Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost,
16 September 2018
Today we again have 4 diverse readings. However in their own way, each addresses a human response, or lack of response, to God’s grace.
Today’s Proverbs reading is an introductory chapter to the collection of proverb writings. This book is part of the Old Testament collection of Wisdom tradition literature. In a sense it is poetic or illusionary rather than literal or proscriptive.
Proverbs personifies wisdom as a prophetess who unsuccessfully calls God’s people from their waywardness and complacency. Here we have this prophetess carrying Yahweh’s message, God’s message into the very heart of the city; into the squares and busiest corners.
The psalm, and again another longish reading, declares that the Torah, God’s law is God’s gift to enliven the simple minded and refresh the soul. Aware of the difficulty of obedience the psalmist prays for forgiveness for hidden faults and protection from presumptuous sins.
The James reading is almost a repeat of last week
re-emphasising that a faith not lived out is pointless; “a person is justified by works, what they do, and not by faith alone.” This was red rag to a bull for reformer Martin Luther who coined the protest reformation catch cry of ‘justification by faith alone’. But that debate is for another time.
The gospel reading presents a very difficult scenario, when Mark tells of Jesus “teaching the disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected and killed and after three days rise again.”
When Bp Jeremy was here on Monday he told this little story about the priest doing a children’s talk at the parish family service. He asked the children at his feet, “What is brown and has a bushy tail, eats nuts and lives in a tree?”. This seemed to stump the children until one boy reluctantly put up his hand and answered, “Well the answer is Jesus, but really it sounds like a squirrel to me”.
I wonder if Peter was doing something similar when Jesus asked the disciples “who do you say that I am”. As today’s gospel reading unfolds it is quite obvious that Peter thought he got the answer right, “You are the Messiah” but did not understand what Jesus’s Messiahship was really about. I think this is the great challenge for us, as we reflect upon that question. No doubt we too would answer Messiah, or more probably, Lord and Saviour. But bearing in mind what James also says to us today, “A person is justified, i.e. put right with God, by works, what they do and how they live, and not by faith alone,” then what does Jesus have to say to us about our works, our lives, in the light of that profession. What are we to do; we who proclaim Jesus as Messiah, or Lord and Saviour, and seek to be his disciples or followers. Today’s Gospel gives us three clear directives.
Firstly, listen to the teaching of Jesus about the sort of Messiah he is. i.e., base our understanding of belief in Jesus and the divine mystery of God that he reveals, on sound teaching, not on urban myths or what we might remember from Sunday School. We should seek informed biblical understanding and be guided by faithful fellow disciples and wise teachers. We can only guess at what sort of Messiah Peter imagined, but he seems unprepared for what Jesus wanted to teach him. “Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be killed, but he would rise again after three days.” This was not what Peter wanted to hear. But the teaching here is that, what Jesus outlines, is the central reality of his mission and ministry. As painful as it might sound, without Jesus’s willingness, and we add obedience, in enduring rejection and death we would not have an Easter. For as Jesus continues, “For the Son of Man will rise again after three days”. Really, he must rise, not only to demonstrate or prove that he was what he said he was, Son of God, but through this mysterious yet divine happening, he opens wide the gates of salvation to all who would embrace and follow him. Easter is central to all we believe and proclaim, and here Jesus is teaching us that we too must journey through our own Calvary and experience Easter new life.
Secondly, and I might say, this and the third Jesus directives, sound a bit like the first; secondly check to see how much of Jesus’s rebuke to Peter applies personally. “Get behind me Satan”. A bit harsh perhaps, so Peter, stop blocking my way with selfish and erroneous ideas. “For you are setting your mind NOT on divine things, but human things”. Quite simply, think spiritually, Kingdom of God thinking. Probably as Jesus taught, “Not my will, (my way) but your will, (your way)”. This is the common challenge we all face. I have lots of great ideas on how to straighten out and revive the church, but what l had to learn and live with is ‘What sort of church does God want? And more personally, what sort of disciple is God calling me to be?’
And thirdly, the curious directive; “If any want to become my followers, (my disciples,) let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” What does this really mean? Well, we have largely tried to understand this literally and penitentially. We have to give up something and burden ourselves with the biggest and heaviest cross or burden to prove our sincerity, to pay our dues. I suggest that what Jesus has previously said to Peter applies here. ‘Stop thinking in a human way and start thinking as God thinks.’ Jesus is inviting us as followers and disciples to journey with him, but not just to his Calvary, but to our own. The mystery of the cross and Easter is that new life can only emerge when the old is discarded. So just as Jesus is revealed in new life as Christ, the true Messiah on Easter Day, three days after discarding the old human self on Good Friday, so he invites us to our own Easter transformation. To deny ourselves, our human ways of seeing and doing, to discard the dead and deadly parts of ourselves, and like the butterflies, let the new self, the one that is in step with God’s ways, emerge: the transformation from ‘would be disciple’, to stepping over the line and assuming the mantle of what we are called to be at our baptism, a disciple of Christ. So fellow pilgrims, would be disciples of Christ, as we acclaim Jesus as God’s Messiah, our Saviour, let us afresh listen to his kingdom teaching, lifting our minds and hearts beyond human things to divine things, and simply change direction if necessary, and follow him.
“If any want to become my followers, (my disciples,) let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Fr Terry Booth