Recently I had a very strange experience on a visit to another Parish in another region of the Diocese. In the days leading up to my going there, I experienced a puzzling sense of déjà vu, about it all.
When I looked back in my diary I found that it was exactly three years (give or take a couple of days) since I had last preached and presided in that Church. And because, as some of you will know, our lectionary [the readings and themes which are set for each Sunday] work on a three year cycle, I quickly realised that the Bible readings and the theme of the service were going to be the same when I visited them, as they had been when I was there three years before.
So I was faced with a dilemma, a dilemma common to many preachers. I had to work out in my mind whether they would notice if I dusted off my sermon from three years before and gave it to them again, or whether it would be better for me to write a new one! Well, you will be pleased to know that I did not take the easy option, and I started my sermon again from scratch. Even though when I got there I found that we were singing exactly the same hymns as we had done three years before, so perhaps they wouldn’t have noticed after all!
Going back to a place after some time away, provides the opportunity to ask questions about how things have changed. I was very conscious before I visited them that I was not only wondering about how they had changed, but I was thinking about how the Diocese has changed over the last three years, and how I have changed as well.
When we recognise that we are on a journey, a journey that will take a life time (both as individuals and as a community within the life of the Church) it is important to have those moments of stopping and reflecting on how things have changed and developed. So last week I was remembering back to some of the important moments in my Christian journey.
When I was a boy, Billy Graham came to London, and I was one of the first people to go out near to the main stage in response to his call for people to come forward after he had been preaching, to respond to the message. I imagine that there are people in our congregation whose commitment to Christ and the life of the Church started or was energized by that kind of experience.
The following day, I decided to go back to the football stadium again in Upton Park to hear Billy Graham again, and even though I knew that I wasn’t supposed to, I felt that I was in a better position on the second night to make a commitment to Christ and wanted to go out to the front again.
And the next evening I went back again. Each night I felt like I had understood a bit more about what this was all about, and decided that what I had done the previous night was not nearly as good as what I intended to do this time. For some of us, there will have been a discernable moment that we can look back to, when we made a decision to follow Jesus, and to fashion our lives by his life.
For some of us, there will have been a discernable moment that we can look back to, when we made a decision to follow Jesus, and to fashion our lives by his life. It might have been when we were confirmed, or at a special service or mission, or youth camp, or in response to a particular change that took place in lives. But there is definitely, for some of us ‘a moment’.
For others of us, there is not simply one particular moment like that, but as we look back over our lives in the life of the Church there have been a series of moments when something special has happened for us and which has given us a new enthusiasm to remain committed to God and the Church. Nothing terribly exciting, but ongoing reassurances of God’s love for us, and our faithfulness in return.
Our Gospel reading this morning marks out a similar kind of event in the life of the disciples, and in particular in the life of Peter. It is important to remember that the figure of Peter in our Gospels is about much more than the actual person who followed Jesus around, 2,000 years ago. In the Early Church there was a very strong understanding that when stories were told about Peter they were not just stories about a person, they were stories about the whole Church.
Peter (right at the start of Mark’s Gospel), with his brother Andrew, is the first to respond to Jesus’ call. He has already – if you like – made a commitment to him. But in the encounter which we heard about today Peter has the opportunity to renew that commitment again. Jesus has asked his disciples who people are saying that he is, and there are a number of responses. Clearly, there has been a lot of speculation about Jesus swirling around, a lot of wondering amongst those who had followed Jesus and listened to his teachings. According to the disciples’ response, some of those who had encountered Jesus believed that he was John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and still others one of the other prophets.
All of those great heroes of the faith have one thing in common. The Jews believed that they pointed to someone else who was to come. John the Baptist said that he was a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. Elijah was understood in Jewish tradition to be the harbinger of the Messiah. Still to this day, at Jewish formal meals, a spare seat is left for Elijah whose arrival will herald the imminent coming of the Messiah. In the same way, the other prophets had pointed, in their own time, to a world in which the Messiah would come to bring justice and equity and peace. People hearing Jesus, are experiencing him as this kind of a person – someone who is coming to point the way to someone greater, who will come afterwards.
But it is Peter who is the first to say that he believes that Jesus is not the warm up act, but the real thing. The Messiah. It is in response to Peter’s renewed commitment that Jesus begins to teach the disciples about the journey to the cross. Which in turn sends Peter into an absolute spin. In one breath he is declaring his faith in Jesus as the Messiah, but as Jesus gently teaches him and the other disciples the consequences of what that will mean, Peter is adamant that this is not the journey which Jesus should be taking.
Peter wants a Messiah who will be victorious, not someone who will ultimately hang on a cross. Peter will never really understand why Jesus is doing what he is doing, until he meets him again, after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This cycle of making a commitment to faith, and then being knocked off balance, and then making a commitment to faith again typifies Peter’s life. It will be him, after all, who denies that he knew Jesus in the final hours before the cross. And this cycle of commitment, and then mistake, and then re-commitment, mirrors the life of the people of Israel in the Old Testament, and as I have said already, the life of the Early Church as well.
In the Book of Exodus, God’s chosen people, wandering in the wilderness, are continually moving from a state of faithfulness to God, to doubt and rejection of God, and then back to a re-commitment again. In the big scheme of things, the great Covenant between God and his people remains intact throughout, but when we look more closely at their journey, they are continually rejecting God, and having to be brought back to him again.
We happen to be in a period of time in Australian society when active membership of the Church, as a sign of commitment and faithfulness to God has largely been forgotten. There are still glimmers of Christian culture and language in our wider society, but by and large, commitment to God, through active participation in the life and witness of the Church continues to be in decline.
Our own Diocese, like many denominations in Australia has been in decline for many years. It took us a long time to wake up to that fact, but in recent times it has been pretty clear, even if the Church at large, has (by and large) carried on as if nothing has changed. There was a time when we presumed that all Australians were Christians, and that all that we needed to do was to build churches and ring the bells and people would come. When new people stopped coming we largely carried on doing what we had done before, and simply concentrated on looking after the people who were gathering already. If there was to be outreach to those who lived around us we largely understood that to be the task of the person that we paid to lead ministry.
We have had a much clearer idea than we have had for a long time, that every one of us in the life of the Church has been called to witness to God’s Kingdom, the Kingdom which is summed in the life and values and hope which we find in Jesus. Some people are more pessimistic than I am, but I don’t believe that the lack of connection between the Church and our wider society can’t be turned around.
Just like Peter, and like the people of the Old Testament before him (and probably like many of our experiences of faith as well), there are times of great commitment to God, and there are times of wandering away from God. What was true for them, may also be true for our wider society.
Mission begins in God, not in us; but God does use us to bring his mission to fulfillment.
Those words from the letter of James which we heard a few moments ago always haunt me, ‘faith without works is nothing.’ Our faith calls us, within the limits of what we are able to do, to participate actively in God’s mission, and not simply be spectators at some kind of religious performance. It was after all Peter, who after the resurrection of Jesus became the first of the disciples to share his faith with others.
You know, a more accurate translation of what Jesus says to the disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading is, “If any of you want to come the way I am going, you must say ‘no’ to your own selves, pick up your cross, and follow me.”
In this Church of St Augustine, we are all on a journey together following in the way of Jesus. We are continuing to learn how to share our faith with our neighbours, building on the foundations of all that we have done in the past. So here are a couple of questions for us this week: ‘Who are the people that we know who have made a commitment to Jesus in the past, but are not currently connected into the life of the Church? And secondly, ‘What would we say if one of those friends asked us to tell them about the good news of Jesus?’