Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 16 Sunday 16 September 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Who do you say that I am?’
We perhaps don’t realize, familiar as we are with this incident, just how odd a question this is. If I were to ask you this now, about myself, you might call the nice men in white coats. But what if we did listen to this moment in Mark’s Gospel as if that is what is going on, as if I, standing as Christ’s priest in this assembly, were saying that to you (and to myself) as a personal challenge about our faith.
Jesus does say to each of us: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ That’s really what we are asking in all those questions to parents and godparents in a baptism, and what Bishop Stephen will ask confirmation candidates here next week, questions which we’ve all either answered ourselves, or had answered for us, in our own baptism and confirmation services. The whole thing turns, just as it did for Peter and the other disciples on who we say that Jesus is. As we sing the familiar words of the creed in a moment, the meaning hangs on this one question from Jesus at this turning point in his life:
‘Who do you say that I am?’
If we don’t answer with Peter the whole of that verbal and doctrinal structure is dust.
As you heard in the gospel, Jesus’ first instruction to Peter and those who heard him give the right answer, was ‘not to tell anyone about him’. Yet again he commands silence; yet again we may wonder what shape the Church would take if it allowed the possibility that this instruction was not only for the Twelve. To shut up occasionally would certainly be a ‘fresh expression of church’ and, perhaps more importantly, a refreshing one. The question is to be answered by each of us, not foisted on to someone else.
And, as the Gospel tells us today, there are consequences to the way in which we answer the question. If we say to Jesus, with Peter, ‘You are the Messiah’, then we must also accept what follows –
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to 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 for the sake of the gospel, will save it. [8.31-5]
In Mark’s Gospel, especially, the moment when Peter names who Jesus is signals a turning point, almost exactly half way through the story. Everything in the Gospel so far has been preparing for this moment. Until now only the evil spirits are reported to know who Jesus really is, and they are repeatedly silenced. Now Peter names Jesus as the anointed one for whom Israel has longed and hoped. Everything that follows in the Gospel is a consequence of that revelation.
Peter’s confession of faith leads to a larger revelation about God. Jesus is uninterested in status, in the power of titles and names (hence his rough challenge to Peter with the name-checking of Satan). His power does not come from those things but from his generosity of heart, his teaching ‘with authority’, his closeness to God and the new alternative family he proposes. That family he continues to create in what he insists are our primary relationships formed by the sacraments, our true identity. All of us called by his name are challenged to do likewise and lose ourselves in being generous of heart, being fearless in speaking the truth and being genuinely family to our brothers and sisters in Christ – you lot.
Calling Peter (or one another) Satan sounds mildly hysterical. Without going into a theological history of the devil (without which I am sure you are happy to do!) we might just recall that ‘Satan’ means someone who makes people stumble, an obstacle in the Way of the Lord. If we say we believe that Jesus is Lord, to use Paul’s formulation of the answer, and if we’re not just saying it, we are placing ourselves firmly on that Way. But we are reminded that it is not the royal highway in the desert prophesied by Isaiah for the Advent of the Messiah, in which the valleys and mountains of life are flattened out and the uneven ground and rough places levelled into an easy plain, not a smooth road at all, but the sometimes dry and difficult Way of the Cross.
Jesus is rebuking Peter for being an obstacle to the Way of the Cross itself, which he knows must be walked in each life that is fully committed to him, under God. He doesn’t suggest that we should invite trouble and suffering. But he says that we must subordinate the ultimate control of our lives to God: a sacrificial action which reveals the meaning of the Kingdom. Likewise, ‘denying’ ourselves means, in modern terms, refusing to act on purely self-centred motives; seeking, rather, God’s guidance and final word in how we live, that our life might have the quality of eternity, be more than just finite and material, and more joyful.
Some of what I’ve said might sound a bit miserable. It isn’t intended to be. There is greater joy to be had at the end of this road, and often on it, than I’ve encountered anywhere else. The resurrection and the glory on the horizon are always there beckoning us, sometimes glimpsed even in the Church of England, firmly promised by the Lord in whom we trust. But it won’t do to pretend that everything is lovely all the time; the Christian grin is too often not an evangelical tool but a defensive lie. As Fr Gaskell used to remark, ‘life is bloody, but it will be all right in the end’.
‘Who do you say that I am?’ it may be a long time since we thought of answering that question personally. Yet it is the core of the Gospel. Recognition of Jesus as Lord, Messiah, Son of God, and relationship with him, is the only basis on which the story of our faith is more than just another story.
We have the opportunity of a personal renewal of our commitment almost immediately, in the creed:
‘Who do you say that I am?’