A Sermon preached at a communion service on 19th January to theological students thinking about discipleship.
This was the reading before the sermon:
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19 If you belonged to the world,[a] the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants[b] are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. 21 But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’
26 “When the Advocate[c] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. (From John Chapter 15; NRSV version)
I wonder how many of us here are hated. I won’t ask for a show of hands but I doubt it’s many. In fact, I expect our churches would not consider us suitable ministers if we were among those who are hated by many. Much of church life seems to be about doing the nice thing, having no enemies and living in peace and yet it is clear from Jesus’s teaching that he expected us to have enemies and he expected us to love them.
So why on earth should a response of hatred be considered a norm for discipleship. I want to think about hatred for a bit – its not something we often talk about. We like talking about love – hatred, not so much.
We see the world hating people everyday. There is the easy Daily Mail kind of hatred for people who are wrongdoers – top of the list are paedophiles, then perhaps rapists and murderers. Their crimes are dangled in front of us giving us an excuse to other them and revel in the fact that we are not them and they are not us. If we ourselves have personally been affected by serious crime, abuse or wrongdoing we will have other reasons to hate mixed with grief, anger, fear and resentment
Perhaps many of us harbour hatred for those who have done us wrong in our personal or collective histories – slave traders, politicians, teachers, or religious leaders – those who have abused the power they have over us and diminished our lives in some way. I have no wish to deny the oppression and injustice you have faced individually or collectively but these people can also become caricatures of wrongdoing that leave us the blameless victim freed from the responsibility of looking how we use our power and privilege in relation to others.
Jesus is expecting his followers to use their power well, for the liberation not the subjugation of others, so this is not the way we are expected to attract hatred – though we are all flawed and we may find ourselves confronted angrily time to time when we abuse the power we have.
I spent the first 45 years or so of my life not being hated by anyone. I often struggled with the love your enemy stuff because I didn’t really seem to have any. Then I started getting involved in peacemaking and reconciliation stuff and that’s when I started to make a few enemies – tho’ I don’t know that I can yet claim to wear ‘hatred’ badge of honour.
I think one of the drivers of human behaviour is to take sides and define ourselves as being against an other. Often this is seen as virtuous. I was very tempted to join demonstrations against the Trump visit last year. In church we are asked to take sides on questions of gender and sexuality. The ‘world’ asks us to join fully it’s military, economic and ideological systems. In some ways we cannot avoid taking sides and if we examine our lives we see we collude with the powerful and unjust systems in many ways, large and small.
But is this how it should be? Jesus seemed to avoid submitting to or joining in with unjust structures or any economic system at all. My life cannot claim to have avoided such collusion but I was one of those kids, probably because I was a weird kid with slightly weird parents, who never sat comfortably in one group and I still struggle to take sides.
When I first went to Bosnia with a charity that seeks to honour those affected by the genocide in Srebrenica I found myself in quite a heated debate with someone who really wanted me to understand that I needed to get on the ‘right’ side. From what I know of that conflict, the Bosnian Muslims were the most affected by the war, they seemed to have the least power and the stories of their suffering and perseverance are incredibly moving. But I maintained a curiosity about the other side – what had happened to them, what stories did they tell, how were they suffering, what would bring them to a place of peace. In the end, I was asked what I would do in a rape – surely I would take the side of the victim. I thought for a while and then said what would be most important for me is that the harm is stopped and then I would want both victim and perpetrator to receive whatever they need to be made whole and restored to God’s image. I try to hold this same position in my work in Israel-Palestine and it doesn’t make you popular. It means I am not comfortable company for either the majority of Israelis or the majority of Palestinians –I risk being seen as a ‘normaliser’, a terrorist sympathiser perhaps even a traitor.
In her book It Will Not Be Taken Away From Her, Fran Porter writes how a woman in Northern Ireland describe this middle ground – the woman quoted says only God is able to be in the middle of situations of total opposites and not be crushed by them . She continues: ‘The difference between God and us is that when we get stuck in the middle we get pulled apart, and , for me, you have to choose sides because its too painful to be on two sides at once… I choose generally the side without power because to stay in the middle was such a crucifying experience that there was no way you can live there, it was too painful.'(pages 139-140)
I am not hated or in excruciating pain because I only tip my toe into the middle, maybe it is only possible for me because I have never really experienced oppression and grew up with tons of privilege. But in what we know of Jesus’s life I see him standing in the middle, holding opposing ideas together, not really being comfortable in a group and not willing to side with any narrative to the exclusion of another. Jesus did it and was crucified for it – hated by Jews and Gentiles alike. I believed we are called there as disciples – at least to visit even if we cannot live there. I believe the middle is where we find truth of testimony and remain open to the truths of narratives that compete with our understandings and challenge our settled and fixed ideas. These are the places where we hear the Holy Spirit, the promised advocate, speaking the words of God – words of salvation, healing and freedom.
I have talked about Bosnia and the Middle-East but this country too is crying out for people who are slow to take sides and willing to take seriously competing narratives. The Church too needs ministers of reconciliation to tend to its own woundedness. As we remember today with broken bread and wine outpoured Jesus’s call to follow him to places of pain and disarray let us ask God to open our hearts and minds with compassion as the Holy Spirit leads us to places where we can hear truth – truth that will set us free and liberate the world from fear. Amen.