I look at our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 10.24-39) and it seems that we`re faced with some pretty pointed and challenging stuff. If we`re going to be like Jesus, he seems to be saying then just as they called him `a son of the devil` then we will be in for same kind of treatment. Just as he was on the receiving end of scurrilous accusations…. Well, brace yourself!
I wonder if, like me you find this a little difficult to get hold of? My first thought was how come such a transparently nice guy like Jesus gets treated like this? And how come we have to prepare ourselves for the same? Why, for heaven`s sake would anyone want to complain or criticise … let alone kill Jesus (or his followers for that matter) simply, we might imagine, for being transparently good? But then I realised that this is just a bit naïve.
I mean, let`s put our cards on the table. If we`re honest (and that`s always part of the challenge) we know that the world isn`t a particularly nice or especially rational place. And contrary to what we like to believe and imagine; and here`s the thing….. Jesus isn`t entirely `nice` either. There`s far more to him than niceness!
So, let`s begin by noting that the things which Jesus says this morning confront us with one of those conundrums that could keep us occupied for some time. It`s something we see and hear about every day. So many of our conversations are about the fact that there is something truly inexplicable and senseless about this thing we call evil, sin and wickedness. Time and again, the latest news headlines perplexes us and defy any sense of logic.
It doesn`t matter for example, whether it`s the horrifying murder of children attending a pop concert or the returning to your car only to find someone has scratched a knife across your bonnet…. We`re left casting around for answers. And the first thing to say, I think I would want to say is that in my experience we all too often we look in the wrong place.
You see, on picking up this train of thought I thought it would be important to try to avoid descending into platitudes. Platitudes are easy when we set ourselves the task of attempting to solve matters such the presence of evil… One person`s generalised statements are, shall we say as good as another. And they`re also something of an evasion. So, I found myself turning to the Lord`s Prayer. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us… and Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”.
This, of course, is very familiar territory. But let`s just notice for a moment that Jesus tells us that before there`s any consideration of the wrongs we have suffered we have to ponder the great wrong God has suffered through us. To put it another way, before we start getting perplexed about the irrational and wantonly wrong behaviour of others it helps to begin with how far these tendencies manifest themselves in our own lives.
Earlier this week I was browsing some DVD`s in a charity shop and I came across a Movie that was made some years ago called “An Inconvenient Truth”. You might know, it was made some years ago and it`s quite a hard-hitting documentary about the effects of global warming and not least our contribution to it.
Now, let me come clean… I know about this movie… I haven`t seen it… and if I`m honest I really don`t want to! So, I didn`t even think of buying it. Why not? Well, because I`d have to change wouldn`t I? I find it far easier, so much more `convenient`, as the title of the movie suggests… to perhaps join in the chorus of those who call it all `fake news` and so on.
And this is what we do all the time isn`t it? Think of another example. Think for a moment about how much of our medical care… or how much medical research is currently being devoted not to make us well… but to help us maintain what are manifestly unhealthy lifestyles?
We know it`s irrational… But we say, “Give me a cure for lung cancer… but let me keep smoking”. “Give me a pill to stop me getting fat … so that I can continue eating what I want…” and so on. Rather than face the truth that I need to change my eating habits what I want is a pill to take so that I don`t have to change.
I`ve spent quite a lot of time over the past week listening to people talk about Jesus… a lot of it very interesting indeed. But after a while I became a little weary of hearing the same old mantras: “Jesus loves everyone… Jesus accepts us as we are… Jesus loves us unconditionally” and so on.
Eventually I realised that what I WASN`T hearing was anyone use the words that Jesus himself uses, such as “Repent”. Turn around…. Drop your agenda and trust me for mine. I don`t for a moment cast doubt on His `love` for us. This I would suggest is beyond doubt or dispute… But this love is not a pill we can take so as to stay as we are. No, Christians speak of the `fire` of God`s love; which is no fuzzy or vague thing. As one wise Christian said, it`s about “seeking the highest good of the other”.
And here`s the thing, it means recognising and living in the truth…. As we all know, this is a particular challenge for gentlemen when asked to give an opinion on whether your wife`s new dress really fits the bill…… ! So, why would they hate Jesus? Well, because it is a defining characteristic of love that as Paul says, it “rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13.6).
In his love Jesus brings the (inconvenient) truth of our condition to light. So, he says, “Repent… you`re going the wrong way… there`s a better way of being human”. Pardon me… “Yes, darling that suit has seen better days!” And the Holy Spirit we have received, says Jesus, will “Guide us into all truth” (John 16.13).
A young man once told me of his difficult life; of the many bad choices he has made and of the people he has hurt. And although he has been a Christian for many years, he told me that he`s managed to gloss over the fact that whilst he had often sought forgiveness, many of the same behaviours simply continued. He had come to see that she had a faith that helped her cope… but not one that led her into change… It`s so much easier that way…
What happened was that earlier this week (while in the shower, no less!) he said she had a vision of a box. As it opened he realised that it contained all these attitudes and ways of behaving that had been so destructive in his life and for the first time he saw them for what they were…. It was a vision in which he saw the truth and heard the call to repent. This inconvenient and uncomfortable encounter with the truth was an encounter with the love of God. Jesus says, “You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free….” (John 8.32)
Some accept this inconvenient truth… Others, like those who eventually killed Jesus, refuse to face the truth of who they are and what they have become and treat him with scorn. And this, is I would suggest our default setting. I mean, who among us…? Who among those around us have truly entered into the reality of our created-ness, our vulnerability, our folly and yet our blessedness? Who among us..? Who among those around us are therefore free of veneer and attempts at self-justification? Who among us…? Who among those around us would not be embarrassed were our `box` to be opened in public? There`s nowhere to hide. Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known”. (Matthew 10.26). So, our Gospel this morning is an account of the inconvenient truth of our lives.
Before we sally forth into grand speculations about the irrationality of evil the Gospel Good News is an invitation to examine its roots in the depths of our own hearts and lives and know, as Jesus again says in that passage… `We have no need to fear`. (Matthew 10.26). It`s clear from John`s Gospel that Jesus feels the bitterness of sin`s `irrationality`. He found solace in one of the Psalms, which says “They hated me without a cause”. (Psalm 69.4 John 15.25)
The presence of evil in the world is a great mystery. This stuff is hard to process. But there are two threads that we can pick up on. The first is that …what I call the `irrationality` of it is most keenly felt wherever there is light and truth and goodness. There is a lashing out… It`s not very nice… but that`s how it is. And Jesus is telling us that just as he brought the truth to those around him and received such a stark response, we shouldn`t be surprised when -in living the truth- the same thing should happen to us.
Then, secondly, so as to keep us `earthed` it helps not to get lost in speculations. It helps, I think, to look into ourselves and examine the roots of all of this in the depths of our own hearts. To sin, is to miss the mark. In Christ, we know forgiveness but this is always accompanied by the call to repent… to turn around and follow him.
Many a Spiritual Director when presented with someone who`s in a bit of a quandary; having listened for a while, will often as not say, “I think you`re in a good place just now”. At this point people feel even more uncomfortable because it doesn`t feel like a very good place. Especially when what we want, what we`d much prefer is a pill, something to make it better so that we can carry on as before. The wisdom in that remark is borne of an awareness that the box is being opened… The inconvenient truth of the Gospel is being engaged with and as Jesus says: we are not to be afraid. As someone said, the Good News is that “God is always at work in the one whose desire is to know, taste, live and relish the truth of their own being and existence”.