Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 22 April 2012: Year B, The Third Sunday of Easter
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ – a question asked by anxious parents, nosy aunties- and careers advisers. And most of us have probably given different answers to it as we grew up. I remember being a bit depressed by the question when I was about second year in Secondary School, because I genuinely didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’d quite liked to have done something in science or technology, but I could never cope with maths. So I wondered if I could find something which needed me to use language, because I was good an English.
As a result, I very nearly became a journalist. I was reminded of all that this week, reading an article by Bryan Christie, a respected Scottish journalist about his, and others, experiences of what is called in their trade, ‘the death knock’:
In the half light of a grey Aberdeen tenement, the figure that stood behind the partially opened door was as terrifying as a train crash. I have no recollection of what was said but can remember steeling myself for the anger and possibly even violence that would follow. It never came. Instead, I was invited in and offered a cup of tea. I was a junior reporter and this was my first death knock.
Death is news, the more so when it affects the young or happens in unusual circumstances. After the police might come the priest, but the local reporter might not be far behind. The death knock is one of the most hated jobs in journalism but one with a long tradition…
[R]eporters are still despatched to chap on doors and ask inconsequential questions- How old was he? Where did she go to school? Do you have a picture?
Not a pleasant task, or one calculated to make journalists popular! Even the journalists think so, for Bryan Christie reports on an academic survey ‘among 53 Scottish journalists which found an almost universal dislike for the task. It was seen as unpleasant, stressful and likely to cause distress. One [reporter] described himself as “a leech”. However, all of those interviewed recognised that it was part of the job of a reporter’.
So, a necessary, but unpleasant job. Bryan Christie, on is first ‘death knock’, got invited in for a cup of tea. And he reports that his experience, and that of many other journalists, is that the reaction is not always negative:
But the most surprising thing about this whole experience was the reaction of the grieving. There were doors that were closed quickly, but never in anger. No hostile words were spoken. That may not be a universal experience but, fortunately, it was mine. Then there were the families who opened their doors to share their memories at this dark time.
‘It’s the laddie from the paper,’ one woman once shouted down a corridor as if I’d been expected and not just turning up out of nowhere. Often you didn’t have to ask many questions; it just all poured out and it seemed as if talking to a complete stranger seemed to help. Did it provide an excuse to explain, an opportunity to connect again with the person who was gone?
John Griffith, a former newspaper editor who lost his own son in a road accident, strongly believes in the positive power of the death knock. He is quoted in the research and says the stories that followed his son’s death were a great comfort to the family. His advice to reporters is not to be afraid of knocking on that door. ‘If families don’t want to speak to you, then you can leave. If they do, you will be helping them at a time in their life when they want to feel the wider community cares about them and shares their sorrow.’
I found this fascinating, because sometimes as minister I’ve had to go into homes in the worst of situations. I’m very aware that, especially if I don’t know the family, I would not be there but for tragedy. But once you’re in, and people begin to get comfortable, the stories start. There may be tears, and sometimes even laughter- but usually people are happy to talk about the one who has gone. It’s a privilege to share those times with people. But as this article makes clear, it’s not just a minister who can help people at such a time. If even newspaper reporters can be advised that if they deal sensitively with the bereaved ‘you will be helping them at a time in their life when they want to feel the wider community cares about them and shares their sorrow’- well, we can all do that, whatever our profession.
I didn’t become a journalist- I did end up in a job which involves much interaction with people, and a lot of writing! Nobody- least of all me- could have predicted how things would turn out for me when I was a second-year school pupil, for becoming a minister was the last thing on my mind. Maybe there are a few people around who always wanted to be train drivers and do get to do that, lucky devils. In today’s world, it’s hard to know what you’ll end up doing, which is perhaps why it’s quite hard for young people to answer the question ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ For even if you do get your dream job, it might change out of all recognition. Or you could end up doing something quite different from what you expected.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Ask that of a teenager, and it’s a questions about the future, a question about the hopes and fears, of ambitions and dreams. But it’s a question which could be asked at any stage of life. It’s something an employer might ask: ‘Where do you see yourself in five year’s time?’- and that might be a very scary question, because you might wonder whether it really means, ‘You won’t be doing this in five year’s time’. When you are at school, you know that one day you will have to leave, that you will need to be doing something else, and so for young people, the question of the future is usually an exciting question. Not so for adults, because we wonder about job security, or our health, or even about our children’s future. The answer to what you might be in a few years time might be unemployment, debt, or an old people’s home.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ we ask our children. Perhaps an honest answer might be: ‘It is not yet clear what we shall become’. That’s a quotation from today’s first Scripture reading, from the First Letter of John. John tells his readers that they are now God’s children: ‘See how much the Father has loved us! His love is so great that we are called God’s children’. Speaking of Christians as ‘children of God’ is just one of many metaphors the New Testament uses to describe who Christians are. Now, sometimes people becoming a Christian is an instant thing: bang! you believe, and that’s that. But John seems to suggest that there is more to it than that. He writes, ‘My children, we are now God’s children, but it is not yet clear what we shall become’. What does he mean by this?
John is writing to a community at the beginning of the Church’s history, a group of people who were probably feeling rather beleaguered. After all, they were a tiny minority of people among the many different faiths and philosophies of the Roman Empire. And so he wants to assure them that they are special, that they matter to God, that God has a special place in his heart for them- they are children of God. But that is not all. He also wants them to remain faithful. There will always have the temptation to give up on Christ, to go back to the pagan practices they thought they had given up on, or perhaps to follow false teachers who can lead them astray. John calls these temptations sin- sin, for John, is anything which tempts us away from Christ. Christ, after all, came to take away sin- so those who belong to Christ ought not to sin: ‘everyone who lives in union with Christ does not continue to sin’. That’s a tall order, but that is what John is trying encourage his readers to do.
For we all know that being a Christian does not make you immune to temptation. We still go astray, we still wander from the Christian way. Almost every day we do things which weaken the bond we have with Christ. That’s why we feel the need to confess our sins, to constantly look for God’s forgiveness- forgiveness which is assured because of what Christ has done for us. And why we need God’s help to get us back on to the path he has called us to follow.
‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ we ask our children. And hopefully they will have good ambitions- they will want to make something of their life, contribute something to society. Yet we all know that we can never know how they- or the future- might turn out. ‘It is not yet clear what we shall become’. And so it is with our spiritual lives. We are made to choose- how will we live our lives? And what pressures will we face in future? Do I do this, that or the other? Do I make decision based on what I think Christian teaching would call me to do, or do I make my decisions for selfish reasons? And how does this matter?
For John the Apostle, there is a clue to what we might become. If we can avoid sin, if we can grow closer to Christ, then there is a hope which awaits us. John looks forward to a time when Christ will come back- this time, so that all the world will know who he really is. And on that great day when Christ returns, says John, ‘we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is’.
John is telling us here what the Christian life is all about. It’s not that we become Christians and suddenly we are different, better, than everyone else. Rather, it is a process. If we asked John, ‘What does it mean to be a Christian?’ he might say, ‘You can’t “be” a Christian. Rather, you are constantly becoming a Christian- that is, becoming more and more like Jesus Christ’.
In our Gospel reading, his disciples are meeting Jesus for the first time since his resurrection. The Easter even is such as shock, so unexpected, that they can’t quite believe it’s real. Or that Jesus is real. So he says to them,
‘Look at my hands and my feet, and see that it is I myself. Feel me, and you will know, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones, as you can see I have.” He said this and showed them his hands and his feet.
The cross has been defeated- but the scars are still there. And then he goes on to eat something with them- just has he had done so often in the past. John says that a day will come ‘when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is’. As Christians, we hope that we might be like Christ one day, resurrected to eternal life. Death may have been defeated, but we, like Christ will bear the scars, if we have tried to emulate him in our lives. that means taking the risk, being vulnerable, being willing to reach out to those in need- as Christ did. The rookie newspaper laddie on that Aberdeen tenement stair must have felt like running away. But he had a job to do, so he knocked the door, and got given a cup of tea for his pains. If even a rookie newspaper reporter can (even when he didn’t try to) bring a kind of comfort in a unlikely situation, then we can do so too. But sometimes the door might get slammed in our face. And sharing others hurts we might get hurt to. But that is how we become like Christ- Christ resurrected, but still bearing the scars! John teaches that if we can stay true to Christ, if we can stick at trying to follow him, then one day we will discover that we have become like Christ.
Today’s Gospel reading has Jesus commissioning his earliest followers to preach about him to the whole world, and the promise that his power would go with them: ‘This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’. That is still Christ’s call to us- as individuals, and to the Church as a whole- for God is in the business of changing lives, and changing the world- through us! Using the language of John, we are to strive to become like Christ, and help others to do likewise. We are to preach repentance and forgiveness- help people come to know that however badly they think of themselves, they can come to know that they are truly children of God.
‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ When we are children and teenagers, we really don’t know, very often. Wherever we are in our Christian life, that is also true: ‘it is not yet clear what we shall become’. And that is true for all of us, and I think it is true also for our congregation of Old High St Stephen’s. We do not know what the future holds. But if we are to be truly Christian, if we are to be truly God’s children in Christ, then we will seek to become more like Christ, however challenging that might be. And as Christ sends us out in that task, we recall his words from another commission he gave us, his disciples: ‘I will be with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.20).
Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!
From 1 Peter 1.3-4
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo