Sunday, 31 August 2014

Serving an Institution or serving Christ?

Many thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sara Miles for some of their recent comments which helped me put flesh on some thoughts that have been wandering around in the echoing space between my ears for some time.  This especially applies to questions about who our friends are...  (see below)


Matthew 16:21-end

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’

Serving who?

Get behind me Satan’. 

 You know, as a vicar I'm sometimes really tempted to say that to someone with a very straight face after they say something inappropriate just to see what kind of reaction it provokes. But then how would you react if someone said that to you? How would you respond if you thought you were doing the right thing, only to have someone respond with such strong wording that you wanted to curl up and die of shame?

'Get behind me Satan', are some of the most powerful and disturbing words of Jesus in any of the Gospels. Their power lies not in the words themselves, though, but in who it is that Jesus is speaking to since we would never in a million years have imagined that he would say such a thing to Peter.  It's one thing to call the Scribes and Pharisees, ‘Whitewashed tombs’, because we know that Jesus hated hypocrisy and despised the way they would try and look good on the outside whilst deliberately hiding their rottenness away, being filled with death and decay on the inside.

Peter, on the other hand, wore his heart on his sleeve. He said exactly what he thought, and sometimes seemed to engage his mouth long before he engaged his brain. I'm not sure I'd think of him as guileless, but at this point in time he doesn't come across as someone who tries to pretend he's better than everyone else in a way that the Scribes and Pharisees that Jesus criticised did.  So as a narrative it doesn’t get much more shocking than this astonishing turn around with Peter going from being called blessed to being labelled as Satan, the one who stands in opposition to Christ, and that shock value is, I am sure, exactly what Matthew intended as he constructed his Gospel. He had a very important point to make about being a follower of Jesus, and Peter’s mistake gave him the dramatic device to make it.

So what was Matthew trying to teach us? 

I think that we should begin by recalling the kind of changes that Simon Peter has been undergoing. When we first meet him he is simply a fisherman, but he is also the first disciple Jesus called, according to Matthew. When the twelve disciples were given Jesus’s authority, Simon Peter’s name was at the top of the list.

When it comes to the story about  Jesus walking on water, do you remember that it was Simon Peter who asked Jesus to command him to walk out to him? Not only did none of the other disciples think of this, but when Simon Peter got out of the boat, no one followed him, even though at first they saw him doing what Jesus was doing.  And then we had the climax of Simon Peter being the first disciple to recognise for himself who Jesus actually was, that he was more than simply another Rabbi. Peter’s faith in Jesus was slowly but surely changing him. He appeared to be becoming someone who was willing to take risks for the sake of his Lord.

Then suddenly we find this complete turn around as Jesus calls him Satan; the opposition. What on earth has happened? What triggered that outburst from Jesus?  Knowing what that certain something was should unlock this passage. And I think it's this: Peter didn’t actually do anything wrong or sinful, he just started thinking the wrong way. Charles Cousar retranslates the offending words from Peter to Jesus, and renders them like this: ‘Certainly God will be gracious to you, Lord, and will not let this happen.’ 

And that’s where it all went wrong.

Peter’s theology of the Messiah did not include the idea of him being vulnerable. For Peter, as Jesus’s right hand man, it was his job to ensure, in so far as he could, that Jesus had a successful ministry. The problem was that Peter’s definition of a successful ministry and Jesus’s definition had become radically opposed, and Jesus needed to shock Peter into seeing that.  Cousar puts it like this, Peter’s imagination had become domesticated, trained, safe. 

There are times when we might want to add, dare I say it, Anglican... 

Or to put it another way, I think Peter had gone from being the disciple of a radical Messiah to being a disciple of someone who he hoped would become an Establishment figure. And although that sounds like a strange thing to suggest it's very easy to see how it has happened.

Jesus has recently told Peter that he will be the Rock on which Jesus will build his church, a word that means 'Gathering'. People will be gathering together because of Jesus, and Peter is going to be at the heart of it, and so in Peter's mind you can see how maybe he has mentally shifted from being a follower of a movement to being a leader in an establishment, an institution.  The question we have to ask ourselves is, whose vision do we have; Peter’s or Jesus’s? How we answer that question will dictate what we do with our resources and our time.

In Peter’s vision you have to protect something called the Establishment, the Organisation, the Institution. In an institution it's possible to follow Jesus without it causing too much hurt. In an Institution it's possible to get to Easter Sunday without going through Good Friday.  In an Institution we are protected by the mass of other people and so it's possible to have the right answers, and believe all the right things, without it setting us on the path to confrontation with the prevailing culture. Peter’s vision was safe.

Jesus’s vision was more radical, and it wasn't safe. Jesus demands of his followers that, like him, we become vulnerable, recognising and embracing that if we cling to life and what we want, then we will lose our lives to meaninglessness. Sometimes that way is hard and can lead to misunderstanding and rejection.  

To be a follower of Jesus means to embrace his way of life. That means engaging with people who are outsiders and not being put off when someone misunderstands what you’re doing. To be a follower of Jesus means that you try to be his presence in places and amongst people where otherwise he would be absent.

To be a follower of Peter at that point in time would have meant taking the safe option, of backing down when doing the right thing risks being hurt or made a fool of, of doing whatever it takes to protect the established institution.

Thankfully Peter eventually saw the error of his ways and followed his Lord all the way to his own martyrdom, but this has got me thinking, which path are we on?  Are we truly following Jesus and going to places where he isn't otherwise present, or are we preferring to play it safe, to be the establishment, the institution which we invite other people to join?

The Church of England is at the moment working hard to stop the steady outflow of people. And who can blame them/us? The things that our institution says and does are often far removed from the radical hospitality of Christ who took risks and was more than happy to upset people in power on behalf of the powerless.  Our response has often been to try and make things more appealing to young people, but I can't help having a nagging worry, a voice that keeps whispering that we're out of balance in our thinking; that we're putting the cart before the horse.

You see what concerns me is that too often our evangelism looks like trying to get more people to join our institution; to be a part of our club. It seems to be about reinventing the institution of the Church of England so that more people will feel they want to be a part of it. It seems to be about waving our hands and saying, 'Come and join us.'  Yet that didn't seem to be what Jesus was about. Instead he seemed to be about going into the places where the religious leaders wouldn't go and engaging with the people that no one else would engage with. It was never about starting a new religion; it was about loving the people that God loves with no ulterior motive of getting them to become a part of the institution.

Look, here's another way of thinking about it. How many of the people that you spend time with make you feel socially awkward, especially when you have a gathering with all your other friends at home? How many of the people that you spend time with have values that are fundamentally different from yours? How many of the people that you choose to spend time with believe something very different from you?

If the answer to that question is none, then the plain fact of the matter, and I'm sorry if this offends you, is that you're not living like a Christian. 

If all of our friends and acquaintances are like us then we have never taken seriously the stories Jesus told about inviting in the outcasts and we have not understood radical hospitality. We equate being a Christian with niceness, but if everyone thinks we're nice then we're not challenging anyone by how we live.  If you're anything like me you'll find this particularly hard because we don't like to be disliked, so we tend towards being agreeable. 

But do we risk just becoming insipid?

Here then is the question I have about evangelism; if it's just about trying to get people to join our institution, then how is that about them engaging with Christ in a radical life changing way? Isn't it just about getting them to join our club? And people will only join a club with like-minded people, so we all have to be nice to each other when deep down we're seething because it's all so false.  What I want to offer people is a connection to a God who acts towards us as a wise parent who is there for us whatever we have done wrong and however stupid we have been. If in making that connection with God people want to meet with others who believe the same things as they do, or at least some of the same things, then that's great; that's the order it should be.  But for goodness sake let's lose this attitude that the institution has to be propped up. Christ doesn't want an institution, he wants a family. 

But if all we can offer is bricks and mortar and plenty of seats for people to sit down on, provided they pay their share, then all Jesus will say to us is 'Get behind me Satan'.