Today's Gospel is a poor translation of a Jesus saying [Matth. 10:40-42] and, on first reading, it is almost incomprehensible! It is a summary and, if it is to help us meet our personal challenges, or to cope with the shocks of constant news of violence or undeserved suffering, we have to work at its relationships with other Jesus sayings and stories to capture its meaning. But why bother about a 2,000 year old saying?
These days, all religion is commonly ridiculed as an irrelevantly vague delusion about a beneficent, all-powerful ruler somewhere in the stratosphere. A recent newspaper article is typical, arguing that people made workless by robots could entertain themselves in virtual reality fantasy: "What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together. ... In the past it was with the human imagination and with sacred books, and in the 21st century it can be done with Virtual Reality visors and smartphones.... the meaning we ascribe to what we see is generated by our own minds. ... To the best of our scientific knowledge, human life has no meaning. ... [It] is always a fictional story created by us humans."
This analysis is partly correct; our minds do generate meaning from what we see, and scientists make important physical discoveries, e.g. using a micro-chamber smaller than a poppy seed to watch details one-thousand of the width of a human hair, as wisps of cloud grow from ice crystals and provide controls on our weather. Science is an effective disinfectant to enotional silliness, but it is dangerously wrong to relate conclusions from physical measurement to the understanding of our emotional lives. Scientists and theologians increasingly discuss how these separate explorations have inter-related truthfulness. What we value most is not just physical.
Unreliable information bombards our understanding. Two months ago, three books were published with the same title: "Post-Truth", dealing with fakery, alternative facts and selective facts. Facebook is advertising tips for spotting false news, e.g. be sceptical of headlines; investigate the source; inspect the evidence; look at other reports. The Gospel accounts have been studied critically for 20 centuries to bridge cultural changes since they were written, and their account of Jesus enriching the lives of those who met him passes the Facebook tests.
In church we continue to honour Jesus because, in response to a similarly challenging world, he emphasised the potential of any individual experiencing the emotional reality he called "the Kingdom of Heaven". In stories, and by courageous example even through crucifixion, he explained its basis of practical love. This is not the same kind of 'love' as in the current sale advert "More of what you love for less", nor the Antiques Roadshow presenter's declared love for some attractive curio, but that of the two great commandments. Jesus challenged people to stop messing-about on the Kingdom's fringes and encouraged them, when they failed, to try again.
Awareness of the Kingdom's abiding reality provides the same energy that propelled Jesus, and a frame of reference which agrees with how he valued things and people, providing the same reassurance against our mortality. A recent newspaper article highlighted new forms of funeral service requested by mourners, involving fictional heroes like Superman. The continuing Kingdom, experienced in today's reality, provides realistic hope for our future.
Those with Jesus knew instinctively that his practice of Kingdom values flowed from ancestral wisdom and was 'right'. If being 'right' had significance when Jesus' physical life was so easily snuffed out, they reasoned that his essential self must live on, gloriously, in the Kingdom. The New Testament does not describe the Resurrection event but what led up to it and then its consequences. We see in St. Paul's almost contemporary letters how powerfully Jesus' friends experienced his vindication within the Kingdom. We must make a personal judgement whether we, too, accept this foundation for faith in Jesus' way of living.
About 50 years after the Crucifixion, St. Matthew recorded important memories about Jesus for his faith community. Although Jesus encouraged individuals to live in the Kingdom, the text preceding today's reading shows that Jesus organised his followers to work together. It is within the personal and thoughtful life of a faith community that we are most likely to find those from whom we can learn who Jesus was, and work out the relevance of his teaching. That is the point of today's Gospel.
Other Gospel passages [e.g. Matth. 10 24; Luke 10:16: "whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me,, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me."; John 13:20: "whoever receives one whom I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me."; Mark 9:37; 41 and Matthew 18:5: "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me." ] similarly show Jesus using a Jewish legal rule that an agent, for all practical purposes, is the same as the boss. In today's dense text Jesus first encourages his followers to act as intermediary agents between people and God, and since we should represent the boss properly, we should learn from others with greater experience in the Kingdom – described here as "prophets" and "righteous". Then there are the "little ones" – beginners exploring Kingdom values. Jesus warned against causing "these little ones who believe in me to stumble" [18:6 ].
We must use our judgement. History, and current child abuse scandals, support another warning: "beware false prophets who come among you – by their fruits you will know them"[7:15-16]; he spoke harshly too about religious hypocrites.
Kingdom values are universally valid, and we can see them in the weekly Radio 4 Appeal, in generous responses to the Grenfell Tower fire, and in the Finsbury Park Imam's courageous intervention against mob violence. Jesus offers us no excuse for religious brand-imaging, but life in our church community should strengthen us to use Kingdom values in the individual and collective challenges and opportunities that come to us. Here are some examples to stimulate our thinking:
Despite ISIS killing 45 people in two churches, Pope Francis made direct contact with ordinary Cairo people in a flimsy open-topped golf-buggy. He made a joint declaration with the Grand Imam of an Islamic centre where scholars counter those manipulating Quu'ranic texts to justify violence. He challenged Christians to forgive those who wronged them, saying: "The only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity". He prayed with Coptic and Eastern Orthodox church leaders, the first such co-operation since their predecessors had disagreed 1,600 years ago!
The Rev. Harold Good, a former President of Irish Methodism, and his friend the late Fr. Alec Reid, a Roman Catholic priest who ministered to two British soldiers being murdered by a mob in the Troubles, are less well-known. They worked for peace, and were trusted to certify the decommissioning of IRA weapons. Recently they worked together to end Europe's longest civil war, and when he had certified the decommissioning of Basque independence weapons, Dr. Good said to a 20,000 crowd: "May I plead with my Christian fellow-clergy, please take the message of Jesus seriously and become more fully involved in this ministry of healing."
In northern Nigeria over 1M people have fled from Boko Haram and it has been too dangerous to provide vaccination programmes. A MSF paediatrician wrote: "We're ... seeing around 60 malnourished children each day ... When I went home to Ireland I remember looking at all these Irish kids, thinking 'they're so fat!', but ... they're just healthy."
Some years ago in Serbia, a pro-democracy movement opposed to Slobodan Milosevic promoted political change by using humour. "We took an oil barrel, taped a picture of Milosevic to it and set it up in Belgrade's shopping district. ... Next to it we placed a baseball bat. Then we went for coffee and watched the fun unfold." Perplexed police arrested the barrel, and successful opposition became organised.
Ahsanullah is a teenager who fled from Afghanistan, after the Taliban had killed his father and threatened him. After a journey crammed under a car's back seat, police beatings, and walking miles through wet forests, he jumped from a lorry near Dover, alone and without possessions. He surrendered at a police-station, and recounts with awe how he was treated as a human being, one policeman ruffling his hair and telling him they'd 'sort it'. Now Ahsanullah is in Leeds, one of the unaccompanied children being looked after by the Children's Society, an organisation long supported by this church, so thankyou to Barbara for her work here over many years, and an unashamed commercial to contact Louise if you want to help the Society.
These are just some examples of how the Kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven. In today's Gospel reading Jesus challenges us, through involvement in our church activities, to discover the Kingdom for ourselves, individually and together.