Following Jesus

Sunday 26th June 2016
Year C, The Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Galatians 5.1-2; 5.13-25
Luke 9.51-62

I have forgotten who said that the majority of people in history who have called themselves Christians have been heretics of one sort or another; but when we make a rapid, historical survey, we can see the point. At no time in the history of the Church has there been doctrinal unity so, to that extent, the point is well made. We, in this church, and in the Church of England, are living in a time of doctrinal controversy which began just under 500 years ago at the Reformation.

That is simply doctrinal heresy but I think our two Readings take us much wider. If we think about the history of Christianity and how it has impinged upon the peoples of many lands, might we not also say that the majority of people, particularly those in power, have been heretics? The word more often used, of course, would be that those who do not always live up to the Christian ideal are sinners rather than heretics; but I would beg to differ; and I will try to explain why.

In our Gospel Reading, Jesus first explains how unrewarding it will be for people to follow him for, he says: "The Son of Man" and, by implication his followers, "has nowhere to lay his head." And he then goes on to say something which would have struck his Jewish audience as scandalous when he said that he should be followed immediately: "... let the dead bury the dead".

In our Epistle, Saint Paul, reminding us of the Second Great Commandment to love our neighbour as our self, lists vices which are almost exclusively self indulgent and lists virtues which are almost all social.

And it is in these two Readings that I find the clues to my earlier contention that most Christians are in a state of heresy rather than sin, because they fatally misunderstand the Gospel of Jesus. Thinking back to the phrase about the dead burying the dead, Jesus, not for the first time, says that following him is more important than caring for our immediate family. It is a very hard lesson to learn but the absolute fundamental hierarchy in Christianity, contrary to our accepted secular hierarchy, is that the individual is subordinate to the family, the family is subordinate to the community and the community is subordinate to wider society. In other words, the large the scale within which we operate, the greater the obligation. And so, those who believe that "charity begins at home" have got it wrong, at least in Christian terms.

Having set out the bones of the issue, I want to go a little deeper. The history of Christianity is very patchy when it comes to liturgy and doctrine but it is much more uniform in the area of following Jesus; it largely hasn't, thinking that worshipping Jesus is quite enough without having to take the trouble of following him. This is not only, as Bonheoffer puts it, a form of cheap discipleship, it also runs the great danger of reducing Christianity to a personal relationship between Jesus (note, not God, or the Trinity, but Jesus) and the individual worshipper. In other words, the danger is that we focus on the First Great Commandment of Loving God and dispense with the second, which is equally important.

I suspect the problem for Christians, from the most learned theologian 'down' to people like me and you is that we ask ourselves how far we must go in following Jesus in this painful way. How much must we give up? Must we really live like those lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin? Should we give away all we have to the poor if that means that our children will receive nothing when we die? Should we stop spending money on holidays? It's all a bit much, isn't it?

But these are precisely the sorts of questions that we need help with, far more than we need to worry about doctrine on the one hand and the conduct of our fellow human beings on the other. Much of our doctrinal discussions in the Church of England over gender issues in the past two decades have been, to use a rather glib quasi-scientific term, displacement activities. In other words, instead of thinking about the world's poor and our own poor we have instead raised issues of gender to matters of supreme importance, whether we have been arguing passionately about the ordination of women or the nature of gay relationships. I am not saying we should not discuss these issues at all but that we need to get them into perspective. For while we have agonised over gender issues, the world has not so much burned as slid ever further into physical degradation and socio economic division. Throughout the 'Western" part of the world, People are expressing their frustration with conventional politics which has seen all the economic growth since the 2008-9 crash go to the richest 10% in the US and in Western Europe; and this not only explains the Donald Trump phenomenon, it also in great part explains the eruption of discontent so adeptly harnessed by the Brexit campaign. and although many countries in the developing world are enjoying unprecedented economic growth, the gap between rich and poor countries is widening.

It would take much longer than a sermon to explore all these issues but let me suggest some starting points:

• Where do I draw the line between necessity and self indulgence?
• Who is not my neighbour?
• Can I really love Jesus but not try to do what he asks?
• Should following Jesus be easy?

Without my telling you, I think we roughly know to direction of travel; and if we conclude that following Jesus is difficult then that underlines the necessity of prayer. In other words, loving and following Jesus are inseparable. To love without following is a form of self indulgence, one of the aspects of human behaviour which Saint Paul most vehemently warns against.

I wouldn't go so far as former Chancellor Dennis Healey when he said "if it doesn't hurt, it isn't working"; but I would say that if following Jesus costs us nothing, then we're not following.