30 August 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Pentecost 13 A 20

Jeremiah 15:15-21

Psalm 26:108

Matthew 16:21-28

So today we come to the next bit in the 16th Chapter of Matthew and really, we can’t see it as a section or pericope on its own, we can only read it in the light of what came before. So, let me just recapitulate a little. Jesus and his disciples, or followers, which is an important idea here, are in Ceasarea Philippi, and Jesus asks them what the people around are saying about him. Then he asks who the diciples, themselves, think he is. And Peter, representative of the disciples, answers that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. We talked about what that meant last week. Jesus then says that he will build his ecclesia, or church, on the rock that is Peter and gives him authority to interpret scripture, to bind and loose. And he tells them sternly, it says, not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah. And, as we read today, from that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that  he is ‘bound’ to go to Jerusalem- we miss that in our translations, we have ‘he must go’ but no, like the things that will be bound and loosed on earth and in heaven, Jesus is bound to go to Jerusalem. And is it that it is Jesus that binds himself, or that it is the circumstances? I am not sure, but I do know that Jesus, has many opportunities to go a different direction. At this point, he could have avoided Jerusalem and the dangers that it represents, altogether, but it is his destination. Do you remember in John’s gospel when Lazarus dies and the disciples try to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem and Thomas says, let us go with him and die? They know, or at least at this point in Matthew, Jesus knows, that Jerusalem is code for the big sacrifice. Indeed right here it says that Jesus tries to tell them that he will undergo great suffering, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Jesus is bound to these events that will unfold. The verbs are are all imperatives- they are urgently going to happen. Of course, there are many commentators that think this has been added to the narrative at the time of writing, to make it clear to the listeners/readers what will happen. We have no idea of whether Jesus said these words but it is certainly important for the narrative that we understand to what and whence Jesus is heading.

And Peter, who has just been granted a certain authority in the future community tries to exercise it and prevent Jesus from going. It is really interesting and again the translation doesn’t do it justice. Peter actually says, ‘Mercy to you, this must not happen,’ He is trying to give Jesus an alternative path, but the trouble is that mercy will ultimately be best served by Jesus’ death.

And Jesus is clearly tempted by the possibility. He uses the same language as he does when Satan tempts him in the wilderness, calling Peter ‘Satan’ and telling him to get behind him. Satan, in the wilderness, he just tells to get away. And this is significant isn’t it? He wants Peter to get behind him, into the followers position. Not to try to lead him astray. He calls Peter to be a disciple and indeed to follow him to the cross and beyond. And then he, who has called Peter the rock, that is the foundation stone of the church, says that Peter is the rock that Jesus himself could fall over. Peter is trying to suggest a different path, but Jesus, though he is tempted, is bound to the road to Jerusalem and death, and indeed resurrection. And Jesus wants Peter to fall in behind. Why? Because the agenda is important, because Jesus has in mind heavenly things or perhaps better eternal things, and Peter has in mind short term goals. And that is why Jesus doesn’t want them to publicly name him as Messiah, because then everyone will have in mind earthly, short term goals.

And then Jesus says to all of them, if you want to get in behind me, to be my followers, you are going to have to deny yourselves, and take up your crosses, and follow me. Jesus is going towards Jerusalem, towards humiliation and death. This idea of denial, will be taken up, further on in the narrative, won’t it? Peter rather than denying himself, will deny Jesus and then be absent from the cross. And yet, this Peter, fallible as I said last week, is still the foundation of the church. 

And then Jesus makes a couple of very confusing rhetorical statements about losing and finding lives and it isn’t at all clear what he means. However, I think, that if Jesus chooses the path that Peter recommends he might not lose he life, by being killed but he certainly won’t gain his life in the resurrection. 

And then Jesus says something which I think has been radically misunderstood: that  there are some standing there who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom. Now, if you read this as the second coming, which is how it has often been read, it creates a great deal of confusion, because in that kind of schema we are still waiting and clearly they are already dead. I read an involved argument about what this might have meant for Matthew’s group, trying to explain it all. But surely, if you read this as not being about the ‘second coming’ as an idea, but rather about the bringing in of the Kingdom of God, it makes a great deal more sense. And let me say that the consequences are also significant. If you are waiting for some event, when Jesus will come and everyone will see that you are right and they are wrong then you live in the light of that. However, if you see a kingdom that already exists, that we are part of today  as the locus of our attention, it changes your focus onto the life you are currently living for Christ. The ‘pie in the sky when you die’ approach might make us think about our sins, but it doesn’t make us think about loving our neighbours. I believe that the Kingdom of God, as Jesus said, began with his ministry, not with his death, though it became visible after his death in a different way and that is what he is talking about here.

So what has this to do with us, living our Kingdom lives through the pandemic? Well, the first thing to say is that like Jeremiah, and the Psalms, we can lament. It is OK for us to say any amount of angry things to God and to ask God to do a bit of smiting, though of course we must not do the smiting ourselves. Jeremiah recognises that the stream of living water comes from God, and so must we. The kingdom, built on the rock of faithful, following humans, is nonetheless watered by God. It is the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Anglicans or suchlike. I think that it is important to realise that while we are active players in the Kingdom it is still God’s. And that, I think, is clear when we look around and see some of the things that are happening not despite the pandemic but because of it. There are shoots of spiritual growth burgeoning all around us as people reach out to God, whether or not they so name the power. What we are called to, is taking up the cross of the moment and bearing it so that good may come of it, not only for ourselves, but for others. I do know, that it is hugely difficult at the moment, but every time you reach out in love to another person you are bringing the kingdom to them. 

And each of our crosses look slightly different, only you can say what yours is like. and only you can carry it.  Don’t forget that you are allowed to lament. We must also recognise that God is good and wants only good for the world.

Jesus calls us all to get behind him, to follow where he leads. And sometimes that is to suffering. It is always to loving your neighbour and to doing mercy and justice in matters big and small. We are called to lose our sense of the importance of self for Jesus’ sake and find the life that is then a gift.

For the Son of Man is coming in the glory of his Father, and he will repay everyone for what has been done.

Rev. Roberta Hamilton