|The Churches of||Fenny Bentley||Parwich||Thorpe||Tissington|
Trinity 14 Year A
Grown up religion, "Do it yourself" religion, and taking up your cross
back to sermons year A
If I asked you to tell me what you knew about Saint Augustine, what would you say? The astute among you would ask me which Saint Augustine I meant – Saint Augustine of Canterbury, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to these shores in 597 to spread the Roman version of the Christian faith; or Saint Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa, who, a couple of centuries earlier, had become one of the greatest theologians of the Early Church. (There is a church in Chesterfield which is dedicated to both Saints Augustine, not that they ever had any connection with each other).
Much of the early development of Christianity was guided by Saint Augustine of Hippo, which many people don’t often realise. To most people today, however, he is but a vague and shadowy figure who is known only for the excesses of his early personal life, and for one or two quotations. One of those quotations in particular seems to have become an unofficial eleventh commandment in some parts of the Church. A commandment of a few simple words, succinct and far more memorable than most of the other ten: “Love and do what you like” (or in the traditional translation from the Latin, “Love and do what thou wilt”).
Don’t these words seem, on the face of it, to be liberating? They appear to free us from forms of religion which are dominated by rules and commands. They suggest a positive approach to life, rather than a negative one, one which encourages the flourishing of the human spirit. Surely, too, they do no more than sum up what Jesus said when he taught that the two great commandments – the so-called Golden Rule – are to love God and to love one’s neighbour?
In many ways those words of Saint Augustine of Hippo, written around sixteen centuries ago, capture the religious spirit of our age. There is a widespread reluctance to take the teachings of the Church on trust, or to accept beliefs and codes of behaviour which have been handed down by successive generations of theologians and Bishops. When today’s educational system, at least in this country, encourages people to think for themselves far more than previously, authorities and hierarchies are questioned and challenged – and the Church is no exception. So that little phrase like “Love and do you what you want” is highly appealing.
I wouldn’t for a moment wish to suggest that we shouldn’t think for ourselves. And in each age there’s a need to apply the teachings of the Church afresh to the circumstances which face it. But a faith which is based on a vague feeling of being lovingly disposed towards other people leads merely to a superficial religious coating on top of a life which is otherwise little changed. It encourages us to think that it doesn’t really matter what we believe – or indeed what we do – as long as we feel loving when we do it.
But where has this led the Church? In his recent address at the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day in Koln, in Germany, Pope Benedict said, “Religion today has become almost a consumer product. People choose what they like, and some are even able to make a profit from it.” It’s true, isn’t it – we can see how today’s culture of individualism encourages “do-it-yourself religion”.
Pope Benedict went on to say, “But religion constructed on a “do-it-yourself” basis cannot ultimately help us. It may be comfortable, but at times of crisis we are left to ourselves. Help people (instead) to discover the true star which points out the way to us: Jesus Christ! This is why love for Sacred Scripture is so important, and in consequence, it is important to know the faith of the Church which opens up for us the meaning of Scripture.”
It is difficult to stand against the contemporary tide of ‘do-it-yourself religion”. To do so goes against so many of today’s values. But one needs to set against “do it yourself religion” what one might call ‘grown up religion”. For if our Christian faith is to be “grown up”, if it is to have any depth, it will not just choose those of the Bible’s teachings which suit us.
Which brings us to the readings set for today. Today’s gospel contains the deeply uncomfortable words of Jesus, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it”. Jesus was saying, in other words, that our faith sometimes requires us to do not what we want, but what God wants – and that these aren’t always the same. He warned the disciples that this might involve suffering and pain; but that this was sometimes necessary if one was to find one’s life, or save one’s soul, as he put it. He was so convinced that the path of self-sacrifice was the right one that he called Peter “Satan”, when Peter tried to dissuade him from going to his death at Jerusalem.
The faith, then, which doesn’t shy away from the fact that sometimes we need to deny ourselves and take up our cross is far more grown-up than one based on the slogan “love and do what you like”. It enables us far better to withstand the inevitable suffering, frustration and pain which life brings to us from time to time. It even enables us to see how God can work through adversity – to help us to trust him more, and to become more compassionate towards others. This was something which the prophet Jeremiah learned through many years of bitter suffering for his faith, as we heard in today’s first reading.
But let’s return, finally, to where we started. Those words of Saint Augustine ‘Love, and do what you will or want” – have become so misused that we can lose sight of what he really meant by them. He wrote them in a sermon about the first letter of Saint John, and this is what he said (an old translation):
“Once for all, then, a short command is given to thee: Love, and do what thou wilt: whether thou hold thy peace, through love hold thy peace; whether thou cry out, through love cry out; whether thou correct, through love correct; whether thou spare, through love do thou spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good”.
It all comes down, doesn’t it, to what is meant by “love”. If “love” describes actions and attitudes which are to do with giving, unselfishness, service, compassion, sacrifice – as it is, in a Christian context - then Augustine saying something very similar to what Jesus said when he told the disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. His words also echo the teachings on love given by Saint Paul to the Church in Rome, which form today’s second reading.
There is, then, no inconsistency between what Jesus and Saint Augustine taught. Both call us to a grown-up religion, based not on slogans or short cuts, but on a patient and faithful yearning to follow the path of the cross, the path of love, which lies at its heart. This is the path which strengthens us to withstand life’s tribulations; and this is the path which, accompanied by faith in the One who died for us on the cross, will lead to eternal life.