IT IS quite a while since I was a parish priest. But some things you never forget. Today’s Gospel is one of them. The preacher, that long-ago morning, was Joan — then an ordinand, now a parish priest herself in this diocese of Ely. From the Gospel she chose these words as her theme: “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”
Why, out of all the sermons I have heard, that is one of the few that clings on tenaciously in my memory, I cannot say. But it does. I often remember preachers, and the impact they had; their words have their effect, but in a different way. That morning, Joan’s sermon helped this Gospel to “speak” to me, as we Christians like to say. It was a revelation of divine love. I am still reflecting on it all these years later.
“It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher.” The biggest impact came from the least significant words: “it is enough”. Over time it has reduced further, like a simmering stovetop sauce: “enough”.
“Enough” is one of those strange words that can mean very different things, depending on the tone of voice used. It can indicate gross surfeit. Or it can sound the way I hear it here: reassurance. It tells me that there is no need for anxiety, striving, stress; that the work of a disciple (a pupil, in other words) is to find a point of similarity with the teacher. That is enough.
Jesus has not always been made known to seekers as a Good Teacher. Some people are introduced to him as a Judge, treading out the grapes in the great winepress of the wrath of God (Revelation 14.19; with Isaiah 63.2). Then the hope of patience and gentleness can be swallowed in a storm of almighty fury. The message that we should fear him has been heard loud and clear down the years. There are still churches aplenty preaching it.
Against this, Matthew 10.24 is a whispered reassurance, cutting through our self-doubt. Enough, it says: no more of fear and fury. It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher. Not exactly alike, mind. We must not replace one guilty fear with another, interrogating ourselves constantly, “Am I enough like the teacher?” All we have to do is find within ourselves that point of contact, a glimpse of likeness, catching the sound of that “gentle voice calling” (echoes of another Welsh hymn, this time my grandmother’s favourite — “Mi glywaf dyner lais”).
Jesus reinforces the word “enough” by telling us to have no fear. We will always have reasonable reasons to be afraid. Serving Jesus will not insulate us against them — not even irrational or obsessive ones. The promise that he makes is simply that we cannot be parted from our heavenly Father. Now “enough” turns out to mean that what we have and what we do cannot set us apart from God, simply because of what we are. We are his children.
In the New Testament reading, Paul is warming up to that glorious paean of confidence in God (in Romans 8.31-39), which makes the same point. Augustine once did a Bible study on that passage as a way of showing how God inspired the apostle (to Augustine, Paul is always “the” apostle) to deliver his teaching with every power of persuasive speech at his command.
The end of Romans 8 often brings solace and hope to Christians at funeral services; but it is today’s passage from Romans 6 which touches those who have yet to hear the call of the Teacher’s gentle voice. They hear it mediated through a poem of Dylan Thomas — that flawed, fabulous wordsmith — repeating over and over, “And death shall have no more dominion” (Romans 6.9). There it is, in the Good Book, in Bible-black (and white).
“Have no fear”, “do not fear”, “do not be afraid”, Jesus says. Where else can we find a clearer reassurance for the besetting pain of our humanity? I am glad to have found a Teacher who knows how to teach me, by example, and who is patient, and corrects me with love. Of course I want to be like him. Of course that is enough.