When I was a teenager and for the first time started to explore Christianity, I remember being put off from the church for a long time because all the clergy I saw or heard, seemed to be posh. They all had Oxford accents and Oxford or Cambridge degrees, and seemed to come from another world than that of the ordinary Yorkshire village where I grew up. And when I started going to church we’d just entered a long interregnum so we had a lot of visiting priests.
Actually of course I soon realised that wasn’t entirely true. I began to realise that these guys came from a variety of backgrounds and some of them spoke with Yorkshire accents when they weren’t preaching or leading prayers (they tended to have a special parsonical voice for this like Hyacinth Bucket had a telephone voice). And even the genuinely posh ones were real human beings and began to influence me in subtle ways, so that I began to see that a vocation to the ordained ministry wasn’t an unthinkable idea.
So why was it that the local ones thought they had to put on a special voice? Perhaps they thought if they appeared as what they were, they would be rejected like the people in the synagogue rejected Jesus. ‘We’re not going to take any notice of this bumpkin: he’s just the same as us. We expect quality in our leaders.’
People are easily deluded by the appearance of power or substance. We don’t need to look across the Atlantic to see the evidence. There are plenty of examples around us, and they’re not just down to snobbery. It might just be that we don’t have enough confidence in ourselves or in people we think are like us, so we go for leaders or experts who seem much more in control. The word of course is ‘seem’.
But the authority of a teacher or a prophet doesn’t depend on their background or social status. The authority comes from God.
The prophet Ezekiel is addressed by God, in the reading we heard, and in the rest of the book, as ‘mortal’. He’s just an ordinary human being – mortal of course means he won’t live for ever. And yet he is given authority to proclaim God’s judgement to nation of rebels.
‘Mortal’ is the word used in the NRSV translation that we use, for what other versions, including the Authorised Version, refer to as ‘Son of Man’. And that’s the same title that is given to Jesus (or that he claims for himself) in the four gospels.
‘Son of Man’, or ‘Daughter of Man’, or rather, ‘of human’: just means,’Human being’. As we are reminded every Ash Wednesday: “Remember O man that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” So for Jesus to call himself ‘Son of Man’ is to identify himself with us. He is not one of the high and mighty, not one of those who wear fine linen and live in palaces: he is just an ordinary human being.
Or so he would be if he was just ‘a’ son of man. But he uses the definite article: ‘The Son of Man.’ He is the Son of God, but chooses to be identified with us. He is one of us, flesh and blood like we are flesh and blood. But so much more so; he is the perfect human being, the ideal. So he is not just any old human being, any son of man. He is The Son of Man.
He doesn’t need to put on any airs and graces. He doesn’t need to impress with posh accents or fine clothes. He is the carpenter’s son, the local lad. And he reveals God to us by that very ordinariness, that very humanity.
That’s a lesson we need to learn more than ever right now. It seems that all over the world people are panicking. We’ve lost confidence in ourselves and turn to people who command by loud voices and pretensions to leadership.
Not just in world politics but within the Church as well. People are running round like headless chickens claiming the church is dying and only great schemes and new initiatives and probably strong leaders will revive it.
We forget that it’s God’s world and God is in charge. We forget that it’s God’s Church and think it will only be saved by our gimmicks.
When God came into this world in Jesus Christ he didn’t come with a great army. He wasn’t born in a palace but in a humble stable. And it’s only when we begin to look for God in the everyday places and ordinary people, and see that God uses us in our ordinariness to be the bearers of the Good News, that things will really start to change and the stalemate of the endless power struggles will be broken.
Jesus ‘ordered [the twelve] to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.’ Simplicity was the order of the day. The disciples weren’t sent to beat people into submission or cow them by status symbols or signs of power. They were simply to live and preach the gospel which is the good news of the Son of God made flesh. God as the Son of Man.
Yesterday Lynn and I were in Yorkshire for the Festival Day at the Community of the Resurrection. That is a monastic community within the Church of England, where brothers have been living and preaching the Good News of the Risen Christ for 120 years. They’ve had their ups and downs in that time, and there are now about twenty brothers who look to the Rule of St Benedict to guide their pattern of life. Like the original twelve in the gospel, they live simply. They don’t all wear sandals and they do eat bread (and other things), but they don’t rely on show or making a lot of noise. They simply get on with living the Christian life like the later disciples in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’
They study; they share meals together; they teach and preach in various places when they are called to do; and every day they meet in their beautiful but simple church – four times for offices of prayer: Morning; midday; evening and night, and every day they celebrate Holy Communion.
That’s one community among many. These days there might not be the same number of people who are willing or able to commit themselves to lifelong vows of obedience or celibacy, but in the world-wide Church there are still communities who witness by their simplicity of life to the fact that God is in charge. And there is a surprising growth in what could be described as experimental communities, or quasi-monastic ones: groups of people – usually quite young – who give maybe a year or more of their life to live together under a simple rule. The Archbishop of Canterbury has established one at his own home of Lambeth Palace.
Jesus’s home is not in a royal palace or even an archbishop’s one. But that’s not to say that the people who live in such places can’t turn to Jesus and learn from his simplicity. And that simple way of life is the way of expressing our confidence that God is in charge and that if we continue to be faithful God will find a way through our bewilderment at the clamouring world.
Most of us aren’t called to be monks or nuns, or even live like them temporarily. But at the heart of our vocation, our Christian calling, is the same pattern of prayer, worship and discipleship. ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’
We are called to be human, to be sons and daughters of humanity (to translate Ezekiel’s title into inclusive language). And the way that humanity will be fulfilled is by sharing as fully as possible in the life of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ himself. It starts with our baptism and continues week by week as we meet in this church to be fed by him. As Christians we are not just followers of Christ; we don’t just admire him from afar; we are members –limbs – of his very Body. Christ in us, the hope of glory.