Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Ash Wednesday, 2007
“ . . . as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses”2 Corinthians 6:4
We spent a week in Alpbach in Austria in January. It was a great experience. I went with a chest infection, taking antibiotics, and feeling low, and after a couple of days of Austrian sunshine and mountain air, I felt excellent. I am a very slow skier, but enjoyed every moment.
It was very different in January 2005 when, at the age of 44, I skied for the first time. I didn’t expect going to ski school to be easy; no-one told me about the sheer physical pain and exhaustion that would be involved. Ski school was to last for five days—it seemed simple, two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch. I was so bad that I was relegated from the group I had been in to a weaker group. One afternoon I leant on my ski poles completely shattered, and Erich, the ski instructor, a man just short of his 70th birthday, looked at me and said, ‘you think you come here for a holiday, ja? You come here to work. This is not a sport for soft men’. Mainly due to Erich’s constant shouts, chiding, mockery, criticisms, exhortations and encouragements, I completed the five days. When I reached the fifth day, I discovered that I was the only one left from the ten who had begun in the group. I was moved back to my original group where there were only two of the original members left. We skied down from the top of the mountain on the final afternoon.
It was a salutary experience—I was in bed by nine o’clock each night completely exhausted and every muscle seemed to ache. I declared at the end of the week that I would ever do it again, but it was a lesson in the old maxim that there is no gain without pain; it was a lesson in the obvious fact that achievement demands discipline.
Achievement demanding discipline should come as no surprise to us. Watch any sports team; watch people preparing for exams; watch which businesses flourish; it is clear that if there is going to be success then there must be discipline and that discipline may involve self-sacrifice and even pain.
Accepting the need for discipline in other spheres of life, isn’t it odd that when it comes to the Christian life, when it comes to things that are of the greatest importance, we shy away from discipline. We feel that the Church must please people, whatever the cost; no matter whether people laugh at the Church behind our backs; no matter whether they make little of our beliefs; no matter whether they use the building as a nice place for family occasions and ignore it the rest of the time; we have to try to please them and not say anything that they don’t want to hear.
Why do we do this? Why have we become so afraid of showing conviction? If we take our faith seriously; if we believe the Gospel readings we hear; if when we stand and say the Creed, we mean it; then why do we not expect more discipline to be shown in the life of the Church?
Paul, writing to the church at Corinth, doesn’t give Christianity as an easy option, look again at what he writes, “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything”
There is nowhere in the Bible where being a Christian is presented as being an easy option. It demands discipline. Living God’s way demands discipline. When we forget this, when we forget what Jesus taught us about taking up our cross and following him, when we forget that the path to heaven is a narrow one, we do no-one any favours.
Discipline is necessary. Erich, my ski instructor, could have said, ‘You’re on holiday. Take it easy. Don’t worry about bending those knees. Don’t worry about leaning forward. Don’t worry about transferring your weight from one leg to the other’. He could have said not to worry about listening to him and I could have spent the week sitting in a snowdrift, instead of listening to his shouts.
Isn’t discipline necessary, then, in much more serious things? The Church of Ireland has lost a sense of discipline—in our desire to be tolerant and welcoming, we have perhaps thrown the baby out with the bath water and become seen as a Church that expects nothing from its people.
The things of God are the important things – eternal life is the most important of all things: it is time that we began to show that we believe they are important. Discipline begins with ourselves.
I asked Erich one day what he did to keep fit, did he play sport? No, he said, no sport, he played music. ‘What do you play?’ I asked. ‘The tuba’, he replied, ‘it is good for the lungs’. He played in a local brass band and said that every week he saw his music teacher who knew if he had not been practising. ‘He taps the rhythm’, he said, ‘and I cannot keep up if I have not practised’.
I thought it a good model of Christian life.The Bible sets a rhythm for our lives and there is no fooling the Teacher, it is clear to God when we haven’t shown discipline.
As servants of God, we are expected to commend ourselves in every way and Paul has no illusions what this will mean. How often have we thought that coming along to Saint Matthias’ means nothing unless we also have faith in “in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses”.
This Lent should be a time of discipline, a time to look at ourselves. Christianity is not a faith for soft people
‘Now is the time of God’s favour’, says Paul, ‘now is the day of salvation’.