It is clear that more complex robots will increasingly undertake many activities we humans do. In a recent experiment, people conversing unknowingly with a computer believed it was human, its responses were so intelligent. An electronic scientist friend was telling us recently about a robotic drone, programmed to kill an individual identified by its owner as an enemy without further human intervention. Our friend was so horrified that he had formed an international scientific group to expose and combat this development. He thought the science was inadequate to cope with the morality involved.
Being human isn’t just, or even primarily, about being clever. Inhumane behaviour is often very clever, like the Nazi systems for exterminating Jews. Wisdom is not limited to measurable facts; the broader and deeper our appreciation of other people, the healthier and more effective our lives will be.
To help us widen our perspective, so that we can overcome our reluctance to do what we know to be right, Paul, in today’s passage from Romans, encourages people to follow Jesus, whose grip on life had been so clear that he had faced out a brutal death. Jesus focussed his understanding of absolute and universal goodness in the “Father” whose love continually permeates all creation. In today’s Gospel Jesus, in prayer, refers to his “Father” five times [vv25-30].
If we believe that Jesus was right in this assessment of reality and we take seriously the Church’s function as his continuing agency, a recent survey of British church attendance makes challenging reading. It shows a continuing downward slide, slowed only by immigrant Christians and adventurous innovations such as pub and café-churches. The forecast is dire – down to 8%of the over-15 population by 2025. If this decline were just a matter of cultural religiosity – the maintenance of habitual rituals, the retention of ancient buildings – it would be regrettable, but not life suppressing. Because the decline denies Jesus’ realistic insights, it leaves people open to attractive vanities.
And people are surprisingly ready to worship false gods. When consumerism fails, spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo often takes its place. It may be an extreme example, but a woman was recently imprisoned after telling anxious people their problems would be resolved when their money had been used as a spiritual ‘sacrifice’ at a sacred tree in the Amazonian rainforest. Should the PCC here be worried about organising yesterday’s Gift Day, or do we find the Way promoted by this Jesus agency in this building is not a fraud?
Jesus lived in a small Middle-Eastern country battered for centuries by violent conquests. The latest conquering foreigners, the Romans, had stayed on, confident that, in the real world, violent imperial authority was their divine destiny. Their presence provoked some violent opposition, commercial compromises and delusions of national integrity preserved by hollow religiosity. The recent murders of four Jewish and Palestinian schoolboys is raising similar tensions there to those encountered by Jesus. Jesus promoted emotional maturity where the unity of humanity in the Father contradicts violence, greed and nominal legal righteousness as means of salvation.
John the Baptist and Jesus came from another culture which understood reality in terms of the Old Testament’s Wisdom. When John was having doubts whether Jesus was leading people to this tough understanding of reality, Jesus pointed to the people he had helped, and commented that Wisdom was recognised by her deeds. When he invited the weary and heavy-laden to “find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy …” [Matthew 11, 29-30], this was not sentimental claptrap at a revivalist meeting, but a challenge to conscious involvement in the universal Father’s goodness which would result in emotional security.
But Jesus’ public appeal had very limited success. Today’s lesson sheet omits verses where Jesus admonished communities which had not responded to his challenge. The underlying problem was that people had a very different understanding of reality, promoted by apparently wise, intelligent and successful people. Today’s equivalents are not difficult to spot. In addition to ‘kick-arse diplomacy’ and consumerist exploitation, excessive wealth and hollow ‘celebrity’, with their individual counterparts, there is an all-pervasive, pseudo-intellectual philosophy based on reductionist ‘science’ which treats people as robots.
If you walk along Stamford High Street and meet the Big Issue seller, on what robotic, objective intellectual basis do you decide whether or not to buy, and why does St. Paul advise that “God loves to see people give with a smile”? [2 Cor. 9,7]. The generous, self-sacrificing Jesus Way, by complete contrast, is very clear. The Good Samaritan, when he saw the injured traveller, was filled with compassion, not by a clever analysis of the situation. Indeed, the original Greek says the sight of the injured man knocked his guts sideways!
From now on, our Sunday readings from Matthew’s Gospel will be about Jesus serving people’s personal need, exposing the vanity of reliance on wealth, social status or physical power. And when people still didn’t understand him, often including the disciples, he determinedly continued the challenge even to his brutal death. His awareness of the reality of the Father’s love overcame his opponents’ temporary power base.
Perhaps we are reluctant to meet Jesus’ challenge, or to maintain the discipline involved. Jesus can seem an impractical idealist, even when we glimpse the truth of his stance. I read recently about an extrovert entertainer [Merrill Beth Nisker aka Peaches Canadian] from a conservative Jewish-Canadian family. She was described in the newspaper as a gender-bending electroclash artist famed for her hyper-sexualised lyrics. [don’t ask – I don’t know either!]
She describes herself as a born-again Christian, and performs her own solo-version of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. “I don’t see it” she said “as a religious piece; I see it as a person with a good idea trying to make good with humanity, who gets misinterpreted and crucified. I’m not into any organised religion, but I am into people being who they really are. And Jesus was a guy who had a really good idea. I mean he was a bit crazy, and he went too far… but it’s really interesting, his story.” [Guardian 14:05:14]. She is commendably open about her approval of Jesus, but do her limits reflect ours?
From his experience of applying his Christian principles in extreme circumstances Nelson Mandela wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, ….” [Long Walk to Freedom] That is the Jesus Way!
It is almost 50 years since a coal tip slid into the mining village of Aberfan, killing 144 people, 116 of them children in the village primary school, amongst them the second son of the Rev. Kenneth Hayes, the 36-year-old minister of Aberfan Baptist Church. He soon found out that his son was missing, but he decided his role was not to dig for bodies but to do what he could to comfort others. He also led the ultimately successful fight to make the Coal Board pay compensation, and against the Government’s miserable insistence that the Disaster Fund should pay the cost of removing other nearby tips.
On the Sunday following the disaster, his son still unburied, in his sermon he said “as far as I’m concerned we’ve still got two boys. We’re only separated for a time.” Thirty years later, in a filmed interview, he spoke about those terrible days and about verses from Romans which had been his text, and which will soon be our Sunday Epistle: – “I am certain that nothing can separate us from the love of God, neither death nor life, …” That, too, is the Jesus Way!
Who hasn’t heard of Stephen Sutton, who was diagnosed aged 15 with fatal cancer and died in May aged 19. He said: “I don’t see the point in measuring life in terms of time any more. I’d rather measure life in terms of making a difference.” As his mother put it: “while he may have had cancer, cancer did not have him”. That, too, is the Jesus Way!
When, through our negligence, weakness, or own deliberate fault, we avoid the challenge of Jesus’ yoke, remember the Father’s constant forgiveness and joyous restoration of our humanity which makes the burden light. When Jesus first made his challenge there was only himself and a small motley crew of other insignificant people. He, and they, remained faithful to his vision, and others eventually caught up. So should we.