[from Tony Collins]
If you had to give yourself a mark for Christian discipleship, I wonder what it would be? Daily prayer: check. Bible reading: check. Feeding the poor and hungry: check. Attendance at online church: check. Number of oxen coveted: none. Number of neighbours’ wives coveted: I’m afraid this answer was illegible. How holy did you keep the Lord’s Day, on a scale of one to ten? Number of sins repented: check. Number of sins repeated: let me get back to you on that one.
Today we are considering what it means to follow Christ. If you have been a believer for any length of time, it is likely that you will have heroes of the faith, men and women you esteem, people whose Christian discipleship inspires you. One of my heroes is William Wilberforce, whose feast day was last Wednesday: he died on 29th July 1833. As a young man Wilberforce was a popular socialite and wit, a man of independent means who first became an MP at the age of 21. A few years later he underwent an evangelical conversion, and his revitalised faith endured right through his life. As part of his new commitment he agreed to lead the parliamentary campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, which would become a primary focus of his life and work for the next 50 years. The slave trade in the British empire would be abolished in 1833, three days before Wilberforce’s death.
Wilberforce is best known for his unflagging determination to see slavery stamped out, but he backed many other causes, including the establishment of the country of Sierra Leone and the creation of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the reform of prisons and the better treatment of chimney sweeps. He was one of the founders of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
I honour Wilberforce because of his determination, his generosity with his money and time, and his profound spiritual convictions. His personal life was exemplary: he married late but happily, was an affectionate father, and had many friends. His faith informed every decision he made; for half a century he was a shining Christian presence in British politics.
When I compare my life to Wilberforce’s, I find the exercise unsettling. He was more diligent than I, more generous, more faithful, more influential. Such comparisons are usually unprofitable, of course, but it puts into sharp relief the question: how am I doing? It’s very easy to be cast down by a sense of unworthiness, and always hard to avoid comparisons.
Others conspire to put you down, of course. Most of us are vulnerable to social pressure, and it is one of the hazards of public life. I am sure you will find it easy to name a world leader whose sensitivity to criticism is such that he will link any event to his public standing. Social pressure is common to us all, and is an acute challenge for those who are called to Christian leadership. One of the most constant traps for any minister is the need to bolster their public image.
Part of the problem is that it is hard to assess with any accuracy how well we are doing. We may well have a blind spot about ourselves.
There is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after the two psychologists who first studied the phenomenon. The Dunning-Kruger effect causes people to overestimate their knowledge or ability, particularly in areas with which they have little to no experience. The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that when we don’t know something, we aren’t aware of our own lack of knowledge. In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know. Dunning and Kruger take these ideas one step further, suggesting that the less competent we are in a given area, the more likely we are to unknowingly exaggerate our own competence. If you habitually underestimate the time it will take you to perform a task; if you tend to meddle with things you don’t really understand; if you give the impression that you know more than you do: you may well be a victim of Dunning-Kruger. The way to combat this is to take your time over decisions; learn to accept criticism; be sceptical about your own claims and your long-held opinions about yourself. Be suspicious of your own publicity.
However, we are also vulnerable to absorbing the opinions of others.
In this morning’s reading we heard the story of a dinner party at the house of Simon the Pharisee. To visualise the event, you need to appreciate that guests reclined on a series of couches arranged in a circle, the heads of the couches facing inwards like the spokes of a wheel. The guests would rest on these couches, their feet behind them. Luke describes how a local woman gate-crashed the event, and stood outside the circle, behind Jesus, at his feet, washing them with her tears, wiping them with her hair and pouring perfume over them.
Luke records how Simon the Pharisee thought to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who was touching him and what kind of woman she is.’ We are not told how Luke knew what Simon was thinking, but the expression on his face probably spoke volumes.
In this incident three sets of reputations are at stake. The first is Simon, who had probably invited Jesus because of his fame, but who evidently holds his distinguished guest in low esteem and mocks him in his heart. The second is Jesus, who is well aware that his status as a ‘prophet’ is being called into question; the third is the woman, who knows all about her position at the bottom of the heap: Luke describes her as someone who has lived a sinful life.
I suspect this lady has reached the end of her tether. She intrudes on a private gathering where she knows she is unwelcome; she weeps over Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair, demonstrating utter disregard for her own dignity; she anoints his feet with perfume, which she could probably not afford. She is, I suspect, quite a pitiful creature, someone who has known many rejections and much scorn.
Jesus’s reaction is interesting. If you or I had been in his position we would probably have been embarrassed, horrified, reaching out to lift the woman up. Jesus is not worried what others think: instead, he sees past the act and the setting to the person. Where we might have been mortified, he accepts her tribute and in doing so restores her battered self-esteem, contrasting her actions favourably with those of his rude and dismissive host. Critically, he perceives what is within: he sees the lady’s vulnerability, and her yearning for acceptance. He knows what she has experienced.
All of us have a story. It forms our identity, it focuses our outlook and provides our skill set. Our story is responsible for much of our social status, and determines our bandwidth for coping with the demands of life. All of us come with baggage. We are never free of our shadow.
Yet God is Lord of time, and this means he is Lord of second chances. More precisely, the grace of Christ who loves us extends both forward and backward: Jesus is simultaneously at our beginning and our end. Jesus offers us not so much a second chance as an eternal invitation. Jesus sees who we have been, who we are, and who we can be. Jesus is Lord of unrecognised potential. In the Kingdom of Heaven it is never too late.
This means that we meet Jesus now, in the present tense. The Lord’s Prayer is written in the present tense: our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. At the start of his ministry, in the local synagogue, he rolled up the scroll of Isaiah, sat down and said to those gathered: Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. In the Book of Revelation Jesus says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
The God of the present tense means that you are not trapped by your story. Jesus frees people from the narrative they have been given, remaking fishermen as disciples, and releasing the woman at the well and the woman taken in adultery – as well as the woman whom we heard about today – from the reputations that set boundaries around them and limited who they could be. Jesus releases us from social and religious conventions – ‘The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’
There is a film featuring Gene Hackman, called The French Connection. Hackman plays the part of narcotics officer Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, who is sent by his superior to Marseille to take down a drug ring. In the course of an abrasive conversation with incompetent local law enforcement officers, he rasps, ‘Try not to live up to my expectations.’
In the Kingdom of Heaven you are limited not by the expectations and opinions of others, but by your own character and your own openness to the power of the Spirit. Jesus is in the transformation business – look at the unpromising group he recruited to help him change the world. It is wonderful to be taken seriously. That woman at Simon’s party left the room walking taller than when she arrived. She had met someone who was on her side.
The Kingdom is here, and now. Your story has left you with scars and habits and fears, but these do not determine what happens next. God has the power to redeem those who have stumbled. He is the God of the present tense.
In the name of Christ, Amen.