Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


“Start-back Sunday”
September 16, 2012, 3:51 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday September 16th 2012

“Start-back Sunday.” I called this, last week, a curious modern liturgical Festival. So it is, and apparently moveable too, since I gather it is not celebrated on the same Sunday in every parish. A bit like Harvest. However, it does represent quite an important element on our Christian lives, the idea of “starting again.”

A long time ago (according to the omniscient Google in 1936, even before I was born), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a song which went, “pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and start all over again.” Not a bad piece of advice. As human beings, we are constantly falling short, making mistakes and generally getting things wrong. It would be very easy to get down-hearted, and to wonder why we bother. To settle for the second-rate. As Christians, we can’t do that. We may sometimes feel hopeless, but we are not hopeless. Our hope is in God, in Christ.

Today’s Gospel is the turning-point, as it were the hinge connecting the two halves of St Mark’s Gospel. Mark wrote in order to pose and to answer two questions; first, who is Jesus? Answer, the Messiah. Second, what kind of Messiah? Answer, one who suffers and dies. In the first half of the Gospel he depicts Jesus doing powerful works of healing and exorcism, and teaching with authority. He shows how this led to opposition from the religious and secular rulers of the time. All this leads up to the questions, Who do people say that I am? And, Who do you say that I am? Peter gives the right answer, You are the Messiah. In Matthew’s version, this is followed by praise of Peter, and the statement that he owes this insight not to his own cleverness, but to his openness to the promptings of God himself.

In Mark, the disciples are simply told to keep quiet about this, and Jesus begins to teach them that he must undergo suffering, rejection and death, before “rising again”. He was quite explicit about this, and Peter now takes him aside and rebukes what he considers, I suppose, merely “negative thoughts”, unworthy of the Messiah. But he in return is rebuked, in front of the disciples, as “Satan”, the Enemy. Our translation says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” I prefer the Jerusalem Bible: “The way you think is not God’s way but man’s.” Peter is no longer listening to God, he is relying on his human way of thinking, and far from helping the Master he is making things more difficult.

In comparing the three Gospel versions, it is interesting that only Matthew records both the praise and the rebuke of Peter; Mark has only the rebuke; and Luke does not mention either. My own explanation, for what it is worth, is that Luke thought it unfitting to record something to Peter’s discredit; Mark represents what Peter himself wanted recorded; while Matthew achieves the proper balance by including both praise and blame.

This is not a trivial point. It makes the proper contrast between listening to God, and relying on human reason alone. It makes the contrast between recognising Jesus as Lord, and fully appreciating the mystery of the Cross. It makes the contrast between the ultimate Power of God, and the way he chooses to achieve his purposes by apparently contradictory ways, by suffering and weakness.

Mark stresses that, in the final part of today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks not only to the disciples, but to the crowd, the mixed mob of hangers-on and rubberneckers who followed him about, hoping to see something marvellous. Whoever wants to come after me must deny himself and take up his cross and follow.  The word for deny is very emphatic: must deny utterly. And the word “cross” was truly shocking: take up an instrument of torture and execution; and having done so, follow Jesus. No wonder the disciples simply could not get their heads around it at this point. It reinforces the principle that God’s ways are not human ways, that, in the eyes of God, human success is in fact failure, and human defeat is in fact victory. He rules by serving, he lives by dying, and we must do the same.

Like Peter, we are all liable to fall. Just as we are preening ourselves on having got something right, we put our foot in it and get things wrong. That’s life, that’s humanity. We have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start all over again. Today is the 130th anniversary of the death of Edward Pusey, one of the leading lights of the Oxford Tractarian movement that led the foundation of this church of All Saints. That movement reminds us that the Church, too, is on a switch-back of ups and downs. Times of Revival, times of decline, times when the Church listens too much to the world, times when it listens properly to God. What is God saying to us today? Is he telling us to listen more closely to what contemporary society is thinking and saying? Or, if he is, because we do need to listen, is he telling us to follow the ways of the modern world? I doubt it.

This is Holy Cross-tide. The Gospel that the Church has to offer and uphold is always the Gospel of the Cross. We are not here to affirm the world and its thinking, but to contradict them. The way the world thinks is not God’s way but man’s. We are not here to be popular, but to bear witness to the Word of God. This is not the easy way, but the hard way. It is the way of the Cross. It is not the way of self-affirmation, but of self-denial. In following it, we shall often fail, often fall. We must constantly, day by day, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start all over again. Every day must be a start-back day. Amen.

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