Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
What must I do to inherit eternal life? asks the rich young ruler. And Jesus responds by quoting some of the 10 Commandments as the ethical framework by which to live. And then comes the really hard bit: ‘Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’
In his Rule, St Benedict says, ‘Do not grant newcomers to the monastic life an easy entry, but, as the Apostle says, test the spirits to see if they are from God… The novice should be clearly told all the hardships and difficulties that will lead him to God.’
In a Church of England that is rightly asking some important questions about how to make its ministry and the gospel more accessible, Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler, and St Benedict’s discouragement of an easy entry to the monastery may not seem like auspicious places to begin. Both are clear that the gospel makes hard and radical demands. But both are also clear that this is the way of true life and joy.
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ asks the rich young ruler. Jesus’ response isn’t a blueprint for all Christians, as though eternal life can be achieved by the efforts of our own asceticism. What Jesus sees when he looks at the rich young man is someone whose desire for eternal life is hampered by his wealth. Being rich gives him security, power, identity. And while he finds his security in his riches, he will not be able to find it in God. So Jesus’ call to him is to give up his riches, and then to follow him, for it is in following Jesus that the way to eternal life is found.
Or, in the words Benedict uses in his Rule, ‘prefer nothing whatever to Christ.’
Prefer nothing whatever to Christ. If that is the way to eternal life, then, like the rich young ruler, I am tempted to go away sad. For even a cursory glance at my life, even the most fleeting knowledge of my soul, tells me that my loyalties are divided. I want to love God but I also want to do well. I want to be holy but being a sinner is easier. I am not single-minded and single-hearted in my love of God.
Happily St Benedict has some wisdom for me, for us all. 1500 years after he wrote it, those who live under his Rule still profess a vow of stability: monks and nuns commit themselves to a community for the rest of their lives. Stability may seem an elusive and unrealistic virtue to us: political alliances that have persisted for decades are under threat; nationalisms grow more confident; jobs are more precarious; the future feels very uncertain. But Benedict wrote his Rule at the time the Roman Empire was crumbling. When he wrote about stability, he didn’t root it in institutions or empires or economics. He rooted it in God.
And because he rooted it in God, he emphasised the need for commitment to a community. That, the commitment to a particular group of people in a particular place, is where we learn to prefer nothing whatever to Christ. For those who sought admission to the monastery, it was about trusting that God is in this place, among these people. And that is true when community life goes well and it is true when community life is hard, when the promise of stability requires patience with the irritating brother, commitment to the lazy sister, reconciliation when it would feel preferable to walk away. Benedict knew that the ideal community didn’t exist: stability is a promise to be in it for the long haul, to practise a long obedience that makes possible an ongoing conversion of life.
The promise of stability is a covenant: a bit like in marriage, it says that you’ll stick with it through the good and the bad. (I do want to be clear, though, that neither in marriage nor in community life is this encouragement to stay in a place where relationships are abusive.) Loving Christ above all things is not a desire that will take us away from the troubles and cares of the world into a super-spiritual realm (that would be less than Christian) but about the everyday, concrete practices of love: taking your turn chopping the veg so the community can eat; choosing penitence rather than denial when you’ve wronged someone; letting go of the resentments that can be so toxic to life together; not grumbling about the community or individuals in it. And all this set within and held by the daily round of prayer and worship where life is received from God and offered back to him, for any stability we may promise is always and only possible because of the prior faithfulness and steadfastness of God.
What Benedict means by stability in community is not going to be possible for most of us, though it may be the calling of some. But his wisdom holds for how relate to the communities of which we’re part, and for how we are as a church, because it tells us that we need each other for our growth in holiness. It’s our patronal festival so it’s rightly a day when we celebrate St Bene’t’s as well as St Benedict. But St Bene’t’s isn’t perfect: no church is. Stability is a commitment to the real over the ideal.
And it’s in that commitment that the real gets shaped more into the likeness of the kingdom. A community that never has any arguments because everybody thinks and behaves in exactly the same way is less able to be a sign of reconciliation than a community where people have to learn to forgive and be forgiven, to have their horizons expanded by the perspectives of others. The graces of patience, of gentleness, of kindness and compassion are given space to grow as we learn to share our lives together. We become more like Christ as we show generosity to one another. And we allow others space to become more Christlike as we learn to receive generosity from them. As we learn to prefer Christ above all things, we become more like him.
Stability can be a tricky ideal to aspire to in a city where lots of people are not around for very long. The commitment to the same community in a place over time is not possible for lots of us, though for others of us it is. But this can still be a place where we learn the habits of the stability that is more to do with our interior disposition than our location. There is stability here in the daily round of worship and prayer: the day by day reading of scripture and the celebration of the sacraments which form us and feed us by making us desire God more. There is stability in the communion of saints, and in the tangible reminder through the building of the thousand-year witness in this place that precedes us, and to which we add our voice and our witness. That stability is what roots us, for it plants us in the eternal, unchanging steadfast love of God.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? asks the rich young ruler. ‘Follow me’, says Jesus. And for Benedict, whose wisdom has helped countless men and women to follow Jesus more faithfully, that means staying put, accepting the discipline of prayer when it’s joyful and when it feels like either we or God have failed to turn up; trusting that the place we are in is the place God is to be found; and that those we are given as companions on the journey will be the ones who reveal his face to us. Preferring nothing to Christ does not mean dissociating ourselves from the world, cutting ourselves off from everything but a disembodied spirituality. It means choosing and desiring Christ: in word and sacrament; in his body, the Church. It means choosing to live his life, to be where he is, among the people he loves and came to save. And so doing, we discover that in him our true stability is to be found, for our choice for him is always a response to the fact that he has already chosen us. The more we live his life, the more we learn to prefer nothing to him, the more we see our lives as graced because he has preferred nothing to us.