Trinity 12 2017 | St. Paul’s Athens
Jeremiah 15, 15-21; Rom 12, 9-end; Matt 16, 21-end
There are times when other people drag you down. Lynne and I are generally quite cheerful and positive people. In our various parishes over the years we have encountered some very gloomy people indeed. These are people for whom it is always December, but never Christmas; always Lent but never Easter. When we encounter such people it is such a temptation to enter into their gloominess and share the negative views that they are spouting out. In my last parish we decided that whenever anyone said anything negative we would counter it with the exact opposite – even if we are feeling the same as them, or sharing their views. It made quite a difference, in fact, and some people either gave up expressing anything to us, or genuinely started to be a bit more positive.
Our Old Testament prophet today, Jeremiah, is a bit of a kill joy. It is ‘being so cheerful as keeps him going’ as we might ironically say. An encounter with Jeremiah must have been a low point in anyone’s social diary. Yet, things were bad at the time of this prophet. Nebuchadnezzar was soon to take the city of Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and force an exile on the administrative middle classes – moving them to captivity in Babylon. It is from this period we have that wonderful Psalm (137) ‘By the rivers of Babylon –there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion’. This was around the key date of 587BC, and the main religious interpreter we have of this catastrophic period is our friend Jeremiah.
However, this same gloom merchant, turns. Despite everything his is the voice that offers succor to the people in exile, who offers a fresh vision of how god will restore the fortunes of his people, and he records the joyful return of the exiled Jews back to their city, and presents wonderful images of hope and restoration. Jeremiah buys a field as a sign of the future, an investment for when God’s favour will once again rest on the people of Israel. So we need to have a balanced view of the words of many prophets of the Old Testament. Even in the gloom there is a vision of hope.
The gospel reading today is equally challenging. We might think that the centre of the gospel is the crucifixion followed by the empty tomb, but in a strange way this morning’s gospel reading gets to the very heart of the faith and of the life of the church.
Previously St. Peter has proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus in turn confers on Simon the name Peter, the rock. By proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, in Greek Christos or ‘anointed one’, Simon Peter was conferring on Jesus a whole history and theology of the Jewish people. When Messiah comes the fullness of the Kingdom of God will be revealed and implemented. Messiah’s arrival is the sign, but the reality that God’s kingly reign and supremacy over all things is initiated, and his people will suffer no more, and his chosen ones will receive blessing beyond measure.
How can it be then, that this Messiah, this herald of God’s kingly power, can speak of suffering, death. The Messiah is the one to bring these things to an end. Peter says this must not happen to the one he has just called Messiah, but then poor Peter the Rock is Peter the satanic one for not seeing things as they will be.
Just as the whole gospel swivels around the event of the crucifixion, so this conversation spins on the cross as the sign of discipleship. If you don’t accept a crucified Messiah; if you don’t enter into this mystery yourself by dying to yourself, then you will gain nothing. Follow me, Jesus says, but if you can’t follow me all the way into the cross you cannot be one with me.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey says, ‘The death to the self qua self, first in Christ and then in the disciples, is the ground and essence of the church’. (The Gospel and the Catholic Church, p22)
Jesus points his followers, the team who love him and who have conferred on him a supreme title, towards the cross. God’s love for the world through his Christ will not be authenticated through miraculous deeds and spectacular miracles or supernatural calamities, but through the utter self giving and humilation of the cross. It is through the cross that discipleship will be verified, and in the cross that the church’s life finds its energy, its koinonia, and the self emptying love of her Christ.
Again, Michael Ramsey, ‘One died for all, therefore all died. To say this is to describe the Church of God’. (p 23).
St. Paul speaks of the divine self emptying, self denying love. Normally we think of that wonderful passage in 1 Cor 13, so often used at weddings, when we think of Paul’s praise of God’s love, but this passage form Romans today is difficult to beat. Like all of Paul’s theology it is profoundly challenging, and yet neatly simple. As he illustrates the Christian way, he simply states the opposite of what normal human reactions and instincts are. He gives us a string of wonderful positive words: hold fast; outdo; do not lag; be ardent; serve; bless; rejoice; weep; live; be noble; and so many more. Surely this is no Jeremiah talking. For Paul December has a Christmas; and there is a cross but not a defeat, because the empty tomb seals once and for all the victory of the cross.
All this might feel like theory. It has a real application for us, right here and right now. I have been called by God to be your priest here. It is only fair to tell you that there is a priority in my ministry here, and it is one that was identified by your wardens and endorsed by the Bishop and the Archdeacon. That priority is to build up the life of St. Paul’s congregation. It is not that there are not other things to do, but this is where the main energy will be. I will make available soon the Chaplaincy Profile to which I had to respond, and the Presentation I gave at interview. I hope that by this transparency you will all know and understand why it seems right that I should be here at this time in the life of this church. As we build together our common life in the crucified Christ we will be praying hard for both spiritual and numerical growth. We need to be committed to this together, and you may need at times to follow my prophetic voice – but it will not be so much a Jeremiah voice, but one that encourages us together to be the Body of Christ, formed around the cross, shaped by the cross, and transfigured by the cross, for in this is the way to true life and fellowship. To deny ourselves and to take up the cross is to be the genuine and authentic church. This is the one and only future St. Paul’s church has.