A Sermon preached at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden on 14.8.16, Pentecost 13
Jeremiah 23: 23 – 29, Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2, Luke 12: 49 – 56
There is a story told of how the 16th century Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila, founder of a Carmelite order and author of the “Interior Castle,” once confronted God in a vision. She asked, no she complained about her own experience of suffering, and she had much to complain about, and received this response from God: “This is how I deal with my friends." “Well,” she replied "in that case you shouldn't be surprised if you don't have many friends."
I was reminded of this when I read through the long list of sufferings of the faithful in this morning’s extract from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented – of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11) So this is how God deals with his friends? And today – in and through Baptism – Nicolas is becoming one of God’s special friends. Why on earth are his parents doing this to him? Why on earth did we – who are baptised – do this to ourselves?
For one thing suffering is not God’s reward for the faithful, as Teresa of Avila also knew. It is not what God wants for us. But as Jesus warns his listeners in the passage from Luke’s Gospel it can be the consequence: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12)
Following God and following God’s son, Jesus, and proclaiming his word can be a struggle at times. We struggle with ourselves. We struggle with the world. Speaking the truth, especially against prevailing wisdom, can lead to rejection. A message of love, when others preach hate, meets resistance. A message of hope, when others preach fear, meets incomprehension. A message of faith, when others preach self interest, seems ridiculous. Prophets are not always popular. Yet we do so because we believe it is right, we do so in faith because we believe that the word of God is good and needed, we do so in faith because, in Jeremiah’s (23:29) words, God’s word is like fire and like a hammer that breaks even rock into pieces, at least in the long run.
So where do we get the energy, strength and succour from for this long run, for this marathon race that is our life in faith, our life in Christ? We find not only the problem, but also the answers in the Letter to the Hebrews:
Firstly, from the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. These are the saints, both the faithful who have gone before us, as well as those who surround us physically today. The author of Hebrews reminds us that as Christians we are never alone, that in the words of the great hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” we not only have union with God the three in one but also “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” Or as the Olympic Games are still on, and as Hebrews uses the image of a race. So think of all other Christians as the crowd in the stadium cheering us on, not just the winner. If you think of a marathon race everyone is cheered into the stadium, even those who struggle, even or especially those who can barely stay on their feet. In the Sacrament of Baptism that we are celebrating this morning you are the cloud of witnesses and you will cheer Nicolas on when you answer, as loudly as possible, “we will” to the question “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”
Secondly, if we want to complete the race we must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” Who wants to run a race carrying extra weight? This is not about guilt, on the contrary as Christians we have no need of guilt and shame. We know and accept and acknowledge our failings because we are sure of forgiveness. Only sins, trespasses, and transgressions, whether against one another or God, that we do not acknowledge and turn away from become weights too heavy to bear. Jesus tells us to let them go, he died for them and for us. Baptism is a sign of this renewal. "In the water of Baptism we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”
Finally, and continuing with the Olympic metaphor, what sustains us and “lets us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” is Jesus. He is both our example and our goal. Teresa’s encounters with Jesus were both the inspiration and motivation for her lifelong imitation of the life of Jesus, including in her case of Jesus’ suffering. As the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” Jesus is the one we follow and try to imitate as best we can. He has already run this race. Yet at the same time he is the one waiting for us at the finishing line. Cheering us on and embracing us when we break through the tape.
In our Baptismal liturgy this striving to imitate Jesus is contained in the promises we all make in the Baptismal Covenant, for example in the promise to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves."
Olympic athletes strive to be "Faster, Higher, Stronger," to translate the official Olympic motto of “Citius, Altius, Fortius.” That is not our aim as Christians. Our motto is faith, hope, and love. That is what we strive to increase, to grow, to better. What we have in common with the ideal of Olympia, if not the reality, is our calling to be more than we are and to act as examples, as beacons, as pointers - in our case to God - by living a life of faith, hope, and love. This is the life we now invite Nicolas to join us in living. Amen