How do I find out what are God’s ways for my life and my family? What does it mean to live as members of God’s Kingdom?
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This past week I have been able to have a few days retreat, to spend some time in contemplation and to read. I’ve been reading three books which point to quite a different style of life.
As most of you know Andrew and I are leading a group to Assisi on pilgrimage soon, so I thought I should brush up on my ‘Francis’ knowledge. Having been a Franciscan for many years I haven’t actually sat down and read anything new for some time.
In this sermon Revd Victoria recommended:
- Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer recommended edition previously abridged as The Cost of Discipleship.
- New Monasticism as Fresh Expression of Church – Graham Cray et al. Google Books
- Reluctant Saint – Donald Spoto Google Books
The book Reluctant Saint, is a refreshing account of the life of St Francis, a far from romanticised version of his life that we mostly hear, but an account of life that was so hard mentally and physically that eventually it killed him. A struggle so difficult that he never really saw the fruits of his labour in the way he had hoped or imagined.
But a struggle he never deviated from because he knew that to be countercultural, to buck the trend, to live a simple life free of possessions and the temptations of modern life, to love and care for the downtrodden and reviled, was to lead a life following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Today’s reading is an example of this. Jesus says that those who are great will be the least in the Kingdom of God and those who are humble will be the greatest. And that too feels so counter cultural;
We are more used to the idea that those who get ahead – the winners in this world – are those who push themselves forward, promoting their worth over and above everyone else.
- Winners are the successful people;
- those who make a lot of money;
- those who are famous;
- the ones who outmanoeuvre others;
- Those who went to famous public schools
- those who are good at using the moment to outdo others and make more for themselves.
It is these people whom we call successful and hold in high regard.
In Jesus’ day and again in Francis’ day, people had much the same idea about what makes a person successful as we do today.
The Gospel writer, Luke, ushers us into a large room where a dinner party is in progress. Jesus, a guest, notices other guests scrambling for seats of honour. At the head of the table is the host, a Pharisee, leader of the local community. As the guests arrived Jesus noticed how they were jockeying for the seats of honour next to the host.
After watching all this Jesus says, “Here’s how parties work, God’s way – ‘Those who make themselves great will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be made great’.
Jesus is not telling his listeners something new. Guests familiar with the Scriptures would have recognized that this is a concept that runs throughout the sacred texts.
But it’s still a shock. Imagine the puzzled looks.
‘Hey Jesus, what do you mean? Everyone knows you get what you deserve. You earn a good reputation and so you deserve a good place. That’s the way the world works.’
Then Jesus goes on saying that when inviting people to a dinner party don’t invite your friends, or relatives, neighbours as you would normally do, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
How ridiculous is that! Inviting every drunk, street kid, drug addict, cheat that you can find, is sheer madness. Jesus is redefining what “hospitality” is. Jesus said, ‘Next time you have people for dinner, don’t ask those who can do you favours in return.
- Ask the poor for whom such delicacies are only in dreams.
- Ask the powerless, the vulnerable, those who are regarded as nothing by society.
Just imagine the happiness you could bring into people’s lives and the richness they would bring into your life as you sit down and have a meal with them’.
And these aren’t the only instances of Jesus’ back to front ideas. He said, “Those who want to save their life will lose, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it” (The Gospel of Matthew 8.35). And on several occasions, he commends the most unlikely people for their faith or good deeds, like Samaritans, lepers, the Syro-Phoenician woman, tax collectors and prostitutes. Why doesn’t he say nice things about the people whom you’d expect him to praise – the respected and wealthy people?
It is so easy for a Christian to be taken up with a certain attitude or way of life that is so opposite to what God wants. The argument always goes, “Everyone else is doing it.” But just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean it is right and God-pleasing.
Just because it is the trend to do something, something everyone else is doing or has always done, doesn’t make it right. If we continue to cheapen grace by colluding with the world we are moving far from God’s intention.
What do I mean by cheapening grace?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, in Discipleship, previously published as the Cost of Discipleship.
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Bonhoeffer was a German anti-Nazi theologian who wrote before and during the war, his latter papers were written from a concentration camp; imprisoned because of his views he was eventually murdered there.
You see, it’s so easy for us as God’s people to quite unwittingly and unintentionally say and do things that are quite wrong without even intending to do so, because we don’t think; we just follow the crowd. This is what Jesus is saying today in our text. God’s ways can be so against what is the accepted standard in the rest of the world.
Why do we find following God’s ways so hard and following the crowd so easy?
There are several reasons.
- Firstly, there is the problem of standing out. If you adopt an attitude that is different to everyone else then all and sundry will notice that you are different and that your ideas are different. You may even be labelled as weird. And so to avoid that, it’s better to go along with everyone else.
- Secondly, the ways of the world can be much more appealing and easier than those of the Kingdom of God. Comfort, ease of life, money it’s so much easier than God’s way.
- Thirdly, the shift from God’s ways and the ways of the world can be ever so subtle. This is one of Satan’s cunning tricks. He makes you think that you are following the ways of God’s Kingdom whereas in fact you are following his ways….he makes you think you know what is right and wrong so that you don’t even consider God anymore…
The blurring of the line between wrong and right happens gradually and cleverly that we hardly recognise that we have been led away from Jesus and his will for our lives.
- Fourthly, the culture we live in is very good at producing popular trends. We call it the “in thing”. It’s the “in thing” to wear certain style of clothes.
The in thing. Is it God’s thing?
- It’s the “in thing” for men and women to spend loads of money seeking the perfect looking body.
- It’s the “in thing” to be so focussed on ourselves and having our needs fulfilled that we don’t see the bigger picture and how we can meet the needs of others.
- It’s the “in thing” to ignore how our behaviour impacts on the community, in our case the community of the church.
- It’s so easy to follow what is “in thing” without even checking whether this is what God wants us to do or not. We follow the crowd without realising that what we are doing may not be what God wants.
Witness to a better way
To follow God’s ways may seem like the more difficult path, in fact the path that seems so back to front compared to the ways of the world. Jesus never promised that following God’s ways would be the easiest path. This is the way God’s people stand out from the rest of the world.
- We can witness to the world that there is a better way.
- We can give evidence to the world that being a member of God’s kingdom is something very special; that it makes a difference in the way we live our lives.
The question that remains to be answered is – “how do I find out what is God’s ways for my life and my family? What does it mean to live as members of God’s Kingdom?
I have two answers to that question;
- First. Come to church. Coming on a Sunday morning is not just about meeting friends, feeling good, a bit of worship. It’s about learning from one another, it’s about working out together how to cope with life’s difficulties in God’s way. It’s about learning together, reading books about the Christian life together, discussing Discipleship together….this is place where it’s safe to do that, or should be, we are Christians together supporting each other in the Christian life.
- And the second is this; Read God’s Word, the Bible. This is God’s message to all of us and reveals to us God’s Son. This Word tells us that God sent Jesus to heal the fractured relationship between God and us and that now as his people we have a special role to play in the world – to live as his children and stand apart and give witness to what are God’s ways.
God wants us to make a difference in the lives of others and not simply to blend in with the rest of the world.