Sunday, September 5, 2010

What it takes to be a disciple

Where’s it all been leading up to?

It has been fascinating re-visiting Peter’s story for the Holiday Club this year. If ever there was an example of the Christian faith as a journey then Peter’s story surely has to be it.

What struck me forcibly this time as I was telling the story again was the way in which Peter is grappling with faith, what God means to him in the context of a very troubled, cruel world.

That first encounter with Jesus on the shore of the sea of Galilee comes hard on the heels of the arrest of John the Baptist who had aroused such hopes among so many in the stand he had taken against the powers the be. His imprisonment put paid to those hopes.

Peter was working in an industry, and fishing was very much an industry, on the Sea of Galilee that suffered massive exploitation on the part of the Roman powers that be that had been instrumental in having John the Baptist arrestetd.

Leave your nets was an invitation to follow a different path and discover a different way, God’s way of building society. It was good news that Jesus had to share about the kingdom of God, about God’s rule and the difference it would make.

The teaching of Jesus was electrifying, the healing he brought into people’s lives, not least into Peter’s very own home, was remarkable. There came a point when Peter was sure he was the one, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

He really was Peter, the Rock, and on that faith Jesus would build his church.

But he hadn’t really got it.

Peter had a hang-up.

His hang-up was a hang-up that so many people have.

Since my return from holiday, I found myself put on the spot by someone of a scientific way of thinking, who had exactly the same hang-up.

Peter could not get his mind around suffering. It was a major thing for him. When Jesus said to him that he would have to suffer, to the point of an agonizing death on the cross. That was simply too much for Peter.

That is not possible.

It did not square with peter’s understanding of God.

How is it possible to believe in God in a world of suffering.

That was the question put to me. And it is a massive question. It doesn’t have any easy answers. I found myself as the conversation came to an end – pointing to the reflections I had made in the August issue of Highbury News. In anticipation of Greenbelt I had recalled one of the speakers who had made a big impression on me.

Richard Rohr a Franciscan had reflected on the way Jesus refused to give cut and dried answers to the questions he was posed. As often as not Jesus responded to questions with more questions. But those questions were the kind that made people think. Richard Rohr suggested that we should not be for ever on the look out for answers, but for answering persons. People who are prepared to share.

Jesus was one of those. Richard Rohr did not disappoint at Greenbelt. The two talks I went to of his I found an inspiration.

In one he came to this massive problem that so many, Peter included, have such hang-ups over. This is the world as it is. We may wish the world were different, but this is the world. It is a world where there is untold suffering. Suffering be it in the animal kingdom, in the planet itself, in human experience is part of the warp and weft of life itself.

Richard Rohr pointed back to Jesus – it was the Jesus that Peter encountered.

Peter sensed Jesus was the one. The one who he and his people had been waiting for, the one who would open up God in a new way, the one who would usher in God’s rule, God’s kingdom, the one who through that electrifying teaching, in that healing would make such a difference in people’s lives.

Peter stuck with Jesus. And Peter plumbed the depths of agonising suffering. He tried to stick with Jesus, lied through his teeth, and claimed never to have known him … and he is reduced to bitter tears.

It would have been wonderful – and Peter with his hang-up over suffering, longed for it to be so – if it had been possible for Jesus to avoid that suffering, for him to be able to avoid the tears.

But something happens through the suffering. It is perverse that it is through the suffering, that Peter comes to encounter something beyond in the risen Christ. And the risen Christ three times counters Peter’s three denials – do you love me?

The cruel world remains.

It is not changed.

But Peter now discovers a strength to enable him to live in that world and to bear withness to the new way of life Jesus has opened up – that strength is the unseen, yet very real power of God, the Holy Spirit.

Now Peter seeks to live out Jesus’ way – he echoes the teaching, he brings healing to people whose lives are hurting.

And Peter falls foul of the powers that be. He is arrestetd by the very Herpod who had imprisoned and executed John the Baptist, tried Jesus, and now determined on the very anniversary of Jesus’ trial and execution to have Peter brought out to face the crowd … and meet his death.

Imprisoned, Peter prays, and knows that the followers of Jesus are also praying. And he is delivered.

But still he has not reached the end of his journey.

The base of that Roman power in what we have come to know as the Holy Land was Caesarea – a typical, Roman city on the shores of the Mediterranean. The hub of Rome’s trade with the middle East. The base for the Roman power.

It is one step too far for Peter to welcome, let alone reach out with love and blessing to the Roman occupiers. To heap insult upon insult the creaters in that sheet which in his vision he sees lowered from heaven are the very animals that are the staple of the Roman diet, not least in banquest such as that one at which John the Baptist was executed. The very foods good Jews knew should not be eaten.

And the voice of God said to Peter, rise up , kill and eat.

And when he awoke it was a Centurion of the Italian cohort from Caesarea that Peter found himself sharing the love of God in Christ with.

I now know, he said, that God shows no partiality.

Where’s it all leading?

Where’s it all going?

It’s after this that Peter writes his letter. It’s a round-robin letter to followers of Jesus anywhere and everywhere, especially those scattered throughout the Roman empire.

Where’s it all heading.

There’s a wonderful word he reaches here.
The word ‘finally’.

Gives us a clue.

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

This has to be one of those treasured moments in Peter’s story. It’s what his life story has been building up to.

This is what it takes if we want to be true to Jesus … and true to living out the kind of life that Peter learned about.

Be of one mind, have unity of spirit. We who follow Jesus need to stick together. I know that’s easier said than done … but this is a touch stone. People are people, and we are no less prone to falling out.

But if a church family becomes fractious, that’s a warning – it shouldn’t be like that. We should have unity of spirit. That goes to the heart of our understanding of church. WE invite all who belong to come along to our Church Meeting. Some think of it as a very democratic exercise – where we vote. But that’s not how we should think of it. The purpose of our meeting together is to seek out what we sense to be the mind of Christ for us. Always, we should seek God’s support that we can he of one mind, and have unity of spirit.

I followed Thursday night’s church meeting with a meeting of Cheltenham’s church leaders at which we welcomed the new Archdeacon of Cheltenham and shared our thoughts about churches of Cheltenham working together. I introduced myself as being the one who had been longer in Cheltenham than any other … to be contradicted by Ally Bates who had arrived with her husband in ministry at what was then the New Life Church – in 1987. We found ourelves reflecting on the need to seek that oneness of spirit, that mind of Christ together as churches. And that was something special to be doing that here at Highbury.

But then comes another insight of Peter’s – have ‘sympathy’; lover for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

Sympathy is a word that trips off the tongue and is so easy to use. But as Peter uses it, it is a strong word. It literally means, suffer with each other.

Have a tender heart – literally means – have compassion to the point at which you feel an ache in your gut, in your stomach for each other.

There is no answer to that question that was such a hang-up for Peter.

But in a suffering world there is a response. And it is the response that Peter learned not from any easy answers that Jesus gave, but through experiencing and sharing in suffering with Jesus.

That response involves coming alongside those who suffer, sharing that suffering with them, carrying it together, in love for another, the kind of love that is gut-wrenching and filled with compassion.

And of all this in humility.

Be very wary of those for whom religion is full of the word ‘no’ and full of anger at those who have not got it. That was another thought form Richard Rohr. And another lesson learned by Peter.

Once he had been so prepared to think of himself as different from.

But now he urges a different response to the evil he saw around.

Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse;
On the contrary repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing.

That word blessing is a fascinating one. It literally means – speak well of someone.

What does it mean to bless someone. It means when something awful is done to you by someone – don’t simply dwell on that and give as good as you get. Instead look for something of God in that person, and as you do tat find something good to say of that person. And that will become the blessing you give and the blessing you receive.

Where does it all end?

We don’t know for certain what happened to Peter.

Every indication is that he did in the end face the very same treatment at the hands of the Roman powers that be that Jesus had received.

There is no escaping the suffering of our world. But there is a way of living that Jesus opens up for us, that enables us to live in that world in a different way, and then enter into an inheritance that has been waiting for us that nothing can destroy.

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