Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 2 2018

Genesis 17.1-7,15-16
Romans 4.13-25
Mark 8.31-38

Alice laughed: “There's no use trying,” she said; “one can't believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Today we are looking at faith, and we might wonder, is that what faith is? Believing six impossible things before breakfast?
For a surer guide to faith than “Alice in Wonderland”, we can turn to the sacred scriptures. Today we read about Abraham, Sarah and Peter, people who are held up to us as examples of faith, and yet their journey of faith involved struggle, getting things wrong, learning to let go and trust God.
God made a promise to Abraham that he would be the ancestor of many nations. And, as the letter to the Romans says today, he believed, and this was reckoned to him as righteousness. He believed in spite of the fact that Sarah could not have children and he was very old.
But what Romans passes over is that Abraham and Sarah didn’t know how God was going to fulfil his promise of children, and set about doing things their own way. They hit upon the idea that Abraham would have a child with Sarah’s slave Hagar, who would give birth on Sarah’s lap, so that the child would count as her own.
Leaving aside the extraordinary things that were considered acceptable in some Biblical marriages, this wasn’t what God had in mind. A child, Ishmael, was born. God came to Abraham again and said, yes, I know you’ve had this child, and I’ll bless him for your sake, but that wasn’t what I meant. And then Sarah herself conceived. Isaac was born, the child of God’s promise, the father of Jacob, who became Israel.
Abraham and Sarah believed God, but acted on their own mistaken ideas of how God’s purposes would come about. Nevertheless, God kept his word and did things the way he intended, anyway. Faith is a journey. We can make false starts and go the wrong way, but God guides those who believe to the end he intends for them. Faith means trusting God, not trying to secure everything for ourselves.
It was the same for Peter, in today’s gospel reading. Just before today’s extract Peter has made the great confession of faith to Jesus, “you are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”. And Jesus says that this faith has come to him as a gift from the Father. Peter has not worked this out on his own, God has revealed it to him. Peter’s faith is authentic and true.
Now the Messiah is the person who will save God’s people. But Peter, in common with most faithful Jewish people of the time, had his own idea of how God’s purposes would be fulfilled. They thought the Messiah would be a military leader who would drive the occupying Romans out of their land, a political liberator. The Messiah was certainly not someone who would be defeated and killed.
And yet, Jesus says to Peter, this is how it has to be. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.”
To Peter this seems like madness. Perhaps he thought it was a test. Perhaps he thought Jesus was saying, “when this happens to me, are you going to be there for me? Will you fight for me?” So Peter says to Jesus, no, don’t worry, we won’t let that happen to you.
Peter has real faith, but he has his own idea about how God’s purposes will be fulfilled. He wants to organise God’s programme for him. But his ideas are not God’s ideas.
This earns for Peter a really harsh rebuke, “get behind me, Satan!”. And yet Peter needs to hear that. Peter must learn that the way of violent opposition, the way he wants to organise things, that he thinks is God’s way, is actually the way of Satan. If you oppose the Romans with their own methods, you will just end up perpetuating the oppressive world system of Satan. The mission of Jesus is to save us from that.
So, Peter, the would-be warrior against Rome, has to learn to take up his cross, the Roman instrument of oppression and death, he has to learn to lose his life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.
Part of the journey of faith, for Peter, Abraham and Sarah, for us, is about discovering that God is in charge and we are not. About discovering all the ways in which we are wrong about God. Letting go of our ambitious ego that wants to organise everything. The Kingdom of God is God’s project, not ours.
For Peter the way of the cross was no metaphor. John chapter 21 tells us that he would die for his faith. According to tradition he crucified upside down in Rome, the hunted leader of a small group of Christians. And yet his witness and death, in weakness and failure, laid the foundations for the Roman church of centuries to come.
Five centuries after Peter that same Roman church sent a small group of anxious and fearful monks to evangelise a distant, cold, wet and savage country they had vaguely heard of, called Britain. Their mission wasn’t terribly effective in their own day. One of them, Mellitus, became the first bishop of a small Saxon fishing port called London. His cathedral was probably a wooden hut. He wasn’t there long, as the pagan sons of the local king drove him into exile.
Yet, on the site of Mellitus’ wooden hut, today there stands St Paul’s Cathedral. And we are here, brothers and sisters, in one of hundreds of parishes in London, because of Mellitus’ mission that began in weakness and apparent failure. The Saxon fishing port of London has grown to a great global city. But it is a city of many faiths and worldviews. In such a context the Church can seem small, ineffective, weak. But our task is not to compete with the prevailing worldviews. Our task is not to use the methods of the empire against the empire. The task of the church is not even to save itself. Our task is to bear faithful witness to Jesus, and leave the rest to him.
In our own lives, too, we try to organise God’s purposes for us. We might have a particular skill and liking for, say, golf course management. Obviously, then, that’s what God wants me to do with my life. Well, wait and see what God wants to do with your life. There is no promise in the Gospel that we will do what we want, or have success, or fame, or wealth, or family life, or good reputation. There is simply an invitation to follow Jesus in the way of the cross. At every moment of our lives, faith leads us on a path that we do not know, but God does.

So do not be afraid. For us, as for Abraham, Sarah and Peter, following in God’s way, however contradictory it seems, is the way of salvation, life and peace. Let go of the ego and its ambitions, all the ways we want to organise God’s Kingdom, and follow Jesus. Faith tells us that we can trust God, even when we get things wrong, even when the path we follow is dark and difficult, the way of the cross. God knows what he is doing, and will do it.

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