Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

25 jun 2017

9am & Choral Eucharist

Preacher: Canon Stephen Hance, Missioner

Readings: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28


At the heart of our Christian faith is a paradox, one which has caused people to trip and stumble back in the time of Jesus, in our own day, and at all points in between, and this is a paradox which is well captured in the Gospel text we have in front of us today.

On the one hand, we have these words of Jesus from verse 27:

“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”

But on the other hand we have these words from verse 24:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The first of those two verses talks about Jesus as the coming King, the one who comes in glory, the judge of all humanity.

The second talks about Jesus as the suffering servant, the one who will soon go to the cross for the sake of the world, and whose followers always need to be wise to the fact that they too may have to travel a similar path.
Christians through history have struggled to live with the tension between these two.

Either we major on Jesus as the coming King, the judge, the powerful and glorious one, before whom every knee will bow. If we put all our emphasis there, we tend to be uncomfortable with brokenness, with weakness, with suffering. We are much more at home with victory, with success.

Alternatively we major on Jesus as the suffering servant, sharing in the pain of the world, taking the darkness into himself from a place of vulnerability. If we put our focus there we tend to be ill at ease with triumph and breakthrough and glory. We are much more at home talking about entering into the brokenness rather than transforming it.

Peter, of course, couldn’t live with that tension. He heard Jesus predicting his own betrayal and crucifixion and, fresh from his commission from Jesus as the rock on which the Church would be built, he took it upon himself to correct Jesus’ faulty thinking. For that he got a rebuke that has echoed down the ages.

Forgive me if you have heard this story before, but it’s my last sermon here so I can do what I like. I was a curate in Portsmouth and there was a street preacher out in the shopping centre shouting at people that they were going to hell if they didn’t repent. I watched him for a while and noticed that people didn’t seem to be warming to him or his message. In fact, they were crossing the street to keep their distance. Eventually I approached him. I complimented him on his zeal, his determination to share his faith no matter what. But I wondered whether there might be another way of communicating the message that was a little more, well, appealing? He looked at me for a moment. I doubt anyone had troubled to give him feedback before. And then he bellowed, “Get thee behind me Satan!” pointing directly at me! Everyone turned and stared, and I scurried off. I have always sympathised with Peter, receiving this public rebuke from Jesus.
But in fact we can’t flatten out this tension, this ambiguity, without missing something crucial at the heart of the Gospel.

Jesus was indeed incarnate as a man, with physical weakness and limitations as we all have. He became hungry and tired, as we all do. He experienced temptation as a human. He was betrayed by friends, crucified on trumped-up charges by a coalition of the powerful, subjected to the most agonising and degrading form of execution our race has ever invented. He died and was buried in a borrowed grave, and everyone thought that was that. This is all true, and if we downplay it we miss the way in which in Jesus God enters into the weakness and brokenness of humanity. He doesn’t just care about it, he knows it from within. God still enters into the suffering of the world, especially of those who are most vulnerable, those without power or status.

But that’s not the end of the story. Jesus was resurrected, brought back to life by the power of God, and taken back to heaven where he is enthroned at God the Father’s right hand. He and the Father send the Spirit into the world to fill the Church and to work for freedom and beauty and justice in the world. And one day Jesus will return in glory, every eye will see him, history will end, creation will be restored in a new heaven and new earth and Jesus will reign in glory – still human as well as divine, reigning as it is meant to be done, not as so many in our world today do it.  All of this is true.

And in the interim time, the time that we now live in, the Church’s call is to live all of this out – sharing in the brokenness, serving and praying and caring and fighting for what is right, and holding on to hope for that Kingdom which is coming, pointing it out for others who have not yet seen it, so that they may commit themselves to working for it too. When the Church does this, we call it – Mission.

For nearly 5 years I have been Canon Missioner of this Cathedral and Director of Mission for this Diocese, and all of that comes to an end today. The main part of my work has been to encourage the churches of our Diocese with that vision for the coming Kingdom that they might commit themselves to working and praying for it – and to equip them with tools to enable them to do that well. So when I haven’t been here on a Sunday – usually 2 or 3 Sundays per month – I’ve been out doing that. It’s been a role with some challenges, of course, but many joys.

One of the joys has been falling in love with this place. I had never worked or regularly worshipped in a Cathedral before I took this role, and I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know my way round the tradition or the liturgy, around the culture or ethos of a place like this. To my delight I was welcomed and included and very quickly felt at home here. I want to say thank you to Andrew and to my fellow canons for that.

I don’t know if you realise what a remarkable place this is. If you have been here a while you may take it for granted. But Southwark Cathedral is a community which is creative, inclusive, welcoming, imaginative, passionate, dedicated, caring, Jesus-focused – it has been a joy and a privilege to be part of it for these last few years and I know this place will always be close to my heart.

And you have given me a gift. Without you I wouldn’t have known the richness and beauty of cathedral worship, or the amazing missional potential of English cathedrals. And without that, I would not have thought of being a Dean myself, let alone have anyone invite me to be one. So as we move – tomorrow – and I become Dean of Derby at the end of this month, I know that is only possible because of all I have experienced here. Thank you.
I hope, in my preaching today and over the last few years, you have caught a sense of how passionate I feel about this Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am convinced it is the Good News that the world needs.

But I want to finish, not in Matthew, but in our epistle reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. This is as good a picture as I know of what it is supposed to look like to be part of the community that believes this stuff.

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, praising the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

I hope and pray that you might more and more be a community like that, and that we in Derby might be a community like that too. That too is the good news that the world needs.

May God bless each one of us as we live and proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, and as we work for the coming of his Kingdom.