I wish to say, first, how much I appreciate being back with you all again for this visit. The inevitable sense of loss in moving on is balanced by knowing that the love and friendship we have shared over years very much remain with us. With St Paul, we dare to believe that faith, hope and love transcend the comings and goings of life, and point us to its deepest meaning. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose writings will be known to some of you, puts it this way: “I believe in a personal God, because religion in the Abrahamic tradition is the consecration of the personal. It lives in interpersonal relationships: in love and revelation and vulnerability and trust, all those things in which we put our faith when we commit ourselves to one another in a covenantal bond of loyalty and mutuality.” (Jonathan Sacks. The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning 205)
Rabbi Jonathan is, in effect, saying that human relations have the power and potential to reflect the image of God. And as Christians, our faith journeys are drawn into the ongoing story of Jesus, as the one who incarnates that image of God in glorious fullness.
Whether we live our lives mostly around one place, or travel all over the world, I think that the analogy of life being a journey is a good one. Reflecting on our journeys is one way of describing what we do week by week in our church gatherings. Where have we come from, what are we part of, with whom do we travel, and where are we going? The gospel and epistle this morning are quite explicitly about this journey. The Isaiah reading and the Psalm are reminders of how tragically that journey can go astray.
This morning’s reading from Hebrews gives a Christian interpretation of one of the best known Old Testament stories of a journey which followed a life-changing encounter with God. Abraham’s journey with Sarah is described as “by faith . . . not knowing where he was going”. The writer of Hebrews then says that in another sense he did know where he was going. He writes, “If they had been thinking of the land they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.” If you go to Genesis and read their story, there is no mention of any “heavenly country”. It is clear Abraham looked for a thoroughly earthly place to settle with his tribal group and flocks and herds, where they and their descendants would know the presence and blessing of the LORD their God. In the words of the Australian theologian Bill Loader, Abraham’s journey of faith was, like many journeys of faith, “a basic yearning to move from here to there, from not belonging to belonging, from alienation to being with God.”
Luke and Acts are about journeys too – Jesus’ journey with his disciples to Jerusalem and the journey of the early church as it reached out into the Roman world. In Luke and Acts, Luke refers some 30 times to the crowds which followed Jesus, and which reacted to significant acts of Christian witness in the early church. Today’s gospel reading comes from one of those crowd scenes. In Luke 12, Jesus and his disciples are surrounded by a large crowd of people, emphasising that his mission, and theirs, was not just to a select few. At stake was what the long hoped-for kingdom of God would be like and how to be part of it. How to work towards the fulfilment of what God had promised to Abraham was of intense public interest. Jesus takes on the Scribes and Pharisees, who in their zeal for religious correctness neglected the true righteousness of compassion and justice. He warns the crowd about greed and the seductive power of seeking abundant possessions, and he rebukes the crowd for failing to read the signs of the times. There are three warnings here which are as relevant today as then. The first is warning against neglect of that true righteousness which names and works to remove injustice in society and gives priority to the most needy. The second is against seeking satisfaction in wealth and possessions. The third is a warning to be alert and aware to what is going on around us. What are critical signs of our times? How do we discern Jesus in the midst of these signs, and how does discipleship of Jesus inform our responses to what is going on?
Luke’s first readers would have got the message – following Christ can never be confined to the devotions and hopes of an inner fellowship. Drawing aside as a gathering church to encounter Jesus in word, fellowship and sacrament is central, but from the beginning, following Christ has had a vital public dimension. Today’s gospel reading is about one of those drawing aside times, in which Jesus explicitly teaches his disciples about how their journey of faith. At another level, Luke is bringing Jesus’ teaching to the small and threatened first century Christian communities. At a third level, how does God speak to us today through Jesus’ teaching in our faith journeys in a rapidly changing, increasingly secularized society where voices hostile to any religion, and Christianity in particular, are getting louder?
Today’s gospel reading, and its setting in Luke, are about the “kingdom of God” – the longed for fulfilment of God’s promise that God’s chosen one would come and rule in righteousness. Imagine living under the iron fist of occupation – ancient or modern – with imposition of rule that violated the things most sacred to you. Any expression of opposition was met with rapid, lethal reprisals. My heart sinks, and I am sure yours does to, every time we see a nation going in that direction. No wonder the crowds longed for the coming of the kingdom of God.
There are two parts to the reading. In the first, Jesus reassures his disciples. In the second, there are two short parables, each of which would have been immediately understood as Messianic – the first uses the image of a banquet, an image of the kingdom. The second returns to the thief who sneaks in and steals that which is precious to us. In each, the point is clear – be alert and be ready, “for the Son of Man – the Messiah – the Christ – is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Jesus gives the strongest possible reassurance to his disciples. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” “Little flock” might seem a bit quaint to us, but to people who grew up in places where farmers had a few sheep and goats, it would have been very vivid. For me, it certainly recalls memories of meeting shepherds and sheep in hill country in Ireland! I read the next part as further reassurance: “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, and unfailing treasure in heaven, where not thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For the most part, that inner group of men disciples had left everything to follow him. But as Luke recalls in chapter 8, “Mary, called Magdalene, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and many others, provided for them out of their resources.” If we follow the evolving history of the church through Acts and beyond, some people, maybe even for the rest of their lives, are called to sell up everything to follow Jesus in particular ministries. Others are called to provide support from their resources, or through communal living (as in Acts 4). The New Testament writings introduce us to disciples who had all sorts of daily occupations – artisans, business women, slaves, to mention a few.
Luke brings this rich diversity to the fore just after the two parables of the kingdom. There Peter asks: “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for everyone?” Jesus answer is neither yes nor no. He tells another parable of the need to be alert and ready, ending it with the saying “For everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12: 48) This saying is like Jesus’ saying, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is both memorable and arresting.
So here are a few thoughts which I want to leave you with as we continue our journeys of faith. What sort of things intimate to us the presence of God, and point to ultimate fulfilment and meaning? I go back to Rabbi Jonathan’s words: “I believe in a personal God, because religion in the Abrahamic tradition is the consecration of the personal.” In journeys of faith, which Bill Loader describes as “yearning to move from here to there, from not belonging to belonging, from alienation to being with God”, we become aware that, as Christian believers, the risen Christ is travelling with us. We meet Christ as we see judgment, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation at work, setting people free to more fully reflect the image of God. In turn we are enabled us better imagine what God is like. But God is not just concerned about humankind. Rather, as the psalm for today has God saying:
“Every wild animal in the forest is mine
The cattle on a thousand hills
I know all the birds of the air
And all that moves in the fields is mine”
Christian tradition finds the Messiah, the Christ, as the divine Word, at the very heart of all the ongoing processes of creation, bringing life into flourishing being. Today, as never before, we have growing understanding of our place as human creatures among all creatures, in mutual interdependence. To faith, Christ calls us to compassionate engagement in all those relationships too. So where is Christ in this present time when the way we use the resources of the Earth is destabilizing even the global climate, exacerbating just about any human and environmental problem we can think of ?
I suggest that what travelling light with Jesus today means is to be found in our relationships – with those close to us – with wider humankind where there is so much suffering – and with all creatures as so many species decline towards extinction. What are we carrying with us, individually, nationally, and in global economics, which acts as a dead-weight, preventing those relationships from being more compassionate and creative? And when all looks bleak with no clear way forward, we meet Christ again, transcending death itself, and still travelling with us.