Fools for Christ

Sunday 16th June 2013
Year C, The Third Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Jeremiah 1:4-10
2 Corinthians 4:1-2; 4:5-7
John 21:15-19

Surveying the ranks of the contemporary clergy - even bearing in mind the meeting of Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury this week in Rome - it is difficult to summon up an image of the radical church; and, in this age of sophistication, it is even more difficult to come to terms with the idea of a church of children or, to summon up an even more extreme image, fools for Christ. We are a legislated church, a regulated church, a hierarchical church, whereas the religious leaders in our three Readings today were all radicals.

Jeremiah admits to being a "child" but The Lord soon puts him right; he has been singled out and the Lord will be with him. Subsequently Jeremiah denounces the Temple and the Court, the secular ambition of the Judean State and is thrown into prison charged with treason and only escapes because of the capture of Jerusalem he foresaw.

Saint Peter was more radical yet. It is easy to caricature him, particularly if we are a bit posh and wear our air of superiority lightly and naturally. How did this fisherman, somewhat clumsy of body and speech, end up being the head of the early church instead of a nice, sleek bishop? The answer, I think, lies in the testimony of the Gospels and Acts. It says a great deal for how remarkable the early church was that it allowed the overwhelmingly negative testimony of Peter to stand but this underlines one of the ways in which the early church was truly ground-breaking: it took absolutely seriously the notions of the broken creature and the reality of forgiveness. Here is Peter, broken by his betrayal, offended to breaking point when Jesus asks him three times whether Peter loves him. And what offends Peter is simply that, for all his weaknesses, he absolutely trusts in the friendship of Jesus and can't work out why answering once isn't enough; but the reason why once isn't enough is that Jesus wants to underline Peter's mission, to be carried out in God's trust, in spite of the betrayal of Jesus.

Then there is Paul, our role model missionary who, in his absolute prime, says that his purpose is not to advance his own cause but that of Jesus; but in subsequent verses he then rather spoils this simple statement by reminding his readers of what he has gone through.

I have made the joke before in the context of John the Baptist, that he was the sort of fellow the Churchwardens wouldn't let in, but would they be more giving in the case of Jeremiah, Peter and Paul. I really doubt it. Jeremiah was a pest, a kind of religious Cassandra, always saying the wrong thing and, perhaps worse, always turning out to be right. Saint Peter, conversely, so goes the caricature, was somewhat boorish; but I think the objection to him would be much more substantial; he subverted the religion he was brought up in by striking out in a radically new direction. The man taught in a synagogue in Galilee grew to overcome his scruples and his fear and, ultimately, his betrayal of Jesus, to become both fearless and lucid in the power of the Holy Spirit. I am not sure how well we could handle such a phenomenon. And, as for Paul, you wouldn't want him coming in, turning everything upside down and taking control; for, never forget, for all his conservative Rabbinic upbringing, Paul took Peter's revolutionary baton and spread the new message of love overcoming the somewhat vapid Pagan rituals of self-regard.

As we have been told in Chapter 3 of the Book of Ecclesiastes, there's a time for this and a time for that and a time for the other, a text of doubtful value when it comes to making critical decisions; so what kind of time is this for the Church and how far should we learn to value the radicalism of Jeremiah, Peter and Paul? Regardless of which side we are on in the debate over women bishops, we would have to admit that ten years of almost constant, legalistic, adversarial jousting over amendments to amendments is hardly the way for a church to behave. Again, regardless of our view on the status of gay clergy, we would have to concede that the degree of hypocrisy involved when bishops pretend they have no gay clergy on the grounds that they would not want to discipline them, is hardly a good basis for leadership on the issue; and, regardless of how important these two issues are to the professional clergy, how do they rank when set against the growing need for food banks, the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor and, looking to our own self-interest, the ravaging by the plutocracy of middle class financial stability? One of the strangest arguments I heard during the General Synod discussions on women bishops was that the advocates only wanted the measure to satisfy the secular equality agenda but if we look at the Gospels we find that Jesus was passionate about social justice and said nothing about the gender or any other attributes of clergy. We are in danger of forgetting, in this week of the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, that Jesus was a social radical who sought to overturn a world of graft, greed, contract and doing things 'the right way', instead proclaiming the more difficult course of love, generosity, care and change. The man who overturned the religious panoply of Rome bids us to overturn the religious panoply of the establishment if it gets in the way of the mission of Jesus. Remember, Paul says he does not preach himself but Christ crucified; and that is what we must preach, not the Church but Christ.

How does this work in practice? Well, I suggest that there are three, not very difficult things, that we must do:

And when we are tempted to abandon the big things in order to become enmeshed in the smaller things, remember Jeremiah, Peter and Paul, and the radical heritage of which we are the heirs. It takes courage to be fools for Christ but being wise for him doesn't seem to have worked!