Welcome + Worship + Witness

Revd James Turnbull: Bad Pressure, Good Pressure

20 September 2015
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Revd James Turnbull
Jeremiah 11. 18-20; Mark 9. 30-37; Mark 8. 27-end  

A story is told of an incumbent who had been in post in the same parish for a number of years. He began to notice, on regular reading of his Church Times, that a number of his college contemporaries had been promoted.  This caused him to consider his own immediate future in the church and he approached his Bishop for advice and guidance.  The Bishop carefully considered what he had to say and after a few minutes of quiet concentration  said  ‘Well, you know, in one respect at any rate you remind me of the Archbishop of Canterbury’.  Feeling rather encouraged the incumbent asked ‘in what way’.  The Bishop replied ‘Well, like the Archbishop of Canterbury I think you have just about got as far as you can go!’

In the Gospel reading we hear that Jesus and the disciples were making  their way to Jerusalem through Galilee and I was reminded of the story of the clergyman when considering the behaviour of the puzzled disciples struggling to comprehend the message Jesus was trying to give them.

They had, not long before, witnessed the transfiguration when they heard a voice ‘This is my Beloved Son, hear Him.’  Their lack of understanding was heightened when Jesus told them not to mention what they had seen until ‘the Son of man’ was risen from the dead’.  There then develops a dichotomy between what they were being taught and their curiosity as to what was in it for themselves.  Why is this so mysterious? Why so secret?  They must have sensed that they were in some way special – singled out to receive an important message.  If they were so special some must be more special than others!?  There had been an episode concerning a sick son who, it is inferred they tried, unsuccessfully, to heal or help.  They wondered why Jesus was successful and they were not.  ‘This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer and fasting’.  Not a bit of magic or hocus pocus but the result of faith – a right relationship with God.  Still they lost concentration.  Jesus says he is to be killed but then will rise again. Again they didn’t understand and were ‘too frightened’ – frightened of their ignorance? Far from asking for an explanation they turn their attention to themselves asking ‘who is going to be the senior of them’.  This can be a human reaction – turning away from understanding and in upon themselves.

Jesus takes up a child and explains that they must have open and receptive ears and minds like a child and not be diverted by other pressures.  Especially their own needs and status.    He explains that they who receive such a child in His name receives (accepts and understands?) Him – through Him His father.

In these times we know what it is to be assaulted by pressures.  There are good pressures and bad pressures.   Examples of bad pressures are – The pressure of the secular world of politics, violence and opposing positions.  The pressure of the media trying to take over our formation of considered opinion.  The pressure of institutionalism trying to force us into ruts thus failing to see and take better ways forward when things get stodgy and stale.   The pressure of the ego – working to fulfil our own satisfactions.    The pressure ‘to do’ rather than to consider.  The pressure we should be needing is the good pressure of the Gospel.  Paul writes to the Corinthians that he feels this kind of pressure (2 Cor. 5:14) ‘The love of Christ constrains us as when we have reached the conclusion that one man died for all’.  Later he says he would like to go to be with Christ but he feels this pressure to stay with them.  To follow Christ, love Him, proclaim Him.  It is a pressure we would like to feel and to use.

Another good pressure is the pressure of the Holy Spirit.  The disciples of the early Church were compelled to speak by the Holy Spirit.   They were moved to think and speak, often ‘in tongues’, from the centre of their spiritual selves – not from direct book-learning.  They had grasped what Jesus’ teaching meant and the overwhelming significance of his death and resurrection and it was through that and through them the Church grew.

What about the pressure of the fellowship of believers.  We are here at least in part to share in what is happening in our own church.  Sharing knowledge of the absent through sickness.  Renewing our faith and strength and willingness to keep on overcoming the other worldly pressures mentioned and to understand the difference between good and bad pressures.  Withstanding one – accepting the other.

Perhaps we should renew our ability to distinguish between the many pressures we experience and treat the bad pressures with the knowledge of their insidiousness and relative lack of importance and concentrate on the pressures of the Gospel, The Holy Spirit, Friendship and Opportunity.  And if so to what purpose?  I suggest the purpose should be to remain faithful whatever the pressures we encounter.  How do we remain faithful under good pressures and dangerous pressures?

There are two clues in the teachings of Jesus and the experience of Paul – neither conforms to the obvious organisational or psychological advice we might first consider; but both are helpful.

John 15:4-8  ‘Abide’    Very often Jesus refers to the mutual love which exists between Him and His followers.  None of His descriptions of this mutual affection is more moving than when He says ‘Abide in me and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself accept it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

I am the vine, ye are the branches:  he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.’

Paul 2 Cor. 12:8-10  ‘Experience’

Paul so often reminds us of the trials he has undergone and to which he has been subject in his journeyings during the formation of the early churches in Asia Minor.  He sets us an example in his conclusion that his trials could not be overcome without his faith in the risen Christ and his many weaknesses would bring him down but for the strength he found in his faith.  He says ‘for this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.  And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness.  Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.’

We are led to the understanding that Paul welcomes the difficulties he describes so that he can again use the strength of his faith to overcome them.  I remember the words of a bishop in his sermon following his consecration saying that he had been asked what changes he felt upon becoming a bishop.  He said that he had found that he was more often ‘driven to his knees in prayer for help’; presumably as he faced the added pressures and changes upon his being admitted to the episcopate.

I wonder how often as we travel through the difficulties of this journey we are experiencing we want to say ‘I have no strength of my own to handle this’.  It is not for nothing that we who are able adopt the position of kneeling as we pray.  It is an attitude of submission and supplication and however great or little the thing that oppresses us we might find it helpful first to ‘abide’ – to wait upon God’s presence and also remember how Paul used prayer as a way of help in overcoming his infirmities.  Hopefully we may then be driven in our weakness to God’s strength through Christ, and the pressures I have referred to may lead to understanding where temptations become opportunities, weaknesses become strengths and pressure is turned into power.