The Christian Health Check

Sunday 20th February 2011
Year A, The Third Sunday before Lent
st john The Baptist, Clayton
Matthew 5:38-48

I was thinking about saying something about going the extra mile that we have to go to observe the demands placed on us by Jesus in  the Sermon on the Mount of which our Gospel reading today is a small fraction; but then, I reflected that going the extra mile doesn't mean very much these days when we all travel in cars, buses and trains. When people had to walk or row everywhere in hot weather an extra mile was quite a thing; but not now.

What Jesus is telling us in this section of his long sermon is extremely radical and it probably loses its edge because of familiarity.

So let's just remind ourselves of what we are being told by comparing Jesus with the Jewish law set out in the Book of Book of leviticus which is, after all, the manual for priestly good behaviour. Priests must be just to labourers, protect the poor, not steal, lie or deal falsely, and not hate their neighbour. Well, it's a good start but Jesus said we have to go much further: we must love our enemies; turn the other cheek; give more to people than they sue for. In other words, this is way beyond the extra mile.

Put simply, Jesus is saying that love goes much further than obeying the law but we poor folk have quite a lot of difficulty just obeying the law, in the Jewish sense. Indeed, we often get ourselves worked up over the simple demands of decency. A good example of this is the initial development of the idea of 'political correctness' as a way of ensuring that minorities on American university campuses were accorded mutual concern and respect. In this country at least this is now a term of abuse against our law makers and administrators who quite properly insist that ethnic minorities, women, disabled people and others are properly treated. All sorts of people and customs are shaking up our very settled view of ourselves; and we resent it, which explains our unease; but our unease with Jesus should be much greater.

Given our current difficulties, when we feel squeezed by cuts and economic hardship, how are we supposed to follow the exacting requirements of the Sermon on the Mount?

Well, for sure, I don't expect us to rush out of here handing our property to anyone that passes; what we are being asked is not to rush around in an impetuous fashion. We are being asked to develop an attitude of mind which will be much more open to what Jesus is saying to us.

Before we do anything too morally strenuous we need to conduct a Christian health check to see that we're fit for our arduous task. And just as the medical health check asks us to look at relatively simple phenomena such as our weight, pulse, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, the Christian health check looks at familiar performance criteria: prayer life, scripture reading, corporate worship, public service and the examination of conscience.

I don't want to rush past the middle three but I think that we all know what we mean by Scripture reading, corporate worship and public service; so I want us to think about prayer and the examination of conscience.

Prayer is right at the heart of Christian life. It isn't something we simply indulge in on Sunday when we recite such familiar prayers that it's easy to forget what they mean. Prayer is the systematic development of channels by which we not only talk to God but also listen. We're familiar enough with the talking. If you say "prayer" to most Christians they immediately think of intercessions for the sick but the listening is equally important but more difficult. I think of it as listening to an old fashioned short wave radio with lots of interference and stations fading in and out. Sometimes I hear nothing; very occasionally I hear a blast of sublime peacefulness. Mostly, I pray whether I like it or not just as some people go to the gym every day whether they like it or not. It's a lifelong regime which helps us to develop a personal relationship with God. The corporate worship we are involved in is simply a reinforcing mechanism to give us more strength for our personal encounter; and personal encounter should be risky and leave us vulnerable; it's like being an athlete or a racing driver; we have to push ourselves to the absolute edge, risking a breakdown or a crash. God isn't a safe zone, it's a high risk zone; it's a zone where we risk everything.

As for the examination of conscience, this has to be scrupulous. There's no point in fooling ourselves. What such an examination does is it forces us to scrutinise our behaviour in detail, to see where we could have done better, to note where we need to put in more effort. Without it we become self satisfied and sloppy and slip into anti decent and even anti Christian attitudes.

So if we use prayer as our base value which helps us to be more attentive to Scripture, more involved in worship, more committed to public service, then our examination of conscience will, over time, be slightly less harrowing; but that isn't the main point.

The main point is that it is terribly hard to love our enemy, turn the other cheek, and give to others more than they ask of us; and, as for being as careless of earthly goods as the lilies of the field, well, on the ordinary sense it's picturesque nonsense.

But to be the lilies of the field is our direction of travel. That's where we're supposed to be going, right now; away from the calculation to put our absolute trust in God; but without the Christian health check, we can't even start.