They say you should always start a sermon with a joke. Ok then…
What do you get if you cross a sheep and a kangaroo?
Altogether now: A woolly jumper!
It’s an oldie, but, as they say, it’s a goodie! It’s actually one of the earliest jokes I can ever remember being told. I remember laughing at the joke as a small child, but not really understanding it; laughing because it was the conventional thing to do after you hear a joke – and also because it’s just fun to laugh – but all the while, I was thinking “you get woolly jumpers from sheep – why on earth do you need a kangaroo in the joke too?”. Perhaps I was also laughing at the ridiculousness of that thought.
In fact – I’ll be completely honest – I was an adult before I heard the joke again and really thought about it; about the dual meaning of ‘jumper’. It was a proper “Aaaah”, lightbulb moment. If you think you can sometimes be slow to get a joke, just be thankful it’s never taken you twenty-something years… (cough).
Now, it might not sound like it, but I think there’s a joke in today’s Gospel too. If you were here last week, you’ll remember Fi’s sermon, where she mentioned Jesus naming Simon ‘Peter’ – or ‘Rocky’ as she translated it. Last week, Fi explained how Simon, on recognising Jesus as the Messiah, became a rock; moving from shifting instability to becoming a sturdy and immovable foundation of the Church. The events of today’s Gospel occur directly after the events of last week, and we find that, now, instead of being that sturdy rock, Peter becomes a stumbling block. A matter of semantics, if you think about it: rock / stumbling block – the only difference is whether you trip over it or not.
I wonder if Peter got the joke, or whether he was too shocked at having been rebuked by Jesus here? It must have been a stunning moment – and not in a good way. One moment, Christ is telling him that he’s got it, that he’s a rock, and the next, he tells him to get behind him, and calls him Satan and a stumbling block. Peter, it seems, didn’t get it after all.
Only last week, we heard Fi tell us how Peter was the first to get it – the first to recognise who Jesus was, but this week, we find that, despite all that, Christ tells Peter, he hadn't caught on. He hadn't got it.
Peter named Jesus as the chosen one, the prophesied saviour come to rule over his people, and Jesus said ‘yes, exactly right!’. But Peter didn’t get the implications of what that meant. He thought that the Messiah should arrive in a show of triumph, with all his metaphorical guns blazing, ready to take on the Empire of Rome and usher in a golden theocratic rule in Jerusalem. He didn’t get it. Christ explained to him that God’s ways are not our ways, and that the Messiah was not to be an exalted ruler on Earth, but to be despised, tortured and killed. This Messiah did not come to show power; he came to subvert it. Peter didn’t get it. Do you get it?
Christ asks us if we get it. Do we get what it means to follow him? Do we get what the implications of that are? In our Gospel reading, he says that if we want to follow him, we must deny ourselves. This isn’t an exercise in temperance or stoicism; it’s not giving up cream-cakes because we want to lose weight. This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Romans – genuine love for each other where we put others’ needs before our own, where we – no matter our own feelings – rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn. Where we think not of our own hurts and slights and where we have been wronged, but are patient in our suffering, look to help those who have wronged us, and do not take revenge. This is what it means to follow Christ… unyielding love of others, putting them before ourselves. Do you get it?
Christ goes on to say that if we want to follow him, we must take up our cross. And make no mistake, in the context of all he has explained to Peter and the rest of the twelve, this is a call to prepare for death. It was no metaphor, especially not for those early disciples; many were crucified themselves. We too are called to be prepared to walk that path towards death – for, after all, in one way or another, we all eventually will. If we want to follow Christ, we know where he is travelling, where his journey takes him; to that green hill far away. But we also know, as Christ tells his disciples at the start of our Gospel, that on the third day he will be raised. If we want to follow Christ, we follow him there too; to, and through, the cross. The cross that we take up, like Christ’s, will end up being empty. Do you get it?
He talks in riddles, saying that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. Do you get it? This is a call to the Church to speak up for Christ, and for his people; to speak up for the voiceless, to shout out in defence of those who are scapegoated, targeted and persecuted. To face the danger of standing up to oppressors and bullies and tyrants. To speak for the widow and the orphan, the refugee and the immigrant, for the Jew and the Muslim, for the person with a disability, for ethnic minorities, for those who are gay or transgender, and those who are Just Different. To proclaim that all are welcome in God's house, and woe betide any who try to close its doors. Do you get it? This is how God turns the world upside down, how he subverts worldly power, how he loves.
Do you get it? All of this? This life to which Christ calls us is hard. So hard. To give up our power and put ourselves last; to potentially place ourselves in harm's way in the name of protecting and speaking up for others; to carry our cross and follow him to Golgotha... But it is just that: a path to follow - a destination to aim for on our journey, so do not be disheartened that you can't do it, that you don't get it! The disciples themselves didn't get it... They journeyed towards it, just like us, knowing full well that they could not rely on their own strength, but on Christ, and Christ alone. Do you get it? Those disciples and us, we're the same, in the same boat. None of us have got it yet. We're getting there.
So, knowing full well that we can't meet any of this calling under our own strength, Christ left us with a sacrament; both a symbol and a sustenance for that journey. Bread and wine; his body and his blood. In a short while, if you want to, you can join us, eating and drinking in remembrance of his death and partaking in his resurrection, making a conscious decision, like those first disciples, to attempt to follow in his footsteps.
We invite you. Christ invites you. There is bread and wine and an invitation to follow Christ. Come. Come, and get it.