SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’ CHARLEVILLE
THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
(28th August) 2005
Psalm 105:12-6, 23-26, 45c
At a pivotal moment in his ministry Jesus shifts the focus of his teaching so that it now rests on the meaning and purpose of his own life.
For Peter has just identified Jesus as “the Christ.” In Matthew’s gospel-version this leads to an extend response from Jesus – “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Luke and Mark don’t give us this conversation, out of fear that it can be misinterpreted as permission to use and abuse power.
The history of Christianity at its worst has justified their caution, for their can be no doubt hat amongst the good that we have, at our best, achieved, there has been much that has been far from good, to our shame, that we must acknowledge and confess.
But Matthew is less cautious in his telling of the story. He wants us to see the complexity of the issue. Peter’s eyes have not seen as yet the extent to which the Lordship is prepared to reach, and he is only seeing the Messiahhood of Jesus in terms of Peter’s own bravado and potential for glory. It is pathetically possible for us to fall into the same trap. There have been many times in which and many individuals by whom the gospel has been abused. There have been times we have sought to make ourselves look good, accidentally or deliberately, by our belonging to and use and abuse of the name of Jesus and his Church.
Jesus begins to tell Peter that his Messiahhood and the way of the Cross to which Peter is being commissioned are not a way to elitism or favouritism in the way of society – or even of God – but a way to the loneliness of crucifixion. Peter will have none of it – and Jesus will have none of Peter having none of it! Roman Catholic theologian von Balthasar saw the trap clearly:
What in the Gospel is in need of special absolution is the abuse of institution: twisting it for purposes of worldly power out of fear of the Cross … puffing oneself up by appealing to the special grace of office … masking fear of and flight from suffering as love of the Lord [Peter’s particular sin at this point] … making oneself at home in transfigured heights
Peter here is commissioned to but is failing to understand that the way of Jesus is a way of self-denial and sacrifice, of powerlessness not power.
Paul, we often need to remember, is writing before Matthew – though after Jesus taught and commissioned the first Christ-bearers. Paul, without Peter’s advantage of eye-witness journeying with Jesus, has wrestled with the significance of the Cross and its loneliness. As he writes to Rome, he writes to the seat of world power – as he knew it. He writes to Christians who are surrounded by the growing emperor cult of Caesar, the absolute opposite of the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Paul writes to a community tempted to forget its call to self denial just as Peter had been tempted to forget the nature of his call.
The Romans’ error is an understandable error. All the advertising messages of Paul’s day, all the subconscious messaging of their Roman community, were pronouncing that might and power are the way of the gods and the chosen god-bearers. In the same way, all-but-all of our subliminal messages tell us that power and sex are the way to liberation, and it is too easy to ignore the call of Paul to be a radical alternative society, or to reinvent Jesus in the plastic iconography of our own society.
Paul here, and equally notably in the great hymn to love of 1 Cor 13, calls his audience to what we might call the way of “unplastic love.” Writing to a society in which military might and conquest are the ways of the gods, he speaks only of sharing in love and tears and resources and hospitality. Writing to a society in which dog eats dog – as revealed most powerfully in the throwing of criminals to the lions or the public entertainment of crucifying nuisances – Paul speaks of bringing comfort to the frightened and the hurting. Writing to a society in which arguments were sorted by conquest and revenge, Paul writes instead of cycle-breaking acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our task as a people of God, even on the small stages of our lives, is to hear and respond to these calls to a radical alternative structure. Where the ads tell us that this car or coffee or razor will bring us eternal happiness we are called to look for a deeper set of values. Where the politicians tell us that punishment and revenge are the ways to a safer-happier-wealthier future we are called to ask whether there might not be ways in which endless cycles of hatred can be broken by forgiveness and reconciliation. Where the media tells us that “the most important thing in your life is “you” we are called to see life the opposite way.
Do not be overcome by evil but over come evil by good. Such is the challenge of living for Jesus today and tomorrow and each of the todays that God lends us.