Readings: Romans 12:9-21 Matthew 16:21-28
We pray: Holy God, God among us, give us ears to hear and hearts to understand that which you gift to us today from scripture. May we know your will for us and walk in your way we pray. Amen
At the close of the first Harry Potter book, headmaster Albus Dumbledore awards the winning house points not to the heroes who battled dark forces, but to a loyal friend who tried to prevent them seeking danger. Dumbledore recognised that the courage it takes to stand up to one’s friends can be greater than the courage needed to stand up to one’s enemies. Here today we have a courageous Peter, just a few days ago named the rock on which the church would be founded, stepping in and confronting Jesus about his pessimistic view of his ministry to come, his obvious wrong direction, telling him that he would do everything he needed to do to protect Jesus from this litany of suffering about to befall him. ‘Not if I have anything to do with it’, he proclaims loudly and proudly.
Unlike Neville of Potter fame, poor Peter didn’t get rewarded – quite the contrary - his confidence, his grasping of the mantle of leadership shot down in front of everyone: ‘Get thee behind me Satan! The most scorching rebuke of the entire Gospel tells Peter that he has got it seriously wrong!
The rock becomes the stumbling block - the church makes its first false steps.
What we have here are two different narratives for the way forward. Peter’s way is one of keeping Jesus apart from that which will cause him pain and anguish, keeping him safe so he can do his work. He is arguing that they can’t let Jesus go through the tears and sweat, the blood and muck of humanity because after all he is God and he needs to be kept apart from that gungy reality, kept pure shall we say.
Jesus’ way is one of diving right in, immersing himself in the suffering of the world – that is his work. That is why he came, to be visible in a world that is a mess, a world that desperately needs the hope of his walking alongside them and knowing firsthand the reality of its pain.
And we can’t help but ask if that same divide of narrative is still alive and well in our church today.
Do people prefer to keep the church safe and slightly detached rather than ‘endure in love the mess of the visible church’
It happens. Developing this theme a little more we can see times and approaches in our history, and now, where this desire to keep God’s church pure and unsullied often seems to be a driving force of our faith –following Peter’s narrative in other words.
For instance would it be possible that in Catholicism the elevation of Mary, the mother of God to being immaculately conceived is an example of not allowing anything touching God to be seen ordinary, human?
Is it true that for some, the doctrines expounded by both Luther and Calvin have in some way been seen as descending straight from heaven, in their own way immaculately conceived: a way of keeping us safe within their understandings.
Is there a sense where the elevation of the immaculate church of the elect has triumphed over the need to be involved in the mess of the visible church in the world? Some would think so.
And then we can come a little bit closer to current times - there is the Biblicism of fundamentalism, seen in America for sure but also throughout the world and here, where select and particular interpretation of scripture has allowed the keeping out of the marginalised, the different, the messy. You may have heard of the Nashville Statement that has come out of the States recently. The Statement, says Brian McLaren who was responding to the document, encourages a way of reading the Bible, ‘to justify slavery, anti-Semitism, the suppression of women, the rejection of good science and the slaughter of native peoples.’ It appears to be creating a pure and pristine ‘us’ unsullied by sexual weirdos and people with different coloured skins and deviant views – pushing the ‘dirty other’ to the margins. McLaren however says the release of this Nashville Statement is actually a good thing – for it makes explicit what has for a long time been practiced but not said, and clearly shows which churches are not safe nor accepting. It also encourages, in its extremism, those churches that are engaged in living the Jesus narrative to clearly state their case and open their doors even wider, to be the visible face of the Christ who engaged with the edges of society rather than a sealing himself off in citadel on a hill.
A quote from Jin S. Kim: Our concern is not first and foremost the purity of the church or the rightness of our doctrine but our willingness to follow Jesus into the world and onto the cross.
So Peter was rightly rebuked, his narrative had to be rethought and he had to endure the ignominy of getting it badly wrong – ‘Get behind me Satan’ was required! But interestingly, if we dig a bit deeper here, the verb that is used for ‘get behind me’ is the same verb used elsewhere for ‘follow’! So, we ask, as well as a rebuke is this also a call to Peter to follow the path of Jesus and to leave his own worldly narrative behind?
On Thursday of last week I attended a seminar at Holy Cross in Mosgiel – where the subject was ‘The Spirituality of James K Baxter’ – a man who totally chose to walk away from the world’s narrative and enter that of Jesus. And it was a fascinating journey into a complex and driven man who has contributed to our life in New Zealand in many ways but most especially in his exploration of indigenous spirituality in this country. He saw Maori society as aligning much more naturally with the path of Jesus, particularly in the care of and engagement with the marginalised, prisoners, homeless, addicts, the broken and the bottom of heap as he saw them and as he himself had experienced both in the fallout from his family’s pacificism and his own alchoholism. He talked about the five stones that David used to take down Goliath (a metaphor for today’s evil and corrupt ways of living – a anecdote from a person there who was a young nun at the time in the convent by Jerusalem – Baxter said she worshipped the wrong trinity – in her case school certificate, the dollar note and respectability – don’t mince words Hemi); these stones that were fundamental to living in the Christian path of communion with God, stones that he found easily as values within Maori Society.
Arohanui – the love of many – communion of all no matter who.
Manuhiritanga – hospitality – the welcome of friend and stranger and outcast, each of whom always brought a gift for you if you were open to receiving.
Korero – speaking truth without fear. All are to be heard and no-one told that they had lesser voice than another.
Matewa – night life of the soul – the place of darkness, of void, unsafe but the place you most truly meet God.
Mahi – work by the members of the community on behalf of the community. Not about employment but sourced in your love for the community
Baxter talked about the surprising voice from the margins, the truth found in the broken and despised, the need for community for all.
His God was a welcoming, muck and all God who found worth in all people and especially in the broken. He would have had some things to say (and did) about churches and people of faith who tried to keep detached from the reality of life all around them.
Baxter, for all his human frailties and failings and arrogances, definitely chose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus – to be the indiscriminate love of Jesus in this unquiet world wherever it takes us. He chose the narrative of Jesus.
When we gather at the table, when we leave here today, as we sing our final hymn ‘will you come and follow me…’ can we remember that the mark of one who follows the way of Jesus is to live in the world that took Jesus to the cross, into all the messiness and pain which are our lives, so that we might know the power of love and truth and service in all of our community. Amen