Sunday 3rd July 2016
The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Mark 6.7-29

The first time I came up against the now fashionable technique in novels of juxtaposing apparently heterogeneous material, was in Julian Barnes A History of The World in 10.1/2 Chapters, but it shows how far I have come that I now read David Mitchell with comparative ease and with no discomfort at all and so our Gospel reading today doesn't give me any real qualms. What is the connection between its two parts? If we had gone on for another few verses we would find that the story of John the Baptist is the meat in a discipleship sandwich. The Apostles are sent out with the exhortation to carry the minimum of worldly goods and they return to tell Jesus how they have got on but, in the meantime, just like the novels I mentioned, there is a darker story about discipleship; for trivial reasons and, against the grain of Herod's inclination, John the Baptist is beheaded. For nothing.

Well, not quite. The grudge which Salome's mother Herodias had against John was that he had presumed to comment on her sexual behaviour. Personally, I wish he'd commented on just about anything else - her cruelty or greediness, for instance - because this concern with sexual conduct sets a bad precedent but, anyway, John, one supposes, didn't sit down and write her a private note of admonition but, rather, preached of her misdeeds to anybody who cared to listen.

I would not, on that basis, urge us to behave in precisely the way that John behaved because I believe that speaking in public about the behaviour of individual people is much less important than speaking publicly about our collective failures where we take part of the responsibility on ourselves for collective failure; but we all recognise that this is tough.

Turning to the bread of our John sandwich on the subject of discipleship, I don't so much want to dwell on its costliness, which is the point of inserting the story of John's beheading, but upon its very nature. The fashion has grown up, as part of society's obsession with the individual, to think of our relationship with Jesus in a quasi erotic way, summed up in the phrase "Jesus is my Boy Friend", or "Girl Friend". This tendency is particularly marked on the extreme Evangelical Wing of the Church of England where the nature of personal relationship with Jesus is related to the economics of self-help so that, in essence, we can be good Christians as long as we love Jesus but we don't have to bother following him. For quite understandable reasons, the Western Christian Church has been deeply suspicious of mysticism which tends to take people away from the reality of the corporate Church. Of course, it frequently did the right thing for the wrong reason, fearing that mystics challenged its authority; and although Protestants at the Reformation reacted against corporate Catholicism in favour of the bilateral dialogue between the believer and God through the medium of the Bible, it wasn't long before they saw the necessity for ecclesiastical corporatism.

But, as we say, then was then, and now is now. All social and economic trends come to an end but I think it will be a long time before the contemporary trend of individualism runs its course. It may well be that if, as is likely, more and more people in our society become poorer, we will think again about collectivism but at the moment all the forces are going the other way: we are more bound up than ever before with people of our own sort; we no longer have servants who keep us in touch with poorer people; we no longer share television viewing now there are so many channels; we only communicate with our "friends" on Facebook; we find it increasingly difficult to imagine the condition of others; and in spite of the explosion of higher education, we are getting less good at debate, thinking that honest, intellectual disagreement is in some way aggressive. But the consequence of this last phenomenon, though perhaps meant well, is that we increasingly only mix with people who agree with us. I wonder how we would have got on with a group of people that included a handful of fishermen, a tax collector and a terrorist!

In such circumstances we end up only loving the people we like, which isn't the point at all; quite the opposite; but the more we look inwards, the more difficult it is to look outwards, the more difficult it is to see strangers as people like us in spite of superficial differences.

When I think about that rather odd collection of Apostles I picture them on their various roads to death in different places and wonder how they handled the strangeness of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and, if you accept the traditions, even Indian culture. It must have taken courage and immense inner strength from Jews who had been brought up to be so set in their ways, so unbending in their orthodoxy, so hostile to the culture of non-Jews. We, who think ourselves so cosmopolitan might, in our small ways, go where they went, following Jesus. We might take the time to consider what we have in common rather more than we consider the differences between us. But, for example, when we go abroad on holiday, how often do we take notice of the people whose lands we visit, other than seeing them as curiosities, framed in a museum-like environment, curiosities rather than true brothers and sisters. And, the irony is that, no matter how little we actually learn about foreigners in their lands, we probably know more about them than about the marginalised in our own land. We are being constantly urged by our Church leaders to take part in mission and evangelisation but how can we do that effectively when those we seek to bring to Jesus are, at best, strangers? We only have to think about how surprised we were by the Referendum result to see how estranged we are.

When Jesus told his followers to go out as missionaries with the minimum of possessions, this was not an exercise in self-denial so much as a strategy for coming close to otherness, for narrowing the gap between the teachers and the taught. If it is so difficult to love strangers, it seems to make sense to make them less strange.