A Sermon from Sherborne
I have written briefly in today’s Pewsheet about my and Sandra’s time on the Saga Pearl II, on a month-long Caribbean cruise. As I explain there, we worked our passage, I chiefly as Ship’s Chaplain. I took three services each Sunday, the last late in the evening when at last the Filipino crew, or some of them, were able to relax in their own Mess and gather for their own Mass. Their Mess is their own space, and I felt very honoured to be invited into it.
But perhaps the most important work was done each day at sea, when I held a “surgery” in a corner of the library. “Chaplain’s Corner” is a feature of sea days on Saga ships, and is advertised as lasting for an hour. In practice these sessions often stretch to two hours, and sometimes three.
One reason for their popularity with passengers is that a long cruise gives people an unusual opportunity for thought and reflection. Long-buried memories – some of them unhappy ones – rise to the surface. Emotional issues which have been neglected start to clamour for attention. And faith which has been overtaken by the heavy pressure of daily life begins to reassert itself, rather like the bluebell which each spring bravely pushes through the tarmac and the gravel on my Vicarage forecourt.
Such experiences then raise the question, “what do I do with this?” And on board ship, that’s where the Chaplain comes in. He is readily available. Unlike the Ship’s Doctor, there is no charge for consulting him. And, as always with a priest, confidentiality is assured.
Back in the parish, that is also the role of the clergy. People sometimes apologise for asking to see the clergy about matters personal. They shouldn’t. To be a listening ear is one of the greatest privileges in the world.
One of the most common reasons for people’s emotional, spiritual and psychological problems is guilt. One source of guilt is temptation, and our succumbing to it. ‘I can resist anything except temptation’ we say to one another, jokingly. But it is no joke. The temptation to deny Christ, the temptation to betray him by failing to live as Christians, is no laughing matter. I want this morning to look a little more closely at this painful and embarrassing business of temptation.
I have always understood that the common cold used to kill an Inuit – the man or woman we used to call an Eskimo. The Inuit had, before their territories were “invaded”, no experience of colds, and therefore when first encountered by those of us who know the common cold all too well, had never built up any resistance to it. By contrast, in this country we all catch our first colds in the cradle, keep on getting them and learn to ignore them and carry on regardless. In other words, only be being exposed to germs and viruses do our bodies build up a resistance to disease.
In many ways, the human soul is remarkably like the human body, and we can take what happens to our bodies as an illustration or analogy of what happens to our souls. Take, for example, the invasion of temptation which sometimes hits us with epidemic force, and at other times creeps up on us like some crafty little virus. As Christians we are often unprepared for it, because we imagine that, as Christians, we should never feel temptation – whereas in fact it is only by being tempted and tested that we can develop any resistance to evil, that we can fight against it and grow spiritually stronger.
It is important that we never forget that. Every one of us, parishioner or priest, knows temptation. Never imagine that your clergy will not understand your problem, because the chances are that it has been theirs, too. And if the priest you speak to appears to lack sympathy and understanding, remember the testimony of the Letter to the Hebrews, that we have a High Priest who knows all about our weaknesses because he has been tempted or tested at every point, just as we are.
The New Testament is quite clear that, as a man, Jesus knew temptation. It came in full force in the wilderness, at the start of his ministry, in that time of testing and trial we commemorate in this season of Lent. It came at the end of his earthly life, when he was tempted to flee from his destiny, to pray that the cup might pass from him. They were the same temptations that we face, except stronger, because his strength and his reliance on God his Father were stronger. There was the temptation to turn stones into bread at the devil’s bidding, the temptation of greed. There was the temptation to gain power over all the kingdoms of the world, the temptation of ambition. There was the temptation to prove his divine nature by jumping from the highest pinnacle of the Temple, the temptation of self-glorification. And there was the oh-so-understandable temptation to avoid the costly path of duty and discipleship which he knew would lead to the Cross, the temptation of cowardice and fear. So very human. Just like us.
Yet Jesus won all his battles with temptation. And why? Not because he had access to a strength denied to us. No. It was because he used his access to his Father’s strength which is available to us all. And he used it because he was fully aware of the great unseen war which rages against wickedness and wrong-doing, the fight against cosmic powers and the superhuman forces of evil. Like viruses and bacteria, the powers of evil cannot be immediately seen and identified. So we grow complacent, show no resistance, and let temptation catch us unawares.
The way to win the battle is to realise that it starts first in the mind. A little thought comes to us, urging us to do this or that. Conscience says ‘no’, but conscience is often a very unfit and flabby part of our soul, and easily overcome. We need to keep a close guard on our thoughts. That is why the Psalmist prayed, ‘Examine me, O God, and know my mind; test me and discover my thoughts’ [139:23]. And that is why Jesus taught that it is possible to commit murder in the mind or to be an adulterer simply by playing with and enjoying the thought. There is nothing sinful about being tempted. What is sinful is giving the temptation house-room in your heart, letting it get a grip on your mind and your imagination. You may eventually rouse yourself to banish it for a while, but if you have been indulging that thought, that fantasy, you will have been spiritually weakened, your resistance will be lowered, and when the temptation returns – as it always does – you will be much closer to surrender than before. No wonder that St Augustine prayed, ‘O God, make me beautiful within’.
On our own we find it hard to resist the sheer profusion and variety of temptations which come our way. But ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’. And because Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin, we know that he understands our weaknesses, and by his grace he can turn them into strengths. And for that, indeed, thanks be to God.