Saint Andrewís Croydon
3rd February 2002
4th of Year A
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12Ė13
I Cor. 1: 26Ė31
Matthew 5: 1Ė12
"It was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, and to shame what is strong that he chose what is weak by human reckoning; those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen".
In other words, says St Paul, if we are to follow Christ we must be prepared for some surprises.
When someone turns to Christ and is baptized or confirmed then it necessarily involves a turning away from the standards and wisdom of this world.
But, and hereís the catch, that person still has to go on living in, and being part of, the world from which they have turned.
That is why itís so important to tell candidates for confirmation about what is called The Bump. The Bump was a term invented many years ago by a priest called Father Ellis to describe what happens to most people after a few weeks, or, in rare cases, a few months after becoming a Christian.
Confirmation was a wonderful experience. They found a new sense of direction entered into their lives; God seemed very much closer to them than before, and their experience of his presence seemed very real. Their fellow Christians were only too willing to encourage and help them in any way they could, and there seemed to be no very good reason why this experience shouldnít go on for ever.
But it didnít. Suddenly or gradually things seemed to go pear-shaped. For some people it is a personal misfortune like bereavement, or losing their job which makes it happen; for others it may be a dust-up with some fellow-Christian who behaves uncharitably towards them; more probable than either is the experience which happens in many walks of life, at school, at university, being married, starting a new job: the first excitement wears off, and the Bump-victim begins to face some of the less pleasant realities of the situation.
In the case of the newly-made Christian, one of the most painful of such realities is the discovery that discipleship sooner or later brings him into conflict with the principles (and assumptions) by which most worldly people live their lives. If your wife, or husband, or children, or work-mates do not share your faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour Ė and the chances are that most of them wonít Ė then itís not only likely but 100% certain that the difference between yourself and them will become apparent.
At home it may be the fact that you start to go to Church every Sunday, which means that the rest of the family has go to wait till you get back before going out for the day; at work it may mean that some of the not-quite-honest practices, like arriving late, leaving early or filching items of stationery which everyone else does without thinking become for you a problem which has to be seriously thought about. If you belong to a circle of gossips and tittle-tattlers whose delight is in the character-assassination of other people, you have seriously to consider distancing yourself from them. If youíve been co-habiting with a partner without being married then this is the time when you have to make up your mind to sanctify that relationship into the bond of Holy Matrimony.
Now when this sort of thing happens to any one of us, itís very natural to ask why God should expect us to behave differently from everyone else. After all, hundreds of people commit sins like these every day and nothing so very terrible seems to happen to them. In other words they appear to get away with it all the time. Why should being a disciple of Jesus Christ make any difference?
The answer to this question comes in two parts.
The first is the obvious point that if God is who we suppose him to be, he is Someone "to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden" as the ancient prayer says then our perception of "getting away with it" is about as flawed as that of the average three-year-old who imagines that Mother will never find out if they hide the pieces of that precious glass vase that theyíve just broken underneath the chest-of-drawers, or wonít notice if they help themselves to the contents of the jampot in the larder. Our chances as adult Christians of "getting away with" our sins in the sight of God are even less good. Theyíre in fact nil.
But thereís something more than this. To sin deliberately, and to think in terms of "getting away with it" is somehow alien to the whole relationship which we entered into with God when we got baptized and confirmed. Itís as if we were to sign a contract without having any intention of sticking to it, or make a promise without meaning to keep it, or take an oath in a Court of justice but then tell lies.
So why do we all do this kind of thing? Well, the chief reason is that we keep on forgetting what God has taught us, namely that this world is only our temporary abode. We are strangers and pilgrims as St Peter says. Itís so easy to forget this, once weíve begun to feel "at home" in the world. Little by little we start embracing the standards and customs of the people amongst whom we are living.
Here we must be careful. Being a traveller in a foreign land means having a particular respect and regard for the customs and manners of that land. Wherever they donít conflict with Godís commandments then itís good practice to conform to them. Itís not our Christian discipleship to be always showing others how different we are from them. Having said that, itís equally important that we donít find ourselves taking into our lives the standards and beliefs of Vanity Fair.
So where do we look for guidance about how to live in the world?
Well, the Beatitudes, which we heard in the Gospel this morning, are a good place to start: those nine sayings of Jesus which begin with the words "How happy areÖ". The poor in spirit; the gentle; those who mourn; those who hunger and thirst for what is right; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers and the persecuted.
The obvious difference between the agenda set forward by the Beatitudes, and what the world is aiming for is not so much that the Christian and the world have different values. Even the most worldly-minded person will express his admiration for those who are kind, unselfish, honest and gentle. The difference between the two agenda consists in the virtues we actually practice not just saying we approve of them.
The Worldly Wiseman is working towards an earthly goal; it may be riches, or power, or influence or fame or security, but whichever it is, itís value drops to nil the moment that individual dies Ė and in most cases long before that when they are no longer able to enjoy to the full the pleasures which life has to offer.
The Heavenly Wiseman by contrast knows right from the start that the riches he is laying up are measured in a heavenly, eternal currency. He or she is prepared to forgo the immediate satisfactions which earth offers if by so doing it may work within us, as St Paul said, a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. For we are not looking at the things which are seen and will pass away, but at the things that are unseen and eternal which will never pass away.
Thatís the kind of wisdom we shall learn if we follow Christ Itís called The Way of the Cross and Christ himself went along that way during his earthly life. The Worldly Wiseman cannot understand it. Itís hidden from him. "It was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, and to shame what is strong that he chose what is weak by human reckoning; those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen", wrote St Paul in the second reading.
It all comes round again to how we cope with the Bump, as we considered earlier. The serious business of being married, starting a job, being confirmed or whatever it is, doesnít begin and end with what happens on Day One. Thatís the easy part. Itís what happens from Day Two through to the Day of our Death that really matters. That is why the discipline of Lent is so important. Itís like a six-week Induction Course into the business of Christian Living. When we meet again in a fortnightís time I will try and make some suggestions as to how that process of Lenten Growth can be best assured and kept up.
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