The lectionary for this Sunday is available here
‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate even life itself cannot be my disciple’
The Gospel reading today includes one of the most shocking and troubling of Jesus’ teaching. It is challenging, embarrassing and leaves us feeling deeply uncomfortable – so, I am of course grateful to Fr. Kevin for asking me to preach this morning. There are two temptations when confronted with a difficult Gospel like this one: we can ignore it and use the homily to talk about something else; or, worse still, we can be tempted to soften what Jesus is saying – to quietly brush it under the carpet and focus on the bits of the Gospel we like. If we do this, we adopt a consumerist model of the Christian life – our faith becomes like a buffet, we pick and choose the bits we like and leave for someone else the challenging, uncomfortable commandments of Jesus. As St. Augustine wisely noted, ‘If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.’
The first thing to say about this teaching of Jesus is that it forces us to decide on the answer to the question: ‘Who is this man?’ No sensible teacher would ask his followers to do this; no life-coach would tell you that putting him before everything else is the way to life and happiness. So, we have to decide if this man, Jesus of Nazareth, is just a maniacal, crazy liar making unreasonable demands or whether he is, as he claims, the Son of God, the Love of God incarnate, who was born and died to bring us eternal life? This is the fundamental choice: do we believe Jesus is who he says he is? If we do, then we have to take this teaching as seriously as we take the bits that make us comfortable and fit well with our worldly values.
If we answered yes to this question – if we believe that Jesus is the Son of God – then, he says, all other claimants to supremacy in our life must fall away. If he is God, the source and summit of our life, then he must come first. Everyone has something that they worship – an aspect of their life to which they give highest value and everything else falls around it. Perhaps it’s money; or the things money can buy? Perhaps it’s power, influence and position? Perhaps you crave the approval of other people and strive first and foremost to be liked? Having just turned 21, I remember being almost paralysed as a teenager because I was so concerned with being cool and being liked becomes the centre of gravity! For many young people, all their life, all their decisions, are focused on the aim of being liked and accepted. Maybe it’s non of these things for you – maybe it’s your political party; your nation? Maybe it’s your family – your wife, husband and children?
None of these are necessarily bad things – especially family – and, I think, Jesus uses the language of hatred, not to say that our family or possessions are hateful but to shock us into hearing him more clearly! All these things, understood properly, are good: material wealth can be splendid and used to do great things; power and position can be used to effect great good; honours and esteem may be deserved; your country may be worth dying for; your political party might be fighting the good fight; your family might be truly wonderful and draw forth from you your most powerful instincts of love and protectiveness. None of this is bad! None of this hateful!
But the Lord is telling us that if we make any of these the absolute centre of gravity in our lives, things go awry – if we make any of these good things our ultimate and final good our whole life will go haywire! This is a hard truth – especially family, which many of us think ought to be the centre of our life. But listen to Jesus: when he speaks of hate, he doesn’t want you to find them hateful – indeed he commands you to love them – we know how much he loved his own mother, so much that he uses his dying breaths to make provision for her. However, what he tells us today is that, no matter how much we love them, we cannot put them in the place of God.
What does it mean to make Jesus our first priority? How does it look to seek first his kingdom? First and foremost, it means that our Christian faith has to shape and inform everything else we do. It means we are to be the same person regardless of where we are or who we’re with.
It means that our politics cannot be governed by party loyalties and agendas but by commitment to Jesus and his mission to feed the hungry; clothe the naked and embrace the poor and those on the margins.
It means that our personal opinions and preferences, even our family loyalties, must give way to Jesus’ command to love our neighbour and our enemies – imagine how living by that command would transform everything! How different your life would look if you truly loved your enemies and neighbours – it would be a life with no space for gossip and rumour; a life where we thought first and foremost about others.
To make Jesus our first priority means that our businesses cannot be thought of as capitalist ventures to gain more and more money, power, or leverage over others but as a resource to care for, support, and satisfy human needs.
It means the environment is not a commodity to be used, polluted, and stripped, but a sacred gift entrusted to our care, a gift that manifests God’s own beauty and holiness.
In short, it means that everything we say, do, choose, and are arises from and reveals our life in and love of Jesus Christ.
As you can probably see, there’s a reason that biblical scholars call today’s Gospel one of Jesus’ ‘hard sayings’. It is deeply challenging and raises difficult questions – it should, if we’ve heard it properly, leave us profoundly uncomfortable. They are, however, as our first reading promised, challenges and questions that offer life. Friends, isn’t this why we’re in Church this morning? We want life! We want to be fully alive. We want to be authentic people. We are mad enough to want to be like Jesus! If that is the desire of our heart then no text can scare us away.
The new life which is offered to us today is not an abstract philosophy or a set of beliefs it is a person – Jesus. If you want a real, authentic, happy life – if you want joy and peace and hope – follow this beggar from Nazareth! This man in whom we see the eternal outpouring of God’s love made flesh. The Master whose shameless love made the people of his own day so uncomfortable that they crucified him – yet whose weakness was so powerful that he broke the chains of death and hell and lives forever for us.
In his power, by his grace, we can live this new life. It’s not easy and we will continually go back to comfortable patterns of self-interest but, every time we gather here, we hear words of forgiveness and are given strength to start afresh on the way that leads to life. In this Eucharist, Christ’s body is broken for us and we receive his life, his presence, his power which gives us the strength to follow him even to hang with him on the Cross. Don’t miss your chance; don’t leave this place unchanged. Even if it’s just one thing, big or small, that you can do or give up that changes your priorities and gives precedence to God. Choose that and you will leave here a different person: choose that and you will be more like Christ. Choose life. Choose life!