It has been a busy week for me in the run-up to Freshers Week at the University. When I finally got time yesterday to prepare this sermon I was already somewhat ‘highly strung’.
My wife, Jo, feminist and academic, had gone away on a hen weekend with her future sister-in-law, part of which included a pole-dancing lesson – a prospect she was not looking forward to. This left me having to squeeze my sermon prep into the space of a train journey to Nottingham as I took our eldest son, James, to Nottingham University for an Open Day.
I was conscious of not having enough space, neither in time nor in my temperament, to listen to God and find room to plan a grace-filled sermon. As I set out on my train journey it got worse.
Being a middle-class, introverted, academic, and one who is privileged enough to live in a large house out of town, it’s something of an existential shock to find myself plunged into the crowded surroundings of a Saturday at Birmingham New Street. By the ticket gates I navigated the drunk who dropped his ticket in front of me and who, when I picked it up and called him back, began joyfully to tell me about how he was tripping on mushrooms and had no idea where he was going so probably didn’t need it anyway. I pushed the ticket into his hand, suggested he find a seat to work it off, and quickly darted away to the nearest Costa seeking sanctuary. A few minutes later I found myself in a close-packed queue, none of whom were wearing masks. As I ordered my coffee, I suddenly noticed that in front of me my barista was a young women in dark hijab, whilst beside me was a perfectly made-up, lightly clad, Instagram-ready girl glued to her phone. The incongruity set me wondering: what has become of us? How have we made such a mixed-up world?
We fought our way onto the train in search of seats and found ourselves stood beside a young couple who had ostentatiously spread their possessions over two other seats, despite the numbers of people standing, and who scowled as I asked for room. When we finally sat, at the end of the carriage a previously unnoticed group of football supporters began to lift their cans of lager to the heavens and sing. I began to curse inwardly.
Before setting out that the morning, I’d lain in bed listening to Radio 4’s Lyese Doucet interviewing former Afghan president Hamid Karzai about the past 20 years. How it had begun with the Americans pledging to bomb the Taliban into the stone-age in punishment for harbouring Al-Qaeda. At the time, apparently, Afghanistan had been a country without a single telephone line. I thought back to the anti-war marches I had fruitlessly joined in 2001. Fortunately, on the back of the idiocy of billions of dollars of western bombs, aid agencies and businesses had gradually entered the country and brought about radical changes for the better, not least in women’s rights. But now there was a question of how much of this would survive. As I sat on the train, the futility of it all gloomily settled upon me. And then I sighed further, as I recalled that whatever sermon I would produce, it would have to speak about creation-tide and so mention the upcoming COP26 climate talks… What on earth could I say that might address any of this craziness, I thought, I as read the Biblical texts?
There are moments when the gulf between the world of the New Testament and our own seems cavernous. The imaginative leap we are required to take from the agricultural-focused Iron Age narratives of Jesus’s day to our hyper-consumerist digital age seems almost impossible to make.
An interior rant at the state of the world began to form in my head. And then came the icing on the cake: two seats down a couple of teenage girls began to broadcast loud bursts of music on their phones as they videoed themselves in Tik-Tok. From my vantage point I could see a two-inch long painted thumbnail doing its improbable best to click the record button every 30 seconds as the two of them waved and jiggled in their seats. The hour and a half long journey began to seem much longer. My contempt for humanity reached peak disdain and I found myself beginning to formulate a sermon in disgust at our stupidity, at the cultural froth we surround ourselves with, at the way our idiotic addictive consumerist life-choices are screwing up the world. I tried to imagine what Jesus would say – surely, he too would fulminate and shout in disgust, like some latter-day Elijah? (Or perhaps he would simply read the chapter from Proverbs we heard earlier).
And then something happened. Stood in the gangway I noticed an Asian woman in a colourful salwar, her grey hair neat in a bun. She had moved toward the Tik-Tok girls and I watched as she smiled down at them like a grandmother and said something. I couldn’t hear what she said but I did hear, echoing down the carriage like a stream, the giggle of two young voices in response, a wonderful sound that was filled with youth and life. It was the most remarkable moment: I had just witnessed the briefest of encounters between humans. The music stopped and I swear the sun came out in the carriage and the faces of the people around me suddenly looked less severe and stony and ugly. Beside me, I realised that there was an older couple stood, whom I had not noticed before, balancing their heavy suit-cases precariously in the aisle, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to smile at them and offer them a hand to get their cases into the luggage rack. The journey was transformed.
‘Who do you say I am?’ asks Jesus in the villages near Caesarea Philippi, the capital city of the kingdom of Herod the Great’s son, Philip II. ‘You are the messiah’, says Peter proudly. And he means: you are a righteous, powerful man. You are an alternative to Philip. You are someone who can take Philip’s place and set the evil world to rights. You are someone who can stamp your righteous vision upon the ungodly, and we your followers will follow you like righteous zealots, like some kind of Christian Taliban. Sort of like me in my train seat: angry with the world and self-righteousness.
But no, says Jesus, Peter is not to call him a Messiah. The only title Jesus will accept is ‘the Son of Man’ which in our terms might just mean ‘The Human One’. I’m human, he says.
And then to Peter, he says, you must die to your ego. You must relinquish your fantasies of having power over other people. Those fantasies of righteous control must be transformed into a different kind of power, a power that is genuinely liberating of others, that brings about real change, rather than a power that just replaces one form of oppression with another holier form.
I do not know how we will solve climate change. I don’t know what will fix Afghanistan. I don’t know what can be done about many of the injustices in our world or the foolishness of our own culture. But on my train journey, I was reminded about what it means to be properly human, like Jesus, by a little Asian woman’s friendly words to a couple of teenage girls.
When the Tik-Tok girls passed me by to get off, I looked up into their faces and marvelled at their youth and beauty: two of God’s many miracles whom just a little while earlier I had been too blind with fulminating anger to see. And I was reminded that, like Peter, my own egotistical fantasies of self-righteous control and power must go the way of the cross. I, too, must learn a different way, a way that looks into the faces of others and sees in them as fellow children of God, rather than as objects to be controlled or problems to be solved. Whatever the future holds, however we are to navigate the many difficulties we face, to follow Jesus means to reject the way of the Messiah and the path of the self-righteous angry zealot.
Jesus says to us, ‘If any wish to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross … for those who wish to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life (lose their ego) for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.’