s055g99 Somerton Park 29/8/99 Sunday 22
Jesus "turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."" Matthew 16:23
Strong words indeed by Jesus to Peter. Sometimes when I've heard comments on this lesson, I have detected a tinge of condescension towards Peter. Peter was, after all, only a fisherman, and we can't expect too much from such like. We are so much more mature than Peter, we wouldn't make the same mistakes, and I mean after all, we're the Church of England! My mind goes back to a conversation I chanced to overhear recently where a senior member of the clergy was talking to someone else in a reasonably public forum about his assistant curate; using words to the effect: "He will go far, provided he doesn't blot his copybook". Condescension is rife within the Church.
I suppose as I've gone through the Church, the thing that I've seen is that many of our prayers are about us attaining to eternal life. The wonderful collects of our Book of Common Prayer, inspired by Thomas Cranmer and other theologian poets, by and large mostly talk about us being made worthy of life with God. So the Collect for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (which I would be saying today - using the old lectionary) reads: "Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life, that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises; through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." Presumably "thy heavenly promises" means eternal life with God and Jesus and "faithfully" serving thee means "being regular in Church" - or if it doesn't, this is what we take it to mean. It's all a bit unspecific - and I wonder if this is meant to be so?
Or if one looks at the thematic index of hymn books under "charity" we find lots of hymns in praise of love (often used in the context of marriage services) - like "Come down O love divine..." and "Love is kind and suffers long...." In the "Ancient and Mouldy" (standard) hymn book, a collection of 779 hymns, I think I can find only two which actually talk about charity towards real people (number 40: "unloving souls, with deeds of ill, and angry words of strife, shall never, Lord, thy glory see, nor win the heavenly life" and 267: "Help us ... our brethren's griefs to share ...") F W Fabers lovely hymn (634): "Souls of men why will ye scatter ..." does proclaim "a wideness in God's mercy, like the wideness of the sea ..." yet it's encouragement is again to "come nearer Jesus". It is significant that in the first our human love towards our brothers and sisters is encouraged mainly because without it our relationship with our heavenly father would be jeopardised. "Love" which is inspired by the threat of eternal punishment is hardly love.
There seems little or no encouragement to love our brothers and sisters because it is a good and joyful thing to do, to love our brothers and sisters because the world might be a better place if we did, to love our brothers and sisters because they too are made in the image of God, to love our brothers and sisters because even God rains blessings on the just and the unjust (Mt 5.45), let alone any encouragement to love our enemies as Jesus commanded! (Mt 5.44) It is said in Latin: lex adorandi est lex credendi - we believe according as we worship - worship is primary (A Dictionary of Christian Theology ed Alan Richardson p 362). So while we might blithely say the creed, and accept it (as best we might) in our heads - what we actually believe is what we sing with our hearts. If "loving our enemies" doesn't get expressed in our hymns where does that leave our belief? If we regularly say the psalms which often pour scorn on the enemy, what does that say about our belief? I should add that it is indeed refreshing to read Psalm 133, which says: "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!"
Again in our Bible Study on Tuesday, as we are going through our manual on the Christian faith, it often talks about our journey in the Christian life primarily in terms of our relationship with God.
What was the essence of Peter's statement which brought such rebuke from our Lord? Surely it was that Peter wanted Jesus to avoid the Cross. Peter wanted Jesus to stay with him - he wanted there to be no break in his relationship with Jesus. Peter was not interested in the "elders and chief priests and scribes" - especially if they were going to mistreat Jesus so. Peter and Jesus, Jesus and Peter, that was all that mattered to Peter, and how was this any different from the chagrin of the elders and chief priests and scribes when Jesus didn't restrict his association to themselves - the movers and shakers in society - the religious people? Peter was precisely the same as the elders and chief priests and scribes, who wanted Jesus for themselves. Their religion was all about their personal relationship with Jesus. Jesus wouldn't have been crucified if he had deferred to the right sort of people.
The rich young ruler runs up to Jesus and says: "What must I do to gain eternal life". Me and God, God and me - with precious little or no interest in the salvation of anyone else.
But Jesus cares for all in society; and our relationship with Jesus can never be to the detriment of others. Indeed if we take the words of Jesus to Peter seriously, to think that Jesus is concerned about our own personal salvation is to think in human rather than divine terms.
The question "Are you being saved?" leads us down quite the wrong path. The real question is: "Do we see the divine in other people".
Jesus cared for the elders and chief priests and scribes. The elders and chief priests and scribes could not claim that he avoided them. So Jesus demonstrated that he indeed died for them also, even as they were crucifying him.
On Good Friday, in an overflowing outpouring of concern for those of other faiths or of no faith, traditionally we Anglicans pray that God will have mercy on them. This begs the question: Are we more merciful than God? If anyone needs to learn about mercy, it is most assuredly us and not God!
If our religion is about our own personal relationship with God - even if we dress it up in lovely liturgical phrases like "eternal life" - we are thinking in human rather than divine terms. For even charity can be exceedingly condescending.
If we spend our time acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and the Lord, is our worship merely a group of like minded individuals telling Jesus things he already knows? Flattery will get us nowhere - for there is no need for us to get anywhere other than where we are already. It is our attitude to others that might need some review.
It might be to us and the Church that Jesus rebukes so sharply.
Last week I spoke about Peter being blessed, seeing the divine in Jesus. Jesus immediate reaction was to forbid them to tell others. Jesus was NOT interested in getting a cult following - again Jesus was interested in us being enabled to see the divine in others.
What do we offer the world? If we think that we offer an unending relationship with Jesus and God to others, the reality is that Jesus has already died for all people - that relationship of love is already present. What we do offer others is the permission to love themselves and others as unconditionally as God loves all of us.
To worry about our own relationship with Jesus is to think in human terms - what more can Jesus do to reassure us that we are loved, that he hasn't already done on the Cross? To worry about anyone else's salvation is also to think in human terms - to distrust that central tenet of our faith that God sent Jesus to die and to rise again for all. We can but understand that Jesus accepts us and others as they are - this is to think in divine terms - and to try to do likewise.
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