Sunday 3rd September 2017
The sermon delivered at the 8am and 10.30am services on Sunday 3rd September by The Reverend Canon Nick Ralph:
Proper 17, Jeremiah Chapter 15, Matthew 16
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I know that some teachers are back at school, on inset days, ready for the start of the school term. Parents are madly buying new bits for school uniforms and the inevitable new shoes as their children continue to grow at the most inconvenient times. Yes, term is about to begin and that signals the end of the school holidays; well it does unless you are going to university and you have a few more weeks. And then there are those who are just waiting for the school holidays to end so they can go away. Whatever your position, whether you were lucky enough to get away over the summer, or will be in the next few months, or not at all, the arrival of September has that back to work feel as things start up again, not just in schools but also churches. Courses begin, and we re-engage with people we haven’t seen for a few weeks. It can all feel for some a bit overwhelming.
There are the personal circumstances of life generally which can seem so overwhelming, but also the burdens we might feel that God has placed on us. When you think about it, there are an awful lot of people whose faith is not strong enough to bring them to church but who expect that that it will be strong enough to get them to heaven. It is almost as if they believe instinctively but not yet practically.
Jeremiah, the prophet in our first reading, clearly felt overwhelmed; overwhelmed by life and by the mission which he had been given by God. As we listen to Bible readings sometimes, it can be easy to miss what is actually going on, sometimes quite shocking.
It is true of this passage. Did you notice that Jeremiah was castigating God, Yahweh? There was clearly no point in trying to pretend to be something he wasn’t, so Jeremiah was, at least, being honest. He felt it was God’s fault that he suffered insult. Surely, he had done everything right. Why did God allow his suffering to continue? He very boldly called God a deceitful brook, like waters that fail. Those are remarkable words to hear on the lips of a prophet. Deceitful brooks were brooks that dried up in summer as many of them did and still do in Palestine. But what words.
Jeremiah had clearly reached a state of utter desperation. Half way through the passage we heard Yahweh’s response. He didn’t give him a free pass, and say it will be fine. His response was to call Jeremiah to repent of his selfish thoughts and actions, and his lack of belief in himself but also crucially in the mission he had been given from birth.
Then and only then would Yahweh re-affirm his mission and vocation and in those words in the passage God promises to take him back, to deliver him out of the hand of the wicked and redeem him from the grasp of the ruthless.
Jeremiah was only seeing things from his own limited perspective and not God’s rather larger perspective. Peter had exactly the same problem in the gospel when all he could see was Jesus saying he was going to die. It is all too easy to set our minds on human things rather than godly things. We do it individually but it can also be true of churches as well. We see only the here and now and not the bigger picture. It is vital to take a step back and look anew at things with that wider perspective.
[The gospel passage also has some shocking language. Jesus refers to Peter at one point as Satan. In the passage immediately preceding the one we heard this morning which was read last week, we have from the lips of Peter the great confession, where he said plainly that he believed Jesus was the expected messiah, and Jesus said to him that he, Peter, pretros in Greek, was the rock, Greek word Petra, (Petros was the petra) the rock on which he would build his church. In the space of a few verses, he has gone from the greatest affirmation you can imagine to the next moment when Jesus says to him, ‘get behind me, Satan’.
One of the early church fathers, a man named Origen, suggested that when Jesus said to Peter, "Get behind me", what he actually meant was, "Peter, your place is behind me, not in front of me. It’s your job to follow me in the way I choose, not to try to lead me in the way you would like me to go." What Jesus said immediately after his rebuke of Peter would support that interpretation but how often do we want to lead others in the way we choose rather than let Jesus lead us in the way of his choosing?
Jesus told all of his disciples, including Peter, that not only did HE have a task that was set before him by God, but that THEY also had work to do. "Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me".
That phrase, ‘take up your cross’ comes before Jesus’ crucifixion so cannot have been a reference to that but crucifixion was of course a well-known and cruel method of inflicting suffering and death on someone in antiquity. The phrase ‘take up your cross’ at this point on Jesus’ lips, was simply a proverbial term for agonizing suffering. Jesus effectively told the disciples, to take up their suffering and bring it with them anyway, as they followed him. No excuses.
So, Jesus calls us to repentance and that necessarily involves changes in us as it did for Jeremiah and for Peter. It involves both a turning away from things that are bad or wrong, and a turning towards God and his mission, towards Christ, and his leadership and carrying our suffering with us. It is the only way to regain our lives.]
Augustine of Hippo, whose feast day we remembered last Monday, was accosted one day on the street by a former mistress sometime after he had become a Christian. When he saw her he turned and walked the other way. Surprised, the woman called out, "Augustine, it is I". Augustine, kept going the other way, but answered her, "Yes, but it is not I."
Repentance means changing from the old way, the easy way, and following a way of self-denial and even suffering. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said "When Christ calls someone to follow him, he calls them to die." It is about dying to self, and living to God.
Bonhoeffer was a famous German theologian and Lutheran pastor who was hung by the Gestapo at the very end of the second world war on April 9th 1945, for standing up for his faith with the Confessing Church against Hitler. His most well-known book, which I remember being given to read by a school chaplain when I was still at school, was called The Cost of Discipleship. I want to end by quoting a key passage in it that sums up some of this, albeit in not very inclusive language. He said this:
"Cheap grace," he said, "is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life."
When you recognise that Bonheoffer was himself executed for following his faith, you know he not only meant those words, he also walked them. At the beginning of the new term, it is appropriate that we should all ‘repent and seek the kingdom’