Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
I find it strange that the highlight of intellectual life always seems to be the debate. This is more an impression than a matter of research, but somehow the debate always seems to attract more attention and respect than, say the lecture.
Equally the novel seems to be more honoured than the research paper.
It is as if the forum for venting off our own opinions is deemed to be more affirming and creative than the place where other peoples’ offerings are heard and pondered.
Perhaps this is more a response to a culture, where wisdom is that “truth” that we behold for ourselves, as opposed to the reasoned weighing of the other person’s offering or perception.
In this sense the bible is intriguing for offering a consistent message within a great variety of forms and authors, of places and eras and circumstances. As we read it and meditate on it, we find that the very variety of its messages refine and condense themselves into a single story of the wisdom and love of God which came ever more into focus until it was to be seen and known and heard and touched in the person of Jesus Christ.
This is true of the messages of the Old Testament which point to Him and of the stories and letters of the New Testament which all point back to Him, as if the whole of human history and geography and wisdom were to be understood only when beheld through the unique lens of His life and His being.
And so we range from the poem on the perfect wife, who despite all her arts and accomplishments, is yet appreciated in the deep but gentle wisdom of her life and actions, which are known and transmitted through the lives of her family.
Her life glorifies God and does so unselfconsciously and is the more powerful for doing so. We have all met artful and engaging and accomplished men and women, who may indeed be the life and soul of the occasion but who still succeed in sowing sourness and resentment, and whose departure is honestly a matter of relief.
We have all been in offices where when the boss goes on holiday, the rest of the staff find themselves on holiday, even at their desks. And they work the more effectively for it.
In the gospel, Mark tells of an incident when following the glory and majesty and wonder of the Transfiguration, Jesus’ disciples still fall into a dispute on personal prominence and prestige. They are still responding to a demand for personal significance based on their own power and authority, and on their ability to lord it over one another.
And so Jesus responds with two illustrations.
First, His own path is one of betrayal, arrest, interrogation, torture and crucifixion. This will be the climax to His ministry, and where He would achieve most fame and honour. Here would be the pinnacle of His prominence, lifted above others so that He might be seen more readily.
On the cross, Jesus would be seen all right, even if He was only raised a few feet above the ground, for that would be enough.
How many of our superstars and award-winners really desire such a platform?
But second, Jesus’ image of greatness is in the presence of a child. The very simplicity of his or her faith, will place her front and centre of the masses of humanity, when beheld by God.
The child may be weak, inarticulate, with thoughts ill-formed and plenty of his or her own waywardness and appetites besides, yet Jesus sees here the height of favour in the sight of God.
And whoever could welcome such a child without being patronizing or self-important, would also find a new kind of standing before God as they pray and worship and reflect on their lives.
For James also it is the quality of a person’s life that matters, and this is regardless of social standing or wealth or occupation. Far more important is the life that radiates the simplicity of faith rather than the subtlety of argument or of the sophistication of rebuttals and of insults in debate.
This kind of point-scoring may bring an immediate gratification and amusement to scoffers, but if it results in the castration of an inquiring mind then its effects can be eternal. Perhaps there are certain kinds of so-called informed inquiry and of electrifying debate that are best left alone.
Perhaps we also need to stand lightly next to our own learning and wisdom, which like the theories and data of scientists, are always at risk of being overthrown.
In writing of love, Paul states:
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am known. But now abide these three: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”