shakers in church at one point find it hard to give way to a new generation. Translate this to school friends associations, to the local business community, to movements promoting global justice, and so on. Those who have worked patiently for years, are jealous of the success of the new kid on the block who has energy, talent, and charisma.
But we have to learn that God is bigger than our community and project. ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’, says Jesus. Anyone who is working for social well-being, for the dignity of human beings, for an end to violence and injustice, for the values of God’s kingdom – they are for us, even if they are not signed up to our gang.
Because as soon as we get affronted by other people muscling in on our work or ministry – it becomes exactly that, our work and ministry and not God’s. A wise person once said that Christian mission is about noticing where God is at work and joining in. But our tendency is to turn mission, volunteering, contributing into us wanting to control the agenda. Down this way lies the spiritual death of the martyr complex – everyone should be so grateful to me: just look how much I’ve sacrificed for them. Or a cancerous co-dependency: we need to be needed, and we try to make ourselves indispensable so that everyone has to defer to us.
And when we get into this warped way of being, it becomes impossible for us to receive help. Our self-worth becomes entirely about helping others – which means controlling others. We find it impossible to just be part of the crowd, one of those sitting at table and being served.
But one of my favourite sayings of Jesus is the one that comes next in the reading: ‘Truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’ In our do-gooding spirituality we might have wanted it the other way round, ‘if you give a cup of water to anyone, you will by no means lose the reward…’. But Jesus knows the harder spiritual thing is to accept help. Jesus had to teach his friend Peter this lesson. When Jesus went to wash his feet, Peter wanted to stop: ‘Will you wash my feet?’ And Jesus says, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’
The person who wrote the hymn had it just right:
Brother, sister, let me serve you,
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace
to let you be my servant too.
Because it does take grace to allow ourselves to be served – not with a sense of entitlement to be served – but with the vulnerability of admitting our need.
But Jesus was good at this. He often see him at dinner parties, but he’s never really the host – he goes to the homes of Mary and Martha, of Simon the Pharisee, of Zachaeus, he even uses the home of an unnamed friend for the last supper. He allows Mary and another woman to anoint his feet. He allows friends to support his ministry by providing food and money on his journeys.
Even though he is the centre of the universe – God from God, light from light, true God from true God… by whom all things were made (we say) – he doesn’t need to be the centre of the universe. He can allow others to receive the credit, others to ‘gain the reward’.
This morning we baptise Lucy. Baptism is to be initiated into Jesus’s people. That’s a wonderful privilege, but also it comes with all the temptations we’ve talked about – to assume that we are part of the community that sets the agenda. But baptism is not about joining a club, but rather about identifying ourselves with the shape and patterns of Jesus’ own living.
Baptism is allowing ourselves to be washed by Jesus, just as Peter had to. Baptism is sharing the death of Jesus, in which he became the trash of the universe, disposed of at the margins of society without dignity. Baptism is therefore hard: it’s not the cute choice, but rather a decision to share in the insignificance of Jesus.
And this is about embracing honesty and reality in the face of the wonder of God and the wonder of his creation.
But the wonder of identification with Chris is that we share too in his resurrection – a glory that doesn’t set us apart of exalt us above others, but reveals our solidarity with all creation renewed by the risen Jesus.
Our task as church – your task as godparents – is to live this solidarity with Jesus. In this way we show Lucy and each other how to be a community big enough to recognise God wherever people do his work, humble enough to own our need of help and grace, and joyful enough to reflect the glory of the risen Christ.