Today’s Bible readings are about having the guts to deal with the evil that bedevils human life. Because God is concerned for our proper development he will inspire, energise and forgive us, but it is our responsibility to stand up for what is right insofar as we have opportunity. Our faith is that God is as he is in Jesus, and God didn’t destroy Jesus’ powerful opponents in Jerusalem.
For several weeks, in our Gospel readings, Jesus and the disciples have been moving towards Jerusalem - Jesus very determinedly and the disciples very unwillingly. Jesus has repeatedly warned them what will happen there [Luke 9:22], and in today’s reading [Luke 17: 5 – 10] it is not surprising they ask him to increase their faith in him, so they can cope with his apparently mad plan to confront the paranoid authorities. An exasperated Jesus tells them that because they don’t have faith the size of a mustard seed, they are like inefficient and ineffective slaves!
His talk of ‘slaves’ is a shock but, if we think about it, we are all enslaved by ‘reality’. For example, physical reality gives us no choice; if we walk off a cliff we hurtle downwards, because of the reality of gravity. Just as physical reality enslaves us, so unreality in our relationships with ourselves and other people produces unavoidable consequences. Jesus called his understanding of proper relationships the heavenly Kingdom of God, encouraging his disciples to do the Father’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. Only this understanding of an unconfined reality can explain Jesus’ otherwise feckless initiatives against evil, but it challenges the primacy we accord ourselves.
Pride in our individual identity comes naturally. I was recently at the Wothorpe shop counter when another shopper, holding a jar labelled “Easton-on-the-Hill Honey”, said “Oh! Local honey!” “No!” said the assistant. “But it says it’s from Easton”. “This”, replied the assistant firmly, “is Wothorpe”. Such innocent localism easily degenerates. There are many jokes on the lines of the question: “What’s the difference between Finnish and Swedish people?” The Finnish answer is: “the Swedes have good neighbours!”
Self-centredness runs away with us. The broadcaster Jeremy Vine recently showed a video of a car driver repeatedly threatening him with violence because his cycling had obstructed her. In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe’s budget includes no capital expenditure for schools, but £300,000 for presidential car maintenance. Recent reports of commercial and sporting greed, and of widespread ‘trolling’, expose the scale of anti-social behaviour. 5tn plastic pieces floating in the oceans typify human ecological carelessness. OXFAM and the UN currently report “the worst refugee crisis in recorded history”, and the deliberate bombing of Aleppo hospitals defies description.
Based on the heavenly values of God as our shared ‘Father’, Jesus taught we should live simply, overcoming evil with good by loving and repeatedly forgiving our enemies. This was what he was planning to do in Jerusalem, combatting powerful oppressors by maintaining his personal integrity as he dealt with them despite their provocations in his trial and execution. Reality for Jesus was Heaven’s limitless eternity. Physical death was an insufficient reason to avoid the challenge. No wonder the disciples dithered.
In today’s reading from the Letter to Timothy, St. Paul, whilst he awaits death in a Roman prison, declares his faith in Jesus: “I know the one in whom I have put my trust”, and “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” When Paul contemplates his future he thinks about Jesus who “ended the power of death and through the Gospel revealed immortal life”.
Today’s reading from the prophet Habakkuk provided early Christians with one of many OT precedents for their courageous faith. Habakkuk was disgusted with contemporary injustice, and correctly foresaw that his fellow-Jerusalemites were heading for Babylonian destruction and exile. He first questions why God doesn’t intervene directly, but then he rolls up his sleeves and courageously denounces the proudly powerful evildoers, calling for people to delight in and trust the way of the Lord.
In the ongoing history of those who have courageously shared Jesus’ mind, most examples are lost in obscurity, but here are some snapshots that illustrate the power of what Paul called “the mind that was in Christ”:
John Mason, the writer of our next hymn, was born here in Northamptonshire during the bitter Civil War. He wrote the hymn in 1683 when the country was still bitterly divided into strong religious and political lobbies, and the Scientific Enlightenment was beginning to challeng conventional religious orthodoxy. Mason followed the lead of a group of Cambridge theologians who were convinced of the compatibility of reason and faith, and they courageously challenged irrationality, concentrating on the practical application of Jesus’ example. Mason’s hymn expresses the heavenly reality which makes sense of Jesus’ example.
A recent newspaper report told how the African hospital founded by Albert Schweitzer in 1913 can no longer pay its way because Government funding has failed. Schweitzer was an internationally-acclaimed scholar and organ recitalist when his horror at European exploitation in Africa led him to study and qualify as a medical doctor, so he could establish the hospital and treat people even though they could not afford to pay. He wrote that he undertook this individual initiative to “make atonement for all the terrible crimes” committed by Europeans in Africa. I still remember the Children’s Encyclopaedia photograph of his piano, with its specially-added organ-type pedals, being carried up-river on a canoe, so he could practise for his money-raising European and American recitals whilst isolated in his Equatorial African medical practice.
In October next year it will be 500 years since Martin Luther challenged established church teaching and practice, provoking most un-Jesus-like behaviour. Courageous church leaders and scholars have been working against the grain of 500 years of rationalised prejudices by concentrating on Jesus’ example.
The Waldensian Church was founded in the 12th century and was much-persecuted. Last July it was headline news in Italy that Pope Francis had visited the Waldensians’ annual Conference, where he asked forgiveness, and accepted blessing by the Church’s woman president.
German Catholic Bishops recently reported on the question “Was the Reformation really necessary?” They state frankly that there was merit in Luther’s challenges, and that those who wanted reform rather than break from the Church were not given a fair hearing. Luther, the Catholic Bishops write, should be seen as “a religious pathfinder, Gospel witness and teacher of the faith.” One bishop said “we must contemplate our Christian faith and the errors of the past, admitting our guilt and repenting on both sides for the past 500 years.”
Leaders of the German Evangelical Church and the Catholic Bishops are planning a joint pilgrimage to the Holy Land as “a common prelude to the joint Festival of Christ agreed on by both Churches thinking back to the common roots of our faith”. America’s largest Lutheran denomination has approved a list of 32 statements on ministry agreed with the American Catholic Bishops. At the end of this month the Pope will attend a Catholic-Lutheran prayer service in Sweden to mark the official start of the Reformation Jubilee. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury meet later this week, not just to talk, but to commission 19 further pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops from across the world to work together in their dioceses. Overcoming evil within the Church is an obvious priority. Are we prepared to overcome our deep prejudices?
It is also our individual responsibility to choose a Jesus-based method when we have opportunities to heal individuals and society. The Pope recently said: “We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people.” Responding to press questions about reforming the global economic system, he replied: “Neither the Pope nor the Church has a monopoly on the interpretation of social reality or … solutions to contemporary issues … [but] human beings and nature must not be at the service of money.” He condemned “… using … methods which damage Mother Earth in the name of productivity [and] deny many millions of our brothers and sisters their most elementary economic, social and cultural rights. This system”, he continued “runs contrary to the plan of Jesus. Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labour is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: it is a commandment.”
Evil is not difficult to recognise, and the Church, when it is faithful, gives us a clear lead. When confronted with evil, can we have faith that Jesus was right, and adopt his mind-set? We can then be efficiently effective slaves within the eternal security of the Father’s heavenly reality.