Sermon, 10.30 Parish Eucharist, Sunday 6th May 2012
Acts 8:26-end; 1 John 4:7-end; John 15:1-8
“THE ELEVATOR PITCH”
Last Tuesday we began our series of discussion groups on workplace issues. Our first topic was that of ambition and how to pursue it with integrity. In my group there was a pretty clear divide of opinion. There were those who thought that being ambitious was likely to be a “bad thing” and a bit vulgar, although some of those who held that view were also likely to feel a little guilty that they hadn’t done more to realise their potential. Then there were the go-getters who were determined to fulfil their potential but also, as Christians, aware that there are real ethical risks in doing so. In the end we reached a broad agreement that while it’s absolutely right that we should try and fulfil our God-given potential there is a world of difference between the joyous exercise of our talents and promoting them and ourselves at the expense of others.
Speaking personally I have never had a problem with being ambitious although I still have problems discerning what is justified ambition on my part and what is not. Given I am more inclined to be ambitious than not it will not surprise you to learn that early on in my career I learnt the importance of the “elevator pitch”. For those of you unaware of the term, an elevator pitch is a short, compelling summary of a point you need to get across to an important person who you are seeking to influence or persuade. It’s called an “elevator pitch” because it’s based on the idea that, should you be fortunate enough to step into a lift only to find the person you wish to speak to there, you would have no more than the 30 seconds or so to strike up conversation and get your point across. As a young TV researcher my earnest wish was to find myself in the lift with the Head of News and Current Affairs whereupon I would unleash my prepared pitch in the hope of impressing upon him my status as a young man to watch and to remember when the next rounds of promotion came up.
I must say that I have always been convinced of the value of elevator pitches and I’ve now developed one for my new business which I am glad to say, is being well received. But where I could really do with one is in my role as a priest. Have you ever been in a situation where someone has asked you why you believe in God or why you are a Christian and found yourself lost for words? Well, I can tell you that it’s ten times worse when that happens to you and you are wearing a dog collar. In today’s reading from the first letter of John though, it seems to me that we have what you might call Christianity’s elevator pitch:
“God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them.”
As elevator pitches go it’s got a lot going for it. It’s punchy; it makes a big claim and so encourages engagement and discussion; it’s unique – no other religion says this about God; but for all that you can’t help feel that it lacks some of the power that it should and that’s probably down to the ambiguity we feel about the word “love”. What does it mean?
Well, we are slightly hampered here by having only one word for love in the English language when we all know that it covers a multitude of glorious things. There’s romantic, sexual love; there’s the love we have for our family members; there’s the love we have for our friends; and there is the love we have for those whom we may not know but we reach out to in empathy and compassion. In this context though, and that of today’s gospel reading in which Jesus talks about discipleship, it’s pretty clear that it refers to our engaging in loving acts, acts of generosity and grace and it’s these that Jesus says marks us out as his disciples.
That, however, can leave us feeling a bit inadequate. Are we up to behaving in this way? The answer surely is: not nearly enough. The mistake here though, is to think that discipleship is simply an act of will, that by trying a bit harder we will succeed in being good disciples and sharing God’s grace and love with the world.
It all comes back to a question of motivation. For true discipleship requires a profound, inner change in each of one of us, a recasting of our hearts that is nothing less than a revolution in motivation and outlook that will make us more Christ-like from within. The key to the question of how we achieve this lies in what it was that led the early church to the extraordinary conclusion that “God is love”. It’s important to remember that this was something new. The God of the Old Testament is by turns gracious and loving and cruel, violent and vengeful. By contrast, the early church concluded that the God revealed by Jesus was wholly compassionate and merciful and that the violence of human existence was nothing to do with him. To understand how and why they reached this conclusion we need to look at how Jesus met his death.
The important thing to remember here is that Jesus had become hugely popular by the time of the crucifixion, witness the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the crowds that sought him out everywhere. The clear expectation on the part of those crowds was that he would lead a revolt against the Romans. In doing so the hope was that he would fulfil the age-old prophesy that there would arise a figure called the “Son of Man” who would defeat Israel’s many oppressors at their own game and usher in a reign of justice and peace. And for a charismatic, extraordinarily gifted individual like Jesus that must have been an enormous temptation.
But come the crucial moment and Jesus does the exact opposite of what was expected of him. He doesn’t lead a revolt. Instead, he allows himself to be captured and put to death. But this was emphatically NOT surrender. Take a look at the gospel narratives and you will see that Jesus never pleads or argues with Pilate. He simply refuses to engage with Pilate and instead makes statements that succeed only in baffling him because they are statements made entirely on Jesus’ own terms and not anyone else’s. Why does he do this? Because he simply refuses to acknowledge Pilate’s authority and that of his Roman overlords. Had he for a second done so he would have affirmed that authority and the violence that sustained it.
Instead, what he was doing was showing how, in a creation presided over by a God who is love, this mightily powerful, cruel empire was nothing – of no account whatever. It was, in the words of the hymn “The day thou gavest Lord is ended” but one of “earth’s proud empires” that would pass away. And pass away it did as all empires do. They pass away because they are built on a lie. It’s the lie that lives deep in all our hearts that says that nations, as much as individuals, only ever prosper at the expense of others. It’s the lie that we can only ever count ourselves successful if we assert our superiority over others. It’s the lie that is founded on and sustained by the besetting sin of human pride that sees life in terms of bare-knuckle rivalry.
You may fairly ask: where would we be without rivalry? Rivalry, surely, is necessary? So it is, for when properly entered into it brings out the best in us, driving us to discover and extend ourselves. But there is a world of difference between the joyful exercise of one’s God-given talents, whether it be on the soccer pitch, tennis court or boardroom, and the will to win at all costs, to define yourself purely in terms of your supremacy over others because, as night follows day, it’s just this attitude that leads to cruelty, exclusion, exploitation and violence.
The trouble is, we live in a world in which coming second – even if it involves doing your absolute best and enjoying it – isn’t enough. Winning is all. And yet it so clearly is not. John McEnroe, arguably the most gifted player of all time barring Roger Federer, apparently disliked his time on the tennis circuit, despite being a serial winner of countless grand slam titles. So it’s not too difficult to see the cause of all those temper tantrums that made him the SuperBrat of 1980s tennis and isn’t it amazing to see how he has grown into the funny, relaxed, gracious McEnroe who now indulges his passion for art and gives peerless match commentary at Wimbledon?
It’s essential to understand here that following Jesus does NOT mean a levelling down or a denial of difference or excellence. You see this clearly in the washing of his disciples’ feet. It is a great act of humility but when his disciples express astonishment he says this:
“you call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
There is no false humility here. Jesus absolutely asserts his role as their lord and teacher. We are not all the same or even all equal. But at the very same time he models a positive regard for everyone. What this amounts to is an honouring of each person for what they are and an encouragement of their talents and skills for the good of all. And that’s what the church should be – a living out of the gospel truth that we only prosper as individuals when everyone prospers.
What stands in the way of our performing the loving acts that are the marks of discipleship is nothing less than “the way of the world”. Since time immemorial human society as worked on the principle of destructive rivalry based on false pride. It’s so deeply ingrained in us that we have grave difficulty seeing it in ourselves, which is why following Jesus is so very difficult.
But follow him we must and that means progressively recognising this destructive pride that lurks in all our hearts and allowing it to be purged by an awareness of our complete dependence on God. At times we will feel that we are making no progress but we should never lose heart. For the extraordinary thing about the God revealed by Jesus is that he wants the best for us and is therefore willing to forgive us everything, however much we falter and fail along the way. As the first letter of John puts it “perfect love casts out fear. “ We do not live in fear or under condemnation. We are free. Or, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, “nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” And therein lies the hope that sustains us all.