Putting Jesus First

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.

Who would win in a race between a cycling curate and his car-driving wife?

This is the challenge I sometimes set Leah if we’ve met, say at Church, or in town, from different places. If I’ve cycled to church from home, say, and she’s driven there from work - we both leave at the same time. And even though the car is faster, and doesn’t rely on pedalling furiously: I often get home before her - because I can be halfway along the congestion-free Harding’s Way while she’s waiting for a gap in the traffic to let her onto the main road.

But more on that later.

Our gospel this morning seems like one of those times Jesus is being unreasonable in his demands: hate your family? Sell everything you own? 

It’s really important for us to understand these ideas, and to understand what Jesus would have meant by them. 

On the one hand, how are we to understand the command to hate our parents, spouses, children, the command even to hate ourselves?

When I was growing up my mum told me never to use the word “hate” for things and people I didn’t like, because it meant I wished they were dead. But this isn’t what Jesus means. One of Jesus’s habits was that of hyperbole - exaggerating the things he said to make a point. For instance, Jesus said that if your eye causes you to sin you should pluck it out, or he says that it’s better to have a large stone tied around your neck and to be thrown into the sea, than to lead someone into sin. But of course we don’t practice that - because it’s an exaggeration. As there, so here. 

One thing that Jesus says in his preaching is that he will be a cause of division in families - which I’m sure many of you will be familiar with, if you’ve ever had a child say “I don’t believe in God any more” - often in their teens or when they go to university, or if you’ve had a spouse or parent object to your beliefs. My grandfather banned any religious talk in his house. 

Jesus tells us that we must make him our first priority - that we must follow him no matter what anyone says about it. 

And what about the call to sell our possessions?

On Thursday the church celebrated the feast day of St. Teresa of Calcutta - better known as Mother Teresa. She became well known, together with her Missionaries of Charity - for their commitment to the poor, demonstrated in part by their commitment to living in the same poverty as those they served. 

She was an example of a woman who followed Jesus’s command to the letter: she sold all she had and gave the money to the poor. But she was very insistent that Jesus did not call everyone to this lifestyle!

She said: “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.” 

This saying of Jesus, then, is pointing to the same thing as his discussion of family. The idea isn’t that our possessions are intrinsically bad - but that they can stop us from getting to Jesus. Our life can be about a bigger payslip, a faster car, or even less tangible things - the prestige we have, our pride in the way people speak about us.

The Christian life is described often as a race in the New Testament, and a person who tries to do it whilst also chasing these things is a bit like those marathon runners who try to complete the course in old fashioned diving suits, and end up doing it in five days or whatever. Or it’s like Leah trying to drive home from church in the rush hour traffic, and crawling along the London Road getting nowhere fast. All the weight of our possessions works like that heavy diving suit, or like the slow-moving traffic: it holds us back, and means we can’t keep up with Jesus.

That’s why Jesus says - somewhat hyperbolically - that we can’t be his disciples unless we give up our possessions. He doesn’t want the things we own to own us.

So what does this mean for us - how can we make sure our possessions don’t divert us from Jesus? Well, St. Bede put it like this: that while only a few are called to leave all things, and live the life of poverty, we are all called to renounce all things - that is, to regard them as being entrusted to us for the good of all, rather than seeing them as ours by dint of our hard work, or ours by right. Just as our planet is not our own, but entrusted to us by God to steward, so all the things we might think of as ours - houses, cars, wealth, privilege, honour, esteem - are given to us by God for us to use in his service.

The Letter to the Hebrews says: Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.