St Stephen Lewisham
May 5th 1996
Acts 6: 1 to 7
1 Peter 2: 4–9
John 14: 1-12
All of us have experienced "talking at cross-purposes".
Here is an example. You meet someone whom you haven't seen for a year or two.
Naturally you get chatting and have a good time and catching up on each other's lives.
Then the other person says "by the way, I expect you know Jean's had another baby".
Well last time you met, you remember Jean, her daughter as being a rather quiet, studious teenager who was hoping to become a nurse when she left school. So it's a bit difficult to know what response to make to the news that she is now a mother, let alone a mother of two or three children. Do you say " how wonderful, you must be so proud of her"?; or "I'm so sorry, that must have put paid to her nursing ambitions"?
In the event you probably say something halfway between the non-committal and the positive. But gradually you begin to realise that the Jean this lady's talking about isn't the daughter you thought she was referring to at all.
And then suddenly the penny drops so to speak and and you realise that the Jean with the baby is her sister-in-law who you'd forgotten all about, but then remember as having been trying for a baby for years.
Well, that's a simple example of a talking at cross-purposes. And it can, of course, and often does, lead to endless misunderstandings and wrong responses; and the cure for it is to have better insight before jumping to conclusions which may be mistaken.
The three Readings for today are all about people who in one way or another were at cross-purposes with and therefore misunderstanding each other.
The first reading describes the charitable work the first Apostles did amongst the poor widows of Jerusalem. It was, no doubt, a good work, wholly in keeping with Jesus's concern for the poor, the outcast and the destitute.
But before very long it ran into trouble. Money became scarce. They had to start deciding which widows were the most deserving. This led to a great row between the Jewish and the Greek Widows into which are the Apostles were quickly drawn and before long every minute of their day was taken up trying to keep the peace between the two sides.
Very different from what they had been ordained by our Lord to do, namely "to show forth Christ's death till he comes again", to "go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature", or "to proclaim Christ crucified Risen and Ascended who is lord of all". "Heal the rich, cleanse the Lepers, open the eyes of the blind".
You see what happened? An important aspect of their work – feeding and the poor – had become, in the minds of those outside the church, the only reason for the Church existing at all. They were deeply at cross-purposes with each other. You can just hear people saying "don't you care that my sister got no bread yesterday?"
The Apostles answer was surely the right one "it would not be right for us to neglect the Word of God so as to give out forward. You brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation... we shall hand over this duty to them and continue to devote ourselves to prayer and the service of the Word."
So they chose seven men, including St Stephen, as partners, to be what later became known as "Deacons" to take over this particular bit of work. No doubt there were still those outside the faith who misunderstood what the Church was for, imagining it to be nothing else than a provider of food, but at least to those on the inside could see that they were back on the rails again.
The second reading calls Jesus " the living stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him"
Now there's a classic example of cross-purposes. God intends one thing, man fails to understand what's happening: he sees things through the eyes of his fallen nature and therefore gets a distorted vision of what God has done.
Read-through the Gospels, especially Saint John, and you'll find it's one long series of people at with one another. "He came to his own people [the Jews] and they didn't receive him". He came to bring light and men preferred darkness. He was the keystone of God's plan for mankind's reconciliation both with himself and each other but, as St Peters said in this morning's reading, was destined to be rejected by unbelievers because he "didn't fit" in their minds with the idea of a Saviour and hence became "keystone to stumble on, a rock to bring men down".
"They stumble over it" says St Peter "because they do not believe the word". In other words, to those who choose to remain outside the fellowship of believers, preaching Christ as Saviour will always be at cross-purposes with their understanding of things, not least the preaching of the Cross itself. "To the Jews a stumbling block, to the Greeks madness " as St Paul said on many occasions.
We cannot begin to understand Christ until we accept him. That's what even his Apostles found it so difficult to grasp, witness Thomas and Philip in today's Gospel reading. Their statements show that they were still seriously at cross-purposes with Jesus even though they had been with him "all this time" as our Lord reminded him.
Thomas was still looking for "the way ahead". By "the Way ahead" he probably meant some kind of "Master Plan" from Jesus, by following which he and the Apostles could be sure they were doing and the will of God.
In other words he was looking for a "way" quite different from Jesus himself. Jesus replied that he is himself The Way, the only way by which men can come to the Father. We do God's will not primarily by keeping his commandments but by "Believing the one whom he has sent".
Now there's another classic instance of cross-purposes. Jesus makes himself known to reveal himself to Thomas and the other apostles as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and still after three years they are looking for another way, a different sort of truth, a life apart from him. Jesus just does not have a "Master Plan". He is the master plan.
So it's not only outsiders who get it wrong. It's perfectly possible to be called to be an Apostle, Deacon, Disciple or whatever and still not realise who Jesus really is. "Lord, let us see the Father and then we shall be satisfied" demanded Philip of Jesus. To which Jesus replied "do you still not known why am? To have seen me is to have seen the Father". In other words Jesus is no mere leader of men, not just Teacher of Disciples, healer of the sick, comfort of the sorrowful... he is God Incarnate, born of the Virgin Mary, shortly to be crucified under Pontius Pilate, thereafter to be raised from the dead and ascend into heaven in glory.
The Problem of Belief, if we may call it that, is that people are so often talking at cross-purposes with each other. That's why discussing the faith with unbelievers often ends up getting nowhere fast.
If they are so minded, men can learn or a fair amount about Jesus Christ, about his Church, about the Faith which you when I believe and try to practise.
But only a certain amount can be learnt from the outside. In the end there is the whole world of difference between knowing about someone and knowing them personally.
Remember again the example I gave about Jean and her babies. By "Jean" we thought our friend meant her daughter; in fact she met someone quite different.
By "Jesus" the world thinks we mean "the great teacher who died 2000 years ago". In fact we mean the Man who is God, who lives to be our saviour and apart from whom in the end there is no other Way to come to God.
The Church and the World will everlastingly be talking at cross purposes when they talk about Jesus Christ.
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