I don’t know whether you ever wonder, as you gather here for the Eucharist, how the readings from scripture – which we will focus on – have been chosen. As Anglicans here, like other Anglicans all around the Diocese who are gathered for worship today, we follow an agreed series of Bible readings throughout the year, which we call the ‘common lectionary’. This means that when one of us comes up to read from the Scriptures we do not have free reign to choose our favourite passage or even the portion of the Bible that we feel will be most appropriate for us, as happens in some other Christian traditions.
Our readings and themes (both at the weekend Eucharists and throughout the week) are already agreed for us so that our study of the Scriptures can be ordered into a regular sequence that ensures that we hear as much of the Bible as possible, in the clearest order, throughout the year. I do not have the freedom, in a normal situation, to wake up on a Monday morning and decide on the readings that I want us to hear the following weekend.
Each year we follow a different Gospel at the weekend Eucharists. Last year we followed the Gospel of Mark, this year we are following the Gospel of Luke, and next year we will follow the Gospel of Matthew. And the Gospel of John is inserted at key moments every year. One of the important things to be aware of in all of this is that whichever year we are in, whichever Gospel we are following, the order of the readings that we follow – is split into two halves every year.
The first half (from Advent to Ascension) gathers together Gospel readings that broadly seek to answer the question ‘Who is Jesus?’ – so through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter (in the early months of the year) that is the focus of our reflections weekend by weekend: who is Jesus? And the second half of the year – the Gospel readings that we are gathering around at the moment – try to focus our attention on a second question, which is something like, ‘if that is who Jesus is, what does it mean for you and me to follow him?’
The first half of the year is often called the ‘Season of Christ’ because we focus on who he is, and the second half of the year, the part that we are in now – because of the focus of its Gospel readings on our response to Jesus – is often called the ‘Season of the Church’. Our Gospel reading today reaches right to the heart of the reality of living as a disciple of Christ: of this question of what it means for us to follow Jesus.
The writers of the Gospel of Luke gather together a number of the sayings of Jesus and present them, like headlines from a newspaper to summarise what Jesus has to say about living as one of his disciples. They are most likely to be a collection of teachings given over a period of time that the authors of the Gospel brought together here in one place. They continue straight on from the Gospel dialogue that we were gathered around two weekends ago, when Jesus is talking about choosing to live lives that are rich in the eyes of God, rather than rich in the eyes of the world.
As we heard today, firstly, they give us the image of heavenly purses: reminding us that Jesus encouraged his disciples to give away as much of what they had to the poor, in order to exchange the treasure of earth for the eternal treasure of God’s kingdom. What we can keep in our wallets, is of little value, says Jesus, compared with what can be stored up in heaven. Generosity is a greater priority now, than amassing personal wealth.
Secondly, they give us the image of a group of slaves awaiting their master’s return from a wedding banquet; pointing to the reward that those slaves will receive if, when the master returns to the house, he finds them alert and ready for him, even if they have had to wait up for nearly the whole night. Indeed, so happy will the master be, says Jesus, that the roles will be reversed, and the master in his gratitude will serve and reward his servants because of their faithfulness.
Thirdly, they give us the image of the owner of a house, who if he had known the time that the thief would come, would have been able to protect himself and his property from being ransacked.
I wonder which of these images grabbed you as you heard it, which came alive in your mind? Whichever it was, the message from all three of these distillations of the teaching of Jesus for us is clear. It is like a tidal wave isn’t it, of different images pointing to the state of mind to which we are called as disciples of Christ. Be ready. Be alert. Be focused on the big picture of God’s plan. For the time is near.
It is a good reminder for us to hear. There is much to distract us. We can easily grow weary, we can easily focus on the minutia and lose sight of the big picture: the Kingdom of God being inaugurated around us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Each of the four Gospels have a feeling of breathlessness about them. As we read the Gospels we get the sense that Jesus is in a rush. Time is short, things must be done straight away, directly, immediately. Jesus has all the time in the world for people, but time is short for preaching, teaching and for the world itself.
This feeling of urgency and immediacy is a reflection, I think, of the intensity not only of the way that Jesus himself lived, but also the reality of how the first Christians after Jesus’ death and resurrection and ascension lived out their lives. They believed that they were living in the last moments before the return of Christ, and passages from the Gospel like the collection of short teachings that we have heard proclaimed a few minutes ago gave them great encouragement to continue to be ready for Jesus’ imminent return.
Saint Paul, in the first letters that he wrote, suggests that Jesus would return in his own life time. If you want an example of this you can read his letters to the Church in Thessalonica in our New Testament. In these letters he states his belief that Jesus will return before he dies; but by the time Saint Paul wrote his later letters, and certainly by the time the Gospels were written down, Christians had come to understand that, whilst they knew that they lived in the last times, and that the end of the world was near, it might not be as immediate as they had first thought.
The sense that all of this was going to happen very quickly was diluted by the experience that Christians actually had, of Jesus not returning. So the first few generations of Christians still lived with the urgency of being ready for his second coming in their minds, but they increasingly came to understand that this reality may be less immediate than they had previously thought. The Early Church became gradually less certain about the timing of the second coming of Christ, but correspondingly more certain that they needed to live lives which were prepared for that second coming, whenever it might happen. That continues to be the view of our Church in the present day.
We shy away from Christian groups who have at various points in the past set the date of the second coming of Christ. But at the same time, we remain committed to the belief that our lives (now) need to be ready and prepared and ordered in such a way that they are consistent with the hope that Jesus will return to bring the Kingdom which he has already inaugurated, to its fulfilment. Saint Ignatius of Loyola expressed this way of living when he said, “live as if you are going to die tomorrow; die as if you are going to live forever.”
If we are honest it can be hard to keep a sense of urgency about all of this, when the experience of our lives is that Jesus has not returned yet, and probably won’t in our generation; and yet through the various images that are created in our minds through Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel we are drawn more deeply into that sense of needing to be prepared, and ready for the urgent task of being a disciple. Like slaves, remaining alert awaiting the return of our master; like the owner of a house preparing ourselves for a thief who seeks to break in and steal from us – we too are called to be ready.
Jesus says that to be one of his followers – both then and now – is to be alert and ready to serve him. That is what God calls each one of us who have been baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ to do, and that’s why we gather weekend by weekend at this Eucharist. To be nurtured by God’s word, to be encouraged by our fellowship, and to be strengthened by the sacrament which we are about to receive, so that we go from this place to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God of God the father.
In this season of the Church we ask weekend by weekend as we hear the readings prescribed by the lectionary, ‘if Jesus is who the Gospels say that he is, what are we – his followers – being called to do in response to him?’ And our Gospel today, through a number of different picture images, is clear in its response. Live as if you are going to die tomorrow; die as if you are going to live forever. Be ready. Be prepared. Be focused on God’s eternal plan. The task is urgent and it involves us all.