JOHN 1: 35-42
I have long given up hope of finding a perfect church. The more time I spend around churches, the more convinced I become that the perfect church is but a fictional creation. And were there to be such a thing as a perfect church, I would suggest that you and me stay well clear of it because our presence would it soon cause it to cease being a perfect church.
More than that, I don’t think that there has ever been a perfect church. Oh, I know some people talk about the church in its earliest years, the New Testament church, as being perfect. But to be brutally frank, to talk in such a way is merely to parade one’s ignorance. Read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians if you believe in that particular fairy tale and as you see the vast array of problems in that particular community, you will soon be disabused of any such notions. And if you think that they were any more harmonious that the church of today, well try reading Paul’s letter to the Galatians where so het up is the Apostle that he suggests that it would be better for certain trouble makers to castrate themselves - not the sort of language normally directed in this church!
And our history ever since has had more than a few dark spots. Dan Brown in his “Da Vinci Code” makes great play over the complicity of the church in Europe in the slaughter of literally millions of women as witches. We have a terrible history of intolerance towards those who are other as instanced by the Crusades directed at the Islamic East, the persecution of Jews and colonial expansions that have claimed to be taking the Gospel to other lands in Africa and the Americas yet in which all too often there has been a cavalier insensitivity towards indigenous populations. And of course there are those times when cruelty has been visited on fellow Christians who dare to have a differing view on matters of faith. Read Foxe on the sufferings of English Protestants under Queen Mary or equally read of the cruelties carried out in the name of Reformation. Look to the theological barbarism of John Calvin with regards to dissidents such as Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake, or his opponent Jacques Cruet concerning whose execution Calvin wrote;
“With God and his Sacred authorities before our eyes we say, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen… We condemn you Jacques Gruet, to be taken to Champel and there have your body attached to a stake and burnt to ashes and so you shall finish your days to give an example to others who would commit the like.”
What bloodthirsty blasphemy to link intolerance and barbarity to a God of love!
And yet, I wonder if we have learnt the lessons. The American Christian academic Marcus Borg has written of the attitude of his university students to Christianity in these terms;
“When I ask them to write a short essay on their impression of Christianity, they consistently use five adjectives; Christians are literalistic, anti-intellectual, self-righteous, judgemental and bigoted.”
And if that were not enough, research published last year by the Barna Group into the attitudes of Americans between the ages of 16 and twenty nine, showed a real hostility to Christianity on a previously unknown scale with nine of the top twelve perceptions being negative with particularly high negatives being “homophobic”, “judgemental,” “too political” and “insensitive to others.” Only 16% of non Christians had a “good impression of Christianity.”
Now of course that is America and this is Britain. There are after all differences. On the one hand there is a much higher ratio of church attendance in America than is the case in Britain. On the other hand, in America there are powerful and increasingly alienating presences such as the religious right whose popularity especially post Iraq may well be on the wane. No clear equivalence can be found in Britain. Sure, talk to young people for long and you will quickly pick up on a measure of hostility to all forms of organised religion but here I suspect the greater problem is the dead hand of apathy. Either way, it is clear that there is considerable resistance to Christianity especially amongst younger people.
And so to today’s Gospel reading. Jesus has just been baptised by John in the Jordan. And what do we find? Well, contrary to those impressions found by the Barna Group, here we find a Jesus who is exceedingly attractive to his contemporaries. Two of those who had been followers of John the Baptist, hear John speak of Jesus as “the lamb of God.” And in a moment they are up and on the move, seeking to follow Jesus. And so impressed at what they find are they that one of them a man named Andrew wants to share the good news and so he finds his brother, Simon, and tells him the earth shattering news;
“We have found the Messiah.”
And so Simon benefiting from one to one evangelism, probably the most effective form of evangelism, comes to Jesus and becomes a follower. The pattern is repeated later within the same chapter. For Philip responds to the direct call of Jesus to be a follower and then invites his friend Nathaniel to join the fold which after overcoming something of a negative attitude to Nazareth, he does. Yes, quite a model of friendship evangelism. And also a pointer to Jesus as an attractive companionable person. And does that not speak to our sense of what it is to follow Jesus? Oh, as the poster in my cousins’ bathroom used to proclaim;
“From sour faced Saints, good Lord deliver us!”
Indeed if we look at the story of Jesus, we find someone who embraced life and all manner of peoples. Time and again, his opponents castigated him for enjoying the company of and enjoying dinner parties with what they considered the wrongs sort of peoples. But still he embraced needs be they to occur at a wedding where wine ran out or lepers exiled to the edges of communities, people who had been no better than they ought to be or women denied a full life as a result of menstrual bleeding. Nobody, absolutely nobody regardless of race or religion, was beyond his embrace of love and the granting of dignity. And it carried on with his followers who challenged taboos of gender, slavery, religious background and social class. And when they were at their best, such was their attractiveness that according to the Acts of the Apostles, they enjoyed “the goodwill of all the people.”
Are there not hints of what we should seek to be there? It is when we are at our most inclusive that we are closest to the spirit of Jesus. When we embrace those who hurt most without regard as to whether they have brought it on themselves, we are nearest to the gospel. And when we impose a judgementalism on those who are other or when we pour holy water on state violence, then we are furthest from Jesus. If we want to be followers of Jesus, we need to seek the good precisely where we are least inclined to find it. And if that seems crazy, well it is about bringing such a change that Jesus has come into the world, the Word made flesh. As William Coffin so beautifully puts it;
“The incarnation says as much about what we are to become as it does about what God has become.”
Anyhow, back to the Gospel narrative. Jesus is beginning to gather a group of people around him. They certainly will be a motley crew. Ranging from terrorist sympathisers to collaborators with Rome, they will be quite a collection. In the main they will be what we would consider to be working class men. They will be called to places and situations beyond their previous experiences or expectations. But such is the nature of being a follower of Jesus. It is as Bishop Spong puts it, a case of;
“Christ calls me beyond my boundaries.”
And for none of them will that be more true that for Peter. Impetuous but certainly not hypocritical, Peter is one who will call it as he sees it, even if he is going to have an awful lot of relearning to do. At times he will seem so close to Jesus yet there will be the times when he gets it wrong - questioning the way to the cross, denying that he knows Jesus on the night of betrayal and even later initially getting in the way of Paul’s outreach to the gentiles. But here, Jesus gives him the name “Cephas”, an Aramaic name that will translate into Peter meaning “Rock.”
Oh do tell me he’s having us on! Simon Peter as “Rock” - No way! Surely, the old blunderbuss is as far removed from “Rock” as one could imagine. But whilst Jesus may just have a wry smile at the irony of it all, I do not believe that he is having a laugh at Peter’s expense or indulging in sarcasm. Jesus is being real.
Now to some, this is about authority. Peter is seen as the first Bishop of Rome and so it’s about authority. And as I was saying earlier in this sermon, Christianity is at its worst when it becomes bound up in questions of authority and power. If you want an authentic Christianity, then for Pete’s sake don’t go praying for the restoration of Christendom. For the true Gospel gets lost when real power is in the hands of the church and the so called Princes of the Church play their Machiavellian games. When the Church has power to exclude and the temptation to be involved in military force and coercion, it is then that we squeeze Jesus out.
More likely, Jesus was talking about dependability. In the past week, the Diana Inquest has been hearing from former butler, Paul Burrell, who has often spoken of being her “Rock”, the one on whom we can depend. The validity of that claim has of course been debated in the media. But here Jesus is telling Simon Peter that he is going to be a “Rock.” In other words people are going to depend on him. And how true that turns out to be as we follow his story. But he has to grow to meet the challenge but surely here is a powerful example of how Jesus sees us not so much as we are now (frozen in our failings) but as what we can become with him.
And in that there is a picture for us all. Like Peter we need to learn what it is to have people depend upon us. We need to seek God’s help to grow that we are able to meet the challenge. For in an aver changing world in which there are great uncertainties, there is surely a need for more than a few “Rocks.”
Certainly today the church has a clear perception problem. We don’t come over nearly as attractive as Jesus - far from it! To retreat to the bunker and see enemies over every hill is no answer but a sure recipe for developing paranoia. To dream of a rebirth of Christendom is judging by experience to seek a path to that which brings out our very worst. Mission today requires a much simpler response - a response in which we become as dependable as a “rock” but a “rock” which has a smile, a “rock” which is all embracing reflecting the inclusive love of Jesus.
May we be honed to be that “Rock.”
TORRINGTON METHODIST CHURCH - SUNDAY JANUARY 20TH 2007
This sermon owes a debt to Mad Priest and Daniel Clendenin