Readings: Matthew 16.21-28
I once read that inlaid into the marble of the floor in the Vatican is inscribed those famous words from St. Matthew’s gospel, that we heard last week:
“Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock will I build my church”
Of course with the Pope claiming to be the true and lawful successor to St. Peter you can imagine why they chose that particular scripture reference.
It sounds very impressive. It speaks of the church as a divinely inspired establishment, solid as a rock, on firm foundations.
One critic suggested that the inscription should have been continued with Jesus’ very next words to Peter in chapter 16 of St. Matthew:
“Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”
Hmm. Not exactly a ringing endorsement - and I can see why the Vatican didn’t take up the suggestion.
Counter Cultural Message
We heard last week of what the Christ, Messiah, the anointed King, the Son of God was expected to be. We talked about the popular expectations of that title – of a priestly king to bring victory to the people.
Having made such a declaration it would be natural to sit down and plan the campaign of conquest. Instead Jesus starts talking about death and suffering, gloom and doom. No wonder the disciples were confused.
No wonder that they react like you or I would do if a friend starts being a little down or morbid – they try and talk him out of it.
To Jesus this sounds scarily like Satan’s voice in the wilderness, when he tried to tempt Jesus out of his mission to save humanity by the sacrifice of the cross. “Get behind me Satan”, says Jesus.
The truth is that the Christian message is deeply country-cultural, and always has been.
Let me explain. We like to be popular today. We like things to be easy to understand, and easy to do. This goes for everything – including politics and for religion too.
So it’s tempting to portray Christianity as all about harmless things like love, joy and peace, and being nice to animals... that being a Christian means smiling at people and being nice to everyone – especially those who are nasty.
Perhaps that’s why most people think that Church is for the nice and respectable – the great and the good – for those who have got it all worked out and have no problems in life.
Instead of a nice religious social club Jesus speaks of Christianity being Following his way – the way that leads to real life – eternal life. But we need to remember that the way Jesus takes is through self-emptying, self-giving, and self-sacrifice – all the way to death, even death on a cross.
It is through this sacrifice, that we find life – it is through self-giving that we receive – all those things that Jesus spoke about in the sermon on the mount back in chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel – they are all deeply counter cultural – they are upside down and go against the way our self-obsessed, instant society thinks.
For this reason perhaps the church will always be something out of kilter with the people around it, always a bit ill at ease with the way of the world – perhaps it has always been that way?
Not an edifice as much a way of life
There is also a common misconception that being a Christian means you have to believe certain things - give the nod to a pile of religious ideas and theories. This is simply not so. Beliefs are important; I have lots of them. But I don't think any of my beliefs are going to get me into heaven — or keep me out!
I can't see St Peter standing at the Pearly Gates with a clipboard checking up on people's beliefs. Jesus himself made no requirement that people subscribe to particular doctrines before becoming his followers.
But he did call on people to change their ways: to stop being greedy, to become peacemakers, to love their enemies and so on.
Jesus never wrote a book, never created a creed, never started a church and never intended to begin a new religion. He simply demonstrated the way of love — the golden rule in any religious tradition — and invited people to join him in that.
Jesus certainly didn't invent the term 'Christian', which actually appears only three times in the entire Bible. It was probably originally devised by critics of Christ's followers, at least a decade after his death, as a term of derision. But it stuck — for better or worse.
Before they took the name 'Christian', early followers of Christ were simply known as 'people of the way' — people who identified with the way of life Jesus taught and demonstrated.
I like that, 'people of the way'. It suggests being part of a journey, rather than part of an organisation. And I know lots of people who never turn up at church, who struggle with creeds and doctrines, who shrink from the thought of being religious, yet who are very much in the way of Christ.
Let’s get it clear: Christianity is about faith, not belief. There’s a difference. Faith is about having trust, whereas belief is more like having opinions. It’s possible to hold beliefs passionately and to argue about them until the cows come home, without them making a scrap of difference to us.
But trust is not about beliefs, creeds, opinions, arguments; it’s more instinctive, more fundamental. It doesn’t need words; it’s in your belly.
In our first reading we see something of this trust and dependence in Jeremiah’s prayer as he struggles with life and his calling. He had given up everything to follow God and to speak his words – and it led him to suffering. Yet even here he knows that God is with him, supporting him and helping him go on – and he trusts God to stay with him to the end.
This is what Jesus came to create – a way for you and I to follow, a way that calls us to trust God for ourselves, and for those we love. A way that calls us to stand out against the crowd, to be a little different from society; a call for sacrifice and giving, which puts others first.
That calls us to take up our cross and follow – living always in the presence of a loving God – knowing that you are never alone and that God’s love for you will never run out.