I think, growing up, I had more than my share of teenage angst – as well as that wonderful blend of idealism and ego-centricity that fortunately most of us manage to grow out of eventually. I certainly remember being hyper-vigilant for any signs of adult hypocrisy – at the same time absolutely confident that I myself was beyond reproach – and along the way duly took note of various adult sayings that I would certainly never be guilty of. Top of the list, of course, was the one that self-righteous teenagers the world over love to hate – ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say!’
I can’t recall the exact circumstances when my frightfulness brought out that exasperated response from my parents – and if I could I probably wouldn’t want to tell you about it! – but can still clearly remember the feeling of outraged indignation that apparently I was expected to adhere to some standard of behaviour that my parents couldn’t manage themselves. Of course, what goes around comes around – years later as the father of twin boys I’m pretty sure I used that one myself – as well as most of the other adult sayings I vowed never to repeat. I guess being a parent a lot of the time is about the frustration of knowing you need to give your kids some space and freedom to work stuff out for themselves, but at the same time wanting so much for them, wanting them to avoid some of the pitfalls you fell into yourself and knowing the sort of people you want them to grow into. And I know something about the mix of frustration and love that one phrase contains – ‘don’t model yourself on me, don’t copy what I do wrong, listen instead to what I hope and dream for you’ – because of course the truth is that we can hardly ever manage to live up to our own ideals, deep down we know we don’t practise what we preach.
So we hear an echo of that truth today in Jesus’ tirade against the scribes and Pharisees – ‘they are teachers of the law, so respect their position and listen to them’, Jesus tells his disciples – more or less – ‘just don’t do what they do, because they don’t practise what they preach’. And them of course he goes into excruciating detail about all of the ways in which the religious professionals of his day contradict in their behaviour what they claim in their teaching. As a religious professional myself, whenever I hear this reading, I squirm because if it’s true of them, it’s just as true of me.
This isn’t the first time Jesus has picked on the scribes and Pharisees, in fact they are a favourite target, and it seems to me not because they were especially corrupt or wicked or unholy – and not because the Jewish Law didn’t matter any more – in fact Jesus reminds his disciples on more than one occasion of the goodness of the Law, and tells them he is here not to replace but to fulfil the Law – it seems to me that Jesus picks so consistently on the scribes and Pharisees for the simple reason that they are teachers and they are religious professionals which means – like me – that they necessarily reveal the deep contradiction between deeply held ideals and what human beings actually do. He critiques them, it seems to me, for failing to recognise the humour implicit in their own unique struggle to be both human and holy.
I can never be too hard on the scribes and Pharisees. Because deep down I find myself asking – if Jesus were to walk into the church this morning, who would he be critiquing?
We Anglicans with our rich liturgical tradition and our understanding that the sacraments connect us to the activity of God in creation itself and so involve all our senses – with our vestments and altar frontals and brass decorations – can identify pretty easily I think with the Pharisees concern for fringes and phylacteries – the little leather boxes strapped to the forehead and the upper arm containing passages from the Torah. With having the proper title for clergy, getting a bit of respect. Actually, if you ever want to see something truly disturbing, just watch a bunch of Anglican priests at Synod drooling over the latest vestment catalogue. Also, it might not have escaped your notice that I do in fact get the best seat in the church.
Of course, the problem is a bit deeper than what we wear or what we are called. Vestments and titles and showing the Archbishop a bit of respect is all useful and healthy so long as we keep it in perspective. But Jesus is certainly commenting on the way those things get out of perspective, the way our motivations for doing them become distorted so that they become an end in themselves, and substitutes for what we really should be on about: glorifying God by living as disciples.
If human nature made it hard for the scribes and Pharisees to keep their motives straight, to practice what they preached, we in the 21st century church maybe have it even harder. We still have the same human nature, and we're embedded in a culture that values appearances, status, wealth, position, individualism, materialism and consumerism. So before we know it our tendency to value our own status and flatter our own egos can make us forget why we're Christians, so the way we do church can slide into being a sort of self-serving club and we start to forget the kind of discipleship Jesus is calling us to.
Because discipleship has nothing to do with standing out, with being self-serving, or putting ourselves first, but the exact opposite – as disciples, we are called not to be served but to serve others. As we hear in today's reading, Jesus consistently reminded his followers that "the greatest among you will be your servant" and "all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
So we're caught between what the gospel calls us to and what our culture upholds, and that's where we often find ourselves in the very same bind the Pharisees were ensnared in. We believe one thing, we hold it in our hearts, yet our behaviour all too often gives lie to that belief. We come to church – we enjoy connecting with our spirituality, being reminded of what is important, the depth of the liturgy and if we are lucky a few spaces for silent contemplation, perhaps even a bit of intellectual stimulation in the homily, and touching base with people we care about. And hopefully come away feeling recharged, ready to live as people of faith in a world of ambiguity and opportunity. But – well, if you’re anything like me – by about Tuesday morning most of that has worn off, and the awareness of living as a disciple gets a bit blunted by the everyday grind.
We today are going to celebrate the baptism of Joshua and Michaela, who will be – maybe just for a second or so – the world’s newest disciples, Jesus’ newest followers. And for those of us who have ourselves been baptised – whether it’s something we can remember or as for most of us something our parents told us about – it’s an opportunity to reflect on what that our own baptism means.
Because – one of the first things you might notice about baptism is that is intentional. Joshua and Michaela’s parents have thought and read and discussed what they want for their children, and what they want their children to grow into, and they understand that being human has got some built-in contradictions. That as human beings made in God’s image we desire deep down to be in connection with God and that to follow the way of love that Jesus shows us leads us into the fullness of our own true identity. But that we wander off, and we lose our path in the forest of our own dreams and desires, and so in baptism we intentionally ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit to challenge and correct and bring us back. As parents, they are making today a major promise, which is to nurture and lead their children to trust and follow Jesus, and at the same time they are recognising that the Holy Spirit is the true teacher.
And the second big thing to notice about our baptism this morning is that the promises of God that we hear – and our own promises that we make in response – are not just that Joshua and Michaela will be recipients and beneficiaries of God’s love and the leading of the Holy Spirit – that they won’t just be hearers of the Word but doers. That as disciples they will learn that the only way to love and serve God is to love and serve others. This of course is the only antidote to the contradiction of being human – if being human is the problem, then in being human we also see the solution because in Jesus God shares our humanity. Which means that in being human with all our mix of self-serving needs and desires we also find that in one another we see the opportunity to love and serve God. Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew, chapter 25, when he says to us, what we do for the least of those we encounter on the streets or at work or at home we do for him.
The point, I think, is that hear in church you hear about the challenge of being people of faith. Listen to what I say – make allowances, in your generosity, for what I do. Then, when you leave this place, learn and put into practice what it means to be a disciple.