27th June, 2016
King’s School, Rochester
I wonder if you ever get fed up of being asked questions?
Questions are a huge part of education.
When teachers are trained they are taught good questioning skills.
When I observe teachers in my school teach I notice what sort of questions they ask. Are they asking open questions that allow multiple answers or closed, “guess what I’m thinking” questions.
In the last few weeks Years 11s have been answering questions set by the exam boards. Every year I look at the exam papers to see how those questions have been set. For a time multiple choice answers were popular in some subjects. They are easy to mark – there were even computer readable script so that no human being needed to be involved in marking them. In recent years essays have returned. Even for relatively straightforward factual answers in a subject I know well like RE two years ago questions were combined to make complex sentences. This year questions were more straightforward again.
Jesus asks Simon Peter a deceptively simple question in the reading we have just heard “Do you love me?” Just four words.
Jesus us remarkably fond of asking questions and seems particularly fond of asking Peter questions.
I want to think about two questions Jesus asks Peter and do so in relation to our own lives and last week’s referendum.
The other question that Jesus asks Peter is Who do people say that I am? and then Who you say that I am?
So a question for all of you this morning? Who do you say that you are?
What are the labels you use to describe yourself?
Boy, girl, white, black, christian, atheist muslim, sister, son, brother, daughter, cousin …
When I was fifteen I read a book that I have re-read numerous times ever since. It was written just before the second world war by the French writer Jean Paul Sartre, the book is called Nausea and I really recommend you read it.
The most famous scene of the book has its hero stood by a chestnut tree, where he comes to a realisation of his condition, his existence.
The nausea, the sickness he has been suffering from is a sense that life is meaningless – Sartre calls it absurd – and that his identity has no solidity, no reality.
Sartre was, of course an existentialist, Nausea is, in my opinion his best book. His fellow existentialist Albert Camus wrote a book which is equally worth reading, The Rebel, Camus begins from the same position as Sartre but suggests that we should live positively; rebelling against meaninglessness and creating meaning through justice.
As Head Master of a school in inner city London, where over three-quarters of children are black; and from multiple nations. I have had to think a lot about identity. What is it that makes me me. I have struggled with staff meetings and staff social events where all the black staff sit together. Where we encourage our pupils to aspire but all the senior staff and most of the teaching staff are white.
It has not been quite an identity crisis but it has made me think long and hard about my privilege as a white man; even about my identity as an Anglican in a situation where most pupils are in church each Sunday but where those churches are almost all black majority – very often only black, Pentecostal churches. Most of all I have been challenged in my belief that education can break the cycles of poverty and deprivation. We live in a country where parental income is the best predictor of educational outcomes and I am no longer sure what the answer to that is.
Well, it feels a bit like our country, the United Kingdom, is not sure about much at the moment and is having an existential crisis of its own.
The American poet Walt Whitman answers the question ‘who do say that you are?’ in a line of his poetry:
“I am large, I contain multitudes” – If that is true of us as individuals, how much more so of nations?
You may have seen a few weeks ago that the Archbishop of Canterbury had a bit of a shock when he discovered by a DNA test that the man he had thought of as his father was not in fact so. Through the man he had thought of as a father Archbishop Justine had thought that he was partly Jewish. Something he had commented on publicly. Suddenly that identity changed, or rather simply proved not to exist.
I think we were all struck by the calmness with which the Archbishop dealt with all this and one line stuck out for me in the statement he issued:
“I find my identity in Jesus.”
This is brings us right back to that question Jesus asks Peter: Do you love me?
When we fall in love we are changed by it. When we love someone the boundaries of our own existence enlarge to take them in. We are no longer concerned only with ourselves, where I am, what I am doing. Constantly a part of our existence is aware of where they are, what they are doing; if they are safe, happy, sad. What Sartre gets wrong in Nausea – brilliant sit is. Is the absence of love.Sartre’s hero is trapped in his own existence because he doesn’t love.
Jesus says: Do you love me?
When we commit ourselves to Jesus, when we say “yes Jesus, you know that I love you.” Our existence changes. As, in baptism, we immerse ourselves in him, we become part of the body of Christ.
And -a bit more philosophy here – Jesus can save us because all of us share with him in our human nature.
Christians can never be complete existentialists because we believe that we share one substance, we are made of one stuff, our humanness.
Whatever identities, whatever labels we place on ourselves; whether we are male or female, gay or straight, British, or European, English or Irish.
We are human and that humanity is saved in and by Jesus.
In Sartre’s Nausea the hero stand alone in the town square under the chestnut tree, in our first reading from Ezekiel God makes it clear that we are never without him; he will search us out and find us.
Whatever your religion, whatever you believe; please know that we who are Christians believe in the freedom that comes from knowing our identity is in Christ. Prime Ministers may come and go, Governments rise and fall, but our true life is in Jesus who asks us to answer a simple question: Do you love me?