Thursday, 18 August 2011

9th Sunday after Trinity - God-given responsibility


Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Matthew 16:13-20
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Two thousand years ago there was just one Christian denomination, and we have the beginnings of it described right here in the Gospel. In fact it’s rather interesting that the name Jesus gave to Peter for Church, Ecclesia, was a political word in the first century which was used for an assembly of self-governing citizens. I’ll come back to that shortly.

But in the beginning there was just one denomination. Only it didn’t stay that way. Cracks were soon evident when St. Paul started preaching to people who were not Jews, and the early Christian Jews tried to impose the rules of the Jewish Torah, the Law, on them. Right at the start there was a struggle for power. It didn’t take us long really did it, to let our humanity get in the way.

So we started off with one denomination, but then it split, and split again. Would you believe that, at a rough estimate we think there are now 38,000 different denominations! Now of course some of these are very small with maybe a few hundred in them. But you get the point all the same. With that in mind let’s look at the Gospel reading.

By this time of the year a lot of people have been on their summer holiday. Today’s reading seems to be set in terms of some kind of holiday too, with Jesus taking his disciples away from their ministry in Galilee and further north to a place called Caesarea Philippi, which is a really lush and green place with a wonderful river, the river Jordan, flowing through it.

In effect this is basically where the source of the Jordan is. If you’ve been to the Lake District you can get some idea of the surroundings, only you have to imagine it’s really hot too. It’s truly beautiful - I know because I’ve been there twice, including this year’s trip.

But perhaps for us the most interesting thing about it was that it was also a place where lots of pagan idols were worshipped, so I find that it’s rather amusing the way that Jesus gets them to a place where there are all these statues to these other gods and then says, ‘Okay, in the midst of all these pagan idols, who do you think I am?’

Peter is the one who gets the right answer, that Jesus is actually the Son of God, and when this story comes up in Mark’s Gospel it comes right slap bang in the middle, showing that this is a pivotal point in Jesus’s ministry, when the disciples finally understand who he is, paving the way for him to teach them about his coming sacrifice and lead them to Jerusalem.

But that’s not what I really want to think about today. As I was reading this passage I saw something about which I suppose I had never really thought of the implications. For me what I find so groundbreaking is Jesus’s reply to Peter: ‘I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven; what you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.’

A couple of months back our school had an auction, and some of the things offered were experiences rather than something you would own. One child got to be head teacher for a day and another was a class teacher for a day. In a sense Jesus seems to be saying something similar only this is for real. Jesus, the Son of God, seems to be saying that when it comes to church, Peter, and by implication those who followed him, were going to be given the responsibility for making the rules, and God would stick to their choices.

Think about that. This is like a parent saying to their child, I am giving you a house next door to mine, and you can set the rules for how we will behave in both houses. What you say is OK, I’ll accept as being OK. If you don’t like it, then I won’t allow it either.

This is God treating us as grown-ups and giving us responsibilities. Some of you may remember occasions when I have said in sermons that sometimes it seems that God doesn’t always tell us what to do when we ask for advice, but expects us to make adult decisions as maturing Christians. It seems to me that this is an example of the same thing. Jesus gave Peter the responsibility for shaping the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

It seems to me that God gives us an awful lot of responsibility for ourselves as a church. Have you ever thought of that? We’re meant to become mature and make responsible decisions, but I wonder how well we’ve done with that so far.

Whilst many people have found faith over the last two thousand years it definitely hasn’t all been good. There have been so many divisions over styles of worship, over interpretation of the scriptures and over styles of leadership, resulting in this huge number of denominations that I began with. And now the Anglican church is in danger of splitting again.

I wonder what it is that causes these splits? We often blame it on people at the top, but I think it starts with people like us. It seems to me that it’s all down to wanting to get our own way, to be the one who makes the decision that everyone else lives by. We’re so sure that we are correct in what we believe, or how we worship and so we want to exclude anyone who sees it differently.

I have many times sat in services where a modern translation of the Lord’s prayer has been used, only to hear someone quite loudly saying it in the traditional words, as if to get across their point that their preferred version is the one that must be used. This is the attitude that begins a split.

But there is another result, one which has been happening insidiously in this country for a while. People who are Christians, or who are thinking about the faith, who see this attitude eventually get fed up with it and simply leave the church, and they don’t go anywhere else. Next weekend I’ll be working at the Greenbelt Christian festival and I know that of the 15,000 people there, many of them will be Christians who have abandoned church because of exactly these kinds of internal power struggles.

It doesn’t matter how hard we try to get mission work happening, and bringing the good news to our friends and families; unless we learn to live with each other in love and stop trying to get our own way, people will be turned off religion and will leave. And if you don’t believe me I can tell you that it’s happened here since I’ve been vicar when we lost a young couple who got fed up with being told their baby was too loud.

God gave us responsibilities for setting our own rules in church. We responded by having power struggles and they begin at grassroots levels, here in the pews. Unless we are willing to live with each other’s differences in love, the Church of England is going to have a hard time growing, because people won’t stay. So let us see if here, in this church, we can set an example of living responsibly, in love as one family. Amen.

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