The Tough and the Tender
Ask any minister serving a church. Whatever you do, the people
complain. Get them involved in all the planning and it�s "too many
committees". Take the decisions yourself and you�re an autocrat. Work
your socks off all the hours of the day and "He�s always busy; you can
never get hold of him". Spend lots of time "being available" at home or
in the office, and "He doesn�t go visiting like the old minister did."
Well, let the clergy take heart. It was just the same for John the
Baptist and Jesus. John came and showed them the tough challenging
austere side of religion. He touted fasting, self-denial and a solitary
life on the margins of society. And when people came to see what he had
to say for himself, he rounded on them in a decidedly unfriendly manner:
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" So
what did people say? "Oh, he�s mad, that one. Nutty as a fruit cake.
Totally off his head."
So Jesus tried a different tack. He was generally friendly, sociable,
and he always had a gang of the lads with him; he was the life and soul
of the party. He had a fund of stories as long as your arm, he never
turned down a drink, and never missed an invitation to dinner.
So how did people like that approach to religion? Worse than they
liked John the Baptist�s. "Call himself a rabbi? It�s disgusting. You
should see the company he keeps. I wouldn�t be seen dead with them. And
drink! Did you hear what he did at that wedding? Don�t tell me you pluck
liters of wine out of thin air and still stay sober."
Well, that�s the situation presented in the Gospel of Matthew
(11.17). And even Jesus loses his cool over it. You can�t win, he says.
They�re like a load of kids bickering in the streets. One starts playing
some jolly music and its, "Boring! Don�t want to dance." So someone else
says, "Okay, let�s play funerals then," and it�s "Boring! Don�t want
gloomy games." Nothing satisfies them. And yet, comments Matthew - or
possibly Jesus himself - "Wisdom is justified by her deeds".
What are we to make of it all?
The clue is in that final and curious comment - "Wisdom is justified
by her deeds". The "wisdom" referred to is the divine wisdom that is God
himself, who sent both Jesus and John, and who still calls his Church
today to exercise two opposite kinds of ministry. They are needed by
different people and they are needed in different circumstances, but
they are both needed. The previous chapter of Matthew has Jesus telling
us that whoever does not take up their cross and follow him is not
worthy of him. The call to heroic sacrifice is needed, the challenge
forsake all for the sake of Jesus.
On the other hand, what used to be called the "consolations of
religion" are also important. So the eleventh chapter of Mathew's Gospel
ends with the famous invitation from Jesus:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and
humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke
is easy and my burden is light.
Over the many centuries of its history, the Church has done justice
to these two opposing aspects of the Gospel message - the call to
sacrifice and the and the promise of relief from the burdens of life -
by making membership of the Christian community as open and easy as
possible, and at the same time to make available within the wider
community of the church a number of avenues for those who are called to
the heroic path.
So entry to the church is by baptism, a sacrament administered with
water, just about the commonest and most easily available thing in the
world. And when the Church has tried to make baptism more difficult,
adding extra burdens on those who seek it, the Church has generally paid
the price of alienating the very people it was sent to serve.
But the open church, the accessible church, the fuzzy-edged church is
always in danger of becoming flabby and weak and useless. It is to guard
against this danger that we need within the friendly open church some
structures and opportunities for the smaller number who are called to a
tougher, leaner, fitter type of discipleship.
The classic example of this are the religious communities of monks
and nuns and friars, who take particular vows of poverty, celibacy and
obedience. Another example is given by the missionaries who leave the
comfort and security of home to carry the word and work of the Gospel
far and wide.
But there are plenty of less drastic opportunities to put the
"discipline into discipleship", if I may so phrase it. Membership of a
house group, for instance, or of the church choir, or a management
committee. This is hardly the same as becoming a monk or a missionary,
but each nevertheless requires its own extra commitment, some loss of
freedom, some degree of sacrifice.
Each of these commitments contributes both to the personal growth of
the individual and to the corporate strength of the local church and the
Church at large. And to these three examples you may add any and all of
the groups and tasks that relate to Church membership. Not everybody is
called to these extras, but each of us should ask ourselves from time to
time, "Is one of these roles for me?"
My own experience, for what it is worth, has been that these
situations where more is demanded of us are precisely the ones where
more is also given to us. So perhaps the two ways of discipleship - the
austere and the comforting - are not so opposed after all. Perhaps the
truth is that we have voluntarily to take on the burden of Jesus in
order to feel that it is light, and to wear his yoke in order to
discover that it is easeful.