This is the text of a sermon given at Croydon Minster. It was preached during the Parish Eucharist on Sunday 23 September, 2018. The readings were Jeremiah 11.18-20 and Mark 9.30-37.
‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’.
‘After leaving the mountain Jesus and his disciples went on from there to Galilee…’ After leaving which mountain, what had happened there that the mountain was worthy of mention, who was there, why is it significant? We need some context and to know why a mountain might have been important.
|Mount Tabor - traditional site of the Transfiguration of Christ|
What was rather more spine tingling was what happened on that mountain. It was the occasion when Jesus’ appearance was changed such that his radiance and brilliance shone out in the event we call the Transfiguration, when the divine nature of Jesus Christ, seeped visibly through the porous boundary of his humanity.
This revealed Jesus as fully divine and fully human, as we describe in our Creed – truly God and truly human – and connected him with the Law and the Prophets, through the presence of the persons of Moses and Elijah: as the Creed says ‘he has spoken through the prophets’.
Mountains in the scriptures are places of encounter with the LORD. Think of Mount Moriah when Abraham ascends with Isaac and the LORD provides a ram to be sacrificed; of Mount Ararat where the Ark rests as the waters of the flood trickled away; of Mount Horeb when Moses ascends to receive the Law; the Temple itself in Jerusalem so associated with Mount Zion. And in the gospels Jesus recasts the Law in the Sermon on the Mount.
|Icon of the Transfiguration by Alexander Ainetdinov|
But this morning’s gospel points to another mount - a hill – outside Mount Zion called Calvary, the Place of the Skull; because Jesus speaks to his disciples about his death. And in hearing that they come down to earth, as it were, down from the glory of the mountain to the grim and bitter reality that Jesus, like the Lamb to the slaughter in our reading from Jeremiah, which itself evokes the sacrifice of Abraham on Mount Moriah, Jesus will die.
This is the second time of three in St Mark’s gospel that Jesus speaks to his disciples about his death and resurrection. And they just don’t get it: as Mark tells us, ‘They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him’
Such was their lack of understanding that we move from Jesus speaking of his death and resurrection to the disciples bickering about which of them, of them (!), is the greatest.
It is absolutely key to realise that morning’s gospel reading is not a reminiscent glance back to a distant era for us, but is more like a mirror held up to the church today. As someone wisely said, ‘we do not read scripture; the scriptures read us’.
We are in a similar situation today. We enjoy the mystery or appreciate the teaching of Jesus. Jesus is seen by many as an admirable moral teacher, or, in his own day as much as now, as a potential liberator a zealot to overthrow the Romans: but, as Fr Alan reminded us last week, his identity is bound up with his being the Messiah of God, the Holy One. If only moral teacher or political activist his death would be meaningless. Which is just how the disciples appear to see it.
If we believe, as we say the Creed, that Christ ‘died for us and our salvation’ then we stand, figuratively, at the foot of the cross and learn a new way of living day by day. A great exposition of this can be found in Bishop Jonathan’s sermon at my Licensing here three weeks ago, when he spoke of the competitive rivalry that Jesus comes to drive out of human society, yet can be embedded –and dangerously so – in the life of the church. It is that that leads to abusive behaviour, overbearingness and rudeness.
|A frieze of Christ blessing children, |
located near the font at Croydon Minster
That is surely why Jesus called together the Twelve and sought to show them, by the example of a child, what greatness in the church looks like. The child in his day, as much as our own, represents the one who is present, yet is functionally silent.
Okay we can hear children in church – and as Pope Francis said recently, hearing a child in the Mass is the music of the angels of heaven (and, I would add, pragmatically, a reminder that the church has a future that needs nurturing). But just hearing a cry or even a scream does not mean that children are listened to. The place of children in church, this church or any other, tells us a great deal about how we act and behave in accordance with the Gospels.
And the functionally silent can include anyone who is routinely not given space and a voice, for example those with learning difficulties, dementia, the stranger, those who just don’t fit in or are perceived to be awkward: their honoured place is the measure of the health of a church community. I am always struck that in the Rule of St Benedict, the Abbot is told to consult the whole community in big matters, and specially to ask the insight of the young to whom the Lord will give great wisdom.
Do we simply replicate the patterns and norms of society, with the person with the loudest, most insistent voice or sharpest elbows prevailing? Or, do we take seriously a church which sets a model for society by saying that rivalry and bickering over greatness and status is not what Gospel life is about.
So this gospel reading becomes less about the behaviour of the Twelve who we could look at in a superior way and say, ‘well, we wouldn’t have been like that’ when we are doing in it now!
This gospel becomes about Jesus Christ in the heart of us and the midst of us; the one who dies and is raised again for us.
A moral teacher or exemplar, however gifted or inspired does not save us. Jesus Christ, the very presence of God, does in his life giving death and resurrection.
That’s why the cross is placed on the altar. The cross stands at the heart of things. The altar becomes again the mount on which the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world continues to feed his people, such that we are drawn into the sacrifice he made. As we break bread and share the cup, Jesus is present in our midst reminds us that what takes place on the altar.
So our challenge for this new week is to see in all our relationships, between parent and children, wives and husbands, neighbours and friends, those with whom we share our lives just how we can live lives as those who chose the way of Jesus Christ, the way of the cross and set aside dissension and strife, and live life in all its fulness.
© Andrew Bishop, 2018