Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Ames-Lewis
Playing tennis with my 7 year old grandson Daniel the other day was rather hard going. He was terribly keen and very energetic. But his athleticism needed to be developed, his enthusiasm needed to be channelled and his eye needed to be trained. Much of the time was spent retrieving balls and trying repeatedly just to get the ball over the net. I realised that what he really needed was a teacher. Well, tennis was never my strong point, so it couldn’t be me. He needed someone with skill and someone who didn’t make mistakes, who could model for him what being a tennis player meant: by how you play, not by what you say. The old maxim “Do as I do not as I say” could not apply to me. Apart from anything else, my efforts were laughable and Daniel, though polite, was clearly scornful.
All of us have experiences of teachers who were formative in our development. Some good some bad. Some we respected; others we scorned. One of the reasons why parents are often reluctant to be involved in their children’s education is because of bad experiences of teachers when they were at school. Seeing their children off to school awakens those painful memories. As the academic year gets underway we should have regard to the pressures our teachers are under, especially in a world of the cut and the pay freeze. Yet, the immensity of their task, entrusted with our children, is so great that we rightly call teaching a vocation, a calling.
All our readings today speak of what it means to be a teacher. The prophet Isaiah tells us that to be a teacher you must not only speak but also listen, using your ear as well as your tongue, and be prepared to be challenged, for “the Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.” “Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I did not hide my face from insult or spitting.”
In our New Testament reading, James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”He compares a teacher to the bit and bridle training a horse; or the rudder steering a ship; he even suggests that the tongue itself is the member which acts as teacher for each of us, leading us into blessing or cursing. Being a teacher is a perilous business.
So we come to the gospel reading from St Mark, and here we have Jesus exercising his particular teaching method. Jesus and his disciples are on the way, walking along the road. I like that detail. So much is learned as you walk and talk with your friends. And here Jesus teaches not by telling but by asking. “Who do people say that I am?”How much more effective it is to draw out your pupils by asking them questions. The disciples answer, “Some say this and some say that, John the Baptist, or Elijah or one of the prophets.” But then Jesus asks them directly. You can imagine them standing still, and Jesus looking them in the eye: “But who do you say that I am?” There is a pause, and then Peter speaks for them all the answer they can hardly dare to express, “You are the Messiah.”
This is the first time in St Mark’s gospel that the name Messiahhas been uttered.
If I were making a film of St Mark’s Gospel I would at this point slow the screenplay, bring up the background music, make the trumpets sound in the major key and have the sun come out from behind clouds to illuminate the faces of the disciples and they gaze upon their teacher. This is a gear-change moment in the narrative, equivalent in significance and intensity to that moment when lovers acknowledge for the first time that they love each other. This Jesus is our Messiah! This Jesus is the anointed one! He is the promised deliverer of the Jewish nation prophesied long ago, for whom we have so long been waiting! Our leader, priest and king has come!
As the momentous significance of this realisation dawns on Peter and the others, Jesus sternly orders them to tell no one about him. Again, it’s rather like lovers who must keep secret what they have acknowledged until the right moment has come to tell the world.
And then follows what we might call Jesus’s Messianic teaching. Being Messiah will lead him to undergo great suffering, to be rejected, to be killed, and after three days to rise again. Peter cannot handle this. He has just been given the revelation that Jesus is the anointed one, the Christ, the leader of the nation. Now he is being told that Jesus will be taken away from him, mocked and killed. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him; but Jesus turns back to the disciples with the famous and terrifying phrase “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”Clearly, this Messiahship is a divine calling whose journey cannot be fathomed by mere humans.
Jesus then teaches the crowd “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it.” The teacher, whose calling will take him to the cross, now calls all who want to become his disciples to follow a similar path.
This is teaching not just for Peter and the disciples; not just for the crowd who followed; but also for us. For it is teaching validated by the path Jesus follows. He does lose his life for the sake of the gospel, and he does find new life as he rises from the grave. This is the path which all disciples have set themselves to follow. For Christians we believe it is by our Baptism in Christ that we acknowledge Jesus as Messiah; and in our journey with him in the Eucharist that we continually renew the call of self-denial.
But what of those who do not count themselves as Christian? Those who, in the most recent statistic from the British Social Attitudes Survey, number 86% who do not claim any church affiliation. They are surely not outside the love of God, nor are they beyond the call of Jesus to deny themselves and follow him. In our secular world, it is easier and more honest to recognise yourself as an unaffiliated human being than to claim some second-hand teaching which you have never had a chance to make your own.
And yet, I was struck last week by an ad, a controversial advertisement put out by Nike, the global sportswear brand, who incidentally make rather good tennis gear. It features the face of the American footballer Colin Kaepernick, overlaid with the caption “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Kaepernick became celebrated, or notorious depending on your point of view, before a game in San Francisco in 2016. He knelt during the singing of the American national anthem to protest Black Lives Matter about the treatment of black people by the police. In consequence of this action he has been suspended and effectively exiled from football. The Nike ad is making an important political statement in featuring this particular athlete. It’s saying something like, we believe that discrimination against black people must stop.
But at the same time it is employing deeply theological language to approve the action taken by this footballer. It is saying “you must have a focus in your life beyond yourself, even it means denying yourself.” “Believe in something” is, if you like, the secular 21stcentury way of acknowledging the existence of a God beyond yourself; and “sacrificing everything” are words which might have been uttered by Jesus himself. How strange that the very gesture of protest made by Colin Kaepernick that day on the football field should have been to kneel – the posture of worship and of penitence.
This message, now carried by a global brand, has a global reach. And it tells us that the Christian message of self-sacrifice has not been drummed out by the noise of secularism, individualism or extremism. Nor can it ever be, for this message is not an idea, but a person, the living Jesus Christ, the Messiah, whose sacrificial death marked the victory over the powers of darkness and ushered in the new life of the resurrection for us all to share.