August 27th – Trinity 12
I wonder how many of you recall the time when John Major was prime minister. Although I did not agree with his politics, he was a prime minister that I liked – possibly because he was keen to involve the people he worked with in the decision making process. One of his campaigns – I don’t think we can call it a policy as I was never too sure what he meant by it was entitled ‘Back to Basics’, and I can’t help feeling that Isaiah was talking about something like that in our first reading when he says ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn.’ Isaiah is reminding the people that they are descended from one man who was faithful to God, and whom God blessed, until they became the many-tribed nation that he was addressing.
It is a very human trait to try to elaborate things – we often start with a simple idea, but before long – usually because somebody has questioned what we actually mean – we begin to define and add details, and immediately we are in danger of over complicating things. If we think about the differences between, and indeed within our varying denominations today, we can see that we have come a long way from the early church, and have made our doctrines a great deal more complicated.
Some of the complications have been brought in for good reasons – in this country, for example the weather makes it important that we have somewhere indoors to meet, and we are just now coming to realise that in making a building ornate and beautiful, we can also make it difficult for someone with a disability to be comfortable in, and to get around. By the same token, if we are to welcome all people into our fellowship, we need to have structures in place to ensure that the most vulnerable are kept safe. These things are all right and good, even if, at times they can seem a little annoying. I have been made aware of this personally in the last week or two as my DBS clearance has needed renewing and I found myself getting a little annoyed by some questions seeming to be repeated several times! I have finished and submitted it now, so hopefully I will soon learn whether I am a fit and proper person to be standing here!
Our gospel reading reminds us that at the time of Jesus ministry on earth, there was a renewed longing among his people for the coming of the promised Messiah. The land was full of soldiers of a foreign power, and taxes were demanded from all directions. A good jew would pay a tax to the temple, quite possibly some form of local taxation, and tax to the Roman occupiers. That must have hurt the most – knowing that your taxes went towards the pay of the soldiers and upkeep of the governor and his staff, who were not welcome in your country in the first place. Small wonder that there were a number of itinerant teachers who each gathered a following of disciples around them preaching varying forms of freedom from oppression.
We need to be careful here, as it would seem on the face of it that Jesus was just one among many – and apart from the time in the synagogue in Nazareth when he claimed to be the fulfilment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 61: 1-2;
‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,’ He made no apparent claim to be the saviour foretold in so many prophecies, and often referred to himself – as in today’s gospel as ‘the son of man’.
You will find the story of his claim to being the fulfilment of the prophecy in Lukes gospel, chapter 4 and from about verse 16, and if you read on a bit you will see that on that occasion it did not end well for Jesus and as far as I can tell, that was the only time that he made any claims to his status, and whenever he performed miracles, he was careful to remind people to adhere to the Jewish religious law, and not to tell people about what had been done or who had done it. I am confident, however, that had he just been another itinerant preacher, as so many were at the time – largely preaching freedom from foreign oppression, we would not be here today – both he and his teaching would have been forgotten as happened to all of the others. Jesus was so much more than just another preacher, as our gospel reading today shows.
What we don’t know, and will probably never be able to find out, is whether this wonderful realisation of Peter’s was something that suddenly came to him in that moment, or was something that he had known – or indeed seen as obvious for some time. It is interesting to note that this confession of Peter’s comes before he had seen the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top and heard the voice of God affirming Jesus as his son. As a friend of mine would have put it –‘he worked this one out for his own self’!
And so, surrounded as we are by a building so full of reminders of the glory of God, and busy as we are by ensuring that all the doctrinal and human requirements are met, how are we to share our faith with anyone who asks? I am always challenged, but at the same time encouraged by the worship we have on Good Friday when we come together with all the denominations active in our town. It is important at such times to try not to tread on anyone’s doctrinal toes, and so I am reminded of Paul’s preaching in Corinth – as he reminds the Corinthians in his letter to them:
‘For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ (I Corinthians 1: 22-24) If we are ever asked why we take up our Sunday mornings to be in church we could do a lot worse than doing as Paul did. Let us resolve to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I am sure we will get the same reaction that he did, but that should not put us off. The stumbling block and folly that he preached is now a fellowship of millions all over the world. Jesus once told a story about the wisdom of digging to a rock foundation when building a house. By the same token, he told Peter that he would be the rock on which the church would be founded, as he was open to the wisdom from the Father. We could do worse than remembering what Isaiah said: ‘Look to the rock from which you were hewn’. Peter may not have been perfect – far from it – but come to that neither are we, and he still gives us a pretty good role model to remember where we came from and what we believe.