Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity 2020
To be a Christian is to live in a love that will be rejected and a hope that will be redeemed.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 30th August 2020 at 11.15 AM
February, I think it was one of those cold, February nights when it goes dark early and London hunkers down over a mess of puddles and umbrellas. It was certainly raining. Visitors to the Abbey dripped and steamed. We had been juggling different commitments all day, harassed and never quite getting anything finished. I was doing that thing that the Dean does, wafting about, being cheerful. Colleagues noticed and tried hard to find things to do somewhere else, but one was not quite quick enough and did not get away. I asked him if he had had a good day. ‘O, Mister Dean’ he said ‘I am living the dream’.
Now, it is a rather wicked thing to lie to the Dean, but he must be forgiven. It was a stupid question. At the end of a bad day - ‘Living the Dream’ Notice the language - not this life, but something else, something a bit vague a dream. There are the facts - a wet, busy, awkward Abbey and then, over there somewhere, is the Dream. That is because we all know that the future is not a fact. It does not have hard edges. It is not real. It is the stuff that dreams are made on. Talking about the future we get misty-eyed (and sometimes a bit overwrought). We might say we want to live the dream, or, something worse. This week someone told me ‘if your dreams don’t scare you they are not big enough’. Much more of that and the future is not just imaginary, it is impossible. As an alternative, we stop dreaming and try to take control, make it happen. Then we blunder into the ghastly world of school and university straplines which are all about more effort today and great achievement tomorrow – The Recipe for Success, Just Add You or, Everyone Successful Everyday. Really? Everyone? And every single day? This is the future gazing at us sternly and holding a whip. The future as dream or the future as tyranny.
Our neighbours in Westminster School, I am glad to say, are better theologians. They do not think it is up to us. They also think in Latin, of course, Dat Deus Incrementum – God gives the increase.
And all this is what we have to think about this morning. The future, living the dream and learning a different and better theology.
The gospel reading had Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee. Note the name, Caesarea Philippi, this place is named for the Roman Emperor – for Caesar – and for Herod Philip. We are in Jewish territory, but only just, it is occupied, full of Gentiles, not Jews. There was a major shrine there, to the God, Pan. So, this is an awkward, contested place where no one quite belongs. But it was here, in Caesarea Philippi, where no one could be quite certain, that Jesus asked the disciples the key question:
Who do you say that I am?
The whole gospel is about this one question. Do you know who Jesus is? Have you decided yet? Last Sunday we heard Simon Peter give the answer - "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. This morning what happened next. It began,
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem
From that time… it is a turn of phrase that is supposed to pull you up short. It can just mean then, of course. At that time the sermon got boring so I stopped listening. In Matthew, and elsewhere, it means more, this is code.
what you are to say will be given to you at that time
at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world
At that time is holy time. It is the future, it is the time of the Day of the Lord. What Jesus tells the disciples is that, in God’s future, he will suffer and he will die. God’s future is the cross.
Peter is, instantly, appalled and cannot contain himself,
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you."
Peter, remember has just got it right, spectacularly right. Asked, in Caesarea Philippi, ‘Who is Jesus?’ he has acknowledged him as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’. Peter has grasped the fact of the matter - he knows the story that must be told. The Messiah will be the great deliverer of his people, he will be the Saviour. In Jesus, a new age of peace and prosperity will begin. Everyone, not just Peter, knew this story and how it was supposed to go. No wonder he was horrified when Jesus announced that he would fail and he would die – Lord, This must never happen to you.
Last week, as we heard the first part of this gospel story, the part where Peter made that great confession - You are the Messiah, - we reminded ourselves that this Abbey church is dedicated to St Peter. This is the sort of place where we say what Peter said, do what Peter did. We are plunged right into his dilemma. In Ceasarea Philippi, Peter is conflicted, he is confident and sure and then is horrified and uncertain. He knows a thing and then, it seems, he does not. So what kind of faith do we put into words in this Collegiate Church of St Peter at Westminster?
I love this place, God knows I love this place, but even I know it is a bit of temptation. You see, here we keep writing it large. The gospel is all about casting down crowns, but the Abbey is rather keen on someone putting them back on again. We do confidence here, majesty, there are trumpets and flags – quite often. The gospel though, has at its heart the death of Christ and, on the cross, the absolute failure of human ambition. It is a story that has gone wrong, a story that does not turn out as it should. So, in Peter’s church, we have to acknowledge ‘Lord this did happen to you’.
Just sometimes it can seem as though Christian faith is all about happy endings and everything being fine – God loving us and saving us, people going to heaven, the sick being cured, and the year of the Lord’s favour. It is lovely, but it is just not the whole story. Listen again to what Jesus says to 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
The story we tell in Peter’s church, the story Peter had to learn, slowly and painfully, is not all about a happy ending. Listen to Jesus teach and you will hear him say hard things
– ‘offer no resistance, give to anyone who asks, do not worry about tomorrow, love your enemy, do not be angry’. Follow Jesus and you will come to the cross. He asks us to do just that, to take up a cross and follow him. He does that because his single-minded commitment to love God and love our neighbour is so radical and so strange that the world does not welcome it. The truth is that if you love the world as Jesus loved, then the world will kill you.
That is the strange story we tell, the story we have to learn. Reformers want to change the world, take and shake it and make it different. That is the usual ambition. That is what Peter wanted. Jesus does nothing of the sort. Jesus fails. To be a Christian is to give up on the usual story the one about being in charge, taking control and winning. Our life’s work is to learn and live this different story, the one that does not come naturally. The one in which love is not just a happy ending. That is what Peter has to be told at Caesarea Philippi. That is why Jesus is so shockingly abrupt – with Peter
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.
Jesus is not a social reformer. He does not come with an agenda or a manifesto, remember this is not the teaching of the scribes. Nor is the gospel an attempt to create one kind of a community over and against others. The kind of community that needs walls and fences and guards. The gospel is undefended, it is the thing Peter struggles with - This must never happen to you. Peter does not want Jesus to be hurt. Peter is for this not that, he takes sides, he lives the defended life. Christ does not have that kind of limited ambition. He does not have ambition at all; nothing he must get done. Jesus comes amongst us simply to live life fully, the Father’s life, our life. We have to know that life, be able to tell that strange story, follow it all the way to Golgotha.
And then we have to live that life too. That is what it means to be in Peter’s church.
I have nearly finished - nearly, but not quite. There is a bit of the story that has, so far, gone unmentioned. If the great project that Jesus had in mind had been reform, building a new social order, the redistribution of wealth, the end of oppression… all the things that Peter expected, well he failed. He was rejected and it all ended in agony and humiliation on Golgotha. Peter never could defend him.
If, however, the commitment was to life, life in its fulness, just being alive, well then, the outcome looks different. Jesus died but then he was raised. Jesus lives. The life he lived ended in death, but that death and that life are both raised. Christ lives, he endures. Christ is present still. The last word, the ending, is his life.
The facts, the events are quite clear. In history he died, it ended. Yet the story we have to learn and tell is that he lives and he is our future. Do you remember we began with that business of living the dream? I said that we always describe the future as a dream because we know it is not real? Well, now I want to say that we are mistaken. In Christ, the future exists. His risen life is the future and it does exist. It is real. It has begun.
To be a Christian, in Peter’s church, is to tell the story of this life, with none of the difficulty left out. We are to tell it truly. Then we must learn that the future is sure. To be a Christian is to live in a love that will be rejected and a hope that will be redeemed. To be a Christian is to be honest about the past and sure of the future. Love and hope – a cross and resurrection.