Worship was led by the Revd. Robert Beard who preached on Thomas a Kempis’ The imitation of Christ’ and its relevance to the gospel reading, Matthew 5 vv 21 – 37 where Jesus is teaching people to avoid not only evil deeds but also evil thoughts and feelings which give rise to evils deeds.
Rejoice and Sing 339 Great God your love has called us here
Rejoice and Sing 558 Will you come and follow me
Rejoice and Sing 551 O for a closer walk with God
Rejoice and Sing 521 Forth in the name, O Lord, I go
The fourteenth century was as uncertain and dangerous a time for the average Western European as any there has ever been. Rural areas were full of roving marauders driven there by poverty or greed, continual peasants’ revolts kept city dwellers unsettled, and Europe experienced some fifty major conflicts including, on our own soil, the 32 years of the Wars of the Roses. Moreover, the western Church was torn apart by the Great Schism of 1378 to 1417, which saw the establishment of rival papacies in Rome and Avignon. And to cap it all, the Black Death was brought into Europe along the Silk Road from Central Asia, killing up to half the population.
Into the wreckage of Europe towards the end of what came to be known as “the Calamitous Century”, there was born a man about whom we know almost nothing except that he wrote a book: a book that has now been continuously in print for nearly half a millennium.
· The book was written in Latin in four parts between 1418 and 1427
· Copied by hand at first, there still exist 750 manuscript editions of the work
· It was first printed in Augsburg in 1471-72
· By the end of the fifteenth century, it was had been translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish
· It attracted some pretty good reviews:
o George Pirkhamer, the prior of Nuremberg, said of the 1494 edition, “Nothing more holy, nothing more honourable, nothing more religious, nothing in fine more profitable for the Christian commonwealth can you ever do than to make known these works.”
o Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and martyred ‘Man for All Seasons’ Sir – or St – Thomas More (1478-1535), said it was one of the three books everyone ought to own
o Founder of the Jesuit order St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556) read a chapter from it every day and regularly gave away copies as gifts
· Father of Methodism John Wesley 1703-1791) said it was the best summary of the Christian life he had ever read
· By 1779 it had reached its 1,800th edition
· There are 545 extant editions in Latin and no fewer than 900 in French
· The British Museum houses 1000 different editions
· It has been translated into more languages than any other work except the Holy Bible.
I myself would go so far as to say that its author’s insights provide an unparalleled key to unlocking the meaning of much of Jesus’ teaching as recorded in the gospels, and especially this morning’s reading from the Sermon on the Mount.
It is The Imitation of Christ by the German theologian Thomas à Kempis.
As I said earlier, very little is known about our brother Thomas. Born c. 1380 in the Rhineland town of Kempen (hence “à Kempis”) near Düsseldorf and educated by the Dutch Augustinian Brothers of the Common Life, at the age of 19 he entered their monastery at Mount St Agnes near Zwolle in Holland, and remained there until his death at the quite extraordinary age – for those days – of 91. He became the prior’s assistant, charged with instructing novices in the spiritual life, and it was in this capacity that, between 1420 and 1427, he wrote four booklets, later assembled into a single volume and given the overall title of the first booklet, The Imitation of Christ.
Remarkably modern in his outlook, Thomas did not particularly look for comfort after death, but wrote:
Vain and brief is all human comfort. Blessed and true is that comfort which is derived inwardly from the Truth.
On finding happiness in life, he said:
The glory of the good is in their own consciences, and not in the mouths of men.
There are people following strands of Christianity in the world today who seem to believe that all they need to guarantee themselves a place in Heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour: after which it doesn’t much matter what they do with themselves and their possessions, nor how they treat those less fortunate or more vulnerable than they are. Thomas would have had none of this. I quote,
We must imitate Christ’s life and his ways if we are to be truly enlightened and set free from the darkness of our own hearts. Let it be the most important thing we do, then, to reflect on the life of Jesus Christ.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, St Matthew records Jesus teaching the people to avoid not only evil deeds and words, but also the evil thoughts and feelings that give rise to evil deeds and words: not only “You shall not murder”, but also a command not to feel angry with anyone.
For human beings who seem all too often unable to control our speech, let alone our actions, the injunction to control our thoughts and emotions is a tough call. “Why?” we might ask; “What difference does it make what I’m thinking and feeling, as long as I’m behaving like a good Christian?” Put like that, of course, the hypocrisy is fairly obvious, and the motivation to do something good because it makes mefeel good, rather than because I genuinely love the other person, while it may make little immediate practical difference to the other person, is self-centred to put it mildly. It’s a bit like giving to charity because I’ve been made to feel guilty, rather than because I actually care about my sisters and brothers in need.
If we’ve ever felt really angry but known somewhere deep down that our anger will get us nowhere – as though we were trying to wrestle our feelings out of the place of self-love where they sometimes sit so easily, and into the place of self-giving love where Jesus might want them to be – we know that our feelings don’t easily submit to being wrestled. Instead, we need something that connects with both our emotional and our rational faculties. We need motivation. The insights of Thomas à Kempis can be immensely helpful to us here. In one of the most often quoted passages in The Imitation of Christ, he says,
Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.
This insight is, I think, the key to this morning’s reading. Learning to conform to the pattern of humanity that God reveals to us in Jesus, learning to imitate Christ, learning to avoid the hypocrisy of appearing to do something for the right motives when we’re thinking or feeling something quite different, is not about trying to wrestle our feelings from one place to another. What it requires instead is that we continually examine ourselves in the light of Christ’s teaching and example, so that rather than trying to make other people more like us, we seek continually to make ourselves more like Jesus.
If you want to learn something that will really help you, learn to see yourself as God sees you and not as you see yourself in the distorted mirror of your own self-importance. This is the greatest and most useful lesson we can learn: to know ourselves for what we truly are, to admit freely our weaknesses and failings, and to hold a humble opinion of ourselves because of them.
Revd Robert Beard BD