Sunday 13th September 2015, Trinity 15, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
One of the most moving moments of the last week for me was at a meeting on Thursday night at Morden Baptist Church. 85 local residents had come together to talk about offering practical help to refugees in light of the current crisis. But what was moving was hearing people tell stories of how they had been welcomed when they were asylum seekers – and now wanting to offer the same to others. One man told how the people of Syria had welcomed people from his own country, Armenia, when they needed to flee. As they had been so generous themselves, welcoming Syrians now is the least he could do.
Hearing him and others speak brought the reality of the crisis closer. People who flee persecution are not merely a news story but are our neighbours. And the question of help is not merely theoretical but practical.
I think in a sense it is that move from theory to practice that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel reading. To start with the question he asks might be one of theory. ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’. They could have a nice, academic discussion about society’s opinions. Jesus focusses it more, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Now it demands some buy in. You’ve got to put your own opinion on the line, risk getting it wrong, risk getting laughed at. Of course it’s still just talk. But, please note, the question of who Jesus is cannot be reduced to a theological theory. It was a political hot potato. Peter’s response may have been insightful, but it could also be seen as inciting of opposition. ‘You are the Messiah.’ In other words, you are the one we expect to reorder society, bring freedom from tyranny, introduce justice and peace to Israel – end the rule of the oppressors.
We only have to look at countries today where people thought they could do such things to see how dangerous that kind of agenda is. Thinking you’re the Messiah is the stuff that creates refugee crises. It was true in the first century. The Jews, with would be Messiahs, revolted against Roman rule in 70AD, and the Romans crucified 700 at one time. Sixty years later they revolted again, and this time the Romans flattened the city, put a pagan temple on the site of the Jewish temple, and exiled every last Jew from the city, to wherever they could find refuge.
But Peter was up for the challenge of revolution. What he wasn’t ready for was the possibility of failure – and that’s the only version of Messiahship that Jesus had on offer. ‘Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed.’ Now again, when we think of Jesus dying we reduce it by talking about it only in theological terms. Jesus died to save us from our sins… and then we have theories about how that works: Jesus death was a sacrifice, or he won a victory over Satan, or he suffered punishment in our place. But in its context, Jesus death was a social and political event. Every time a young man gets murdered with the co-operation of the ruling classes, it is an events that focusses the reality of society, the fears and tensions of communities. Just look at stories in the US of defenceless young black men shot by police officers.
But Peter wasn’t ready to part of the victims movement – and he contradicts Jesus. And Jesus turns to him, ‘Get behind me Satan.’ I wonder just how humiliated Peter felt. I know I would have been. I like to be right and be seen to be right – that’s not a good trait by the way. Peter was probably still on a high from having got it so right with about Jesus being the Messiah, that the fall here is so harder. Because whichever way you look at it, Jesus accuses him of speaking for the worst enemy of all. And as I’ve already warned twice about not reducing this story to merely theological discussion, so also Jesus’s talk of Peter being Satan is not merely about the mythology of evil, it is about the social and cultural and political reality of evil.
And when Jesus says, ‘you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ He doesn’t mean ‘you need to get your mind off the here and now and into the some other realm.’ No he means ‘you need to see the here and now with the eyes of God’s compassion and wisdom and truth.’
And then Jesus makes it real for them. ‘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 and the sake of the Gospel will find it.’ I say it makes it real, because again, Jesus’s talk of taking up the cross and losing life is not simply a metaphor for individual small inconveniences: ‘a gammy leg is the cross I have to bear’ kind of spirituality. The real possibility of death and persecution are what faced the first Christian communities, and still many communities – Christian and other – today.
It is that facing the reality of the world that Jesus calls us to. And that was why hearing stories from people who have been refugees is so humbling. And the other thing the meeting did for me the other day was demonstrate that there are practical responses that local people can make to welcome refugees. And to some extent the social infrastructure for doing this is already in place. The Borough is already home to asylum seekers, and where there are children under 18 the council takes responsibility for these families or unaccompanied children. So help can be offered:
- If you’re able to make a big commitment, by people becoming foster carers – lots of asylum seekers are still children and the council has is always on the lookout for caring homes
- or by offering volunteer time with refugee support organisations
- by contributing money, for instance to charities offering legal support to asylum seekers
- by giving to foodbanks, because until someone’s asylum application is granted they have no recourse to public money – and are often impoverished.
If you want to know more, then there’s an email list and fb page already in existence –search for ‘Merton Residents Supporting Refugees’. And they’ve already sent out at email asking for people to tell what skills and availability they have.
But… Jesus message isn’t that it’s simply about giving up, relinquishing, being defeated. ‘Those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.’ Again we tend to theologise or mythologise this saying – if you are self-denying, you’ll get your reward in heaven. But Jesus has earlier talked about his own resurrection, his own discovering life. I think Jesus rising from the dead in the middle of our world, in the face of the human power players that put him in the tomb, is a demonstration that even resurrection, even eternal life is a player in our society, our politics, our culture, our community. And the whole message of Jesus is that his people can live the life of resurrection in the present – it’s what he initiates us into through baptism and sustains us in week by week in the Eucharist. To live Christ’s risen life now, is to live without fear of having economic well-being, reputation, or influence stripped away; because the only thing that really matters, to know that we are acclaimed by and cherished and loved by God cannot be taken away.
I rather want to turn Jesus last saying around. He says, ‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words… of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father.’ So he also means, ‘Those who are proud of me and my words and my values and my hope and my actions… of them the Son of Man will be proud when he comes with the glory the Father gives.’
May we do what would make Jesus proud of us.