Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2010
“ . . . as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses” 2 Corinthians 6:4
I love skiing. I love the scenery and the purity of the mountain air and the camaraderie and the moments of sheer exhilaration. But one day back in January, I remembered my first experiences on the slopes.
I hadn’t expected going to ski school to be easy; but no-one told me about the sheer physical pain and exhaustion that might be involved. Ski school was to last for five days—it seemed simple, two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch. 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 and five years later love every opportunity to be on a mountainside.
It was a salutary experience—I was in bed by nine o’clock each night completely exhausted and every muscle seemed to ache, but it was a proof of 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 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”.
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. Discipline begins with ourselves.
I remember asking 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 church 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’.
Ian: “there is no fooling the Teacher, it is clear to God when we haven’t shown discipline.” This is quite lovely. Thank you for sharing your sermons on your blog. The section I quoted reminded me of my dad. He knew in his soul what you wrote in that line. So much so, that his wish was to have something engraved on his tombstone: “I’m still practicing.” He showed discipline in everything he did.
I think the sermon was directed at myself! I don’t do discipline very well.
Good luck with it then. I take after my dad . . .