Come, follow me.

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, October 11, 2015 - 9:30am


X

 

Religious Fundamentalism is rarely out of the news nowadays. Terrorists, bigots and nutters are typically accorded the title of ‘fundamentalist.’ Religion is a word that is more or less acceptable in public discourse, albeit with a certain queasy agnostic distaste. ‘Fundamentalism’, however is not, it is the enemy.

 

Now it seems to me that the problem with all this is that the word itself is misleading. What it seems to imply is that if Islam, or Christianity, or Hinduism, or whatnot is carried to its extremes, is boiled down to its fundamentals, what you get is violence and hatred and single-minded bigotry.

 

In other words, it implies that those of us who seek to be kind, big-hearted, generous, humble and peaceful when we practise our faith are peddling a watered-down version. We are described as moderates and liberals.

 

Now, I am not answerable for any other religion but my own, though I suspect that my Muslim friends would agree when I say that this is a cruel travesty of religious faith. As I understand it, the word ‘fundamentalism’ was coined in the nineteenth century by American preachers who wanted to interpret the Bible in a very literal way, treating it as a book of facts and rules; ironing out troublesome paradoxes, metaphors, allegories and images to create the kind of pseudo-science that denies that the world is round, or argues that dinosaurs are an atheist conspiracy to prevent us from believing in a seven day creation.

 

This approach is incredibly modern – Our own age is almost unique in history in wanting never to probe beneath the surface of words and get to the treasure beneath. It would have seemed very odd even in Jesus’ time to think in this way, and this approach has no right to claim that it reflects the fundamentals of the Christian faith. It is a title they claimed for themselves, and which has become stuck to any bonkers religious viewpoint.

 

What, I wonder, would a really fundamental Christianity look like? What does Christianity look like when we do it properly? Well, I think our gospel today gives us a few clues.

 

The man who buttonholes Jesus, just as he is setting off on a trip is asking a very similar question: ‘What must I do to have eternal life?’

But it’s clear from the outset that he has made a few basic errors. First of all, he refers to Jesus as a teacher. He is looking for some kind of learning, some teaching that will unlock everything. Secondly, he seems to want to know what ‘good deeds’ will get him through the doors of heaven.

 

Now, Jesus is very patient with him, and directs him towards the law of Moses. And yet this fellow seems to respond very rashly… ‘Oh! I’ve done them!’ he says ‘What next?’

 

‘Jesus’ we are told, ‘looking at him, loved him.’ We can almost sense the wry smile playing across his face. Then comes the bombshell:

‘Go! Sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and then come, and follow me.’

 

And this was too much for him. He went away, grieving. We might be tempted to judge him for his hubris or his naivety, but which of us, hand on heart would not feel the same, if we were asked to turn our backs on everything? Yet is this not truly what Christ asks of us?

 

I recall once being told a story about Margaret Thatcher. She was being interviewed at a time when some of her policies were receiving a great deal of criticism within Church circles, and the interviewer moved onto the subject on to her own Christian beliefs. What, she was asked, was the principle at the heart of Christianity? Naturally, this was setting up a follow-up question about how then she could justify the actions of her government in the light of her answer. But her response was at once characteristic and incontestable: ‘Choice’ she said.

 

In our passage today, we can see that, in this at least, she had a point. The rich man has come to Jesus wanting an answer, and instead he has been given a choice. He has come wanting something to take away, and instead he has been told to leave everything behind.

 

Jesus seizes upon that one aspect of his life that would hold him back; that would keep him rooted where he was; that would occupy his time and attention so completely that the sovereignty of God would come a poor second. The rich man comes bearing his life like a rich cake, expecting ‘eternal life’ to be the cherry on top. Instead he is presented with a different meal altogether, which he must abandon his cake to pick up. He comes expecting ‘both/and’, he is presented with ‘either/or’.

 

We might find the suggestion that he should abandon his worldly goods so shocking that we miss the most challenging part of Jesus reply: ‘Follow me.’

The Kingdom of God, God’s Rule, God’s Sovereignty, is very rarely described by Jesus in the gospels except in terms of its cost: what we must abandon or sacrifice in order to gain it.

The truest illustration Jesus gives is not in His words, but in his life. Eternal life is a life lived in perfect loving communion with our heavenly Father, and lived according to His priorities. Here and now it looks weak, and vulnerable…sometimes it looks like defeat…but it draws its strength from a perfect openness to others, and to God.

 

It is a life embodied in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, where we lay before God on the altar everything that we are and everything that we have, and hold out our hands to receive from him, incomprehensibly vast and outrageously free, all that He has, and all that He is, made available to us, through Christ’s sacrifice, in bread and wine.

 

Here is the truly fundamental expression of Christianity. Radically generous, radically forgiving, radically humble. A life lived out in joyful and loving communion with one another, and with God.