“”Who do you say I am?” Mark 8:29
The debate surrounding the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty seems to be bear very little relation to the text of the treaty. Supporters urge a ‘yes’ vote because of the benefits brought to Ireland through membership of the European Union; opponents urge a ‘No’ vote because of the results they claim will arise if the treaty receives public approval. This is natural human behaviour; we are concerned not with words themselves, but with the consequences that might, or might not, flow from those words.
Amongst the large number of people identified in the opinion polls as “Don’t knows”, there are probably many whose vote will be entirely unaffected by the words of the Treaty or the words of the debate; they will vote according to their judgment of the actions of the government in recent times. This is not what the referendum is about, but it may be a way that some people think they can express their anger and their frustration. Actions speak louder than words and the opinion polls are saying that people are angry at the actions that have been taken by the government and may be unprepared to listen to the words of either the government or the opposition parties.
We expect actions in public life to match the words of those who occupy public office, but if we’re going to apply these standards to public life, then we must apply them also to ourselves. Jesus warns in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke that the measure we apply to others is the measure that will be applied to us. Does the way we speak, the way we behave, the way live our lives, match the words we say?
“What about you?” Jesus asks his followers. “Who do you say I am?” and Peter answers, “You are the Christ. ”
Every Sunday we come to church and we profess the same faith as Peter. We stand and we join in the Creed and we recite the words that have been recited by countless generations. When the people in the outside world look at us, what difference do they see? What evidence is there that words are matched by actions? What evidence is there that our faith has integrity?
Peter makes his profession of faith and Jesus warns that if anyone says what Peter says then they are going to be expected to live up to what they say. There’s no option to say one thing and to do another. If what you do doesn’t match what you say, then you don’t get on the team. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. That’s fairly clear and unmistakable, no option there to be a Christian on a Sunday morning and do what we like the rest of the time.
What Jesus is saying is that he must come first, regardless of whatever priorities we might have ourselves. He is saying this not in the way that it might be said by the leader of some cult, or some extremist group, not as some leader who is looking for a fanatical following, but as someone who is concerned with what is best for us, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it”. If our life is centred on God, then all our priorities will be the right priorities, we will get a right perspective on things and live our life to its full potential.
What Jesus is not doing is making a promise that everything will always go well or that life will always be easy. The teaching that being a Christian can mean expecting to become rich and successful is simply not found in the teaching of Jesus. The ‘prosperity theology’ taught by some of the new churches, the preaching that believing in God will make you wealthy is not something you will find in the New Testament. All of us know that doing the Christian thing is sometimes the hardest choice. Jesus’ promise is not about wealth or success, it is about choosing the way of doing things that is right for our long-term welfare, it is about choosing a way where life has a direction and a purpose, and where it does not end at a graveside.
What Jesus says he is offering is life and there cannot be a better option. Yet, given the best offer there is, how often do we still make other choices? When the best is on offer to us it doesn’t make sense to choose anything else, but we do. How often do our actions match our words? How often do we sound like politicians whose governance of the country is very far from the words of their manifesto? How many of us can honestly put our hands on our hearts and say that our faith is at the top of our list? Do the things that Jesus asks of us really take first place in our thinking? Being honest, aren’t we very lukewarm? There is always something that seems more attractive, something that seems more important, something else we feel that we need to do.
Jesus warns us, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” It was said that during the years of the Celtic Tiger that Ireland’s new found wealth had caused the country to lose its soul. Now that much of the wealth has disappeared like the fairy gold in some legendary story, there is not much sign that our national soul has been found again.
But can we stand in judgment on national and public life if we too have drifted from our faith, if matters of the soul have been relegated to the point where our social life and all our other considerations take priority over spiritual things. What is the point of having everything, yet losing our soul?
“Who do you say I am?” asks Jesus.
Peter answers him, “You are the Christ.”
Do our lives match the words of Peter? When we look around us, at our political and public life, we expect to see integrity, we expect actions that match words, but do we see integrity when we look into our own hearts? When we stand to say the Creed let’s think about our own life in the week ahead, will our actions match our words?
“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks us. How are we going to answer him?
Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 13th September