Bishop Richard's Weekly Video Message - Transcript 04/03/2021

Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.

Over the years I have had many conversations with those who don’t go to church where a common theme emerges.  People will say, “I have no problem with Jesus, but I have a real problem with the church.” Sometimes that’s because they can’t see a connection between the ritual, the institution and a simple Galilean workman.  Sometimes, sadly, its due to the churches’ frailty and failure, either individually or collectively, that has left people damaged and rejected.  I’m not inclined to explain that away.  Those experiences are real and things over which we need to be deeply sorry.  They should lead us to examine the way we do things so we more faithfully reflect Jesus’s love.

However, I’ve been following Jesus for 42 years now, and the more I get to know what Jesus really teaches, the more I’m inclined to put it the other way around! Church is sort of comforting and familiar.  The rituals help me in my relationship with God. The people are on the whole kind, well-meaning and welcoming.  Churches still provide a focus for community and serve people unconditionally, something particularly evident in the pandemic.  I usually leave worship feeling better than when I started, comforted by the good news of God’s love and with pointers to a better life, challenged to more effectively put faith into practice.

But, the more I look at Jesus’ teaching, the more I’m convinced that when we say Jesus was a great moral teacher, what we actually mean is our understanding of Jesus’ teaching reinforces a sort of middle-class niceness. Our perception of that teaching is too often a soft focussed domestication to our own culture.  We create a Jesus in our own likeness, who is of course rather attractive.

I’m struck repeatedly by the reception Jesus’ teaching got when he first delivered it. In the Gospel reading last Sunday, Jesus talks about his death and Peter takes him to one side to rebuke him for not talking to the marketing department first.  At the end of a long sermon on communion in John 6, it tells us many said, “this is a hard teaching, who can accept it.” Many of his disciples deserted him.  He tells his disciples that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the law, they won’t enter the kingdom of heaven.  These people were exemplars of good religious practice and moral purity to Jesus’ contemporaries, not the bogeymen we often think. The disciples were astonished, wondering what on earth they had signed up for.

Jesus was steeped in the law of the Old Testament, but when he preached on it he amplified its moral demands rather than watered them down.  His critique of contemporary religious leaders wasn’t that they were zealous for the moral law, but they had added to it in ways that obscured its original purpose. Given this background, if Jesus is perceived to be silent on a particular subject, the most logical interpretation is that he doesn’t need to re-visit the boundaries the people have already been given, not that he is indifferent to the subject in question.

This reaches a climax in his words from Mark 8:34. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the Gospel will save it.” People say that the heart of Jesus message is love, but here you see what he means by that.  Love is the total giving of oneself for the good of the other.  It's from this that all of the other moral teachings of Jesus flows.  In a sense, it’s a graphic restatement of the two great commandments to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbours as ourselves. Its graphic, because there were probably crosses with decomposing human remains on them on a roadside not far from where he was teaching.  Its how the Roman occupiers made examples of people.  

The other new Testament writers also pick up and rephrase this theme, but essentially, they are all talking about the dethroning of the self from the centre of our life and replacing it with God. Whoever does this, says Jesus later, will discover life as its really meant to be lived in all its fullness.

When we say, Jesus was a great moral teacher, I’m not sure we mean that! I think that’s why I say I find church easier.  Its something I can control and enter into on my own terms.  Dying to myself, submitting all of my ambitions, priorities, preferences, relationships, and discernment of moral boundaries to Christ does feel like a sort of death. We are hard-wired as human beings to self-protect and avoid that.   

But this glorious paradox; this dying to truly live; this true freedom through submission to Christ, is the heart of Jesus’ message.  It is incredibly hard and counter-intuitive, but as we enter into it we begin to get little glimpses along the way that he’s right. Our Lenten journey is part of that dethroning of ourselves. It's hard, but it’s the path to true and lasting joy both now and forever.