THE DISCIPLE'S PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION
Sermon delivered on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, the 3rd September 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Jeremiah 15: 15-21 Romans 12: 9-end S. Matthew 16: 21-end
Romans 12: 21 "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY
Some time ago I read a famous book called "The Consolation of Philosophy", which is one of the great books of literature that my school education did not cover. I only caught up with it in adulthood. It is written by a man named Boëthius, a learned person who had held high state office but who had been convicted unjustly for treasonable offences and was in his writing preparing himself for torture and death. The author depicts and personifies Philosophy as a wise younger woman who takes him through many arguments in a classical format and shows through reason why a person who suffers loss for the sake of goodness has nothing to be sad or complaining about. Rather, it would be the person who had lost goodness for the sake of some lesser gain that there was reason to be sorry for. Such ideas are not merely stated but examined and proved in an attractively simple sort of way, though at considerable length by modern standards.
CONTRARY TO MAJORITY REASONING
As with the Lord's words in today's Gospel, such as "Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it", the conclusions that are reached by Boëthius would seem to many people to be contrary to reason, and certainly from the superficial perspective of personal advantage. However, we may perhaps recall how perspectives that are brought to bear on a situation will entirely change the way we understand it. The transformation of the human mind to which we as baptised believers are called, becomes impossible when it is confined to the dictates of its own passing age. The language of faith is the language of revelation, and in both Testaments of the Scriptures disciples and prophets gain their most important insights not from the everyday life around us, but from revelation.
THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
We see therefore that the Christian disciple is called to make changes in his or her outlook as he progresses spiritually. Of course it is true that someone who regresses spiritually is also going to make changes in his outlook, but in that case the changes he makes will conform more and more with the passing age that is influencing him. The active disciple's personal changes do not come by default, but may require considerable personal application. The acknowledgment of the absolute holiness of God is one of the very first ways in which a disciple must personally change. It must be recognised too that as we go on in our discipleship, an awareness of that holiness with which we are dealing may not automatically remain with us as a tangible sense. We will need to make a mental effort to sustain and renew within us this awareness. Among the changes that we are called to as disciples are those that take time, effort and renewal. We will not accomplish all the changes we are called to in a moment. For St. Paul's words in Romans 12:9 "Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good" are not to be disposed of in a moment, but require considerable sustained application.
THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP TO JEREMIAH
The words of the Old Testament lesson today are part of the prophet Jeremiah’s personal lament. “I sat alone”, he says, “because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” Such words reveal to us the anguish that Jeremiah went through, words almost unique in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, and reminding us of what we can sometimes read in the Psalms. Jeremiah says, “Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land.” He had been given the prophetic calling, but his people would not give him a fair hearing. His rejection and isolation pained him greatly, he was being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and he even got to the stage of asking God if He (God) was being unfaithful to His own promise to him. “Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” he asks of God. But he records that the Lord answered him, “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them.” Jeremiah too was called to a costly path of transformation, in which the things that matter from God’s perspective become all important to the disciple, indeed become the default position both for him and eventually his hearers, and the things that initially matter from man’s perspective, but are not what matter to God, or not within His mandate to us, become smaller and smaller to our consciousness, so that his complaints against God are renounced, and God's promises of deliverance become undoubted.
THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP TO PETER
Our Gospel today portrays a Peter who had not yet accomplished the chief changes to which the Lord was calling him. Peter, whom or whose faith the Lord had just previously called the rock on which the church was to be built, could now be described by Jesus as a personification of Satan, because he had taken it upon himself to rebuke his Lord for what He had said about His coming suffering and death, and to try to divert Him from that path. And the severity with which Jesus spoke may indicate to us the emotional cost that the knowledge of his path of suffering was beginning to exact upon the humanity of the Saviour Himself, along with the joy with which He was accomplishing our redemption.
OVERCOMING EVIL WITH GOOD
St Paul in the second Lesson lists a large number of ways in which disciples are called to change personally, beginning with the great direction, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” If you study the structure of the epistle to the Romans, you find that its first 11 chapters are theological, and its final five chapters beginning with this one, chapter 12, are all about the consequences of the theology. So the section begins with the words "I appeal to you, therefore, brothers ..." It is part of the transformation of the disciple that as a result of his now theologically based mind he can both increase in the genuineness of love and discriminate between the things that are good and the things that are evil. The disciple who is exhorted to be genuine in his love is the same disciple who is directed to shrink from what is evil, and to cleave to what is good. Paul sums up the matter by the exhortation that we have used as our text today: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." In His death and Passion, this is exactly what the Lord Himself accomplished, and to follow Him as disciples we too, in exercising genuine love, not being overcome by evil but overcoming evil with good, are called along the path of denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Him. And in doing so, as the author of The Consolation of Philosophy would point out, we will have nothing to be sad and complaining about, but - unlike still too many - will be on the path of achieving full happiness and fulfilment.