12th Sunday after Pentecost
August 27 2017
Exodus 1.8-2.10; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
What motivates you? What really stirs your soul? What is there that challenges you to use every bit of your initiative, every bit of your energy, every aspect of your being? I’m asking not really about things that get you excited one minute but you forget soon after, e.g. winning a competition. I’m asking what lies there inside you, gnawing away at you – something that you feel is more important than even life itself. In a sense I am asking what is there that you would be willing to lay down your life for? In another sense I am asking what is it that makes life not just existing, but living? Our Bible readings today are about people doing the things that really stirred their souls.
The story of the survival of Moses has all the signs of a carefully laid plan, cunningly carried out! Someone – surely Moses’s mother herself – was behind this, and her plan worked so well that she ended up being paid to do the thing she would have given everything to do in any case! This is the kind of initiative, the kind of passion, the kind of all-embracing dedication needed in God’s mission. Some of the effects of this dedicated, passionate, courageous person are seen in the character of her son. For Moses’s mother it was saving of her son that made life worth living, it was what she would have died for. Clearly she used all her skills, all her gifts, all her intelligence to assure his survival.
The story of Oscar Schindler, told in the film Schindler’s List – and to me told far better in the book Schindler‘s Ark – is the story of a man who, when he saw what was going on around him, in the Germany of the late 1930s and early 40s, used every bit of his intelligence, his entrepreneurial skills, his charm and his courage, risking his life daily to save hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust. To make a difference in some circumstances requires us to use all our gifts and skills in the service of the purpose we are dedicated to. Oscar Schindler did this in a very particular setting with his quite unusual skill set. He exemplifies what Paul speaks of in his letter to the Romans.
Paul wants the Christians of Rome to support his great missionary enterprise – to make the journey to Spain so that he might plant the gospel at the other end of the Mediterranean. The letter is very likely written to gain their support so that he can use Rome as a jumping off place for his missionary journey – that in the end never happens, as far as we know. Again as far as we know, this is the only letter Paul writes to a church he hasn’t founded. He is using all his skills and abilities in the service of this great enterprise for God. The passage this morning is at the heart of the message he has for the Roman Christians that he hopes will both secure his credentials and enthuse them to support him when he comes. In the end he comes to Rome in a way he had not intended – as a prisoner – but their support for him seems to have been considerable, even if not in the way he had dreamed.
Note what Paul says to them, expressing what was at the heart of the mission Paul dedicated his life to. “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. Prophecy in proportion to faith; ministry in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader in diligence; the compassionate in cheerfulness.” The building of the kingdom of God, the mission of the church, is not something that needs large numbers of prophets, large numbers of exhorters or large numbers of leaders; but it does demand large numbers of people willing to use the diverse gifts God has given them to work courageously and dedicatedly to make the world more the place God always wanted it to be.
After the rather difficult conversation Jesus had with the Canaanite woman, he and his disciples arrive at the major town of Caesarea Philippi. Matthew tells the story much as Mark and Luke tell it, though there are small differences. Jesus’ words and deeds have led to the question, “Who is this man?” He has dynamism but is also able to be quiet with himself and with his disciples. This is a man of paradoxes, a public preacher, a healer, yet who says strictly to his disciples, “Tell no one of what we have spoken.” It is in part this contrast between a humble ever-seeking faith and the public expression of that faith in witnessing and preaching (of course, through word and deed) that lies behind the peculiar reluctance of Jesus to allow his disciples to speak too publicly of the nature of his ministry and his identity as the Son of the living God.
We see the enthusiasm and dedication in the ministry of the disciples, not only in the early church after the resurrection, but already in their preaching when they are sent off in twos by Jesus into the villages of Samaria. It’s not that Jesus discourages enthusiasm; it is the emphasis upon a personal growth that humbly matches it that seems so striking. For his followers to use their gifts to the full, these must be balanced with a personal humility not evident in the people who confront Jesus. He inspires them to dedicate their lives to the gospel, to give their lives for the kingdom of God and the church Jesus will bring into being through his death and resurrection. So it is that Jesus, having accepted Peter’s confession of faith, balances it with the warning of the personal suffering it will lead to. Faith will not be easy but public confession is needed.
Each in their own way, our three biblical passages show people willing to dedicate their lives to God’s purposes. We are all called to be a part of this great enterprise, making the world a better place, making it more the place God always wanted it to be, building the kingdom of God. How much passion, initiative, commitment, dedication can we show in God’s service?
This is a challenge in many ways. One is how we respond to the great political issues of our day. Resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict is, I believe, one of these central political issues. Not only is it about justice for two peoples but it also provides part of the underlying perception of injustice that, perverted and extended through false versions of Islamic teaching, leads to the worldwide growth of jihadist terrorism.
We have a calling to respond to this for Christ. To use all our gifts, all our skills, all our abilities in making the world a better place. “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Let us use all our gifts, whatever they are, with dedication, with courage, with passion in the service of Christ and his kingdom.