Sunday, September 16, 2012

living God's way, not our own

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our Gospel reading this morning lies at the literal and spiritual or theological heart of St Mark's Gospel. Literal because it lies near enough exactly half way between the opening and closing verses of that Gospel … and it is a hinge moment … before that, all that has gone before concerns teaching and healing and miracles … shortly after Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem and begins his journey to the place where he will suffer and die … and this is why it is at the spiritual & theological heart also … because this is where Jesus for the first time explains to his disciples what his messiah-ship entails – the cross – and what the true meaning of being a disciple of his means also – that we should take up our own cross …

The passage can be broken down into three sections: the first is where Jesus asks his disciples who do people say that he is, with the result that St Peter confesses that he is the Christ; the second is where Jesus begins to explain that he is going to suffer and die & Peter tries to correct him … only to be told that he is putting worldly things before Godly; and the final section is where Jesus explains the true meaning of discipleship … that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, & follow him … and as a result gain eternal life ...

It is a vital passage, not just for the understanding of the structure of the Gospel, but for all Christians in order to understand what it means to be a Christian. It would be impossible to overestimate the implications of this passage for what it means to lead the Christian life … to truly devote ourselves to God's calling to us and our attempt to lead a Holy Life.

If let us follow through the sections again. In the first, St Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ … and that must be the starting point for us also … to truly accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God … because unless we accept that truth with every fibre of our being, then it is not possible to truly follow him …

And once we have accepted who he is, we have to understand that we must accept him on his terms, not ours … this is what he teaches St Peter when he tries to correct him … Peter tries to tell Jesus what it is all about … because he thought he knew better than Jesus what the Messiah was … and Jesus uses the strongest possible language to correct him: No – to speak like that is to speak like Satan – it is to try and place human things above divine things …

And then lastly Jesus explains what it means to place divine things above human things … it is to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him … and we have every reason to do this … because to refuse to do so is to refuse eternal life ...

Now that may sound all very grand in theory … but how do we make it work in practice? How do we, having accepted that Jesus is Lord, and understood that we must put aside worldly things in favour of divine, actually live a holy life? How do we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ? Well, an essential part of doing that is taking into our hearts the faith as it has been passed down to us generation after generation and doing our very best to live it out for ourselves … we have scripture and we have the One, Holy, Catholic, & Apostolic Church that Christ gave us to guide us … we also have those people who have been called by God and who have been affirmed in that calling by God's Church by the laying on of hands as our teachers and preachers and pastors and priests … and we have our own consciences, guided by that teaching, our own prayer lives and reflection …

And please keep in mind that saying that you felt you could do something 'in good conscience' is not some kind of 'get out of jail' free card, a licence for all kinds of behaviour. When it comes to your actions what matters is not that you can justify it to yourselves, not that you can in some way rationalise your actions, not that you can play 'barrack room lawyer' with right and wrong and somehow always come up with the answer that doing exactly what you want to do, whatever that may be, is right. The key here is rather that you should act according to informed conscience … and that means looking at your actions in the light of what Scripture and Church teaching has to say on the matter … you can not say, for example: 'well I know that the Bible states clearly again and again that adultery is wrong; and I know that the Church has taught for almost 2000 years that it is wrong; & I know that a lot of other people are going to be hurt if I do this; but I feel that I would be a happier person if I did this, and God wants me to be happy, so how can it be wrong? It may be a sin for someone else to behave like this … but for me, it is OK because I can square it with my conscience.'

No. That person may not feel bad about what they are doing, but that does not mean that what they are doing is not sinful … and that they know that it is sinful, even if they try to tell themselves that it is not. They are falling into St Peter's initial error … letting themselves be guided by worldly things, not divine. But we must never lose sight of what Christ had to say of such behaviour: it is of Satan … in other words it is sinful, it is wrong … it is not the life we are called to as Christians … it is not to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ … it is not the way of holy living … it is not the path to eternal life …

It is not easy to lead such a life … but it is the life that we must all try to live … remembering always that not only is it the life that God calls us to live … but it is the life that he will help us to live, if only we will let him, by opening ourselves fully to him & his grace … by answering the question that Jesus put to his disciples – who do people say that I am? As St Peter did … by confessing that he is the Christ, the Son of God … and then living fully and completely what that confession means with our hearts and minds and souls every second, minute, hour, & day of our lives … something I pray that God will give you the strength to do, in the Name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

sermon notes for 16 September 2012 (15th after Trinity)

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