Sunday, November 17, 2013

How to be a hero

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

As I was reading the Gospel reading for today I was reminded, of all things, of the story of Achilles. Not the movie version, Troy, starring Brad Pitt, but rather the old Greek myths, as found in Homer's epic poem the Iliad and elsewhere. Of course, we live in a age when it cannot be assumed that people are familiar with such stories any more – and more than it can be presumed that the all people in our society know the great stories of the Bible very well either – so permit me give a very brief account of the life of Achilles.

Achilles was the son of a king and a goddess and the greatest warrior of his age. So mighty was he in battle that when the Greeks went to war with Troy they knew they could not succeed with out his help and went to extraordinary lengths to persuade him to come with them. Once there, so important was his assistance that, when the leader of the Greeks did him an injustice and he declined to fight further, the tide of the war turned badly against the Greeks. They were close to defeat when Achilles' best friend was killed in battle, and in a rage, not even wearing armour, Achilles' returned to the fray and drove back the Trojans. It is not too much to say that there were three forces on the field of battle that day: the Greeks, the Trojans, and Achilles.

Achilles was given a choice in his youth by his mother, the goddess Thetis: he could have a short but glorious life as a warrior, and be remembered forever; or he could have a long and peaceful life of total obscurity. I'm sure you can guess which he chose, if you don't already know. 


The choice that Achilles made caught the imagination of the ancient world, so much so that almost a cult grew up around it. Famously, one young prince from Macedonia fell in love with the ideal of preferring a short but glorious life over a long one after which you were forgotten. So great an impression did the story of Achilles make upon that he slept with a copy of Homer's Iliad under his pillow. That young prince got his wish: he did have a life that was glorious but short; and his name remains famous to this day: Alexander the Great.

Now, you might at this point be wondering how our Gospel reading made me think of that. And started me on that train of thought was our Lord's words: 

'they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.'

You'd almost think he was trying to put them off! And it gets worse:

'You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.'

He's not exactly sugar-coating it, is he? But then he gives them a reason why they should persevere, something that will make the suffering he is telling them they will endure, worthwhile:

'But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.'

At which point, perhaps, you can see why the reading made me think of Achilles; Christ is essentially offering his disciples the same choice as the mythological hero faced. He is telling them they can walk away from him, and lead a quiet, safe life; one that does not have the guarantee of hatred and persecution and a strong possibility of violent death; or they can continue to follow him, knowing that after the suffering of this life come the reward of eternal glory with him in heaven.

It is a choice that still faces his followers today. We live in a world that is increasingly hostile to the truths that Christ taught; a world that tolerates Christians as long as they keep their views to themselves; a world where many Christians prefer to keep their heads down and their mouths shut rather than risk what might come with rocking the boat. Is the kind of behaviour that Jesus expected from his followers when he warned them of the dangers they would face? I have searched the Gospels in vain looking for verses to support the idea that Jesus would have said something along the lines of: 'but it is OK; I don't want you to take any chances; saying you are my follower privately is enough; out in the world, I do not expect you to say or do anything about the evil you see.'

This is because all Christians are called to the short and glorious life. Achilles and Alexander followed it, and found merely fame that lived past their death; if we follow it we gain the glory of life everlasting. And so I pray that you will ponder well the choice that lies before you, today and everyday; even as I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen.

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