The Killer Question

A sermon by Imogen de la Bere preached at St Saviour's St Albans on 14th September 2003.


I once was guest at a very good dinner party that was completely ruined by a killer question.

The other guests were two priests, both clever and bumptious men. One was an Orthodox and the other an Anglican. They disagreed about some point of theology. I can’t remember what the theological debate was, but I remember the killer question.

‘Father,’ said the bumptious Orthodox priest, ‘are you familiar with the Acts of the Council of Nicea?’

‘I’m sure I have read them, Father,’ replied the bold Anglican priest. ‘But it was a very long time ago.’

‘Well, that is very odd, Father,’ countered the Orthodox, ‘because there are no Acts of the Council of Nicea.’

After the killer question, nothing was the same again. The questioner and the one questioned were both revealed in a new light – we would never look at them in the same way again. It was like going through the stage door of the person, and seeing the wires and harness that make him fly. Once seen, the stage illusion would never seem quite so convincing.

This week some of us were trying to devise killer questions of our own. A question we might ask each prospective Vicar of St Saviour’s which would instantly reveal who he or she was , the question which when answered would lay bare completely and unequivocally the nature of the person and whether he or she was the soul mate we long for in a parish priest.

There was an excellent little supper to meet the prospective priests, put on for the PCC and a few invited extras, of whom by some happy chance, I was one. As part of the admirable process of selection, we were enjoined to circulate among the priests and their partners and chat to them, with the aim of forming an impression, to be conveyed to the interviewing panel.

Now, two things became clear to me as I shuttled between chatting groups. The crunch question had to be different for each individual, since the conversation and manner and background and interests of each person are so radically different.  And also, it struck me as I strove to present myself in the best possible light to these strangers, was that the killer question would also reveal me to him. I would be identifiable as a certain sort of person. And the label would stick. And did I want that?

I concluded very quickly that it was far safer to fall back on ordinary conversation.

In fact it is well attested that we make up our minds about other people within minutes – some say seconds – of meeting them. It can take years to undo the impression gained by the first five minutes of contact. Clothes, voice, conversational openings, manner of holding the body, gesture – each of these is a powerful signal which we as adults learn both to decode and to encode.

What do I mean by ‘encode’? I mean this: as we grow up we slowly but surely create the person we are. We choose to dress in certain ways, to adorn ourselves or perhaps deliberately not to adorn. We choose to look after our body (or not), to change our accent, to educate ourself, to develop certain styles and subjects of conversation. Some of these are deliberate – a girl chooses to work on her makeup to become in time, glamorous. A man chooses to keep himself trim and fit. But other developments arise semi-consciously, by circumstances. A fat boy discovers that if he makes people laugh he will be more acceptable. He makes more jokes, and so in time becomes good at it. He turns himself into a comic. A man finds that people listen to him. He gets an important job. He finds that more people listen to him with respect. He becomes pompous. 

All through our teenage years and early adulthood we are working on who we are to become, consciously and unconsciously, until we arrive at about thirty, when we are more or less who we are going to be. The person we present to the world is built up of hundreds of thousands of tiny choices. Shall I sew on that button? Shall I clean my shoes? Shall I watch TV tonight? Shall I practise for my music exam today? Shall I call my friend and go to the movies, or shall I stay in and do my maths?  Each choice is entirely trivial, but taken together over a few decades of a person’s life, they form a picture. A picture that we are perfectly entitled to take at face value, because it has not been painted by accident.

So, although I looked for the killer question at the party, but fell back on chit-chat, I was behaving perfectly responsibly. Each priest was presenting for immediate evaluation the person whom he or she had become. And we, as all adult humans do, looked at the picture presented and decided whether we liked it or not.  As we are perfectly entitled to do.

Now this brings me to the gospel for today.

What did Jesus mean when he said: For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  He was not talking about physical death, but about the death of the inner person, the death of the soul.  The old King James translation makes the point more plainly: For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

Nobody, or at least none of us, if offered the choice – ‘here’s the whole world: here’s your soul. You choose. ‘ would opt for the world and destroy himself.  But the choice is never presented to us in those simple terms. The spiritual journey would be a lot simpler is we had a choice like that. But instead it’s a lifetime’s work. As we build our personality, choice by choice, fragment by fragment, so we build the spiritual person. As we decide day in day out whether to watch TV or read a book, whether to go shopping or call a difficult friend, whether to go to bed with our partner or to stay up and finish our work, whether to go to church or get the garden done, choice by choice, item by item, we build who we have become, personally and spiritually. And then the moment comes when we have gained the whole world and lost our soul. Or in less dramatic terms, the moment comes when you have wealth, success, comfort, family and friends, but can no longer hear the voice of God, can no longer pray, no longer feel. If you look in the mirror, if you look at the painting you have created for the world, if you look beyond the surface to the person whom only God sees – who is there? Is this the person God intended? Have you gained, millimetre by millimetre, a sizeable chunk of the world, and lost the greater part of your soul?

There’s the killer question only you can answer.

But I will tell you this: if you do not like who you see. If you do not like what you have become. If you don’t like the way you are headed, you can, by the grace of God, change.

If it were impossible for you to change, then we would have no religion. For at the core of Christianity is this simple message. With God’s grace, you can change.  With God’s grace, you can change.  Let me say it again. With God’s grace, you can change. No matter how selfish you have grown, no matter how argumentative, jaded, cynical, sluggish, debauched, lazy or self-important you have grown, you can change. Better than any personal training regime at the gym,  the operation of grace allows transformation.

If you don’t believe in the possibility of change for the better in the human being, then you are not a Christian.  And as you are Christians, you believe in it, for others, and for yourself.

So let us start today. Those of us who have not already started. Ask yourself the killer questions – the ones only you know how to ask. Who am I? What do I care about? What should I do? Where is God in my life? Can anyone, anyone at all, see Jesus in me? And if not, why not? What am I, with God’s help, going to do about it?

Start asking. Start answering. As you form the answers, you may hear a voice, faint at first, hard to discern, almost an echo, fading as you strain to catch it. You may, if you pause long enough over your answers, hear the whispering of the Spirit.