A sermon for Trinity 1.
Meet Jeremiah. Jeremiah comes from Jerusalem and he is a prophet. He was called as a prophet when he was a boy, or at least a young man. As his calling, Jeremiah speaks God’s word to the people of Israel, whether they want to hear it or not. Mostly they don’t. That’s probably because mostly Jeremiah’s message is one of doom and destruction. He warns the people that they need to change their ways and return to God’s ways, and if they don’t then God will bring destruction on Jerusalem. Jeremiah is not popular. And today, Jeremiah is fed up. He knows that he is hated. He doesn’t particularly like speaking words of destruction and doom. So today Jeremiah is fed up, perhaps a little depressed – after all, speaking doom and destruction at all times has to have some effect? This is the effect of his calling.
Jeremiah’s calling is causing him distress. If he were to go to a therapist, or a life coach, or even one of his friends, he would be told to change his job. ‘Don’t do it if you can’t enjoy it’, they would tell him. And that would sound like good advice. But Jeremiah can’t change his calling, perhaps because it is a calling. Perhaps he has tried. But he failed. It actually makes him more unhappy!
What is going on here? Jeremiah’s dilemma can be seen in the lives of Christians and in Jesus’ teaching on the calling of a disciple. What Jesus promises in this passage is being maligned by those in authority, death, division, a cross and losing our lives. Not perhaps the most obvious advertisement for being a Christian. Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading this morning contradicts much that is often understood about Christianity and being a Christian. Christianity is sometimes thought of as a respectable way of life, and in the Church of England (and dare I say especially in its Cathedrals), respectability has been elevated to a position of great importance. And yet here we see Jesus telling his disciples that people will malign them and when they do, the disciples are to carry on regardless. Christianity is often said to be a religion of peace, promoting reconciliation and eschewing violence. And yet here we have Jesus saying that he has not come to bring peace, but rather a sword. Family values is often seen as a vitally important plank of Christian teaching; respect for parents, and love for children being especially important. And yet here Jesus speaks of dividing families, son against father, daughter against mother. He even goes on to say that his disciples must love him more than they love their parents or their children. This is a difficult passage but a very important one. It is important because it tells us about the nature of God, about the demands of God, and about the life of God. The nature of God, the demands of God, the life of God.
We learn from our readings about the nature of God, and we learn that God is the God of the whole world. That is to say that God does not belong to anyone, not to the powerful, not to the religious and not even to Christians. Joseph Heller’s book Catch 22 includes a scene in which the Colonel is shocked when the chaplain suggests that the enlisted men should be included in a gathering for prayer as they pray to the same God as the officers. But God does not belong to the officers, or to the powerful. God is God for everyone. Sometimes the Bible speaks of God being a jealous God. Sometimes the Bible speaks of God being one God. Both of these are ways of saying that God is God for everyone, for the rich and the poor, for the powerful and the weak, for those we know and those we don’t, for those we like and those we don’t. God is not our special property. God is God, and we do not control God. That means that God cannot be held within our own divisions and groups. God is God for the Church of England, but also for the Church of Rome. God is God for the British, but also for the Iraqis and the Syrians. God is God for those of us who gather here this morning. But God is also God for all those others who don’t. God is the God of the whole world. God is not ours.
So we learn that the nature of God is that God is the God of the whole world. And we learn that God makes demands. The God of the whole world makes demands on people, and they are demands that cut across everything else. Jesus tells us that they cut across the demands of family, and that can be a hard truth to grasp. Pope Francis was yesterday in Calabria, where he condemned the mafia’s operations. The mafia are family institutions, but ones where the demands of family are clearly contrary to the demands of God. I don’t think that Jesus is condemning family life, but he is saying that there are more important things and that the demands of God can run contrary to family life. As Jesus goes on, we learn that there are times when the demands of God run contrary to the demands of staying alive. That too is all too apparent in our world. Think of Father Frans van der Lugt, killed in Syria because he refused to treat Christian and Muslim differently.
The God of the whole world makes demands on us that we should live in his ways, ways that mean justice for the whole world and not just for ourselves or our country or our party. Ways that mean treating everyone as human and valuable. Not just those who look like us or who take our side in conflict. The demands of God follow from his nature as the God of the whole world – and they mean that we will come into conflict with those who want to claim that God belongs to them. But, remembering that God is their God as well, Christians have died in witness to the God of the whole world and in obedience to the demands of that God.
God is the God of the whole world, and he demands that we live in the ways of the God of the whole world. That can, warn Jesus and Jeremiah, lead to death. But in fact it leads to life. Those who hold onto life, and so give up on the demands of the God of the whole world, will lose it, warns Jesus. They will not know the true meaning of life. Those who follow the demands of the God of the whole world will truly live, even though they might die. Jeremiah is more of a poet, he puts it this way: “O Lord, you have enticed me and I was enticed; you have overpowered me and you have prevailed”. This is love poetry. For Jeremiah, the God of the whole world makes demands like the demands of a lover. It is not difficult to follow them, rather it is more difficult not to. “If I say ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is a fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” says Jeremiah. The God of the whole world comes to us intimately, as a lover. To know the God of the whole world, and to follow his demands is to fall in love, it is to know true life. It is to truly be ourselves, the people we were made to be. This is something to proclaim from the housetops, something to tell in the light.
God is the God of the whole world, he demands that we live in his ways – the ways of the God of the whole world. He does so because this is where our true love and true life will be found. That is the Good News found in these difficult passages. But let me leave you with a question to challenge you. What is it that the God of the whole world demands of you today, this week, or for the whole of your life? What is it that will be like a fire in your bones, will entice you, overpower you and put you in touch with true life? There is no other question that can be as important. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral. 22.6.14.