Canon Precentor - Revd Canon Andrew Zihni
How often have you found yourself embroiled in a misunderstanding?
At a friend’s wedding I conducted a couple of years ago, I told the story in my sermon of the ‘ruby’ wedding anniversary of some parishioners at the church where I was a curate.
After a fine dinner and plenty of wine, the husband George raised a toast to his wife Hilda, and said: “Dearest Hilda, even after forty years of marriage, I have found you tried and true”. Unfortunately, Hilda had become a little hard-of-hearing, and seemingly shocked by George’s toast, she asked him to repeat what he had said. “What I said, my dearest, is that even after forty years of marriage, I have found you tried and true”. “Yes: I thought that’s what you said”, replied Hilda – now visibly distressed – “And after forty years, I am tired of you, too!” It did not help that the band at this point launched into Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me …
Listening to this morning’s Gospel reading, we might similarly feel that there is a misunderstanding somewhere. Jesus prays to the Father: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
What a far cry this is from other more hopeful and encouraging words we hear from Jesus in the Gospels. It makes us wonder, rather, whether Joseph called Barsabbas and Matthias knew what they were letting themselves in for when they were put forward as candidates for replacing Judas Iscariot in our first reading. What will be the cost of bearing the testimony to the Son that St John writes about in today’s second reading?
Perhaps the prayer that Jesus makes to the Father in today’s Gospel is such as it is because so much of our Christian discipleship is to do with our calling – to be who God has called us to be, rather than who we or the world would like us to be; and to do so faithfully and courageously, because doing so may cause us to stand out from the crowd and so be hated by the world.
It is interesting how often in the Gospels Jesus commends children as being examples of genuine discipleship. Openness, simplicity, enthusiasm, generosity, courage, trust – these childlike characteristics are commended to us as things to be sought after, and they are qualities possessed by so many of the adults who feature positively in Jesus’s teaching, not least the two disciples who are considered for taking on the apostleship of Judas.
Perhaps this is because the mind of a child is one which is constantly taking on board new information, new experiences, adapting to them in physical growth and in emotional and intellectual development.
This model of learning quickly, of adapting quickly, of remaining the same person yet developing continuously is a model that the Gospels encourage the followers of Christ to take as their own – and it is this that lies at the heart of today’s readings, as we are encouraged to hold the testimony of the Son of God in our hearts.
To be simple in our relationship with God is not to be unthinking, nor to be unchallenged or unchallenging; but to be one who is prepared to let God be God, and to let ourselves be our true self as God has called us to be. It is adulthood that can bring that sense of self-dependency and selfishness, the embarrassment at not being able to run our lives perfectly, the obsession of trying to control everything and everyone around us, or the desire to be someone that we are not.
Bearing testimony to the Son of God in all that we do does not imprison us, but frees us to question as much as we possibly can, knowing that we do so in the security of the relationship of love which makes us what we are. Knowing our need of God and of others is the most important knowing we can ever do. If we seek to be childlike – if we trust, if we challenge, if we learn – we may discover afresh what it is truly to love our neighbour.
So how do we live this out in the risen life of Christ with which we have been entrusted? The answer lies in being the 18th camel. Now before you think that I, as the apostles at Pentecost were similarly accused, have indulged in too much celebratory Ascensiontide wine, let me explain what I mean.
There is a story from the Middle East about a certain man who had three sons. When he died, he left in his will clear instructions about dividing up his property between them. Everything was quite straightforward, except for the camels. Of these there were 17, and the will said that half should go to the eldest son, a third to the middle son, and a ninth to the youngest son. But the sons soon found that this simply did not work. Whether they divided 17 by 2, 3 or 9, they always ended up with amputated camels. So, they went to a wise old friend of their late father’s, and asked his advice. “It’s all very simple” – he said – “I will give you one of my camels. Then you will find that everything comes out all right”. So he did, and once they had 18 camels it was simple enough: the eldest son took a half, making 9; the second son took a third, that was 6; and the youngest a ninth, that was 2. Now if you add 9 and 6 and 2: that makes 17 camels in all. The old friend took back his own camel, and everyone was happy.
By this curiosity of mathematics, it is the 18th camel that solves the problem. In the same way, our calling is to be God’s bridge-builder and problem-solver, not those who would prevent it, as in the case of the Scribes and the Pharisees that we often hear about in the Gospels. Over and over again, in our engagements as part of the Christian community, we are called to play the part of the 18th camel, in generosity to share God’s love with others, in generosity to reflect on our exercise of stewardship, recognizing that all are called to share in resourcing the Church’s work of proclaiming God’s gracious love and bearing testimony to the Son of God.
Of course, this is not always an easy task. But the more we try to orientate our lives around discovering what it means to love our neighbour and to testify to the love of God in Christ, the more energy we shall find inside to do so. The resurrection of Jesus is the greatest demonstration of the love of God – his wonderful gift for his whole creation – which should evoke in us an answering love, an answering giving of whatever we can.
Every person we encounter is someone for whom Jesus died and in whom his risen self inhabits. These are, therefore, people we learn to love by being compassionate and generous in our attitudes and in our actions. This is what it means to share in the life of the resurrection.
Today’s readings challenge us that God did not put us here for a pat on the back. He created us so he could be here himself – so that he could exist in the lives of those of us he created in his own image. If we take on this call, we shall certainly set the world on fire with God’s love!