St Stephen Lewisham
Sunday 29th September 2002
Year A Week 26
Ez: 18: 25Ė28; Phil: 2: 1Ė11; Matt 21: 28Ė32
A Mind for All Seasons
In John Bunyanís book Pilgrimís Progress which many of you will have read, one of the characters who tries to entice Christian away from following the way of the Cross is called Mr Worldly Wiseman.
In your minds you must be the same as Christ Jesus wrote St Paul; and in an earlier letter, to the Corinthians, he says but we have the mind of Christ, contrasting this with the way that the mind of Mr (& Mrs!) Worldly Wiseman works.
We Christians live today in a society which is heavily over-populated with people like Mr Worldly Wiseman; and because the worldly-wise mind is still to a very great extent influenced by Christian principles like love your neighbour, honesty is the best policy, and do as you would be done by, many Christians find themselves puzzled to know exactly where the real difference between such minds and the mind of Christ lies. Virtues like kindness, consideration, and politeness are by no means the monopoly of Christians Ė and cases of rudeness and lack of consideration, believe it or not, have even been known to happen amongst churchpeople!
This is what St Paul says about the mind of Christ:
His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.
There are four words in this passage which tell us something about the mind of Christ: cling, emptied, accepting and cross.
Jesus did not cling. Sometimes itís the right thing to do Ė like clinging to a life-raft after being shipwrecked. Itís certainly it is the natural reaction to an emergency; but as an all-purpose principle it will prove to be mistaken as often as right.
Clinging onto security can be fatal. If the house is on fire you do what the fireman tells you even if it means abandoning the security which it means to you. If your doctor, in whom you have confidence, advises you to have a major surgical operation the sensible thing is to abandon your controllable world for the alien world of the hospital-ward where you arenít in control any longer. If your profession requires you to leave the security of Mum and Dad at home and live elsewhere then you would be foolish, not wise, to refuse to do so. Being wise doesnít make it easy, of course; but "having the mind of Christ" necessitated, for him, being willing to forgo the security of his heavenly estate in exchange for our anything-but-secure estate upon earth.
Jesus emptied himself. There is no easy translation in English of the Greek work ekenose.. Somebody "emptying himself" suggests blanking out his mind and thinking of nothing, as if Jesus shut his eyes to reality. But the Incarnation did the exact opposite. It brought Jesus face-to-face with reality of the created and fallen world and all the uncertainties they throw up. So perhaps if we say that Jesus hugged or embraced human reality it would be nearer the mark.
Thirdly, Jesus accepted death. Thatís where obedience to the will of God sometimes leads, and our own Patron, St Stephen was the first of many who realised that following Jesus and confessing him as Saviour and Lord meant being stoned to death.
As disciples of Jesus, each of us in his own way is going to find himself faced from time to time with a conflict of wills, Godís will and ours. Like the first brother in todayís Gospel we may find ourselves saying "No, I wonít!" to whatever God is asking us to do or be for him; but how much better than to be like his brother who said "Certainly Sir", but did not go.
Fourthly St Paul mentions the cross. As has been often pointed out, a cross consists of a Capital ĎIí with a line through the middle crossing it out. Again, itís a question of choosing whose will we shall do, Godís will, or our own; and whose judgement we trust, ours, or his. Itís worth remembering that the first person to follow Jesus into his heavenly kingdom was the man who hung beside him on the Cross but who admitted that he was getting his just deserts whilst Jesus was being denied his. "Today you will be with me in Paradise", said Jesus.
So Mr & Mrs Worldly Wiseman are faced with this puzzling paradox. Whilst we can agree with them about the importance of many of the things that they are concerned about, there are various critical matters at which our respective outlooks go in diametrically the opposite direction.
The Wisemans are always looking for Security, Fulfilment, the Good Life and the freedom to pursue happiness.
Christians are far from indifferent to these things and we wish the Mr & Mrs Worldly Wisemans every success in what they are pursuing. But deep down we know that what they are chasing is like the rainbowís end: the nearer you get to it the further it is away.
When it comes to the crunch we know that for us there is only one way. We have to learn to let go of our security; we must learn to embrace uncertainty; we must look forward to our death as the great moment when everything we have suffered will suddenly fall into place; and we must learn to walk the way of the Cross by crossing out the ĎIí whenever Godís plans for us and our own convenience happen to be in conflict.
But do remember that in the end the son who did his Fatherís will had said ĎNoí to it in the first instance. Christians know that itís never too late to change our minds and hearts, however often in the past we may have refused to do so. As Jesus so trenchantly put it when he was speaking to the well-meaning Worldly Wisemen of his time, "I tell you solemnly that tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you."
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