Bishop Andrew's Sermon
‘Gentlemen’. It’s not a word that we come across very much today, except when spoken in the context of a formal meeting or inscribed on the door of a male toilet. ‘Gentlemen’, like ‘Ladies’, has a rather old-fashioned ring to it, a sense of a bygone age, evoking images of top hats and tails, of hansom cabs and steam trains, of linen handkerchiefs and combed moustaches. In earlier years there was often something hierarchical about the word ‘gentlemen’, implying as it did that you belonged to a certain social set, an old and moneyed family - that you played polo in your youth and croquet in your dotage. In our more egalitarian age, it’s not surprising that the word is heading for extinction.
But there is a stronger meaning of the word ‘gentleman’ which it would be a shame to lose. For when we speak of someone as ‘a real gentleman’, we’re not talking about money or class, about top hats and tails: instead we’re describing a certain way of behaving: a warmth, a courtesy, a respect, a modesty, an interest in other people regardless of their age or gender or status, which is highly attractive in a rushed and self-centred age.
I think of my grandfather on my father’s side: a small man, physically, who used to sit me on his lap when I was 4 or 5 years’ old, and conduct rather serious discussions about what mattered to me most at the time, without ever boasting about his own extraordinary achievements as a medical missionary in China and a hospital superintendent in the East End of London during the Blitz. My grandfather was not a moneyed man. His father had been a merchant seaman, and the reason he was small is that he’d had rickets as a child, caused by malnutrition. But my goodness, was he a gentleman?!
And when we turn to the New Testament, we discover that the word ‘gentle’ crops up surprisingly often. We find it, for example, in that lovely passage in Matthew chapter 11, where Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart’. We find it in Paul’s writings too – in Philippians 4, for example, where the apostle instructs, ‘Let your gentleness be evident to all’. And here’s an interesting thing: that the Greek word that we translate as ‘gentle’ – the word ‘praus’ - has the sense of bringing strength under control. Elsewhere in Greek literature, it’s used of breaking in a rather frisky horse: getting hold of the reins and bringing the animal to heel; or of a sailing ship whose sails are flapping uncontrollably in a Force 8 gale: pulling in the ropes to stop the sails flapping and to harness the full power of the wind.
A gentleman or gentlewoman in this understanding is not a weak person, but a strong person: a person with a strong temperament, with strong abilities, with a Force 8 strength of character: but a strength that is harnessed, that is under the control of the one who possesses it. It reminds me of that lovely passage in Isaiah which the Gospel writers apply to Jesus: ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not put out’. For Jesus has the power to snap oak trees in half and to put out forest fires: but his is a strength under control, a control that makes him safe, even when we come to him at our most vulnerable.
And as we turn to today’s instalment of the Sermon on the Mount, and to Jesus’ teaching on a range of controversial subjects - on adultery and violence and divorce and integrity - the common theme underlying all this teaching is that of gentleness: of the need to bring the wild horse within us under control.
Think of the sixth commandment, for example, ‘You shall not kill’. Well, it’s true that most of us have never killed anyone – that we can tick that one off in a confident kind of way. But take it a step back – look at the anger we’ve sometimes felt towards other people, the resentment we’ve harboured, the grudges we’ve nursed, the gossip we’ve initiated – and we have to admit that this particular part of our character may need some attention.
As we look at Jesus and the way his anger is channelled, the point is made clearer still. We are to go the extra mile, says Jesus, to forgive seventy times seven. We are to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. And this isn’t weakness, it’s gentleness, strength under control.
Or turn to the seventh commandment, ‘You shall not commit adultery’. Again it’s true – at least I hope it’s true - that many of us have never cheated on our marriage partners – and if that’s so, again we seem to be in the clear. But how about our lustful thoughts and feelings, challenges Jesus further? Sexual feelings are perfectly natural, of course, just as a wild horse is perfectly natural – but the wise person, the gentle person is the one who has brought them under control.
As we look at Jesus again we see this clearly: because although Jesus wasn’t married, contrary to the gospel according to Dan Brown, there is little question that he had sexual feelings like the rest of us. So what made it possible for men and women alike to draw close to Jesus without risk of rejection or seduction or manipulation? What made Jesus safe? Simply this; that he was a gentle man: a man who’d taken charge over the wild horse that we call our sexuality.
What about Divorce? How about the restlessness – the sense that the grass is greener on the other side – the so-called midlife crisis - that can lead marriage partners (even those who’ve been together for many years) to pack it all in - perhaps to trade in their spouse for a younger model? Here Jesus was speaking into a contemporary debate between two famous rabbis of the time: Rabbi Shammai who took a hard-line position, and Rabbi Hillel, who allowed a husband to divorce his wife for almost any reason: if she was rather plain to look at, for example, or if she burnt the toast or proved to be an incompetent housekeeper; and remember that In those days, divorce often meant destitution for the woman involved.
And again, taught Jesus, we need to travel the path of gentleness when it comes to marriage, bringing the wild horse of our restlessness firmly under control, so that our loyalty to our marriage partner is never in question. It’s true that Jesus and the apostles allowed for divorce as the lesser of two evils in certain desperate circumstances: he wasn’t as hard-line as Shammai in that respect. But here was a relationship, taught Jesus, that would only thrive if both partners remained committed to the promise ‘till death us do part’, except in the most extreme or abusive of situations. To quote the words of one of the Proverbs, ‘May your fountain be blessed and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth… May you ever be captivated by her love’.
Adultery, Violence, Divorce – and so Jesus moved to his fourth topic, that of oaths, of promises, of Integrity: ‘Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ ‘no’. For Jesus knew about human transactions, and our tendency to embroider, to flannel, to blag. He knew that more often means less when it comes to the wild promises that people make and the extravagant claims that spew from their lips. Don’t do it, he said: Your integrity should speak for itself.
Exaggeration; embellishment, hyperbole: all spring from a desire to sound important, to look impressive in the eyes of others. The wild horse in this case is quite simply our ego, our pride. For it’s only when we bring that ego under control – only when we keep it on a tight rein – that our speaking and behaviour will be characterised by simplicity, humility, honesty – Jesus kneeling down, plain as day, to wash his disciples’ feet.
And so we finish with two questions as we come to the end of this chunk of the Sermon on the Mount, and they are these: first, ‘how can we grow in gentleness?’, and secondly, ‘why bother?’
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, the apostle speaks of the need to clothe ourselves with gentleness and various other Christ-like qualities; and the image of clothing ourselves suggests a kind of changing room in which we move from one state to another. The changing room that Paul is thinking of is simply this: the place where we meet with Christ: for it’s as we regularly spend time in the presence of Gentle Jesus that something of that gentleness will rub off on us. It’s rather like that old idea that dogs begin to resemble their owners; or like an observation I made in a fishmongers in Twickenham, where you could pick out the man who’d worked with fish all his life by his open mouth and rather glassy-eyed stare!
It’s worship, in other words, and praise and thanksgiving and prayer and confession and the Eucharist – the basic Christian disciplines - that help us to grow in gentleness – in harnessing the wild horses of our anger and lust and restlessness and pride. It’s opening ourselves to the presence of Christ – daily praying that ancient prayer, ‘Come Holy Spirit’ – that changes us from the inside out, reminding us that we are sinners, yes, but forgiven sinners, and those in whom God is about his transforming work.
But why the discipline? Why bother? Isn’t the way of gentleness the way of hard work, even of repression, harnessing urges that are perfectly normal and natural and that need to be given free rein?
It’s a question that my daughter asks from time to time as she daily practises her scales. Why bother, when everything in her cries out what a very boring activity practising scales really is?
It’s a question that my son asks too, as he sets off at 6am on a chilly morning to do a workout in the gym.
It’s a question my wife and I sometimes ask after a late night, as the alarm rings at 6.20 and we struggle out of bed to say Morning Prayer together.
But it’s when my daughter is performing Ravel or Debussy, her heart and mind and body gloriously co-ordinated in moments of breathtaking beauty; it’s when my son is up against stiff opposition on the rugby field, and his fitness and that of his team-mates see them through to a glorious victory; it’s when I meet a real gentleman or gentlewoman, a person whose life is suffused with modesty and integrity, with the grace and love of God – that the question ‘Why bother?’ receives its clearest possible answer.
Yes, the Sermon on the Mount sets almost impossible standards. Yes, it leaves us all feeling challenged, humbled and in real need of the mercy which God is always willing to show to his people. Yes, this transformation business seems appallingly slow, with our rate of progress so negligible that it’s all too easy to give up before the finishing line. But the gift of real gentleness – of becoming the men and women that God always meant us to be – is a glorious prize; and gentle Jesus would say, today as every day, ‘Follow Me’.