The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Worship Together Online      30th August 2020
The Cross and the Community
Ayla Lepine

Matthew 16.21-end
Today the Gospel reminds us to take up our cross, whatever form it might take, as Jesus turns towards Jerusalem. This passage anticipates the crucifixion and the resurrection. Though we are in ordinary time, this reading is Lenten, reminding us of Passiontide and of Christ’s sacrifice with bold clarity. Like the other Gospels, this is a dialogue in which Jesus anticipates, foreshadows, and explains what will happen, as well as how, and why, and with whom. Jesus’ famous rebuke to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’, is a crucial part of this passage and it must be read within its context rather than deracinated from it. A personal and animated, indeed painful, conversation between Peter and Jesus turns outwards towards all of the disciples, presenting an opportunity for further explication and further challenge too. 
Jesus reminds them all that if following him is a priority, and if this will shape their lives, then their lives will take on the shape of the cross. More than that, if their lives, and ours, are enfolded within God’s endless love, then our lives will be utterly changed in ways that we can neither predict or imagine. 
For Christians, the cross is both a very simple and a very complex symbol. It is the instrument of torture and the instrument of glory. It is a murder weapon and it is the door to heaven. I’ve often thought that there’s something truly subversive and radical in Christians wearing the cross. Whether it’s necklaces or tattoos, subtle or sparkling, these crosses are a sign of glory only because of Jesus’ triumph over death. Without the resurrection, the cross is a scandalous murder among innumerable unjust deaths. Because of the resurrection, the cross is a symbol of hope. Because of the source of pure Love’s action in the world through Jesus, the sacrifice of Christ gives life to us all. The gate of heaven opens. The cross loses and yet paradoxically also gains its shining power, no longer blood and splinters, but light and justice. 
I want to share something with you then from Fleming Rutledge who was a fantastic American theologian and preacher. She talks about those predictions made in all four Gospels by Jesus about his death, and she says that ‘they are deliberately spaced at intervals to gather weight and momentum as the narratives proceed inexorably towards their climax.’ This step that we take today in in the middle of ordinary time indicates that we cannot stop there. We will be drawn through the Gospels towards Lent, the Passion, and the promise of Easter that is with us day by day. In this Gospel passage from Matthew, we have a little concentrated encapsulation of the whole of salvation working itself out through Jesus, including the incredulity and confusion that this plan and this promise provokes. Peter’s immediate reaction was to curtail, manage, and even control the love of God. Jesus explains what has to happen, and what has to happen is so overwhelmingly upsetting that Peter simply refuses, and does so with urgency and pain. He stops at Jesus’ declaration that he must die. He cannot listen and learn past what seemed to him to be a final conclusive moment of desolation. Jesus is very clear – he will come through death and be raised through the inestimable power of God’s love. Peter cannot accept that. Who could? Can we, really, claim that we fully and totally accept this easily? We hope, we imagine, we faithfully follow, but that love beyond measure is unfathomable because we cannot measure God. 
Because of fear, Peter chose in the heat of the moment to limit what Jesus could and could not say, and what Jesus could and could not do. Jesus responds by overturning this idea in the strongest possible terms, and sharing the truth, however painful and seemingly impossible, with the whole community. This is the truth that we continue to share with each other. By this truth we can listen to Paul’s words too, at least partially grasping both the cost and the necessity of overcoming evil with good. And only good. Because of love. And only love.
I'd like to end with a poem by Ephrem, a Syrian contemporary of Saint Cyril in the early Church and these verses on the cross make links between death, life, and hope:
Very sad was the Tree of Life
That saw Adam hidden from him
Into the Virgin Earth, he sank and was buried
But he arose and shone forth from Golgotha.
Humankind, like a bird pursued,
took refuge on it so it would arrive at its home.
The persecutor is persecuted,
and the persecuted doves rejoice in paradise.
Amen.

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