HOW TO BE REALLY HUMAN
Sermon delivered on the 16th Sunday after Trinity, the 20th September 2015 by Bishop Nicholas J.G. Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England in the Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Jer 11: 18-20 James 3:13 - 4: 3,7-8a S. Mark 9: 30-37
James 4:7 “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
THE HUMILITY OF SUBMISSION TO GOD AS THE STARTING POINT
Perhaps if there is one classic Christian virtue that is most out of step with the common thinking of today, it is humility. An interviewing preparation site on the internet, for instance, which seems both typical and reasonable, suggests that an interviewee might prepare for questions such as “Why should we hire you? What can you do for us that someone else can’t?” No points would be scored in the interview by a declaration that one had submitted to God and resisted the devil – even if that were actually true. Yet this submission to God is definitely a starting-off point so far as a live Christian faith is concerned. In the Epistle of St. James itself it is made very clear that a genuine and effectual belief in God is more than merely assent that He exists. James argues elsewhere that “Even the devils believe, and tremble.” The “devils”, symbolising and expressing the evil Power within and around the universe, assent to God’s existence and are afraid of that, but of course do not willingly submit to it, though they are unwillingly constrained by it. The doctrine of Christ teaches that humans are required to submit to God’s authority. If we do not have that submission as a core property, the doctrine warns us that our humanity becomes distorted and falls further and further away from true humanity. We will have placed our feet on the road that turns humanity into inhumanity, and that’s a road we don’t want to be on. The character of our submission to God’s authority is shown to us in its fulness in Jesus Christ. If we are willing to submit to God’s authority, God our Father shows us the action of that submission in the life and work of the God-Man Jesus Christ, and, in addition, our Father has offered to us Jesus as our means of being offered to Him. We can say that this is the course on “How to be Really Human” that is not or only very rarely taught in today’s Western schools. Christian doctrine holds then that being submitted to God there is a proper place in our common life for being submitted to one another. Since we humans are all images of God more or less inaccurately, it follows logically that a submission to God implies a measure of submission to one another, a willed submission certainly and not just a constraint. We begin to see the difference between a community that is held together by willed ties of submission, and a community that is forced into being held together by the operation of overwhelming power. The one is a human society, while the other is in-human, and the starting-off point for the human society is our submission to God by the gracious means He has offered.
The Old Testament lesson today illustrates the “How to be Really Human” course in the context of Jeremiah’s life. He tells of a plot being made against his life, that at first he was unaware of. “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter,” he says. No doubt it was because of the unpopular prophetic truths he was offering them. We might find the last verse difficult at first. “But, O Lord of Hosts, who judgest righteously, who triest the heart and the mind, let me see Thy vengeance upon them, for to Thee have I committed my cause.” It appears to be the prophet calling upon God to take vengeance upon the plotters. The key to understanding this is the last part: “For to Thee have I committed my cause.” Without that submission, a person might indeed himself take vengeance on his attackers. If he is submitted to God he will leave the vengeance in God’s hands. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” Jeremiah might like to see that vengeance made visible, but the important thing is that he is submitted to God about the matter. What a person feels is of little consequence so long as his will is submitted to God. It is out of that submission that Jeremiah could find healing, whether he saw God’s vengeance at work or not. We will rely on God to put things right one way or another when we are submitted to Him, and this will heal and stabilise us and the communities that we will affect. But if there is no submission to God thus revealed we will try to take vengeance ourselves on whoever we may conclude has planned something against us. This will bring about either a litigious or an anarchic society. Do we not see this only too evidently at the present time? How relevant and important for our lives today is the course “How to be Really Human” that is offered by the true Christian school.
The Gospel lesson demonstrates the stark contrast between the mind and wisdom of Christ, that is to say one that is wholly submitted to God, and the unsubmitted human mind and wisdom that has started to become distorted and devilishly inhuman. The former is seen in Jesus’ concerns in this Gospel lesson, while the latter is seen in the concerns of the disciples. Jesus’ concerns, which He wants once again to share with His disciples, are that His submitted life is very shortly to be taken through a path of deliverance into malign hands, condemnation and death on the cross, and then resurrection. This will have a profound effect upon the disciples and they ought to be prepared for what is about to happen. But the disciples’ concerns at this time, on the other hand, show how deeply unprepared they still are. When Jesus asked them what they had been discussing on the road, they hesitated to own up to the nature of their concerns - that they had been discussing which of them was the greatest. So Jesus showed them that if a child is received in Christ’s name, Christ Himself is received. Like a child submitted to parental authority, Jesus Himself is shortly to be received into heaven, submitted to His Father; let them too, then, be submitted like a child! At this point the disciples were failing the course on “How to be Really Human” even having the greatest of teachers, and we can see that after 2000 years of the same course taught by the Holy Spirit of God our western world is clearly on the brink of failure, and we in the Church often register failing grades as well. Let’s listen to the teachers of the course again. If we are not in submission to God by the means that Jesus offers, human society becomes disordered and compulsive and our humanity itself becomes devilishly inhuman; but in the words of St. James, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS
1. What sort of power holds together a society in which the members are submitted to God?
2. If the members of a society are NOT submitted to God, how can it be made to hold together? Explain and give examples of how the two societies (1. and 2.) differ.
3. For Jesus, a life submitted to God meant suffering. (What else might it have meant for Him?) Will a submitted life for us mean more suffering, or more joy?