Early Years Reunion (1969-1989) - Chapel TalkChapel Homily — Sunday July 27, 2008
My text is from Matthew chapter 10 verse 16, ‘be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves’.
At a theatre in London recently I was looked firmly in the eye by C.S. Lewis. He was peering down from a great height and looking rather severely at me.
How could that be I hear you thinking. The venue was a production of Shadowlands which is about the marriage of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidson. The play was about to begin. Charles Dance, the actor playing C.S. Lewis, walked on. A mobile phone went off close to where I was sitting. It was not my phone: it was the phone of my immediate neighbour! But Charles Dance frowned at me severely: perhaps because I was in a suit and looked as if I was a prime suspect. Charles Dance could be forgiven for thinking it was my phone because of the suit. I tried to look as innocent as a dove but on this occasion my innocence did not appear to cut any ice at all!
In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis reflects on the words of Jesus ‘be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves’. He wrote,
"Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence : on the contrary. He told us to be not only ‘as harmless as doves’, but also as wise as serpents’. He wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim. The fact that what you are thinking about is God Himself (for example, when you are praying) does not mean that you can be content with the same babyish ideas which you had when you were a five-year-old.”
C.S. Lewis challenged his readers to hold that balance of a child’s heart and a grown-up’s head—the balance between being simple, single-minded and affectionate, alongside using every bit of intelligence that is available to us.
I remember Ward Gasque and Carl Armerding saying you must look at each verse in context. So what is the context for this verse in Matthew?
Chapter 10 is the tipping point in the gospel. The first 9 chapters have been full of wonderful teaching. We have seen John baptized, Jesus baptized, heard the Sermon on the Mount, observed the faith of the centurion, Jesus calming the storm and Jesus healing. But now we move into a new act in the drama. It is time for the disciples to be sent out. The initial phase of listening and observing moves into the disciples taking responsibility to ‘go out’. They are told to ‘go, preach this message: The kingdom of heaven is near’. Jesus says to them ‘freely you have received, freely give’. They are told greet people and bring peace, but where you are not welcomed, shake the dust off your feet. Jesus cautions them that he is sending them out like sheep among wolves, and therefore advises them to be ‘as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves’. So the context for the text is very clear. As the disciples set out into a potentially hostile world, they are to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
Dick France, in this commentary on Matthew, talks of the word wise as standing for sensible or prudent actions. He writes,
“Christians are not to be gullible simpletons. But neither are they to be rogues. Innocent is literally ‘unmixed’, i.e. pure, transparent; it demands not naivety, but an irreproachable honesty. The balance of prudence and purity will enable Christians both to survive and to fulfill their mission to the world.”
Another commentary talks of innocence meaning ‘unmixed’ or without guile. For me, ‘without guile’ sums up so much in this text. Innocence is not about naivety, but it is about honesty, openness with no hint of duplicity or guile.
Frances and I recently walked sections of the pilgrimage route in northern Spain to Santiago. Being on a pilgrimage I thought I ought to read an ‘improving book’ and read Tom Wright’s Matthew’s Gospel for Everyone. Tom Wright includes this most wonderful paragraph about our text.
“Faced with this awesome challenge, Jesus’ sharp advice to his followers was: be shrewd like snakes, but innocent like doves. Christians often find it easy to be one or the other, but seldom both. Without innocence, shrewdness becomes manipulative; without shrewdness, innocence becomes naivety. Though we face different crises and different problems to those of the first disciples, we still need that finely balanced character, reflecting so remarkably that of Jesus himself. If we are in any way to face what he faced, and to share his work, we need to be sure that his own life becomes embodied in ours.”
Tom talks of that finely balanced character of holding together wisdom and shrewdness alongside innocence that is not naivety.
We have looked at the text and its context and what C.S. Lewis, Dick France and Tom Wright have to say about it. But what is its significance for us? How has our faith in the Risen Christ internalized the text for us, and what does it mean for our futures?
First, let us look back. Can you remember your first day at Regent? I can. It was 38 years ago: Rita Houston met me at Vancouver Station. I was an innocent 21 year old travelling to North America for the first time. What a feast of learning the next 10 months brought. I felt I was an empty vessel being filled with wisdom and understanding. What a privilege it was to be taught by Jim Houston, Ward Gasque, Carl Armerding, Bill Martin, Sam Mikolaski, Ian Rennie and many others.
We were taught to be discerning, prudent, shrewd, perceptive and clear headed. But we also learnt from the faculty the innocence dimension. There was always a great generosity of heart, compassion, understanding, listening, openness and honesty.
And why was there this balance of wisdom and innocence? Because the staff and sponsors of Regent were following in the footsteps of the 12 disciples: you were, in the words of verse 7 of Matthew 10, bringing the message that the kingdom of God is near, through encouraging us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.
Generations of us at Regent have received that same challenge—to think hard, to work hard, to pray hard, and to love, cherish, nurture and uphold our fellow students and all those with whom we were working or spending time.
For the last 38 years generations of students at Regent have been searching the scriptures to discern their next steps, and to bring that innocence of being open to a wide range of different callings and opportunities to serve.
It is great to celebrate—to look back and to give thanks. Reunited bonds and sharing stories are so special. But we have the delight of looking forward too.
God is not finished with us yet. We have come a long journey with him, but there are many more dawns to come, people to meet, and mountains to climb. There are many more books to read, people to talk to, friendships to cherish, prayers to be said, and people to help bring to an understanding of faith in the Risen Christ.
May I encourage you to look forward and reflect on this text in two different contexts.
• Over the next phase of life, what is God calling you to do?
• What hard decision do you need to take?
Over the next phase of life, what is God calling you to do? All that wisdom, shrewdness and prudence that God has grown in you—how might God use that wisdom, those special gifts of say, listening, talking, writing, giving, loving? What might be the co-creation between God and you? Through your learning, giving, serving, exploring, how might God embrace, grow, challenge and cherish those gifts? It isn’t just about bringing wisdom, it is bringing innocence too. It may be saying, ‘here I am send me’. It is bringing that innocence which means we are open to fresh experiences of God’s grace, open to new conversations, new insights, new people. Open to new freshness and vitality in our pilgrimage of faith and life.
I encourage you to allow yourself to dream dreams of what next—to allow the inspiration God has given you to burst forth, maybe in new ways or in renewed ways relighting former interests or passions. Or maybe that still small voice is going to take you in a completely new direction.
My second challenge to us is to reflect on a hard decision you need to make. This type of event brings into sharp relief our journey so far and the journey ahead. But it can also put into greater focus decisions we need to take now. Is there a hard decision you ought to take where you need to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove? Can you picture a decision you need to make—maybe about work, family, a relationship or next steps? Does being away with your Regent friends, sharing our common bonds of faith, help give you that perspective to take a next step in that decision? Do bring the wisdom and innocence God has given you, to reflect anew, not hindered by previous perspectives.
As we share in the re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper together, as we receive the bread and the wine, may we lay before God the gifts he has given us. May we bring both the wisdom and the innocence God has given us. May we go out as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves, encouraged by each other, cherishing great memories and strengthened through God’s grace to serve the Risen Christ in new ways, and to take those decisions that need to be taken.