There’s a wonderful cartoon that has been doing the rounds on the internet at the moment made up of three conflicting pictures about the life of a priest. The first picture depicts the splendour of an ornate liturgy in a beautiful cathedral with a priest standing at the altar in front of a congregation of thousands of worshippers, and the word bubble coming from his mouth says, “this is how I thought I would be spending my time as a priest.” The second picture shows a priest having a cup of tea in the home of one of his parishioners, with the caption, “this is how my congregation want me to spend my time as a priest.” In the third picture all that can be seen is the top of the priest’s head, sinking under piles of paperwork on his desk in his study; and the caption reads, “this is how I actually spend my time as a priest!”
The cartoon illustrates – in a very exaggerated way – something of the mis-match of expectations that lurks below the surface for many priests and their congregations. There is some truth in the caricature of priests being chained to their desks sinking under an ever increasing administrative workload. There is some truth in the idea that many members of congregations don’t really care what priests do as long as they have time to be their personal chaplains, a kind of spiritual form of private health care. There is some truth in the idea that many priests long to lead great crowds in beautiful worship, in buildings that are full rather than mainly empty.
So as we hear the encounter in our Gospel reading today, between Jesus and the large crowds that have gathered around him, we might be surprised that he doesn’t seem overly keen to encourage them carry on following him. In fact, we might say that when Jesus sees all of the people that are travelling with him, he seems more concerned than overjoyed about their presence. Turning to them he says, “whoever comes to me and does not hate their family, and even life itself, cannot continue to follow me.” If either Mr Abbott or Mr Rudd had put those instructions before voters over the last few weeks, in their political manifestos, I am not sure that it would have been a great vote winner for them yesterday. In fact in some instances the reverse has been true, as the leaders of the various political parties have been trying to do everything that they can to attract us into following them. And Jesus’ words are hardly a blueprint for the kind of welcoming Church that we are being encouraged to embody either!
My guess is that if we said to visitors as they came through our doors, that they were very welcome here as long as they hated their lives and their families, most would turn around and walk straight back outside, never to be seen here again. So why isn’t Jesus delighted that his message is getting some traction, and that people are taking notice of him? What is the concern that Jesus has with the crowds that are following him, and that leads him to respond in this way?
Certainly some Christians have taken this Gospel encounter, and others like it, and used it to build an understanding of the world that presumes that God really does not want his love to be shared with everyone, and instead desires a Church that is small and preferably persecuted, whose members are a kind of spiritual elite that share with God the pain of being under siege. I have to tell you that I think that that kind of understand is incompatible with our firm belief that God desires the whole of his creation to live into the fullness of all that he has planned and purposed for it. Our Psalm this morning proclaims that we are purposefully made by God.
Whilst most of us will not have experienced the excitement of being in a really big crowd at a Church event for some years now, we know from other kinds of events – particularly around sport – what it is like to be with thousands and thousands of other people. We know that there is something exhilarating about being in a huge crowd. It is exciting to be caught up in something that is much bigger than ourselves. And there is something particularly attractive, especially when we are not entirely sure about what to do, or what to think, to be able to join an already established band wagon. There is safety in numbers. It is little wonder that large crowds are following Jesus. Rumours of miracles, new teachings that have never been heard before, notoriety and entertainment, and the basic human reality that people like to follow other people, all combine to explain why Jesus has attracted such a large following as moves around the towns and villages telling and showing people about the Kingdom of God. If we could turn water into wine we would have a crowd here!
But we do need to be careful, as we imagine Jesus in the midst of those crowds, to remember that the dynamics at work in his time would have been very different from anything that we have experience today. If I can state the absolute obvious, there were no electrified speaker systems, or big screens to amplify the volume of Jesus’ voice or to zoom in on his face. Which means that most people in the large crowds that were following Jesus never actually heard his voice themselves, instead the message was passed back to them from people who were nearer to where Jesus was speaking from. Most people did not have the opportunity to see him close up either – which was of course the case for anyone until the invention of photography and printing and then television that enable us to see people close-up as if we were standing next to them.
As Jesus looks out on the crowds he sees not only those who are genuinely seeking to understand the good news that he brings, but also the circus of people who follow any crowd – some who are trying to sell things, others who are trying to steal things, others who aren’t all that interested in Jesus, but just want to be part of the experience of being with others. It is into this whole confusing mix that Jesus says to those who have gathered around him, that if they truly want to be his disciples they will need to hate their families and themselves, and take up their cross and follow him.
So what are to make of those words? I think that first and foremost we need to say that they are difficult and problematic for us to hear. Difficult because the idea that Jesus wants us to hate our families seems totally inconsistent with his calling for us to not only love God but love our neighbours as well; problematic because what we understand by his call to take up the Cross, which we understand in the light of his own suffering on the Cross and victory over the grave, could not possibly have been understood in the same way by those who heard his teaching before he himself had been crucified.
Perhaps the key to unlocking what Jesus said to those crowds back then, and to us today, comes in the two stories that he tells afterwards. One story about building a tower (and we certainly know about that here in this parish) and one story about going to war. In both those instances it isn’t enough simply to follow the crowd, in needs a decisive decision that this is the right course of action, and a preparedness to follow through on that decision whatever the cost.
Just as we have seen in other Gospel encounters, Jesus uses the exaggerated language of love and hate to make the point. We can put it alongside cutting off one’s hand, removing one’s eye, or at least taking the timber out of it, trying in vain to fit a camel through the eye of the needle… Jesus says, don’t simply fall into the habit of following me without being aware of the consequences. To be my disciple is to make the commitment to spend the rest of your earthly life trying to see this world the way that God sees it, and for that to happen, you need to put God first. Whether people knew at that time or not the true consequences of what he was saying, he was in due course to show them through his own self-sacrifice on the cross what all this meant.
The problem with crowds, is that you can end up literally following a crowd, rather than following the person that the crowd is following. And that will work for a while, because there is a certain buzz in it all. But Anglicans know that knowing that we are loved by God, and seeking to serve and follow him is not just about feelings, it is necessarily an act of faith and of our wills. There will be times when we have great and momentous experiences, but we also know that we are called to be faithful when we feel like it, and when we don’t: because although it may not always be exciting, we are nevertheless called to be persevere in faithfulness.
When I arrived here as your priest I received a number of letters about building the tower, in fact the first two arrived before I had even been commissioned. And I wrote back to each of those people who had been kind enough to write to me and invited them to secure the first million dollars, with the guarantee that if they did so I would find the rest. At the same time as the letters were arriving about the tower, a member of our congregation also gave me advice – on the first time that I met her – that I have treasured immensely. She said, “Rector, it isn’t how you start here that matters, it is how you will finish.”
You don’t just wander into building a tower because it is a good idea one afternoon, you do not plan to go to war on a whim, it takes planning and perseverance, and commitment. You don’t just wander into faith as part of the crowd, unaware of the monumental consequences of a life shaped by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. That is what Jesus said to the crowds who were following him all those years ago, and that is what he says to each one of us this morning. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “salvation is free, but discipleship will cost us our life.”