11 October 2015
10.30 Sung Eucharist with Baptism
Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Revd Simon Cowling
Amos 5. 6-7 & 10-15; Mark 10. 17-31
Some of my deepest moments of humiliation have occurred in conversations with car mechanics. When our last family car was already long in the tooth, I picked it up from the garage after an MOT. The mechanic told me that the anti-roll bar links would soon need replacing. I tried to look knowledgeable. I actually didn’t really know what he was talking about, and I suspect the mechanic knew as well – particularly as he said, ‘just drop it off and we’ll do the rest’. The fact is that some of us know what goes on underneath the bonnet of our cars. Many of us, perhaps most of us, are like me and do not know our crankshaft from our camshaft and are unable to describe the different phases of a four stroke engine. It’s the same with computers. As far as I’m concerned, bit is the past tense of byte; and the BIOS might have something vaguely to do with the environment. The point is that an awful lot of us use technical language without realising it – when we’re working, when we’re pursuing hobbies or interests, or when we’re simply trying to explain to our parents how the iPad works.
Christians do this as much as anyone else. Some of the language that the Church uses in its worship is really not as user-friendly as it might be. Let’s take a few examples that we will hear in connection with Henry’s baptism: ‘grace’; ‘cleansed in the water of life’; ‘anointing Spirit’; ‘inheritance of the saints’. Or how about ‘bounden duty’; ‘Lamb of God’; ‘God’s great mercy’? These are words and phrases we hear every Sunday at our Sung Eucharist – and that word just means ‘thank you’ by the way.
In the passage from St Mark’s Gospel we have just listened to, we hear Jesus giving a rich young man a deceptively simple set of instructions for gaining eternal life: he should follow the commandments – something the rich young man protests that he already does; and also, he should give up his wealth to follow Jesus – something the rich young man finds much harder to do. There’s no technical language here. What we are presented with is a programme for discipleship in a society which, on the whole, took religious faith seriously as a life to be lived, not a technical language to be learned.
Looking back two thousand years later, of course, we know that the programme of action that Jesus calls Henry and all of us to join in with did not stay in Palestine. It spread out, first across the Mediterranean world and then over the whole globe. It had to be expressed in many different types of language and culture. Many different sorts of people took up the challenge. Significantly, one of the earliest to do so was St Paul, the one who had the original road to Damascus experience. Like most of Jesus’s early disciples, Paul was a faithful Jew, and he seems to have received a pretty good education. But Paul knew that, in order for other people, especially non-Jews, to understand his message about Jesus Christ, he had to understand them first. In one of his letters he says: ‘I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view.’ Paul realised that not everyone was at the same starting point as he was – not everyone had a religious faith, not everyone lived their life according to a strict moral code, and in his context many of the people he came across were not even literate. So Paul was quite happy to adapt his approach to take account of context. Sometimes that context did mean that Paul used close theological argument and rather dense technical language, like my car mechanic. But sometimes Paul’s approach was much more broad-brush, much less forbidding. And sometimes Paul simply got angry when he thought that young churches were not matching up to the commitment they had made.
I think Paul’s approach is a good one for all Christians to take. We are all disciples, but always in our own context; and we need to learn to speak about the excitement and the challenge of faith to others in language that’s understandable. Let’s return to some of those phrases I mentioned earlier: ‘grace’; ‘cleansed in the water of life’; ‘God’s great mercy’; ‘anointing Spirit’. If you’re glad to be here supporting Henry, and Caroline and Guy, but your context is not necessarily a church one, you might think of grace as the unexpected smile that Henry flashes at you when you peer into his pushchair; when you think of Guy or Caroline lifting Henry out of his bed-time bath after a messy encounter with his favourite food has made him almost unrecognisable – that’s being cleansed in the water of life; when you think of someone accepting an apology with a bear hug, that is God’s great mercy; and when a friend is encouraging you on the last half mile of that marathon you never thought you’d be able to run, that’s God’s anointing Spirit.
The language must always adapt to context. But the message is the same. In this great celebration, as we baptise our brother Henry, we proclaim this message: of a God who created the world, and who has made Henry and each of us in his image; of a God who died on a cross to show the depth of his love for us; of a God who continues to live in us today through the Spirit present in Henry’s life, and the life of each one of us.