Welcome + Worship + Witness

Rt Rev Dr Helen-Ann Hartley: The Cost of Discipleship

First Sunday after Christmas
30 December 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Rt Rev Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon

Luke 2.41-end

‘Hang on a minute,’ you might be thinking upon hearing our Gospel this morning, ‘we’ve only just done Christmas, and now Jesus is 12 years old!’

Can we not slow down a bit?

It is true that the Lectionary appears to jump forward somewhat between the joys of birth on Tuesday to the cries of ‘missing child’ today.  But so do the Gospels. 

This narrative leap proved tricky for Christians in the early centuries, so much so that texts emerged that attempted to ‘fill the gaps.’  One such example is found in the form of the infancy Gospel of Thomas.  Dated to at least the 2nd century after the birth of Christ, this text provides us with stories from Jesus’ childhood, mostly involving miracles (not all of which it must be said are especially kind: Jesus is annoyed by a child who bumps into him in the playground and subsequently repays the favour by bumping the child off!  Not what we expect really!   Yet while such texts (and there are others) do not form part of our received canon of Biblical writing (in other words, we don’t read from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and say ‘this is the Word of the Lord,’ there is I think a clear line of connection to the sentiment contained in our Gospel story: Jesus is only 12 and yet he is impressing those gathered in the Temple, ‘…all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.’

In his commentary on this passage, Jesuit scholar Nick King remarks that ‘the drama is not just for its own sake…but for what it hints about Jesus’ future.  The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is not about to be easily pinned down; however although Jesus reacts harshly to ‘your father and I’ (and incidentally we should note that it is Mary who speaks, not Joseph) by deliberately redefining his parentage [‘my Father’], we are also told that after this episode, Jesus returned to Nazareth ‘and was obedient to them.’

However much the story points forward, it also points backwards to the years of Jesus’ nurturing through his childhood in which Mary and Joseph are regarded as having had a central role.  Thus Jesus’ obedience to his parents is the means by which (as the end of the narrative tells us, Jesus ‘increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour’: in other words, in his physical and spiritual growth.  Although Jesus later goes on to place the call of the kingdom above the ties of kinship, the kingdom is not at the expense of the denial of honour to one’s parents.  Nonetheless there is a tension: believing and belonging may reflect, but they also transcend existing family ties.

Fine.  But what might this offer us today as we head towards the end of 2018 and anticipate a year that by all accounts will be forever defined in history by the date of March 29th?

I think it has to do with the well-used phrase, ‘the cost of discipleship.’  It is significant that the days following Christmas speak of just that:  the feast of St Stephen on the 26th (the first Christian martyr); then John the Evangelist (who if he is the author of the Book of Revelation, was sent into exile because of his faith) on the 27th; on the 28th the commemoration of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents); and yesterday on the 29th the feast of St Thomas Beckett, archbishop and martyr.  If you observed all of that you’d quickly get over any Christmas Day indigestion at the realisation that faith is indeed a serious business. 

And yet, the heaviness of these days, which may also render us with a sense of helplessness and despair are brought into light relief by the simple realisation that there are things that we can do.  In his article in yesterday’s Yorkshire Post, Mark Russell (the CEO of Church Army) who also spoke at our Lay Conference earlier this year describes the occasion when Desmond Tutu visited the Marylebone Project in London, which is the single biggest project for homeless women in the UK.  Archbishop Tutu stood in front of a bunch of women and told them that no matter how dark the day is, the arc of the future tilts towards justice; he pointed at them and said: ‘You, yes you can change the world!’  Mark writes in his newspaper article: ‘we can change the world, we can make a difference.  We can buy a cup of coffee for a homeless person and in doing so we have changed the world for them.  We can give money to a charity caring for marginalised people and change the world for them.  We can pick up a few extra items on our weekly food shop and leave it at the local food bank and change the world for a family unable to feed their children.  We can buy some flowers for a person living on their own and so change their world.’  And so it goes on.  And if we ever think we are too small to make a difference, try sharing your bed with a mosquito!

At a time when much of the discourse around us is deepening divisions, we have a moral duty to use our faith for good; not to shy away from reality; because what is happening is very real, but to ensure that as we head towards Brexit we might be characterised by tolerance and compassion; in other words, the Kingdom of God (which is all around us) requires us to look beyond familiar ties to support the people who might be characterised as the last, the least and the lost. 

As we head towards the New Year, I invite each of us to consider how we might commit ourselves afresh to the work of the Kingdom in 2019; specifically what is one positive and intentional contribution that we can make to the wellbeing of another person?  And remember this: even a smile can change someone’s world.

May God bless you in the year ahead that you might be a blessing to others.