St Paul’s Canterbury 3/9/17

Sermon Title: St Paul’s Canterbury 3/9/17
Date: 3rd September 2017
Preacher: Rev’d Roger Prowd
Church Calendar Date: 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Lectionary Reading: Romans 12: 9-21, Matthew 16: 21-28

I was recently reminded of the story about the man who approached a bishop and said “My bus is coming in 2 minutes – tell me about the resurrection” and the bishop replied “If I tell you about the resurrection be prepared to miss your bus”. I liked the response that Rowan Williams gave to the same story  : He responded “I would buy myself a ticket and say: “I will come with you and accompany you”.

I think there is something of this going on in the gospel reading today – this theme of Jesus travelling through the journey of life to show us what the resurrection – the new life in God is like.

In last week’s gospel we heard Jesus ask his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” and they replied “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” and Jesus says “But you, who do you say that I am?” and Peter says “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” and Jesus commends him for this answer and says that God has shown this to him. An incredible moment of divine revelation.

Jesus then starts telling his disciples that he is on his way to Jerusalem to his death and Peter objects that this must never happen to him – it is like Peter, after getting it right that Jesus is the Messiah, begins throwing his weight around – Peter the Rock has become a block – and he is seeking to deny Jesus the earthly journey that his acceptance of his identity has committed himself to. And Jesus tells him that Peter’s is now the voice of Satan for it is to this earthly journey – the journey of humanity in its creatureliness that Jesus has committed to in his incarnation as fully human – he is accompanying us on the bus.

This identity was first given to him in his temptations in the wilderness  and confirmed at his baptism “This is my Son, the beloved – listen to him!” the gospel names coming from the heavenly cloud.

Many times after that Jesus is tempted to betray this identity – to not carry the cross – the symbol of what acceptance of his life will come to mean and the struggle to be true to it. So “picking up your cross” becomes a symbol of the conflict that humans experience between their divine identity as children of God and all that seeks to deny and subvert this identity. We are told to “pick up this cross” to engage in the struggle of life that comes from the accepting the identity that is encountered or recognised, often slowly, as our lives progress and this is a God given identity and purpose – yet it is always opposed by another part of our creatureliness – the entirely understandable wish to not have to experience this struggle, which can often be painful – how we would like sometimes life to be other than it is.

Did you know that Jerusalem literally means “the House of peace” and as Jesus travels there to his death he is also travelling to meet the fulfilment of his earthly life and showing us the way to peace ourselves, as we engage in the heartrending struggle that life can be. I was visiting a friend in hospital recently who was having a terrible time of suffering and I was giving them communion. We came to the confession and absolution and I was reading the words of confession the part where it says “Strengthen us to love and obey you in newness of life” but instead of that for some unaccountable reason I read “Strengthen us to love and forgive you”.” Why did I say this? Perhaps it had been my friend talking about the totally mysterious, inexplicable suffering they were having. Perhaps it was the suffering of the world, and the sense I may have of it stumbling from one disaster to the next and my own share in this suffering.

As I have been preparing this sermon I thought of something an elderly friend of mine, a retired priest once said to me about being old “the hardest thing is to realise you have not been the person you could have been” and I thought about it especially as I came upon this passage by the Jesuit priest Fr Larry Gillick about this Sunday’s readings : (he talks about preparing for Mass).

“We pray in preparation for celebrating Christ’s faithful journey toward His cross and the self-surrendering act of His death. We walk toward this celebration of the liturgy as we walk toward our own final surrender to our being limited creatures. We can pray with our own awareness of how easy personal infidelities are. Life has many crosses, but the heaviest is that one of our being grateful and accepting of our God-given, God-blessed selves.” 

Jesus’ cross was his very self, he never lost sight of this and he accompanies us on the bus ride of our lives and says to us that this is how it is for us too – our God-given, God-blessed  lives are our cross too. The cross is not so much an event in time, something that happened 2000 years ago, but the story of our own movement toward our own Jerusalems and resurrections.

And in all of this God has mercy on us and we can have mercy on ourselves too. God does not require us to be special or holy because we have been created in love and are special and holy already. God knows that life is difficult – it is significant that in all of scripture Jesus never gets angry with those who are suffering only with those who get ahead of themselves. He even says about himself “Why do you call me good? – no-one is good except God alone?”

If we didn’t spend so much time building up false screens about ourselves to others then we would not be fooled ourselves so often, and we might find the mercy and peace that is always mysteriously, wonderfully there if we could but see it.

So taking up our cross can never be seen as about following rules or codes of behaviour rather it flows from the personal embrace of the totality of who we are : creatures, limited, with minds that think like limited creatures. From this comes compassion for ourselves and for the human condition of others. Paul gives quite a list of the outflowings in the reading we heard from Romans – gifts of grace, held together by these words “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” The weight of the world seems significantly less when we apply ourselves hopefully, gratefully and with patience to the things we are called to do.

What will probably be found then is that the things that life calls us to do lie right under our noses, hidden in plain sight and Jesus says to those who would be his disciples is “Are you up for it?”

Let us pray: “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’’