Now is my way clear, now the meaning plain; Temptation shall not come in this kind again. The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason. T.S. Eliot Murder in the Cathedral
The readings for the 13th Sunday in the season after Pentecost are particularly rich. In the second track O.T. reading from the book of Joshua, Joshua now an elderly man presents the option for the people; they can either follow the God their ancestors worshipped before they entered the Land of Canaan or they can adopt the Gods of their Amorite neighbors. But, they must choose according to what they are willing to do. He tells them that: as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. The people respond: therefore we also will serve the Lord for he is our God.
The Gospel continues with working it’s way through John 6. Jesus has been speaking about himself as the bread from heaven before moving onto more graphic imagery in which he exhorts his listeners to accept that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they cannot have eternal life. In my last two posts, Bread and The Seed of an Idea I explored both of these metaphors in the context of Eucharistic worship.
To choose or not to choose, that is the question
Relationship with God seems always to involve a choice. To be in relationship with God is hard. Despite their affirmations, the Israelites discover over and over again that serving the Lord requires more from them than they are prepared to give. Jesus is not about to win followers through tailoring a seductive and inspiring message. Consequently, in 6:66 John tells us that: because of [his message] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.
This seems to cost Jesus something. He seems resolute in his message but not exactly unperturbed, left unshaken by its consequences. We can sense him taking a deep breath as taking his courage in his hands he asks the twelve – his core group: Do you also wish to go away? Peter speaking on behalf of the twelve says Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. Phew!
Picture this scene. Place yourself in it. Do you not hear the catch in Jesus’ throat as he puts himself on the line with those who mean most to him. We can see the tears in Peter’s and the other disciples eyes as they acknowledge that for them there is simply, nowhere else to go, no one else to go to, for this is where their hearts have led them. They make a choice.
Although subsequent events reveal that neither the Israelites nor the twelve are ready to accept all the consequences of their choice, their choice places a marker in the ground, a place from which to at least struggle to stand firm. Standing firm is what Paul or a writer steeped in Paul’s thought exhorts the Ephesians to do through the imagery of donning the armor of God.
Choosing and then standing firm is less of a once-and-for-all resolute stand and more of a repetitive cycle of wandering and returning. From time to time, we will be knocked off our marker by what The Book of Common Prayer refers to as changes and chances of transitory life. Sometimes, we will willingly, though misguidedly wander from our marker – the imprint of our choice on the ground. Yet, having made the choice, we have a marker in the ground to which we are able to repetitively return.
Jesus, like his great forerunner Joshua, remains resolutely on-message. He recognises that the consequence will likely be that people will turn away because the message isn’t to their liking, or because it’s too costly for them to bear. I, on the other hand, want to present a convincing image of Christian faith in a world where to choose to be a disciple of Jesus is increasingly countercultural and seemingly non-credible for the majority. The pressure to make the message credible is great.
For me, the treason to do the right deed for the wrong reason is all too real a temptation. Unlike Jesus, who refuses, I am tempted to do the right deed, i.e. win new adherents and attract new people to the parish, but for the wrong reason, i.e. a desire to be successful in my work of building strong Christian community. I want to ease the anxiety of choosing by presenting the choice as credible. The question which present itself every week in sermon preparation is this: does being credible require tailoring the message for the ears of the listeners? Most of the time I think it does. Yet, a closer reading of Jesus ministry shows that this is a temptation he resolutely resists.
This exploration is making me uncomfortably aware that I have a strong need to make the Christian faith a credible choice within the context of a highly educated and intellectually sophisticated community. After all, is this not why they called me to be their rector? Yet, I am also aware that credibility is not the standard Jesus used in constructing his message. Paradoxically, the power of Jesus’ message lies in its challenge to what in any given society is regarded as credible.
What faced the Israelites over and over again was that the pagan religions who’s Gods represented every aspect of human domestic-agrarian-warrior culture were more credible than the overarching and emotionally remote deity Yahweh. The crowds flocked to Jesus because they wanted to hear a credible message that proclaimed liberation from hunger, poverty, and oppression. They fell away because the message they heard was not a credible vehicle for realizing their aspirations.
In Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas A Becket, Henry II’s hand picked man in the end refuses to tailor the gospel to fit the King’s needs. Four barons take it upon themselves to rid the King of his troublesome priest, murdering the archbishop on the altar steps in Canterbury Cathedral.
Down the generations little changes, it seems. What is the message we choose to hear, I wonder? The disciples of Jesus found themselves in what often struck them as a non-credible place. It was a place of the heart, that made little sense to the mind. Having chosen, they arrived at a place where they became acutely aware that they could choose to be nowhere other and to be with not one else. If you take the courage to choose the gospel, then you find you have little choice. In a society captive to the illusion of power through choice, the option of faith seems non-credible.
Today, so many exhibit the signs of spiritual hunger. The food we are in search of is the food of faith, faith lived through community. The dilemma remains that faith only comes after we take the courage to believe. This might seem to many, incredible.