Angel or Devil?

Angel or Devil; Devil or Angel?

Angel or Devil; Devil or Angel?

Matthew 16.13-20

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

In our reading this morning Jesus congratulates Peter warmly.  He says:  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”  Jesus praises Peter’s insight and gives him a job.  “And I tell you, you are Peter [the name ‘Peter’ means ‘rock’] and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Peter must have glowed with pride.  He has been give praise and authority in the Kingdom of heaven.

However, if we read just a few verses on from this, and Peter receives an astoundingly ferocious telling off:  “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.”

One minute Peter is given the keys of the Kingdom, the next he is actually called ‘Satan’

When I read passages like this, I cannot help but wonder what Jesus would say to me.  Would he say “Blessed are you Trevor, son of Albert,” or would he say “Get behind me, Satan!”

If we can answer that question of ourselves quickly or easily, I suspect our answer would be wrong.

We need to look at why Peter was praised, and why he was criticised if we are to understand where we lie.

First, why did Jesus give Peter such high praise?  Peter had said to Jesus “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  Peter had recognised something in Jesus that was beyond outward appearance.  Peter realised that their mission was not just the mission of a penniless wandering preacher, but the mission of God.

Peter is given the keys of the Kingdom.  And I think the reward is part of what causes the problem:  Peter is told he is part of God’s plan, and he has visions of triumph, glory and power as the Kingdom of God rules over all, and he holds the keys.

But what Jesus said after that must have been a shock: (Verse 21)  “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Hang about!” I can imagine Peter saying, “What about the Keys, and the binding things on earth and in heaven…?”  We read that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Peter wanted the position in the Church – he wanted to be the keeper of keys, but he didn’t want the cross.  He didn’t want to be challenged.  He didn’t want struggle or suffering or uncertainty or conflict.

This is the greatest dilemma the church has faced throughout it history – it wants the position of being the place that we can find God.  But it does not want the mission that goes with it.

We want to be a special place – of serene spirituality.  We want the keys of the Kingdom, but we do not want the cross.  Too often the Church  doesn’t want to make a stir.  The Church does’t want to have to engage in difficult issues like human sexuality, asylum seekers, the Middle East or Global Warming.

Yet these are these are precisely the sort of issues that the Bible is full of teaching about.  We are inward looking, like Peter, interested in what is in it for us.

I have heart it said (and quoted before) that fishermen who don’t fish fight:  if we don’t get about the mission Jesus calls us to do, building God’s Kingdom out there – outside the walls of this comfortable church, we will end up fighting about the flower arrangements and the size of the Altar candles.

The danger we face is much more serious that simply becoming trivial or irrelevant.  The danger is that we become opponents of Christ.  Jesus didn’t just say to Peter “get behind me, you’ve missed the point” or “get behind me you naughty boy!”  He said “get behind me Satan!”  Peter was siding with the forces opposing Jesus when he wanted an easy religion of privilege.

Remember that it was the religious leaders who opposed Jesus, the religious people who called for his crucifixion.  Every time I put on my Chasuble, symbolising the priesthood, I remember that it was the priests of Jesus day who had him killed.  I wonder if my ministry is closer to the ministry of Christ, or closer to the ministries of those who fought him.  I wonder if my work is in the spirit of Jesus, or the spirit of the Scribes and Pharisees and Saducees.

Would Jesus say to me “Blessed are you Trevor, son of Albert,” or would he say “Get behind me, Satan!”

The Spirit of Jesus is not about buildings or money or liturgy or vestments (although all these things can be used as valuable means to an end).  The Spirit of Jesus is about just one thing – Love.  Love for God, love for our fellow human beings (meaning all people) and love for ourselves.

Love is the only thing we do that really matters.  St Peter may have wanted to sit around polishing his key, but Jesus demanded the difficult, sacrificial, painful way of love.

We need to work for Christ, we need to build the Kingdom.  The real work of our Christianity does not take place during this hour each Sunday morning.  Although this time is vital to give us a focus and a vision for the work.  The truest expression of our faith is how we live outside the doors of the Church: how we try to love all those we meet, give words of kindness and support to those who need it, how we share the good news of God’s love and invite our friends and neighbours to Church; how we use our gifts of time and money to help those in need and build God’s Kingdom.

We want the keys of the Kingdom.  But we must also take the cross.

What side we are on will take some more puzzling through, but I close with the words of Jesus, after his rebuke of Peter.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

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Disturb us, Lord…

Heston’s last sermon at the Ascension was unscripted, so we can’t upload the text to this blog.
However, the sermon ended with this poem by Francis Drake:

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to help us push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love. Amen.

Violence and Hunger

A Sermon by Heston Groenewald

Rev. Heston Groenewald

Rev. Heston Groenewald

There have been horrific headlines from Palestine this week. And tomorrow marks 100 years exactly since Great Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. It’s easy to feel pretty helpless as we read about all this… So this morning I’d like us to think about VIOLENCE.

Violence is right at the heart of life on planet earth, and so it’s right and good that dealing with violence is something that’s at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. Our first reading is this ancient story about Jacob and the mysterious man that he wrestles with through the night. And as a result of the wrestling match, Jacob gets a new name- he is called Isra-El which means ‘wrestles with God’.
And that’s a name that we inherit from him. In the New Testament, St Paul writes about the church as ‘the Israel of God’ – the people who struggle with God. We inherit this name generally – as Christians who inherit much of Jewish life and tradition – but also specifically here at the Church of the Ascension, because we gather precisely to wrestle with God and with life, and to see what God and life might want for us and from us.

And that’s true isn’t it… If you’ve been a Christian- or a human being- for any length of time, you know that there’s always wrestling to be done: wrestling with faith, wrestling with doubt, wrestling with people, wrestling with life, the universe and everything.

And so to our wrestling match. Lining up in the blue corner, is me, and lining up in the red corner, is God and everyone else. That’s how the battle goes, isn’t it- it’s our egos against the world. We say me and God says your neighbour. We say self-interest and God says self-sacrifice. Round one, fight!

Now there are folks who aren’t wrestling at all- for some people, ego – I – has no competition. And that’s really dangerous- as soon as we let our egos or self-interest run riot, without any sense of social justice as a corrective, that’s when our interests marginalise our neighbours. So ACTUALLY in this fight, we want God to win.

But we’re all fighters, aren’t we?! Our egos don’t give in without a fight. Which means that we can talk about violence, knowing that all of us are violent. We all have this selfish instinct- call it sin, call it the human condition, call it whatever, but this is a battle for all of us, individually and collectively.

St Benedict said that any person who yearns to draw close to God – and so any person who yearns to lose this fight! – will act with justice. And one of the controlling symbols for justice in the Hebrew Scriptures is a meal. When God imagines justice, he imagines it as a banquet. From Isaiah 25 – YHWH Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet with the best of meats and the finest of wines. He will swallow up death forever… He will wipe away the tears from all faces…

It’s a banquet, but it’s about much more than food. God deals with peoples’ hunger, but the meal is a symbol for something much bigger- God promises to deal with all the things that get people down in life, all the things they wrestle with- even disease and grief and death.

And so it’s interesting that this morning’s gospel reading talks about Jesus putting on a big miraculous meal, AND curing sick people. He dealt with peoples’ hunger, and also dealt with the things that got them down- the things they wrestled with.

St Benedict said that any person who yearns to draw close to God will act with justice. And we SYMBOLISE justice every week – we’re about to have a meal that’s a symbol for justice. Everyone gets a piece of bread and a sip of wine, everyone is provided for and no one is turned away. But it’s a pity it’s such a tiny token- what we have is a symbol of a symbol. If we shared an actual meal, then it would be far easier to move from symbol to reality. Because THAT is what God asks of us in the wrestling match.

So we share this symbolic meal, where everyone is welcome at the table, and everyone gets something to eat and drink. We can’t be selfish and egotistical here- we have to welcome others and make sure that there’s enough for them too. Whether they’re from England or Germany or Palestine or Israel or Congo. Everyone gets something to eat, and no one gets turned away. Easy here in the church, but much harder out there in life.

Food is just the symbol of a bigger hope for justice, but even if we think no further than the symbol – food – itself, this wrestling match is going badly. Never mind any of the other things that get people down in life; there are people in our city and our world who are HUNGRY.

As we know, there are people who aren’t wrestling at all. Ego, self-interest has already won the day, and there’s no problem with people being hungry- it’s not MY problem if they can’t look after themselves.

But we’re here to be wrestlers. And here in the blue corner God is challenging us to offer more, to give up more, to sacrifice more, not to keep our food to ourselves. And in the red corner is our selfish instincts, that want to keep our time, our money, our food, for ourselves and say it’s not MY problem that the weak and helpless and hungry can’t look after themselves.

We think, I’m not so very greedy or selfish. And we say, at least I’m not like the people who are killing each other in Palestine, in Syria, in Afghanistan, in the DRC. But hear what one wise monk had to say: To make people live in a sub-human way against their will, in such a way that they have no hope of escaping their condition, is an unjust exercise of force. Those who in some way or other concur in the oppression- and perhaps profit by it- are exercising violence even though they may be preaching pacifism.

We are the people who benefit from the way our society is structured. We are the haves, and allowing the have-nots to remain hungry, is exercising violence on them. We can’t do much about Palestine or Syria, but here is a battle we CAN do something about. This is a violence that is happening right in our own streets, and we have it in our power to end it…  Are we ready to get the gloves off and do something about it?

LEWCAS shopping list handout- will you bring some of these items to church next week and every week??

If you can and will, we can pull off a miracle like Jesus did in feeding 5000 on a Galilean hillside. But we first have to wrestle with God, and we have to let God win against our greed and selfishness.

If you’re up for a fight, pray with me:

“O God, to those who have hunger, give bread;
and to us who have bread, give hunger for justice… Amen.”

The kingdom of Heaven

A sermon by Margaret Offerman

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Margaret Offerman, Reader at the Ascension

Nearly always when Christians gather to worship they say the lord’s prayer, with its  pledge to hallow the name of God and to will that his kingdom may come on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus had a poetic imagination.  When he wanted to convey the wonder of the kingdom of heaven, he didn’t say:  the kingdom of heaven is a state of perfection which lifts us all out of ourselves and at the same time makes us relish being alive.   He said the kingdom is like a mustard seed or yeast or treasure hidden in a field or a fine pearl.  In fact, the last comparison is with the merchant who’s searching for the fine pearl – Jesus is not too particular about being exact.  His excitement is about the features of the kingdom.  It’s as natural as a growing plant or a measure of yeast – there’s nothing forced about it; you create the right environment for it and it starts to grow.  And at the same time, the kingdom is as spectacularly beautiful as a rich pearl.  Or it’s as exciting as finding hidden treasure – you think you’re digging a furrow to plant a row of potatoes and suddenly your spade hits something that’ll transform your life.

The first comparison is particularly significant I think because it emphasises the communal aspect of the kingdom.  When the seed germinates, it creates a shelter for all the birds of the air.  The yeast, the treasure, the pearl bring personal satisfaction.  The  benefits of the plant are there for all to enjoy.

The reality of our news at the moment makes it hard to imagine how the kingdom can ever come on earth.  One day while we were on holiday I read the paper from cover to cover, something I rarely do.  The grimness of both national and international news was almost relentless.   There were Palestinian children being killed by machine gun fire from Israeli soldiers.  A meeting of senior police officers admitted that they might be overwhelmed by the scale of child abuse.  The new minister for employment and disabilities was hailed by the Daily Mail as the Queen of the Catwalk.  1 in 6 families in some cities struggles to pay basic bills without resorting to payday loans.   Deaths from the Ebola virus are being reported in Sierra Leone.  And this was the day before the Malaysian air liner crashed.  Even a letter celebrating the Synod vote to allow women to be bishops ended with the hope that now that the C/E has moved into the 20thc., it’ll begin to address itself to the problems of the 21st.

Jesus lived at a bleak time in human history.  His country was occupied by an oppressive  imperial force.  The religious leaders were time-serving, hierarchical and power-hungry.  Poor people begged for food.  The slightly more fortunate made do with subsistence wages.  But Jesus preached a message of hope.  The followers of John the Baptist who were bewildered by Jesus sent to ask him: Are you the one who is to come, or do we have to wait for someone else?  Jesus sent the disciples back, saying:  tell John what you hear and observe.  The blind see again, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and good news is proclaimed to the poor.    Jesus was announcing  that the kingdom of heaven had arrived. The miracles were symbolic of new, universal values which are transforming and transcendent.  The signs of the kingdom are wholeness, inclusiveness, new insights and perceptions, justice, equality,  peace.  And the kingdom parables show his disciples that their role is to be sowers of the seed.

In the early 1900s, William Beveridge, a lawyer, was asked by Winston Churchill to become  a cabinet member and join him at what was then called the Board of Trade.  Beveridge introduced a pilot system of national insurance to combat the  poverty which was the consequence of unemployment.  In 1919 he became Director of the LSE, but in 1940 he again became a temporary civil servant and began work with Arthur Greenwood, an MP, on the document which became  the Report to Parliament on Social Insurance and Allied Services, published in 1942. It proposed that all people of working age should pay a weekly national insurance contribution. In return, benefits would be paid to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed.  Beveridge argued that this system would provide a minimum standard of living “below which no one should be allowed to fall”. It recommended that the government should find ways of fighting the five ‘Giant Evils’ of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Beveridge included as one of three fundamental assumptions the fact that there would be a National Health Service of some sort, a policy already being worked on in the Ministry of Health   In 1948, these proposals became law in what we know as the NHS.

Beveridge was a member of the liberal party and became a liberal MP.  But his vision of a more equal society where everyone was entitled to a basic welfare programme, whatever their means, was recognised and affirmed by Conservative, Liberal and Labour governments.  His arguments were always economic – welfare institutions would increase the competitiveness of British industry in the post-war period, by producing healthier, wealthier and thus more motivated and productive workers who would also serve as a great source of demand for British goods.  As Jesus once famously said: the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.

There’s an exhibition at Tate Britain at the moment called: Kenneth Clarke – Looking for Civilisation.  The Kenneth Clarke in question isn’t the recently removed  Europhile cabinet member,  but a man who at one time was director of the National Gallery and who presented a series of tv programmes in the late 60s called Civilisation.  He was extremely cultured and  immensely wealthy and had a large collection of beautiful works of art, many of which are in the exhibition.  The video introducing the exhibition consists of extracts from the programmes.  At the very end, he sums up his reasons for making the series:  I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction.  I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta.  On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology.  …………I also hold one or two beliefs that are difficult to put shortly.  For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our egos.  And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature.  All living things are our brothers and sisters.  Above all I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

I don’t know if either Beveridge or Kenneth Clark was a religious man.  One of them had a vision of a world  where a safety net protected vulnerable people in our society from the cradle to the grave.  The other offered a mass audience a glimpse of great beauty in a variety of forms and helped them to understand the relationship between beauty and civilisation.  I’m sure Jesus would have added them to his list of seed sowers, bread makers, men and women who show us the possiblities of life lived to the full.

People who have lived fulfilled, useful lives have had an experience of heaven.  They have been able to see above the inevitable drudgery which is a part of most work experience to the value of what they have done for themselves and for others.  We all relish and cherish the moments in our lives when we are with those we love, when we enjoy a superb natural landscape, when we look with satisfaction on a task well done, when we read something that shifts the kaleidoscope.  These transfiguring moments expand our lives.

But the kingdom Jesus talks about is not just a matter of a personal experience, of seeking out circumstances which will make us happy.   It’s felt and known and shared in community, day after day.  We must live in the kingdom in communion with one another in a passionate commitment to each other and to the wider world.  Many people in our world will never know the satisfaction of a lifetime of productive work, social interactions among friends and colleagues, of culture or of the support of a family.  The kingdom must be for them as well, whether they live in Blackheath or in  Gaza. What we must offer here is a model of service and generous sacrifice to our immediate, privileged group and to the disadvantaged and dispossessed in our society and beyond.  When our hearts yearn in sympathy with the wretched of the earth and we are moved to do something to help them, we are living in the kingdom.  Because the core kingdom value is love.  Paul reminds us that nothing in life or death can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus.  When we know that love and share that love we’re helping to build the kingdom..