Preacher: The Revd Nicholas Kerr
4 March 2012, 10:30 (Second Sunday of Lent)
Genesis 17: 1 - 7, 15 - 16 Romans 4: 13 - end Mark 8: 13 - end
March 04 2012 – Lent 2
Sermon by The Revd Nicholas Kerr
• Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16; God’s Covenant with Abram/Abraham
• Romans 4:13–end; Paul declares that God’s promise comes not thru law but thru faith
• Mark 8:13–end; Peter rebukes Christ, and Christ rebukes Peter
Mark 8:34 “Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’”
There has been a lot of talk about Covenant lately. As many of you will have heard, a couple of weeks ago our Diocesan Synod rejected the proposals for an Anglican Covenant. And our readings this morning invite us all to meditate on the nature of covenants and our place in them.
In our opening reading from Genesis we hear God’s word to Abram, whose Hebrew name is taken to mean “exalted ancestor”. God will make him “the ancestor of a multitude of nations”. And to underline this promise God changes Abram’s name to “Abraham”, that is “ancestor of a multitude”.
This isn’t the first covenant, however, that God makes with his people. In Genesis chapter 9 we read how God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants: Never again will he bring a flood upon the earth to destroy it. The rainbow in the clouds will remind him—note that: him, not us—of the promise he has made. In fact God made an earlier covenant with Noah, in which he directs him and his family to enter the ark.
In the extract which we heard from S. Paul’s letter to the Romans Paul draws a line not from Abraham’s obedience to any law, but from his belief in God’s promise to the promise of atonement and justification made to us by God the Father thru his Son, Jesus Christ.
Pondering these accounts of Covenant the thing that has struck me is that they do not depend on us or on our response, but entirely on the faithfulness of God himself. Furthermore it is always God himself who takes the initiative. In Jesus it is God once again who is taking the initiative. He does it in response to our need, not our desire, nor even our request.
Jesus lays out before his disciples the conditions of his covenant: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed. He then offers an invitation to his followers and the listening crowd to follow him, to join him in the work of his saving covenant. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross,” he declares.
Historically “one’s cross” has been interpreted as unlooked-for suffering, suffering which must be borne. Such an interpretation overlooks the fundamental truth that Christ deliberately chose to shoulder his cross. In his invitation to others to follow him, the willingness to take up one’s cross for the sake of others is implicit. In other words, if it’s not something that you’ve chosen to do, no matter how much suffering may be involved, it’s not your cross. I’m reminded of those memorable words of the late John F. Kennedy at his inaugural speech as President of the USA in January 1961, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”
These are followed by less-well-remembered words, which are as important: “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
In his great work, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche began to develop the concept of “Der Wille zur Macht”, “the will to power”. It understands that the greatest motivation in human living is gaining and enjoying power, shewing strength over oneself, one’s neighbors, The environment. The Christian faith is the complete negation of such motivation. The Apostle Paul understood this and explained it in his letter to the Philippians:
6 though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
He emptied himself, both in his Incarnation and in his death. This was not a passive event. It was not done to him. He emptied himself. He made the choice. God, in the incarnate Christ, took the initiative to reconcile the world to himself.
So let’s look again at other covenants that are around, with which we are concerned. One we have already mentioned: the Anglican Covenant. In my view this doesn’t even deserve the name of covenant, since, rather than offer ways of reconciliation, it seeks, in my view, to impose a cross on those who are less than willing to bear it. Whereas, whenever God makes a covenant with his people, it is he who pays the price, those seeking this so-called Anglican Covenant, are, in my view, more than content that any price should be paid by others.
A second covenant is one which continues to be mired at the side of the road, perhaps in one of those “Soft Verges” of which we are warned several times on stretches of the A228 between Rochester and Maidstone. It is the Anglican-Methodist Covenant. Here again the deadlock arises from differences between the two communions on how things should be done. Strangely, it seems to come down to another topical church subject: Bishops. The Methodists have done very nicely, thank you, without them for nigh on three hundred years; the Church of England insists that they should accept them. The Methodists, however, cannot accept the idea of bishops, if they’re not accessible to any member of the Church, women for example!
As I look at the Atonement, I wonder that God did what he did, when he did it. In some ways, it seems, he said to himself, “It’s now or never”, and we’ve taken the next two millennia to try to understand what it is that he did, and to learn to live by it.
When I look at the Cross I’m reminded of a number of objects as well as a cruel means of putting people to death. Two such objects are a corkscrew (particularly when in the form of a Franciscan Tau cross!), and a key. The corkscrew is used to liberate wine from its bottle so that it may gladden the heart of those who drink it. It points us back to that celebration in Cana-in-Galilee, when the wine of the kingdom was first made manifest. The key is the instrument that unlocks the closed doors of manifold prisons, that undoes the manacles and shackles of many kinds of slavery.Let us, in this season of Lent, put away all those things which keep us from following our Savior, let the cross liberate the kingdom within us, and deliver us from the slavery imposed by the “Wille zur Macht” of Zarathustra, and willingly seek that reconciliation with God and with one another which remains Christ’s will now and always