This is a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent. The Scripture it reflects on is Mark 8:31-38.
What do you get out of coming to church? That might be a dangerous question for me to ask. I might find out that actually, you don’t get much out of it at all; that you spend half the service mentally making shopping lists and pondering the plot twist in last night’s TV show.
Forgive me, I’m being provocative. But there’s a point I want to make about what the purpose of coming to church is. So often, when I talk to couples wanting to have their child baptised, or to get married, who aren’t regular church goers, they’ll tell me that they don’t need to come to church because “I know what I believe.”
And this bothers me a bit, because – while I know what I believe, and I even have a degree in it – I don’t imagine that that means I don’t need to be at church. Because the church service on Sunday isn’t only, or even mainly, about telling you what to believe, or, even worse, what to think.
It has three main purposes; first, to allow us to connect with and relate to God, as actual persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a set of doctrinal ideas. Second, to help us integrate what we experience at church into how we think and live. And third, to build us up as a community who can act together to make a positive difference in the world (what in church jargon we call “mission”).
This goes beyond telling you what to believe, and into the realm of inspiration, of shaping the imagination, of forming a vision and a sense of purpose and commitment to action. It’s starting with what we believe, and then pushing beyond that, to ask ourselves, so what? We believe in God, so what? How will that matter all the other six days when we’re not here, and we’re going about our lives as students and workers and grandparents and doing whatever we do?
This is also, by the way, why things like the architecture of churches matter. It’s not just about what’s beautiful or appealing; because what we experience while we’re in the building, and how we move through it and relate to one another in it, shape our deep convictions about God, and how we act out those convictions.
This church (St. Mark’s), for example, which was so unusual and modern when it was built, literally gives structure to the idea that we ought to be open and transparent to the community around us; that we should be outward looking, and that we should see our worship as intimately connected with (rather than separated from) the life of the whole created world. Experiencing worship here was meant to help the worshippers – that is, all of us – form habits of thought shaped by the same convictions.
Anyway. I could go on for ages about basic liturgical principles, but I’ll resist the temptation.
For now, let me come back around to today’s gospel reading, and in particular, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
We tend to get hung up on the “Satan” bit; it’s so harsh, so confronting, and we cringe as we identify with Peter, at the idea that we might ever be rebuked in similar terms. But if we focus on that too much, we might miss two other important points in what Jesus says.
Notice the reason Jesus gives for the rebuke: You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things. I wonder what the background to this was; was Peter, over dinner at a disciple’s house or on the road, mulling over all he had experienced with Jesus and dreaming dreams of political and social glory? Was he looking forward to the day when Jesus’ messiahship would become known, no longer a secret, and there wouldn’t be any more trailing around dusty country roads but perhaps more of a life of city comforts?
We can’t be sure. But whatever he was thinking about, imagining, it wasn’t God’s picture of what all of this was about. And out of all of this imagining a wrong-headed, a very human, perhaps ego-driven set of fantasies, as a result of that, came Peter’s rejection of what Jesus actually needed to do.
He’s illustrating the principle I was talking about in terms of worship; what you allow to shape your imagination, what you spend time reflecting on and integrating into your sense of self; that’s ultimately going to shape your behaviour. So just as worship matters for us because it’s an opportunity to get, if you like, a God-sent reality check, Peter needed a God-sent reality check to remind him that his fantasies were sending him off in the wrong direction.
Worship redirects our attention and sets our mind on divine things… or at least, it’s supposed to.
And notice the other thing Jesus says to Peter: Get behind me. Often this is read as “get out of my way,” and that wouldn’t be a wrong way to read it. But I’d push further and say, “behind me” is where a disciple belongs. A rabbi would walk at the head of a gaggle of disciples who came behind him; observing his conduct, absorbing his teaching, and asking questions as they went.
Jesus isn’t just telling Peter off, he’s also telling him what he needs to do to get it right; get behind me, get back to being my disciple. Quit daydreaming and pay attention to what I’m showing and telling you.
That’s not a twenty-first century model of discipleship. Fortunately for us all, perhaps, today discipleship tends to involve much more reading and much less hiking around the countryside. But the basic principle remains the same; get behind me; put yourself in a position to observe, absorb and integrate the lessons of our master.
So my challenge to you, today, is how do you do that? Coming to church is good, and I’d encourage it, but I’d also argue that it’s not really sufficient. Peter and the others followed behind Jesus all day, every day; at the very least it would be normal and healthy Christian practice for us to find some time every day to deliberately put ourselves in mind of divine things (rather than human things), and to “get behind” Jesus as the one who teaches us on the road of life.
How can you get behind Jesus, as his disciple, that little bit more this week? Small changes in habits are more likely to be sustainable and to become part of your life. So maybe pick one small thing that would let you do that, and give it a go; and if we each do that, we’ll find we’re much more on the right track – together – than getting lost in human wrong-headedness. And that would be a very good thing indeed.