‘Have you understood all this?
They answered, ‘Yes.’ Saint Matthew Chapter 13 Verse 51
It is six years ago today that I last preached a sermon. Sunday, 30th July 2017 was the day I departed from the church. The departure was my own doing, the failings behind it were entirely my own responsibility. The fault was my own.
But it has not been such a bad thing to be on the outside. I have learned how to get by without the comfort of a secure stipend and a free house. I have learned how to make the most of public transport. I have discovered the cheapest places to shop. I have heard what people really think of the church, time and again in classrooms in England and Ireland, I have heard hundreds of young people tell me what they thought of the church.
Being outside of the church has meant being free to answer questions in a different way.
Jesus’ question today, ‘Have you understood all this?’ would be given the same answer by most clergy as it received from the disciples, ‘Yes,’ they would say.
An honest answer would be, ‘No.’ An answer that would reflect young people’s perceptions of the church would be that its leaders had not understood Jesus.
Jesus teaches his listeners about the Kingdom of Heaven using a series of parables, a series of straightforward pictures from everyday life. He is telling them that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. His language is plain, his images are simple.
If the teaching of Jesus had been understood, then why was the simplicity lost? Jesus talked to ordinary people, to working people, to people who found meaning in what he said to them.
Why was the straightforward and plain language he used not adequate for the church in the centuries that followed? How did the pictures of ordinary, everyday things that Jesus considered sufficient to make his point get pushed aside to be replaced by the abstract words from Greek philosophical language? How did teaching based on telling people about mustard seeds, and pearls and fish become superseded by the teaching of the sort of concepts on which the Nicene Creed is based?
‘Have you understood?’ asks Jesus.
The church has concluded that that people have not understood as fully as they might, so instead of following the example of Jesus, living humbly and justly, its response has been that people need to be better taught. So we have seen the Alpha Course and all the other programmes, as if getting people to meet once a week was a substitute for being the sort of people Jesus asks his followers to be.
Jesus never says to the crowds that they should come along for a course every Wednesday evening for ten weeks so that they could understand what he is teaching them. Jesus teaches in a way that makes immediate sense to those who listen. There is no vocabulary so complicated that there are people who are left wondering what it is that he is talking about.
There is no sign that the church has any wish whatsoever to listen to what Jesus is saying. In England, the coronation of the new monarch demonstrated how removed the church was from the realities of life for many people. It is hard to imagine Jesus of Nazareth, with his itinerant life and unkempt followers would have been welcome at such an occasion.
Recent census statistics might have prompted the church to review itself and to reset its strategy and its message. The dismal figures might have prompted the bishops to stress the need to focus upon the way in which Jesus did things and ask how it could follow his example. But everyone knows that is not going to happen, people attached to positions of power and privilege rarely relinquish them.
Look at the church, and then read the parables of the Kingdom of Heaven and ask yourself, “if this is how Jesus teaches, then why must the church be so complicated?’
‘Have you understood?’ asks Jesus.
To ignore the question, to carry on in the way that the church is going is to suggest the church knows better than Jesus.