People: live in the real world
Morning Service led by Revd. Jennifer Millington
This sermon is taken from Romans 8, verses 18-25; Matthew 14, verses 22-33
Easter People - Living in the Real World
There are people who still prefer the traditional King James’ Version of the Bible to the modern translations. They appreciate the formal, poetic language, with its “Thees” and “Thous,” finding it reverent and stylistic. Another argument in favour of the Authorised Version came from a Cambridge Professor of History in the nineteen fifties. He said that he disliked modern translations of the Bible because he felt “that St Paul was best left incomprehensible.”
If a Cambridge Professor finds St Paul incomprehensible then we don’t mind admitting that sometimes we find it hard to understand what he is getting at. There are some passages written by Paul, especially in the letter to the Romans, that we read through once, then twice, then try reading it aloud, then try turning the book upside down and we still cannot explain what he is getting at. Paul never pretended to be a Systematic Theologian. He was a missionary, hastily scribbling letters to one church whilst traveling to another.
In our monthly “Listening for a Whisper” worship on Tuesday evenings, Chris Fosten has introduced us to something called “Lectio Divina.” (Divine reading) This involves being given a short passage of scripture to read alone. Then, rather than wrack your brain trying to work out precisely what it “means,” you are invited to sit quietly and wait for something in that passage to speak to you. For if the Bible is, as we say it is, the Word of God, then there will be something there that God is trying to say to you.
There is a time for us to wrack our brains and consult Bible commentaries and join in Study groups so that we can present coherent arguments for our faith. But there is also a time when we need to sit quietly and allow God’s Word to speak to us.
I cannot remember when that sentence from Romans 8, verse 20: “the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed;” first spoke to me but I can remember the sense of shock at seeing something in this chapter I had never seen before.
The Christian environment in which I had been brought up taught us to sit very lightly in this world. This world was not important. The “real world” was the world to come, when Jesus would rule supreme. The only important work we could do in this world was to convert as many people as possible to the Christian faith. And, even though other Christian communities have produced great social reformers, men and women who believed that to follow Christ was to work compassionately with humanity right now, it is only comparatively recently that Christianity has even begun to concern itself with ecological matters. About twenty-five years ago, I was asked to preach at a Women’s World Day of Prayer service and the worldwide theme of this service was the need to treat the natural world with reverence and respect. Nevertheless, the local organising committee sent me a polite message asking me please not to make the sermon too green.
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” That verse hit me like a bolt of lightning. The created world needs the people of God. For the natural world, Paul goes on to say, is not subject to forces of destruction by its own choice. Nature can be cruel because it cannot help it. The muskrats must follow their natural instincts. But we have a choice in what we do and although we too are constantly buffeted by destructive powers in the world and in ourselves, the Spirit of God enables us to choose goodness over evil; life over death. And our choices can either save or destroy the world.
Our Gospel story of Jesus walking on the water is all about power to subdue the destructive forces in life. In Jewish tradition, the sea was the place where the dark, demonic powers lived. If you think of familiar Old Testament stories, was not the sea always something dangerous and threatening? Jesus walking on the sea, then, was a clear message that he had power over the forces of darkness and destruction.
As you have probably noticed, I do not tend to get involved in arguments as to whether this or that story is factually true or not. It always seems to me a pointless exercise, given that the texts are thousands of years old and there are far more important things needing to be discovered in God’s Word.
No, we do not tend to believe in actual demons with horns and tails anymore but we do know all about our own destructive feelings and impulses that keep arising- we do not know from where. We know all about the destructive powers that seem to get hold of people we love, wrecking their relationships; ruining their professions; threatening their health. We know all about the men and women who seem to take delight in inflicting pain on others or wreaking havoc on the natural world. We still talk about our “inner demons” and we know what we mean. And the trouble with demons is that they keep coming back. We think we have got the better of them but at the next corner they are there again.
Last Sunday we looked at how Jesus fed that huge crowd of people with five loaves and two fish and we put this story into the context of the story immediately before- the execution of Jesus’ close friend and cousin, John the Baptist. Following on from this appalling tragedy, Jesus’ feeding of the crowd sent some powerful messages about God’s renewing power in life, in community and in ourselves. Now, where the story was taken up today, the people have all gone home. Jesus sends his disciples away in a boat across the sea of Galilee and goes up on the hillside to pray. “When evening came,” it says, “he was there alone.”
There is nothing like the combination of darkness, silence and isolation to bring the demons out, is there? And, as we all know, grief and anger at an untimely and unjust death do not simply disappear. They remain with us for a long time. Jesus was still facing a terrorised society with a corrupt King. He knew, deep down that his time was coming when he too would face a cruel death. I sometimes think that walking on the sea was as much about proving something to himself as it was about proving something to his disciples. Way back in one of the most ancient texts of his society was the story of the Fall, when a perfect world was set on a course of destruction by the cruel and crafty serpent. And in that text, there was a promise that a descendant of the woman would one day “crush the serpent’s head.” There would be a way for humanity to get on top of the powers of destruction, both in the natural world and in themselves. So maybe walking on the sea, right on the heads of the demons thought to live there, was Jesus’ clear message that he would, one day, get “on top” of the forces of evil.
Do you think the disciples got it? Once they had stopped screaming because they thought Jesus was a ghost? Peter called out, “Lord, can I do that too?” To be fair, he was speaking on behalf of most of the human race. We look at the forces of evil and we want to try to get on top of them. We want to fight and conquer our demons. Peter does manage a few steps. Until he stops looking at Jesus and starts looking down at the dark and dangerous sea.
Then he is overcome by fear and promptly sinks.
Again, it is a familiar story. Men and women set out to get the better of their own demons, but when the temptations are fierce and their own strength is failing, they tell themselves that they cannot possibly win and so give in. Or they set out to get the better of the demons in the wider world: the wanton destruction of the planet, the corruption in governments, the injustice that condemns millions to poverty and starvation but then they see the armed might and the vocal scorn and the highly persuasive arguments telling them they will never win and they give up.
There is not a day goes by when some demon or other does not get the better of us. But before we give up and sink, remember Peter. He cannot save himself. None of us can save ourselves. No amount of standing in front of the mirror every morning saying positive things like “every day and in every way, I am getting better and better” is quite enough. The morning inevitably comes when you simply throw your hairbrush at the mirror and storm out. But Peter at least has the sense to call out for help and to call on someone who is powerful enough to overcome not only his own demons but Peter’s too. “Lord, save me.”
Jesus reaches out his hand. Even though Peter has given way to fear and failure and is sinking into the dark water, he still has a choice. He can choose to grasp the hand of Christ, which he does, and is pulled to safety.
As they reach the boat and the wind dies down, the disciples simply worship Jesus, saying, “truly you are the Son of God.” They did “get it.” They saw the power that Jesus had over the destructive forces in nature and over the inner demons in themselves. At the feeding of the multitude they had watched him celebrate the bright, creative side of life. Now, they had seen him get the better of the darker side. Yes, you are the Son of God.
You may have noticed that St Paul uses the word “redemption” a lot when talking about our relationship with Jesus Christ. In his society, where slavery was common, his listeners would have understood what he was getting at. Once a man, woman or child was sold into slavery, there was no escape. They were now the property of their master and he literally had the power of life or death over them. The only way they could ever become free was if someone paid their price to the master and he would then set them free. That was called redemption.
As Paul saw how the forces of darkness and destruction continually got the better of the world and of humanity, he spoke of how we were enslaved. We had no power to free ourselves. Our only hope lay in redemption- that someone else would pay the price and set us free. He believed and he proclaimed that in Jesus Christ the world had found its “Redeemer.” For Jesus Christ could take on the forces of destruction and overcome them. He could trample down the serpent’s head. He could and had paid the price of sin and now could set us free. We have a choice- we can sink into the darkness of destruction and despair or we can take the hand of Christ stretched out to us and be saved.
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Those who trust in the power of Jesus Christ to save them, can go on to save the world because they believe they have a choice.
I heard this joke about a Roman Catholic Priest and a Church of England Vicar who invited a Pentecostal pastor to come out with them for a day’s fishing. Once out in the boat on the lake, the Catholic Priest said, “oh no, I have left my fishing rod on the bank. I’ll just go and fetch it.” He promptly walked on the water back to the shore to get his rod. Half an hour later the Anglican vicar said, “look, my wife is calling me from the bank. I had better go and see what she wants.” He got out of the boat, walked on the water, spoke to his wife and returned. The Pentecostal Pastor was not going to be outdone by a Catholic and an Anglican. If they could walk on water, so could he. “I think I’ll stretch my legs,” he said and got out of the boat. Whereupon he promptly sank. The other two looked at each other. “Did you not think to tell him where the stepping stones were?
It is a joke. Not a theological statement and certainly not a denominational jibe. But funnily enough, it does make a point. We do not need to walk on water. We have learned how to place stepping stones, how to build bridges, how to dig a tunnel under the English Channel.
For we are the people who believe that once again we have a choice. We can fight back against floods and fires, volcanos and earthquakes, drought and famine, disease and untimely death. Despite the huge complexities involved, we can save the planet because we are the children of God who may choose to do so.
Freedom of choice brings with it responsibility. We do live in the real world and we are called to love the real world, not simply wait for a better one to come along. We are children of God for the real world. As those redeemed by Jesus Christ from the power of sin and destruction, we have a mission to proclaim this redemption and to use it for our world and for its people, including ourselves.
Whatever the deep waters we may be floundering in right now, let us choose to call “Lord save me,” take the hand of Jesus Christ and let him lead us to safety.
Whatever the deep waters of injustice and intolerance and war- mongering we see our nations sinking into, let us choose to call out, “Lord, save us,” take the hand of Jesus Christ and follow to where he needs us to be.
Whatever the deep waters of pollution and devastation into which we see our world sinking, let us choose to call out, “Lord, save us,” take the hand of Jesus Christ and work with hope and commitment to save our planet.
For “the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Hold these words in your hearts through the week ahead.