Be ye holy

All Saints Tide

Would you like to be a saint? The whole idea of sainthood arouses very mixed feelings for most of us. Saints are OK, but they’re better at a distance than close at hand: even that gentlest of saints, like St. Francis of Assisi, the one whom they called a second Christ, could be decidedly difficult, and when we think of people like the Apostle Paul or St. Augustine of Hippo, we might quickly conclude that it’s safer to honour them in their absence rather than in their presence. Indeed, it has been said that the best definition of a martyr is “someone who lives with a saint”!

To be a saint simply means to be holy, which is one of the marks of the Church – “one holy catholic and apostolic Church”, but a sign of individual believers also – be holy, for the Lord your God is holy, we are enjoined. What then is this holiness? Do we actually see it in the church as we experience it, and in the lives of Christian men and women? Again, popular accounts of the lives of saints seem to put such ways of living impossibly out of our reach. How can we begin to emulate such heroic deeds, such long hours of prayer, such self denial?

Yet we should not allow pious biographies to obscure the essential humanity of the saints. St Francis of Assisi left a life of self-indulgence to embrace poverty. St Augustine of Hippo was pursued by an anxious mother who seemed almost to despair at his early behaviour, and when he reformed he left a mistress and a child. St Teresa of Avila, when her carriage was grounded halfway across a ford, wound down the window, shook her fist at the heavens and said “If this is the way you treat your friends, God, no wonder you’have so few of them.” St Peter denied he even knew Jesus when questioned by a serving girl at the height of his Lord’s trial.

Of course these saints turned away from lives which denied their Lord or which sought only personal pleasure – but their capacity to be less than good surely remained. Holiness for them must have been a constant choice of God’s will, a daily acceptance of what they saw that love demanded of them; sometimes heroic, often ordinary. Peter, martyred for his faith, was still the man who had denied his Lord. Francis, in his poverty and delighting in the natural world about him, was still the man who had once delighted in fine and worldly things.

Synaxis of All Saints, early 17th Century. Vatican Museums,
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

For the saints, to become holy was not an instant remedy, a once for all event, it was a constant taking up of their cross and following in Jesus’ way, a constant choosing of God’s love; a constant recognition that no matter what was done, no matter what lay in the past, so strong was that love that it could never let them go.

Peter, Paul, Francis, and all the rest, were ordinary people, but people whose lives were transformed into holiness by the fire of God’s love. Like them, we too are ordinary people. In a special way All Saints day is our feast too, because in all our lives there are times when we achieve sanctity; when we act purely out of care for another person; when in our prayer we feel God’s presence, however briefly. When we go on doing what is right even though it takes constant acts of our will; when suddenly, unexpectedly we feel a kind of holy joy – all these are times of holiness.

Let us think of these things also when, in receiving the body and blood of the Lord in Holy Communion, that we may experience a particular realisation of his presence with us. This festival ending the season of Pentecost when we have reflected on “being the Church” is the reminder and the challenge to us all that God can and does work in the lives of ordinary people to conform them to the pattern of Jesus himself. Truly this is a great feast day for all of us.

Fr. Edward Bryant

The Great Divide

The 19th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 18;9-14

C. S. Lewis reflects on St. Luke’s parable of two men at prayer in the Temple in his own tale of a ghostly coach trip in which tourists are taken by a well respected social worker to visit heaven and hell. The coach first stops in heaven and the guide sees walking around a face he recognised as a notorious murderer. He is outraged and shouts out, “this can’t be right! This criminal should be in hell by rights.” Hearing this outburst, the murderer replies, “I am not here because of my rights but because I asked forgiveness and have been reconciled with my victim; I am here because of God’s mercy”.

The Pharisee and the Publican, watercolour on paper, by John Everett Millais (ca.1860), Aberdeen Art Gallery [Public Domain]

St. Luke’s parable is a beautifully crafted teaching about this keyword “Mercy” so frequently misunderstood, not least within the church by people who complain that using the word mercy regularly in our prayers and services amounts to grovelling. Whereas in this gospel it is again and again proclaimed as a vital step in the journey of the soul. The parable dramatically contrasts two men at prayer. The scene is set in verse 11“the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself”. He is supposed to be an example of how things should be seen to be done in organized religion; he is a pillar of society as he gives thanks for his blessings, he observes all the rules, he fasts and is not greedy or dishonest publically, not even an adulterer. Who would not be rejoicing to have such a fine parishioner? But lift the veil only a little and we encounter the tipping point. This one has slipped into delusion as he prays “with himself” and God must listen to this display of zealous superiority which so quickly has fallen into the trap of judging and comparing his prayer and life with others. He is seeing the speck of dust in his neighbour’s eye before the plank in his own eye. His is the prayer without knowledge of the need for mercy which in Old Testament language means, God’s loving kindness, and is used so frequently in the Miserere Psalms, like 57, “Be merciful to me O God”.

Here we have the great divide between the Pharisee’s attitude to prayer and that of the despised tax collector, a man who collaborates with the Roman occupiers but who knows his deepest needs and who relies on the spirit of the Psalms that are the daily diet of religious Jews. We are told that this man, “standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’

Jesus responded to those who have not fallen into the trap of self delusion and who acknowledge their frailty, the people, so often looked down upon, yet will become the first disciples of the early Church and to whom this parable is first addressed. Then it is for all of us, that we do not fall into the trap of creating a bespoke, tailor made prayer life, like the Pharisee, trusting in ourselves that our virtuous acts make us right with God. Disciples of Jesus Christ recognize what Our Lord said at the end of this teaching “he who humbles himself will be exalted” and St. Gregory of Palamas when preaching on the passage went on to explain that from humility flows the sense of mercy which raises us to the heights of holiness.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

O, For a Closer Walk With God

The 18th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 18;1-8

Jesus told the disciples a parable about the need to pray continually and never lose heart. Luke’s gospel tells us, with a hint in the closing words of our reading, that the disciples had been expecting instant answers to prayer, and were getting disillusioned when they didn’t get them.

The Unjust Judge and the Imortunate Widow, John Everett Millais 1864
[Brothers Dalziel, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons]

That gives us the opportunity to reflect on what Christian prayer is, and how we should be practicing it. Christian prayer encompasses a much wider range of activities than is often thought. Many of us as children grew up to think of prayer as essentially learning by heart and repeating well known prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer. I would be the last to decry the value of such prayers – for many devoted Christians they provide real sources of stability, and strength in times of need, and for many on the fringe they remain, the last vestiges of Christian practice that they continue to observe. But there is much more to Christian prayer than that.

The dictionary says that prayer is a petition made to a God, and, of course, that is all right, for Jesus tells us that we must be ready to ask God for things in prayer, and the point of this parable of a persistent widow is precisely that God will answer such prayers, when they are made in his name and according to his will, though in his way and at his time, and that requires of us that what we ask for is, as best we can tell, truly in accordance with God’s plans, and that we wait patiently on God.

But let us get down to basics! Prayer is about building a relationship with God, and that can be done in many ways. It can be done through set prayers, though there is the obvious danger that they become sterile, mechanical, and cease to serve the overall aim of prayer; as we have said, prayers of petition – in which we ask – are also part of prayer, but only part, and it is a blasphemy to ask without being ready to be part of the answer. For example, to pray for those in need without being ready to lift a finger to give practical help must be highly displeasing to God, who calls us to work with him in righting injustice and relieving suffering with all the means at our disposal. But the boundaries of what constitutes true prayer are in fact very broad – we can build a relationship with God in many ways. You could sit and look at a religious painting or a icon or stained glass window, you could listen to a piece of superb music, you could go for a walk across the hills, you could of course remain silent before the Blessed Sacrament, and, if you want, all these things could bring you closer to God.

So, first rule is, keep praying – it is so easy to give up when times are hard, when prayer doesn’t seem to be achieving anything, but second don’t be afraid to find whatever ways are helpful to you to bring you closer to the living God – do that, and you will be praying, even if it seems worlds away from the words of that teacher who said to you many years ago “Hands together and eyes closed.”

Fr. Edward Bryant

Kyrie Eleison

The 17th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 17;11-19

Christians should think regularly about the word “mercy”. It is not only used frequently in Scripture but is especially used traditionally in worship, although possibly less so now in modern services. Mercy is a theme in many of this month’s gospel readings.

In Luke chapter 17 we read of ten lepers who receive God’s mercy when directed towards humanity and in two weeks time in the parable the Pharisee and the taxman mercy is used to demonstrate mankind’s overwhelming need and dependence on God’s loving kindness.

Unknown author, c. 1035-1040, Codex Aureus Epternacensis,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet mercy, it seems is no longer a word widely used either within the church and certainly not outside it, for there is an inclination among modern people to exult themselves, mistaking their technical and scientific achievements for a kind of moral virtue, and believing that it is possible by our own efforts to be an improvement upon the past and make things better and better. The past century however with monumental conflicts, persecution, slavery and ruthless cruelty or even the political correctness that is manipulating the present cultures, must surely disabuse us of such confidence in ourselves as being able to create a better moral world.

Within the religious community, prayer can often amount to a hope that healing and comfort may be obtained by prayer so that normal life can be resumed. This seems to have been the case when Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, passing villages in the border between Samaria and Jewish Galilee. In both these regions lepers would be forced to exist outside their communities. Ten of these outcasts appear crying out to the master for pity, hoping that in some way they can be restored to full membership of their villages. The healings of Jesus do not depend purely on the requirements of religious observances which all the lepers are happy to undertake, but upon faith that is the herald of a changed life. Only one leprous sufferer, a man who is a double outsider, both leper and Samaritan, makes this step. Knowing the full extent of his wholeness, seeing himself as God sees him, returns to prostrate himself in heartfelt thanks, [17; 16]” with a loud voice glorified God, falling down on his face at His feet.”

“But where, says Jesus, are the nine?” Are they not like the majority of humanity who are not ready to be healed and changed into the likeness of God? Are the majority not aware of the “mercy” that must be triggered before the flawed individual is fully healed? The Samaritan get’s it! It is divine mercy that is the real game changer [verse 19]; “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you whole.” The gospels tell us of many others who approach God in this way with sincerity and humility.

Looking honestly at ourselves or the others in the pews, we cannot be surprised that St. Luke is confronting Christians with the truth that the practice of religion without the sense of divine mercy leaves us like the nine healed lepers. We remind ourselves of this every time we recite the Kyrie eleison at the heart of our worship, and thus we stand with the solitary Samaritan who falls down before Christ, proclaiming that because God has made himself know, we are able to restore in our distorted lives the image of His wholeness. “Blessed are those who know their need for mercy” is the heart of the Lord’s spiritual teaching in the Beatitudes [Matthew 5;7] for it is this which sets divine love in motion, and why the Kyrie is the cornerstone of Christian piety.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Unprofitable Servants

The 16th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 17;5-10

People today are constantly searching for the truth, about Life, Death, about relationships with neighbours as well as the truth about God, Jesus and the Spirit, and how to make sense of it all. Well-meaning Christians often urge the reading of the Bible to help. Yes, the Bible does have a lot to say about loving our neighbours; but not the details for implementing this. When it tells us to “feed the hungry” it doesn’t give us cookery, or dietary lessons, or by giving a starving man a good square meal, we will probably kill him! Not what God wants us to do to him!

Icon Museum Recklinghausen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

St. Luke, “the gentle gentile” in the preface to the Acts of the Apostles, the sequel of his Gospel, says that he specifically wants to enlarge, and explain what Matthew and Mark had already recorded about the work and teaching of Jesus Christ, “That you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” [Acts 1;4] Our reflection continues taking us through the subject of Christian discipleship with its many nuances for implementation.

Many people think St Luke’s Gospel, written later than Mark and Mathew, is the ‘easiest to understand’. He wrote it in Greek as a Gentile, for a largely Gentile readership, whilst he was travelling in Asia Minor as St Paul’s companion. He was a poet (and perhaps an artist), and we owe to him such gems as the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and Parables like the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. But Luke also has passages still not easy to understand. One of these occurs in our Gospel reflection “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty”. [Luke 17;10].

The great problem Luke and Paul had, was to deal with the issues raised by Judaism and the strictures of Hebrew Law. Jesus was most insistent that so far from contradicting the law, his mission was not to destroy the Jewish Monotheistic beliefs but to fulfill them which implies that there may well be “more to come” to complete their “full-fill-ment”. But the problem with the Mosaic Law, was that it had become the centre of faith, an End-in-Itself, not just the Means-to-the-End. This gave rise to many problems, especially between Christian Jews and Gentiles, especially for St Paul in his missionary work. For many Jewish converts, the Faith was the Law and anything that suggested otherwise was simply unthinkable.

This is the context in which the first disciples having heard many parables and stern teachings which make them feel unworthy, ask the Master to help them increase their faith. “Lord, “Increase our faith”. Faith he says begins like a mustard seed in a very small way but given the right support will grow into a large tree with a secure root. The faith that Jesus teaches by his words and deeds, is based not on rules but attitudes which go further. Disciples are to think of themselves as servants of God who owe Him everything as a servant depends upon his master.

Both Jews and Gentiles thought that keeping the laws were very important, as indeed they are. But ‘doing Good Works’ isn’t at all the same thing as ‘having faith in God’ upon whom they depend completely for forgiveness and ultimate Salvation. Thus Jesus adds that having done everything the laws require, his disciples will humbly recognize that they are never worthy of the mercy they receive, so there is more to come, “when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

This is yet another of those ‘Hard Paradoxes’ (which Jesus used so often in His teaching on earth). It is so much at variance with the Gentle-Jesus-Meek-and-Mild, which some still think of, but what a difficult conclusion for the modern mind with little interest in humility while believing more in entitlements and human rights to which the World of today has become addicted.

Fr. Francis Gardom

What Does God Think Of Money?

The 15th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 16;19-31

There are no poor people in heaven, only “the spirits of righteous men made perfect”, as the the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. The parable of Dives and Lazarus in our Gospel reflection, says only what pious Jews of Jesus’ time believed anyway. We often say, parables are heavenly stories with an earthly meaning, so we need to ask, what that earthly meaning could be here.

So many people misunderstand the main themes of Jesus’ teaching: you can prove that easily by asking people, “Did Jesus often speak against sexual sin?” And I guess that most people’s perception is that he did, whereas in fact he didn’t. The main themes of his teaching are quite different, in fact money and wealth, figure much more prominently, as here, where we have, a stern warning about what happens when we let money take control of our lives. Money in itself, like most things, is neutral, neither good nor bad: it is what you do with it that shows what sort of a person you are. Consider, after all, the rich man (customarily named as Dives) in the story. The picture we are given is not directly one of waste or exploitation, it is of sheer mindless extravagance. The contrast with the poor man at the gate (Lazarus) could hardly be more acute. Covered in sores, he longs to be fed with the scraps from the rich man’s table, and, incidentally, that there is no suggestion that he actually even gets his hands on any of the scraps. This is a picture of abject human need meeting sheer mindless selfishness.

Jacopo Bassano, 1545, Cleveland Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

But then the tables are turned. Both men die, and judgement follows at once, the rich man going to Hades, the poor man going straightway to the joys of paradise. The rich man begs Abraham for mercy, for Lazarus to perform an act of charity for him and then to go and warn his brothers of the terrible fate that has befallen him. And Abraham replies, why bother – if only they have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, the message has already been delivered. The problem, of course, is that there’s none so blind as those that won’t see, and none so deaf as those that won’t hear.

Herein is the message of Jesus in a story with two morals. First, though it is no crime to be rich – it is not money that is evil, but the love of money, which turns it into a god, and second, what we do now will have eternal consequences, as Dives discovered.

Secondly, we shall be judged for what we do now, a truth that is not welcome to many ears today. Whilst few of us would want to sing that self-righteous soldiers’ song from the First World War “The bells of hell go ting a ling a ling for you but not for me”, we still need to be perpetually on our guard against attitudes that bring God down to our level, and assume that he really doesn’t mind what we get up to, in other words, that he is infinitely compliant!

What we do in this life is laying the foundations for the life of eternity. For Christians, the call is, in the midst of this world; where light and dark coexist, to be living the life of heaven now. No trimming of sails, no going for second best, for once the standards begin to slip, we are on a slippery slope. God in his goodness has given us so much, life and then new life in the waters of baptism. In return he calls us, in the power of the Spirit, to be the trail blazers of the new creation, free men and women, living generous lives, living lives that are Christ-like, in the knowledge that those who do so have the guarantee of joy forever in God’s kingdom.

Fr. Edward Bryant

The Parable of the Unjust Steward

The 14th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 16;1-13

Many seminarians will remember the parable of the Unjust Steward, so often described in commentaries as difficult to explain with its ironical tone. Even the steward’s descriptions vary from text to text. Sometimes called, unjust, dishonest or even a shrewd bailiff. It is certainly not like most of St. Luke’s other dramatic parables, such as the Good Samaritan or the Rich man and Lazarus that follows. Revisers of the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer even replaced this sneaky and unlikable steward reading for the 9th Sunday after Trinity with the more likeable Prodigal Son!

The best solution is to see this as part of a longer section on discipleship that in the ever changing daily life of the real world has to function at various levels, and especially in regard to wealth and possessions. Most of us know that fixed rules do not necessarily make it easier to think out our decisions or behave responsibly when dealing with the poor, supporting the sick or giving to charity and making investments. We are balancing our judgements against many twists and turns.

Last month we had a reading about a greedy farmer who went beyond being responsible for his resources becoming a hoarder consumed by wealth yet a pauper before God. Responsible wealth must be accompanied by godly wisdom. [Luke 12;13–21]. In the case of the steward it is the exact opposite. Although at first accused of being wasteful [verse 1] and seeing an opportunity to save his situation, in a shrewd move reduces or cancels debts owed to him. Disciples too must make practical judgements before they act.

Marinus van Reymerswaele (1540), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems that at the time of Jesus, that wealth was looked upon as having been acquired by corruption, an attitude that is alive and well today in a world where wealth is flouted in a background of hardship and shortages. The British press have recently exposed the colossal quantities of food wasted in the Houses of Parliament by the elite while food banks cannot meet the needs of the hungry. Thus Jesus had a ready audience too for the steward, a true son of this world, who pulled himself together by organising a win/win situation for his master for himself and for his debtors. Disciples as “the sons of light” must be “innocent as dove yet wise as serpents” yet they must be clear that in the end they cannot have two masters “You cannot serve God and mammon.” [verse 13] There is nothing wrong with being responsible about our resources, but these can quickly become harmful unless accompanied by godly wisdom.“

St John Chrysostom reflected on this passage saying “remember that you are a steward and have possessions for only a brief passing use, where your heart is there is your treasure also.”
The wisdom of the parable becomes much clearer when set against the behaviour of the rich man and Lazarus that will follow in next week’s reflection on Luke 16;19ff.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

In Memory of Elizabeth II (1926 -2022)

As Bishop and on behalf of the Nordic Catholic Church throughout Europe, I offer our deepest sympathy and prayers to our friends in the United Kingdom. The late Queen Elizabeth was unique in many ways, but especially as a monarch who owed so much to her Christian faith. We are glad to support the tribute written by Fr. Geoffrey, praying that she may be granted eternal rest and receive the promises of Christ.
+Roald Nikolai

* * *

The British Queen Elizabeth reposed on the 8th September at the age of 96. This was the longest reign of any monarch in British history having lasted for over 70 years. Much space has been given in tributes from the world over for this remarkable woman, speaking of her kindness and loyalty, her dedication and commitment. But it was a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey who noted the importance of the late Queens’s sense of a Christian vocation.

For Christians, the enduring tribute must be this understanding Queen Elizabeth had of her own coronation as an act of consecration with the undertakings that were given in her vows and promises of duty and service. The coronation rite has its roots in the Old Testament anointing of King David and the translation of this into the later creation of a Christian Emperor under Constantine. In Britain the scholar King Alfred the Great (871-899) had some influence on the crowning ceremony of King Edgar in 973 AD which took place in the context of the Eucharist. The monarch wears a blue stole or sash as a deacon and the regalia of sceptre crown and orb were placed upon the altar and bestowed upon the monarch after the anointing with the oil of Chrism.

BiblioArchives from Canada,
CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Queen Elizabeth II a thousand years later understood how in every sense this made her own coronation a Christian consecration under God. For her the solemn promises with the gift of the Holy Bible and the singing of the “Veni Creator” were in her own words a lifelong undertaking “whether that life was to be long or short”. How important is this in our age in which such ideas of service are less and less emphasised that every deacon, priest and bishop should take on board these same ideas of their own vocations?

Queen Elizabeth died on the day that the Church has since the second century, commemorated the nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for as Mary was the icon of Mother of the Church of Christ, Queen Elizabeth has become the icon of Mother of the nation and not just the people of all the British Isles but of a family of other nations from all over the world and of English speaking people everywhere. Elizabeth II was not concerned about glamour and power but about service. Much of what she did, visiting the sick and dying, the victims of disaster, was not glamorous but undertaken in the spirit of service. How important too is this for our confused world that we thank God for this powerful image of womanhood and pray that “Elizabeth” may rest eternally in the arms of the God who guided her as Queen and Mother.
Fr, Geoffrey Neal, Vicar General

What Is God Like?

The 13th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 15;1-10

Take twenty people, ask them what God is like, and you’ll get at least twenty different opinions. My guess is that for many people, childhood images of him will still loom large. A rather remote, aloof being, with a great long beard, sitting on a throne way above the clouds, listening to heavenly choirs all day long, and, frankly, not all that concerned with what people are getting up to down here, unless, somehow we can badger him into taking an interest. This parody still makes the point that the image is not one drawn from the teaching of Christ.

Two parables for today’s reflection set the record straight. “What man having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” We might say “What is one sheep here or there? Not worth bothering about”. A coin? So what!

Popular Graphic Arts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But with the loss of even one sheep, the flock is incomplete, its well being is threatened, it is a reproach to the shepherd, for his carelessness. The truth of the matter is, that without God, we are all of us lost sheep. Being lost is the basic human condition, and most of the time we don’t even realise that we are lost. That is why God has to take the initiative, to get us out of the tight corners we are so skilled at getting ourselves into, though somehow not half so successful at extricating ourselves.

And the coin: maybe not just another coin, maybe from the headband of the woman’s wedding dress, which in Jesus’ times had just what is described, ten silver coins attached. The woman perhaps goes to a storage chest, takes the headband out to admire it, the coin drops off, and rolls away into a dark corner. No wonder she searches and searches till she finds it. It symbolises so much; somehow, she is incomplete without it, just as the shepherd’s flock is incomplete without the silly sheep which has strayed off on its own.

These are images that we can all relate too, but there is a point at which the analogy becomes imperfect. Sheep do not have free will, at least in the way in which we do, and a coin is an inanimate thing. The sheep can be forcibly restored to the flock, the coin, when it is found, is stitched back in the headband. So though, like the sheep and the coin, we may well be lost, unlike them, we are always free to say no, to go on resisting. Yes, God takes the initiative, and he takes the initiative by sending Jesus to us to seek out what was lost and to restore it to him. God’s initiative is widely known, but it is widely misunderstood, and widely rejected. God will try and will go on trying, but in the end people are free to walk away.

Even more than the shepherd, the image that sums up God’s quest for the lost is captured in Holman Hunt’s haunting picture, Lux Mundi, Jesus the Light of the World – behold I stand at the door and knock – but only you can let that light in, because there is only one handle on the door, and it is on our side!

But the last bit of the parables is also true: what joy there is when we do come in from the cold, when the sheep is restored to the flock, when the coin is sewn back into the headband. What joy there is over the sinner who realises that it is time to stop running. Time instead to return to Jesus the Good Shepherd. And wherever you are in your Christian journey, the message is the same. Put all your fears aside, and take whatever steps are necessary to open the doors of your life to let Jesus in anew, and to let him in to every corner. In the words of St. Teresa, when a room is filled with light you will see all the cobwebs: but there is nothing to fear, indeed there is everything to gain.

Fr. Edward Bryant

The Cost of Discipleship

The 12th Sunday of Trinity

Luke 14;25-43

Looking at Luke’s Gospel passage for the first Sunday of September, just days after our NCC conference in Norway had ended, I realised both shared the same theme of “discipleship and counting its cost”. Jesus said, “whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” [Luke 14;27] and “whoever does not forsake all that he has (including family loyalties) cannot be My disciple” [v. 35].

We gathered in Norway from many countries to pick up the threads of our quest for unity with other likeminded Christians. This started years before Covid 19 had brought everything to a halt. Some guests were able to travel to Oslo including an Anglican bishop from South Sudan who spoke about his experiences as a child, orphaned by Islamists and taken into slavery as a boy soldier. Injured he escaped becoming a baptised Christian. His subsequent story of persecution and suffering as a priest and bishop from all quarters including the Church and State continues even today for him and his family, forced to live in a refugee camp in another country. We were listening to a real example among many others who are paying a great cost as disciples and in the way the Lord Jesus Christ had in his sharp and uncompromising language proclaimed to the multitudes in the reading.

Deisis with chosen saints, anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917)
Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This theme of the “cost of true discipleship” is a constant message of the entire New Testament underlining the Lord’s teaching to follow him in the narrow way or the words of St. John the Elder to Laodicea and the seven lukewarm Churches of Asia Minor, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth”. [Revelation 3;15-16]

The Cost of Discipleship was the title of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book in 1937 written as he saw the capitulation of German Churches to totalitarianism of the State. The first words of the book are, “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the Church.” Faith that is not prepared to count the cost is a denial of Christ and of his sacred word. Cheap grace was an expression Bonhoeffer heard used by the preacher of an African Baptist Church in Harlem New York. It meant, being easy disciples who adopt compromise and the pain free path to heaven. Just as Bonhoeffer and his friends had seen that the Christian faith must continually face enemies and cannot survive without a willingness to embrace the absolute cost of discipleship, so too the participants who gathered in Norway were looking at a similar predicament all over the world in our time and how easy discipleship is no longer possible. Clergy and church goers fifty years ago were regarded as well meaning and trustworthy, but now they are not trusted and looked upon as enemies of the progressive world. We can no longer think of a post Christian but a post church world under the surveillance of police more ready to stamp down on free speech which has become a secular blasphemy in the eyes of a new ideology.

The demands of discipleship are even more difficult because Western churches have gradually accepted a redefinition of the faith into something nice and comfortable, not giving offense, emotionally rewarding rather than having to think about the cost that Jesus predicted. How frequently people draw back from taking up positions in church life because of resistance within the family? “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. [Luke 14;26]

We Christians can no longer countenance the luxury of a lukewarm or mediocre Christian life which bears no relation to the image of Christ and so this lesson will increasingly apply directly to us who as disciples are to be made in his likeness and “therefore as beloved children imitators of God”.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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