Never ever take your vocation – to lay or ordained discipleship and ministry – for granted. For when you do, it will have become a private possession, a personal commodity, an exercise in vanity. The call of God is and has always been very clear: it is not primarily for me/us; rather, it is to me/us, but for the sake of the world and the church through whom the world is to be reached.
A sharp and sober way to begin a sermon on Maundy Thursday. And it might worry you that I have just spent a couple of months on sabbatical being miserable. But, far from the truth. Going away, looking at my own ministry and the vocation of the church for the sake of the world through the lens of other cultures and churches, taking the time away from the detail, tension and relentlessness of the last five years (or 32 years) afforded me the opportunity to take a big step back and think afresh. But, I have come back this week with a renewed conviction that vocation must never become about me, my gifts and weaknesses, my ministry, my needs – unless these are held in the clear conviction (in practice as well as theological or ecclesiological theory or aspiration) that the church and her ministers are called to lay down their life for the sake of the world.
Now, this might sound strange. The Jesus who calls us to be his body, the Jesus who tells his disciples that they will have to carry a cross – and, by implication, get nailed to it – if they want to follow him is the very same Jesus who, in John’s Gospel, promises “life in all its fulness”. So, what might this mean for us who gather today – bishops, priests, deacons, lay ministers, Christians seeking to be faithful to the call of God in a tough old world? I think our readings both give us a clue.
Why does Isaiah see the need to say what he does? Remember: Isaiah 1-39 is addressed to people who have lost the plot in relation to their vocation as God’s people and who are being warned of the consequences of living – unjustly – for their own interests. Chapters 40-55 are addressed to those who now suffer the exile promised in those earlier chapters: what does hope look like to generations of people for whom ‘home’ is neither here (Babylon) nor there (Zion)? Then chapters 56-66 address the people who have now come home, but face new questions they have never had to face before. If, for the exiles, the challenge is to keep alive – for a number of generations – the language of ‘home’ while in exile (at the same time as seeing the place of exile as ‘home’), how do they now make sense of being ‘home’ which is now strange to them? The primary challenge facing them is two-fold: how to re-integrate with those who were not exiled and who probably see the returnees as ‘immigrants’? And, secondly, whether they should now seek to build a new home in continuity with the patterns and structures of the pre-exilic past or now create a new society (and shape of worship, etc.) that takes seriously the experience and learnings of exile … which, clearly, means not simply clinging to the ways of the past?
This is a choice every generation faces as they seek to be faithful to God’s call. The challenges of post-exilic Israel could not have been contemplated before, as they had not happened before. So, the questions were new, the challenge was new, and there was not a past to which they could simply return that might have been comfortable or safe. The new questions had to be faced, if these people were to be faithful to the God who had led them out of Egypt, into and through Babylon, and now brought them back to a home that was no longer home. Of course, ‘home’ had grown around it all sorts of mythologies and romanticisms; but, God’s people are called to be courageous realists who look to be faithful in the present – a present that has been re-shaped by experience and has inevitably to be re-thought theologically, culturally and behaviourally by people who dare to bear the name of this God who calls us forward and not backwards.
So, Isaiah goes to the heart of the vocation that had always been that of God’s people: to be the proclaimers, the organisers and the radical demonstrators of the character of the God they claim to serve. Hence, good news to those oppressed by the ways of the world, those imprisoned, pitied, mocked or marginalised by worlds in which empires set the terms and urge us to believe that “this is it for ever”. As an American in Orlando put it to me a couple of weeks ago: “There are wealthy people and there are poor people – that’s just the way it is. Millions have no health insurance, but that’s just the way it is.” He wasn’t applauding injustice; rather, he was simply stating that this is how the world is and he couldn’t see it changing.
Well, I agree with him. This is the way the world is. And I disagree with him: we must hold out, proclaim, work for and model a world that can be different. “For I the Lord love justice.” But, as we know from experience, even justice is not enough and not everybody benefits from justice. (Remember the Magnificat?)
Why, then, does Jesus choose this passage to read in the synagogue at the outset of his public ministry (according to Luke)? Each Gospel writer chooses a different way to do it, but, in common with the usual pattern of Roman biography, they each have the ‘hero’ of their story set out his stall at the beginning of the narrative of his public ministry.
According to Luke, then, Jesus goes to the synagogue – not to tell them off, not to castigate them for missing the point, not to deliberately alienate powerful people, but, rather, to read the scripture and relate it to now.
Remember, Jesus has just been led by the Spirit into the desert where he had to face his own demons (as it were). What sort of messiah are you really to be? Drop the fantasies of self-sacrificial generosity that might crumble under pressure! Forget the aspirations for grandeur or the priority of your personal security and well-being! Surely, God is wet; it’s all about love and mercy and sentiment, isn’t it? Shape a comfortable gospel and then model it, Jesus!
Yet, here, where the Spirit has led him, Jesus faces the temptations he will face again in the couple of years ahead – ultimately in Gethsemane and on the cross. And, right here, in this place of abandonment, where he has been brought by the Spirit, he stares into the face of the truth about himself as a human being, seeking to be faithful to the Father, and refusing to deny the attractive power of prioritising himself and his own security. And let’s be honest, he does not know what this will mean in the months and years to come – what new challenges these denials and affirmations will lead him into for which there is no precedent and no easy answer to which to revert to.
So it is that, having faced all this, he stands up in the synagogue and reads from Isaiah 61. And, having done so, he tells the people there that this scripture is fulfilled – embodied, incarnated – in their sight, right there and then. And it went down well. They loved the beginning of the sermon. But, when he then read their tradition in a different way – illustrating how God is also the God of the outsiders – their mood changed and they tried to get rid of him.
I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He had faced in the desert the temptation of shaping good news around his own need for affirmation, and here he decided to tell the truth. He re-tells the story of God and his people in a different way, and it goes down badly. We will see this again at the end of Luke’s Gospel when, walking alongside the couple from Emmaus, he asks them what they are talking about and they tell him how events have confounded their theological hopes. Only once they have told their story in their way (and shown how the end doesn’t compute) does Jesus ask them if he can now re-tell it differently – with the demise of the messiah being essential rather than anomalous to the story of God’s salvation.
And, remember, it is later, after bread and wine have been blessed in their home and Jesus has disappeared from them, that they realise that their hearts burned within them while they walked with him on the road.
There is much that we can take from this. The courage to face the unique challenges today that our forebears never had to address. The imagination to hold together faithfulness to God’s call through history with the responsibility in faith to take responsibility for shaping the present and future. The essential, burning and urgent need for preachers to take the whole of Scripture seriously, teaching our people both Old and New Testaments, not ducking the hard bits, but enabling people to learn for themselves the story of God and his people and to find their place – consciously – in it. Therefore, to take seriously the responsibility we have accepted to preach imaginatively and fearlessly with a confident humility, and to teach the faith: deliberate and serious catechesis, serious preparation of baptism and confirmation candidates – doing what Paul, in Romans 12:1-2 describes as “being transformed by the renewing of our minds”.
But, all without fear and with imagination. As Rowan Williams puts it in his book on Dostoyevsky: “The credibility of faith is in its freedom to let itself be judged and to grow.” (p.10)
I believe this is urgent. Christian faith must not be reduced to merely a private security system – a sort of safe spirituality that tries to keep me going and fulfilled while the world around me can go to hell. We live in times when the need to challenge corrupt-but-dominant world views has never been greater in our lifetime. I know a German pastor who has exercised his ministry in East Berlin since before the Wall fell down. He is passionate – a word I hate being trivialised into “quite interested or amused by” – about shaping the mindset of a generation of young people being drawn from disillusionment by the intellectual and practical attractions and certainties of neo-fascism, power, dignity and self-assurance. It is little surprise that Steve Bannon should point to the Pope as the enemy of his brand of utilitarian nationalism. Gerhard von Rad, Professor of Old Testament at the University in Jena during the Nazi years, was one of those who refused to bow the knee to fascism. He was one of those against whom more than four thousand Nazis demonstrated in the market square – theology being taken seriously.
Brothers and sisters, I am powerfully reminded this morning of our seriousness as a church, despite a million failures and inconsistencies, to be faithfully captured by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I find this service every year to be deeply moving – personally – as we together affirm again our vocation and our determination to be faithful to it. I have come back to the diocese with renewed admiration for you and a renewed love for our common task. Thank you for your ministry and discipleship.
As we move on through the betrayal of Thursday; the abandonment and denial, and death of all our fantasies about God, the world and ourselves on Friday; the emptiness of Saturday; the glorious irruption into the here and now of God’s promised future on Sunday; may we begin on Monday – following a long sleep – purposefully to proclaim, teach, reach out, live, commend, talk about, argue about, renew our own focus on the Gospel of the Jesus who took Isaiah seriously and shone light into darkness and trusted it would never be extinguished.
As John Bell put it in a song:
Sing, my soul, when light seems darkest,
Sing when night refuses rest,
Sing though death should mock the future:
What’s to come by God is blessed.
Rt Revd Nicholas Baines
Bishop of Leeds