Sunday 22 • 3 Sep 2017

Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

On Saturday of last week I was leading a study on the theme of Christ a/Cross Time. There was a small group of us gathered together in the Jannali Uniting Church. We were in the middle of a three part series. The focus for that session was to fall upon how we talk about Christ – and this business of the cross. What do these outstretched arms signify?

What might it mean for us to take up our cross in today’s world where that kind of language is now more a figure of speech than a daily reality? What might its purpose be in cultures where the life of discipleship is more often than not conceived in other terms like service, acting justly, wisely, with mercy and with compassion, reconciliation and going to church? What might it mean in a church, like the Uniting Church, where we are told that we are a pilgrim people, a people on the way, who are called into the ‘fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, to be disciples of the crucified Lord, [who] renews the church in his own strange way”, (Basis of Union, paragraph 4)?

We did not do this last week in Jannali; we could have called upon the witness of the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime was such that he was put to death towards the close of the Second World War. Bonhoeffer wrote about what he lived – the cost of discipleship; he made a distinction between what he called cheap grace and costly grace. The former asks little of us; the forgiveness of sins is assumed; there is little in the way of a scandal or stumbling block, there is no need for rebuke. Everything has been done and dusted, so to speak, and the way of the cross gives way to other metaphors and ways of following.

In the course of the first week in Jannali we had talked a lot about time. We had reflected upon how the Greek language – that is the language in which the New Testament was first written – has two words for our English word time: When we are busy looking at the clock, consulting our diaries, wondering how long this sermon will last – when we do any one of those things we are using chronos time: from chronos we get chronological time. It is what we call linear time; it unfolds through minutes, hours, days, months and years.

The New Testament has another word as well. It’s called Kairos time. It can be found on that occasion when, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus – for just a moment - gives the impression that he is about to become the weatherman on TV. Jesus said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

The present time is Kairos time. It means the right time, the opportune time, and sometimes the God-given moment in time. The original setting of this word Kairos has nothing at all do to with clocks and sundials and the like. It was first used in the field of archery and referred to hitting the target; it passed into how we speak with one another, especially if we wish to win a point in a argument. You know those moments: you know you’ve got something important to say, but you can’t get a word in edgeways and before you know it, the moment has passed. You missed the Kairos moment.

For that example in Luke the Kairos time invites the crowd to read between the lines, to discern within the events unfolding before them the breaking in of the kingdom of God. It is not a bad idea to think now and then of how time is talked about in the New Testament. Most of the time we are driven by the clock, by what we have to do, where we need to be, what’s the deadline, who’s coming when. The tick-tock of the clock is never too far away; it shapes us so much that we might not take time to reflect upon, and discern how the call of Christ draws near, inviting, summoning, breaking into our calendar of everyday reality

And so we began last Saturday with testing how good our memories were: what had we remembered from the preceding work – and then we came to the kind of dilemma our reading from Matthew’s gospel this morning presents us. The fact of the matter is that this call to follow, to take up one’s cross, to lose our life in order for it to be saved . comes to us from the depths of the past, a past that is vanishing further and further into the recesses of time.

And we can catch a glimpse of that whenever we discern that the Bible does not speak explicitly to so very many of the realities that we face to day. Were we to be time travellers, were we able to go back in the New Testament world we would be out of place, out of time, and we would struggle. We would need to forego our gadgets, our cars, our entertainment centres, supermarkets, transport systems, our health care and the way we travel.

The opposite is true too. And that’s where our discussion last week at Jannali began in earnest. We were talking about the cross; we were talking about crucifixion, and that call to take up your cross and follow the way of Christ. It’s so much a part of our church talk; we can take it for granted but the truth of the matter is that no one in Jannali had ever seen anyone crucified; and, I suspect that the same is the case in Crows Nest.

We might say that someone has been crucified through words or circumstances. We have probably seen a crucifixion scene played out on film – The Greatest Story Ever Told, The King of Kings, Jesus of Montreal, Jesus Christ Superstar, Mel Gibson’s The Passion. We will be familiar with crucifixion scenes in works of art, in stained glass windows. And we will have sung one Easter after another hymns like “When I survey the wondrous cross”, almost giving the impression that “yes”, we were there when they crucified my Lord – and we did tremble, tremble, tremble.

One scholar from Edinburgh has said that the cross is - indeed - so much a part of the Christian story that it has become like the wallpaper of faith. Another one suggested that maybe it had become something of a rather successful symbol for a marketing campaign; the cross marks out brand Christian in today’s world of many faiths and no faith. That symbol, that cross, points towards an event that comes to us from a past that is ever more distant from us, as one year rolls into another. And, in the course of time, its significance and meaning becomes less clear to those for whom the basic story of the Christian faith has become less familiar than once it was. It is a symbol that comes to us from another, another place.

Mona Siddiqui is a Muslim woman. She is a highly regarded member of the Faculty of Divinity in Edinburgh. One week leading into Easter she was asked to reflect on the Lord’s Prayer on BBC Radio. She writes about Muslims, Christians and Jesus for Islam believes that Jesus (Isa in the Qur’an) is a Prophet of particular significance; he is with God and will return in the final days but there is no death on a cross. So she sits in a church: she watches people come and go, pray before the cross and meditates: “The cross is powerful and the crucifixion is sorrowful. But as I sit here I feel that while the cross speaks to me, it does not draw me in. Its mystery is moving, but I cannot incline towards what is says about God in [this] form, a God who undergoes this inexplicable agony or an inexplicable act of mercy. (p. 242)”.

We were reflecting on matters of the cross last week over in Jannali. And so, as the morning unfolded, we pondered upon three paintings of Christ on the cross – one by Rembrandt from the 17th century, another from the 20th century by Graham Sutherland, and a third which felt timeless, an Orthodox icon. We spent time in small groups reflecting on which one of those three spoke to us more: what did we see, what did we notice in the scene before us and what kind of message was God seeking to convey us through the cross and, by extension, that call to take up our own crosses and lose our lives for Christ’s sake.. We spent time doing a variation on that same sort of thing by reading and pondering upon the words of three well known Easter hymns.

The passage of chronos time, clock time, unfolding linear time was creating more distance between our world and the world in which Jesus was betrayed, handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and put to death. And yet … and yet the cross is more than just an event that happened, in a particular time, in a particular place to an itinerant teacher, a healer, a worker of signs so long ago. We might say that it is one of those Kairos times, those moments in time to which God assigns a power and a purpose that transcends the actual time and place in which something specific happened.

The apostle Paul certainly thought so. For him the word of the cross was the power of God. It bore witness to the foolishness of God. And maybe we should see the rebuke Jesus delivers to Peter in this light. In the gospel of Matthew Jesus has not long asked the disciples who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? He is taken by surprise, or so it seems, by Peter’s answer: You are the Messiah, you are the son of the living God.

Jesus declares that Peter could not have known that through his all too human capacities: God must have revealed these things to him. And so Jesus proceeds, in this gospel alone, to say that Peter will be the rock upon which Jesus will build his church; and that church will be given the keys to the kingdom. What if the story had stopped then? What if this had been like one of those radio serials of years gone where you have to wait a week find out what happens next. If the break was made then, you might almost be tricked into thinking that Peter must now proceed to organise the first council meeting of the just established church. But that is not what happens.

Jesus predicts his betrayal, his death, his resurrection. And Peter objects. Now that objection that leads to Jesus’ rebuke is no slight matter. It is not necessarily a case of Peter simply being upset that someone close to him, someone whom has left behind his nets to follow. It is no doubt these things, but it is more. Peter has just declared Jesus to be the living son of God. That response only happens in Matthew.

It is absolutely inconceivable that Jesus could then be put to death on a cross, because, according to received custom, for the Jewish people for someone to hang on a tree like this was to be accursed by God. How can the one you have just confessed to be the son of the living also be accursed by God – and so Jesus rebukes Peter: 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.”

You are a stumbling block to me. Paul will say the cross is stumbling block, a scandal to the Jew – and to the Gentile – the cross is a folly, except the Greek word for folly is saying a bit more than that. The word Paul uses is the root from which we get our word moron. In other words, to believe the cross is the power of God, God’s work, you must be out of your mind, mad, insane.

The cross itself was a form of punishment, shame, humiliation, torture. It was a painful way to have your life ended. There were many who were out to death in this ignominious way. That is a judgement of history. To say that God was somehow at work, that God was somehow present in this suffering and death, that is a strange claim. Martin Luther would say that this understanding of this cross, this theology of the cross, is a hidden and alien work of God.

The meaning of these outstretched arms is not immediately apparent – nor is it self-evident why any one should take up their cross and lose their life for Christ’s sake. It hardly seems like a good career choice; it hardly seems like the kind of advice a concerned parent might give their son or daughter when they might ask, ‘what shall I do with my life?”

For these things to make sense, for them to acquire meaning, that only happens when we enter into the life of the Christ story- that is, when we allow it to address us, to question us, to shape us, to inspire us. It requires an act of faith otherwise the cross becomes an event locked up in a disappearing past; it becomes unable to speak into our here and now and the future that is always breaking in upon us.

It is after all a folly, a scandal, a stumbling block. For the apostle Paul it is through baptism that we, in effect, die and rise with Christ. In the language of John Calvin we are no longer our own; we belong to God. There are different ways of understanding how the cross is the power and wisdom of God: for some it is a way of forgiveness, it is a way of being redeemed from that which has ground us down and captured our spirits; for some it is a sign of God’s self-giving love; for others it is a Kairos moment that points to our reconciliation with God, with our neighbour, with creation itself. For yet others it can mean our lives are justified irrespective of gender, status, body shape, bank balance. And for others again those outstretched arms on the cross bear witness to the sufferings Christ shares with us.

The cross happened within the course of history; it happened at a particular point in time, but it is also a Kairos moment for it shows us something about the kind of God Christ reveals to us. And as for this call to take up our cross, to lose our lives for Christ’s sake – that is an invitation, a summons to live a life moulded and informed by the character and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.