Sunday, August 31, 2014

three reminders from 'get thee behind me Satan'

Sermon: 31 August 2014 May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

As I was preparing to write this sermon, the thought went through my head: what is a sermon? It surely isn't to teach, because if it was it would take a person a very long time to learn much about the Christian faith at the rate of 8 to 10 minutes a week, especially in an age when people can not be relied upon to come to church Sunday by Sunday. No, teaching is done elsewhere, at Sunday school, the home, and in confirmation class when we are younger; through our own reading of Sacred Scripture, spiritual books, and study, whether alone or in a group, when we are older.

So sermons really should be going over familiar territory, most of the time at least. Perhaps one definition of a sermon might be that a sermon is the preacher's way of reminding us of what we already know. Of course, occasionally during a sermon it is possible that one might hear mentioned a point of doctrine with which we are unfamiliar. But since a sermon is generally too short a thing to go over any doctrine in detail, it would serve in that case to remind the hearer of what area it is that they need to read up on some more; or at least ask the preacher to explain it to them more fully at some later point in time.

So what 'reminders' might I take from today's gospel reading, which contains our Lord's well known rebuke to St Peter: Get thee behind me Satan'? Well, the first and obvious one is that Satan is real. There are a lot of people today who like to think themselves too modern to believe in such things. Jesus was only speaking metaphorically, they say; we're not supposed to take his references to Satan literally. The funny thing is that Jesus never said that he was speaking metaphorically. None of his Apostles thought he was; or the writers of the Gospels; or other New Testament writers; or the members of the early Church; or the Church down through all the centuries. The idea has only even been suggested within relatively recent times. And frankly I think it is rather arrogant to think that we suddenly know better not only than all those before us, but those who walked and talked with Jesus as well. Our Lord taught that the Devil was real; and if you don't want to believe that, then I'm sure that Satan will be very pleased to hear it, because there is no quicker way of falling into his snares than thinking he doesn't exist.

The next reminder is that the Christian life is hard. Right after he rebukes St Peter Jesus says 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. ' Jesus isn't saying life may be hard, he isn't saying that troubles may come, he is saying that in order to be a Christian involves self-denial. We all need to take a good hard look at the way we are living on a regular basis – maybe as often as once a week – and see how it compares to the Way of Life that Christ taught. And the places where it doesn't measure up, where we have fallen prey to the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, have to be set aside. That's something that isn't easy. But that's part of what denying yourself and taking up your cross means.

And the final reminder comes from Jesus' reaction to when St Peter tries to argue him back from what he is teaching. St Peter was his friend; he was the first apostle he had chosen; he was the leader of the 12; he was the one who, only minutes earlier he had said – Simon, thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church. And still he hammers him with what most be one of the sternest rebukes of all time – Get thee behind me, Satan! For trying to get Jesus to change his teaching, to walk an easier path, he is compared to the Devil himself. And note well what Christ says just after – he tells him that he is setting his mind not on divine things but on human things.

We tend to do that a lot, don't we? We say that teaching is too hard, why can't we make it easier for people? But, do you know, that's another thing that Jesus never said. He never said, if you find my teaching too hard, don't worry, I'll make it easier. Think about what happened when the rich young man walked away after Jesus told him that if he wanted to attain eternal life he needed to sell everything he had, give to the poor, and then come follow him. Jesus did not say: wait, come back, let me change that and make it easier for you. What he did do was turn to his disciples and say that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. He was saying that the young man was risking his immortal soul by rejecting his teaching. And that made him sad, because he loved the young man, as he loves us all; but he didn't change his teaching so that they young man could think of himself as a follower of Jesus and still go on with his life pretty much the same as it had been before. Jesus didn't see that as being a possibility. And so therefore neither can we.

So, three reminders: Jesus taught that the devil was real and a threat to our salvation; that being a Christian was hard and meant turning our back on many of the things of this world; and we don't get to water the faith down to make it easier – even St Peter didn't have the authority to do that. Three fairly tough reminders of what it was that Jesus taught. But we must remember that he taught them for a reason – so that we might at last be with him in the kingdom of heaven. That should be reason enough for us to try to live them.

To him who is the shepherd and guardian of our souls, by whose wounds we are healed and who is with us always until the end of the ages, be glory now and forever. Amen

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