Three Hours Devotion - Holy Week Addresses 1975
Good Friday: No 2
There are ways and ways of serving God. The one way in which we cannot serve him, however, is by virtue of our own talents: in our own strength. Any such idea is scotched at the very beginning of the Passion.
It began in Gethsemane: appropriately enough a garden, as Eden, in which something else had once began you will remember, had been a garden. Here, Jesus took Peter, James, and John aside, as he had done twice before. They were a little, privileged, inner trio amongst the disciples. They had been allowed to see him raise Jairus’s daughter; and later they saw him transfigured on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now, once again, it these three who are taken aside and given the opportunity of seeing Jesus struggle to accept this hour to which God had brought him: accept the cup of death from which God is asking him to drink. “ My soul is very sorrowful”, Jesus told them, “even unto death. Remain here and watch”. It was not a difficult thing to do. Nor was it a new command. Only a few days earlier, he had told them about watching. “Watch”, he had said to all of them, “for you know not when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning; lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you, I say to all, Watch”. But they went to sleep. Less than an hour later, the master of the house came, and found them sleeping in the darkness.
So much for the natural talents and strengths of the inner trio: the elite amongst the disciples. So much for Peter and his boasted loyalty. “Even though they fall away, I will not….If I must die with you, I will not deny you”. Later on, the cock was to crow over his three-fold apostasy. The Church is founded on a rock which splintered at the first touch; but then it was Jesus who called him Peter, the rock. His parents called him Simon. The rockiness of Peter was a supernatural gift, not a natural deposit; and neither he nor James nor John had yet received that gift. They were still trying to do their best by their own unaided efforts, and they were not good enough. They never are. Later, they were to be transformed and empowered by another spirit than their own: empowered, in the case of Peter and James to die; empowered in the case of John to be John; and empowered, all three, to obey the command to watch. For it is not a command which becomes null and void with the gift of the spirit. On the contrary, it is binding on us all. “What I say to you, I say to all, Watch”.
After those who die, like Peter and James, and those who love like John probably it is those who watch who help the world to turn to God through Christ. Most certainly in the past it was so. A whole tradition of discipleship grew out of the command to watch. A contemplative, sometimes monastic, sometimes eremitic, sometimes silent tradition of prayer and watching: of waiting on God because you never knew whether he would come to you in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning; but you did know that the one thing that mattered was that he should come and invade your trembling soul and make his dwelling there, because without him you would be worth nothing. As a tradition, it is unfashionable today, partly because it is remembered more for its abuses, which were many, than for its virtues. In countries which are heirs of the Reformation, we have all been nurtured upon stories of monks and nuns who were lazy, ignorant, fat, rich, and either immoral or perverted; and doubtless many of them were just that. But over and above all that, in a post-Freudian age, many of us often alas tend to suspect that even the best of those who, in the past, felt themselves called to be monks or nuns or hermits were probably abnormal psychologically. So we devote ourselves to God in other ways, remembering that Jesus said that “not everyone that says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but he that does the will of my father which is in heaven”. So we do the will of God. Social involvement, practical commitment, prayer as encounter with one’s neighbour, Christian stewardship, Christian action. and salvation by works keep us all busy; and there is much to be said for such ways of serving God. If we are to be honest, however, they do not exhaust our activity. All of us spend much time keeping ourselves busy in other ways too: gossiping, shopping, commuting, watching the telly, reading two or even three newspapers a day; and, of course, first and foremost - working: earning our daily bread. Indeed, many of us even feel guilty if we are doing nothing.
It has been said that the most precious gift of God to each of us is time. Not one of us has much of it. We use it in our busy way, and the few unfashionable contemplatives, who are left, use it in theirs. We look at them as psychologically odd and practically useless. But what, I wonder, do they think of the kind of lives most of us lead? Lives spent scurrying around like demented ants in the relentless noise and squalor, pollution and crowds of the ubiquitous city - of Babel - there getting and spending, as Wordsworth called it, and thus laying waste our powers until one day, with nothing much really accomplished, greatly surprised, we die. I dread to think how much lives must appear to them. Wedded to a different tradition, they themselves often try to follow Jesus’ command to watch and pray in what seems to us to be somewhat childish and over-literal obedience. Sometimes they do it in silence, with little sleep, and with almost no distraction. They treat the time allotted to them by God as something almost tangible like a chaplet of pearls, holding each passing moment in the patient fingers of the mind before moving on to the next in case it should be the moment when the master of the house comes.
We can’t all live like that. But I cannot help feeling that we can learn something from that tradition of discipleship. For the people I have known who have watched and prayed a good deal have had a kind of depth to them which I sometimes think that most uf us, who are too busy ever to penetrate an inch below the glossy threshold of consciousness, lack. Why, otherwise, do so many young people avoid turning to us when in search of some sort of life of the spirit, looking Eastwards instead, and even following the hippy trail to Nepal? Of course, when they get there, many of them are disillusioned; for the Kingdom of God is not in Nepal. The Kingdom of God is not in the monasteries of Sinai or Mount Athos, Cluny or Monte Cassino, Wantage or West Malling either for that matter: at least, by no means exclusively so. The Kingdom of God is to be found wherever God has chosen to dwell: that is to say, in whatever house to which the master has come and found the servant of the house watching.
Here, for many people, the images begin to break down, they are not enough. The twentieth century mind has to ask, at this point, what reality underlies them: what we mean by them; and however inadequate analytical words may be, as compared with evocative images, at denoting that reality, we must try and use them. For with the image of the master coming to his house and finding his servants watching or not watching, as the case may be, we get as near as any image can take us, both to the core of Christian belief, and to the heart of Christian experience, and the world wants to know what the core of that belief and the heart of that experience are.
The belief is easy to describe. Just as it was God who took the initiative in Christ - God who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son - and came unto his own, so it is still God who takes the initiative, comes to men, and dwells with them. Advent is for ever. The gospel is good news precisely because it is about the coming of God to men; not about men climbing up to God by their own efforts. Christian experience of his coming is much more difficult to describe, however; for it is the experience of the self-disclosure of him who, in his unlimited freedom can disclose himself to whom he will but whose self-disclosure transcends the normal limits of verbal disclosure available to men. Many people have tried to describe it. His coming is like an opening of the eyes of the mind; like an invasion of the soul by divine light, by darkness, by love; like a sudden getting of the point of the equation of all things, an encounter with the heart of reality, with the fount of your life. Described like that it sounds so strange as to be suitable material for a treatise upon the psychopathology - not of everyday life - but of religious hysteria; and of course often it is strange.
“I know a man in Christ, who fourteen years ago, was caught up to the third heaven - whether in the body or out of the body, I know not, God knows”. Paul on the Damascus road. But it is not always so. Some people experience something much less intense, as though brushed by the wings of God. They are not even sure of it: wonder if perhaps it is nothing; until as time passes conviction grows. Others again live with the presence of God as normal, unemotional fact of their lives. But even when it is at its strangest, it is an experience which seems to make people saner than they were before - saner than a mad world - not madder; and although some neurotic people have it, many more ordinary people have it too; villagers in Africa, peasants in Italy, old ladies in seaside towns and Oxford dons, doctors and teenagers, and in two cases known to me personally tired Jews with memories of the SS headquarters and the concentration camp. God reveals himself to millions of different people: comes to them in the hearing of the gospel; in the encounter with the charismatic community of love and faith; in the demands made by someone’s need; in the surprise occasioned by someone’s sudden charity; in the death of a neighbour; in the life of a lover; in bread and wine; in prayer; in silence; on the Damascus road, or the Tottenham Court road; on the top of a bus or in the depths of the night. Evangelicals talk of his coming into their lives as the moment when they accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour; Pentecostalists as the moment when the Spirit possesses them; old ladies as the moment when the dear Lord said this or that to them; while you and I probably don’t talk of it at all, because it doesn’t happen to us very often, and when it does we haven’t the words to describe it, or are not sure of it and wouldn’t like to seem to boast, even if we had the words. Yet it is the experience to which the images point: the experience which makes sense of the gospel, and - pari passu - of which the gospel makes sense; and whether we like it or not it is the one utterly convincing, converting, and confirming thing: the heart of the matter. However diverse it may be in its manifestation, there is one factor common to it. It is perpetually unexpected. “For as the lightning comes from the East and shines as far as the West, so will the coming of the Son of man be”. If we are asleep - dozing away our time in a half-life of self-reliance and activism - like the disciples, we shall miss it. Watch therefore…what I say to you, I say to all, Watch.